Sunday, March 12, 2006

Ignatius of Antioch: Regarding the Eucharist

2 Lent

Ignatius of Antioch

I noted in the last post that Ignatius was concerned to combat the influence of docetism in the churches. In this letter to the Church at Smyrna, he draws what seems to him an obvious connection between right believing and right behavior (Ig. Smyr. 6.2):
"Now note well those who hold heretical opinions about the grace of Jesus Christ which came to us; note how contrary they are to the mind of God. They have no concern for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the oppressed, none for the prisoner or the one released, none for the hungry or thirsty."
The bishop does not offer an explicit rationale for connecting one to the other; indeed, this could appear to be an outright character assassination. I would rather suggest that this denunciation is grounded in the nature of the Docetic/Gnostic heresies: if material, physical existence is considered evil or unimportant, then Christian life and mission are essentially a matter of waiting out our present imprisonment in anticipation that God will free us from it. Therefore, there is no reason to build a positive, redemptive and redeemed common life here and now, and no impetus to alleviate the suffering of others. That would not be a Christian faith. Christian faith is a matter of believing in who Jesus is and what he has done and what he is doing and joining him in that. The Kingdom agenda is one of restoration and healing for the entire world that starts here and now in the Church.

The bottom line is that Jesus had a physical body, and this matters. It's how he saved us. We are his physical Body, who lead physical, redeemed lives in the present, and this leads to physical, redeemed lives in the future.

Ignatius continues speaking of his opponents:
"They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up."
Whaaaat? The Docetists refuse the Holy Communion because since Jesus had no actual flesh and blood, it cannot be a participation in his flesh and blood. The really interesting thing here is that as early as c. AD 110, the head pastor of one of the first Christian churches took for granted that bread and wine, broken and blessed, was indeed the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Let's consider one more snippet of Ignatius' thought on the matter (Ig. Eph. 20.2):
"Continue to gather together, each and every one of you, collectively and individually by name, in grace, in one faith and one Jesus Christ, who physically was a descendant of David, who is Son of man and Son of god, in order that you may obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undisturbed mind, breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live forever in Jesus Christ."
Leaving aside the matter of Ignatius' enthusiasm for the monarchical episcopate, I want to make some observations about what we do and don't see in these words regarding the Eucharist.

There is no reason to suppose that Ignatius had read enough Aristotle to have in mind a technical and complicated theology that approaches anything like a Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation. Indeed, any attempt to talk about the beliefs of early churches or the even the New Testament in terms of Reformation-era categories is to force people who lived more than fourteen centuries before the Enlightenment into the values and epistemology of that age. That's just poor history, to say nothing of lazy theologizing.

I find it provocative that so early in the life of the churches, one of its best-known bishops had a clearly mystical, clearly supernatural view of the cultic meal, and that Ignatius and other commentators who were so well versed in the apostolic writings would be so comfortable with it (See also Jared's essay, "Restoration, or Why I Look at the Exit Door," and To the Quiet: "Thoughts on the Eucharist").

I don't suggest that early writings are meant to be treated as canon, but that we must do business with them, as it were. Regarding the cultic practice of the Eucharist, I offer three affirmations and four denials:
  • I believe in the mystical presence of Christ in and at the Eucharist, and that in our eating, we consume the life of God, and take the new life of Jesus into ourselves in a greater fullness.

  • I believe that we make present again the ongoing salvation action of God in Christ at the atonement, and in so doing offer ourselves as sacrifices to God for the good of the world. The celebration of the holy mysteries shapes our live into a cruciform pattern.

  • I believe that this meal is an eschatological action, which makes more real and more present the ultimate salvation and judgment of our God.

  • I deny that faithfulness to and consistency with the Holy Scriptures ties me to an impoverished and minimalist theology of the sacraments. Indeed, I believe the opposite to be true: rich, sacramental theology grows out of the Scripture-reading and worship life of the Church.

