Monday, February 19, 2007

St. Ignatius on Church Hierarchy


Throughout his epistles, the most obvious and redundant point Ignatius hammers into his readers is the importance of obedience to the hierarchy of the Church. Specifically: the bishops. Ignatius speaks of a one bishop system which Protestant historian Bruce Shelley (for example) states has developed between the time of Paul’s writings and the beginning of the second century. Of course, this is highly debatable though not crucial either way.

It is to be expected that hierarchy would develop. Who needs hierarchy among a dozen Jews in an upper room? But one thing we know is that the hierarchy developed extremely quickly. Without question, before the direct successors of the apostles died, the basic hierarchal structure became a finished product. That is; we are still using it to this very day in the Church (Catholic & Orthodox) – bishop (overseer) – priest (presbyter) and deacon.

Again, this structure can arguably be linked to the structure in New Testament times as attested to by the writings of Paul & Luke since all three offices are distinctly mentioned. Regardless of whether you take the view point of some Protestants (like Bruce Shelley) it is firmly decided that by the closing of the first century, the structure was precisely how it is today. Mr. Shelley, on page 70 of his book, ponders at how this development was possible. I find it decidedly difficult to conceive of as a ‘development’ myself. Considering that St. Polycarp (the bishop of Smyrna) was directly ordained by St. John himself (as is attested to in other early Church writings), and St. Ignatius was the third bishop of Antioch, I find it much easier to believe that this general system of hierarchy ‘developed’ more or less immediately as the apostles proselytized. And of course as stated previously in my discourse on the book of Acts, the council of Jerusalem as recorded in Scripture is of inestimable value with regards to the initiation of Church hierarchy.

Here’s a couple examples of what Ignatius said on the subject of obedience to the bishop:
To the Ephesians:
It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself.

To the Magnesians:
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 presbyters.
This is more or less a recurring theme in all of his epistles. It is important for all Christians to realize that the notion of Church hierarchy did not by any means originate in the middle ages. Ignatius is one of the clearest and earliest examples of such strong Catholic language and he is by no means alone. Aside from the Scripture I have already pointed to, many other Church fathers said similar things around the same time or possibly even earlier (such as St. Clement of Rome).

If we were to paint a mental picture of the early Christian Church around the end of the first century, it makes a lot of sense to assume hierarchal authority within the Church as an important issue. St. Ignatius makes that clear with his recurring theme of obedience to the bishops.

Can't We All Just Get Along?
But why was it such an issue? Why couldn't everyone just interpret the Scriptures themselves? First, there was no widely agreed upon canon at that time. This wouldn't come around until several hundred years later. It would take well over a millennium, in fact, to be solidified.

Secondly, we know from history that humanity just doesnt work that way. Even if there was an agreed upon canon (like we have today) you would have innumerable divisions and sects (like we have today) without firm authoritative and hierarchal structure (like the Catholic Church has today). It doesnt take much imagination to see why hierarchy and obedience was such a huge issue for St. Ignatius.

Sheep need a shepherd. Christ spoke of this allegory a number of times. He established 12 of His sheep which would in turn become shepherds for other sheep. Ignatius is exhorting the sheep to obey their shepherd. And how do we separate the true shepherds from the false ones? This was another doctrine of enormous importance at that time: Apostolic Succession. I have already discussed the importance of this doctrine from the viewpoint of Church historian, Eusebius in part 1 & part 2.

Listen to what St. Ignatius says:
I therefore, yet not I, but the love of Jesus Christ, entreat you that you use Christian nourishment only, and abstain from herbage of a different kind; I mean heresy. For those [that are given to this] mix up Jesus Christ with their own poison, speaking things which are unworthy of credit, like those who administer a deadly drug in sweet wine, which he who is ignorant of does greedily take, with a fatal pleasure leading to his own death.

Be on your guard, therefore, against such persons. And this will be the case with you if you are not puffed up, and 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 presbytery, and deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience.
He is therefore speaking of not only obedience (again) and hierarchy in this passage but also making a clear distinction that fits well into a modern understanding of the dichotomy between orthodoxy and heresy. This stands in stark contrast to some modern secular scholarship which I had contradicted several posts ago which claimed that the perspective of "orthodoxy vs heresy" was a relatively modern one.

Notice he exhorts his hearers to continue on in union with Christ and the bishop and the 'enactments of the apostles'. How these sorts of things could transpire without the bible (or with it for that matter) and without Apostolic Succession (if such a doctrine were assumed to be false) is beyond me.

I think St. Ignatius is pointing out a certain orthodoxy of the Christian faith if you can visualize it. The concept is that Jesus Christ initiated a truth; we call this orthodoxy. Anything that is not His truth is 'poison'. Beware of the 'dogs' who are trying to feed you that poison. The only way you can know the difference between the truth of Christ (orthodoxy) is to be 'within the altar' or in other words, the visible Church established by His apostles and maintained by the bishops, presbyters and deacons.

Examining not only this passage but his entire work, it doesnt seem to be, in Ignatius' view, a possibility to be outside of the visible Church and yet in communion with God. That is, 'he cannot have God as Father who has not Church as mother' to quote another famous Church father. The Church, according to St. Ignatius, and her hierarchal structure established by the apostles themselves exists to defend the 'sheep' from dogs who would otherwise poison them with heresy. The Church exists to 'guard the faith' which was entrusted to her initially by Christ, then the apostles, and now guarded by the faithful living in obedience to their respective bishops (and not discerning truth for themselves apart from the Church).

It could be argued that his views on Apostolic Succession may not have been exactly as we see them today however. Listen to what he says to the Romans:
Remember in your prayers the Church in Syria, which now has God for its shepherd, instead of me. Jesus Christ alone will oversee it,
A modern Catholic would never have written such a thing. But apparently, an early Catholic would have (because he did!). St. Ignatius doesn't have in his mind an immediate earthly successor. To him, the Church in Syria has no bishop now that he is being carried off to martyrdom. It may well have been true, they had no time to elect a new bishop. So for now, the Church at Antioch (in Syria) was without one. This doesn't really cause a problem, I just thought I'd bring it up. His language isn't ideal for Catholicism.

But just how Catholic was St. Ignatius? Of course, we know that he was the first (in extant writing) to use the term "Catholic" when he wrote to the Smyrnaeans and said:
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.
According to Protestant historian Bruce Shelley, this indicates (since he speaks of the term as if its already widely known and accepted) that the term likely originated as early as the last quarter of the 1st century). Its not difficult to conceive of the possibility of it originating even earlier though no longer in extant writing and perhaps never even mentioned before St. Ignatius.

But this talk of hierarchy surely begs another important question in regards to St. Ignatius' Catholicity. His views on the bishops' authority are now quite clear but what about the authority of the bishop of Rome? We will discuss his views on the primacy of the Roman bishop in the next post.

1 comment:

NotMyOpinion30 said...

But wait... doesn't historical tradition hold that he was the disciple of St. John the Theologian, and that he was appointed by St. Peter as the See of Antioch? Could it be possible that he received these teachings from the Apostles themselves? And if so, where did the Apostles receive such teaching? Hmm... I'm curious. Where is this all leading?