Mr. Ambrose Andreano: Hello, Ancient Faith listeners. Welcome to The Patristics Podcast. I’m your host, Ambrose, and with me as always is Alvinacius. [Laughter] Today we will be going over Ignatius of Antioch and his epistles to the Smyrnaeans and then a little bit of his epistle to Polycarp, so we’re just combining those epistles into just one podcast. We’ll just get right into it.
Ignatius is known in history as being a late first-century bishop of Antioch who was born somewhere around A.D. 30 and died around A.D. 108. We mentioned him a bit in our previous episode on Polycarp, since they were not only contemporaries but good friends. Polycarp is pretty much the reason we can do this episode today. In terms of Church hierarchy, we can clearly see distinct roles for Antiochian bishops and also presbyters and deacons.
Contrary to the Church in Philippi we mentioned last time, there are some really interesting traditions surrounding Ignatius that need to be noted. One of them is that, according to Origen, Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch after Peter, and that’s found in his Sixth Homily on Luke, though Eusebius says he was the third bishop after Peter and Euodias, and that’s found in his Ecclesiastical History, 322-36. However, my favorite tradition about Ignatius is that he was the child that Christ held on his lap when speaking the words, “Let the children come to me” (Matthew 19:14). I can just imagine baby Ignatius running up to Christ the way my 18-month-old daughter tries to run up to my parish priest during the Liturgy. Christ knew that 50 or 60 years later that little boy he held would grow up to become the bishop of Antioch and eventually be martyred for Christ’s name’s sake.
Lastly, both his epistles to the Smyrnaeans and to Polycarp open with Ignatius mentioning that he is also called Theophorus, which is translated into something like God-bearer or Carrier-of-God, though it would be interesting if it could also be interpreted as Carried-by-God, since that would be a wink at his childhood with Christ, wouldn’t it? What do you think, Alvin?
Mr. Alvin Rapien: Yes, Ignatius is an interesting character because we do have several letters from him. So they provide a window into several theological and ecclesiological concerns of this particular bishop as well as giving insight into the early Christian movement in the second century. It should also be noted that these letters were also written en route to his martyrdom in Rome. That gives a good frame of reference for interpreting and reading his letters.
Ignatius was arrested during a persecution in Antioch and then sent to Rome under armed guard. He spent a short amount of time in the Church at Smyrna, being with the bishop there, St. Polycarp. Then Ignatius looked forward to his martyrdom, which he is famous for in how he approaches the entire event. He states in his epistle to the Romans that:
I pray the wild beasts will be found ready for me; indeed, I will coax them to devour me quickly, and even if they do not wish to do so willingly, I will force them to it. Fire and cross and packs of wild beasts, cuttings and being torn apart, scattering of bones, the mangling of limbs, the grinding of the whole body, the evil torments of the devil—let them come upon me, only that I may attain to Jesus Christ.
Needless to say, Ignatius is extremely bold and fierce in his faith.
Mr. Andreano: In chapter one to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius says that the Smyrnaeans have a faith so immovable that it was as if they were literally nailed to the cross with Christ. The rest of the paragraph is reminiscent of certain lines of the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. Ignatius says that:
He [that is, Christ] is truly from the family of David according to the flesh, Son of God according to the will and power of God, truly born of a Virgin, and baptized by John, that all righteousness might be fulfilled by him. In the time of Pontius Pilate and the tetrarch Herod, he was truly nailed for us in the flesh, so that through his resurrection he might eternally lift up the standard of his holy and faithful ones, whether among Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of his Church.
That just reminded me… It’s very reminiscent of creeds. Did you get that feeling as well, Alvin?
Mr. Rapien: Right, yeah, I picked up on that same thing. It really reveals what’s important to Ignatius regarding belief, all those things that you mentioned, but the way that he phrases it is also very reminiscent of a credal approach to the faith.
The way he opens up his letter is very interesting to me. He says that the Church in Smyrna has been shown mercy and every gracious gift and is lacking no gift or is not destitute in gifts. Usually translated as favor or grace in English, the Greek word charis can also be translated as gift, and, speaking in terms of theological economy, it means a free gift from God. Ignatius uses the term in different senses throughout his epistle, so coming up with an exact definition will distort the meaning of several passages. But what is important is that he refers to the various ways that God relates to humanity as through gifts, or it can be phrased in the term gift.
