Sunday, October 23, 2022

Justification Apart From Baptism In Ignatius

He never advocates justification through baptism in his letters, but he often refers to faith as a means of justification without mentioning baptism. For example:

"None of these things is hid from you, if you perfectly possess that faith and love towards Christ Jesus which are the beginning and the end of life. For the beginning is faith, and the end is love." (Letter To The Ephesians, 14)

"For Christianity did not embrace Judaism, but Judaism Christianity, that so every tongue which believes might be gathered together to God." (Letter To The Magnesians, 10)

"For, since you are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, you appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order, by believing in His death, you may escape from death." (Letter To The Trallians, 2)

"He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not possess the true life." (Letter To The Trallians, 9)

"And let us also love the prophets, because they too have proclaimed the Gospel, and placed their hope in Him, and waited for Him; in whom also believing, they were saved, through union to Jesus Christ, being holy men, worthy of love and admiration, having had witness borne to them by Jesus Christ, and being reckoned along with us in the Gospel of the common hope." (Letter To The Philadelphians, 5)

"Both the things which are in heaven, and the glorious angels, and rulers, both visible and invisible, if they believe not in the blood of Christ, shall, in consequence, incur condemnation." (Letter To The Smyrnaeans, 6)

Those are just some examples. There's similar material elsewhere in his letters (e.g., Letter To The Ephesians, 9). The most natural way to take references to faith without any accompanying reference to baptism is that only faith is being referred to. He mentions baptism occasionally elsewhere, but not as a means of justification.

Notice, also, that he refers to this justification through faith as continuous with how individuals were justified in the Old Testament era, much as earlier Christians had appealed to that continuity (e.g., Paul, James, Clement of Rome). That sort of appeal to continuity makes more sense under justification apart from baptism than it does under baptismal justification. But Ignatius takes it even further. In the last quote above, he even refers to how angels, incorporeal beings you wouldn't expect to be baptized, need to believe in the blood of Christ. At one point, he even explicitly distinguishes between faith and baptism (Letter To Polycarp, 6). All of these factors underscore how problematic it is to assume that baptism is being included in places where only faith is mentioned.

We need to keep in mind that the issue isn't whether it's possible to reconcile Ignatius with baptismal justification. It is possible. It doesn't follow that reading him that way makes the most sense of the evidence. It doesn't. We don't normally reason the way we'd have to in order to see baptismal justification in Ignatius or even to be neutral on the subject. We could read one or more assumptions like the following into Ignatius (depending on the details involved in a particular person's view of baptismal justification): that baptism is meant to be included in several contexts in which it isn't ever mentioned; that baptism is such an insignificant addition to faith that it doesn't need to be mentioned in any of the contexts involved, even though baptism is so different than faith; that an outward ceremony that we have to take multiple bodily actions to participate in shouldn't be considered a work and, therefore, is irrelevant to adding works as a means of justification; that when Ignatius appeals to how similarly the Old Testament saints were justified, he has a lesser degree of continuity in mind, one that allows for our needing to be baptized, whereas the Old Testament saints didn't need to be; and so forth. Maybe Ignatius held a series of such assumptions. But probably not.

Something I don't recall seeing anybody else mention before is that there's a significant contrast between what most scholars believe (and I believe) to be the genuine recension of Ignatius' letters (the middle recension) and what's found in the longer recension. While Ignatius' genuine letters don't advocate baptismal justification, we find the following in the longer versions that originated later:

"Wherefore also, ye appear to me to live not after the manner of men, but according to Jesus Christ, who died for us, in order that, by believing in His death, ye may by baptism be made partakers of His resurrection." (Letter To The Trallians, 2)

Notice the contrast to how the passage reads in the genuine version of Ignatius' letter. The later, inauthentic version adds a reference to baptism. And the longer recension of Ignatius' letters adds more references to baptism elsewhere, in contexts in which justification isn't being addressed. These additions of baptism in the later recension of Ignatius' letters are reminiscent of the addition of baptism to Mark's gospel in 16:16, even though the original version of Mark consistently has people being justified through faith alone, apart from baptism (e.g., 2:5, 5:34). As I've argued elsewhere, we see baptismal doctrine developing in various ways over time, in contrast to the simplistic view we're often presented with, in which there was one view held by everybody or almost everybody prior to the Reformation. These early documents that circulated in multiple editions (an early edition and later ones), Mark's gospel and the letters of Ignatius, provide further illustrations of that sort of development.


  1. I am tempted to make a full response on my blog. For now, this will suffice. In his magisterial volume on baptism in early Christianity, patristic scholar Everett Ferguson writes, “Ignatius saw baptism as part of the armor protecting Christians (“Let your baptism remain as your arms” To Polycarp 6.2).... This indicates a realistic conception of the benefit imparted by baptism, comparable to Ignatius’ realistic view of the blessings associated with the eucharist.... We may find in Ignatius’ baptismal theology an interest in its purifying effect." (Baptism In the Early Church, 209-210) Ignatius agrees with the later Christian understanding that Jesus’ baptism was to sanctify the baptismal waters (Ephesians 18). Why? Because it is in the waters of baptism that one is made holy (Eph. 5:26; 1 Cor. 6:11).

