The commonly accepted seven letters of St. Ignatius in their shorter form are exceedingly important documents in the history of Christian theology. They were written before 107, the commonly accepted time of his martyrdom in Rome. His letters are therefore an undisputed witness to the faith of the early Church. Those who find the definitions of the Ecumenical Councils difficult to accept will encounter difficulty with the thought of St. Ignatius. Again, it must be noted that these are not theological treatises but rather letters written by St. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, on his way to Rome to be thrown to the wild beasts. They are in a very real sense existential letters written by one about to die, existential letters, which just happen to touch on theological subjects as well as moral ones. Indeed, it was the so-called “developed doctrine” contained in St. Ignatius’ letters, which caused some Protestant theologians to question their authenticity until Lightfoot and Harnack established the authenticity of the seven epistles. It was especially the 1885 edition by Lightfoot, which established permanently the authenticity of the seven letters in their Greek shorter versions.
In his Letter to the Ephesians(7), St. Ignatius writes, “There is only one physician — of flesh yet spiritual, born yet uncreated God become man, true life in death, sprung from both Mary and from God first subject to suffering and then incapable of it — Jesus Christ our Lord.” He is God Incarnate. In the same letter, he writes (18-20): “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary, in God’s plan being sprung forth from both the seed of David and from the Holy Spirit. He was born and baptized that by His Passion he might sanctify water… for God was revealing himself as a man to bring newness of eternal life. What God had prepared was now beginning. Therefore, everything was in confusion because the destruction of death was being executed.” “The New Man Jesus Christ… is Son of man and Son of God.” In his Letter to the Romans he writes that Jesus Christ is the “only Son of the Father” and he is the Father’s thought — γνώμη.
In his Letter to the Magnesians, St. Ignatius writes of the co-eternality of Jesus Christ (6): “…Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from all eternity and in these last days has been made manifest.” The union of the Father and Son is explicitly stated (1): “I desire that they confess the union of Jesus with the Father.” “The Lord was completely one with the Father and never acted independently of him” (7). “Make speed, all of you, to one temple of God, to one altar, to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from the one and only Father, is eternally with that One, and to that One is now returned” (7). “God is one… he has revealed himself in his Son Jesus Christ, who is his Logos issuing from the silence” (8).
In his Letter to the Trallians, he poignantly describes the reality of the humanity of Jesus: “Be deaf, then, to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary, he was truly — άληθΰς- — born, ate, and drank. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate. He was truly crucified and died in the sight of heaven and earth and of the powers of the nether world. He was truly raised from the dead, the Father having raised him, who in like manner will raise us also who believe in him — his Father, I say, will raise us in Christ Jesus, apart from whom we have no true life” (9).
He writes more forcefully in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, “I extol Jesus Christ, the God who has granted you such wisdom… Regarding our Lord, you are absolutely convinced that on the human side he was actually sprung from David’s line, Son of God according to God’s will and power, actually born of a virgin, baptized by John and actually crucified for us in the flesh, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch. We are part of his fruit, which grew out of his most blessed Passion. And thus, by his resurrection, he raised a standard to rally his saints and faithful forever, whether Jews or Gentiles, in one body of his Church. He truly suffered, just as he truly raised himself. It is not as some unbelievers say, that his Passion was a sham. Those are they, who are a sham! For myself, I am convinced and believe that even after the resurrection he was in the flesh. Indeed, when he came to Peter and his friends, he said to them, Take hold of me, touch me and see that I am not a bodiless phantom.’ And they at once touched him and were convinced, clutching his body and his very breath. For this reason, they despised death itself, and proved its victors. Moreover, after the resurrection he ate and drank with them as a real human being, though even then he and the Father were spiritually — πνευματικώς — one.” In this same letter he writes that Jesus Christ is Perfect Man — τέλειος.
In his Letter to Polycarp, St. Ignatius writes, “You must not be panic-stricken by those who have an air of credibility but who teach heresy. Stand your ground like an anvil under the hammer.” He refers to Jesus Christ as the “Timeless, the Unseen, the One who became visible for our sakes, who was beyond touch and passion, yet who for our sakes became subject to suffering, and endured everything for us” (3). These are indeed a collection of powerful and explicit statements on the reality of the full humanity and the full Divinity of Jesus Christ. It is, as it was, a preamble to Chalcedon already at the turn of the first century. It is not an exaggeration to claim that his expressions foreshadow the later doctrine of άντίδοσις των ιδιωμάτων.
