The Epistle to the Romans is in many ways the most significant contribution made by St. Ignatius to the formation of the early Christian Church.
Before plunging into the text, though, I would like to sketch a little of what I think we can agree on. The Church begins as a brotherhood of Jesus’ disciples. Before returning to the Father, he informed the disciples (Matthew 28) of their mission: “Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” This positive commandment excludes any unitarian or sub-trinitarian preaching.
Even though the Lord had appeared to nominate Peter as the chief of the apostles, the rock on which the Church–that is, the gathering of the faithful–would be built, Jerusalem, in the early days, was the center of the Church. Peter, meanwhile, had gone off preaching the Word in places like Antioch. When dissension arose between, on the hand, Paul and Barnabas who were converting the gentiles, and certain Pharisees who had converted but insisted that the gentile converts had to be circumcised and live as Jews, the case was referred to the apostles and presbyters (seniors, elders) in Jerusalem: ” And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.” [Acts 15:5]. When the Church, presided over by James, decided (after a convincing speech by Peter) that Paul and Barnabas were in the right, a letter was sent out to various congregations of gentile Christians, declaring the decision in the name of the Holy Ghost and the apostles, elders, and brothers in Jerusalem. This decision, which was the express will of the apostles and senior members, was to apply to the entire Church, which is a unity and not a collection of fragments.
We have learned from Clement and Ignatius that the office of bishop, probably evolving rapidly, conferred important authority that should not be contradicted, even with the bishop in question. was a young man. Ignatius teaches us to be humble and respectful in our dealings with the bishop, who is both our bulwark against heresy (a word that refers, literally, to those who prefer to make their own choice, to have things their way) and the embodiment of apostolic authority that derives ultimately from Christ.
As yet there is no clear-cut hierarchy beyond the bishop’s church, though it is clear from Acts that the apostles in Jerusalem were appealed to. We are headed toward but have not yet reached the point at which each major church, typically in a city, was presided over by a bishop, and the chief city in a region, often capital of a Roman province, was home to a metropolitan or archbishop, who had authority to elect and to some extent oversee the other bishops in the district. As time went on certain churches, which had received and preserved the authentic teachings of the apostles, were designated as apostolic, and when theological disputes broke out, the unwritten traditions of the apostolic churches was appealed to.
Alexandria would have authority over all Egypt, while Rome was home to the only ancient metropolitanate in most of Italy and Sicily. Five of these churches came to be regarded as dominant: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, after it had wrested the title from Caesarea, and last of all Constantinople, after it was founded by Constantine as “New Rome.” Their bishops, the patriarchs, would exercise authority over the metropolitan archbishops in their region. Although Christianity was preached in many languages and dialects, the Church’s primary language, in those early years, was Greek even in Rome, though Latin emerged later as the language of the Western Empire (Italy, Gaul, Spain, North Africa).
In our discussion of I Clement, the question of Rome’s status was raised and left largely unanswered. Though Clement was writing with apostolic authority, he was far from being the only bishop with such powers. What did Ignatius think of Rome’s status. To determine that, let us look at his salutations to other churches. The Ephesian church is “worthy of all felicitation” and “blessed with greatness;” the Magnesians are not distinguished in the salutation, while the Trallians are “beloved in God and the Smyrnaeans’ Church has “obtained mercy in every gift and is filled with faith and love,” and the Philadelphians are similarly praised. Rome, too, has “obtained mercy” but is also “the church beloved and enlightened by the will of Him who has willed all things, which are, according to the love of Jesus Christ, our God, which also has the presidency in the country of the land of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy in it holiness, and preeminent in love” and the Roman Christians are themselves “filled with the grace of God” and “filtered clear from every foreign stain.”
This is a powerful salutation. Now, for all we know, a Roman bishop might have addressed Antioch in such terms, but there is no evidence. The least we can say is that the Roman Church is distinguished above all the other Churches to whom his surviving letters refer, and, after Titus’ conquest of Jerusalem, Rome and perhaps a few other apostolic Churches would seem to have succeeded to the dignity of that first apostolic Church.
Let us move on, briefly, to Ignatius’ actual topic in this epistle, namely, his willingness, even eagerness to accept martyrdom. The comparison with Socrates has been suggested, and a contrast has been drawn with Aristotle. I have already pointed out that Socrates was to a great extent guilty as charged: He did propose radical innovations in Athenian religion and his students did seize power, overthrow the government, and rule with contempt for morality and the Athenian constitution. However, guilty or not, Socrates accepted his fate explicitly because, as he said, he was an Athenian and would not disobey his city’s commandments. Aristotle was no Athenian and could avoid execution quite cheerfully–as many Christian leaders did, including Polycarp, until he was caught in the end. Nor were they censured for doing so. If Ignatius were not so otherwise exemplary as a Christian, one might be tempted to censure his eagerness. Before examining his own account of his motives, I do want to point out what I see as a relevant parallel with Socrates. While Ignatius certainly does not claim Roman citizenship or endorse the right of the Empire to execute him, rightly or not, he does belong to a Christian commonwealth, already discernible, and he expects to do his duty toward the City of God and in doing, to strengthen the faith of his fellow-citizens.
