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The Epistles of St. Ignatius


THE splendid example of the Christian martyr-spirit was not the only legacy of Ignatius to the Church. In the epistles which have come down to us he has presented to us the picture of a lofty, spiritual character,

[1] On these Acts of the martyrdom, see Add. Note 3.


and has bequeathed to us a body of teaching, which has given him a foremost place among the 'Apostolic Fathers.'

The doctrinal and controversial interest of his writings must not be allowed to obscure the profoundly spiritual character which lies behind them.  The letters abound in maxims and in passages of great spiritual beauty.  They present to us a man, who has a keen insight into the practical significance of the Incarnation and the fresh, spiritual value which it has given to material things.  He can say even of the simple events of daily life, 'Those things which you do after the flesh are spiritual, for you do all things in Jesus Christ.'[l]  Though he is the uncompromising champion of Church order and the ministry, we find him saying, 'Let not office puff up any man, for faith and love are all in all.'[2] Amid all his insistence upon outward unity, he does not forget to remind us that the inner principle of union is God Himself.[3] So again, he loves to dwell on the 'silence' of God's working.[4]  To Ignatius, Christ and His Cross are all in all. In the Passion of Jesus Christ lies the power which draws his heart from all earthly longings.[5]  Hence his one aspiration, expressed again and again, is 'that I may attain unto God.'  And yet throughout there breathes a deep spirit of humility. He is 'one born out of due time,'[6]  'the last (of all).'[7] Though at the close of a long career, he writes, ' Now I am beginning to be a disciple.'[8]

His teaching reflects the natural character and circumstances of its author. Thus the deep vein of mysticism which pervades these letters may be partly due to the intense and fervid Oriental character of the writer. Again, the influences of heathen training show themselves to some degree in the form in which he apprehended Christianity. The idea of union with God, and the conception of redemption as deliverance from death

[1] Eph. 8. 
[2] Smyrn. 6.
[3] Trall. II.
[4] Eph. 15, 19.
[5] See Rom. 7.
[6] Rom.
[7] Eph. 21, Trall. 13, Rom. 9.
[8] Eph. 3.


and the power of demons, present points of contact with the religious ideas of the heathen world, as we know it in the first and second centuries, and are such as would naturally attract a convert from heathenism. And further, if we could trust the later tradition, which is not impossible so far as dates are concerned (though worthless in itself), that St. John was the teacher of Ignatius, we should find a natural explanation of the close relationship between his thought and that of the Johannine writings.

As compared with later teaching, the theology of Ignatius, like that of the other 'Apostolic Fathers,' exhibits in some respects an immature and undeveloped character. It was only slowly that men came to sound the depths of the teaching of St. Paul and St. John, and to grasp the eternal relations of the truths revealed in time. Hence we find in Ignatius a use of doctrinal terms, which would have been avoided by the more exact theology of a later age. Instances are the phrases, 'the blood of God,'[l]  'the passion of my God,'[2] and the word 'unoriginate,'[3] which, as applied to our Lord, might seem to deny the Eternal Generation.  There is also an absence of any references to the work of the Son of God in the world before the Incarnation (except, perhaps, in Magn. 8), and of the doctrine of His agency in Creation such as we find in St. Paul. While Ignatius applies to Him the title 'Logos' or 'Word,' [4] and elsewhere speaks of Him as 'the Mind of the Father,'[5] and 'the unerring Mouth whereby the Father spake;' [6] while, moreover, he asserts the Divine Sonship, and once uses the phrase, 'the Only Son,'[7] yet he nowhere speaks of the eternal relations of this Divine Sonship to the Fatherhood of God, beyond the mere fact of the Son's pre-existence with the Father.[8] How far the human nature was complete, whether Christ had a human soul, how the two natures are united in One Person, these are questions which lie outside the scope

[1] Eph. i.
[2] Rom. 6.
[3] Eph. 7.
[4] Magn. 8.
[5] Eph. 3.
[6] Rom. 8.
[7] Rom. inscr.
[8] Polyc. 3, Magn. 6.


 and grasp of the teaching of Ignatius. Nor again do the epistles present us with a theology of the Cross, or attempt to sound the depths of St. Paul's teaching upon the Death of Christ.  The idea of 'justification' is found only in two passages, i.e. Rom. 5 and Philad. 8, and only in the latter of these is it used in connection with the Passion.  The word 'propitiation' does not occur, and there is only one mention of 'forgiveness' in connection with repentance, in Philad. 8. It is not maintained that Ignatius ignored the teaching associated with such language. His repeated references to the Cross and Passion imply the contrary. But his particular contribution to Christian thought and teaching lay in another direction, and he was content accordingly to repeat, without developing, the simple language of his time upon the Death of Christ.