Such are some of St. Ignatius’ explicit comments on Christology. If one looks carefully at what he writes about the Eucharist, the hierarchy of the Church, the unity of the Church and the Church’s unity with the unity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, a deeper and even more vital Christology obtains. Everything, for example, that he writes about the Eucharist becomes meaningless without his belief in the Divinity of Christ. The Church is the “place of sacrifice” — θυσιαστήριοι — and the Eucharist is θυσία. He writes in his Letter to the Ephesians (19-20): “Meet together in common — every single one of you — in grace, in one faith and on Jesus Christ (who was of David’s line in his human nature, son of man and son of God) that you may obey the bishop and presbytery with undistracted mind; breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality, our antidote to ensure that we shall not die but live in Jesus Christ forever.” In his Letter to the Philadelphians (3) he writes, “Take great care to keep one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup to unite us by his blood; one sanctuary, as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons.” And in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, he writes (8), “All of you follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father and the presbytery as the Apostles. Respect the deacons as the ordinance of God. Let no one do anything that pertains to the Church apart from the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist, which is under the bishop or one whom he has delegated. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be, just as wherever Christ Jesus may be, there is the Catholic Church.”
This is the first written use, which has come down to us of the term “Catholic” Church. The word “catholic” means in Greek “universal” but the conception of catholicity cannot be measured by its world-wide expansion — “universality” does not express the Greek meaning exactly. Καθολική comes from καθ’ ολου, which first of all means the inner wholeness, not only of communion and in any case not of a simple empirical communion. Καθ’ ολου is not the same as κατά παντός. It belongs not to the phenomenal and empirical, but to the nominal and ontological plane. It describes the very essence and not the external manifestations. If “catholic” also means “universal,” it certainly is not an empirical universality but rather an ideal one: the communion of ideas, not of facts, is what is meant. St. Ignatius’ use of the word is precisely this. This word gives prominence to the orthodoxy of the Church, to the truth of the Church in contrast with the spirit of sectarian separatism and particularism. He is expressing the idea of integrity and purity.
Grillmeier correctly observes that St. Ignatius foreshadows the later definitions of the Ecumenical Councils. Grillmeier writes that from “Christ’s Godhead and manhood… there arises the antithetic, two-member formula, so well loved in the later history of the dogma of Christ,” which emphasizes the distinction between the Divine and human nature in the one Lord. σαρκικός και πνευματικός; γεννητός και άγγένητος; εν άνθρωπω… θeoς; εν θανάτω… ζωή αληθινή; και εκ Μαρίας… και εκ θeov; πρώτον παθητός… και ποτε απαθής… εστίν Ίησοΰς Χριστός ό Κύριος ημών.
There is a tendency among some scholars to assume that if something is not mentioned in a text, the author had no knowledge of it. This is a fundamentally erroneous presupposition and hence an erroneous methodology. The assumption of this methodological approach or perspective misses the prime reality — a living Church was already in existence since Pentecost and that living Church knew the deposit about, which they preached, knew the tradition, which they had received and continued to impart in their missionary activity. Again, the statement by Karl Adam is significant: “Even if the Bible [the New Testament] did not exist, a Christian religious movement would be conceivable.” Indeed, not only conceivable but it actually existed without the New Testament as we know it for decades. And during that time, the Apostolic and Sub-Apostolic Church flourished with and in the fullness of faith. St. Ignatius is an excellent example of this precisely because his seven occasional letters were written so early and especially because of what he has to say about the “documents,” “the archives.” In his Letter to the Philadelphians, St. Ignatius writes (8): “When I heard some people saying, ‘If I do not find it in the original documents, I do not believe it.’” Here, the essence of the dispute was that the Old Testament, the Bible for the early Christians in its Greek Septuagint version, was the reference point of validity. The New Testament is not the criterion, precisely because it was still in process in the days of the early Church and it was certainly not used as a canonical authority in the earlier days of the life of St. Ignatius. It is the reality of the living Church, which gives rise to the New Testament and it is the Church, which determines the “canon” of the New Testament — there were numerous writings circulating, which claimed apostolic authorship and it was the Church, which determined, which of those were authentic. St. Ignatius then makes a statement, which confirms how the early Church understood its reality, its faith, its tradition, its authority: “To my mind it is Jesus Christ who is the original documents. The inviolable archives are his Cross and Death and his Resurrection and the faith that came by him.” St. Ignatius needs no written “documents,” needs no written “archives.” The historical, existential, and ontological reality of the God-Man Jesus Christ and his redemptive work is the truth of the faith — he is oral “document” of the living God. He knows of this through the tradition, through that which was delivered, through the deposit, which was preserved and handed down in its original purity of content and fullness.
