Project Canterbury

St. Ignatius of Antioch and the Renewal of the Anglican Episcopate

by the Reverend Rodney Hacking


I The Fathers and the Oxford Movement
II Ignatius of Antioch
III Incarnation and Martyrdom
IV Ignatius and Episcopacy
V Ignatius and the Present Situation
VI Ignatius the Martyr


In 1852 there was published The Duties of the Parish Priest by Professor J J Blunt. Within 20 years the work was into its sixth edition, and enjoying considerable popularity amongst those who, influenced by the Oxford movement, were concerned with the formation of priestly life and character. Among them was Edward King (Chaplain, and then Principal, of Cuddesdon Theological College. Professor of Pastoral Theology at Oxford and finally Bishop of Lincoln) whose own teaching on the priesthood had much in common with Blunt. Both expected of their priests’ time a major place given to study in which, together with the Scriptures, nothing should he more prominent than the works of the Fathers (and, no doubt, read in the original). Blunt emphasised the earlier Fathers Origen, Clement, Justin Martyr, Cyprian, Tertullian. Hippolytus and Irenaeus; King, the later: Augustine, Basil, Gregory the Great and John Damascene. In this they were expressing an ideal not only shared by the earlier generation of Keble, Pusey and Newman but also by the great Anglican divines of the 16th and 17th centuries, notably Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes.

The late Renaissance and Reformation period had witnessed a great flowering of patristic interest and scholarship. In the 17th century major editions of the works of the Fathers, Latin and Greek, appeared, in which the Benedictine monks of St Maur (or Maurists) were much to the fore. In the 18th century, Andrea Gallandi, an Oratorian priest in Venice produced an edition of 14 volumes of the Greek Fathers in which more than 350 writers were represented.

Prior to the mid-19th century, few Anglicans had played a part in the development of Patristic Study, though to one, Martin Joseph Routh (President of Magdalen College, Oxford for 63 years from 1791), Newman dedicated one of his works in respect and admiration as:

…one who has been reserved to report to a forgetful generation what was the theology of their fathers.

Dr Pusey maintained that his own interest in patristics derived from his father’s gift, in 1824, of a copy of the works of St John Chrysostom, though he was well aware that study of the Fathers had once been an established part of Anglican life, and reminded a correspondent of the terms of the canon of the convocation of 1571

Clergy shall be careful never to teach anything from the pulpit, to he religiously held and believed by the people, but what is agreeable to the doctrine of the Old or New Testament, and collected out of that same doctrine by the catholic Fathers and ancient Bishops

Of this he comments:

Scripture is reverenced as paramount: ‘the doctrine of the Old or New Testament’ is the source; the ‘Catholic Fathers and ancient Bishops’ have the office of ‘collecting out of that same doctrine’; the Old and New Testaments are the fountain; the catholic Fathers the channel through which it has flowed down to us. The contrast then in point of authority is not between Holy Scripture and the Fathers, but between the Fathers and us; not between the book interpreted and the interpreters, but between one class of interpreters and another; between ancient Catholic truth and modern private opinions; not between the Word of God and the word of man, but between varying modes of understanding the Word of God.

From 1838 The Library of the Fathers began to appear in what eventually became 43 volumes. Choice was largely conditioned by the availability of reliable texts which they took over from the Maurists. Most were of 4th and 5th century Fathers with only four ante-Nicene volumes. Liddon records his estimate of the Library:

It was at once an encouraging and a steadying influence it made thoughtful adherents of the Movement feel that the Fathers were behind them, and with the Fathers that ancient undivided Church whom the Fathers represented... And above all, it reminded men of a type of life and thought which all good men, in their best moments, would have been glad to make their own.


If Anglicans had thus far played no great part in the field of Patristic scholarship this changed from the mid 1860s with the work of Joseph Barber Lightfoot. His 5-volume edition of the Apostolic Fathers remains the definitive work on the provenance and text of the writings of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp.

They emerged from controversy. From 1861 Lightfoot was successively Hulsean Professor and Lady Margaret’s Professor in Cambridge until he moved to the see of Durham in 1879. Most of his major work lay in contesting the claims of the Tübingen ‘School’ (led by F C Baur) that the writings of the New Testament were largely second century creations upon which little or no historical reliability could he placed. In a series of commentaries on the Pauline epistles and volumes on the Apostolic Fathers Lightfoot revealed the historical vacuity of the theories of the Tübingen school.