Such are some of the limits within which the teaching of these epistles moves. But when we come to their positive contents, we find that they witness to a Church tradition which is singularly full and varied, and, above all, they present a view of the Person of Jesus Christ, which is richer and more complete than anything to be found in the writings of the other 'Apostolic Fathers.'

With regard to the former of these, the witness of the epistles to the Church tradition of their time, we may quote the language of Dr. Harnack (Chronologie , p. xi). Speaking of the epistles of St. Clement and St. Ignatius, he says: 'He who diligently studies these letters cannot fail to perceive what a fulness of traditions, subjects of preaching, doctrines, and forms of organization already existed in the time of Trajan, and in individual churches had attained a secure position.' Among the contents of this Church tradition, we may notice the reference to the Threefold Name in Magn. 13 (cf. Eph. 9, Philad. inscr.). When we come to the historical facts of the Lord's earthly life, we find, first of all, a clear and emphatic witness to the Virgin-birth. 'The virginity of Mary and her child-bearing' formed two of the 'three mysteries,' 'wrought in the silence of God,' but now 'to be


proclaimed aloud.'[1]  Against the Docetic heretics he is never weary of emphasizing, in language that presents the appearance of being derived either from liturgical formulae or short creed-like statements,[2] the Virgin-birth, the Davidic descent, the baptism by John, the crucifixion under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, and the resurrection. See esp. the two passages, Trall. 9, Smyrn. 1, 2.  He mentions the star seen at the birth of Jesus Christ,[3] and dwells upon the intercourse of the Lord, after His Resurrection, with the Apostles.[4]  Of interest too is the reference to the descent into Hades in Magn. 9 (cf. Philad. 5, 9).  He nowhere speaks of the actual fact of the Ascension, although it is presupposed in Magn. 7. But, for the purposes which he had in hand, it did not possess the same immediate interest as the facts of the Birth, Passion, and Resurrection, which witness to the reality of the Lord's human nature. The references to the Second Coming of the Lord are very slight. See Eph. 15, and compare the expression in Rom. 10, 'patient abiding for Jesus Christ.'  Ignatius speaks of the Holy Spirit in language which plainly shows that he regarded Him as distinct from the Father and the Son. Cf. Magn. 13.  He speaks of Him as 'from God,'[5] and regards the miraculous conception of Jesus Christ as wrought, through His agency.[6]  Elsewhere he dwells upon His work of sanctification in the Church.  See especially the striking passage in Eph. 9, and cf. Philad. inscr., Magn. 13.  In Philad. 7, Ignatius claims to have received personal revelations from the Spirit.

In two passages Ignatius refers to ordinances of the Apostles. In Magn. 13 the readers are bidden to stand fast 'in the ordinances of the Lord and the Apostles.'  In Trall. 7 they are urged to be 'inseparable from Jesus Christ and the bishop, and the ordinances of the Apostles.'

When we come to examine the relation of these letters to the Canon of Scripture, we find very strong traces of

[1] Eph. 19.
[2] See p. 17.
[3] Eph. 19.
[4] Smyrn. 3.
[5] Philad. 7.
[6] Eph. 18.


