As I wrote in the first post in this series, I have been reading through Michael W. Holmes’s edition of The Apostolic Fathers in English as part of my daily devotional readings. Generally speaking, the term “Apostolic Fathers” refers to early Christian theologians from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, some of whom would have known some of the apostles personally and sought to pass on their teachings. More specifically, “Apostolic Fathers” is frequently used in reference to Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna. Today, I want to focus on the writings of Ignatius.
Ignatius and His Letters
Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius served as bishop of the church of Antioch in Syria, and we become aware of him as he is journeying to Rome to be martyred early in the second century. Following his arrest in Syria for unknown reasons, Ignatius is sent to Rome in the custody of soldiers to be executed. While on the journey, Ignatius composes a series of letters: to churches that send delegations to meet him on his journey, to the church at Rome alerting them of his impending arrival, to churches he had previously visited, and to his friend Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Ignatius disappears from the historical record after being warmly received by the church in Philippi; presumably, he was thrown to the lions in the Roman Coliseum. Our best guess is that he was killed during the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan (AD 98-117).
There are seven Ignatian letters that are held to be authentic: Ignatius to the Ephesians, To the Magnesians, To the Trallians, To the Romans, To the Philadelphians, To the Smyrnaeans, and To Polycarp. As Michael Holmes says, these letters collectively represent Ignatius’s last will and testament, and are of great value:
“[These are] seven letters of extraordinary interest because of the unparalleled light they shed on the history of the church at that time, and because of what they reveal about the remarkable personality of the author. Because of the early date of these writings and the distinctiveness of some of his ideas, particularly with regard to the nature and structure of the church, Ignatius’s letters have influenced later theological reflection and continue to be a focus in scholarly discussion of Christian origins.”
Themes and Insights from the Ignatian Letters
The Image-bearer: Each of Ignatius’s letters begin the same way: “Ignatius the Image-bearer to…” The Greek word for Image-bearer, Theophoros, “is commonly used in Greek inscriptions as a title, describing those who carry divine images or shrines in religious processions.” It is possible that here, Ignatius uses the word as a name rather than a title (e.g. “Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus”), but if so, this would be the first instance of such a usage. It is fascinating, then, that a church bishop of such renown would choose to describe himself in a way that places him on common ground with those to whom he is writing: humans created in God’s image.
Eagerness for Martyrdom: As mentioned above, Ignatius composes his letters while en route to be martyred, so it is not surprising that the topic of his impending death features prominently in his writings. What is more surprising, indeed startling, to the modern reader, is the degree to which he is eager about the violent death that looms ahead of him.
“For when you heard that I was on my way from Syria in chains for the sake of our shared name and hope, and was hoping through your prayers to succeed in fighting with wild beasts in Rome—in order that by so succeeding I might be able to be a disciple—you hurried to visit me.”
(Ignatius, To the Ephesians 1.2)
“For while I strongly desire to suffer, I do not know whether I am worthy, for the envy, though not apparent to many, wages war against me all the more.”
(Ignatius, To the Trallians 4.2)
“Since by praying to God I have succeeded in seeing your godly faces, so that I have received more than I asked—for I hope to greet you in chains for Christ Jesus, if it is his will for me to be reckoned worthy to reach that goal. For the beginning is auspicious, provided that I attain the grace to receive my fate without interference. For I am afraid of your love, in that it may do me wrong; for it is easy for you to do what you want, but it is difficult for me to reach God, unless you spare me.
For I do not want you to please people, but to please God, as you in fact are doing. For I will never again have an opportunity such as this to reach God, nor can you, if you remain silent, be credited with a greater accomplishment. For if you remain silent and leave me alone, I will be a word of God, but if you love my flesh, then I will again be a mere voice. Grant me nothing more than to be poured out as an offering to God while there is still an altar ready, so that in love you may form a chorus and sing to the Father in Jesus Christ, because God has judged the bishop from Syria worthy to be found in the west, having summoned him in the east. It is good to be setting from the world to God in order that I may rise to him.
Just pray that I will have strength both outwardly and inwardly so that I may not just talk about it but want to do it, so that I may not merely be called a Christian but actually prove to be one.”
