Find out which Church father prominent Protestant decried as a forgery because they sounded “too Catholic.”
Welcome to the Counsel of Trent podcast, a production of Catholic Answers.
When I converted to Catholicism 20 years ago, I said that I wanted to be like the first Christians. I saw there were all these churches, all these denominations. I tried reading the Bible. I said, “I just want to be like the very first Christians.” And so there was one particular Church Father that stood out to me in reading his writings that moved me towards joining the Catholic faith. And that’s what I want to talk about today. So, welcome to the Counsel of Trent podcast. I’m your host, Catholic Answers apologist and speaker, Trent Horn. Before we get to our Church Father today, I’m very excited to share with you just a reminder, if you want to support our podcast to help it grow, be sure to go to trenthornpodcast.com. Along with supporting the podcast, you get access to bonus content. You get sneak peeks of upcoming projects and videos and debates.
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All right, now on to the mystery Church Father, and this person would be Saint Ignatius of Antioch. So Saint Ignatius of Antioch was the bishop of Antioch, a city in what was then called Asia Minor now would be modern day Turkey. And Antioch was interesting in the book of Acts, I believe it’s Acts chapter 11, it says in the city of Antioch, that is where the followers of the Way, the followers of Jesus Christ were first called Christians. And I think that it’s very poetic that Antioch is where believers were first called Christians. It’s also the first documented case of the church being referred to as the Catholic Church, Catholic being a Greek word, kata holos according to the whole.
All right. So, why is Saint Ignatius of Antioch so important? Well, when you read Protestant authors or apologists or Protestantism, they’ll say that you have the apostolic faith, the pure apostolic faith. This kind of also sounds like Mormonism a little bit, sometimes. That you had the pure faith of the apostles. And as Christians, we should believe what the apostles believed. It seems like everybody agrees on that, but then like how Mormons say the church eventually fell away and had to be restored, Protestants may not want to use this language, but they’ll say that the church lost its way and accepted human doctrines, the traditions of men, instead of the teachings of the apostles. They’ll place this date in a lot of different places, a lot of Protestant writers will put it at the time of Constantine in the fourth century. More well-read Protestant apologists will say, well, maybe it was probably earlier than that because these objectionable Catholic doctrines can be found before fourth century.
You read Saint Cyprian of Carthage, for example. I was reading a Protestant apologist, William Webster, and he admits that at least by the time of the third century of Saint Cyprian, he’ll say, “Well, the church had fallen away, that Christians believe that the mass is a sacrifice that is offered, not just merely a Memorial meal. And he’ll say that the church has fallen away here in the third century, but when you go back earlier, they didn’t believe these things. So, finding Church Fathers who cite Catholic doctrine is important because it shows the historical reality that the deposit of faith handed on by the apostles was preserved. And the teachings of the bishops is witness to in the writings of the Church Fathers.
And so while when you have later Church Fathers, some people say to me, “Why are you picking St. Ignatius of Antioch? Why not St. Jerome or St. Augustine, or one of these other Church Fathers, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Athanasius. These are all wonderful Church Fathers, of course, but the reason I think Protestants are more comfortable with them is they can… Well, they actually pick many of them, Protestants will say they totally follow Augustine. There was, I think it was B.B. Warfield, is a reformed author who basically agreed with Augustine’s doctrine of grace, but not his doctrine of the church, for example.
So, say that these later authors have embraced these faulty man-made traditions that have arisen over time. They’re coming on the scene 200, 300, maybe 400 years after Christ. But when you have early Church Fathers who witnessed to distinctly Catholic doctrines, then it becomes much harder to say that these doctrines are merely the traditions of men and not actually what the apostles taught, because now we’re getting a lot closer. So, Saint Ignatius of Antioch died somewhere around 107, maybe as late as 110, but he was active in the first century.
His death is recorded in the early second century. So, that’s only about 70 or 80 years after the death of Christ. He engaged in correspondence with St. Polycarp, who himself was a disciple of St. John. So, St. Ignatius of Antioch belongs to what we call the Apostolic Church Fathers. So, you have the Church Fathers, then you have a subset of them who formed this bridge between the patristic church, the early church, and the time of the apostles as we call them the Apostolic Fathers and St. Ignatius of Antioch is one of the most famous. When you read what he writes, you find a version of Christianity that many Protestant scholars, especially more liberal Protestant scholars, are not comfortable with because many of them had argued that the first form of Christianity was very democratic. It was a bunch of Christians studying scripture together. There wasn’t a hierarchical church with an authoritative structure.
It was more democratic is what they would say, not hierarchical, but that completely contradicts what St. Ignatius of Antioch tells us, he says that an authentic Christian Church, the Catholic church is known by its hierarchy. In St. Ignatius’ letter to the Trallians he says, “It is therefore necessary that as you indeed do so without the bishop, you should do nothing, but should also be subject to the Presbytery, or the elders.” Now, this is where we get the word priest, it comes from the word for elder, presbyteroi. “As to the apostle of Jesus Christ, who is our hope in whom if we live, we shall at last be found. It is fitting also that the deacons as being the ministers of the mysteries of Jesus Christ should in every respect be pleasing to all.” So, in the New Testament, the offices of bishop, priest and deacon are somewhat interchangeable.
They can be used to describe different offices that people hold. But by the time you get to the early second century, St. Ignatius is very clear that these three offices are distinct and that you have Christian communities that might have many elders, but they have one bishop. He speaks to the bishop in a singular way, having authority to preside over Christians. So, in his letter to the Magnesians Ignatius says, “Do all things with the divine harmony while your bishop presides in the place of God and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles.” So, these are very lofty words here that speak of a doctrine like apostolic succession. In the letter to the Philadelphians, he talks about how, “Take he then to have, but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to show forth the unity of his blood.”
So, St. Ignatius is saying that there is one Eucharist. There might be a lot of people who are celebrating the Eucharist, but for it to be authentic, it has to be done in union with the bishop of the church where you’re at. And it’s important to make sure you have the right Eucharist, because there are heretics who have a false Eucharist and St. Ignatius talks about these heretics in his letter to the Smyrnaeans he says that “Heretics confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins in which the father of his goodness raised up again.” So, you have a very strong witness to a bishop who would have God-given authority, this important authoritative hierarchical structure in the church to the Eucharist, being the real presence of Christ that heretics deny. When they say that it’s not Jesus’ flesh and blood.
So, it’s no wonder that during the Protestant reformation and after, many Protestants cast doubt on the letters of Ignatius. I’ve never seen them do this to any other Church Father as a whole. They may dispute whether some writings of some fathers are authentic, but history has shown that there are different forms or variants or recensions as they’re called of the letters of St. Ignatius Of Antioch. And so as Protestants and other scholars came to see that some of these letters are not authentic. Their forgeries. Their written in the third or the fourth century. They use this fact to try to cast doubt on all of the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, saying that all of them were forged sometime in the fourth century. And these could not be the authentic witness of a early second century Christian, because he’s talking about distinctly Catholic ideas that didn’t show up until centuries later when the church fell away.
Now, of course, if the Catholic church is the church Christ established, you would expect someone like St. Ignatius of Antioch writing in the year 107 to witness to these distinctly Catholic doctrines. So, you had people like John Calvin saying that when Catholics cite Ignatius, it’s what they pretend as to Ignatius is not authentically the writings of St. Ignatius. Philip Schaff, who is a 19th century scholar, very critical of the Catholic church. He said that the whole story of Ignatius is more legendary than real. And his writings are subject to grave suspicion of fraudulent interpolation. Schaff didn’t say that they were all completely fraudulent. He left it up to the reader, but he wanted to cast doubt to say, “Well, we can’t really be sure any of these writings are the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch.” Though, scholarship has changed since then. And now this is a fringe view really held only today by Protestant fundamentalists.
An example of this would be the website, bible.ca. This is a classic fundamentalist arguments against Catholicism. Then here’s their arguments against the letters of Ignatius. They say that, “Yes, there are some letters of Ignatius. The longer ones written in Greek that are fraudulent.” There’s also another recension, shorter ones that are written in Syriac. We’re talking about the middle recession. I’m not going to throw on too many terms. I don’t want to confuse anyone, but there are a set of letters, the seven letters of Ignatius that today, nearly all scholars admit are authentic, but that wasn’t always the case in Christian history.
In the 19th century, there was a lot of controversy about these letters. And so some fringe elements today preserve this controversy like bible.ca. So they write, “We feel that it is no coincidence that the first historical reference to the church as the Catholic church is contained within one of the seven genuine Ignatius letters. We feel it is proof enough to reject all as forgeries.” So the argument on this website, when you read the whole thing, is basically these letters sound so Catholic, they can’t be legitimate and they have to be forgeries.