the influence of the thoughts and ideas preserved for us in the books of the New Testament, but comparatively few traces of actual quotation from any of the writers of the New Testament. The cast of thought shows strong affinities with the ideas of the Johannine writings and the later epistles of St. Paul, especially St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians.  But it is difficult to prove that Ignatius is in any passage quoting from the Fourth Gospel.  The contrasts between life and death, God and the prince of this world, and the emphasis on knowledge and faith, truth and love, move in the same circles of ideas as the Fourth Gospel.  Again, the reference to Christ as 'the Door' (Philad. 9), the phrases 'the bread of God,' 'living water' (Rom. 7), lastly the words in Philad. 7, 'the Spirit is from God. For it knoweth whence it cometh and whither it goeth,' present striking parallels to the language of the Gospel, and suggest that either Ignatius was familiar with the Gospel, or that he had lived in surroundings where the ideas and teaching represented in our present Gospel were current. Lastly, there is the possibility already referred to above (p. 26), that Ignatius had been a disciple of St. John. For the suggested parallel with John xii. 3 found in Eph. 17, see note on that passage. The allusions of Ignatius to the actions and words of the Lord exhibit a tradition most closely akin to that found in St. Matthew's Gospel, with which these epistles exhibit more numerous parallels than with any other N. T. writing. In no passage does he allude definitely to written gospels, though Philad. 5 seems to point to a collection of apostolic writings. In one instance [1] he quotes from an apocryphal source, whether written or traditional we cannot tell. For the passage Eph. 19, see notes. With the epistles of St. Paul there are many parallels pointing to the author's acquaintance with them, though without actual quotation. In Eph. 12 the author directly speaks of St. Paul and his epistles. For further parallels with books of the New Testament, see Index of Scriptural passages. We may say in con-

[1] Smyrn. 3.


clusion that the epistles point to a period in which the New Testament writings, though current, had not superseded the oral tradition of the Church, as an authority and standard of teaching.

For his attitude towards the Old Testament, see Magn. 810, Philad. 5, 8, 9, with notes.

Ignatius' conception of the Christian faith is more striking than that of any sub-apostolic writer. He starts not from Creation or. the Old Testament but from the revelation of God in Christ. In Christ's appearing God has revealed Himself in man, the Eternal in time, the Spiritual in the material.[1]  The antithesis of 'spirit' and 'flesh,' which is conceived of as reconciled in Christ, runs through the whole theology of Ignatius.[2]  The whole earthly life of Christ has a place in the mystery of redemption, which has a significance for the whole Creation.[3] Thus he speaks of 'the virginity of Mary, and her child-bearing, likewise also the death of the Lord,' as 'three mysteries to be proclaimed aloud.'[4]  It is the Person and not merely the teaching of Christ, which is of importance. He is 'our God,' 'my God,' 'God in man,' though never apparently called God absolutely without some defining words.[5]  The controversial purpose of the letters leads Ignatius to lay special stress upon the reality of the human nature of Christ. The Docetae, whom he is attacking, conceived of the existence of Christ in a purely metaphysical way, as a spiritual or ideal existence. Against this view Ignatius sets the historical Christ, whose appearing in human form becomes the medium of God's revelation and alone guarantees its truth to man.  Hence he emphasizes the facts of His earthly life.  The Coming of the Saviour, His Passion and His Resurrection are the three points which distinguish the Gospel from all earlier teaching.[6]  Through the Cross, Death, and Resurrection

[1] See esp. Eph. 7, Polyc. 3.
[2] Cf. Eph. 8, Magn. I, 13, Polyc. 2.
[3] Trall. 9, Smyrn. 6. 
[4] Eph. 19.
[5] Cf. Eph. inscr., I, 7, 18, Rom. inscr., Smyrn. I, Polyc. 8.
[6] Philad. 9, cf. Magn. II.

he seeks to be justified.[1]  Especially prominent is the place which he assigns to the Passion. In the inscriptions to two letters (Philad., Trall.) he speaks of the Churches addressed, as 'rejoicing in the Passion' and 'at peace in flesh and spirit through the Passion of Jesus Christ.'[2]  The Blood of Christ reveals God's love.[3]  In Smyrn. 6 he speaks of Christ as suffering 'for our sins,' and in Eph. 18 he associates Baptism with the cleansing power of the Passion.[4]  In addition to these incidental allusions, he shows acquaintance in one passage[5] with the ideas represented in the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Christ is 'the High Priest, Who has been entrusted with the Holy of Holies,' but Ignatius immediately connects this thought with that of Christ as the 'Door' of the Father, a conception which we find in John x. 9.  In Philad. 8, 11, he speaks of being delivered from 'every bond,' and being 'ransomed' by the grace of Jesus Christ.  In these respects he echoes the traditional language of his time. The ideas, however, which chiefly occupy his thoughts are that the Death and Resurrection of Christ have annihilated death, have freed man from the power of evil,[6] and have given him the assurance of eternal life through union with God in Christ. Christ, 'our life,'[7] has passed through death, and life is assured to those who believe in Him and are united with Him. Hence Christians are 'branches of the Cross.' [8]  Thus his teaching presents points of contact with St. John, and with the later, rather than the earlier, teaching of St. Paul.  St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians exhibits the nearest point of contact between Ignatius and St. Paul.  In this connection notice especially the language of Eph. 19, 20 upon 'the new man,' and of Trall. 11 upon 'the one Body.'

