“There Is the Catholic Church”: Ignatius of Antioch on the Apostolate, the Episcopate, and the Unity of the Faith

Ignatius of Antioch is an important figure in church history, providing a crucial link between the apostolic and post-apostolic eras. Among the many significant details that we learn from his writings about the development of early Christianity, one stands out in particular: the role of the bishop, or “monepiscopacy”. Ignatius is often cited as one of, if not the earliest witness to the form that the church’s system of governance would take in the following centuries. It was, in fact, Ignatius who famously remarked that “whenever the bishop appears, let the congregation be present, just as wherever Christ is, there is the catholic church” (Smyrn. 8). Later generations of Roman Catholic thinkers would find in this justification for papal primacy, using it to assert that the Catholic Church fully exists wherever (and only wherever) the congregation of the faithful is governed by bishops in communion with the successor of St. Peter, the bishop of Rome.

But is this truly what Ignatius meant when he wrote these words? Was Ignatius saying in context that the entire catholic church, spread throughout the world in all times and places, is that which is governed by the single, monarchical authority of the successor of St. Peter, the bishop of Rome? Just what exactly was Ignatius’ view of the episcopate, particularly in its relation to the apostles, to the tradition of faith that they delivered, and to the unity of the church as the body of Christ? These are important questions in that they directly impinge upon contemporary dialogue between the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant traditions regarding the identity, nature, and unity of the one church of Jesus Christ.

Eastern Orthodox scholar John Behr helps to answers some of these questions by cutting through the accretions of time and bringing us into contact with whom we might call “the unaccommodated Ignatius”. The following paragraphs are cited from John Behr’s study The Way to Nicaea, (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), pp.81-84, 88-90, emphasis mine:

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The letters of Ignatius are one of the most important early witnesses, outside the New Testament, to the development of both church structure and theological reflection. Ignatius emphasizes very strongly the importance and centrality of the bishop, flanked by his presbyters and deacons, for the constitution of the Church; without these three orders, the community cannot be called a “church” (Trall. 3.1). He urges the Smyrneans, for example, to follow the bishop as Christ follows the Father, and to do nothing pertaining to the church without the bishop; without him, they are neither to baptize nor hold an agape, and only that eucharist which he, or his delegate, celebrates is to be considered certain (βεβαία); in sum, “whenever the bishop appears, let the congregation be present, just as wherever Christ is, there is the catholic church” (Smyrn. 8). That there is only one Christ means that there can only be one eucharist, one altar, one bishop (Phld. 4).

However, this emphasis on the role of the bishop, monepiscopacy, should be neither overstated nor construed in terms of the later “monarchical” bishop. The obedience that the Smyrneans owe to their bishop, for instance, is also due to the presbyters (Smyrn. 8.1). Ignatius likewise urges the Magnesians and the Ephesians to do nothing without the bishop and the presbyters; they are to obey both, and also be subject to one another (Magn. 7.1, 13.2; Eph. 2.2, 20.2). More importantly, the bishop is not, for Ignatius, the successor of the apostles, nor are the apostles reckoned as the first bishops. Rather, in the typological parallels that Ignatius draws between, on the one hand, the Father, Christ and the apostles, and on the other, the bishop, deacon and presbyters (Trall. 3.1; Magn. 6.1), the apostles are always placed on the eternal, universal level of the Church, along with Christ and His Father, while the ranks of clergy are historically and geographically specific.

Ignatius repeatedly states that as a bishop himself, he is not in a position to give orders as did the apostles (διατάσσομαι, Rom. 4.3; Eph. 3.1; Trall. 3.3); it is the apostles who have laid the ordinances (διαταγμάτων, e.g. Trall. 7.1). As Christ was subject to the Father, and the apostles to Christ and the Father, Ignatius will even speak of the precepts or ignatius-of-antiochteachings (δόγμα) as coming from the Lord and the apostles together (Magn. 13.1), and when, in reverse, Christians refresh or encourage (ἀναψύχειν) the bishop, it is to the honor of the Father of Jesus Christ and the apostles (Trall. 12.2). For Ignatius, the position of the apostles in the work of God in Christ (cf. Magn. 7.1) is foundational for the Church at all times and in all places, in contrast to the circumscribed role of the bishop.

