Reflections from the Church Fathers-St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-108)

How we see the Trinity in the writings of St. Ignatius

Saint Ignatius of Antioch approaches the Trinitarian Life of God practically and doxologically. In terms of practicality, on many occasions, Ignatius invokes a way to see the divine persons in the ordained clergy, and in the unity which they both possess and give to the Church. He states in the epistle to the Magneisans:

“Study, therefore, to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, that so all things, whatsoever ye do, may prosper both in the flesh and spirit; in faith and love; in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit; in the beginning and in the end; with your most admirable bishop, and the well-compacted spiritual crown of your presbytery, and the deacons who are according to God. Be ye subject to the bishop, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, according to the flesh, and the apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit; that so there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual.” Magnesians, 13

Doxologically, Ignatius offers praise to the Almighty in Trinitarian terms in the above quote, but more often he speaks of the relationship between the Father and the Son, and sees a mirror between the hierarchy on earth and the hierarchy in heaven, his destiny which weighed heavily upon his mind as he faced martyrdom.

“Wherefore it is fitting that ye should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which thing also ye do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And do ye, man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, ye may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that ye are indeed the members of His Son. It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus ye may always enjoy communion with God. For if I in this brief space of time, have enjoyed such fellowship with your bishop–I mean not of a mere human, but of a spiritual nature–how much more do I reckon you happy who are so joined to him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father, that so all things may agree in unity! Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church ! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, ‘God resisteth the proud.’ Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.” Ephesians, 4,5

The relation of communion between the divine Persons is shown to be the source of unity on earth. And conversely, communion with one’s bishop is seen as the key to communion with God.

St. Ignatius on the Incarnation

The Incarnation of the Son of God is most often addressed by Saint Ignatius of Antioch through the lens of a passion to proclaim the physical reality of Christ’s presence on earth, in opposition to the docetists who denied this. Just as St. John the Evangelist wrote in his epistle that whoever denies that the Son of God came in the flesh has the spirit of Antichrist, so too did his acquaintance Ignatius champion the physical reality of the Incarnation. In his epistle to the Trallians, he writes:

“Be ye deaf therefore, when any man speaketh to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the race of David, who was the Son of Mary, who was truly born and ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight of those in heaven and those on earth and those under the earth; who moreover was truly raised from the dead, His Father having raised Him, who in the like fashion will so raise us also who believe on Him — His Father, I say, will raise us — in Christ Jesus, apart from whom we have not true life. But if it were as certain persons who are godless, that is unbelievers, say, that He suffered only in semblance, being themselves mere semblance, why am I in bonds? And why also do I desire to fight with wild beasts? So I die in vain. Truly then I lie against the
Lord. Shun ye therefore those vile offshoots that gender a deadly fruit, whereof if a man taste, forthwith
he dieth. For these men are not the Father’s planting: for if they had been, they would have been seen to be
branches of the Cross, and their fruit imperishable — the Cross whereby He through His passion inviteth us,
being His members. Now it cannot be that a head should be found without members, seeing that God promiseth union, and this union is Himself.” Trallians, 9-11

Ignatius points out many implications of denying the reality of the incarnation. Apart from merely being factually incorrect, he ends this section of the epistle to the Trallians by pointing out that as the Body of Christ with Christ as head, we cannot have true union with Christ, if He did not truly take on our nature. The union with Christ would never meet without the shared human nature; like two parallel lines divinity and humanity would be separate for all eternity. Our salvation, therefore, depends on this reality to St. Ignatius. The sufferings of Christ would also be untrue, as a mere Spirit would not suffer. And lastly, the reality of Christ’s life on earth would not have been a true birth, true eating and drinking. The severity of this error is so grave that he calls for the faithful to shun those who proclaim this.

St. Ignatius on the Church and the Holy Mysteries

Because the Docetists denied the physical reality of the Christ’s body, there is a tendency to deprecate all of physicality, which would denigrate the sacraments in their physicality as being useless to the mission of the Church. Ignatius understood this connection, and wrote with sensitivity to this issue:
“ Let no man be deceived. Even the heavenly things, and the glory of the angels, and the principalities, both visible and invisible, if they believe not on the blood of Christ, for them also is there condemnation. Let him who receiveth it, receive it in reality. Let not high place puff up any man. For the whole matter is faith and love, to which there is nothing preferable. Consider those who hold heretical opinions with regard to the grace of Jesus Christ which hath come unto us, how opposite they are to the mind of God. They have no care for love, nor concerning the widow, nor concerning the orphan, nor concerning the afflicted, nor concerning him who is bound or loosed, nor concerning him who is hungry or thirsty. They refrain from the eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father of his goodness raised up.”

His connection of the Eucharist to the Body and Blood of Christ makes it integrally related to the life for all the faithful, and is the vitality of the Church. Elsewhere he uses the phrase “medicine of immortality” to describe the Eucharist, in his Epistle to the Ephesians. The sacramental life of the Church is therefore of critical importance to Ignatius. Another important factor which was mentioned above is the mirroring of the Persons of the Trinity within the hierarchy of the Church. Because Ignatius sees a connection between the Bishop and the Father, as well as Christ with the deacons, and the presbyterate with the Apostles, Ignatius sees the mission of the Church to be a reflection of God who is Love in three Persons. With such a divine calling and identity, the Church must be viewed as the divine institution that it truly is, and not some pragmatically based association of likeminded people. It is our source of life, which brings Christ present through the Eucharist, and through His Presence in each of us.

St. Ignatius on Salvation in Christ

Like the Identity and Mission of the Church, the approach to understanding salvation and the Christian life in the writings of Saint Ignatius must be seen as one that incorporates the unity of the local Church as headed by the Bishop, and the sacramental blessings which flow from it. As a martyr, Ignatius also poignantly felt his connection to God through offering his life and death to God. Two reflections on his road to Rome make this connection clear.

“I write to all the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless ye hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable goodwill towards me. Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may not be found troublesome to any one. Then shall I be a true disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. Entreat the Lord for me, that by these instruments I may be found a sacrifice to God. I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles of Jesus Christ, but I am the very least [of believers]: they were free, as the servants of God; while I am, even until now, a servant. But when I suffer, I shall be the freedman of Jesus Christ, and shall rise again emancipated in Him. And now, being in bonds for Him, I learn not to desire anything worldly or vain.” Romans, 4

Martyrdom is not just a calling to stay faithful to Ignatius’ identity of Christian-even more deeply, he sees that his discipleship is made true through the grinding of his body (the wheat) into death, which produces the spiritual bread. His calling as a martyr beautifully underscores the connection between Christ’s suffering for mankind, and that which is offered in his own life. Growth as a Christian is sacramental, hierarchical and mystical through the life of the Church. But to Ignatius, salvation in Christ is also mystical in his martyrdom, which mystically reflects Christ’s life and death in his own life and death.

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