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Protestant History’s Fly in the Ointment

Was the pre-Bible early Church actually Protestant in doctrine and practice? Not when you look at the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch.

Casey Chalk

On Monday, the Church celebrated the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of the earliest extra-biblical saints, dying a martyr’s death in Rome likely in A.D. 107. That means Ignatius was a contemporary of the apostles.

Ignatius is perhaps not as well known among Christians as he should be, especially as regards Catholic-Protestant ecumenical dialogue. That’s because the seven epistles he authored on his journey to martyrdom have for centuries offered confounding problems for Protestant teaching.

According to some ancient traditions, Ignatius was an auditor (i.e., hearer) of the Apostle John, who probably died around A.D. 100. St. Irenaeus (d. A.D. 130) in his Against Heresies mentions that Ignatius met St. Polycarp, who had known John—and indeed, one of Ignatius’s letters is written to Polycarp. St. John Chrysostom (d. 407), a native of Antioch, taught that Ignatius had been ordained at the hands of apostles. Theodoret (d. 457) further claims that it was St. Peter who appointed Ignatius to the See of Antioch. There is even another ancient tradition that Ignatius was the child whom Christ held as described in Matthew 18:2 and Mark 9:35.

Granted, it’s possible that some of the above is not true—though the historicity of Ignatius’s connection to Polycarp is quite strong, and some biblical scholars have noted the significant commonalities between the thought of John’s Gospel and the seven letters of Ignatius. Regardless of how much of the ancient tradition one accepts as veritable, this much at least is undisputed: Ignatius was an early first-century bishop of Antioch and was held in high esteem by later patristic writers—so much so that there is no evidence of any early Church Fathers disagreeing with him.

Many books have discussed Ignatius of Antioch, but I’d like to focus on two particular teachings that are ubiquitous across his small corpus of letters: the authority of the episcopacy and the Eucharist. Both of these, we will see, are in deep conflict with most Protestant doctrine regarding authority and the role of the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion.

First the episcopacy. In his Letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius urges his readers to “live in harmony with the will of the bishop” and even makes an analogy between bishops and Christ: “For Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the will of the Father, just as the bishops, who have been appointed throughout the world, are the will of Jesus Christ.” In the same letter, he says that to “oppose the bishop” is to not be submissive to God! “It is clear, then, that we must look upon the bishop as the Lord himself,” he declares.

And it’s not just in that letter. In his Letter to the Magnesians, Ignatius says that the bishop acts as one “presiding in the place of God.” In his Letter to the Trallians, he mentions, submitting “to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ,” and that “it is necessary—and such is your practice—that you do nothing without the bishop.” And in his Letter to the Philadelphians, he similarly argues that “it was the Spirit who kept preaching these words: ‘Do nothing without the bishop.’”

All of this presents a bit of a problem for Protestant traditions that reject apostolic succession and the episcopacy in favor of some other form of church polity (e.g., Presbyterianism, Congregationalism). According to Ignatius, to reject the episcopacy is to reject Christ—in his Letter to the Philadelphians, he says those who are in schism from the bishop “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Indeed, as Trent Horn noted last year, Ignatius’s high view of the episcopacy is so out of sync with Protestant understandings of ecclesiology that Protestant scholars since John Calvin have tried (quite ineffectively) to disprove the authenticity of his letters. Most historians today view the seven mentioned above as genuine.

Now let’s look at Ignatius’s teaching on the Eucharist. In his Letter to the Ephesians, he calls the bread of the Eucharist “the medicine of immortality.” In his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, he says that “the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again.” He also calls the Eucharist “the gift of God.” In the same letter he connects the bishop to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, teaching, “Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints.” Again: “Nor is it permitted without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate the agape [another word for the Eucharist].” Finally, in his Letter to the Philadelphians, he speaks of “one Eucharist,” which is “one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup for union with his blood.”

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to square Ignatius’s high view of the Eucharist with anything found in the various Protestant traditions. The early bishop of Antioch calls it the flesh of Christ and the means by which Christians achieve eternal life. That’s a far cry from the “Sinner’s Prayer,” an altar call, or the warming of our hearts to Christ! For Ignatius of Antioch, as for so many other Church Fathers, the Eucharist was the center of the Christian life and liturgical worship. And his belief that the Eucharist is inextricably linked with the office of the bishop demonstrates how essential these two things were for the early Church.

Elsewhere I’ve referred to Ignatius’s dual emphasis on the episcopacy and the Eucharist as the “Double E” of theology, revealing as they do the link between unity and vitality in the Catholic life. This is something Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also spoke of in his March 14, 2007, general audience: “No Church Father has expressed the longing for union with Christ and for life in him with the intensity of Ignatius.” That Ignatius’s letters are practically contemporaneous with the Gospel of John, perhaps written only a decade or two after the last apostle died, provides powerful evidence that Ignatius’s teachings reflect those of the apostles themselves. Indeed, it would be up to Protestants to prove otherwise—and so far, their efforts haven’t come close.

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