The reconciliation of the antithesis between 'flesh' and 'spirit' through the union of God and man in Christ is realized practically by Christians in the life of faith

[1] Philad. 8. 
[2] Cf. Eph. inscr.
[3] Trall. 8, Rom. 7. 
[4] Cf. also Trall. 11, Rom. 6.
[5] Philad. 9.  
[6] Eph.19, Philad. 8.
[7] Eph. 3, Smyrn. 4.
[8] Trall. 11.


and love.[1] But it finds its fullest expression in the unity of the Church, which represents Christ and shares His life and twofold nature.[2]  Hence the unity of the Church is at once 'of flesh' and 'of spirit.'[3]  The insistence of Ignatius upon the visible unity of the Church is not adequately explained by the pressure of heresy.  That he was led to give special emphasis to it by the dangers of his time is undoubtedly true. But it is plainly a consequence of his belief in the principle of the Incarnation, the reconciliation of the outward and the inward, of 'spirit' and 'flesh,' of 'God' and 'man'   The Catholic Church is the Body of Christ, and secures the perpetual communication of the One Life of Christ.[4]  To impair the unity of the Church by false teaching and separatism is to cut oneself off from the Passion and the sacramental life of the Church.[5]

The individual churches represent locally the universal Church. As Jesus Christ is the Head of the universal Church, so is the bishop the head of the local Church.[6] He is God's representative,[7] as being the chief member of the local representation of that Church which is the Body of Christ. Hence the bishops are spoken of as being 'in the mind of Jesus Christ.'[8]   They represent, and carry on that reconciliation of 'flesh' and 'spirit,' which is assured through the Incarnation. Thus Ignatius writes to Polycarp: 'Therefore you are of flesh and spirit, that you may humour the things which are visibly present before your face.'[9] The ministry in the Ignatian epistles shows a more developed character than that described in the books of the New Testament and the writings of the sub-apostolic age. In the New Testament we find that the administration of the local churches was in the hands of a body of officials who are some-

[1] Eph. 8, 17, Smyrn. 6, 13.
[2] Smyrn. 1, Eph. 5, 17. 
[3] Eph 10, Magn. 1, 13, Rom. inscr., Smyrna 12, cf. Eph. 7.
[4] Smyrn. 8, Eph. 5, Trall.11.
[5] Philad. 3, Smyrn. 6, 8.
[6] Smyrn 8.
[7] Eph. 6, Magn. 3, Trall. 2, 3
[8] Eph. 3, cf. Philad. inscr.
[9] Polyc. 2.


times spoken of as presbyters and sometimes as 'bishops' (episcopi).[1]  We find a similar use of terms when we pass beyond the New Testament. The local ministry consists of 'bishops and deacons' (Didache), or 'presbyters and deacons' (Polycarp, ad Philipp. 5, 6), while Clement of Rome sometimes speaks of 'presbyters' and sometimes of 'bishops,' when he is referring apparently to the same office.  But in no case do we read of a single 'bishop' as the resident head of a local community.  On the other hand, in the position of St. James at Jerusalem (Acts xii. 17, xv. 2, xxi.18) we have what appears to be an anticipation of the functions (though the name does not appear) of the 'bishop' of the Ignatian epistles, seeing that St. James is represented as head or president of a body of presbyters who control the local affairs of the Church and through whom all communications with the Church take place.  This position, however, appears to have been peculiar to Jerusalem.  Elsewhere the Apostles appear to have exercised a general superintendence over the churches which they had founded, and in the Pastoral Epistles we find Timothy and Titus receiving a commission (probably temporary) from St. Paul to act as 'apostolic delegates' and to ordain clergy and administer discipline in the churches of Ephesus and Crete.  In the Didache we hear also of itinerant apostles, prophets, and teachers, who visit the local church, and directions are given that, if a prophet wishes to settle among them, he is to be accorded a position of pre-eminence. At the same time injunctions are given that 'bishops and deacons' are to be held in honour 'for they also minister to you the ministry of prophets and teachers.'  In this picture we see a survival of the honour and esteem in which the special gifts of missionary apostles and Christian prophets were held, and a disposition to rank on a lower level the local ministry of office.[2]  But as the Apostles and early missionaries

