Saint Ignatius of Antioch: Catholicity, Unity and the Primacy of Rome

Saint Ignatius of Antioch (35 – 107), whose feast day it is today, was the third bishop of Antioch, and remains a highly important witness to the early years of the Church’s life, especially with respect to ecclesiology, and even more especially regarding the unique role of the Roman see within the episcopal framework. Saint Ignatius was bishop of Antioch from 70 AD until his death – a particularly important position, as Antioch was, as Tradition tells us, one of the sees founded by Saint Peter, and one which the Council of Nicaea stated to have (alongside Alexandria and Rome) a certain sense of primacy amongst the other bishoprics. We also know from Acts 11:26 that it was here that ‘the disciples were for the first time called Christians.

Furthermore, some sources claim that he was a disciple of Saint Peter*, or Saint John – regardless of the truth of these claims** (a legend also arose that he was the child that Our Lord set down amongst the disciples and blessed – c.f.; Matthew 18:1-6), he represents a very close connection to the apostolic era, and provides us with a strong sense of the continuity that existed between generations, as well as the fervency with which the Rule of Faith that had been handed down was guarded. In Saint Ignatius’ writings there is a particular zeal for the Tradition that he had received, and a great emphasis on true catholicity and unity, both through that Deposit or Rule of Faith and the structures instituted in order to protect and transmit it.

This zeal for Christ, the Faith and for the Church would eventually lead Saint Ignatius to die a martyr’s death. Eusebius of Caesarea (260 – 340) tells us that Ignatius was sent to Rome to be fed to wild beasts, on account of his testimony to Christ, and that during his journey there, stopping off at various places along the way, he strengthened the Christian communities there with homilies and exhortations, urging them to reject heresy and hold fast to the teaching that they had received. During this time he also wrote letters (seven in all) to other churches, providing them with counsel and pastoral support. In his letter to the church at Rome (section 6) we see the deep faith that sustained him and those he wrote to during this time:

All the ends of the earth, all the kingdoms of the world would be of no profit to me; so far as I am concerned, to die in Jesus Christ is better than to be monarch of earth’s widest bounds. He who died for us is all that I seek; He who rose again for us is my whole desire. The pangs of birth are upon me; have patience with me, my brothers, and do not shut me out of life, do not wish me to be stillborn. Here is one who only longs to be God’s; do not make a present of him to the world again, or delude him with the things of the earth. Suffer me to attain light, light pure and undefiled; for only when I am come thither shall I be truly a man. Leave me to imitate the Passion of my God.

Early Christian Writings (1987), p.87, Penguin Classics.

            Saint Ignatius’ fervent love for Our Lord was followed closely by a love for His Church and its unity – he knew that the Faith received from the Apostles was a great treasure, as it had its source in Christ Himself, and that it was of the utmost importance to preserve those means that had also been handed down by which the Faith may be preserved. In his letter to the Magnesians (1, 7) he writes of the many churches:

May they be one in their faith, and one in the love which transcends all other virtues; but chiefest of all may they be one with Jesus and the Father, since it is only by enduring in Him all the prince of this world’s indignities, yet still eluding his clutches, that we can come to the presence of God…

…In the same way as the Lord was wholly one with the Father, and never acted independently of Him, either in person or through the Apostles, so you yourselves must never act independently of your bishop and clergy. On no account persuade yourselves that it is right and proper to follow your own private judgement; have a single service of prayer which  everyone attends; one united supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and innocent joyfulness, which is Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is better.

ibid, pp.71-72.

            He also writes to the Smyrneans (section 8 of that letter) that they are to ‘follow the bishop, every one of you, as obediently as Jesus Christ followed the Father. Obey your clergy too, as you would the Apostles; give your deacons the same reverence as you would to a command from God…Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is present, we have the catholic Church’ (ibid, p.103). There is a strong identification with Christ, the Church, the Eucharist (this is what the ‘wherever Jesus Christ is present’ is referring to) and the Deposit of Faith – they are all one, and the faithful cannot give up one without the other.

Catholicity and unity were clearly very important to Saint Ignatius, and he saw that a Church that did not respect the instituted means of preserving them, instead giving precedence to private judgement, could not hold to the apostolic Faith, and would eventually thereby become separated from full union with Christ. Furthermore, he also recognised the especial place that the church at Rome had been afforded in the Church’s life (and thus, according to the deeply Christological ecclesiology witnessed to by Ignatius, an especial place in the economy of salvation), providing early testimony to its primacy in the prologue to his letter to the Romans:

To her who has found mercy in the greatness of the All-Highest Father, and Jesus Christ His only Son; to the church beloved and enlightened in her love to our God Jesus Christ by the will of Him who wills all things; to the church holding chief place in the territories of the district of Rome – worthy of God, worthy of honour, blessing, praise, and success; worthy too in holiness, foremost in love, observing the law of Christ, and bearing the Father’s Name.

ibid, p.85.

            The ‘primacy of love’ Saint Ignatius speaks of here can, by comparison with his other epistles, only really be the love which subsists in unity and by which unity is created – therefore it must be in some way related to the ecclesiological structures by which that unity-in-love is protected and sustained. Interestingly, this is the only one of Ignatius’ epistles where he does not stress the need to be obedient to the bishop or to maintain unity – an omission which can only be explained by the terms in which he addresses the Roman church in his prologue; its exemplary reputation and its primacy meant that no such exhortation was required.

Furthermore, the way in which the Roman see is described (‘the church holding chief place in the territories of the district of Rome’) suggests that he is referring to one particular church amongst many in that region, and later in the epistle he writes that ‘I am not issuing orders to you, as though I were a Peter or a Paul’, confirming that the church in question is the one which had personal contact with the two Apostles. So the church which has ‘primacy of love’ is not only an apostolic see, but the See of Peter, and it is one where Saint Ignatius does not feel that obedience and unity are things he either needs to, or has the authority to, remind anyone about. His words therefore tally very well with his strong belief in the necessity of episcopacy and its need to be rooted in apostolic succession.

Some have claimed that because Ignatius doesn’t explicitly mention a bishop at Rome that therefore no bishop existed there at all in the first and early second centuries; but this seems slightly bizarre given the importance he places on episcopacy and Church hierarchy in general, and the exultant terms with which he refers to the Roman church. It seems much more likely, given Saint Ignatius a.) clearly reveres the Roman church and refers to its having a ‘primacy of love’ – which love, as can be seen in his other writings, is deeply linked to the issue of ecclesiological structure and unity, and b.) recognises the apostolic foundation of the church at Rome, that what we have here is an important early testimony to Rome’s primacy and significance in the life of the Church.

The case for Roman primacy by no means rests upon this one witness of course, and there are many more witnesses to it in the early Church (see here). Nevertheless, Saint Ignatius, who provided a powerful witness to the Christian Faith with his own life, also provides authoritative and compelling evidence for the episcopal structure on which the Church has always based itself, and for the especial place of the See of Peter in that structure. That this witness is provided in the context of a wider testimony to the need for catholicity and unity in the Church is also an important reminder of how important a role the papacy, as its true significance emerged and its function developed over the years, would later play in the maintenance of true catholicity and genuine unity.


* Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393 – 457) even claimed that Saint Peter had ordained Saint Ignatius himself, thereby making him the second bishop of the Antiochian see.

** Though I personally do not doubt that Saint Ignatius was taught by one of the Apostles, it is unclear which one, or by how many. The tradition suggesting he learned at the feet of Saint John has a great deal of support, and it is known that he was on friendly terms with Saint Polycarp, who was a disciple of Saint John.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s