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March 15, 2017

Ignatius’ Asian Epistles

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Synopsis

Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and martyr of the early Church, wrote to several Churches in Asia, imploring the faithful to remain united with the teachings of their bishops.

Authorship

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, while imprisoned and in transport to Rome in about the year A.D. 108, wrote letters to several Christian communities in Asia. Three of these letters (to the Churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles) were written while he was imprisoned in Smyrna, and two (to the Churches in Philadelphia and Smyrna) were written after he was transported to Troas. Full authenticity of the contents of these letters is not generally accepted; however, the most egregious embellishments can be identified and removed using copies of the letters from different ages and sources. The original letters and contemporary copies have been lost to antiquity.

Summary

The following is a summary of the major points addressed in each letter:

Ephesians Magnesians Trallians

  • Salutation
  • Praise of the Ephesians
  • Praise of their Bishop
  • Praise of their Deacon, others
  • Remain united with the Bishop
  • Denounce hypocrisy
  • Be an example through prayer and works
  • Give thanks to God often
  • Statement on faith and love
  • Statement on silence
  • Warning against false doctrine
  • The advent of Christ
  • Promise to write again
  • Request for prayers

  • Salutation
  • Praise of the Magnesians
  • Praise of their Bishop, Priests, Deacon
  • Honor the bishop despite his youth
  • Disobedience mocks God, earns death
  • Remain united with your Bishop
  • Avoid Judaizing
  • Be united in doctrine and deed
  • Request for prayers

  • Salutation
  • Praise of the Trallians
  • Be subject to the Bishop
  • Honor the Deacons
  • Humility in writing
  • Avoid heresy
  • Avoid temptation
  • History of Christ
  • More praise of the Trallians
  • Request for prayers
Philadelphians Smyrnæans

  • Salutation
  • Praise of the Philadelphians
  • Praise of their Bishop
  • Remain united with the Bishop
  • Avoid schismatics
  • Request for prayers
  • Avoid Judaizing
  • Praise of the Gospel over the Law
  • End of persecution
  • Thanks to certain persons

  • Salutation
  • Praise of the Smyrnæans
  • Avoid heresy, which leads to death
  • Remain united with the Bishop
  • Honor the bishop
  • A word of thanks
  • Request to sent message to Antioch

Observations

Pauline Style. The style in which Ignatius writes is strikingly similar to that used by Paul. An elaborate greeting, followed by some commentary on the community to which he is writing, followed then by some order of business to discuss, etc. Compare the contents of the first three Ignatian epistles to, say, the opening paragraphs of 1st Corinthians.

The Saint John Connection. All five churches are in western Asia (modern-day Turkey). Three of the churches (Ephesus, Smyrna, and Philadelphia) are of the seven mentioned in the Apocolypse of Saint John (a.k.a. the Book of Revelation). Patmos, the island where John was exiled, is just off the coast. Tradition tells us that John wrote his three (Biblical) epistles while living in Ephesus and his Apocolypse while on Patmos. Both Ignatius (Bishop of Antioch) and Polycarp (Bishop of Smyrna) are believed to have been disciples of John.

Unity. The underlying theme running throughout Ignatius’ Asian epistles is the importance of unity within the Christian communities. To Ignatius, this was manifest in maintaining unity with “the bishop and the presbytery” (the latter referring to the collection of priests that serve the bishop of course). This is an extension of Paul’s proclamation that there should be no divisions amongst Christians (1 Cor. 1:10+).

Ignatius uses strong words to emphasize this urgent need for unity. He likens obedience to the bishop to obedience to Christ himself and declares that the disobedient man separates himself from the Church and thereby condemns himself. Consider the following exceprts:

It is therefore befitting that you should in every way glorify Jesus Christ…that by a unanimous obedience you may be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, and may all speak the same thing concerning the same thing, and that, being subject to the bishop and the presbytery, you may in all respects be sanctified. [Ephesians 2]

Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. […] He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. [Ephesians 5]

It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself. [Ephesians 6]

It is therefore fitting that you should, after no hypocritical fashion, obey [your bishop], in honor of Him who has willed us [so to do], since he that does not so deceives not…the bishop that is visible, but seeks to mock Him that is invisible. [Magnesians 3]

…while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons…Let nothing exist among you that may divide you; but be united with your bishop, and those that preside over you, as a type and evidence of your immortality. [Magnesians 6]

…let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ,…and the presbyters as the sanhedrim of God, and the assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church. [Trallians 3]

Wherefore, as children of light and truth, flee from division and wicked doctrines; but where the shepherd is, there follow as sheep. [Philadephians 2]

For where there is division and wrath, God does not dwell. To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop. [Philadephians 8]

Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. [Smyrnæans 8]