It is historically interesting to take even a casual look at St. Ignatius’ occasional, ad hoc, non-systematic, hastily written letters, for in these seven brief letters St. Ignatius just happens to touch on many of the basic principles of the faith of the living Church, a faith not recorded in a “document” but a faith that has been preserved and delivered faithfully from Christ to the Apostles to the episcopate. The main purpose of all seven letters is two-fold: it is to urge unity and also to convince the churches to which he writes not to interfere with his desire for martyrdom, his desire to “imitate the Passion of Christ God.” And yet we find in these brief pages a rather broad Christian theology in skeletal form. The reality of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is mentioned (in “Son, Father, and Spirit;” “to Christ, to the Father, and to the Spirit;” the Spirit “comes from God;” “the most High Father and Jesus Christ, his only Son”). He has no hesitation to speak of grace and deeds, of a justification by grace and one of deeds, implying an existential understanding of the synergistic relationship between grace and spiritual freedom, between grace and “works.” And from the totality of his seven brief letters, it is clear that everything is a gift from God. It is also clear that man participates in this gift, in his salvation. St. Ignatius also has no hesitation in speaking about predestination, election, and freedom. They all cohere for him in one theological vision. For him there is no tension between predestination and freedom. This is not a result of his inability to see a potential theological problem. Rather it is natural, instinctive, intuitive, and apostolic understanding of the vision of salvation, a salvation which comes from God and in which man participates, a salvation which is a gift but one, which must be received.
St. Ignatius speaks equally of the spiritual nature and the external structure of the Church — the bishops, presbytery, deacons (the “bishops reflect the mind of Jesus Christ;” the Church has a unique “intimacy” with Jesus Christ, as Jesus Christ has with the Father; the Church is “a choir, so that in perfect harmony and with a pitch taken from God,” it “may sing in unison and with one voice to the Father through Jesus Christ”). Jesus Christ is our inseparable life — το αδιάκριτον ημών ζήν, without whom we have no true life — το αληθινόν ζήν ουκ εχομεν.
St. Ignatius’ stress on the “imitation of Christ” is a theme that will be repeated often in the history of Christian spirituality. His specific idea of the “imitation of the Passion of Jesus Christ” is expressed in vivid, fervid terms (“Let me be fodder for wild beasts — that is how I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ;” “Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil — only let me get to Jesus Christ!”). This has struck many as an exaggerated form of spirituality, as one of arrogance. Yet St. Ignatius is quite humble in this respect. For him the process of salvation is dynamic and he in no sense sees his desire as a superior spirituality (“I am only beginning to be a disciple;” — “I am going through the pangs of being born… Do not stand in the way of my coming to life”).
He is ever conscious of the importance, the necessity of a spiritual solidarity among Christians (“I needed your coaching in faith, encouragement.” — “Do not try to convince yourselves that anything done on your own is commendable. Only what you do together is right. Hence, you must have one prayer, one petition, one mind, one hope, dominated by love and unsullied joy — that means you must have Jesus Christ!”). He knows the pain he is to face, yet he is ever mentioning the God-given joy and the overflowing mercy of God. He is on guard against pride and boasting: “I keep my limits, lest boasting should be my undoing. For what I need most at this point is to be on my guard and not to heed flatterers. Those… are my scourge.” He is fully aware that his desire is an “impetuous ambition” and this causes “all the more a struggle” within him. He exclaims that what he needs is “gentleness.” For those who think his desire is extreme, it must be admitted that his attitude towards it is spiritually balanced: “I endure all things because he gives me the power who is Perfect Man.”