Lightfoot knew early on in his time at Cambridge that Ignatius was the key to dealing the theorists of Tübingen a serious blow. If it were possible to date the letters of Ignatius at the beginning of the second century then so many of the arguments advanced by Baur and others would be shown to be without foundation. He had already written three major commentaries and a major work on Clement before he turned his attention, in 1877, to Ignatius. His two substantial volumes appeared seven years later. The demands of episcopal office meant he was often unable to attend to the work for ‘weeks and sometimes for months’ but he still produced a work of some 700 closely argued pages. The Preface sets the tone:

The Ignatian Epistles are exceptionally good training ground for the student of early Christian literature and history. They present in typical and instructive forms the most varied problems, textual, exegetical, doctrinal and historical. One who has thoroughly grasped these problems will be placed in possession of a master key which will open to him vast storehouses of knowledge.

To Lightfoot, Ignatius was an impeller of men, someone driven by a passion, at times characterised by an ‘impetuosity, fire, headstrongness’, the manifestation of his fervid zeal and devotion. Lightfoot pieced together circumstantial material from the letters and well-founded tradition to build up his picture. That, like St Paul, he wrote of himself as one ‘untimely born’, it seems not wholly unfair to assume him to be a pagan convert in Antioch. Lightfoot gives his approval to the German scholar Theodor Zahn’s description of Ignatius as one of those ‘broken natures out of which God’s heroes are made’. Traditions that would have him ordained Bishop of Antioch by either Peter or Paul are largely worthless. All that is certain is that as Bishop of Antioch, on an uncertain charge, he was sentenced to death by a provincial magistrate and taken to Rome for the execution of the sentence in the Amphitheatre (a clear indication that he did not enjoy the privileges and protection of Roman citizenship). En route he met with Christians from a number of significant communities, notably Bishop Polycarp in Smyrna. Whilst there he wrote letters to the Churches in Tralles, Ephesus and Magnesia together with one to go before him to the Church in Rome, in whose midst the end of his journey would be found. Those addressed to the Asian church deal mostly with doctrine and order in the face of heresy and dissension; that to Rome deals mostly with his impending fate.

Ignatius was taken to Rome by a ‘maniple’ or company of ten soldiers whom he compares to ten leopards, so harsh was his treatment. From Smyrna he was taken to Troas where three further letters were written: to the Church in Smyrna, to that in Philadelphia, and to Bishop Polycarp. Polycarp’s own letter to the Philippians mentions that Ignatius passed through Philippi but of his subsequent history all is silent. ‘So’ writes Lightfoot

…fought and conquered this brave general officer in the noble army of martyrs. After S. Stephen, the leader of the band, no martyrdom has had so potent an influence on the Church as his. The two chief Apostles, S. Peter and S. Paul, (there is good reason to believe) died a martyr’s death; but of the circumstances we know nothing beyond an uncertain tradition. Their martyrdom was only a small and comparatively insignificant incident in their career. It was by their lives, rather than by their deaths, that they edified the Church of God. But Ignatius was before all things the Martyr. Everything conspired to concentrate men’s thoughts on his martyrdom—the sudden flash of light following upon the comparative obscurity of his previous life—the long journey across two continents from the Far east to the Far West—the visits to many churches and the visits from many others—the collection of letters in which his own burning words are enshrined—the final scene of all in the largest, most central, and most famous arena of the world. His Epistle to the Romans—his paean prophetic of the coming victory—became a sort of martyr’s manual… The diction and imagery of martyrology follow henceforth in the tracks of Ignatius.

