Tuesday, February 20, 2007

St. Ignatius on Christian Unity


After Church hierarchy, St. Ignatius also seems particularly interested in Christian unity. I have already discussed why Church authority and Apostolic Succession were such important doctrines of that time in my recent post, but why unity? Why is that so important? Of course, we're not speaking of 'unity' as in a bunch of hippies passing around a peace pipe. We're talking about substantial Christian unity: to be one in spirit; the same kind of unity Christ prayed for in Gethsemane:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
And so St. Ignatius is understandably concerned about this same issue. Here's what he said:
To the Ephesians:
It is therefore befitting that you should in every way glorify Jesus Christ, who has glorified you, that by a unanimous obedience "you may be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, and may all speak the same thing concerning the same thing," and that, being subject to the bishop and the presbytery, you may in all respects be sanctified.

To the Philadelphians:
Wherefore, as children of light and truth, flee from division and wicked doctrines; but where the shepherd is, there follow as sheep. For there are many wolves that appear worthy of credit, who, by means of a pernicious pleasure, carry captive those that are running towards God; but in your unity they shall have no place.

Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend, because they are not the planting of the Father. Not that I have found any division among you, but exceeding purity. For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ.].

...

When I heard some 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.

And here, this "I dont see it in my Bible" is not such a new attitude. There is a real danger being pointed out. St. Ignatius is saying 'we have the truth (orthodoxy; Apostolic doctrine) and some disagree because of their personal interpretations of Scripture. Even though I have explained that this is in Scripture, they stubbornly refuse to believe.' Sound familiar?

Why does St. Ignatius so arrogantly assume that only he and those appointed by apostles have the right to interpret Scripture? Or is he really being arrogant? Could it be that he has a point? Perhaps it is only for the teaching authority of the Church to interpret Scripture and not for opinionated laity...

Now you may ask why I'm wandering off on this tangent since the topic at hand is Christian unity. The answer is that St. Ignatius writes in such a way that his driving points are hardly separable. If you read my previous post on Church hierarchy, you will instantly see the connection between his emphasis on obedience to the Church, insistence on only one truth (orthodoxy / the Apostolic gospel) and this present issue of Christian unity. In this particular passage, he also ties it in with his defense of his own Apostolic authority versus a very early example of a 'sola scriptura' type attitude. He actually ties it in with the Eucharist as well regarding the importance of the 'unity of the altar' which we will examine next post (I have removed that quote for the time being, just know they too are very codependent).

I think in order to understand his writings, you must first understand his underlying dichotomy of orthodoxy and heresy. Here he is calling the Christians to unity not because it feels good or because its makes life easier or any other superficial reason; but for the very real purpose of avoiding schism which inevitably leads to heresy. He is primarily interested in preserving orthodoxy (hence his calls to unity and obedience). Just before the above passage he said:
For, when I was among you, I cried, I spoke with a loud voice: Give heed to the bishop, and to the presbytery and deacons. Now, some suspected me of having spoken thus, as knowing beforehand the division caused by some among you. But He is my witness, for whose sake I am in bonds, that I got no intelligence from any man. But the Spirit proclaimed these words: Do nothing without the bishop; keep your bodies as the temples of God; love unity; avoid divisions; be the followers of Jesus Christ, even as He is of His Father.

I therefore did what belonged to me, as a man devoted to unity. For where there is division and wrath, God does not dwell. To all them that repent, the Lord grants forgiveness, if they turn in penitence to the unity of God, and to communion with the bishop. I trust [as to you] in the grace of Jesus Christ, who shall free you from every bond. And I exhort you to do nothing out of strife, but according to the doctrine of Christ.
In the early second century (or possibly late first), St. Ignatius said that unity and orthodoxy are found within the confines of the Catholic Church (alone). We're still saying that today.

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