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On St. Ignatius of Antioch and the early Church

The second-century martyr bears witness to the early provenance of Catholic distinctives.

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.

In any event, on this, St. Ignatius’ feast day, I’ve compiled some of my favorite phrases and verses from his letters (leaving out most of the stuff about bishops, which, given the truth of what I wrote above, would be tedious.) Enjoy!


“…Jesus Christ our God…” (prol.)

“…stirring up ourselves by the blood of God…” (ch. 1)

“I received, therefore, your whole multitude in the name of God, through Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love, and your bishop in the flesh…” (ch. 1; Onesimus is also mentioned in chs. 2 and 6. The slave Onesimus of whom Paul writes in Philemon could be the Onesimus who is the later bishop of Ephesus, and the man whom first gathered Paul’s letters into a collection.)

“There is one physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life and death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.” (ch. 7)

“Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when you assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end.” (ch. 13)

“For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost. He was born and baptized, that by His passion He might purify the water.” (ch. 18)

“…so that you obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.” (ch. 20)


“Be on your guard, therefore, against such persons. And this will be the case with you if you are not puffed up, and continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ our God, and the bishop, and the enactments of the apostles. He that is within the altar is pure, but he that is without is not pure; that is, he who does anything apart from the bishop, and presbytery, and deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience.” (ch. 6)


“…Jesus Christ our God…” (prol., 2 times)

“I write to all the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable goodwill towards me. Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.” (ch. 4)

“I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you.” (ch. 4; nota bene: early evidence that Peter was in Rome)

“I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.” (ch. 7)


“When I heard some saying, If I do not find it in the ancient Scriptures, I will not believe the Gospel; on my saying to them, It is written, they answered me, That remains to be proved. But to me Jesus Christ is in the place of all that is ancient: His cross, and death, and resurrection, and the faith which is by Him, are undefiled monuments of antiquity; by which I desire, through your prayers, to be justified.” (ch . 7)

Letter to Polycarp

“If you love good students, what credit is that to you? Rather by your gentleness seek to subdue those who are annoying.” (ch. 2)

(Editor’s note: This article was first posted at CWR on October 17, 2017.)

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 47 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Administrative Chair of Arts and Letters and Professor of Theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. Dr. Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009), and is currently writing a major theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark for Bloomsbury T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary series. A shorter work on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, was published by Emmaus Road (2017), as was a similar work on the Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019).

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