Lightfoot knew that the extravagance of Ignatius’s language had its detractors among his contemporaries and his comments carry additional force more than a century later when Ignatius is often subjected (within schools of theology) to the scrutiny of a reductionist psychology:

It is a cheap wisdom which at the study table or over the pulpit desk declaims against the extravagance of the feelings of Ignatius, as the vision of martyrdom rose up before him. After all it is only by an enthusiasm which men call extravagance that the greatest moral and spiritual victories have been won. This was the victory which overcame the world—-the faith of Ignatius and of men like-minded with him. The sentiment in Ignatius is thoroughly earnest, thoroughly genuine. It does not, as in lower natures, minister to spiritual pride. No humility could he more real than his. He felt only as a brave man must who is leading a forlorn hope. He believed that for himself death was life and life was death.

The central thrust of Lightfoot’s work lies in the 400 or so pages he devotes to textual provenance and dating. His examination of internal and external evidence, his comparison of textual variants and their use in secondary sources (he was fluent in seven languages and competent in a further five), reads like a marvellous detective story and there is a dynamic thrust to each step as he moves inexorably towards his conclusions. A further 120 years’ study has taken scholars no further. He has left the universal Church an authoritative text of the seven letters of Ignatius and a precise dating in the first decade of the second century.

St Ignatius was dealing above all with the heresy of Docetism though some of his attention is given to false teachers perpetuating Judaizing tendencies. These particular heresies were not those of the later 19th century but sight should not he lost of Lightfoot’s work as a defence against significant attacks that were being made upon the credibility of faith. G R Eden was Lightfoot’s first chaplain in Durham (and later Bishop of Wakefield) and many years later, before the University of Cambridge, he recalled the achievements of his erstwhile Master:

It seemed to us humbler students to be a battle of the giants for the citadel of the faith. Unbelievers were ready with the taunt flung at the Psalmist, “if the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps.xi.3). It was then that our English theologians, and especially that distinguished band of Cambridge theologians of Lightfoot’s day—and may we not say more particularly Lightfoot himself—seemed to be raised up specially to vindicate the truth of the Gospel. The issue turned upon the trustworthiness of the second-century Fathers. Lightfoot’s monumental work was one of the deciding factors in the fight. A learned professor at Moscow remarked in 1912, “It was your English scholars... who turned back and defeated the greatest threat to the truth of the Christian religion”.

Lightfoot’s primary achievement, whether with the Apostolic Fathers or St Paul, lies in the realm of history rather than doctrine. His aim was to show the reliability of texts and to provide a dating which rebutted the wilder speculations of the Tübingen School, thereby showing that the New Testament writings themselves were much more reliable than many of their detractors maintained. Nevertheless the doctrinal content of the Ignatian epistles is far from insignificant for whilst the epistles can be said to support a largely first-century dating for the New Testament corpus they also clearly show an early dating for some major theological themes. These include the virginal conception of Jesus; church order as the chief defence against heresy; the descent of the Lord into the realm of the dead; the close relationship between Eucharist and unity; the reality of the Eucharistic presence of Christ; and clear and significant allusions to the Trinity. Already an accepted part of Church life by the first decade of the second century they are placed that much nearer to the Apostles themselves.


Modern doctrinal study has tended towards attributing later dates to doctrinal themes, viewing their emergence as the result of cultural fusion, notably the predominance and then triumph of the Hellenistic over the Hebrew. However the recent upsurge of Jewish New Testament scholarship, which might be thought to prefer a later attribution of themes, has recognised within the New Testament the seeds and signs of emerging theological themes indicating that by a very early stage some of these major doctrinal themes were present, thereby revealing just how early the Church had been affected by its encounter with Hellenism, chiefly through St Paul. In fact orthodox Christianity had been claiming that what was later given expression in the catholic creeds of the fourth century was already present in embryo within the New Testament all along (and C F D Moule’s book The Origin of Christology had made explicit this point in 1977 when, at just the same time, the Chairman of the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England, and other scholars, had published a notorious work ‘rejecting’ the Incarnation).

Ignatius was faced with a widespread docetism, the view that Christ only seemed to suffer. This heresy had its origins in a typically Hellenistic philosophy that viewed all things material as worthless. In consequence it would not allow to Christ, upon whom the Godhead had descended at his baptism, anything corporeal. Even his suffering and death on the cross only seemed to be as they were.

As with many heresies its origins lie in something worthy which then becomes radically misplaced. In this case the attempt to emphasise the holiness of God in contrast to the sinfulness of the human condition (both of which in a proper balance can be held to be wholly orthodox) misses the central tenet and wonder of the Christian faith that nevertheless the two were one - the Word became flesh.