The website goes on to say, “The power of the bishop in these letters is also absolute. These kinds of statements actually paved the way for papal infallibility. It also took the commands to baptize and serve the communion out of the hands of the common Christian and gave it as the sole authority to the bishop. This again is foreign to the New Testament where there was no clergy or laity distinction.” So, this controversy continued into the late 19th century, but ironically, it was Protestant, biblical scholars investigating the Ignatian letters that showed that these seven in the middle of recension are indeed authentic. This is a text from Jaroslav Pelikan, a world renowned church historian. I believe he was Lutheran and then converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. But this is what he writes, “It was Protestant historical scholarship that vindicated the authenticity of the seven epistles. Theodor Zahn, an Orthodox Lutheran published his defense in 1873. And from 1885 to 1889, Joseph Lightfoot by then the Anglican Bishop of Durham, wrote the definitive analysis of the evidence together with a detailed history of the research into it.”
But there are still people today and not just Protestants who claim that the Ignatian letters are forgeries. Some atheists say that Ignatius’ writings about how Jesus is truly man and truly God come from a later period of Christian theological development. And that you don’t have these beliefs as early. And of course you’ll have people like Jehovah’s witnesses and others who will pounce on that to try to discredit Ignatius, who is another witness to the Deity of Christ.
In his letter to the Ephesians, he talks about how “It should be always for an enduring and unchangeable glory being united and elected through the true passion by the will of the father and Jesus Christ our God. Abundant happiness through Jesus Christ and his undefiled grace.” So, Ignatius here speaks about Jesus as theos, as God. But how do they try to argue that the letters are forgeries? The most common argument I hear is that Ignatius wrote these letters while he was in custody and was being taken to Rome for execution. And so it’s interesting here, actually, he writes these letters to a bunch of churches in Asia Minor, and he exhorts them. He admonishes them, things that they’re not doing well. He advises them to follow their bishop. He makes these instructions to them, but when it comes to his letter to the Romans, he doesn’t include any instructions there, except for one.
“Please don’t try to rescue me from martyrdom.” Now, some people have said, “Well, Ignatius doesn’t reference the bishop of Rome at that time. He references other people by name, that must mean there was no bishop of Rome. There was no Pope at this time. But in the letter to the Romans, Ignatius doesn’t mention anyone else of note either, which makes sense, because you wouldn’t want that letter to be intercepted in Rome and reveal where Christian leaders were in the heart of the Roman empire. But the argument goes that if Ignatius was kept in custody of Roman guards, going through Asia Minor and taken to Rome and he’s writing letters, how is he able to send letters and have visitors who take these letters? Why would guards ever allow that? This seems like a story that was made up by later Christians and that this didn’t actually happen.
Except we do have evidence in ancient Rome, that Christians were allowed to visit fellow Christians who were in prison. And this evidence comes from a pagan writer, Lucian of Samosata. So, Lucian wrote a work called the Passing of Peregrinus. It was a satirical work about a con artist who claims to be Christian, joins the Christian Church, gets a bunch of free meals, a bunch of accolades, and he cons everybody. But in doing this, Lucian indirectly testifies to the beliefs and behaviors of Christians. So, he talks about “when he had been in prisoned, the Christians regarding the incident as a calamity, left nothing undone in the effort to rescue him. Then as this was impossible, every other form of attention was shown him, not in any casual way, but with assiduity. And from the very break of day aged widows and orphan children could be seen waiting near the prison while their officials even slept inside with him after bribing the guards. Then elaborate meals were brought in and sacred books of theirs are read aloud and excellent Peregrinus for he still went by that name, was called by them the new Socrates.”
So Peregrinus, also known as Proteus, has been imprisoned by the Romans, but Christians are able to visit him in prison. And some of them bribe the guards. St. Ignatius of Antioch talks about the Roman guards, he refers to them as the 10 leopards or 10 Panthers or 10 leopards that are accompanying him. And that often they dole out cruelty to him. But at the same time, the guards were often in charge of procuring food and other things to keep the prisoners alive. And they didn’t always want to do that. So, if Christians came and said, “Hey, we’ll give this guy a bunch of meals. So you don’t have to buy food or procure food.”
They would allow that. So, if Christians are able to visit other Christian prisoners to give them food, or they just bribe the guards, they give money to the guards so they can visit and exchange letters, that shows that it’s completely plausible that St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote the letters that are attributed to him while he was in Roman custody before he was taken to Rome to eventually be martyred. So, I hope that was helpful for you guys. And I would definitely recommend go and check out the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch. They’re a quick read and they’re a great window into the early Christian Church, the early Catholic Church as St. Ignatius called it.
You can read them for free at newadvent.com. This is also a commentary on Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna that you might find to be helpful. It’s written by Kenneth Howell. So it’s just the early Christian Fathers series commentary on Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp is Smyrna. I’ll leave a link to it in the description below. But thank you guys so much. I hope this has been helpful for you, and that you have a very pleasant day.
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