  • I deny the Enlightenment, modernist denial of the supernatural and mystical that has been taken up by so many faithful and well-meaning Protestant Christians.

  • I deny the notion that any development in the life of the Church, regardless of how early or how broad, should be uncritically accepted and unconditionally obeyed.

  • I deny the notion that any development in the life of the Church beyond the letter of the New Testament must be a deviation or a plunge down a slippery slope toward the abuses of medieval Roman Catholicism.
There, I feel much better now. Have fun with that.


Jared Cramer said...

Your two denial statements at the end are terrific. I'm marking them for later use.

Anonymous said...

Just a clarification on your second denial point. The "symbolic" view of the elements was around much earlier than the Enlightenment and modernist periods, meaning that the "sacramental" interpretation is not simply the result of the Enlightenment. Did Ignatius offer any Scriptural texts for his views? I would assume John 6:50ff was mentioned, but what other texts did he put forth as evidence of apostolic teaching?


Kyle said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Jared.

John, discussions of symbol and the efficaciousness thereof can indeed be found throughout the history of the Church, but the idea that "symbolism" is or indeed can be devoid of mystical action is a new one.

Ignatius' letters do not contain arguments about the Eucharist as such, but rather he makes his arguments on the basis of what appears to be a consensus of thought regarding the Eucharist.

+ Alan said...

And we're talking about 110 AD here. There was no universally accepted and collected "Scripture" from which to quote. Once again, we come to Tradition, which parallels Scripture and, at times, helps us interpret it. What Scripture we have now is fairly literal about "this is my Body" - it is our interpretation that says this is merely symbolic or not.

I think what Kyle is pointing out is evidence that would say the very early Church with it's leaders had been handed down an interpretation of what the Eucharist was, and this is what they were still believeing and living out.

So, the Scriptures as we know them today, in a collected and generally accepted form, did not exist then. We are seeing the living Tradition of the Church, of the Apostles, in the churches in this period in these writings as well. It is this which can inform our understanding about what the Scriptures we now have, say about the Eucharist.

Anonymous said...


We must try to do responsible history and exegesis here. You are right to point out that ideas about the Eucharist do not appear out of thin air in 110 AD. Clearly Ignatius is working from some idea or tradition, rightly or wrongly. The text of scripture must decide at all times. Because there is no appeal to authority on his part, and he does not say, "Now, as John has taught me about the eucharist . . . so it is." None of these types of phrases exist with reference to this issue, at least.

Do you really believe that there was a time when the church was not under any sort of "canon" or doctrinal authority provided by the apostles? We must be good historians here, or the authority of Scripture will be swept out from underneath itself, and will give way fully to Tradition over scripture (since after all tradition determines Scripture). First, the whole concept of canon as a "body of authoritative documents" was not invented by Athanasius in 367 AD. Long before Christ, the Jews wrestled with this very question in relation to their Jewish Scriptures, "should we allow the extra Greek books (apocrypha)?" They decided with a resounding no, and Ecclesiasticus, an apcryphal book written around 137 BC says as much in the prologue. By the Maccabean period, the Jews were doubting (and they had every right to doubt) whether the Spirit was inspiring some of these later Greek books, they concluded with no. Jesus comes on the scene with a closed OT canon (Jamnia in 100 AD only discussed two books whether they should stay in, not be included). Jesus affirms as much in Luke 24:44 with the technical phrase, "Law, Prophets, and Psalms." Furthermore, Jesus affirms the Hebrew canon in Matthew 23:35 when he comments on the blood of Abel and Zachariah (Genesis-2Chronicles [last book of Hebrew Canon]). All of this is to say, Jews had a well developed concept of a "list of authoritative books" by the time of Jesus and apostles. Jesus establishes the OT canon, not the Church.