The letter to the Romans excepted, docetism is never far from Ignatius’s mind as he writes. The letter to the Church of Smyrna (from where he had written the earliest of his letters) in particular shows unmistakable signs of his experience of the effects of the heresy in the life of the Christian community and his letter to their Bishop, Polycarp, was by means of an encouragement to him to maintain the fight for the true faith. Whilst Ignatius does not wholly abjure personal condemnation of those responsible for its proliferation his response is predominantly characterised by an assertion of the true faith. Far from the incarnation being a third or fourth century doctrine, by the first decade of the second century we have here an interpretation of the incarnation wholly consonant with that for which Athanasius strove almost 250 years later.

Throughout his letters Ignatius in no place demurs the setting forth of the fullness of the faith of which he was himself a recipient:

I give glory to Christ who has bestowed this wisdom upon you. I perceive that your faith is steadfast, being nailed to the Cross, and that your love is firm in the conviction of Christ’s blood. Ye believe that Christ was truly born of a virgin, was truly baptized, was truly nailed to the Cross. From the fruit of this tree we are sprung. Through His resurrection God has held up a standard to Jew and Gentile alike, that all may flock to it, and be united in the one body of His Church. (Smyr. I)

As a basic creed to refute the claims of the docetists it links together those fundamentals which consequently found expression in the later catholic creeds. It is a recurring pattern -- Birth, Passion, Resurrection -- the three together, and nowhere does Ignatius hesitate in including the birth with its accompanying emphasis upon the virginity of Mary in which Docetists might have seen something to their advantage. Indeed in the letter to the Romans there is a double reference:

This divine economy was hidden from the prince of this world. The virginity of Mary, her child bearing, the death of the Lord—these three mysteries, though destined to be proclaimed aloud, were wrought in the silence of God. (Ephes. XIX)

It recalls words of Fr Gilbert Shaw:

…we should remember what the early Church saw so clearly, that the fullest safeguard of the truth is a sufficiency of devotion to our Blessed Lady, the giver of the flesh, as Mother of God. (Angels and Demons in Human Life)

In the same letter Ignatius provides one of the most thoroughgoing expressions of incarnation theology to refute heretics whom he describes as ‘mad dogs’ against whose bites the Ephesians should guard themselves with the reminder that should they be bitten:

There is only one sure Physician. flesh and spirit, create and increate, God in man, Life in death, the Son of Mary and the Son of God passible first and then impassible, even Jesus Christ our Lord. (Ephes. VII)

Lightfoot notes the use of antithesis in this passage and amply illustrates parallels in Clement, Melito of Sardis and Tertullian. Some commentators have seen the passage to be a hymn from an even earlier generation though Lightfoot remains characteristically silent on matters for which there is little or no actual evidence. The rhythm of the passage is undeniable however and it is in so small way reminiscent of the ‘hymn’ in 1 Timothy 3.16.

Ignatius’s faith is not in some Hellenistic ‘mystery’ religion nor something belonging to some sort of non-tangible ‘spiritual’ realm. The paradox or scandal of the Incarnation is absolutely central to the faith in which he is grounded, even emphasising the corporeality of the risen Lord:

I myself am convinced that He was still incarnate even after the resurrection He told Peter and his companions to handle Him and assure themselves that He was not a phantom. They did so. They were convinced, and in this conviction they despised death. Nay, He even ate and drank with them in the flesh, though in the spirit He was one with the Father. (Smyr. 111)

Inseparable from his Incarnational theology as the response to the docetists is Ignatius’s conviction about martyrdom. Writing to the Magnesians Ignatius echoes St Paul:

It is not sufficient to bear the name of Christians without the reality. We must first die to Christ’s death, if we would rise with His life (Magnes. IV-V)

There is no better refutation of the docetists than for the Bishop of Antioch to experience in his own flesh ‘before the world’ the suffering experienced by Christ in His. His longing for martyrdom is not a pathological obsession but a kind of enacted sermon, a showing forth of Incarnational faith. Thus he begs the Romans not to interfere in his longing for the Flavian arena by well-meant attempts at an official pardon. Only in this way can he fulfil his calling and show forth in his own flesh the reality of the faith in the one who himself suffered:

If it be true, as these godless unbelievers affirm, that Christ did not really die, then why am I a prisoner? Why do I desire to fight with wild beasts? In this case I die for nothing; and I lie against the Lord. (Trall. X).

