Ignatius of Antioch and Christology

The letters of Ignatius (c. 34-c.107), bishop of Antioch, demonstrate a pastor’s concern for the health of the church. There are three general themes to be found in them, two of which are pastoral. One theme, a practical one, involves the life of the church as it pertains to congregations and their bishops (e.g. Eph. 3.1-6.1). A second theme is doctrinal and concerns the threat of false teachers, be they Judaizers (e.g. Mag. 8.1-10.3) or Docetists (e.g. Trall. 6.1-11.2). The third is less concerned with the church and centres on the bishop’s own approaching martyrdom (e.g. Rom. 4.1-8.1).
What follows is an evaluation of the second theme, particularly in relation to Christology. When arguing against false teachers, Ignatius often provides an apologetic for the human and divine nature of Jesus Christ. A number of Christological statements appear in what could be considered rough creedal form and are found in Ephesians 7.2; 18.2; Magnesians 11; Trallians 9.1-2 and Smyrnaeans 1.1-2. This essay will first evaluate assertions about Christ’s humanity and then his deity. This evaluation will based on the creedal forms and relevant statements found elsewhere in the letters.

In the early church an erroneous teaching developed regarding the humanity of Christ called Docetism. Believing the material world to be evil, Docetists taught that Christ did not assume a physical body nor did he really suffer on the cross. Though he seemed to possess a human form he was only a spirit. Their name is derived from the Greek dokein meaning “to appear” because Christ was human and suffered in appearance not in reality.[1] Ignatius explained this teaching to the Trallians by saying, “some atheists (that is, unbelievers) say, he suffered in appearance only” (Trall. 10. Cf. Smyrn. 2). These people “mix Jesus Christ with poison…and so with fatal pleasure drink down death” (Trall. 6.2). Ignatius combated this “heresy” (Trall. 6.1) by stressing both the historical and physical nature of Jesus’ person.
In regard to His historicity, Ignatius told the Magnesians to “be fully convinced of the birth and the suffering and the resurrection” of Jesus (Magn. 11). Into each of the five creedal statements Ignatius injects historical figures grounding the life of Christ in space and time. Four characters are mentioned: Mary (Eph. 7.2; 18.2; Trall. 9.1), King David (Eph. 18.2; Trall. 9.1; Smyrn. 1.1), Pontius Pilate (Magn. 11; Trall. 9.1; Smyrn. 1.2) and Herod the Tetrarch (Smyrn. 1.2). David is mentioned in reference to Christ who was his descendant; Mary is the mother of Jesus; and both Pontius Pilate and Herod were rulers at the time of Jesus’ death. This attention to detail regarding history is important because it allows the readers and hearers of the letters to think of Christ in relation to concrete people and events. These were not fables or legends. From this it is readily apparent that Ignatius believed Jesus to be a real person who lived in a particular place at a specific point in history.
Alongside Christ’s historical reality, Ignatius also places an emphasis on His physical being. The “one physician” was “both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in humanity…” (Eph. 7.2). He was not a Docetic phantasm; rather He existed in real flesh and blood. Jesus experienced all of the regular limitations of a human being. For instance, He was conceived (Eph. 18.2); he was born (Eph. 7.2; 18.2; Magn.11.1; Trall. 9.1; Smyrn. 1.1); he “both ate and drank” (Trall. 9.1); he was baptized (Eph. 18.2; Smyrn. 1.1); he suffered persecution (Trall. 9.1); he was nailed to a cross (Trall. 9.1; Smyrn. 1.2); he died (Magn.11; Trall. 9.1); and he was resurrected (Magn.11; Trall. 9.2).
In his letter to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius disparaged the idea that Jesus “suffered in appearance only.” Jesus “suffered for our sakes…and he truly suffered just as he truly raised himself” (Smyrn. 2). Jesus was “in the flesh even after the resurrection” and appeared in order for His disciples to touch His raised body (3.1). Luke 24:39, “when he came to Peter and those with him” is offered as proof of this (3.2). Ignatius, quotes Jesus as saying, “‘Take hold of me; handle me and see that I am not a disembodied demon.’ And immediately they touched him and believed…” As in the statement of Trallians 9.1-2, Ignatius again affirms that Jesus ate and drank with the disciples “like one who is composed of flesh…” (3.3).
To show that his belief in the real humanity of Jesus was seriously held, Ignatius points to his eventual martyrdom as proof. “For if these things were done by our Lord in appearance only, then I am in chains in appearance only. Why, moreover, have I surrendered myself to death, to fire, to sword, to beasts?” (4.2. Cf. Trall. 10). The physical suffering and death of the “perfect man” as well as His physical resurrection were such fundamental truths for Ignatius that he was willing to lay his life down for them. He did not want the recipients of his letters to think that such teaching was optional for the Christian.