In these bold words of Ignatius we find the roots of basic Catholic concepts, such as the Magisterium, the ordinary authority of the bishops, and latae sententiae excommunication, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Knowing the Community by the Bishops. While imprisoned in Smyrna, Ignatius was visited by delegations from at least three Christian communities. It is notable that these delegations included not just priests and deacons, but the local bishop as well! He apparently spent time talking with these men about their flocks and he makes it a point to mention in his letters that he “knows” them through their bishops. It may be a reflection of the translation, but his words seem to imply a deeper relationship and not just a surface knowledge of them. Consider the following excerpts:

I received, therefore, your whole multitude in the name of God, through Onesimus…your bishop… [Ephesians 1]

…I have had the privilege of seeing you, through Damas your most worthy bishop, and through your worthy presbyters…and through [the] deacon… [Magnesians 2]

I know that you possess an unblameable and sincere mind…as Polybius your bishop has shown me, who has come to Smyrna…that I beheld your whole multitude in him. [Trallians 1]

This language reinforces the unity found within these early Christian communities and the notion that the faithful are bound up to their bishop who is not only God’s representative to them, but their representative to God and to others.

For reference, here is a list of the names of the clergy and other visitors:

  • Ephesians: Onesimus (Bp), Burrhus (Dcn), Crocus, Euplus, Fronto
  • Magnesians: Damas (Bp, Bassus (Pr), Apollonius (Pr), Sotio (Dcn)
  • Trallians: Polybius (Bp)
  • Philadelphians: unnamed bishop
  • Smyrna: Polycarp, though not named in this letter

Dissenters. Unity with the bishop and the presytery isn’t important for the sake of simple affiliation. It is the way in which the faith is preserved and transmitted. Ignatius warns the Asian Churches about several types of dissenters, those who stray from the teachings of Christ and the Apostles as it is communicated through the bishops.

The first type of dissenter is the hypocrite, one who professes to be a follower of Jesus but who does not live a life in accordance with his teachings.

For some are in the habit of carrying about the name [of Jesus Christ] in wicked guile, while yet they practise things unworthy of God, whom you must flee as you would wild beasts. [Ephesians 7]

It is better for a man to be silent and be [a Christian], than to talk and not to be one. It is good to teach, if he who speaks also acts. [Ephesians 15]

It is fitting, then, not only to be called Christians, but to be so in reality: as some indeed give one the title of bishop, but do all things without him. Now such persons seem to me to be not possessed of a good conscience, seeing that they are not steadfastly gathered according to the commandment. [Magnesians 4]

Another type is the heretic, teacher of false doctrine. Some of Ignatius’ warnings are generic, as is the case with the passages below. It may be harsh to hear that heresy ultimately destroys both the heretic and his followers, but this is the same warning issued by Saint Peter in his second encyclical (2 Peter 2:1-3) and even by Christ himself (Mt 18:6, Mk 9:42, Lk 17:2).

Nevertheless, I have heard of some who have passed on from this to you, having false doctrine, whom you did not allow to sow among you, but stopped your ears, that you might not receive those things which were sown by them… [Ephesians 9]

…how much more shall this be the case with anyone who corrupts by wicked doctrine the faith of God…such an one becoming defiled [in this way], shall go away into everlasting fire, and so shall every one that hearkens unto him. [Ephesians 16]

I therefore, yet not I, but the love of Jesus Christ, entreat you that you use Christian nourishment only, and abstain from herbage of a different kind; I mean heresy. [Trallians 6]

In the category of heretics, we must include the Judeaizers who sought to bring the faithful Gentiles under the yoke of the Mosaic law. Paul writes at length about such heretics in his letter to the Galatians (the whole letter is about this) and to a lesser extent in his letter to the Ephesians (chapters 2-3). The Incident at Antioch (yes, the same Antioch in Syria where Ignatius eventually served as bishop) which led to the Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15) is the event that prompted Paul to issue such warnings.

Be not deceived with strange doctrines, nor with old fables, which are unprofitable. For if we still live according to the Jewish law, we acknowledge that we have not received grace. For the divinest prophets lived according to Christ Jesus. [Magnesians 8]

If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day…how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their teacher? [Magnesians 9]

For were He to reward us according to our works, we should cease to be. Therefore, having become His disciples, let us learn to live according to the principles of Christianity. [Magnesians 10]

But if any one preach the Jewish law unto you, listen not to him. For it is better to hearken to Christian doctrine from a man who has been circumsised, than to Judaism from one uncircumcised. But if either…do not speak concerning Jesus Christ, they are in my judgment but as monuments and sepulchres of the dead, upon which are written only the names of men. [Philadelphians 6]

Likewise, Ignatius mentions in several of the letters that there are some who believe that Jesus did not suffer and die at all, but that his body was merely an illusion. The heresy is called Docetism and its proponents would eventually come to be known as the Docetæ. Trallians 9-11 is one example, but his lengthiest treatment on this particular heresy is in Smyrnæans 2-7.

Unique to the letter to the Philadelphians, Ignatius advises the faithful to avoid those who seek to divide the Church. These dissenters are called schismatics.

If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ]. [Philadephians 3]

References

All quotes above came from the letters as they appear on NewAdvent.org.


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