A Reformed Baptist Reads Ignatius
Recently I had the privilege of spending time at home with my family and had enough free time to delve into some writings of the Early Church Fathers. I’ve decided that a good way to gather my thoughts and share them would be to read the entire works of any given author — to the extent this is possible — and write my thoughts. This may seem like a large undertaking, but I have an app on my phone that reads ebooks to me, and my audio comprehension is otherworldly (seriously, I’m fully convinced God has given me the ability to understand and retain what I hear, even at 3–5 times speed). So while going about my day, I had the epistles of Ignatius to keep me company. I listened to 7 of them that are regarded by a consensus of scholarship as authentic. I listened to them and paused only to take notes and reflect. After finishing, I listened to them again without break. Click HERE for the book I’m using. Here’s the list of epistles I read:
- Epistle to the Ephesians (EPH)
- Epistle to the Magnesians (MAG)
- Epistle to the Trallians (TRA)
- Epistle to the Romans (ROM)
- Epistle to the Philadelphians (PHI)
- Epistle to the Smyrnaeans (SMY)
- Epistle to Polycarp (POL)
Reading through these I found a few themes on which Ignatius was intensely focused:
- He desired the Church to be unified, constantly encouraging them to be one.
- He warned against heresies to everyone he wrote.
- He focused heavily on the importance of obedience and submission to elders (Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons).
- He encouraged proper worship.
- He looked forward to being made complete in Christ (as he wrote these, he was under arrest, being sent to Rome to be eaten by beasts to entertain the masses).
Without further ado, then, here’s what I found interesting.
Throughout Ignatius’ writings, what came across as his chief desire was that the church be one, and that they remain unified:
It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus you may always enjoy communion with God.- EPH 4Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when you assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith.-EPH 13
The ideal for Ignatius was unity. In fact, he stated his desire to write another letter, so long as the following condition was met:
[Y]ou come together man by man in common through grace, individually, in one faith...so that you obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind...-EPH 20
After stating explicitly that he has not found any division among them, he offers a grave warning to the Philadelphians:
If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ.].-PHI 3I therefore did what belonged to me, as a man devoted to unity. For where there is division and wrath, God does not dwell.-PHI 8
Yikes! This, especially as a Protestant, has me a bit flustered. I’ve become fairly convinced that Catholicism is a schismatic movement, but my understanding of Protestantism was that it was a return to the true Church. My recent studies have shaken that assumption, though, and knowing this was the view of the Early Church makes this a serious matter.
I could cite each individual reference that Ignatius makes to church governance as a structure, but instead, I’ll simply mention he makes an obvious claim to the Church as a three-fold office of Bishop, Presbyter, and Deacon (EPH 4; MAG 2, 4, 6, 13; TRA 3, 7; PHI g, 4; SMY 8; POL 6).
So in 7 letters, he addresses the structure of the Church specifically mentioning all three offices of Bishop, Presbyter, and Deacon no less than 11 times. This is not even counting the number of times he refers to the duties, honor, or calls to obey one office in particular. As a second-generation Christian, I find it extremely difficult to believe that Ignatius would have been given to a faulty view of Church governance.
Naturally, as a Baptist, this gives me pause. While I know I’ve heard explanations in the past as to why there are only the offices of Elder (Presbyter) and Deacon, I can’t recall them being anything beyond translation issues, and if there’s no translatable difference between a Bishop and Presbyter, I don’t understand why Ignatius would use such redundancy so frequently. This is definitely an area I need to study more. For those of you who may have some good resources on this, please comment with links, and I’ll be sure to read them.
With all these references, two strike me in particular:
let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church.-TRA 3
This language is very very "High Church" language. To suggest that we treat the Bishops as we would Christ is a tall order! And the language equating deacons as appointments of Jesus Himself seem to suggest some type of succession. While Ignatius nowhere in these epistles mentions by what process these officers are appointed — nor does he give specifics about what it means to be a legitimate Bishop or a false one — the fact that he uses such language to describe the offices of the Church is something to consider.
Furthermore, the fact that he states outside this structure (and one can safely assume the legitimate appointments thereof) there is no Church is not something to take lightly. And I certainly won’t.
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God.-SMY 8
This one piggy-backs off the other, but the concept is the same. In two separate letters, Ignatius states that those in Church authority are to be treated with a holy dignity. To think, if one fails to do that, or renders such treatment to false authority, that would be a serious offense indeed.
Continuing from the above section, Ignatius not only has an emphasis on the proper structure of the Church, but he also states the importance of understanding the proper authority the Church holds.
[W]ithout the bishop you should do nothing,-TRA 2Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.-SMY 8
It seems that functions within the Church are better off not done if not attached to the proper authority. This certainly gives me pause, if I am to take Ignatius as a proper teacher (and again, not doing so would be to conclude that within a single generation after the Apostles that the faith could be so perverted), then I must be in fellowship with the Church. My struggle here is that Ignatius nowhere defines in clear terms what the Church is. For that, I appeal to the Scriptures, and as of yet, I cannot say that I am convinced of a teaching of Apostolic Succession as required for a legitimate Church body. Should this be the case, however, it would quickly become my life’s goal to discern where the line of apostolic succession connects to the modern Church — how could I not!?
he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil.-SMY 9
This is icing on the cake at this point. If I was made to feel uneasy before, this statement downright scares me. Again, much more reading and study are needed to come to any conclusion on this topic, but at least I have some clear goals.
Ignatius also has a heavy emphasis on a proper Eucharist. This is one area where I’ve disagreed with many Protestants: I affirm the "Real Presence" in the Eucharist. I’ve also always felt uneasy with such labels as "transubstantiation" or "consubstantiation" and have been quite satisfied in this matter to say "It’s His blood. It’s His body, I don’t know how." In this regard, my view of the Eucharist — in as far as what it is — is in fact quite similar to the Orthodox view.
...breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.-EPH 20
I am actually familiar with this quote, as my studies around immortality have caused me to read through this section of Ignatius’ writings before. In fact, it was my study of immortality (specifically as it relates to hell) that caused me to start studying patristics. But this statement clearly illustrates a reality about the Eucharist that I have long affirmed: it is a means of grace.
I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ...I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.-ROM 7
Yup, more Real Presence. This is in here more for future reference and citation than anything else, but it is nice to see that some of the things I’ve been taught do not contradict one of the earliest Church Fathers.
Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it....It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.-SMY 8
Again, back to the matter of authority. Without proper Church governance, the Eucharist is not "proper".
The linchpin of this whole study is authority. Clearly, I’ve been wrong about Church governance, unless I’m missing something that an English translation hasn’t taught me. That much has given me much to pray about and much to keep in the back of my mind as I keep reading.
The burning question now is this: What constitutes a valid Bishopric? I will have to find the answer outside Ignatius’ writings. For anyone reading this why may know a good Church Father to read next to help me answer this, please let me know in the comments section.
Please, friends, pray for me.