Ignatius’s letter to the Romans contains powerful and moving words about realities that are almost too ghastly to consider. He will assuredly have known some who had already experienced the reality of martyrdom and may have witnessed for himself the terrors that lay before him. His words must have amazed his original readers no less than they do us:

Give me to the wild beasts. that so I may be given to God. I am the wheat of God, and am ground by their teeth, that I may be made pure bread for a sacrificial offering. Lure the wild beasts that they may devour me wholly and leave no part of my body to be a trouble to any. So shall I be truly a disciple, when the world sees me no more. Pray God, that I may be found a fit sacrifice to Him... If I suffer, I shall be liberated by Christ, and be free in the resurrection. At present I am learning from my bonds to crush all my desires. (Rom. IV)

We might say then that there are two aspects to Ignatius’s concept of the martyrdom he seeks. One is to be united with his Lord. The other is truly to be a witness (in Greek the same word is used for ‘martyr’, both being derived from martureo, meaning ‘I bear witness’) to the heretics, showing that the realities of faith are manifest in the flesh and not just in some ‘spiritual’ realm which is above that of the flesh, the heart of the faith he has lived to proclaim and for which he now also wishes to die.

Widespread, if sporadic, persecution under Domitian had been experienced by the churches in the last decade of the first century. It was under his successor Trajan, however that Ignatius found himself condemned to death, probably for refusal to worship the Emperor (though at this time such persecution was sporadic and we read in the later letters that word had reached him that peace had once again been restored in Antioch). In accepting martyrdom rather than going into hiding for the sake of the Church (as, 150 years later, did St Cyprian, though he did eventually return and experience beheading, though not before he had encountered the opprobrium of those who thought him apostate) Ignatius chose to die as a witness not primarily to the Romans but to the Church of Asia Minor. His work as Bishop of Antioch was to die. Once he had become convinced of this, all he had to do was to complete the journey:

Though living, I write to you desiring to die. All my earthly longings have been crucified. There is no more any flame of passion in me, but living water, which speaks and summons me to the Father. (Rom. VII)

It is an heroic, but essentially personal, vision. In effect he was making of himself a living sermon on the text: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10.11) and whilst Polycarp (and countless others) among the Bishops to whom he wrote would eventually follow him to the arena, Ignatius does not assume that his own vocation as Bishop to be that of all - indeed explicitly he informs Polycarp that the situation of the Church in Smyrna demands the presence of their Bishop among them.

The ‘doctrine’ of the Incarnation can be presented as being largely of ‘historical’ interest. The Incarnation is not, however, just one doctrine among others. It is the Christian faith. That is why it matters that issues which contemporary Christians increasingly regard as essentially ‘pragmatic’ with regard to faith and order receive a proper and adequate testing in the light of what is the source of all light: the coming into the world of the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary. The flesh-taking is the heart and soul of the Christian body of faith. Docetism per se is not enjoying an early third millennium revival but Ignatius’s witness is no less significant in the face of other heresies prevalent in our own time.

Ignatius of Antioch embodies the flesh-taking of the Son of God. In life his teaching is centred upon the historical circumstances of the birth, death and resurrection of the Lord; in death he bears witness to the truth of that for which he has lived. He does not see the ‘Christ event’ as essentially a psychological paradigm, an archetype conditioned by historical circumstance but as the literal epiphany of God-made-flesh:

Therefore stop your ears, when any man would deny or ignore Christ. Believe it: He was true man, the descendant of David, the child of Mary. His human body was no mere phantom. He was really born. He really ate and drank. He was really persecuted, crucified, put to death - a spectacle to men and angels and demons. And so too He was really raised again by the Father, who will as surely raise us also through Jesus Christ, in whom alone is true life.

