God’s wheat

August 10, 2007

Letters (c.107)
To Ephesus; To Magnesia; To Tralles; To Rome; To Philadelphia; To Smyrna; To Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna
St. Ignatius of Antioch (Harvard University Press, 1952; trans. Lake)
112 pp. First reading.

The letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch are among our most important non-canonical sources for the life and teaching of the early Church. He was the third bishop of Antioch, assuming those duties in around the year 70, and was reputedly a disciple of St. John the Beloved. In the early years of the second century he was arrested and sent to Rome to be executed. His journey took several months, and en route he wrote a number of letters to churches in the regions through which he passed. He was held for a time in Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey), from which he wrote letters to the churches in Tralles, Magnesia, Ephesus, and Rome. At this time, too, he met St. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. Later, when he had been moved closer to Rome, he wrote letters to Polycarp, to the church in Smyrna, and also to the church in Philadelphia. These seven letters are those which have come down to us.

The letters convey a tremendous sense of urgency and passionate intensity. They give the impression of having been written rapidly, and given his circumstances it is not difficult to imagine why. One might expect that a man facing death would be sombre, or at least withdrawn and inward-looking, but instead Ignatius is eager to encourage and exhort those to whom he writes, and he speaks of his own immanent death as a goal toward which he presses.

There are several themes common to all of the letters. The first and most obvious is a deep concern for obedience to legitimate authority in the Church. Again and again he urges his readers to honour the bishops, presbyters (priests), and deacons who have been placed over them. He develops this idea by way of a strong analogy: as God the Father is to God the Son, and as God the Son in the person of Jesus Christ is to the Apostles, so the bishops and presbyters are to the faithful (Magn. c. xiii). In other words, the obedience of Christ to the Father is to be the model for our obedience to properly constituted ecclesiastical authority. In another place he teaches that his readers must regard their bishop as they would the Lord himself (Ephes. c. vi), for the bishop is the Lord’s emissary and acts in his name. The bishops, he says, have been appointed by the will of Christ (Ephes. c. iii), and there is no Church apart from them (Trall. c. iii). This obedience is especially to be rendered in matters of doctrine.

A related central concern of the letters is to confront Docetism, the doctrine that Christ did not truly suffer and die, but only appeared to do so. Docetists believed that it was not fitting for a divine being to suffer. They may have further insisted that Christ only appeared to have a human body, but was in fact a pure spirit. Ignatius denounces this teaching as false, and warns his readers to reject those who preach it, urging them instead to faithfully adhere to the teaching of the Apostles and of their bishop.

These two concerns, of hierarchical obedience and doctrinal purity, are closely related, and together they not only have implications for the whole of Christianity, but they touch in a poignant and personal way the heart of Ignatius’ situation. They are related because they both reveal an underlying concern for unity in the Church. Ignatius wants the churches to be united in their teaching and faith, and also visibly in their institutions, and he understands that each expression of unity serves the other. He rejects the idea that the Church is a disembodied “community of believers” whose beliefs more or less agree; there is no Church apart from the hierarchy and authority of its bishops and teachers.

He also sees a strong connection between unity with the Church and unity with Christ. Ignatius desires to be united to Christ, and sees his coming martyrdom as the means to that end. This, I think, is why he is so unsparing in his critique of Docetism. For if there is doubt about whether Christ truly suffered, there is certainly no doubt that his followers, and Ignatius in particular, will. The Docetists would sever that deep existential unity with Christ which is the special honour of the martyr. Ignatius also stresses that Docetism must lead to a denial of the reality of Christ in the Eucharist, which is the sign and means of unity in the Church (Philad. c. iv). Against them, he affirms that the Eucharist is truly the flesh and blood of Christ (Smyrn. c. vii, Rom. c. vii), the “medicine of immortality” (Ephes. c. xx).

Despite their brevity, the letters are thick with doctrinal references, and thus provide us with a precious window into early Christian theology. John Henry Cardinal Newman, a man not prone to overstatement, once wrote that “the whole system of Catholic doctrine may be discovered, at least in outline, not to say in parts filled up, in the course of his seven epistles”. I have already touched on what he says about Church hierarchy, doctrinal authority, and the Eucharist. The Catholic Encyclopedia tries to summarize the many other subjects he addressed:

Among the many Catholic doctrines to be found in the letters are the following: the Church was Divinely established as a visible society, the salvation of souls is its end, and those who separate themselves from it cut themselves off from God (Philad., c. iii); the hierarchy of the Church was instituted by Christ (lntrod. to Philad.; Ephes., c. vi); the threefold character of the hierarchy (Magn., c. vi); the order of the episcopacy superior by Divine authority to that of the priesthood (Magn., c. vi, c. xiii; Smyrn., c. viii; Trall., c. iii); the unity of the Church (Trall., c. vi; Philad., c. iii; Magn., c. xiii); the holiness of the Church (Smyrn., Ephes., Magn., Trall., and Rom.); the catholicity of the Church (Smyrn., c. viii); the infallibility of the Church (Philad., c. iii; Ephes., cc. xvi, xvii); the doctrine of the Eucharist (Smyrn., c. viii), which word we find for the first time applied to the Blessed Sacrament, just as in Smyrn., viii, we meet for the first time the phrase “Catholic Church”, used to designate all Christians; the Incarnation (Ephes., c. xviii); the supernatural virtue of virginity, already much esteemed and made the subject of a vow (Polyc., c. v); the religious character of matrimony (Polyc., c. v); the value of united prayer (Ephes., c. xiii); the primacy of the See of Rome (Rom., introd.). He, moreover, denounces in principle the Protestant doctrine of private judgment in matters of religion (Philad. c. iii).

One of the letters stands out from the others. In most cases he was writing to places he had passed through, or to churches which had sent messengers to comfort him, and to them he wrote words of encouragement and asked in return for their prayers. But he was clearly leaving them behind. In his letter to Rome, however, he writes to his destination, with full awareness that his arrival will mean his death. To them, too, he writes words of greeting and encouragement, and he asks for their prayers, but he also asks them not to lament his fate, and not to interfere with his execution, which he accepts as a gift from the hand of God:

“I beseech you, be not ‘an unseasonable kindness’ to me. Suffer me to be eaten by the beasts, through whom I can attain to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ.”

When he arrived in Rome, he was thrown to the lions in the Colosseum. According to Eusebius, his martyrdom took place in the year 107, being the tenth year of the reign of the Emperor Trajan.


While I was reading, I tried to puzzle out the geographical details. I made a map to assist me, and perhaps it will be of interest to others as well.

UPDATE: I’ve discovered that Pope Benedict recently delivered a talk on the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Antioch.

4 Responses to “God’s wheat”

  1. jameswillisisthebest Says:

    This is my first post
    just saying HI

  2. […] to contemporary sources, he had in his youth known St. John the Beloved, and, as I learned a few months ago, he was a correspondent of St. Ignatius of Antioch. As a follow-up to my reading of the letters of […]

  3. […] I (whose Letter to the Corinthians I have discussed before), St. Ignatius of Antioch (discussed here), St. Polycarp of Smyrna, and, somewhat awkwardly, the apocalyptic The Shepherd of Hermas.  In […]

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