While Ignatius emphasised the humanity of Jesus, he did not do so to the neglect of His deity. To the Ephesians Ignatius could say that He was “God in man” (Eph. 7.2) He was “our God, Jesus the Christ” (Eph. 18.2). In the opening of his letter to the Romans Ignatius twice refers to Him as “our God” (Rom. 1). To the Magnesians he said that Jesus Christ “came forth from one Father and remained with the One and returned to the One” (Magn. 7.2). What follows outlines the deity of Christ according to Ignatius, looking at the divine affirmations found in the creedal statements. In particular, Jesus who is timeless and invisible and is the second member of the Godhead will be noted.
A beautiful testimony to the deity of Christ can be found in the creedal statement of Ephesians 7.2, where Ignatius declares,

There is one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in
man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering
and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord.

In this passage, in paradoxical couplets, Ignatius affirms both the humanity and deity of Christ in one relationship that almost seems to anticipate the Nicene Creed published two hundred years later. Jesus is the “one physician” yet is “flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man.” The “one physician” speaks to the unity of Christ’s person, yet His human and divine natures are paired concerning its physical and spiritual character. His temporality and eternality is couched in terms of the natural and divine birth of the incarnation. Jesus was “God in man” both “from Mary and from God.” Later in Ephesians 18.2 Ignatius says, “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan, both from the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit” (See also Trall. 9.1).
In Smyrnaeans 1.1 Ignatius wants the church to be “totally convinced with regard to our Lord that he is truly of the family of David with respect to human descent, Son of God with respect to divine will and power, truly born of a virgin…” Again, the human and divine origin of Christ is affirmed, as well as the virgin birth. Specifically Ignatius points to Jesus as the “Son of God” and is so because of “divine will and power.” This also comes just after Ignatius has said, “I glorify Jesus Christ, the God who made you so wise…”
In his letter to Polycarp, Ignatius encourages his fellow bishop in the faith. He provides the bishop of Smyrna with a number of practical suggestions (Pol. 1.2-5.2) laced with doctrinal affirmations. One such affirmation has to do with the divinity of Jesus. Ignatius tells Polycarp in 3.2 to “Understand the times. Wait expectantly for him who is above time: the Eternal, the Invisible, who for our sake became visible; the Intangible, the Unsuffering, who for our sake suffered, who for our sake endured in every way.” In this one statement a number of important points about Jesus’ life are laid out, including the incarnation, crucifixion and second coming. But there is one affirmation pointing clearly to the divinity of Jesus: He exists outside of time. He can do so because He is eternal, invisible and intangible. Of course, Ignatius has argued firmly for the real humanity of Christ in other letters, so in this statement it is Christ’s divine nature that is being referred to. His humanity is also seen in the affirmation of His becoming “visible” in the incarnation. Therefore, in this one term, “above time” Ignatius paints a clear picture of the divinity of Jesus.
A final thing to note about Ignatius’ letters concerning the divinity of Christ is the place he provides Jesus in the Trinity. Though it appears only briefly in the letters, the Trinity is clearly formulated (Magn. 13.1; Eph. 18.2). In Magnesians 13.1 those addressed are told to “be eager” to be “firmly grounded in the precepts of the Lord…in the Son and the Father and in the Spirit.” The Son is clearly Jesus Christ as earlier in the letter Ignatius writes “there is one God who revealed himself through Jesus Christ his Son, who is his Word which came forth from silence…” (Magn. 8.2. Cf. Eph. 4.2; Trall. 3.1). In Ephesians 20.2 Jesus is called the “Son of man and Son of God.”
Another Trinitarian statement is found in Ephesians 18.2. Here Ignatius says, “For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan, both from the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus is affirmed as God, yet is also spoken of as being conceived by God’s plan. There is a distinction in the two uses of the word “God.” One use is in reference to Jesus and the other is in reference to the one planning His conception. Mentioned alongside God and Jesus the Christ is the Holy Spirit. In Magnesians 13.1 Ignatius speaks of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and in 7.2 states that the Son came from the Father. With this in mind it is therefore plausible that the God who planned Jesus’ conception is none other than the Father. Be that as it may, what is clear is that Jesus is referred to as God in what appears to be a Trinitarian statement.
By placing Him alongside the Father and the Spirit in both letters Ignatius recognises Jesus as the Son, the second person of the Triune Godhead.

From Ignatius’ letters it is clear that he has a high Christology. Jesus Christ is both God and man. Ignatius emphasises both the humanity and divinity of Jesus in a number of creedal statements found in the letters as well as his letter to Polycarp. Jesus had a physical body and experienced everything that a regular human would, even after His resurrection. Yet while being fully human, Jesus is also fully divine. He is the eternal God who is the second member of the Godhead. The tension between Christ’s two natures is held in appropriate balance, with both being mentioned clearly and in the same relationship. There is no apology nor is there any attempting to reconcile the two.

[1] Stuart G. Hall, “Docetism” in The Dictionary of Historical Theology (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2000), 163-165.

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