Ignatius of Antioch
and the Faith of the Early Christian Martyrs
By Marcellino D'Ambrosio, Ph.D.
The writings of St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch and one of the most inspiring of the Early Church Fathers, provide a revealing glimpse into the heart of an early Christian martyr as well as into the life and teaching of the Church just after the close of the New Testament era.
Sometime late in the reign of the Emperor Trajan (98-117AD), a persecution broke out in Syria. Ignatius, leader of the Christians in the region’s capital city, was apprehended and condemned to die for his faith in the Roman amphitheater. He was chained to a brutal squad of ten Roman soldiers and marched overland through Asia Minor (modern Turkey) to Troas where he embarked upon a ship that, after various stops, eventually brought him to Italy and martyrdom. Virtually all we know about him comes from seven brief letters penned while his party was stopped in Smyrna and later in Troas. Five of these letters were written to Churches in the province of Asia that had sent delegates to encourage him during his journey. One was sent personally to Polycarp, bishop of Symrna, and the other is a moving appeal to the Church of Rome not to seek a commutation of his death sentence.
Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch, the place where the followers of Jesus were called Christians for the first time (Acts 11:26; Eusebius Eccl. Hist. 3.22.36 and Origen, Hom. 6 In Luc). The importance of Antioch as a center of apostolic Christianity cannot be overestimated. It was the first center of outreach to the Gentiles (Acts 11:20) and the base from which Paul and Barnabas were sent out on their missionary journeys (Acts 13:2-3; 15: 35-41; 18:22-23). Peter, too, spent some time there prior to relocating in Rome (Gal 2:11). Ignatius is therefore an important testimony to the way in which the teaching of these apostles was remembered by this eminent Church. Yet his letters reflect not only the apostolic tradition as preserved by Antioch; many of the churches to which he wrote, such as that of Ephesus, were also founded by those of the apostolic generation. So the letters witness to a common apostolic patrimony as understood and lived probably only a decade or two after the writing of John’s Gospel.
Ignatius speaks to a number of issues that have been disputed among Christians for centuries. Regarding the identity of Jesus Christ, Ignatius could not be more forthright in asserting his divinity. In the course of his seven letters he explicitly calls Jesus “God” (theos) a total of sixteen times (e.g., Eph inscr, 15:3, 18:2; Ro inscr , 3:3, Smyr 10:1). There is no question of him meaning this in a loose or merely honorific sense; Ignatius affirms that Christ is the invisible, Timeless (achronos) one, incapable by nature of suffering, who becomes visible and capable of suffering through his human birth in time (Poly. 3:2). To call Christ “timeless” means that he cannot be the first and greatest created spirit, as Arius claimed in the fourth century and as the Jehovah’s Witnesses still maintain today. Rather, two hundred years before Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, Ignatius teaches that Christ is eternal, above time and all creation, God in the full sense of the term.
Ignatius is equally clear regarding Jesus’ true humanity. In his day there existed heretics called “Docetists” who believed Jesus’ body to have been a phantasm and his death therefore only an appearance. Against them Ignatius vigorously affirms the material reality of Jesus’ human flesh and the truth of his suffering and death (e.g., Symr. 1; Tral 9).
In the course of his defense of Christ’s humanity, Ignatius demonstrates the early church’s realistic understanding of the Eucharist, which he calls “the medicine of immortality” (Eph 20:2). In his mind, a denial of the eucharistic presence flows from a denial of the incarnation. The Docetists, he says, “hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services of prayer, because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which, in his goodness, the Father raised. Consequently those who wrangle and dispute God's gift face death.” (Smyr 7:1). For Ignatius and those to whom he writes, the Eucharist is clearly the center of the Church’s life (Eph 13:1) and can be validly celebrated only by the bishop or by one he authorizes (Symr. 8:2). And, in contradiction to such Judaizing movements as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, Ignatius says (Mag 9:1) that a distinctive mark of Christianity is to cease keeping the Sabbath (Saturday) and instead to observe the Lord’s Day (Sunday).
With regard to the nature and structure of the Church, Ignatius is a particularly important witness. He has a strong consciousness that Christians all across the world are united in one universal assembly which he calls “the Catholic Church” (Smyr. 8:2, the earliest instance of this phrase in surviving Christian literature). His letter to the Romans, an important witness to Peter’s presence and leadership in Rome (Ro 4:3), acknowledges that the Roman Church ranks “first in love” (Ro, inscr.). While some would minimize the significance of this, it is hard to overlook the contrast between the salutation and tone of this letter and those of the letters written to the Asian Churches. The special esteem and deference shown by him to the Church of Rome demonstrates that some basic consciousness of the primacy of the Church of Peter and Paul existed very early in the second century. Finally, for Ignatius and the Asian churches to which he writes, it is taken for granted that each local Christian community is led by a single bishop assisted by a council of presbyters (priests) and several deacons. According to Ignatius, “you cannot have a church without these” (Tral. 3:1). This is significant in light of the many Protestant Reformers who denied the apostolic foundation of different ranks of Christian ministers and accuse the Church of later times of inventing such a hierarchy. In fact many English Puritans rejected the letters of Ignatius as forgeries from a later era precisely because they believed it impossible for this degree of hierarchical structure to have existed at such an early period.