[1] For a fuller discussion, see Additional Note 2.
[2] On the value of the testimony of the Didache, see Dean Robinson in Essays on the Early History of the Church and Ministry, p. 68.


passed away, and the gift of prophecy became rare,[1] the local ministry absorbed many of the permanent functions exercised by these earlier ministries. These new conditions are reflected in the Ignatian epistles.

(i) There is no trace of the itinerant ministry of apostles and prophets which we find in the Didache, and we read only of the local threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons.

(ii) At the head of each church there is a single bishop, who is superior to the presbyters, though closely associated with them. The bishop alone can give the requisite authority for the performance of ministerial acts.[2]  The monarchical character of his office is clearly shown by the comparison of the bishop to 'the Father' or 'Jesus Christ,' while the presbyters represent the Apostles. On this comparison see antea, p. 19.

(iii) The bishop's office is localized and he is permanently attached to the local church.  Ignatius mentions the bishops of the cities of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia and Smyrna.  Of a diocese, in the later sense of the word, there is no trace,[3] and the bishop's authority is not, like that of the Apostles, of a general, undefined character, but is limited to a particular church.

Thus in the Ignatian Epistles we find the three orders of bishops, priests, and deacons. The bishop's office appears for the first time under the name by which it has since been known in history, although, as we have seen, there is something like an anticipation of the position occupied by him in the presidency of St. James in the Church of Jerusalem.

There are a few other facts which may be noticed about the ministry in the Ignatian Epistles.

[1] Ignatius, however, claims the gift of prophecy in Philad. 7. See note.
[2] Smyrn. 8.
[3] In Rom. 2 Ignatius calls himself 'bishop of Syria,' and elsewhere he refers to the 'Church of Syria' and its connection with himself.  Cf. Eph. 21, Magn. 14, Rom. 9, Trall. 13.  Probably there was only one Christian centre in Coele-Syria at this time, in which case 'Syria' is a synonym of Antioch. See note Rom. 2.


1. Closely associated with the bishops, and forming a 'spiritual coronal' about him, are the presbyters, and with them the deacons. The bishop's authority, though monarchical, 'is very far from being autocratic.'[1]  In his administration the presbyters form a 'council'[2] around him as 'the strings to a harp.'[3]  The writer is scarcely less emphatic in asserting the duty of obedience to the presbyters than he is to the bishop. If the bishop represents the Lord, the presbyters represent the Apostles.[4]  Ignatius bids his readers be subject to the bishop 'as unto the grace of God,' and to the presbytery 'as unto the law of Jesus Christ.'[5]  

Similarly he bids his readers obey the deacons. The three orders together form a central authority, so that 'without these there is no church deserving the name.' [6]

2. Ignatius tells us little of the source of the bishop's authority or of the way in which such authority was delegated to him.  He speaks of the bishops as representing the authority of Christ, though never as succeeding to the Apostles.  On the other hand, he compares the presbyters to the Apostles, though he is thinking of the Apostles in their relation to Christ during His ministry and not as they were after the Ascension, when they themselves became the representatives of Christ.[7]  The only passage in which it has been suggested that Ignatius claims apostolic authority for the bishop's office is Trall. 7, where he urges them to be 'inseparable from Jesus Christ and the bishop and the ordinances of the Apostles.'   In this last phrase Lightfoot sees a reference to the institution of episcopacy (see note on the passage). Similarly in Trall. 12  Ignatius bids them 'severally, and especially the presbyters, refresh the bishop to the honour of the Father and of Jesus Christ and of the Apostles.'

