Church History, Features, Pastorate, Preaching, Theology

Ignatius of Antioch and Contemporary Evangelicalism

Each autumn term one of my responsibilities is to spend about half the semester helping a group of students to walk through the Apostolic Fathers, a collection of second-century Christian texts which was first compiled in the 17th century. That collection has varied some but it represents some important early Christian writers. The author we studied in this morning’s session was Ignatius of Antioch, who, we presume, was martyred, in Rome, before A.D. 117. Ignatius was a pastor in Antioch. His office was episkopos, overseer, which, if we are to judge from what he says about his ministry looks very much like the pastoral office. In the seven letters we have from him he describes and refers to three offices, his own, the presbyterion, and the diaconate. The presbytery seems to refer to something like what the Reformed call the consistory and presbyterians call the session, rather than to a regional assembly of elders (and ministers, i.e., the Presbytery or Classis). He treats these three offices as distinct and urges the faithful laity in the various congregations to obey and follow them. He especially stresses the episcopal office, which has led some to conclude that he must have held to a hierarchical, monepiscopal view of church and office, i.e., that view of the church which sees it beginning with the episkopos and flowing downward, from the episkopos, to the presbytery, and thence to the diaconate, and thence to the people. In such a hierarchical view (as in Rome), the presbytery and the diaconate are mere subsidiaries of the episkopos.

If we read Ignatius on his own terms, in his own setting, without anachronistically reading back into his words 9th or 13th-century ideas, the picture is rather different. In Ephesians 2:2, 4:1, Magnesians 2:1, and 6:1, among other places, Ignatius appealed to these three offices as roughly correlated. He had a high view of the episcopal office, the pastoral office in his scheme (and in Paul’s?) but not a hierarchical view. In Smyrnaeans 8:1 that high view of the episcopal office is on view:

Flee from divisions, as the beginning of evils. You must all follow the episkopos, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the presbytery as you would the apostles; respect the deacons as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the episkopos. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid. 1rev. from Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, updated ed. (Baker Books, 1999).

Defenders of a monepiscopal polity (e.g., Romanists) might wish to seize on the first part of v.1 but keep reading. Christians are to follow the episkopos, which I argue is better understood here as pastor than “bishop,” as it is usually translated. It is almost impossible for us to read or hear the word bishop without loading it with notions that do not yet exist. The pastoral office here is something like that conveyed in the Dutch word Dominee (Dominie). A Dominie is a pastor, perhaps a strong pastor, but he is not a regional governor of the church nor the source of the church. We are to follow the pastor and the elders. We are to respect the deacons. We are to avoid a church without a pastor and we are to receive the Supper, the eucharist, from the pastor. Agree or disagree with him, Ignatius had a high view of the visible church. The early church was not a loosely organized, dynamic, kergymatic (i.e., charismatic) assembly. It was an organized body with offices and creeds. It had structure. The true humanity of Christ and the reality of the visible church were both essential to Christianity according to Ignatius of Antioch.

He addressed two or three themes consistently in his seven epistles. Chief among them was the true humanity of Christ (against the docetists, i.e., those who claimed that Jesus only appeared to be human but was not really human). To the Smyrnaeans he described himself as theophoros, lit. God-bearer, which Michael Holmes quite fairly translates as “image bearer.” He continues by surveying the essentials of the faith in a way that reminds one of what would soon come to be known as the “rule of faith” (regula fidei): that Christ is God the Son incarnate, that he is true man, born of a virgin, that he entered into an earthly ministry for us “in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by him” (1:1). He affirms that Christ was nailed to the cross for us, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch, and that he was raised for our salvation. “He suffered all these things for our sakes, in order that we might be saved…” (2:1). He affirms the true humanity of Christ repeatedly. Christ became incarnate and remains incarnate now, for us (3:1). Anyone who denies that Jesus was and remains incarnate will become “disembodied and demonic” (2:1).


My experience in evangelicalism and with evangelicals is that there is a good bit of docetism. I have written in this space about what I call the “Star Trek” Christology, whereby Jesus dematerializes and passes through doors. Even worse, perhaps, is the notion held among some Pentecostals that Jesus stepped out of his humanity after his ascension. This is rank heresy. The Jesus of the New Testament (see the entire book of Hebrews and then read it again and again) and of the early church and of the ecumenical creeds is true God and true man. That was certainly the doctrine of and dogma of Ignatius of Antioch. He was passionate about the reality of Jesus’ humanity before the crucifixion and after the resurrection and ascension. He knew that our salvation depends on Jesus’ true humanity. Our faith rests upon our Savior and Mediator who is true God and true man. On the “Star Trek” Christology see the resources below.


He was also passionately devoted to the reality of the church and of the Christian life in the church. One of his great concerns was that he should be allowed the privilege of giving witness (martyrdom) in Rome. He was anxious that the Christians should not intercede on his behalf. His passion to be put to death by the pagans, in Rome, is a little disquieting to us today and sometimes we struggle to appreciate it. As some have noted, one explanation may be that he was concerned that, should he not be martyred, some might think that he lapsed, i.e., failed to confess Christ and denounced him before the pagans.

He was also concerned that the Smyrnaeans and all the churches hold to the orthodox Christian faith: “Even the heavenly beings and the glory of angels and the rulers, both visible and invisible, are also subject to judgment, if they do not believe in the blood of Christ” (6:1). Furthermore,

Now note well those who hold heretical opinions about the grace of Jesus Christ that come to us, note how contrary they are to the mind of God. They have no concern for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the oppressed, none for the prisoner or the one released, none for the hungry or thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up (6:2).

This is a striking way of speaking and one, my experience tells me, that is almost entirely foreign to contemporary evangelical theology, piety, and practice. When I say “evangelical” I mean those traditions whose roots are in the American “awakenings” or “revivals” in which I include both the so-called First Great Awakening in the 18th century and the so-called Second Great Awakening of the 19th century. Notice how Ignatius measures orthodoxy: love for widows, orphans, the oppressed (e.g., slaves), and prisoners in the congregation. Ignatius had no idea of a general social program. In his seven epistles, he shows virtually no concern for the broader world. He certainly gave no evidence of any plan for social transformation nor to gain social influence in the Roman empire. His fondest wish was to die in the teeth of lions for the sake of Christ.

Notice the second, and equally important, mark of orthodoxy: participation in the “eucharist and prayer” (εὐχαριστίας καὶ προσευχῆς). These are clear references to public worship. He was aghast at the idea that some dare call themselves Christians but willfully absent themselves from public worship, the two marks of which he mentions are the Lord’s Supper and prayer. They do not confess (ὁμολογεῖν) that the eucharist (lit. thanksgiving) is “the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ (σάρκα εἶναι τοῦ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ), which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up.” The Lord’s Supper is that important to his understanding of the visible church and to the Christian life. Perhaps Ignatius was wrong, but his language sounds much more like the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism than it does the typical, independent evangelical congregation. How many evangelicals are able to say that the Supper “is the flesh of Christ”? The Reformed say it happily. Contra the Romanists, Ignatius nowhere said or implied that elements are transubstantiated nor that they “become” the body and blood of Christ. For Ignatius, the eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. He did not say how they are, just that they are.

We see the same sort of language in his epistle to the church at Philadelphia:

Take care, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup which leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow servants), in order that whatever you do, you do in accordance with God. 2Holmes, 6.

There is “one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “one cup which leads to unity through his blood.” There is one altar, one pastor, who serves the congregation together with the presbytery and the diaconate. It is striking how easily he wrote (or dictated) and spoke of the Supper as the body and blood of Christ. My experience tells me that most evangelicals do not speak this way and should one do, one comes under almost immediate suspicion of being a Romanist. Ignatius was no Romanist. The Roman communion did not exist yet. The ancient church spoke freely of the Supper as the body and blood of Christ because they are are the body and blood of Christ sacramentally. By metonymy, the one thing is said to be the other. Through the Supper, by the work of the Spirit, we are fed by the body and blood of Christ, administered in the visible church, by the pastor, with the elders and deacons. The ancient Christian life was not lived in isolation or merely in private prayer, but also in communion with the structured, confessing visible church. Unity is in the gospel, about which Ignatius was very clear. (It is striking how often and clearly he spoke of Christ’s substitutionary atonement for us.) It is also found at the communion table or altar, as he used the metaphor. There should be little doubt that this is a metaphor since he used it that way in other places (e.g., Romans 2:2). Polycarp called widows an “altar of God” (4:3). We are not to think that Polycarp was saying that we are to perform literal sacrifices upon widows. That would be a miserable (if memorable) pastoral visit indeed.


The modern evangelical church sometimes seems to assume that whatever its theology, piety, and practice is must be (a priori) that of the ancient church when, in fact, much of its theology, piety, and practice is very modern indeed. It is not even Reformation theology, piety, and practice let alone that of the ancient church. The Reformed churches, however, sought assiduously to recover the theology, piety, and practice of the ancient church. This is one reason why, contra the evangelicals, the visible church is so important to us. It is also why the sacraments are so important to us. As we read the Fathers again, in original texts, in the 16th and 17th centuries, we realized that the Medieval church (which also often assumed her theology, piety, and practice to be that of the ancient church) had fallen some distance from the fathers. They had placed a pope where only Jesus can be. They had turned the eucharist into a propitiatory sacrifice. They had turned the gospel, the good news about Christ’s life and death for us, into a message about our cooperation with grace for God.

There is always time for Reformation. Ignatius, for all his faults, was a better picture of a shepherd of the flock than the celebrity culture cultivated in contemporary evangelicalism. Confession, prayer, the sermon (about Christ and salvation), and the sacraments–these are the sorts of things that animated Ignatius as he wrote to the congregations who sought to support him on the way to his martyrdom. And these are the sorts of things that ought to animate us as we emerge from the COVID crisis into an increasingly hostile post-Christian culture.


1 rev. from Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, updated ed. (Baker Books, 1999).
2 Holmes, 6.
Filed under: Church History, Features, Pastorate, Preaching, Theology
R. Scott Clark

R. Scott Clark (D.Phil., Oxford University) is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, an ordained minister, and author of several books including, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (P&R, 2008). Follow him on Twitter: @RScottClark.