What To Do With St. Ignatius?

st. ignatius

by Theron Mathis

Of all the saints of the Church, Ignatius maybe had the biggest impact in leading me towards Orthodoxy. Saint Ignatius threw several wrenches into my Protestant Evangelical machinery.

After discovering him, I was faced with the question:

What do I do with Ignatius?

Here’s a brief bio that will explain why he was problematic for me:

Ignatius the God-Bearer was a disciple of the holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian, and was the second bishop of Antioch, and successor to Bishop Euodius, Apostle of the Seventy. This means that Ignatius knew and was taught by the apostles. He was serving as bishop and was teaching while many of the Apostles were still alive.

In the year 106, the emperor Trajan (98-117), after his victory over the Scythians, ordered everyone to give thanks to the pagan gods, and to put to death any Christians who refused to worship the idols. In the year 107, Trajan happened to pass through Antioch. Here they told him that the elderly Bishop Ignatius openly confessed Christ, and taught people to scorn riches, to lead a virtuous life, and preserve their virginity.

Saint Ignatius came voluntarily before the emperor, so as to avert persecution of the Christians in Antioch. He rejected the persistent requests of the emperor Trajan to sacrifice to the idols. The emperor then decided to send him to Rome to be thrown to the wild beasts. Saint Ignatius joyfully accepted the sentence imposed upon him. His readiness for martyrdom was attested to by eyewitnesses, who accompanied Saint Ignatius from Antioch to Rome.

On the way to Rome, Saint Ignatius visited several churches, teaching and guiding the Christians there. He also wrote seven epistles: to the churches of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna. All these letters have survived to the present day.

On December 20, the day of a pagan festival, they led Saint Ignatius into the arena, and he turned to the people:

“Men of Rome, you know that I am sentenced to death, not because of any crime, but because of my love for God, by Whose love I am embraced. I long to be with Him, and offer myself to him as a pure loaf, made of fine wheat ground fine by the teeth of wild beasts.”

After this the lions were released and tore him to pieces, leaving only his heart and a few bones. Hearing of the saint’s great courage, Trajan thought well of him and stopped the persecution against the Christians.

Here was my problem.

Because Ignatius was a contemporary and disciple of the apostles, his understanding of the apostolic faith would have been identical to that of the apostles. Yet his 7 epistles, which are his last will and testament, indicate multiple doctrines that did not fit my Evangelical image of the early church and interpretation of Scripture.

Here are a few:

1. Episcopal form of government.

“Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the complete Church.” (Epistle to the Smyreans)

“as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants:” (Epistle to the Philadelphians)

2. The true presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

“They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again… Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints.” (Epistle to the Smyreans)

“Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God.” (Epistle to the Philadelphians)

“I desire the Bread of God, the heavenly Bread, the Bread of Life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; I wish the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.” (Epistle to the Romans).

3. The necessity and efficacy of Baptism.

“He was born and baptized, that by His passion He might purify the water.” (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians)

This muddied the waters and eventually led me to Orthodoxy. I am not saying that all who consider the church that Ignatius painted will become Orthodox, but it was hard for me to support my own Scriptural interpretations against one who knew the writers of Scripture.

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Comments

  1. Michael says:

    Thanks, Theron, for your post. I am asking the same question – what do we do with Ignatius. Minimally he demolishes certain Protestant pre-suppositions about the nature and the structure of the early church. Maximally, he crowds one to Orthodoxy. Prayers for me on this journey would be appreciated – Michael

  2. Fr. John says:

    Michael, we do and we will pray for you. Do let us know how we can help – it’s what we are here for.

  3. I’ve been on this journey since September 2015…about seven months now.

    I have discovered that the Orthodox believe as I always have on many issues; that on many others when I consider the true meaning of the Orthodox view, it is not that difficult to accept as true and right; and that for some, though it is completely different from what I had believed as a protestant (such as the “ever virgin” status of Mary), I am able to accept the Orthodox view as more likely true than what I had believed before.

    I am still struggling with the Eucharist becoming, in some sense, truly Jesus’s body and blood, though I want to believe this also. It is honestly the only aspect of the faith I am not completely comfortable with stating that “I believe” – because I cannot find the key to my acceptance of the divine presence in the elements.

    I know, intellectually, that the “symbolic” view of the elements came about less than a century ago. Yet I still find some portion of my mind clinging to it. As I said last night on the way home from vespers and the inquirers class, perhaps the answer lies in not trying to figure it out intellectually, but simply to accept and believe.

    There are at least five months to go before our priest will be willing to bring me into the Church, so I have time to work this issue out. I guess I am asking for prayers, or an insight into this idea that might cause the light bulb of belief to click to “on” in this one, final area.

    Thanks, and God bless. Christ is risen!

  4. Fr. John says:

    Indeed He is Risen!

    Old ways die hard, and old habits of mind are the worst, but when they are distorted by falsehood and novelty, it is easier to accept what has always been Christian, as opposed to what has almost never been Christian. Isn’t it?

  5. The “old way” is a “new way” to me, and the “new way” is the “old way I have always believed” (as taught in the protestant churches I grew up in), so that is where the struggle lies.

    I’ve come a long way in seven months. I’m sure that I will make it the rest of the way in the next four or five months. I just would like to be there now already! Impatient, I guess. 🙂

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