The argument carries into the NT. Is there a dichotomy between apostolic authority and their writings? No, the NT churches did not think so. From every indication the churches respected the authority of the apostles, or should have (in the case of Corinth). Indeed, Peter, by 70 AD, already views the writtings of Paul on the level of Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). Paul is not somehow unaware of his authority and his authoritative letters, hoping that they will one day be canonized. No, he seems to have a very clear understanding in 1 Tim. 2:7 of who he is ["I was appointed" divine passive in Greek]; 1 Cor. 7:25-26 (he has no direct command from the Lord, but by the Lord's mery, he is trustworthy, i.e. he is Christ's spokesperson); 2 Cor. 2:14ff; 3:5-6 (Paul recognizes his own apostolic authority here being given him by God, when God made him a minister of the New Covenant). These sorts of texts can be multiplied.

These texts cause me not to see as great a rift between the NT era and Athanasius, as though, the church had to put the pieces together after the apostles died. Rather, because the church understood canon, the authority of Jesus and his apostles (so many arguments could be supplied here), it seems more likely they had the canon, and Igantius is, for better or worse, an interpreter of it, not necessarily priviledged to inform our understanding of it.

If anything of the above is right, then the proper way to view Ignatius and the rest of the patristics is as interpreters of a body of documents and not as guarders of an oral tradition where there was no standard of doctrine already. At times, they may be able to do so, but to place them in a priviledged place to be the "inspired interpreters" is not a place I can set them. We see other interesting "developments" that have no clear anticedents in NT (martyrdom as Christians dieing for Jesus etc.) coming from this time in the church's history that should not be adopted. I think this puts me in line with Kyle's 4th denial.

To wrap this up, the concept of canon was a guiding principle for Jews such as Jesus and the apostles and we have no reason to doubt its presence in the NT, and shortly there after. Second, a comment on the, "this is my body" phrase. I do not think it is helpful to take this as you did, "it is our interpretation that says this is merely symbolic or not." We must be responsible exegetes. Jesus had a clear meaning, which the apostles understood, when he said this phrase. He assumed it could be understood. Your comment implies there are other places in Scripture one could take this same approach. Also, what is difficult about understanding the phrase? Is Jesus talking in a riddle here? Does he not have the bread in his hand while saying, "this is my body."? To me, this kind of talk is the very essence of metaphor. Jesus, while in his own body, says, this (bread) is my body. How is this possible, except he be creating a metaphor or symbol for the purpose of remembrance? I realize the debate, but memorialists can offer an argument for what the text says that is sensible, and say to the sacramentalist, please provide an answer for how Jesus can call the bread his body, while it seems that it is not?

Good discussion.


Expax said...

I know this is bad to think this way... but jeez I wish good ole Snt Ignatius had some catnip or something. Those cats look mighty fiesty. Meow.

Kyle said...

I won't repeat the entire argument, but I will remind you that I don't see "Scripture" and "Tradition" as to separate and distinctive sources of authority. We discussed this already.

There is nothing about the context of the Gospels to show that Jesus was trying to establish anything like a "canon." That's a bit of eisegesis, rather than exegesis.

I don't agree that there was any kind of solid canon that functioned as "canon" in the sense that we think of it anytime near the setting of the New Testament. Different local churches had recieved different letters as authoritative. Talking about "canon" is apocryphal, since you want to talk about "good history."

A multiplication of citations doesn't prove anything about what the texts say and just what it is they're going on about.

I also have no interest - theologically - in what any Jewish councils decided about any books.

"Jesus had a clear meaning, which the apostles understood, when he said this phrase. He assumed it could be understood."

No, I'm not so sure about that one.

And finally, this is not a post about the canon, or the nature of the authority of tradition. I already talked about that, and you already came back at me, and the discussion ended. I don't think either of us has anything new to say about it, so I'd prefer not to rehash it. If you please, keep to topic and make one argument at a time.

Peace to you and all who read.

Anonymous said...