Perhaps the best example of this is the Eucharist, a term rooted in the Greek word, charis. The Eucharist is a topic which also appears in this letter a little later, and we’ll cover that. Ignatius also points out that our works of personal holiness do not “earn” something from God, as if we earn or could demand something from God, but that the gracious gift of God is a reward, one freely bestowed by God onto us. This is a theme that we will see repeated throughout this letter.
Mr. Andreano: In chapters two and three, Ignatius constantly reiterates that Christ literally suffered, because he is speaking against the heresy of Docetism which, as a reminder from the last episode, they were the ones who believed that Jesus only seemed to have a physical body and to physically die, but in reality he was only spirit and his human form was an illusion. Ignatius speaks against such an interpretation, reminding everyone to read Luke 24:39, where Christ himself says, “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Handle me and see, for spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see me have.” Ignatius also mentions how Christ also ate and drank with them after the resurrection, which is obviously not something a spirit would do.
Mr. Rapien: I think Ignatius here is making extremely important historical remarks as well by referencing the context that took place in chapter one. It’s under the time of Pontius Pilate and Herod. He uses the Greek word alethos, which means truly. He uses this repeatedly in different formulations: that Christ truly came in the flesh and truly was resurrected. This remark, that Christ truly did these things, is, like you were saying, against the Docetists or Docetism, and here it’s a claim to faith, that we believe that Christ truly did those things. Otherwise those who claim that Christ suffered only in appearance are unbelievers. So we have this phantom- or ghost-Christ or spirit-Christ that doesn’t really do anything for materiality.
Then in chapter three Ignatius asserts the importance of body and flesh within Christ’s narrative, that Christ was in the flesh at the resurrection, like you were talking about, that he was eating with the disciples, even though he was united spiritually with the Father. We see here the struggle between what we may now understand as Gnosticism, that those who prize spiritual, or prioritized it so much that they neglected the flesh or they neglected bodily actions, that they saw it as almost irrelevant or even evil, as we see in later Platonism. I think what Ignatius is doing here [is] treading a very fine line between upholding the spiritual nature of Christ but also the human nature, which of course anticipates later ecumenical councils, especially the Fourth Ecumenical Council and what exactly Christ is in terms of materiality and being.
Mr. Andreano: I was just thinking, man, after doing On the Incarnation, it’s like you can’t really get around Christ’s material nature. It’s an essential part of the Gospel.
Mr. Rapien: Right. The narrative just doesn’t seem to make sense when you have to interpret it wildly differently if Christ did not become an actual human.
Mr. Andreano: Yes, because there would be no resurrection. Our bodies would stay on the ground.
In chapter four, Ignatius really lays into the Gnostic heretics pretty hard, with an insult. He says:
I give you these instructions, beloved, assured that you also hold the same opinions as I do. But I guard you beforehand from those beasts in the shape of men whom you must not only not receive but if it be possible not even to meet with. Only you must pray to God for them, if by any means they may be brought to repentance, which, however, will be very difficult. Yet Jesus Christ, who is our true life, has the power of effecting this.
So we can see Ignatius has got some sass. He can be pretty spicy. Back in chapter two, Ignatius is like: Yeah, Christ truly suffered, unlike what the Gnostics believe, that he only seemed to suffer, but, hey, at least they’re consistent because they themselves only seem to be Christians. So he can turn up the heat there! Though, despite his polemics in calling his opponents “demons,” and despite how he says the Smyrnaeans must not receive or even meet with these heretics, he nonetheless says that we should pray for their repentance, because nothing is impossible with Christ.
In chapter three of his epistle to Polycarp, Ignatius says to Polycarp, “Don’t allow those who appear trustworthy yet deliver contrary teachings faze you. Stand firm like an anvil that is struck. It is the mark of a great athlete to bear up under blows and still claim the victory.” What do you [have], Alvin?
Mr. Rapien: I really do think Ignatius brings the hammer down in chapter four, especially when he says, “For, if these things were accomplished by our Lord only in appearance, I also am in chains only in appearance.” So there’s a personal investment here for Ignatius. Unless there is particularly true historical basis for the Gospel events, then our faith is in vain, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. So we must be careful not to separate the historical from the spiritual and vice-versa, as if the gospels are mythologies that relay spiritual truths as opposed to historical events. This is not an either/or between spirituality and historicity, but a both/and.