In essence, Ignatius regards martyrdom as the final step in his imitatio Christi . (Ephesians 3.1). He would rather come to Christ through death than rule over the entire earth. He begs the Roman Christians not to hinder this final step . To rescue him would be to become a man-pleaser rather than a god-pleaser (Romans 2). He does not order them, as Peter or Paul would have, but he is only a convict (katakritos, literally one who has been judged and condemned and a slave (though he certainly knew that Paul was also a prisoner more than once), but as a martyr he shall be free and thus, one supposes, in their company. In meeting death, then, presumably, he would be free to give orders to the Romans (diatassesthai). As Aaron Wolf has pointed out judiciously, Ignatius does not address their bishop and may not have known who he was. Nor do we. The possibilities are Clement, Evaristus, Alexander, or Sistus/Xystos. Clement may well be too early and, besides, he might have been expected to mention him by name, and Sistus too late. About Evaristus and Alexander we know next to nothing–but perhaps as much as Ignatius did. Before emitting too much gas about the superiority and might of the Roman bishops at this time, let us recall that Ignatius and Polycarp were great men at a time when the Roman bishops were not especially well known. (This may explain the lack of a reference.)
It is the Lord of this World who would prevent the culmination of Ignatius’ ascent to full disciple-hood. (7) He is not abandoning his duty to the Church in Syria–an anticipation of metropolitan status for Antioch?–but Christ himself will be the bishop, when he is gone.
If Martyrdom is the last stage in the imitation of Christ, this imitation is made possible by the fact that Christ, as Paul and Ignatius (Ephesians 15) declare, dwells with us. Christians are thus Christ-bearers and God-bearers–Ignatius calls himself Theophoros. But if Christ is in us, he also insists that we are in Christ. But who or what is Christ? One perennial heretical tendency is the temptation to eliminate or minimize Christ’s humanity. Various gnostics were guilty of this, and though there may have been no actual docetist (from the verb dokein, to seem or appear) movement, it is an error that keeps cropping up. In one gnostic version, Christ never suffered at all: It was Judas on the Cross, while he is mocked by Christ in the form of a serpent–presumably the emissary of the great “god” of the universe sent to undermine the tyranny of the planetary archon revered by the Jews as told in the upside-down version of Genesis that makes the serpent the hero. Nestorians would make a far subtler argument, that Christ’s human and divine natures were so distinct as to make Mary the mother only of Jesus but not of God.
Several Syrian gnostics appear to have taught that Christ was born and suffered only by appearance and not in reality. While some docetists were anti-Judaic, others were Judaizing. In all Judaizing heresies, whether ancient or reformational, the problem is always the same: the God who became man and bridged the gap between the Father and us lowly worms who crawl on the face of the earth. Chesterton has some good things to say about Eastern religions that tend to elevate the gods/God so are beyond the human sphere that we are reduced to insignificance. I know it is controversial, but I find a greater compatibility of the Incarnation with Pindar’s Greek notion that “one is the race of gods and men” (a connection noted by St. Paul in his speech on the Areopagus) than with some aspects of Judaism. IIn discussing martyrdom, Ignatius makes it clear that he means the real in-the-flesh martyrdom that Jesus experienced, not some bogus mystical or symbolic version as would have been suggested by heretics.
Ignatius also explicitly condemns such a view, denouncing those atheists, as he calls them (Trallians X) “who say that his suffering was only an appearance…. ” In this case, Ignatius will be martyred in vain.
In interpreting the traditions of the early Church, I do think we have to exercise great caution and treat them, especially those that have influenced centuries of Christian belief and thought, with great respect. To illustrate my point, I wish to insert a little parable.
Suppose, for a moment, that I were a mainstream Christian NT scholar, and, in the course of my researches into the development of the Gospel narratives, I had convinced myself that the birth narrative, not found in John who of the Gospel writers was the one who knew him, was a later insertion made for two reasons, first, to fulfill the prophecies and second to obviate the stigma of the Messiah being a Galilean. I have concluded, therefore, that Jesus was born into a normal family in Nazareth, descended not from the House of David but perhaps even from non-Jews. His mother, far from being a perpetual virgin, had other children, though I might still believe that she was filled with the Holy Ghost. What to do? Remember, I am a Christian who accepts the Nicene Creed. <br><br>
Going from the worst scenario to the best, I might publish articles, address crowds, form a militant sect–the Nazarites–and denounce traditional Christians as Bethlemites, soon corrupted to Bedlamites. My sect would be spread around the world and in a few places, say, Latin America and Southeast Asia, become so prominent that it could persecute the Bedlamites. <br><br>
Or, as a scholar I might limit discussion to academic journals and fora, engage in an acrimonious debate but the authorities of my Church–let’s imagine I am Catholic–formally denounce my position as heresy and I agree not to teach or publish the opinion. Nonetheless, the damage is done, and less obedient younger colleagues take up the cudgels and within a generation we have the war between Nazarites and Bedlamites. <br><br>
There are a few more intermediate steps, such as quiet discussions with colleagues who persuade me not to publish my theory, but then, once again, I run the risk of one of them turning heresiarch. Or, I could simply keep my opinions to myself, maintaining respect for a tradition maintained by men and women far worthier than me, always bearing in mind the terrible penalties foretold against those who scandalize the weaker brethren. This little tale is not all speculation. Though I have never challenged the birth story, I have engaged in risky speculations in theology and history. The most I have done is to discuss them hypothetically with a very learned theologian, whose answers either persuaded my of my error or at the least of the dangers of a public discussion. Obviously in such important points of doctrine as the virginity of the Mother of God, the divinity of Christ, the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, and the resurrection of the body, a sane Christian would resist any temptation to innovate, but even in the case of pious legends and possible frauds that have been transmitted to us, we are better off to accept the story and learn the meaning that it conveys than to play Lorenzo Valla. <br><br>
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