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Reflections on the Church Fathers: Ignatius of Antioch

In the first article of this series, I emphasized the importance for the Christian life of imitating moral exemplars, following the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1) Top of the list for Christian moral exemplars, aside from Jesus himself, are those who were closest to him, hence my devotional exploration of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. Up next in this survey is “Ignatius the Image-bearer,” the bishop of Antioch in the 1st and early 2nd centuries. Each of his seven letters were written en route to his impending execution in Rome, having been arrested by ten Roman soldiers in Syria for unknown reasons.1 The letters, much like Paul’s letters in the New Testament, are meant to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, correct false teachings, and encourage Christians in righteous living.

Central to the thought of Ignatius is his understanding of the Church as “imitators of God.”2 Having been raised in evangelicalism, this understanding of Christians felt foreign to me. In my world, the language we use to identify ourselves is often “believers” or “followers of Jesus.” The weight of the task of being an imitator of God brings new meaning to what we believe in and whom we are following. Upon reflection, it’s hilarious to think that we humans could be imitators of the infinite, as if we have an image of the invisible to impersonate. And yet, of course, we do have this image in the God-man. And this is good news not simply because we now have God within our midst, but because this Jesus has imitated God for us. Ignatius writes, “Therefore let us not be unaware of his goodness. For if he were to imitate the way we act, we are lost. Therefore, having become his disciples, let us learn to live in accordance with Christianity.”3

Living in accordance with Christianity, for Ignatius, can only be done within the harmony and unity of the Church, underneath the central authority of the bishop. Ignatius, a bishop himself, impresses upon the Church to be subject to those who have been appointed to lead the Church. He goes so far as to develop a theology of the bishop, proclaiming that “the bishops appointed throughout the world are in the mind of Christ”4 and “we must regard the bishop as the Lord himself,”5 for “the Father of Jesus Christ [is] the bishop of all.”6 Ignatius claims without the bishop, and the presbyters and deacons beneath him, “no group can be called a church.”7

A couple of years ago, just prior to my senior year of college, my professor and I met in his office to discuss a potential senior thesis for my religious studies major. The professor and I had a lengthy discussion regarding our theological and ecclesiological commitments. In addition to puzzling over my evangelical theology coupled with my concern for social justice, the ordained Baptist minister proclaimed that submission to a bishop is the one ecclesiology he could never commit himself to. Ignatius’s theology of the bishop would rule him (and myself as well) outside of Christ himself, as we exist outside of the harmony of the bishop-Christ-Father authoritative ladder. Ignatius, were he transported from the 2nd century to the 21st, would have no concept of a schism-full-Christianity, much less a bishop-less Christianity, for his concept of the Eucharist, true repentance, and fleeing the devil are all caught up with union with one’s bishop.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Ignatius’s letters is his joyful acceptance of his imminent martyrdom. His letter to the Roman church reads as a love letter to death. He writes, “For though I am still alive, I am passionately in love with death as I write to you. My passionate love has been crucified and there is no fire of material longing within me, but only water living and speaking in me, saying within me ‘Come to the Father.’” He continues in detail, “Fire and cross and battles with wild beasts, mutilation, mangling, wrenching of bones, the hacking of limbs, the crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—let these come upon me, only let me reach Jesus Christ!”8 In his letter to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius connects his martyrdom with the death of Christ: “In any case, ‘near the sword’ means ‘near to God’; ‘with the beasts’ means ‘with God.’ Only let it be in the name of Jesus Christ, so that I may suffer together with him!”9 While these words may appear masochistic, Ignatius is emphasizing, to an extreme to be sure, the Christian virtues of temperance, worship in the face of persecution, and willingness to die because of Christ’s “abolition of death.”10

A final beauty of Ignatius’s letters is his often simple, yet not simplistic, proclamation of the gospel. Ignatius hopes that Christians under his care be convinced about Christianity in three parts: Christ’s birth, suffering, and resurrection.11 In being convinced of the first, we know the God-man we ought to imitate. In being convinced of the second, we know how to handle persecution (whether physical or emotional) and we know that dying a martyr’s death is not the end of it. Finally, in being convinced of the third, we know of Christ’s defeat of Satan and death. May we carry on the work of the Apostles in propagating these “mysteries to be loudly proclaimed.”12

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George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

Raised in North Carolina, George works as an accountant and lives in New York with his wife and son. His writing is animated by Abraham Kuyper’s exclamation, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

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