On the other hand, we should also be attentive to different standards of relaying information in antiquity compared to our own modern standards of journalistic reporting. So there’s a reason we have four gospels. As one biblical scholar notes, we are “children of Gutenberg” in the modern era. That means that we are used to the things being handed down to us in the form of texts, whereas in antiquity immediately writing or recording during an event was not an occurrence due to differences in availability and different oral traditions. So we must account for the variations here and there in antiquity. Nonetheless, there is a historical foundation for what we read in the gospels, and this is what we see Ignatius asserting up until this point as well.
So Ignatius uses the word we’re all familiar with, but in the ancient sense of the term as well, so sympathy, but he uses the infinitive term here, sympathein, which means “to suffer.” So Ignatius endures all things in order to suffer with Christ. I think here we get a very interesting glimpse into the theology of martyrdom. It’s very strong participatory language here. It’s edging upon a very, if not already, mystical theology of union, that we suffer with Christ.
Mr. Andreano: That’s definitely true.
In chapter five, Ignatius says, “The one who refuses to say that Jesus took on a physical body, if such a person professes to be a Christian, is a blasphemer who denies Christ completely.” For Ignatius, this is simply a denial of the Incarnation, and it is a very serious dogmatic issue. If you deny the body of Christ, you don’t believe in the blood of Christ. If you deny the body of Christ, then you deny that Christ truly conquered death and restored humanity. As St. Gregory the Theologian would later say, “The unassumed is the unhealed.” If Christ didn’t become a human, then humans are not healed. It’s as simple as that. Rejecting the humanity of Christ is truly to reject the Gospel, like I said before.
If you still follow some of Christ’s… I should say, even if you follow some of Christ’s teachings and go to church, like many of the Gnostics did, and reject Christ’s physicality, then it doesn’t mean anything; you’re still rejecting the Gospel. Like Ignatius said, you’re technically classified as an unbeliever. Ignatius even says that he isn’t going to bother writing down their names because he doesn’t want to remember them until they repent and come to true belief, or, as we would say, Orthodoxy.
For the listeners, remember the first chapter of John’s gospel which says in verse 14, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Remember the very first chapter of 1 John, which says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and touched with our hands.” Here John is intentionally telling his audience to reject the teachings of the Gnostics, because he has personally experienced the physicality of Christ and we can clearly see Ignatius taking up the apostolic mantle, so to speak, and being a successor to John’s original message. What do you think, Alvin?
Mr. Rapien: I think all that is definitely spot-on. That Christ, the Logos, became human is very much offensive to a lot of the sensibilities of antiquity, and even in modern times as well. It’s a very hard pill to swallow. At the same time, going back to Athanasius, who really expands on this point about Christ becoming human, there is a certain theological warrant that Christ has to become human in order to save humanity, for God saw that that was the correct way. Like you said with St. Gregory, that which is not assumed is not healed, so there needs to be some assumption there before any type of true healing or redemption can take place.
For Ignatius, rightly, he sees that to deny the flesh of Christ is to deny any type of real salvation, because we are not just spiritual beings; we are also very much physical and fleshly beings.
Mr. Andreano: Yes. Do you think these Gnostics are kind of using a lot of philosophical, maybe Platonist frameworks for developing their worldview?
Mr. Rapien: You know, there’s a lot of recent works on the Gnostics on the past, oh, ever since the turn of the millennium, that’s been really good. Gnostics aren’t so much a unified group as they used to be thought of in the earlier 20th century, so there’s this diverse amount of ideas floating around. But with this particular brand, you do see some Platonist influence. There’s definitely this…
Mr. Andreano: Like we’re trapped in bodies.
Mr. Rapien: Yeah, “our bodies are tombs,” that type of stuff, and “matter is evil.” We talked a little bit about this with Athanasius. Theologically, you could see where they would pick and choose certain passages to ground those assertions, but it really does miss a lot of what you were saying earlier: it doesn’t make sense with the biblical narrative if Christ were just to be a spiritual being and not a physical incarnation.
Yeah, so we do see a lot of different philosophic at work. Some may have come in for different reasons, but we can say what’s a common denominator is this idea that they were maybe embarrassed that the Logos would have been a physical being, incarnate. It would become, how St. Paul would say, a stumbling-block. Understandably. If you look at the major history of Greek mythology and Greek philosophy, then there is a demotion to becoming material.
