Church History Tuesday: St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Letters and His Lasting Effect on the Church

ImageSt. Ignatius of Antioch lived in the 1st century and was a bishop of the church of Antioch, who was martyred in Rome around 108 CE.  On his way to Rome from Antioch he wrote six letters to churches and a letter to St. Polycarp.  Ignatius is considered to be one of the Apostolic Fathers; his letters are still studied today and mention important theological topics.  He writes about the hierarchy of church leadership, the deity of Christ, the value of the Eucharist, and was the first to use catholic in relation to the church.  These letters seem to have been written quickly (because of several run-on sentences) and without a proper plan (because of the unsystematic succession of his thoughts); which could suggest Ignatius had thought about these issues in greater depth prior to writing the letters.   The focus of this lesson will be on the important aspects of his letters, the teachings that developed over the history of the church. 

On the hierarchy of the church leadership, Ignatius puts forth a three-tiered hierarchy.  Bishops were at the top of the hierarchy, followed by presbyters, and deacons.  In Ignatius’ letter to the Magnesians he states the bishop presides in the place of God.  The presbyters hold place in the assembly of the apostles.  Lastly, the deacons are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ.  This is the same hierarchy that several churches use today.  Bishops lead a geographical area and provide oversight to several churches, presbyters lead individual churches and teach the congregations, and deacons assist in the church and perform the ministry of Christ.   

Ignatius proclaimed the deity of Christ, which seems like basic doctrine in today’s church, however, in the first century it was incredibly profound.  Most doctrines were not well developed at the time of Ignatius’ ministry; he most likely became bishop around the mid-sixty CE.  Granted tradition has it that he was a disciple of St. John the Apostle and that St. Peter was the first bishop of Antioch; Ignatius, according to Eusebius was the third.  Ignatius declaring “There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible, even Jesus Christ our Lord” (Letter to the Ephesians chapter 6).  God existing in flesh was profound proclamation around 100 CE.  This was long before the development of the doctrine hypostatic nature of Christ and Nicene Creed declared Christ to be God of God. 

Lastly Ignatius declared the Eucharist to be the flesh of Jesus Christ.  He goes so far as to call those who abstain from the Eucharist and who do not confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ to incur death upon themselves (Letter to the Smyrnaeans chapter 7).  There are still churches that debate this point and do not believe the Eucharist to be the body of Christ or even represent the body of Christ.  To have a bishop in the late first century and early into the second declaring the Eucharist to be the flesh of Christ, is important doctrine which has survived the test of time.  To have someone who possibly sat on Jesus’ lap as a baby and learned at the feet of possibly more than one apostle declare this is amazing. If he was incorrect in this belief he would have been corrected by other disciples of the apostles or by an apostle.

Before I wrap this up I should make mention that it is possible that some of these ideas were added to the letters long after Ignatius wrote them.  However, because these lasting beliefs are spread throughout several of the letters and are not giving exhaustive theological discussion on the beliefs, it is most likely that what we read is something very close to, if not what Ignatius actually wrote.   

About Jesse

I am a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary with a Masters of Arts in Theology focusing on Church History. I am a Third Order Benedictine monk, in the Company of Jesus. I am married to a wonderful woman, we just had a baby Michaela Rose. You can follow me and be alerted of new blog post by following me on Twitter @jtalexanderiv. Or following this blog.
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