(Ignatius, To the Romans 1, 2, 3.2)
“From Syria all the way to Rome I am fighting with wild beasts, on land and sea, by night and day, chained amidst ten leopards (that is, a company of soldiers) who only get worse when they are well treated. Yet because of their mistreatment I am becoming more of a disciple; nevertheless I am not thereby justified. May I have the pleasure of the wild beasts that have been prepared for me; and I pray that they prove to be prompt with me. I will even coax them to devour me quickly, not as they have done with some, whom they were too timid to touch. And if when I am willing and ready they are not, I will force them. Bear with me—I know what is best for me. Now at last I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing visible or invisible envy me, so that I may reach Jesus Christ. Fire and cross and battles with wild beasts, mutilation, mangling, wrenching of bones, the hacking of limbs, the crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—let these come upon me, only let me reach Jesus Christ!
Neither the ends of the earth nor the kingdoms of this age are of any use to me. It is better for me to die for Jesus Christ than to rule over the ends of the earth. Him I seek, who died on our behalf; him I long for, who rose again for our sake. The pains of birth are upon me.”
(Ignatius, To the Romans 5.1-6.1.)
“For if these things were done by our Lord in appearance only, then I am in chains in appearance only. Why, moreover, have I surrendered myself to death, to fire, to sword, to beasts? But in any case, “near the sword” means “near to God”; “with the beasts” means “with God.” Only let it be in the name of Jesus Christ, so that I may suffer together with him! I endure everything because he himself, who is the perfect human being, empowers me.”
(Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans 4.2)
Ignatius is clearly eager to die. To the Romans, he specifically requests that they not interfere in any way in an attempt to prevent his martyrdom, but to allow it to happen. If the beasts of the Coliseum prove too timed, he vows to “force” them to kill him. While this may come across as off-putting to modern Christians, there are a few factors to keep in mind:
- Ignatius clearly believed that he could only fully be a disciple of Jesus if he followed Jesus to execution, and this explains his desire to die. Furthermore, this was the clearest and most direct way for him to reach Jesus, which was his life’s desire.
- Additonally, Ignatius’s attitude could have been affected by the fact that, “…generally, the only basis for releasing a Christian condemned to death was apostasy; even if the Roman church had won his release for good reasons (something he feared they might attempt to do [Rom. 1.1-2.1, 4.1], rumors that he had apostatized likely would have arisen, and he no doubt wished to avoid such speculation.”
- There is no evidence that Ignatius sought out persecution or prompted confrontation with Roman authorities. But, once arrested, he sought to rejoice in persecution and glorify God in his suffering, as Scripture commands.
We might still quibble with aspects of Ignatius’s perspective, but on the whole, I think he represents a helpful corrective to many modern, Western Christians who seem to live in constant fear of the spectre of persecution. In the United States, Christians go to great lengths to accumulate political and cultural power as a means of remaining free to worship as we choose and to avoid persecution. I think that would be hard for Ignatius…or Paul…or Jesus to understand.
Obedience to the Bishop: I belong to a religious fellowship where we believe that Christ is the head of the universal church, but that local congregations are to be led by a plurality of elders (also referred to as shepherds or overseers) based on the teaching of the New Testament. Although I would argue that the biblical witness is a little more complex and nuanced than we sometimes make it out to be, I affirm the basic validity of this model of church governance.
Having said that, it must be admitted that, in Ignatius, we have a very early witness to monoepiscopal church polity: the elevation of a single bishop as the leader of a church (likely, Ignatius refers to a church with deacons, presbyters/elders, and the bishop functioning as the “chief presbyter”).
Ignatius emphasizes the importance of obedience to the bishop in nearly all of his letters; some of his statements were jarring to me:
“Let us, therefore, be careful not to oppose the bishop, in order that we may be obedient to God.
Furthermore, the more anyone observes that the bishop is silent, the more one should fear him. For everyone whom the Master of the house sends to manage his own house we must welcome as we would the one who sent him. It is obvious, therefore, that we must regard the bishop as the Lord himself.”
(Ignatius, To the Ephesians 5.3b-6.1)
“Flee from divisions as the beginning of evils. You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the council of presbyters as you would the apostles; respect the deacons as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid.
Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. It is not permissible either to baptize or to hold a love feast without the bishop. But whatever he approves is also pleasing to God, in order that everything you do may be trustworthy and valid.”
(Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans 8)
Honestly, I’m not quite sure what to make of this. It seems there are a few different options:
- We can, based on Ignatius’s words and testimony, suggest that monoepiscopacy was the form of governance in the early church, and that this developed soon after the writing of 1 Timothy and Titus, or that instructions in those letters should be read in light of Ignatius.
- We can view what Ignatius says as non-authoritative, classify the church governance model that he describes as an early departure from the biblical model, and reject it accordingly.
- We can conclude that governance in the early church is perhaps not quite as clear as we sometimes make it out to be, and approach discussions of the topic with a dose of humility. This is my current position.
Core Christian Doctrine: Not unlike with Clement, we see in the writings of Ignatius an emphasis on key elements of Christian faith.
In multiple places, he emphasizes the centrality of certain facts about Jesus: that He really came in the flesh, suffered and died for our sins, was physically resurrected, and will come again:
“There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
(Ignatius, To the Ephesians 7.2)
“But the gospel possess something distinctive, namely, the coming of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, his suffering, and the resurrection. For the beloved prophets preached in anticipation of him, but the gospel is the imperishable finished work.”
(Ignatius, To the Philadelphians 9.2)
“For he suffered all these things for our sakes, in order that we might be saved; and he truly suffered just as he truly raised himself—not, as certain unbelievers sa, that he suffered in appearance only… For I know and believe that he was in the flesh even after the resurrection…And after his resurrection he ate and drank with them like one who is composed of flesh, although spiritually he was united with the Father.”
(Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans 2.1, 3.1, 3)
“Wait expectantly for the one who is above time: the Eternal, the Invisible, who for our sake became visible; the Intangible, the Unsuffering, who for our sake suffered, who for our sake endured in every way.”
(Ignatius, To Polycarp 3.2b)
Ignatius also emphasizes radical daily living that echoes the Sermon on the Mount:
“Pray continually for the rest of humankind as well, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance. Therefore allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds. In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble; in response to their slander, offer prayers; in response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith; in response to their cruelty, be civilized; do not be eager to imitate them. Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord, to see who can be the more wronged, who the more cheated, who the more rejected, in order that no weed of the devil may be found among you, but that with complete purity and self-control you may abide in Christ Jesus physically and spiritually.”
(Ignatius, To the Ephesians 10)
On the importance of the church meeting together regularly:
“Therefore make every effort to come together more frequently to give thanks and glory to God. For when you meet together frequently, the powers of Satan are overthrown and his destructiveness is nullified by the unanimity of your faith.”
(Ignatius, To the Ephesians 13)
I enjoyed the letters of Ignatius more than 1 Clement; although the content from letter to letter is similar, the individual letters are much shorter so it is easier to follow the argumentation throughout each.
Ignatius’s views on martyrdom and church bishops were jarring enough to me that they forced me to reflect upon my own views of these topics. Although I am ambivalent about his exhortations regarding church governance, I do believe that his perspective on suffering and martyrdom is a needed corrective for Christians who are so used to comfort and power that we seek to avoid persecution at all costs. This reason alone is sufficient for Christians to read Ignatius today; his powerful testimony of important Christian doctrines is an added bonus.
 Michael W. Holmes, ed., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006): 87-95, is the source of the background information that follows.
 Holmes, 87.
 Ibid., 96.
 Ibid., 89.
 Typically speaking, Churches of Christ are opposed to the “Senior Pastor” model, and are rigidly opposed to hierarchical models where multiple churches fall under the authority of a regional bishop (or archbishop, or Pope, etc.).
 I think it is worth pointing out here that there is a wide gulf between what Ignatius seems to describe here—a singular bishop of a congregation or perhaps a city who functions as the head of a group of elders/presbyters, possibly a “first among equals”—and the full-blown hierarchy that was later developed and still exists within the Roman Catholic Church. But, it is easy to see how the principle of the former could have led to the development of the latter.