Mr. Andreano: In chapter six, I think one of the most important things to note is how Ignatius understands and defines heresy. He says,
Take note of those who spout false opinions about the gracious gift of Jesus Christ that has come to us, and see how they are opposed to the will of God. They have no interest in love, in the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, the one who is in chains, or the one set free, the one who is hungry, or the one who thirsts.
And in the fourth chapter of his epistle to Polycarp, Ignatius says, “Do not allow the widows to be neglected. Follow after the Lord in being their protector and friend.” It is important to understand in this day and age that heresy is not an issue because it is incorrect, meaning getting something wrong does not make you a heretic. For example, there are differences of opinion among the Fathers about the witch of Endor, whether she was able to summon the Prophet Samuel. The difference of opinion does not then mean that some of the Fathers are heretics because they got it wrong. I have said this multiple times now, but heresy is heresy because of how it affects the life lived. A heretic is somebody who stubbornly walks down a path with a cliff at the end of it, and tells others to do the same. The presence of the cliff determines whether or not the path is heretical.
We can see this in what Ignatius himself says. He doesn’t just say, “See how they spout false opinions,” but “See how those false opinions have made them opposed to the will of God.” This understanding of heresy is very practical. You can tell who is a heretic simply by how they live, and then you can examine what beliefs directly are influencing how they live. As James 3:13 states, “Who is wise in understanding among you? Let him show by his good conduct that his works are in meekness of wisdom.” And as Jesus once said, “Wisdom is justified of her children.” You can spot Orthodoxy by watching those who actually do love widows, orphans, and slaves. As James 1:27 states, “Pure religion and undefiled by God the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”
This is quite a work for us today, isn’t it?
Mr. Rapien: Yes, I think you definitely hit the nail on the head there. I think it is important that Ignatius links this praxis to the theology that he’s trying to denounce. With this prizing of the spiritual over the body or this doing away with the flesh of Christ, it’s probably affected the social priorities, to the point that they are not interested in helping those who are physically destitute, and we can see this, that Ignatius emphasizes at the end of chapter six, that we must be there for those who are hungry or the ones who thirst. So Ignatius’ focus on the nature of Christ and his materiality with his letter kind of lends itself to also focus on what this means for loving our neighbors, then, and that has major implications for how we “do church” or how we live out the principles of our theology.
Mr. Andreano: Yeah.
In chapter seven, the opening sentence really confirms what I said before. Ignatius says,
They (that is, the Gnostic Docetists) abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they don’t confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
In other words, Ignatius is like: Everyone can tell who the Gnostics are, because they’re the ones sitting in the pews with their arms crossed while everyone else is taking Communion. I’m being anachronistic, of course: they didn’t have pews. We can see how Ignatius is linking the error of thought to the error of action. They refuse the cup of immortality. They refuse communion with Christ. They refuse the healing of soul and body—all because they deny that the bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Christ.
Now, obviously Ignatius’ words will be like dropping a bomb for some people. However, for Ignatius the Eucharist truly is the body and blood of Christ. This is evidenced not just within Ignatius alone, but also in the Gnostic response, because they refused to receive Communion.
There is a story in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers that originates with Abba Arsenius, who was a monk living in the fourth and fifth centuries. Arsenius tells the story about a noble and simple man who, in his naivety, says the bread we receive is a symbol and not really the body of Christ. Two old men learn about this, and, knowing that he is a virtuous man, knew he did not speak it in malice, but in ignorance. The old men find the guy and implore him to reject his position and to conform to the teaching of the Church—set out by people like Ignatius.
They couldn’t come to an agreement, so their solution was that they would all pray for the next week that God would reveal the truth on the following Sunday. When the day came, the text says:
When they drew near to receive the sacred elements, the man alone received a morsel of bloody flesh. Seeing this, he was afraid and cried out, “Lord, I believe that this bread is your flesh and this chalice your blood!” Immediately the flesh which he held in his hand became bread, according to the mystery, and he took it, giving thanks to God.
Then the old men said to him, “God knows human nature and that man cannot eat raw flesh. This is why he has changed his body into bread and his blood into wine for those who receive it in faith.”
What I find most fascinating about this story is that it says the opposite of what is most commonly said today. It doesn’t say that the bread and wine become the body and blood, but just the opposite; it says that the body and blood become the bread and wine, which is kind of interesting: essentially that the body and blood become bread and wine to our sensory experience, so we could actually ingest it.
