Wednesday, December 20, 2006

St. Ignatius vs. Evangelicals

Today is the commemoration of Ignatius of Antioch, which provoked me to go back and read some of his letters. Ignatius was bishop of Antioch around the beginning of the second century. In fact, he was martyred so early in the century, that for all practical purposes he can be called a first-century Christian. He's one of several known as Apostolic Fathers--the generation of Church leaders immediately following the Apostles themselves. He was a disciple of John and barely outlived his master. Short of Scripture itself, this is about as close as we get to the beginnings of Christianity. I'm sure I must have read at least part of his letters sometime in college or seminary, but I wasn't particularly interested at the time. I'm noticing some interesting things in them now:
  • He clearly assumes a governing structure of one bishop in the church of each city over several presbyters. (The English word "priest," incidentally, is derived from Greek "presbyter," and apart from Protestant tradition translates the same. Protestants prefer the term "elder.")
  • He articulates a sacramental or salvific view of the eucharist (communion), calling it "the medicine of immortality," an "antidote to prevent us from dying," causing our eternal life.
  • He advises complete spiritual submission to the bishop and speaks of him as the representative of Christ (and the presbyters in the place of the apostles). For him, the bishop is the center and source of unity for the Church. Indeed, without the bishop and presbyters, there is no Church.
  • He hints at the salvific nature of the Church by indicating that not only heresy is to be avoided, but schisms in general, and that anyone who follows schismatics out of the Church is in danger for his soul.
  • He warns against heretics who (among other things) deny that the eucharist is the body and blood of Christ.
  • He invalidates communion or baptism that is not performed by the bishop or his agent.
And that's to say nothing of the intense devotion to the Virgin Mary that appears in the so-called "spurious epistles." (I make no judgment one way or the other about their authenticity.)

I find these points interesting, because they highlight the historical problem for Evangelicalism and Protestantism in general. These are elements with which Evangelicals I know would take issue, and in so doing they would have to say that a disciple of the Apostle John himself--not just any disciple, but one entrusted with oversight of the Church at Antioch--departed significantly from the true, biblical model of the Church and its ordinances. I don't think most Evangelicals quite realize the seriousness of the charges they must bring. It's easy enough to feel comfortable with some vague idea that over centuries of gradual deterioration and corruption the Church turned into Roman Catholicism and subsequently needed to be reformed in a big way. But the evidence of St. Ignatius's letters points to a Church situation so dramatically different from what many Evangelicals would expect, that they're faced with a difficult choice. Either admit that the Church rapidly plunged into serious error from the first generation after the Apostles, or re-think the picture of early Christianity that has become popular.

Personally, I think the latter is the better option. (Of course, I would.) When faced with this kind of conflict, doesn't it make more sense to re-think our interpretation of Scripture (which admittedly provides very little explicit support for the Evangelical model) than to suppose such a radical departure in such a short time?

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