If  it be true, as these godless unbelievers affirm that Christ did not really die, then why am I a prisoner? Why do I desire to fight with wild beasts? in this case I die for nothing; and I lie against the Lord. (Trall. IX-X)

and to the Smyrneans he wrote:

If Christ’s life was a phantom, then my bonds are a phantom also. Why then do I expose myself to fire and sword and wild beasts? Near to these, I am near to God; if only I suffer in Christ’s name. I have all power in Christ, the perfect man (Smyr. IV)

Whilst there is an element of ‘imitatio Christi’ in Ignatius’s longing for martyrdom this more truly belongs to a later era. Ignatius sets his own path to martyrdom firmly within the context of the truth of the Incarnation. Drawing upon St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he wrote:

I am the devoted slave of the Cross. It is a scandal to the unbeliever, but salvation and life to us. in it the boast of this world’s wisdom comes to nought. Such was God’s scheme for our redemption. Jesus Christ our God was born as a man. He was himself baptized that by his passionHe might cleanse the waters of baptism for us. (Ephes XVIII).

Everything about martyrdom is contrary to the wisdom of this world. It is indeed folly and a scandal, and it is precisely in this that it is united with the very pattern of God’s Incarnation and the Cross. For as both St Paul and Ignatius knew, the Gospel is not essentially about the offer of ‘help’ with living, a wisdom by which to ‘get by’ in the world. It is Salvation and Truth, and whilst both are, eschatologically speaking, the end for which the world is made, the consequences of sin almost wholly obscure them and they are received as being judgement upon the world. The Lord said:

I have come into the world as light, to prevent anyone who believes in me from staying in the dark any more. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them faithfully, it is not I who shall judge such a person. since I have come not to judge the world, but to save the world. (John 12.46f)

When, in the Summer of 1996, Fr Christopher Gray was murdered outside his Church in Liverpool, there were those quick to criticise his naiveté and unprofessionalism. A priest of exceptional ability he had preferred an inner-city parish to the relative ease of the University position which could have been his for the asking. Shortly before his deathhe had spoken of the requisite willingness of a priest to lay down his life for those whom he serves and there is no reason to think that he was speaking metaphorically. Because, as Tertullian wrote after 150 years’ experience of martyrdom, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’ it may well be that Fr Gray’s death (whilst not a martyrdom per se) will, under the providence of God, yet bring a renewal to a Church that has all too easily adopted for its own, and adapted itself to, the detached professionalism of the counselling room.

If the Incarnation is the Christian faith, then it will be when those who profess it are ready to live and die by it that this world will come to see more clearly the faith for which the Church exists. That was the challenge of Ignatius’s letters to his brother bishops and their clergy and to the whole people of God. Ignatius’s own vocation as bishop was to death. At the time of writing it was not so for other bishops but behind his words lies the possibility that a time would come when it would be different and then much would hang upon the faithfulness or otherwise of these shepherds. It has not ceased to be true.


The Ignatian writings on the three-fold ministry of bishop, presbyter and deacon, have occasioned considerable debate, if not controversy. The Preface to the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer boldly maintains:

It is evident unto all men diligently reading the holy Scripture and ancient authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.

It is likely that Cranmer had Ignatius in mind as one of the ‘ancient authors’ (within a few years both Hooker and Andrewes made use of him, albeit in a now discredited recension). In the 17th century conflicts between Episcopacy and Presbyterianism (during which period Archbishop Ussher of Dublin did sterling work in establishing a reliable text) the Ignatian writings were subject to considerable use and abuse by antagonists. One of the effects of Bishop Lighfoot’s work on Ignatius and his place within the context of the development of the three-fold ministry of the Church has been to clarify what may and what not be claimed. The German historian Alfred Harnack maintained that ‘never was there an apologist who was less of an advocate than Lightfoot’. As a rule Lightfoot determinedly set his face against attempts to abuse historical enquiry for apologetic intent. What, then, may we safely conclude from Ignatius’s letters about the place of the bishop and the other clergy in the life of the churches to whichhe was writing?