3. The language of the epistles does not support the view of Ramsay and others, that episcopacy is insisted

[1] Lightfoot, 1, p. 397.
[2] See antea, p. 18.
[3] Eph. 4.
[4] Magn. 6, Trall. 2, 3, Smyrn. 8.
[5] Magn. 2. 
[6] Trall. 3.
[7] See Gore, Church and Ministry, pp. 303, 304.


on so strongly in these letters because Ignatius recognized it as a new and valuable institution, which he desired to see established everywhere.[1]  From other sources, indeed, it would seem that a representative of the episcopal order was not established in every city church at this time, as in the case of Philippi, in writing to which Church Polycarp only makes mention of their presbyters and deacons.[2]  But when we study the Ignatian epistles themselves, we see no trace of an idea that the episcopal office is of recent introduction. The writer speaks of the 'bishops established in the furthest quarters.'[3]  Without the three orders of bishops, presbyters, and deacons 'there is no church deserving the name.'[4]  Nor can we draw any argument from the absence of any mention of the bishop in the Epistle to the Romans. That epistle is of a purely personal character, and it is written with reference to the action of certain members of the Church of Rome, who were anxious to procure a respite for Ignatius.  He nowhere salutes or makes mention of any of the officers of the Church in that city, whether bishop, presbyters, or deacons. Hence no argument can fairly be drawn from the absence of all mention of the ministry in the Roman Church, in favour of the idea that the Church at Rome did not possess a representative of one of the three orders, i.e. a bishop.

The repeated insistence by Ignatius on the duty of obedience to this threefold ministry was occasioned by the danger arising in his day from the heretical and separatist tendencies of the Docetic and Judaic parties. But it has its roots in that idea of the Church and its unity which we have already described. The same principle, the union of  'flesh' and 'spirit,' of outward and inward, appears in his language upon the Eucharist in Philad. 4, Smyrn. 6, 8.   On the one hand, he uses clear and definite language as to the nature of the gift received in the sacrament.  The Eucharist is 'the flesh of Christ,' 'the gift of God,' 'the medicine of immor-

[1] Ch. in R. Emp., pp. 370 foll.
[2] Polyc., Phil. 5.
[3] Eph. 3.
[4] Trall. 3.


tality'; the 'one cup' brings us into 'union with the Blood' of Christ.  On the other hand, there is a strong vein of mysticism in his teaching, which leads him to speak of  'faith' as the 'flesh' of Christ, and 'love' as 'the blood' of Christ (Trall. 8, Rom. 7). The dangers of the time led Ignatius to an emphatic warning to his readers to guard the sacramental unity of the Church, which was broken by the separatists. They are to assemble at the 'one altar.'[1]  Without the bishop's authority they are not 'to baptize or hold a love-feast.'  His authority alone gives 'validity' and 'security' to whatever is done.' [2]

For his language on baptism, see Eph. 18, Smyrn. 8, Polyc. 6.

The teaching of Ignatius upon the Incarnation, as a fact and as a principle, has its roots in the teaching of St. Paul and St. John, and was taken up by later Fathers. At the close of the second century it finds expression in St. Irenaeus. Once more, amid the perils arising from Arianism, St. Athanasius, in the fourth century, seized upon its leading idea, that in Jesus Christ God Himself has entered our human nature, in order to reveal Himself to man and endow man with the gift of eternal life.  In that faith has lain the secret of  'the victory that overcometh the world.'

Once again, when Ignatius asserted that in the Incarnation was effected the reconciliation of 'flesh' and 'spirit,' of the material and the spiritual, he stated a principle that has found expression in the life and worship of the Catholic Church. Gnosticism and later mysticism alike have emphasized the opposition between spirit and matter, and have tended to despiritualize the material.  In the Middle Ages men were inclined to confuse the two, and so to materialize the spiritual.  In her unchanging faith and the permanent elements of her life and worship, the Church witnesses to the truer view, and reconciles the antithesis. In 'the Word made flesh' we see the promise of the consummation of all things.

[1] Eph. 5, 20, Magn. 7, Trall. 7, Philad. 4 (with notes).
[2] Smyrn. 8.

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