Saturday, January 30, 2010

St. Ignatius of Antioch & Sola Scriptura

St. Ignatius of Antioch was the third Bishop of Antioch after the Apostle Peter and St. Evodius, and was appointed to be Bishop of Antioch by St. Peter. Before becoming Bishop of Antioch, he had been a disciple of the Apostle John and is identified by several ancient authorities as being one of the children whom Christ blessed in Matthew 19:13-15.

While on his way from Antioch to be martyred in Rome (where he was eventually, in about AD 107, martyred by being eaten by lions in the Colosseum), he wrote a series of seven letters, six to various churches and a final one to his friend St. Polycarp of Smyrna, a fellow-Bishop and fellow-disciple of St. John the Apostle. His letters are important because of their forcefulness (he was a Bishop and, if his letters are any indication, expected his wishes to be fulfilled on this authority alone) and because of the details they contain about early Christian belief and practice, especially concerning the role of clergy, the Sacraments, and ecclesiology.

His writings are important to the debate about whether the Church Fathers believed in Sola Scriptura for a couple of reasons:
  1. Perhaps the most important reason is that he argues specifically against Sola Scriptura as it was being adopted by certain Jews in his time. Remember, he's writing at a time before the New Testament books were even widely recognized as Scriptural individually much less as a 27-book whole like we have today; for him and his contemporaries, the Gospel was almost completely oral Tradition. Here's what he says about those Jews who objected to the Gospel because they couldn't find it in Scripture:
    "I heard some [Jews] saying, 'If I do not find it in the ancient Scriptures, I will not believe the Gospel;' on my saying to them, 'It is written,' they answered me, 'That remains to be proved.' But to me Jesus Christ is in the place of all that is ancient: His cross, and death, and resurrection, and the faith which is by Him, are undefiled monuments of antiquity." - Epistle to the Philadelphians, 8
  2. The second reason St. Ignatius' letters are important to this debate is that he is unequivocal about where authority is located in the Church, namely, in the Bishops who bear Apostolic Succession -- and what the state is of those who choose to break with or deny this authority. Here's a few relevant quotes:
    "See that ye all follow the Bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the Priests as ye would the Apostles; and reverence the Deacons, as being the command of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the Bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the Bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the Bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church. It is not lawful without the Bishop either to Baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid." - Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 8

    "... Continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ our God, and the Bishop, and the enactments of the Apostles. He that is within the altar is pure, but he that is without is not pure; that is, he who does anything apart from the Bishop, and Priests, and Deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience." - Epistle to the Trallians, 7

    "It is well to reverence both God and the Bishop. He who honours the Bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the Bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil." - Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 9

    "Give ye heed to the Bishop, that God also may give heed to you. My soul be for theirs that are submissive to the Bishop, to the Priests, and to the Deacons, and may my portion be along with them in God!" - Epistle to Polycarp, 6

    "As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the Apostles, so neither do ye anything without the Bishop and Priests." - Epistle to the Magnesians, 7
If you'd like to read the seven letters of St. Ignatius for yourself, you can do so here.

(originally published 11 December 2009 at Pious Fabrications)


Garret said...

Hi David!

"the Gospel was almost completely oral Tradition."

Those who hold to sola Scriptura understand this- enscripturation of the Apostolic writings, and their widespread distribution wasn't immediate. The OT doesn't give the gospel, another fact accepted. Jesus, as you know battled the traditions of men and called out the religious leaders on the basis of Scripture, and thwarted Satan with 'it is written'- so you can't import a hostility to Scripture as it was then understood, and it would be inappropriate to lay hostility to Scripture at Ignatius' feet when all he was saying was that the gospel is not in the OT! Jesus was clear- the faithful Jews practiced the faith based on the proper understanding of the texts they studied and held to, and were to avoid the traditions of men, and hypocracy.

David said...


I'm certainly not trying to attribute any hostility towards Scripture to anyone. The Apostles and early Fathers were definitely lovers of Scripture, as Christians today should also be. I think that what's important to remember though is that Scripture must always be interpreted, if we are to interpret it correctly, in the light of Christ and the Gospel as taught by he and the Apostles. In this sense, I think that we can, to some extent, import Ignatius' attitude today, and even expand it to encompass interpretation of the New Testament. The Jews did not interpret the Old Testament in the light of Christ and so they wrongly interpreted it. Similarly, there are many today who do not interpret the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, in the light of the Apostolic Gospel, and so wrongly interpret.

