St. Ignatius of Antioch was born some time close to when Jesus was crucified, and lived until about 117AD. He was the bishop (overseer) of the church in Antioch, which was in Syria, just north of Samaria. This was where many Jewish Christians had regrouped after the sack of Jerusalem in 70AD. He was Antioch’s third head bishop, preceded by Evodius (of whom we know very little) and Peter (the great Apostle). From historical records, it seems that Peter was responsible for appointing (ordaining?) both Evodius and Ignatius. Ignatius was also likely a student of the Apostle John, so he was intimately connected not only with Christians in various parts of the Roman world, but with the original Apostles themselves.
As such, Ignatius’ writings are extremely valuable for understanding how the second generation of Christians received the Christian faith from the Apostles and the “New Testament church” as some would call it. Where the book of Acts shows us the Church in early formation, Ignatius reveals a Church already capable of looking back on itself. Even more usefully, Ignatius’ writings are very neatly in line with the later codified views of the 4th and 5th centuries. This is cool for the Catholic tradition, cos we can look back and see this assurance that the historic Church really was the Apostolic tradition. This is annoying for the ‘Free Church’ traditions who force themselves to see “Catholic corruption” in such early stages of the Church’s growth.
But Ignatius wasn’t writing primarily to set out doctrines and dogmas. He was on his way to martyrdom in Rome, and wrote letters to various churches he met along the way, to encourage them and give quick words of advice for their various situations. It’s a lot like reading some of Paul’s epistles, except Ignatius has access to some New Testament texts and is able to quote them, rather than just the Old Testament.
The shortest of his surviving seven letters is to the Trallians – the people of Tralles, a small town east of Magnesia, which in turn was near Ephesus (which is on west coast of modern-day Turkey). It seems to have been a rather smaller town than most of the places we read about in the New Testament, because I haven’t found it on any historical maps yet. Whateverso, it seems to have been near one of the land routes through Asia Minor between Antioch and Rome.
The Epistle to the Trallians is 13 chapters long – and these chapters are each about 2-3 verses (sentences) long. So in a book, it’s barely 3 pages in length. I’m going to be reviewing and commenting upon a section of it each Friday. Preface & chapter 1 today, chapters 2-3 next Friday, and so on.
Ignatius offers “full hearty greetings” to the Trallians, introducing himself as Ignatius Theophorous – the “god-bearer” or “god-inspired.” It’s probably an honorary nickname bestowed on him by an approving mentor, or perhaps by his loving congregation. He tells the Trallians that they’re a real credit to Jesus Christ because they’re completely at peace. The passion of Jesus Christ is at the center of their life and hope, and he is glad to see it and be able to encourage them about it!
Ignatius comments on their good character, above reproach and “steady under strain” – probably referring to their godly handling of persecution. He recognizes that they’re not just faking it, but that it comes naturally to them. How does Ignatius know this? He didn’t actually meet their congregation, he met their bishop, Polybius. “He came to me in Smyrna and so heartily congratulated me on being a prisoner for Jesus Christ that in him I saw your whole congregation.” This is representational headship in action! It’s the idea that the leader of a group represents the group because they each reflect upon the other.
(My side note: This is how our salvation was wrought through Jesus Christ, after all: he was the rightful king of creation, and thus represented us spiritually and really on the cross such that his death counts for us. Thus when we become Christians, we have to be baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, making his act count for us as individuals. That same kind of representation is what allows Ignatius to see the Church in Tralles by just seeing Bishop Polybius.)
“I welcomed, then, your godly good will, which reached me by him, and I gave thanks that I found you, as I heard, to be following God.” And this, come to think of it, isn’t all that different from how Paul praised certain churches for their faithfulness after just meeting a delegation from their town or city.
In chapter 2, he starts into some teaching about the Church to explain his above reasoning, like why he can see a Church in its Bishop. I’ll pick up there next week.