Continuing my review of the Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians…
God has granted me many an inspiration, but I keep my limits, lest boasting should be my undoing. For what I need most at this point is to be on my guard and not to heed flatterers. Those who tell me ___ – they are my scourge.
(The blank in the quote is a blank in the manuscript; either Ignatius left the specifics blank because he didn’t want to dwell on it, or the manuscripts themselves lost what belonged there over time.)
Previously, Ignatius was writing about obeying and honoring the clergy in the Church, and he ended chapter 3 with a little self-reference concerning his hesitancy to exert his full authority on the Trallians. Here in chapter 4 he continues that line of thought with an unusually personal self-disclosure. He recognizes his gift of prophecy – “many an inspiration” (consider also his nickname ‘Theophorous’ at the beginning) – but also recognizes that he has limits and is in danger of prideful boasting.
He knows that such a sin really messed people up, especially leaders such as himself, so he avoids even writing down what his would-be flatterers might say about him. It’s a good demonstration of self-restraint in the avoidance of temptation; that’s a lesson which never gets old. It’s also important to note what he says at the end of this verse: people who needlessly flatter him are a scourge! Just as we should be careful not to boast, ourselves, we should also be careful not to cause others to stumble by over-inflating them.
To be sure, I am ever so eager to be a martyr, but I do not know if I deserve to be. Many people have no notion of my impetuous ambition. Yet it is all the more a struggle for me. What I need is gentleness by which the prince of this world is overthrown.
The intimate self-disclosure continues! Ignatius, the great Bishop of Antioch, is confessing his excitement to be a martyr for the faith. He knows that if this happens, he’ll be remembered among Christians, honored like the Apostles, as well as rewarded in heaven. How difficult it must be, in that situation, to avoid getting excited about all the glory he’ll taste! Not that looking forward to it is bad, but he points out that such ambitions may get in the way of proper Christian humility and gentleness, and he has to remind himself that he does not know if he deserves the honor awaiting him.
In terms of spirituality, this is probably more catholic than evangelical. In evangelicalism we’re typically encouraged to celebrate the glory of God’s salvation in our lives, while in catholicism we’re typically encouraged not to presume upon God’s salvation, but live humbly and let God deal with the honor and judgment bit. Ignatius is certainly on the catholic side of that spectrum in this passage.
Am I incapable of writing to you of heavenly things? No, indeed; but I am afraid to harm you, seeing you are mere babes. You must forgive me, but the chances are you could not accept what I have to say and would choke yourselves. Even in my own case, it is not because I am a prisoner and can grasp heavenly mysteries, the ranks of the angels, the array of principalities, things visible and invisible – it is not because of all that that I am a genuine disciple as yet. There is plenty missing, if we are not going to be forsaken by God.
This chapter, honestly, confuses me a bit. I’m not entirely sure what he’s getting at regarding “heavenly things” that he can’t risk telling the Trallians about. I don’t know why suddenly calls them “mere babes” after praising them earlier in the letter and never leveling any serious charges against them, other than the possible warning against division and disobedience. But there are a few things I can comment upon.
First of all, it seems that there are a lot of teachings about God and the Gospel, in general, that Ignatius is not addressing in this letter, which he acknowledges at the end of the chapter – “there is plenty missing if we are not going to be forsaken…” But for whatever reason, he deigns not to get into it with them, lest he accidentally gives them too much to swallow at once.
A further clue to what he might be referring to is in the middle of the chapter: “the ranks of the angels, the array of principalities.” I don’t know much about the Early Church’s specific teachings about spiritual warfare, but it seems as though that’s what Ignatius might be alluding to here. Angels and demons feature prominently in the Christian (and non-christian) life whether we realize it or not, and I don’t doubt for a moment that a man of his position must have been in the center of many a powerful spiritual battle on his way to martyrdom. Evil spirits trying to goad him into prideful boasting, angels of God trying to protect him from such ambitions… if he had any grasp of the spiritual dynamics of his situation (and this chapter indicates he did) then surely he must have a lot to say.
But he doesn’t say much about it all. Instead he just gives us this little comment, “it is not because of all that that I am a genuine disciple as yet.” So despite the importance of this dynamic in the Christian life and struggle, awareness of it and dealing with it is not the heart of being a disciple of Christ. ‘Tis a good reminder for traditions today that emphasize that charismatic stream of Christianity over all else, and for the rest of us not to allow it to outshine the heart of the Gospel, and godly Christian living.