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Commentary on St. Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians

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. His letter to the Ephesians is one of the earliest and most explicitly Catholic writings of the fathers that I’ve ever read.

Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which is at Ephesus, in Asia….

As with virtually all letters of Scripture and the early fathers, only one Church is affirmed; it just happens to be at different places physically on the earth.

I received, therefore, your whole multitude in the name of God, through Onesimus, a man of inexpressible love, and your bishop in the flesh, whom I pray you by Jesus Christ to love, and that you would all seek to be like him.

This is perhaps the same Onesimus who was a slave of Philemon and whom St. Paul converted. Ignatius prays that the Ephesians will love and imitate Onesimus.

After praise for Onesimus and his subordinate ministers, he continues:

It is therefore befitting that you should in every way glorify Jesus Christ, who has glorified you, that by a unanimous obedience “you may be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, and may all speak the same thing concerning the same thing” (1 Corinthians 1:10), and that, being subject to the bishop and the presbytery, you may in all respects be sanctified…. But inasmuch as love suffers me not to be silent in regard to you, I have therefore taken upon me first to exhort you that you would all run together in accordance with the will of God. For even Jesus Christ, our inseparable life, is the [manifested] will of the Father; as also bishops, settled everywhere to the utmost bounds [of the earth], are so by the will of Jesus Christ. Wherefore it is fitting that you should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which thing also you do.

Ignatius exhorts the Ephesians to “unanimous obedience” to the doctrinal teachings of their bishop, not to rely on Scripture alone (there was no New Testament anyway then). Through this obedience to the bishop and his ministers, the flock is sanctified in all respects. It is not up to the individual believer to decide what true, correct doctrine is. Unity of mind, judgment, action, and speech are necessary. Moreover and strikingly, the will of the bishop is identified with the will of God. The necessity and authority of the bishops is “so by the will of Jesus Christ.”

It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus you may always enjoy communion with God. For if I in this brief space of time, have enjoyed such fellowship with your bishop — I mean not of a mere human, but of a spiritual nature— how much more do I reckon you happy who are so joined to him as the Church is to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ is to the Father, that so all things may agree in unity!

Unity, unity, unity. This is a constant theme of this letter and other letters by Ignatius.

Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God.

This is a reference to the Eucharist. Those outside of the Church are not part of the Body of Christ and thus do not receive the Body of Christ at the altar.

For if the prayer of one or two possesses (Matthew 18:19) such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, “God resists the proud.” Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.

Again, authority and power rests with the bishop and the Church universal (the catholic Church). Those who separate themselves from the catholic Church out of pride condemn themselves. Again, the will of the bishop is identified with the will of God.

For we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sends to be over His household, (Matthew 24:25) as we would do Him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself. And indeed Onesimus himself greatly commends your good order in God, that you all live according to the truth, and that no sect has any dwelling-place among you. Nor, indeed, do you hearken to any one rather than to Jesus Christ speaking in truth.

Again, the bishop is identified with “the Lord Himself,” as an overseer designated by “the Master” who must be obeyed. The bishop creates “good order in God” so that Christians may “live according to the truth” and that no denomination/sect disobedient to the bishop is tolerated among them. Sects do not arise if there is “unanimous obedience” to the bishop, but when the disobedient cannot be reconciled, they must be expelled from the communion in which the one, true Church dwells. Thus Martin Luther and other heretics sealed their own fate with regard to the Church.

For some are in the habit of carrying about the name [of Jesus Christ] in wicked guile, while yet they practise things unworthy of God, whom you must flee as you would wild beasts. For they are ravening dogs, who bite secretly, against whom you must be on your guard, inasmuch as they are men who can scarcely be cured.

There are many wicked people who call themselves “Christian” but who are not worthy of the Name. The true Christian must be on guard against them and avoid them.