    1. None of the issues you've raised imply that Ignatius believed in baptismal justification. If something is realistic (or efficacious or whatever other term may be used), we have to go on to ask to what end it's so. Baptism, like the eucharist and other activities Christians are involved in, is realistic, efficacious, and such on multiple levels, such as in glorifying God and in our sanctification. It doesn't follow that it must also be justificatory. Ignatius' references to Jesus' purifying of the baptismal waters and our using baptism as part of the Christian's armor and weaponry don't imply that he viewed baptism as a means of obtaining justification. He could have such a view in mind, but a possibility isn't a probability. And I've explained how the evidence suggests it's more likely he believed in justification apart from baptism instead. You didn't interact with that evidence.

      Regarding the eucharist, I'll discuss a couple of the issues that need to be addressed. First, in what sense did Ignatius hold a realistic view of the eucharist? Section 7 of his Letter To The Smyrnaeans is often cited. But we read in section 5 of the same letter:

      "Yea, far be it from me to make any mention of them, until they repent and return to a true belief in Christ's passion, which is our resurrection."

      He's not saying that Jesus' passion (or our belief in his passion) literally is our resurrection, is transubstantiated into it, or anything like that. Ignatius frequently uses that kind of metaphorical language. See the similar language used in section 8 of his Letter To The Trallians, for example. None of the passages cited in support of his belief in a physical presence in the eucharist actually imply such a view.

      Secondly, what's actually implied by something like realism or efficaciousness in how Ignatius viewed the eucharist or baptism? If Ignatius thought baptism and the eucharist unite us to Jesus in some way (or that one of them does so, whereas the other doesn't), for example, it doesn't follow that the uniting is justificatory. Many things in the Christian life associate us with Jesus' death and life (2 Corinthians 4:10-11, Philippians 3:10-12, etc.). Baptism and the eucharist illustrate that fact. Both associate us with Jesus' death, but in different ways. They have different roles in the Christian life. Neither baptism nor the eucharist has to be justificatory in order to associate us with Jesus in his death in some manner.

    2. Just to briefly add to what Jason said:

      At most, what you cite from Everett Ferguson doesn't necessarily mean Ignatius believed baptism is necessary for justification. Rather it may simply mean Ignatius believed baptism was something like a means of grace. And that's consistent with what, say, Reformed Presbyterians believe.

    3. Jason, it’s crucial that Ignatius does not intend to prescribe how to become a Christian. Rather, his letters were written to exhort the churches to continue in the faith they have received. It would be out of place for the soon to be martyred Ignatius to focus on the initial rite of conversion—baptism, considering that he wrote his letters to already baptized Christians. Ignatius focuses on the why (faith) of salvation because baptism, unlike faith, is non-repeatable.

      There is simply no inconsistency between Ignatius’ theology on justification by faith and the teaching that baptism saves. As many primitive writers in the time of Ignatius taught, baptism is the instrument or channel of salvation upon the basis of faith (the emphasis being on faith). Paul lays this out in Gal. 3:26-27: “you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Faith is the reason why one is a child of God (Gal. 3:26); baptism is the time at which one becomes a child of God (3:27). Baptism represents the “when,” not the “how” (God’s action), nor the “why” (faith) of salvation. It is the appointed time at which that salvation offered to faith is applied and becomes effective in the person’s life.

    4. Cody,

      People, including Christians, often discuss justification in contexts in which it's not the primary issue at hand. And Ignatius addresses a wide variety of topics in his letters, with justification being one of them. I provided several examples in my original post in this thread. Furthermore, he doesn't just discuss "already baptized Christians", as I documented. He discusses baptism, but doesn't refer to it as a means of justification.

      You're providing an explanation of how Ignatius' letters could be reconciled with baptismal justification if we read a series of assumptions into the text. But I addressed that approach in the original post in this thread. It's problematic for the reasons I explained there.

      Bringing up Galatians 3 doesn't address the issues I raised in Ignatius. And I've explained why your view of Galatians 3 is incorrect elsewhere, such as here.

      Identifying baptism as the "when" of salvation is inadequate, since that view contradicts scripture and contradicts some of the early extrabiblical sources who provide further evidence on the subject. If a Judaizer had argued that circumcision is the "when" of salvation, that approach wouldn't change the fact that work is being added to faith as a means of justification. Circumcision involves what James 2 identifies as a work, outward bodily activity that demonstrates inner faith. The same is true of baptism. And it makes more sense for somebody to make arrangements to be baptized if he already has faith rather than if he doesn't. But if he already has faith, why isn't he justified through that faith prior to baptism? If baptism has to be added, then that's just a circuitous way of adding work to faith. Calling that work "the when of salvation", "a sacrament", or some other such thing doesn't change the underlying problem I've just described. I've said a lot about issues like these in other threads about justification, the Biblical evidence pertaining to the subject, and so on. But this thread is about Ignatius.

    5. Cody, you a Restorationist or part of the Restoration movement (e.g. the Churches of Christ, the Independent Christian Church, Christian primitivism, Stone–Campbell or Campbellism)?

      Everett Ferguson may be a fine historian, but he is (shall we say) a far lesser biblical scholar as well as theologian. More to the point, Ferguson has been criticized for his views on baptism (e.g. there's no forgiveness of sins without baptism, baptism effects salvation, baptism gives the Holy Spirit). For example, see Lee Gatiss and Themelios. Also, for centuries, Protestants have criticized Catholics on the ex opere operato role of baptism in their theology; some of these criticisms are relevant to Ferguson's views on baptism too.