If someone is out there listening to this, and you’re like: “What the heck, yo! This ain’t what I was taught.” I just want to encourage you to allow yourself to wrestle with this. Don’t just ignore it and move on, but allow yourself to wrestle with the fact that this eucharistic perspective is coming from a first-century bishop who personally knew the apostles and studied under apostolic teaching. This simply isn’t someone who’s going to get the Bible wrong. That’s what I think, anyway. What do you think, Alvin?
Mr. Rapien: There’s a very important weight that we have to give to early witnesses, whether or not we agree or disagree with them. The fact is that they were leaders within the early Church, and we have to take what they say seriously, whether you’re Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant. This chapter is just a powerful early statement from Ignatius, that one should regard the Eucharist as the flesh of Christ. Ignatius is so firm on this belief that one should avoid such people and not even speak about them, those that deny that this is the reality.
It’s so fascinating to me that this is just something that was a bit overlooked in my Protestant days, that I was not informed about this understanding of Eucharist. Eucharist, for me in my Protestant experience, was something you did quarterly a year, so every once a season.
Mr. Andreano: Once a month for me.
Mr. Rapien: Right, yeah.
Mr. Andreano: Or every week if you’re Presbyterian.
Mr. Rapien: [Laughter] I was Southern Baptist, so… It was very much a remembrance of the Lord and the night before he was crucified. If someone were to bring me this text during those days, I mean, I just wouldn’t know what to think. It was one of those things I had to slowly come into through Fr. Alexander Schmemann and other works like that before I could really start to even think to begin to grasp texts like this. It’s not something that you just come to and you’re just like: Oh, okay. Maybe some people do have that faith, and that is amazing; that is definitely a gift from God.
What’s interesting also to me within this is that in the second line of chapter seven, he refers to the Eucharist as the gift of God. This is such a beautiful point to make, and it’s something that we almost take for granted as Orthodox—and hopefully we don’t. Hopefully we should always take the Eucharist always in thanksgiving. Hopefully we should always take the Eucharist always remembering its importance. But it really is a gift from the Divine. It’s a free gift that is offered to us, and not something that God owes us. Always keeping that in the very front of our minds, not only on days that we take the Eucharist but on days that we reflect on what it really means to be a Christian and participate in the body and blood and to ingest the body and blood: in a very real way, it carries a lot of weight. It’s a gift, and we should be thankful for the gift.
Mr. Andreano: Yeah, it’s definitely much more than lunchtime at a funeral.
Mr. Rapien: Right. It’s the very self-giving of God; God is giving himself as a gift.
Mr. Andreano: Because in some of my past church experiences, communion is pretty much just that: You’re having this food, and you’re remembering somebody who died, just like you would at a funeral. If Grandma dies, you eat lunch and you remember your grandma. But it’s definitely not like that; at least, Ignatius doesn’t see it that way.
In chapters eight and nine, it definitely gets into some Church hierarchy. Ignatius gives us some insight into the hierarchy of Antioch and how that hierarchical ideal is being given to the surrounding churches. Ignatius says to follow the bishop the way Christ follows the Father. He says to follow the priests the way you would follow the apostles if they were physically present. He says to reverence the deacons as being an institution of God.
Then he says, “Let no one do anything involving the Church without the bishop.” He says a Eucharist is only valid if it is administered either by the bishop himself or by someone the bishop entrusted, which would be the priest. So according to Ignatius you can’t just go to the store and buy crackers and grape juice and have your own personal Eucharist. There is a proper ecclesiological method that is limited to clergy. Ignatius also says that the people should gather around where the bishop is. Just like where Christ is, there is the Church. Therefore, if there is no bishop, if there is nobody who has been ordained by the apostles or one of their successors, then there is no Church.
He also adds that rogue baptizers are also off-limits. This would really extend to any other sacrament. He specifically names marriage as well, in chapter five of his epistle to Polycarp. Ignatius says,
It is well to reverence both God and the bishop. He who honors the bishop has been honored by God, but he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop does in reality serve the devil.
In chapter size [of] his letter to Polycarp, he says, “All of you should pay attention to the bishop, that God may pay attention to you.” I want to point out that this quote dispels the popular dichotomy of American Christianity that’s all: God, thumbs up, applause, yay; man, thumbs down, boo, fallible. I’m sure you’ve encountered this once or twice, Alvin.
