Ignatius was the third bishop of the city of Antioch. He was quite a prolific author though not as prolific as the number of manuscripts bearing his name. Scholars generally accept that he wrote seven epistles, six to churches and one to Polycarp. These were his epistles to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Smyrnaeans and of course to Polycarp. These all exist in shorter and longer forms, making things a bit of a mess to work through.
Ignatius likely lived from about 35 A.D. to 107/8. Again, he had met some of the apostles during his lifetime and was an important link to apostolic teaching for the early church. He’s also the first writer to use the word “katholicos” or “Catholic” to describe the Church.
Ignatius eagerly awaited his martyrdom; this is clear in his extant epistles, all of which were written while on the way to being martyred. In his letter to the Romans, he anxiously tells them not to try and save him from his impending martyrdom, (Chapter II) to pray that he may be martyred (Chapter III) and to allow him to be eaten by wild beasts. (Chapter IV) So that he is very clear he tells them that he desires to die (Chapter V) and that by his death he shall attain true life with Jesus (Chapter VI) and escape the prince of this world. (Chapter VII)
Ignatius was granted his wish, and received his martyr’s crown with honor.
Well, there are a number of key themes in Ignatius’ epistles:
1. The centrality of Jesus
Jesus – his real Passion, real body, and ongoing ministry as shepherd of the Church are constant themes in all of Ignatius’ letters – as they should be! From Ignatius we get a sense of important doctrines related to Jesus: he was really a man, yet more than a man, for he existed before his mortal body did; he died to suffer for our sins and so that we might have eternal life; he was born of a Virgin; he still reins over believers. In Ignatius’ own words:
For the Son of God, who was begotten before time began, and established all things according to the will of the Father, He was conceived in the womb of Mary, according to the appointment of God, of the seed of David, and by the Holy Ghost. For says, “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and He shall be called Immanuel.” He was born and was baptized by John… (Epistle to the Ephesians)
2. The importance of the Bishop
In virtually all of his letters, he exhorts his readers to be loyal to and in unity with their bishop. Anything that happens without the bishop’s blessing in a local church – especially sacraments – is a no-no. Ignatius emphasizes one bishop who exists as a successor to the apostles in each community, and clearly expects this to be the norm:
In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the Sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church. Concerning all this, I am persuaded that ye are of the same opinion. (Epistle to the Trallians)
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 conscience. (Epistle to the Trallians)
I salute in the blood of Jesus Christ, who is our eternal and enduring joy, especially if men are in unity with the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons, who have been appointed according to the mind of Jesus Christ, whom He has established in security, after His own will and by His Holy Spirit. (Epistle to the Philadelphians)
3. The glory of martyrdom
As said earlier, Ignatius has an uncomfortable eagerness for martyrdom. Read his Epistle to the Romans for a fulsome sense of his gruesome eagerness.
4. The Eucharist
Ignatius, like the other Church Fathers, is a “realist” when it comes to the Lord’s Supper:
I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life. (Epistle to the Romans) They [heretics] 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. (Epistle to the Smynaeans)
Ignatius is hard not to like. He’s very genuine and his admirable passion for Jesus Christ and obvious willingness to die for what he believed are inspiring. His writings remain accessible, and Jesus permeates his view of everything he teaches about. He does exist as somewhat of a challenge for many Christians though – here is a church leader from the first century who endorses monarchical bishops (that is single bishops with authority over the local church(es)) and he has a very high view of the Lord’s Supper. In reaction to this, there have been attempts (not by serious scholars, I think) to have all his writings shown to be fraudulent.
Still, I think he provides a useful challenge to two things in many evangelical Christian circles: weak ecclesiology (or view of the Church) and a de-emphasis of the sacraments.