Skip links

On St. Ignatius of Antioch and Catholic distinctives of the early Church

Today is the feast of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, martyred sometime under Trajan (AD 98-117). In the Roman Martyrology we read:

At Rome, the holy bishop and martyr Ignatius. He was the second successor to the apostle Peter in the see of Antioch. In the persecution of Trajan he was condemned to the wild beasts and sent in chains to Rome. There, by the emperor’s order, he was subjected to most cruel tortures in the presence of the Senate and then thrown to the lions. Torn to pieces by their teeth, he became a victim for Christ.

Ignatius bears witness to the early provenance of Catholic distinctives. For instance, he emphasizes the importance of the episcopate again and again. (Here’s how you summarize three-fourths of Ignatius’ letters: Obey the bishop. Do nothing without the bishop. The bishop is to you as God is to Christ. The bishop is to you as Christ is to you. Obey the bishop. By the way, watch out for those nefarious docetae. Did I mention obey the bishop?) He also has a profound view of the Eucharist, famously calling it “the medicine of immortality.” And he repeatedly calls Christ “God,” showing that Jesus’ divinity was not a relatively late development.

For these reasons, fundamentalists often point to him as the figure with which Everything Went Wrong, as the one who instituted an ‘unbiblical’ model of the church. And so we’re left with a church fundamentally flawed from Ignatius to whichever reformer the one construing this narrative thinks revived real Christianity.

In a much more sophisticated way, many scholars of early Christianity regard Ignatius as an example of the phenomenon of “early Catholicism” (Frühkatholismus), in which the egalitarian, loosely-organized, and Spirit-driven movement led by Jesus and then Paul devolves into an ossified, calcified, petrified organization with a hierarchy (bishops), an emphasis on dogma as a fixed body of truth, and conservative stasis.

Me, I’m thinking on prima facie grounds that that’s a stretch. Ignatius knew St. Peter and St. John (I find tradition reliable in this instance); early Christianity simply isn’t that big, while other representatives of “early Catholicism” flourished even earlier, like Pope St. Clement, who was presbyter and then bishop in Rome about AD 70-100. I find it a bit hard to believe that Christianity in the time of Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles changed so dramatically in the time of those who followed immediately thereafter, like St. Ignatius and St. Clement.

Read more at Catholic World Report 

Share with Friends: