Conservative Colloquium

An Intellectual Forum for All Things Conservative

Commentary on St. Ignatius’ Letter to the Romans

Posted by Tony Listi on February 16, 2010

St. Ignatius (d. circa. 98-117 AD) was the bishop of Syria and perhaps the earliest Church father whose writings we have. It appears that he was arrested and taken to Rome for a trial and/or his execution. He writes the following letter “to the Church.”

Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Most High Father, and Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that wills all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the place of the region of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love, is named from Christ, and from the Father, which I also salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father: to those who are united, both according to the flesh and spirit, to every one of His commandments; who are filled inseparably with the grace of God, and are purified from every strange taint, [I wish] abundance of happiness unblameably, in Jesus Christ our God.

Ignatius gives an extraordinary amount of praise to this 6-times “worthy” Church, which seemingly only parenthetically “also presides  in the place of the region of the Romans.” This Church is also “beloved and enlightened by the will of [God].” Very interesting. He does not pour out such praise in his letters to other churches. He speaks as if it were the entire universal Church itself. I see this as evidence for the primacy of the Church of Rome even by the late 1st or early 2nd century AD.

Through prayer to God I have obtained the privilege of seeing your most worthy faces, and have even been granted more than I requested; for I hope as a prisoner in Christ Jesus to salute you, if indeed it be the will of God that I be thought worthy of attaining unto the end. For the beginning has been well ordered, if I may obtain grace to cling to my lot without hindrance unto the end. For I am afraid of your love, lest it should do me an injury. For it is easy for you to accomplish what you please; but it is difficult for me to attain to God, if you spare me. For it is not my desire to act towards you as a man-pleaser, but as pleasing God, even as also you please Him. For neither shall I ever have such [another] opportunity of attaining to God; nor will you, if you shall now be silent, ever be entitled to the honour of a better work. For if you are silent concerning me, I shall become God’s; but if you show your love to my flesh, I shall again have to run my race. Pray, then, do not seek to confer any greater favour upon me than that I be sacrificed to God while the altar is still prepared….

In general, it seems that Ignatius is afraid that the Church of Rome will save him from martyrdom and perhaps make less certain his eternal salvation. He hopes for the grace to cling to his path of martyrdom until the end. Such uncertainty about his eternal fate is very un-Protestant.

You have never envied any one; you have taught others. Now I desire that those things may be confirmed [by your conduct], which in your instructions you enjoin [on others].

Ignatius says that this Church at Rome teaches, instructs, and enjoins others. He implies that this Church has authority.

Only request in my behalf both inward and outward strength, that I may not only speak, but [truly] will; and that I may not merely be called a Christian, but really be found to be one. For if I be truly found [a Christian], I may also be called one, and be then deemed faithful, when I shall no longer appear to the world.

He also asks for the prayers of this Church for himself, prayers for strength to continue down the path to martyrdom. Notice that he does not believe mere faith, mental assent, to be sufficient to be “deemed faithful” or to “really be found to be [a Christian].” To be a Christian is not something one claims for oneself verbally but rather is something another judges and finds.

I write to 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 good-will towards me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God.

Here Ignatius distinguishes between “[all] the Churches” and the Church of Rome, which apparently has either the authority to “hinder” him from writing to every individual church or the ability to “hinder” him from going through with his martyrdom. The context suggests the latter is meant.

I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.

How very interesting that he compares his body to “wheat” that when ground in martyrdom becomes “the pure bread of Christ.” This is a Eucharistic reference. Through the death of Jesus, ordinary bread becomes the Body of Christ, “the pure bread of Christ.” So also, the deaths of the martyrs unite them to Christ, once and for all.

Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body.

Again, martyrdom seals and confirm his discipleship and thus his salvation.

Entreat Christ for me, that by these instruments I may be found a sacrifice [to God].

Christians are called to sacrifice, to be a living sacrifice but also a literal sacrifice for the faith if need be. Sacrifices do not end with Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross; our sacrifices are united to His.

I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles; I am but a condemned man: they were free, while I am, even until now, a servant. But when I suffer, I shall be the freed-man of Jesus, and shall rise again emancipated in Him.

Apparently, St. Peter and St. Paul issued commandments to those to whom Ignatius is writing. Ignatius implicitly recognizes the authority of Peter and Paul and their successors to whom he now writes (one does not give commandments to a superior). He makes it crystal clear that he is not commanding the Church but making a request.

But I am the more instructed by their injuries [to act as a disciple of Christ]; “yet am I not thereby justified.” [1 Corinthians 4:4]… Now I begin to be a disciple.

Ignatius quotes Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, implying that he has not yet attained salvation, even under the abuse of his Roman captors. Only now does he feel that he is truly a disciple of Jesus.

Pardon me, brethren: do not hinder me from living, do not wish to keep me in a state of death; and while I desire to belong to God, do not give me over to the world. Allow me to obtain pure light: when I have gone there, I shall indeed be a man of God. Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God. If any one has Him within himself, let him consider what I desire, and let him have sympathy with me, as knowing how I am straitened.

Again, a plea to the Church of Rome not to prevent his martrydom and asking pardon perhaps for the boldness of his strong request. Ignatius wants to imitate Christ in suffering. He says he is “straitened,” meaning he is under some difficulty or distress. The next line explains further:

The prince of this world would fain carry me away, and corrupt my disposition towards God. Let none of you, therefore, who are [in Rome] help him; rather be on my side, that is, on the side of God. Do not speak of Jesus Christ, and yet set your desires on the world.

Ignatius fears the Devil and his attacks to foil Ignatius’ salvation.

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 of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.

Another Eucharistic reference. Of course, he’s talking specifically about the Eucharist of heaven, not of earth, though the two are united as one. The Eucharist in heaven has no and needs no transformation of bread and wine, for the Body and Blood itself is present in heaven in the most literal, direct, and real sense possible.

I no longer wish to live after the manner of men, and my desire shall be fulfilled if you consent. Be willing, then, that you also may have your desires fulfilled. I entreat you in this brief letter; give credit to me. Jesus Christ will reveal these things to you, [so that you shall know] that I speak truly. He is the mouth altogether free from falsehood, by which the Father has truly spoken. Pray for me, that I may attain [the object of my desire]. I have not written to you according to the flesh, but according to the will of God. If I shall suffer, you have wished [well] to me; but if I am rejected, you have hated me.

Again, Ignatius seeks the “consent,” prayers, and well-wishes of the Church of Rome for his forthcoming martyrdom. He claims to speak “according to the will of God.” And that last line seems to imply that the Church is intimately involved in his fate.

Remember in your prayers the Church in Syria, which now has God for its shepherd, instead of me. Jesus Christ alone will oversee it, and your love [will also regard it].

St. Ignatius, who will die soon, seems to leave responsibility for his church congregation in the hands of Jesus and the Church of Rome.

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