St. Ignatius stresses that we must “not only be called Christians but we must be Christians.” For him the Christian life was Christocentric, for through the God-Man all things come from the Father and return to the Father. The Christocentric emphasis of the Christian life is a constant motif in his letters — the constant mention of “the blood of Christ;” “love” as a hymn to Jesus Christ; the “mind of Christ” is “the Father’s mind;” “Jesus Christ is God’s knowledge;” the “Name” of Jesus is sacred; the Cross, the Passion, the Death, the Resurrection of Christ are the foundations of our “Hope,” creating, through the Incarnation, the path to our redemption; “if we live in union with him now, we shall gain eternal life,” we shall rise with him. Through “initiation” into the mysteries [sacraments], through faith, love, continual prayer, and fasting, we can have Christ “within us.” And, through union with Christ, “in faith and love in the Son and Father and Spirit” we shall have “increasing insight” and we shall rise with him, for true freedom is only in union with the Risen Christ.
St. Ignatius highlights a basic theology of worship and sacramental, liturgical life. The Eucharist is for him “the medicine of immortality.” He has, as is apparent, a developed theology of the unity of the Church. Conversely, he has a theological attitude towards heresy: “He who fails to join in your worship shows his arrogance by the very fact of becoming a schismatic… If then, those who act carnally suffer death, how much more shall those who by wicked teaching corrupt God’s faith for which Jesus Christ was crucified. Such a vile creature will go to the unquenchable fire along with anyone who listens to him.”
A theology of faith and love weaves its way through his letters: “Your faith is what lifts you up; while love is the way you ascend to God… Faith is the beginning, and love is the end.” The dynamism in the process of salvation is constantly emphasized: “For what matters is not a momentary act of professing, but being persistently motivated by faith.”
St. Ignatius has an interesting theological insight into the spiritual importance of silence: “It is better to keep quiet and be real than to chatter and be unreal… He who has really grasped what Jesus said can appreciate his silence. Thus, he will be perfect: his words will mean action and his very silence will reveal his character.”
The great exclamatory Easter hymn in the Byzantine liturgy Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρων, θανάτω θάνατον πάτησας — is adumbrated by St. Ignatius: Christ’s death is described as “the destruction of death.” This realism carries over to the sanctification of the material world in the theology of St. Ignatius: Christ’s baptism “sanctifies water” and the pouring of ointment on the Lord’s head passes on “the aroma of incorruption to the Church.”
The deepest parts of the interior life of a person are not neglected in his thought: “all secrets are known and will be revealed.” But repentance and forgiveness by the overflowing mercy of the grace of God are not neglected either: “The Lord forgives all who repent.”
It is clear that the Church already at the time of St. Ignatius believed that marriage must be approved and blessed by the Church: “it is right for men and women who marry to be united with the bishop’s approval.” Already there is implicit here the sacramental nature of marriage.
Simultaneous with his theology of the active Christian spiritual life of continual prayer, humility, love, faith, constant participation in the sacramental life of the Church, simultaneous with his theology of the “imitation of the Passion of Christ God” is a theology of the “social gospel.” He places great stress on concern and care for widows, orphans, the oppressed, those in prison, those released from prison who are in need of help and guidance, those who are hungry and thirsty. His social concern extends to slaves who must not be treated “contemptuously.” He even emphasizes the spiritual importance of “taking an interest in those to whom you talk.”
This sketch of some of the subjects St. Ignatius just happens to address in his seven occasional letters reveals that he certainly had a grasp of the fullness of the Christian life and faith. The early date of these letters and their spontaneous, occasional nature cannot be overstressed. They are vital “documents” of a faith that was not rooted in “documents” or “archives” but rather rooted in the delivered tradition about the living person of Jesus Christ, divine and human, yet One Lord and One Eternally with the Father. It is not an exaggeration to point out that the definition of the Council of Chalcedon can is foreshadowed in general idea in the brief, occasional letters of St. Ignatius, letters, which predate 107.
Source: From the chapter, “The Earliest Christian Writers” in The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century.
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