I apologize for the length of the comment, but it was clearly interacting with Alan's previous comment and, I know you are brilliant enough (in all seriousness) to see the close connection between issues here. Anytime anyone raises the discussion of the Eucharist, all are in for a ride on how the Bible mediates traditions.
Also, saying something does not make it so. Please argue with me, and my interpretation of the texts. I do not just cite them without thought. I cite them and reason from them. Maybe I have failed to see it, but rarely do I see an alternate interpretation of the texts offered in your responses to me. Note: this point does not mean I am right, it just means my interpretations go unchallenged. I do hope better dialogue can occur in the future. Again, I apologize for drifting off topic, and the length of the comment.


Kyle said...

I am familiar with the Scripture references you cited, and all I can really say to that is that I don't see in them evidence that Paul had the same idea of his own authority that either later Councils or that you and I do. We can't prove what he was thinking, and while I can see some level of "divine inspiration" in the way the authors thought of those letters, they don't go into detail about what that must mean. We ourselves have to talk about what that means, for whatever it might be worth.

Not to be cheeky, but what it says, it says, and what it means... people make up.

Regarding what you did say about the Eucharist:

Of course "This is my body" is a metaphor. The bread is a symbol - one that conveys and mediates the gracious gift of God. The bread mediates the reality of consuming Christ. Moreover, it is the entire liturgical action of the Eucharist in the worshipping community that is the presence of Christ constituting the Church. It is the remembrance that makes present again that saving act, it is the remembrance that brings joins past and future into the present.

While that is not explicit in Scripture, it is not contradictory to it's langauage, and I believe it to be consonant with the salvation narrative as a whole.

I have never seen purpose in keeping a prooftext for everything I believe and every truth I wish to affirm.

Expax said...

Atleast you can check the proof of your heavenly ambrosia, I mean alchol.

+ Alan said...

Well, I drug the Tradition thing in there Kyle. Sorry. It is connected, though, certainly. I do believe, to some extent, there is a Tradtion that has come along with Scripture and is not contradictory - but they support each other and interpret each other. We need not worry about Tradition throwing Scripture away - it has given it to us. Anything passed down by the Apostles is not going to cancel out anything else handed down by the Apostles. Sorry, I went on didn't I?

I really don't have the time or energy to go on at length defending everything that was launched there. I will say this. I believe it very blind to look back into that history (saying one is a good historian) and see such definites in the way of Scripture and how it has defined the doctrine of the Eucharist. Again, and Kyle has said the same above, Scripture says what it says and we have said what we think it means. Thus, an introductory phrase like "To me..." in one of your sentences. To me indeed. To me, how? How have "me" decided to come up with my definitions? The written Scriptures are evident to an extent, then what? This is what: the living witness of the Church, how it has talked about and lived out the Truth found in the Scriptures and any other non-contradictory Truth they might have received from the Apostolic Tradition.

If one insists that all we have is the written Scriptural record, I believe, simply, this is not correct. Kyle is right - we have Jewish councils (how is this autoritative for us? - it is not - especially something like Jamnia) - we have letters used and accepted by different churches (and the Christian community, as a whole, did accept the Greek OT Scriptures).

OK, I have found myself going on about Canon. It's important, but not the issue. "To me" what Ignatius says here, taken along with Scripture AND what was said by other Christians of the time and later, is authoritative as concerns the nature of the Eucharist. It has real weight. Sure, he and they all, were just men, like us, but the preponderance of evidence points to a general interpretation of what can generally be called "Real Presence" and real Grace impartation - a Sacramental understanding. This does not preclude any symbolic element to the Sacrament. Surely there is symbol. Our mistake many times, is to think that these two things are mutually exclusive. They are not. the Eucharistic meal can be both symbolic and mystically contain the Real Presence of Christ and impart His Grace. What I said and say, is that is not, and it has not historically (until relatively recently) been understood as "merely" symbolic. Sorry for going on here. I just wanted to respond. Peace.