Mr. Rapien: Yes. [Laughter]
Mr. Andreano: I don’t think this is at all how Ignatius sees the world. I feel the need to explain this because, let’s be honest: the average American is not great at understanding the proper roles of authority and submission, myself included. Ignatius doesn’t say that we should reverence God and not the bishop. He says we should reverence both God and the bishop, which is to say, both God and man, meaning when you honor the people of God, made in the image of God, you honor God himself. Just like when a husband loves his wife, he is simultaneously loving God through his obedience. God works in his Church through the established authority, not independently of them. God isn’t like: “Okay, the bishop is going to go off and do his own thing; isn’t that cute? And then I’m going to do everything that actually matters.”
It’s so popular in America today to make a hard distinction between our relationship to God and our relationship to one another in order to establish this false dichotomy. For some people, I think this happens because they want to make Church hierarchy optional, but as we can see, Ignatius saw hierarchy as necessary and essential. As Jesus said, “Love God with all your heart… and love your neighbor as yourself,” in the first chapter of his letter to Polycarp, Ignatius says, “Be careful to preserve unity, because nothing is better.” This desire for unity gives us some additional insight into why hierarchy is so important. What do you [have], Alvin?
Mr. Rapien: I really like your point about hierarchy and American attitudes. It’s very much true for myself as well, the resistance to authority and hierarchy. But it’s also very interesting when you take a step back and you look at the different manifestations of Christianity within America, especially progressive circles within theology, Christian theology. There is this move to try to eliminate any form of hierarchy or any form of authority, yet in making that move there are still figures that emerge as “authorities” within that tradition.
Mr. Andreano: You can’t get away from it.
Mr. Rapien: Right. And it is one of those inevitable things that every particular manifestation or organization eventually creates some type of hierarchy, whether intentionally or not, where you have a spokesman, spokeswoman, or someone that just really embodies the beliefs of that particular group and they essentially become the representative of the group. Within the circles I interacted with, with some of the liberal mainline Protestantism, those of whom I mostly engaged with theologically, that I’m obviously not associated with, being Orthodox, but it’s interesting that they still revere the notion of having clergy as opposed to lay people, that they very much think, that having clergy—having educated clergy, nonetheless—is very important. So we see even in progressive or liberal circles of Christianity that hierarchy still functions. Whether or not we deny its presence, it is still very much there.
I think it’s so hard to just embrace it, to embrace it and to not really deny it, because you start to end up playing a game where you think you’re acting one way, but in reality you’re acting another. There is no true democratic way of functioning within the Christian religion insofar as I’ve seen it with any sustainable community, because you do need someone to eventually stand up and say, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do. This is how we’re going to do it,” and you have people that follow that. And that’s essentially a hierarchy, even though it may be a very small hierarchy, where it’s just one person.
Mr. Andreano: Informal.
Mr. Rapien: Informal, yes, and you see that a lot in “low church” traditions, where you have a pastor, pastor’s team, and then you have the lay committee, and then you have the lay people. That’s still a hierarchy; it still functions. I think that’s just a very funny point to bring up, because we still function in a hierarchy, no matter what setting we’re in.
Mr. Andreano: Right, you remove all the formalities, and you still have people who are natural leaders and who will be followed. Well, what do you call that?
Mr. Rapien: Right. What I think is interesting here is—I want to go back to Ignatius’ point about the gift and the gift of God. Chapter eight, if you read that as someone who rejects hierarchy and authority outright, it can seem very authoritarian in the sense that you have to obey the bishop and you have to do this, this, and that. Obviously, different cultural understandings of authority there within antiquity and in post-Enlightenment modernity.
But in chapter nine, I think Ignatius frames the entire setting very well. He employs the language of mutual giving, or we should say mutual gifting, even. So honor is met with honor, and the Smyrnaeans’ refreshment of Ignatius is met with the refreshment of Christ, and God is the recompense for the Church’s endurance. So we should not try to think of this in terms of equal exchange, as our own giving to God does not equal what God gives us. There is no thing that we can give to God that somehow God is indebted to us, but we should think about it in terms of gifting. That is, all our actions are permeated with faith and love, as Ignatius notes in chapter six. And this attitude of faith and love creates the foundation for what we can call the theological gift economy: we give to God and our neighbors gifts, and God gives us gifts, with [our] hoping for the ultimate gift, which is God. It is not for the sake of our own flourishing that we offer gifts, but it is union with the Divine, who is the source of all life and all of our gifts.