Indeed it is true that the Letters of Ignatius were interpolated in the fourth century and a number of later forgeries and legendary Acts of his Martyrdom were later added to them. But scholars in the late nineteenth century finally succeeded in establishing, beyond a reasonable doubt, the original text of the seven authentic letters mentioned above. And these texts show that Catholic doctrines as “the real presence,” Christ’s divinity, and a priestly hierarchy were not introduced by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, as charged by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and others, but are part of the legacy bequeathed by the apostolic Churches at the close of the New Testament era.
For further reading: C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (NY: Collier, 1970); J.N.D. Keilly, Early Christian Doctrines; J. Quasten, Patrology, vol 1.
© Dr. D'Ambrosio studied under Avery Cardinal Dulles for his Ph.D. in historical theology and taught for many years at the University of Dallas. For the last three years his series on the Early Church Fathers has aired on EWTN.
Follow Us -
Join us on Facebook
Join us on Twitter
Click here to download, print and share Ingatius of Antioch and the Faith of the Early Christian Martyrs!
For more Catholic resources to feed your faith, visit the Crossroads Initiative Homepage.
To sign up for our free weekly e-mail with Dr. D'Ambrosio's commentary on the Sunday readings, liturgical feasts, updates on where Dr. D will be speaking, a chance to WIN a FREE CD and MORE, CLICK HERE!
Be a part of the “new springtime” of evangelization! Your tax-deductible gift helps us use TV, radio, and the web to proclaim the message without compromise but in language even the young can understand. Click here to donate now.
The Early Church Fathers
A society characterized by the violence, loss of respect for life, exotic religious cults, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, and even pedophilia. No, we're not talking about modern times -
The Early Church Fathers succeeded in bringing a Pagan society to Christ. If we pay attention to what they taught, we will succeed in doing the same for our own de-Christianized society!
Album 1: The Apostolic Fathers and Irenaeus
Album 2: The Apologists, Ambrose, and Augustine
Early Church Fathers 2 DVD Set—$49.95
Early Church Fathers 2 CD Set—$18.00
Extreme Makeover - Teresa Tomeo
Popular radio host Teresa Tomeo knows from experience that the self-image of American women is being distorted by pop culture. With its emphasis on youth, physical beauty, and sexuality, the secular media is encouraging women--and girls--to see themselves primarily as sex objects.
So what are women steeped in the Hollywood and Cosmo girl version of reality to do? Undergo Tomeo's Extreme Makeover. With the help of this book, they can shed the toxic messages that objectify and enslave them and embrace the truth about being a beloved daughter of God.
YOUCAT is short for Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was launched on World Youth Day, 2011. Developed with the help of young Catholics and written for high-school age people and young adults, YOUCAT is an accessible, contemporary expression of the Catholic Faith. The appealing graphic format includes Questions-and-Answers, highly-readable commentary, summary definitions of key terms, Bible citations and inspiring and thought-provoking quotes from Saints and others in the margins. What's more, YOUCAT is keyed to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, so people can go deeper.
Feast of Faith -
The Transforming Power of the Eucharist
"The Feast of Faith," is an enlightening, four-part adult faith formation series (on 2 CDs, or 2 DVDs) guaranteed to unlock the life-changing power of the Eucharist in your life. Be sure to order the Feast of Faith Workbook, you may view it online, to get the most out of this amazing Eucharist Series!
Feast of Faith DVD - $49.95
Feast of Faith – CD - $19.95
Feast of Faith Workbook - $6.95
The Great Adventure Bible Time Line - 24 Talk Overview of Salvation History
Now you can have Jeff Cavins as your personal Bible teacher in this one-of-a-kind Bible Study series. This dynamic series offers a compelling overview of God’s plan of salvation. Beginning with the first talk, you will discover how the Bible Time Line system developed by Jeff Cavins answers many of the questions we all have about the people, places and events of the Bible. Once you understand the “big picture” of God’s plan of salvation—and where the various biblical characters fit in this overall story—you develop a new appreciation for the Scriptures. Your understanding of the Scripture readings at Mass will truly come alive. Begin the journey today. Order your full set of 24 talks for your personal study, or for RCIA or other adult faith.