Commentary on St. Ignatius’ Letter to St. Polycarp
Posted by Tony Listi on February 28, 2010
St. Ignatius (d. circa. 98-117 AD) was the bishop of Syria and perhaps the earliest Church father whose writings we have. He wrote a letter to St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna.
Having obtained good proof that your mind is fixed in God as upon an immoveable rock, I loudly glorify [His name] that I have been thought worthy [to behold] your blameless face, which may I ever enjoy in God! I entreat you, by the grace with which you are clothed, to press forward in your course, and to exhort all that they may be saved. Maintain your position with all care, both in the flesh and spirit. Have a regard to preserve unity, than which nothing is better…. Bear the infirmities of all, as being a perfect athlete [in the Christian life]: where the labour is great, the gain is all the more.
Salvation is not guaranteed. One’s mind must be “fixed in God as upon an immoveable rock.” Exhortation to holy conduct is required from clergy for the benefit of the flock that they may be saved. What does Ignatius mean by “maintain your position”? Maintain the state of grace in which Polycarp is clothed? Maintain his office as bishop of Smyrna? Without recourse to the original language of the text, I think the former interpretation seems more reasonable. Is it possible for Polycarp to lose the office of bishop through neglect of body or spirit? No. But we can all lose the state of grace.
Schism is condemned; preservation of unity of doctrine and institution is affirmed.
Lastly, differential rewards in heaven are affirmed; those who labor greatly for the Lord gain greatly.
The times call for you, as pilots do for the winds, and as one tossed with tempest seeks for the haven, so that both you [and those under your care] may attain to God. Be sober as an athlete of God: the prize set before you is immortality and eternal life, of which you are also persuaded.
Bishop Polycarp is the leader of the flock whose eternal fate rests partly with him. Like St. Paul, Ignatius refers to salvation as a prize, something not yet attained until the race is run till the end.
Let not those who seem worthy of credit, but teach strange doctrines (1 Timothy 1:3, 1 Timothy 6:3) fill you with apprehension. Stand firm, as does an anvil which is beaten. It is the part of a noble athlete to be wounded, and yet to conquer.
It is the responsibility of the bishop to “stand firm” in the face of “strange doctrines,” i.e. heresy. It is not up to the individual believer to say what true, correct Christian doctrine is. Rather, as St. Paul writes to fellow bishops Timothy and Titus, the bishop is the guardian of true doctrine and authoritatively teaches the rest of the flock. Moreover, it does not matter if heretics are good people “who seem worthy of credit.” Good works alone are not proof of truth, though truth in action does bear fruit in good works.
Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; impalpable and impassible, yet who became passible on our account; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes.
God is timeless, outside of time, transcending time. There are interesting implications of this truth for the topics of prayer, what heaven is like, interpretation of the creation story in Genesis, and many other esoteric Christian doctrines and traditions.
Let not widows be neglected. Be, after the Lord, their protector and friend. Let nothing be done without your consent; neither do anything without the approval of God, which indeed you do not, inasmuch as you are steadfast.
Women in ancient times were totally dependent on their husbands for their livelihood. To lose your husband was to become destitute oftentimes. In our times, single mothers are widows. They should not be wards of the state but rather assisted by the Church. And no mother should be able to claim an excuse to choose infanticide because of a lack of material support.
The supreme authority of the bishop is reemphasized here. His consent is necessary for everything concerning the church under his care.
Do not despise either male or female slaves, yet neither let them be puffed up with conceit, but rather let them submit themselves the more, for the glory of God, that they may obtain from God a better liberty. Let them not long to be set free [from slavery] at the public expense, that they be not found slaves to their own desires.
There has been a lot of slander and defamation of the Church with regard to slavery. This passage succinctly expresses some major Christian points with regard to slavery:
- Slaves are not to be despised as if they were sub-human.
- Slavery, as practiced in the ancient world, was not evil in itself.
- Slavery of the soul to sin is the chief concern of the Church, not slavery of the body to the will of another human being. True liberty, liberty from sin and worldly “desires,” comes from God alone.
It is interesting to note that Ignatius recognizes the obvious universal fact that slaves set free tend to become dependent upon the state just as they were dependent upon their masters before. Somehow this fact seems to have been lost on Americans during the late 19th century. The manumission of black slaves and their future welfare could have been better managed.
Flee evil arts; but all the more discourse in public regarding them.
We must flee all evil but not speech regarding what is evil. What is evil must be talked about publicly. Evil is most powerful when it is ignored and not confronted refuted, and denounced.
If any one can continue in a state of purity, to the honour of Him who is Lord of the flesh, let him so remain without boasting. If he begins to boast, he is undone; and if he reckon himself greater than the bishop, he is ruined. But it becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust.
As St. Paul urges, Ignatius also urges virginity for those who can attain it. Virgins are held in so high regard in the early Church that the temptation to pride for them was apparently quite high then. Notice how pride is what leads one to think one is greater in authority than the bishop. And this pride spells the doom of the Christian, even of the virgin.
With regard to marriage, the bishop is involved as well, approving the union of the man and woman. The sacred character of marriage is governed by the bishop, not the urges and desires of the man and woman.
Give heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. My soul be for theirs that are submissive to the bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons, and may my portion be along with them in God!
Again, the authority of the bishop is reaffirmed. Obedience is due to him and the other ministers.
Please Him under whom you fight, and from whom you receive your wages. Let none of you be found a deserter. Let your baptism endure as your arms; your faith as your helmet; your love as your spear; your patience as a complete panoply. Let your works be the charge assigned to you, that you may receive a worthy recompense.
The unmistakable war-like imagery presents Christian life as a struggle for salvation. God is compared to an employer and commander of soldiers. Notice that salvation is not guaranteed. The promise and grace of baptism may not endure, for one may desert God after one has joined his legion and thus lose salvation. We are assigned by God to do certain good works. Our salvation depends on obedience to these assignments; our recompense in heaven depends on how well we carry them out.
Seeing that the Church which is at Antioch in Syria is, as report has informed me, at peace, through your prayers, I also am the more encouraged, resting without anxiety in God, if indeed by means of suffering I may attain to God, so that, through your prayers, I may be found a disciple [of Christ]. It is fitting, O Polycarp, most blessed in God, to assemble a very solemn council, and to elect one whom you greatly love, and know to be a man of activity, who may be designated the messenger of God; and to bestow on him this honour that he may go into Syria, and glorify your ever active love to the praise of Christ.
There is only one Church; it just happens to be at many places physically on the earth.
Notice that Ignatius does not presume to be saved and that he sees the prayers of others as playing a role in his salvation.
Bishops have the authority to convene local councils for various purposes.
This entry was posted on February 28, 2010 at 5:10 am and is filed under Catholicism vs. Protestantism, Church Fathers, Church History, Religion and Theology, Written by Me. Tagged: authority, bishop, Ignatius, Polycarp, salvation, schism, Smyrna, unity, virgin. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.