Let not then any one deceive you, as indeed you are not deceived, inasmuch as you are wholly devoted to God. For since there is no strife raging among you which might distress you, you are certainly living in accordance with God’s will. I am far inferior to you, and require to be sanctified by your Church of Ephesus, so renowned throughout the world. They that are carnal cannot do those things which are spiritual, nor they that are spiritual the things which are carnal; even as faith cannot do the works of unbelief, nor unbelief the works of faith. But even those things which you do according to the flesh are spiritual; for you do all things in Jesus Christ.

The faithful can be deceived and fall away. Strife in a church is caused by false, deceitful teachers and is a sign that God’s will is not being done. Ignatius also powerfully expresses the Catholic position that faith and works are intimately and inseparably joined together. If you “do the works of  unbelief,” then you do not have faith or salvation.

The last times have come upon us. Let us therefore be of a reverent spirit, and fear the long-suffering of God, that it tend not to our condemnation. For let us either stand in awe of the wrath to come, or show regard for the grace which is at present displayed— one of two things. Only [in one way or another] let us be found in Christ Jesus unto the true life. Apart from Him, let nothing attract you, for whom I bear about these bonds, these spiritual jewels, by which may I arise through your prayers, of which I entreat I may always be a partaker, that I may be found in the lot of the Christians of Ephesus, who have always been of the same mind with the apostles through the power of Jesus Christ.

We should fear God. Notice that Ignatius does not discount the possibility of any Christian’s condemnation by God. He does not speak as one assured of his own salvation. One does not “get saved”; one is “found in Christ Jesus unto the true life.” Salvation comes from always being “of the same mind with the apostles.”

Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when you assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith.

This is a reference to the Eucharist (Greek eucharistia, thanksgiving). Again, “unity of faith” destroys the powers of Satan. Schisms empower Satan.

No man [truly] making a profession of faith sins; (1 John 3:7) nor does he that possesses love hate any one. The tree is made manifest by its fruit; (Matthew 12:33) so those that profess themselves to be Christians shall be recognised by their conduct. For there is not now a demand for mere profession, but that a man be found continuing in the power of faith to the end.

Real faith is evident from sinlessness, obedience, and good works. “Mere profession” is not enough to be saved; one must continue “in the power of faith to the end.” And the power of faith is the power to avoid all mortal sin and bear good fruit.

Do not err, my brethren (James 1:16). Those that corrupt families shall not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). If, then, those who do this as respects the flesh have suffered death, how much more shall this be the case with any one who corrupts by wicked doctrine the faith of God, for which Jesus Christ was crucified! Such an one becoming defiled [in this way], shall go away into everlasting fire, and so shall every one that hearkens unto him.

Error and consequent sin effect death, not salvation. Just as those who corrupt their bodies in sins of the flesh (and don’t receive forgiveness) suffer death in hell, so those who wickedly corrupt the “faith of God” and listen to these corrupters “shall go away into everlasting fire.”

Be not anointed with the bad odour of the doctrine of the prince of this world; let him not lead you away captive from the life which is set before you. And why are we not all prudent, since we have received the knowledge of God, which is Jesus Christ? Why do we foolishly perish, not recognising the gift which the Lord has of a truth sent to us?

Again, Christians can fall away from the faith and be damned; they can be led away from the Christian life like a captive in war. Knowledge of the truth is not enough to keep the Christian from perishing foolishly; discipline of the will is necessary to tame the body and evil desires of the heart.

Especially [will I do this ] if the Lord make known to me that you come together man by man in common through grace, individually, in one faith, and in Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David according to the flesh, being both the Son of man and the Son of God, so that you obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.

Again and in conclusion, another reemphasis that there is only “one faith,” that one must “obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind,” and that one must break “one and the same bread.” The faith (body of true doctrines), the Church leadership, and the Eucharist together all proclaim the oneness and unity of the Body of Christ. Moreover, the Eucharistic “bread” is not merely memorial but effective as “the medicine of immortality,” “the antidote” to death, and the cause of eternal life in Jesus.

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