Letter of Ignatius of Antioch

Fifty years after the New Testament letters were written, St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was arrested and taken to Rome where he would provide gruesome entertainment for the “games” in the Coliseum. While on his way to martyrdom, Ignatius wrote seven brief letters to churches in what is today western Turkey.[1]

All the great doctrines of St. Paul’s epistles are commended and retained in Ignatius’ letters: God is revealed in Jesus Christ our Savior; guard yourselves against false teachers; pray without ceasing for other men, “for there is in prayer hope of repentance that they may attain to God.”

However! While Ignatius has treasured Paul’s doctrines, he has not regarded Paul’s zeal for “the regions beyond.” In this disregard, Ignatius’ writings are like a seminary education today. We study the Bible to glorify God, yet fail to hear the Holy Spirit call us to go “the regions beyond.” David Bosch said it so well:

The missionary dimension of Paul’s theology has not always been recognized as dominant. First, he was primarily regarded as the created of a dogmatic system. Later, he was viewed preeminently as a mystic. Then the emphasis shifted to the “ecclesiastical” Paul. Only very gradually did biblical scholars discover (what missionaries have always known!) that Paul was first and foremost to be understood as apostolic missionary.[2]

“The Context of an Emergency.” David Bosch writes, “Theology is ‘there’ in the New Testament, but second in importance to the apostles who are writing it. They were not scholars who had the leisure to research the evidence before they put pen to paper. Rather, they wrote in the context of an ‘emergency situation,’ of a church which, because of its missionary encounter with the world, was forced to theologize.”[3] Paul wrote, “I am the apostle to the Gentiles . . . We have received grace and apostleship in order to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles . . . I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from Gentiles by word and deed, by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit.” In Romans 15:8-12 Paul quotes a great number of Scriptures, to persuade the reader that a golden thread is wending its way through the entire Bible, “so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” Sadly, that missionary determination seems to have vanished by the time Ignatius. He offers not a thought of sending missionaries to Berbers in Africa, or Goths north of the Rhine, or to Arab caravans converging in Mecca. They are welcome, in the same way a local church places a welcome notice on its website. For Ignatius, foreigners will have to conform to the language and culture of the church. The business of translating the Bible into other languages is out of the question. Paul’s idea, “I become all things to all men that I might win some,” has vanished without a trace from the church in Antioch in just a few decades.

Christianity is taking on Roman forms. In another hundred years, Thus, each Roman governorate, the diocese, became ruled by a Christian vicar (Latin for governor). The bishop in Rome adopted the Roman high priest’s title, pontifex maximus. The Roman holiday of the Calends, held every January 1, marked the beginning of the church calendar. In these ways the Roman Catholic Church took on the forms of administration that were at hand.

Gone from Ignatius are the great Bible themes of Kingdom of God; mission to the Gentiles; conversion of entire households. Gone are wandering preachers and healers and exorcists. For Ignatius there is no place dissenters, such as Baptists or Mennonites or prophets like Elijah. We are on our way to Zwingli’s doctrine of applying the death penalty for Christians who undergo rebaptism as adults. We should fear the centralizing of doctrines and forms by powerful religious people. They suppress opinions that they do not agree with. They tend to build temples where the wind does not blow.

Here is another grief: the breach between Greeks and Jews has becomes permanent, a concern that, unfortunately, does not vex Ignatius. He writes: “Christ endured the cross at the hands of the Christ-killing Jews.[4]” This is the way Luther wrote as well. It should not be that Christians talk with way. Enough said.

Looming large in Ignatius’ writings is a rigid system of bishops. Bishops, he writes, will preserve truth and peace and unity:

Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop . . . As therefore the Lord does nothing without the father, so do ye, neither presbyter, nor deacon, nor layman, do anything without the bishop . . . Let us be careful not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.

Bob: Sadly, bishops would turn against one another just a few years after Ignatius asked his readers to regard them as God’s rulers on earth. Look at a chessboard; there are bishops opposite each other at the table.

I heard Jim Edwards lecture on his book, Christ and Christianity; I wrote Jim that he should title it Christ and Our Christianity. “Our Christianity” is robed in Roman and Greek forms. These forms are nearly full grown in Ignatius, writing just one or two generations after Peter and Paul. Just when our Christian fathers should have made room for Arabs, Goths, Berbers, Persians and Chinese to do Christianity differently—taking off their shoes in the holy place, theologizing other languages—bishops like Ignatius were too satisfied that the main thing is doctrinal truth. We were sort of right about that. Yet we were completely wrong. David Bosch said it well:

At a very early stage, Christians tended to be more aware of what distinguished them from others than of their calling and responsibility toward those others. Their survival as a separate religious group, rather than their commitment to the reign of God [kingdom of God], began to preoccupy them. In the words of Alfred Loisy (1976:166), “Jesus foretold the kingdom, [but] it was the Church that came.” In the course of time the Jesus community, somewhat and sadly, became a new religion, Christianity, a new principle of division among humankind. So, it remains to this day.[5]

References Cited

[1] Greg Gordon, Ignatius of Antioch (Smashwords Edition, 2019).

[2] David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991). 124

[3] Ibid. 15

[4] See Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways: Early Jewish-Christian Relations, by Thomas A. Robinson).

[5] The Orthodox Church believes it actually is the kingdom of God on earth, and that to be in Orthodox Church was the same thing as being in the kingdom (Bosch, 207). Unfortunately, Orthodox churches tended to become ingrown, excessively nationalistic, and quite dismissive of those outside (Bosch, 212).