Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Letter of Ignatius to the Church at Rome

I posted these selections from Ignatius’s letter to the Romans at Old Life yesterday, and again in comments at Green Baggins. There, Lane Keister said, “Neither side, therefore, can gain much fodder for their arguments”, but I think there is more to it than that. I think a closer reading of Ignatius, and an understanding of where he was going, what he was doing, and whom he was interacting with, provide some important clues as to why the second century church developed its “early catholic” flavor.

On the other hand, according to the Orthodox writer John Behr, “Ignatius goes far beyond the other writers of his period in exalting the role of the apostles.” It is important to understand this disjunction: “Ignatius repeatedly states that as a bishop he, unlike the apostles, is not in a position to give orders or to lay down the precepts or the teachings (δόγματα), which come from the Lord and the apostles alone (cf. Magnesians 13; Romans 4:3; Ephesians 3:1 etc.)”. According to Oscar Cullmann, this is part of the beginning of the end of the reliance on “oral tradition”, and the understanding of the need to further compile a canon of the New Testament.

According to Michael Kruger, “it is clear that Ignatius knows, and assumes his readers already know, about some collection of Paul’s letters”. He expressly mentions 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and 1 and 2 Timothy. “He also appears to know Romans, Philippians, and Galaians”, which “suggests that his Pauline letter collection might have been quite extensive” (Canon Revisited, pgs 214-215).

As for this letter to the church at Rome, Ignatius is, according to Adrian Fortescue (who gives what he claims to be that “Scriptural and historical argument for the papacy” that Lane had been looking for, and that Bryan Cross never provided), Ignatius’s mention of Rome, “presiding over love” (1:4) is one of the cornerstones of “Roman” primacy.

So while Rome’s “bishop” is not in view at all, the political connections of the church at Rome are repeatedly in view; this (rather than any other reason) is why the church at Rome “presides over love”. It is Rome’s role as “the capital of the empire” that gives them status, and for Ignatius, their ability to spare him from martyrdom, through their political connections, is the “love” in which they are presiding.

These selections are from the Michael Holmes translation:

1.1 For I am afraid of your love, in that it may do me wrong; for it is easy for you to do what you want, but it is difficult for me to reach God, unless you spare me. [There's that "love" that is, through its political connections, going to either save his life, or, if it holds its tongue, and fails to pull its political strings, along with Christ, going to be "bishop" of Antioch in his absence. So the place of love," has a reference to Rome's political connections.]

2.1 For I will never again have an opportunity such as this to reach God, nor can you, if you remain silent, be credited with a greater accomplishment. For if you remain silent and leave me alone, I will be a word of God, but if you love my flesh [and spare my life], then I will again be a mere voice. [There's Roman "love" again.]

2.2 Grant me nothing more than to be poured out as an offering to God while there is still an altar ready, so that in love you may form a chorus and sing to the Father in Jesus Christ, because God has judged the bishop from Syria worthy to be found in the west, having summoned from the east.

3.1-2 You have never envied anyone; you taught others. [Many believe this is a reference to 1 Clement.] And my wish is that those instructions that you issue when teaching disciples will remain in force. Just pray that I will have strength both outwardly and inwardly so that I may not just talk about it but want to do it, so that I may not merely be called a Christian but actually prove to be one. [That is, "teach self-sacrifice," and in doing so, "my death will confirm your "teaching" "in force"?]

3.3 Nothing that is visible is good. [Did Ignatius believe in a “visible church” with a visible hierarchy? It seems not] “For our God Jesus Christ is more visible now that he is in the Father. The work is not a matter of persuasive rhetoric ; rather, Christianity is greatest when it is hated by the world.”

4.1 I am writing to all the churches and insisting to everyone that I die for God of my own free will–unless you hinder me [through your political connections]. I implore you; do not be unseasonably kind to me. Let me be food for the wild beasts; through whom I can reach God.

4.3 I do not give you orders like Peter and Paul: they were apostles, I am a convict; they were free, but I am even now still a slave. [It is important to note that here, as in other places, Ignatius does not see any kind of "succession" of apostolic authority. He acknowledges himself -- he has repeatedly said he is a bishop -- to be far, far less, in every way, than Peter and Paul.]

6.1 It is better for me to die for Jesus Christ than to rule over the ends of the earth. [Of course, the Roman government currently rules over the ends of the earth.]

6.2 Bear with me brothers and sisters: do not keep me from living; do not desire my death. Do not give to the world one who wants to belong to God or tempt him with material things.

7.1 The ruler of this age wants to take me captive and corrupt my godly intentions. Therefore none of you who are present must help him. [That is, you at Rome are eminently capable of doing the wrong thing.]

In this letter to the church at Rome, does Ignatius see even a bishop, much less someone who might be “the chief bishop, primate, and leader of the whole Church of Christ on earth?

When a bishop is mentioned here, that bishop is Christ (9.1). And the “love” of the Romans involves political connections that could either spare him the martyrdom he so desires, or confirm it.

When a “visible church” is in view, “nothing that is visible is good.” When “teaching” is in view, he fears the Romans will teach wrongly. When “apostles” are in view, there is no succession, but a great gulf between apostle and bishop.


  1. These are excellent articles, John. The whole Triablogue is daily like trying to drink from a fire-hydrant.

    The Romans 4:3 and Ephesians 3:1 are references from Ignatius letter's but the software doesn't know that, so it is showing them as bible verses. If you write them in a different form, then folks can see they are from Ignatius.

    Maybe a link to the ccel.org site.

    Also, Ignatius letter to the Trallians paragraph 3, verse 3 says the same thing; that Ignatius does not give authoritative orders like an apostle, so the RC claim is wrong.

    1. Thanks Ken -- I'm not sure how to re-write the references to Ignatius's letters, but I will check into it.