I think that there is a misunderstanding amongst many adherents to Sola Scriptura that those who do not adhere to that principle harbor some animosity toward Scripture or claim that Scripture is insufficient. This is not the case. What we say is that Sola Scriptura as a strict principle is impossible, as there must always be a context of interpretation. And what is important is finding the more reliable interpretation. I think that we can find no more reliable interpretation than that of those who sat at the feet of the Apostles and had the opportunity to ask questions and receive answers.

Garret said...

You are talking about hermaneutics. If a person who practices sola Scriptura is not using the tools of exegesis and hermaneutics to understand the text, then sola Scriptura could not be fully effective, I agree. Sola Scriptura does not mean a yokel and his Bible suddenly are transformed into theologically flawless exegetes. The typical study bible that you can buy has intros to the books that effectively paint a picture of the place, culture, religions, government, etc of the epistles and books, to establish a context- this helps. Further, one would hope to have well educated pastors, who are effective teachers of the Scriptures.
One of the inherent problems that the early church faced, was a lack of collated texts of the apostles. We have it good here, because we can point to 27 NT books, and access numerous other gnostic writings and texts to compare to. Many of the early churches had only a few epistles, and could easily develop an imbalanced gospel- excessive legalism, antinomianism, heretical travelers with false gospels causing trouble etc. One must be careful when reading the fathers to consider that they might have drifted too, on certain issues, no?
God bless you,

Jnorm888 said...


All of the early church fathers and nonfathers didn't have to have all 27 NT books when they had Apostles, Apostolic men, as well as people who actually sat at the feet of Apostles to listen to. And so, you should keep this in mind when reading them.


David said...


Here also Jnorm has raised some good points. I'd like to add a few things though:

First, study Bibles certainly provide some context, but not the right context. The context of the New Testament is not just 1st century Palestine, but, more importantly, the Apostolic Faith and early Christian practice. The only study Bible that I know of which features this context is the Orthodox Study Bible ;)

In response to the second part of your comment, I think that Jnorm raises an excellent point there. While I was in Iraq, I wrote letters to my almost everyday. Now that I'm home, I don't write her letters -- I talk to her :) Similarly, the generation of Christians who were able to actually sit at the feet of the Apostles and listen to them explain the Faith weren't in need of our 27 book New Testament. That would become necessary, and history shows that it did, after this generation of Christians began to pass away. Also, a reading of the Fathers reveals that they were by no means haphazard in their preservation of the Faith. They did, after all, preserve the writings that now make up our current 27 book New Testament for us -- sorting through dozens of writings claiming to be written by Apostles. They based their decision as to what was Apostolic and what was not (and there what went into the NT and what didn't) largely on the Faith as it was taught in the Church, amongst the Faithful, and especially in the Liturgy. So, if we start to think that their Faith was somehow corrupt, then we must admit that the basis upon which our current New Testament was decided was also corrupt -- which naturally leads to the conclusion that our New Testament is corrupt. It's a slippery slope.

Now, no one asserts that the Fathers were infallible -- but that's precisely why we look for a consensus. Say ten people are shown an object -- you ask them later what they saw; 9 reply that it's an apple, one says it was an apricot. We can say with absolute certainty that the object was an apple. The sheer volume and amazingly widespread geography in a time when travel was a relatively difficult enterprise should be enough to impress in that they agree so consistently with one another.

You mentioned Tertullian's Prescription Against the Heretics in one of your previous posts. He also brings up the same point that I do -- the Gnostics of his time were asserting that the Orthodox had fallen away from the truth Apostolic preaching. He responds by asking how it could be possible, practically speaking, that every Christian in the world, from India to Spain, Ethiopia to Russia, could have so quickly fallen so far away from the "real" Apostolic message. And, at that, all agree with each other precisely on what their "false" gospel is. As Tertullian aptly points out, error necessarily creates diversity of opinion, not unity.





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