Continuing my review of the Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians…
Be deaf, then, to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary; who was really born, ate, and drank; was died, in the sight of heaven and earth and the underworld. He was really raised from the dead, for his Father raised him, just as his Father will raise us, who believe on him, through Christ Jesus, apart from whom we have no genuine life.
Now there’s a short and sweet chapter with nothing to cause arguments among us today! This chapter continues the warning against heretics given in previous chapters, turning now to the actual content of good teachings. The fact that Ignatius is focusing on the humanity of Jesus suggests that he’s warning them against the Docetic heresy – one of the two popular heresies in his time which was primarily a Greek-influenced teaching. Docetism taught that Jesus was not really human, he just appeared to be human, so to counter it Ignatius (and others) had to make sure to emphasize the human life of Christ. Later on, the heresy of Arianism would swing the opposite way, requiring statements to be made about Jesus’ divinity as well, and thus the balance of the Nicene Creed came about.
And if, as some atheists (I mean unbelievers) say, his suffering was a sham (it’s really they who are a sham!), why, then, am I a prisoner? Why do I want to fight with wild beasts? In that case I shall die to no purpose. Yes, and I am maligning the Lord too!
This is not an apology for the Christian faith to outsiders; we probably should not try to use this argument against unbelievers who reject Christ’s sufferings. This is a statement from a Christian to other Christians for encouragement. To the unbeliever it sounds like Ignatius is saying “if Jesus didn’t suffer, then my suffering has no meaning, so he must have suffered!” Rather, what Ignatius is doing here is appealing to a common experience: all Christians back then were well aware of suffering and persecution for the faith. Most of the best-loved, well-known, and respected Christian leaders had been martyred. Thus Ignatius is calling upon that relevant topic – suffering – to illustrate the reality of Christ’s suffering and remind them of the hope and purpose that it can imbue their own.
If Jesus had not suffered, then (as Paul said) our entire faith is pointless, our deaths (especially martyrdom) have no meaning, and claiming to die in the name of Christ is also pointless. That’s what Ignatius is talking about in “maligning the Lord.”
Flee, then, these wicked offshoots which produce deadly fruit. If a man taste of it, he dies outright. They are none of the Father’s planting.
This verse is laden with references. The “wicked offshoots” with “deadly fruit” brings back the image Ignatius used in chapter 6. Tasting of it means more than just examining or thinking about the heretical teachings surrounding Docetism, but actually participating in it, ingesting it into your soul, making it a part of your faith. Paul employed a similar argument in 1 Corinthians 10, noting that in the Eucharist we directly participate in Christ’s body & blood, just as we if we ate food offered to idols we directly participate with demons. In both cases, to put it simply, “you are what you eat.” Finally, “none of the Father’s planting” refers to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 15: heretical teachings don’t come from God, and thus will be weeded out at the end of the age.
For had they been, they would have shown themselves and branches of the cross, and borne immortal fruit. It is through the cross, by his suffering, that he summons you who are his members. A head cannot be born without limbs, since God stands for unity. it is his nature.
Here’s a neat mixed-metaphor. Continuing from the previous verse, if the weeds of heresy had been planted by God, then they’d be part of the true vine, grafted into the Body of Christ. But rather than using Jesus’ image of a vine, or Paul’s image of the Body, Ignatius uses the image of the cross! Peter also once described the cross as a tree (for various reasons of imagery), so Ignatius is not without biblical precedent in using the cross to describe the living Church.
What strikes me though is the last comment here – a head cannot be born with limbs. It seems that he’s saying that the Body of Christ is not complete without us. For sure, I don’t doubt the truth of the statement; it’s just not the way I usually think of it. Typically I’d teach that we aren’t complete without Christ (and therefore also the Church). But the opposite is also true, Christ-in-this-world is not complete without his Body, the Church, which includes us. This may shed some light on the “fullness of the Gentiles” comment that Paul makes in Romans 11. Unity is part of God’s nature, and thus it stands to reason that his work in creation & redemption is not finished until proper unity is restored, which means the Church has got to be built up to its proper size, whatever that may be.