Volume 9, Issue 5: Patres
Ignatious of Antioch
Protestants often grow nervous when citations of the early church fathers begin to fly. A faulty presumption that the fathers were all Roman Catholic to the bone has caused Christians to renounce any church that falls between the death of the last Apostle and the beginning of the Reformation. Ground that belongs to Protestants has been conceded to the Roman church without a fight. The Reformers knew that the fathers were on their side. Calvin opens his Institutes of the Christian Religion with a letter to the king of France citing quotations of the fathers supporting Protestant doctrine. For example, Ignatius is one of the fathers who describes how bishops and representatives to other churches were originally elected. The Reformers make it clear that the problem with the Roman Catholics was that they were not in line with the early church fathers like Ignatius.
Tradition holds that Ignatius (A.D. 30-107) was a disciple of the apostle John and the second or third Bishop of the church at Antioch after Peter the Apostle. The Apostolic Father was pleased to claim the title Theophorus, meaning God-bearer, a reference to the obviousness of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in his life. He included this as one of his titles in all of his letters. A slight misinterpretation changed this title into God-born and gave rise to a legend that he was the child who Christ held as an example to the disciples in Matthew 18:2. All early references to Theophorus, however, refer to him as the God-bearer and the legend of his childhood did not arise until long after his death.
During the ninth year of Trajan, Ignatius was brought before the Emperor for refusing to sacrifice to the idols. Ignatius refused to renounce Christ, but confessed, "there is but one God, who made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all that are in them; and one Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, whose kingdom may I enjoy." Trajan commanded that Ignatius be taken to Rome to be "devoured by the beasts, for the gratification of the people."
While traveling to Rome under guard Ignatius composed seven letters to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Smyrneans and lastly to Polycarp. In addition to these, there are eight more letters that are unanimously agreed to be spurious. Before the sixth century, there are no references to the eight spurious letters, but their contents alone should be enough to dismiss them. Included in this collection are both a letter to, and a response from Mary, the mother of Jesus. Of the seven letters accepted as true works of Ignatius there are three versions, a longer and shorter Latin version of all seven letters, and a Syriac version of three of the letters. The shorter Latin version seems to have the most supporters, but the question of which version is authentic remains greatly disputed.
Theologians often argue that the New Testament canon was not clear until the end of the third century. These seven letters of Ignatius, however, provide a glimpse into a church at the beginning of the second century that was fully aware of the New Testament canon which is only later finalized. Ignatius quotes the New Testament continually, citing passages from the canonical books, including books that many claim to have been written long after the close of the first century, like the Gospel of John. He quotes them frequently, in the manner of someone who had been studying the Scriptures for years.
Some scholars argue that the divinity of Christ was not a significant tenet of the Christian church until the era of the Council of Nicea. Ignatius himself, however, addressed this claim--"Mary then did truly conceive a body which had God inhabiting it. And God the Word was truly born of the Virgin, having clothed Himself with a body of like passions with our own." And--"If any one says there is one God, and also confesses Christ Jesus, but thinks the Lord to be a mere man, and not the only-begotten God, and Wisdom, and the Word of God, and deems Him to consist merely of a soul and body, such is a serpent, that preaches deceit and error for the destruction of men."
In the seven letters, Ignatius often dwells on the topic of his upcoming execution. "Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts. . . . I am the wheat of God, and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may not be troublesome to any one."
His boldness in the face of being fed to the lions should put modern Christianity to shame. Ignatius went to his death with the complete assurance that this was God's working to advance His kingdom here on earth. The church of today should learn from a man who was ready to face such a bloody slaughter with the perfect confidence that his Lord was using his death to bring the nations to repentance.
Polycarp, another disciple of the apostle John, later mentioned the death of Ignatius in his letter to the Philippians as an example of obedience and patience. He also recommends to them the letters written by Ignatius "for they treat of faith and patience, and all things that tend to edification in our Lord." They really do.