Mr. Andreano: So basically in chapters ten through twelve, Ignatius just kind of ends his letter with various salutations. But, Alvin, you said you had something on chapter eleven, was it?
Mr. Rapien: Right. So there’s a short line I think is very important to keep in mind for not only Ignatius’ martyrdom but also for the Church at large. Ignatius asks for the prayers of the Church as he goes to be martyred, hoping that “I may attain to God by your prayer.” So Ignatius underlines the importance of community prayer even when he embarks on what may seem to be a solitary journey, a journey where he meets his own death. So Ignatius’ solitary death is not an event to be faced alone, existentially, but an ecclesial event where many pray for the witness of the Gospel to be revealed to others.
Martyrdom is not, then, a solitary act, but an act of the one person representative of the many. As Ignatius represents the Church as a bishop, so he represents the Church as a martyr, one who witnesses for the sake of the Gospel. Though Ignatius dies alone, he does not theologically meet death alone; he meets death with the prayers of the Church strengthening him, that he may attain Christ. Once we try to gear our minds more in that direction, that the prayers of the Church are with us whenever we pursue godly ends, then we are not so alone in our pursuits and in our journey.
I think this definitely gave Ignatius some comfort, that the prayers of the Church were with him as he went to his death.
Mr. Andreano: And the way he ends his letters. He ends his epistle to the Smyrnaeans with, “Farewell in the grace of God,” and then to Polycarp, “Farewell in the Lord.” It has that flavor of: this is the last time you’re going to hear from Ignatius, and that is a sad face.
Mr. Rapien: Yes, it’s very bittersweet, because you know he is not going to be with you any more, but at the same time he hopes to attain to Christ.
Mr. Andreano: So that’s pretty much it for both of those, but what I did want to do, Alvin, is… So this is a shout out to Ron Georgia, who is a friend of mine. He was saying that it would be helpful to define some of the big academic terminology that we have used in some of our episodes. A couple in particular that I’m thinking of: In episode one, I used the word apophaticism, and then, Alvin, you said ontological a lot.
Mr. Rapien: Whoops!
Mr. Andreano: I know I’m putting you on the spot here, but how would you simply define those terms?
Mr. Rapien: Apophaticism, that’s a tough one. Personally, my own view is that there are three manifestations of apophaticism that we see in historical theology. I will try to keep this as short as possible. The Orthodox—okay, I won’t even say that, because I’m not speaking for the Orthodox Church. I am just a student of theology. One way that apophaticism manifests within the Church Fathers is to deny that God has some type of being in the same way that we have being. So we can look at a chair, we can look at a dog or a cat, and we can say that it exists. Yet, because God is transcendent, God exists in a way that is totally, radically different than [we]…
Mr. Andreano: That we can’t comprehend our…
Mr. Rapien: Yes, exactly, that we can’t comprehend God’s existence in the same manner. So that’s why we have to speak in analogy. That’s why we have to say that God is like the sun or all these other different types of images.
Mr. Andreano: So basically what you’re saying is that apophaticism, put simply, is the realization that words fail to describe objectively who God is, what God is.
Mr. Rapien: Right. My Episcopalian professor at the school I go to right now, he puts it in a really good way. He says, “God is off the charts.” We can chart things within human reason, and then there are things that we literally cannot chart, so God’s essence is literally off the charts for human reason.
Mr. Andreano: That’s a good analogy.
Mr. Rapien: Yeah, that we can’t even map it.
And ontology would be related to that. It’s the study of being: what does it mean to be? Then we go into more in-depth things like human nature: what does it mean to be human? Etc., etc.
Mr. Andreano: It’s good that we clarified those terms. [Laughter] If any of the listeners—if there’s any other terms that you don’t know or want us to clarify, let us know and we’ll do what we just did.
Mr. Rapien: Thanks for listening.
Mr. Andreano: Yeah, thanks for listening. Whom do you want to shout out to? I have to shout out to my mom. She’s making me do this. [Laughter]
Mr. Rapien: I will give a shout-out to my priest in Arkansas, Fr. Joseph Bittle. He has been—I don’t even know where to start. He has been incredibly graceful and helpful in my Orthodox journey. He was the one who did the baptism for my wife and [me], and he also did our crowning. So thank you, Fr. Joseph.
Mr. Andreano: Where can people find you?