As such, the unity of Christians with their one bishop, in the one eucharist celebrated on the one altar, is dependent upon a prior unity in the apostolic faith. So, in his letters, which with the exception of the letter to Polycarp are addressed to the churches at large, Ignatius urges all his recipients to remain steadfast in the unity of the true faith. He exhorts them all to “be deaf when anyone speaks apart from Jesus Christ” (Trall. 9.1), and “not even listen to anyone unless they speak concerning Christ in truth” (Eph. 6.2). There are many “specious wolves” out there, Ignatius warns, so “the children of the light of truth [must] flee from division and evil teaching,” and, as sheep, follow the shepherd (Phld. 2). However, to be able to discriminate in this manner requires a knowledge of the true teaching about Jesus Christ, and so Ignatius fulfills his pastoral duty by repeatedly stating what he holds to be the true faith. So, for example, after his opening greeting to the Smyrneans, he immediately turns to state the key elements of this faith:

I glorify Jesus Christ, the God who has thus made you wise, for I observed that you are established in an immovable faith, as if nailed to the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, both in flesh and spirit, and firmly established in love by the blood of Christ, fully persuaded with regard to our Lord that he is truly of the family of David according to the flesh, Son of God with respect to the will and power of God, truly born of a virgin, baptized by John, that all righteousness might be fulfilled by him, truly nailed [to the tree] for us in the flesh under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch—from the fruit of which are we, from his divinely blessed Passion—that he might raise an ensign to the ages, through his Resurrection, for his saints and faithful, either among the Jews or the Gentiles, in the one body of his Church. (Smyrn. 1)…

Crystallized statements of faith, such as this passage, are also found in the writings of the New Testament (e.g., Rom 1:3–4; 1 Cor 8:6; 1 Tim 2:5–6; 1 Pet 3:18–22). However, with Ignatius these statements of faith are used not only to expound the content of the Gospel, in kerygmatic fashion, but also to act as a test or criterion of true belief (cf. Trall. 9–10), just as the First Epistle of John discerned false spirits by the confession that Christ has indeed come in the flesh (1 Jn 4:2–3)…All that the Gospel proclaims, in turn, has already been written down; the Gospel contains no new word or revelation. Its distinctiveness lies in the fact that it contains, and so re-presents, what had only been announced (cf. Phld. 5.2): the advent of Christ, his Passion and Resurrection. This does not detract, however, from the value of the revelation of Christ himself: as Ignatius puts it, the Gospel has something preeminent, for it has the advent (παρουσία) of Christ, his Passion and Resurrection, while the prophets were only pointing towards it. As such, all the prophets looked to him and spoke of him, as Ignatius put it elsewhere, for “they lived according to Jesus Christ” and “were inspired by his grace” to proclaim “that there is only one God, who has manifested himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his Word proceeding from silence” (Mag. 8:2).

On the connection between Christ and the Gospel, it is also worth noting how Ignatius exhorts his readers to pay heed to the prophets and especially to the Gospel, “in which the Passion has been revealed to us and the Resurrection has been accomplished.” The inseparability, for Ignatius, of Christ and the Gospel is further shown in his comment that “Jesus Christ, being now in the Father, is more plainly visible” (Rom. 3.2): it is in the apostolic preaching of the crucified and risen Christ, embodying Scripture (“according to the Scriptures,” though this formula is not found in Ignatius), that we see and understand Jesus Christ, rather than through a merely “earthly” contact with him or traditions purporting to derive from him. It is in the kerygma, the preaching about the crucified and risen Christ, that we can see and understand who Jesus Christ is.

Despite not appealing to Scripture or the writings of the apostles in his presentation of the Christian faith, Ignatius is nevertheless thoroughly within the perspective of seeing Christ in terms of the apostolic interpretation of Scripture: Jesus Christ, whose flesh is seen in Gospel proclaimed by the apostles, is the embodiment of Scripture. Given this matrix of his theology, and his evident familiarity with the Johannine theology if not literature, it is somewhat surprising that Ignatius rarely describes Jesus Christ as the Word of God. One passage where he does this has already been noted, but deserves closer attention. According to Ignatius, the prophets lived according to Jesus Christ and tried to persuade the disobedient people that “there is one God who manifested himself through Jesus Christ, his Son, who is his Word proceeding from silence, who in all respects was well-pleasing to him that sent him” (Magn. 8.2).

Ignatius is emphatic that there is only one God, and that it is this God whom the Son reveals, implying further that the Son is as divine as the Father. The image of the Son proceeding from silence has been taken by some to be an echo of a Gnostic view of Christ, revealing an unknown God, or to refer to the decline and absence of prophets in the period prior to Christ, so that God appeared to have stopped speaking through the prophets resulting in a silence from which the Word appears. A more immediate explanation is simply that if Jesus Christ is, for Ignatius, the sole locus of the revelation of God, “the mouth which cannot lie by which the Father has spoken truly” (Rom. 8.2), the “door of the Father” (Phld. 9.1) already announced by the prophets, then all else apart from him is silence. This again emphasizes the identity between revealer and revelation: the one by whom the Father speaks, the one who delivers to us the Word of God, is himself the Word of God.

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