Ignatius’ Epistle to the Smyrnaeans

Ignatius’ Epistle to the Smyrnaeans is a moving and impassioned defense of the humanity of Christ and the reality of His sufferings against the Docetic argument that Christ only appeared to suffer but did not and could not truly suffer in His body.  Ignatius’ defense necessarily steers this epistle in a strong Christocentric and crucicentric direction.

The epistle contains yet another summary of the gospel itself:

“For I have observed that ye are perfected in an immoveable faith, as if ye were nailed to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, both in the flesh and in the spirit, and are established in love through the blood of Christ, being fully persuaded with respect to our Lord, that He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh.”

In ch.4, Ignatius summarizes the Docetic heresy by protesting that “if these things were done by our Lord only in appearance, then am I also only in appearance bound.”  In so doing, he masterfully blends his own sufferings with the flesh-and-blood sufferings of Christ thereby showing that his belief in the passion of Christ is not ethereal or vague but is being born out in his own person.

Ch. 7 is frequently pointed to by Roman Catholic apologists who use it as evidence of their theology of the eucharist:

“They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that ye should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils.”

It is clear enough how such a passage could be used against (especially) the memorialist view of the Supper that many free-church Protestants embrace.  Yet is must be pointed out that Ignatius seems more concerned here with condemning the anti-materialist and gnosticizing tendencies of the Docetic heretics than he is with constructing a positive, detailed, and nuanced view of the eucharist itself.  Strictly speaking, “they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior” may simply mean that the Docetics are rejecting the Supper because they reject the passion of Christ.  Therefore, since Christ did not suffer in the flesh the meal has nothing to do with Him or His flesh.  To read a later theology of transubstantiation back into the Ignatian writings seems to me to be both premature and presumptuous.

That being said, I have written elsewhere in these summaries that it does seem that Ignatius has more than a strictly memorialist view of the Supper.  Yet, this may be granted without bowing to an eisegetical importation of later Catholic eucharistic theology into these writings.

In ch.8, Ignatius beautifully defines the Catholic Church as “wherever Jesus Christ is.”  To be fair (and perhaps to show that I’m capable of being fair!), it would seem equally presumptuous for Protestants to say that, on this basis, Ignatius would see, for instance, Baptist churches as “Catholic,” for it must be remembered that Ignatius elsewhere says (again and again and again) that the true Church is also that Church which submits to the bishop.  It would seem, then, that Ignatius’ definition of the Church Catholic is not less than “wherever Jesus Christ is,” but it is more.  That being said, as Ignatius saw the bishop as being (in a sense) Christ to the churches, he would no doubt see no fundamental dichotomy or distinction here (i.e., he would not see “and the bishop” as being an addition to “where Christ is”, but merely a logical extension of it).

Finally, I could not help but think of the modern Christian encounter with Islam when reading this epistle.  Islam too denies the passion of Christ, denies that our Lord suffered on the cross.  As such, Muslims need to hear a clear, compelling and biblical case for the suffering of Christ on the cross.  Towards this end, the Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans will be a great help to all those seeing to be witnesses for the gospel today.

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