The first thing is to note that whilst it has been conclusively shown (largely by Lightfoot) that by the time of Ignatius the pattern of a three-fold ministry may not yet have been universal, it was widespread. Arguments continue about the dating of the Pastoral Epistles but the Ignatian letters would tend to make an earlier rather a later date more likely (dates between 60 and 160 have been advanced). The pattern of ministry emerging in the Pastorals appears to reflect an earlier stage in the evolutionary process than that known to Ignatius and the communities of Asia Minor. Whether Ignatius is championing the cause of episcopacy as a recent phenomenon in the life of the churches to whomhe wrote cannot be known but it seems sufficiently well-founded not to require apologetic defence. It would therefore not be unreasonable to infer that the pattern had been established for some time. (Quite whether this can be stretched back to the Prayer Book’s ‘Apostles’ time’ is another matter, though if Irenaeus is to be trusted, as a young man Polycarp not only encountered the Apostle John in what was, presumably, the penultimate decade of the first century, but ‘had been established by the Apostles in Asia as bishop in the Church of Smyrna’).

Ignatius’s emphasis upon the place of the bishop in the life of the communities to which he wrote was, Lightfoot maintains, subordinate to his concern to refute heresy:

The ecclesiastical order was enforced by him almost solely as a security for the doctrinal purity. The unity of the body was a guarantee of the unity of the faith. The threefold ministry was the husk, the shell, which protected the precious kernel of the truth. (Apostolic Fathers II.i p40)

However this is quite different from saying, as does Maxwell Staniforth in his Introduction to the Ignatian writings in the 1968 Penguin edition of the Apostolic Fathers:

The importance [Ignatius] attaches to the bishop’s office is no more arid no less than a purely practical measure for imposing unity upon churches which were too often disturbed by internal rivalries and dissensions... Nor, it must be pointed out, does Ignatius take this line because he believes that episcopal organisation is superior to other possible forms of church government - the presbyterial. for instance - but simply because the only alternative to it which he envisages is a wilful and selfish isolation. (Early Christian Writings p68).

Such a reading of Ignatius - the suggestion that the three-fold ministry owes its origins to nothing other than expediency, that it is merely contingent and therefore dispensable - has been a prominent feature of one side of the debate about episcopacy since the Reformation. The irony is that Staniforth is best answered by his own final sentence, for surely Ignatius was wholly correct in his recognition that the only alternative to episcopacy was ‘a wilful and selfish isolation’. That is precisely the point of Ignatius’s concern for the recognition of the proper place of the bishop in the Church. it is not superior to others, for there are no alternatives!

Lightfoot makes the point most clearly in writing of the bishop (and a fortiori when ‘in council’ with the other clergy) as the visible centre of unity in the congregation:

[Ignatius] seems in the development of the office to keep in view the same purpose which we may suppose to have influenced the last surviving Apostles in its institution. The withdrawal of the authoritative preachers of the Gospel, the personal disciples of the Lord, had severed one bond of union. The destruction of the original abode of Christendom, the scene of the life and passion of the Saviour and of the earliest triumphs of the Church had served another. (The Christian Ministry, p235)

Thus, in the face of schism, disunion and dissolution, the Church found in the office of bishop a new security for good discipline and harmonious working, and with it the suggestion that this is precisely why it was given to the Church. That it took time for universal application was simply a consequence of the limitations of history and geography, together with the persistence of heretical views which unquestionably resisted its universal implementation for many years.

This is not to say however that every aspect of Ignatius’s opinion on the authority of the bishop need be regarded as valid for all time and in all places. At times Ignatius (albeit in the emergency of circumstance) strays into what Lightfoot calls a crushing despotism ‘subversive of the true spirit of Christianity, in the negation of individual freedom and the consequent suppression of direct responsibility to God in Christ’. Bishop Lightfoot clearly saw that the principle of unity which is fundamental to the office of bishop was separable from the ‘despotism’ demanded by a martyr on his way to the arena. Bishops need no more be despots than it is required of them that they develop a passionate longing to explore the mouths of lions!

The Ephesian Church is enjoined to seek harmony with their bishop, Onesimus (whom scholars assume is not the former slave and subject of Paul’s letter to Philemon) and his clergy:

Act in concert with your bishop, as you are now doing. Your presbytery stands in the same relation to the bishop, as the strings to the lyre. The theme of your song is Jesus Christ. The several members of the Church will form the choir. God will give the scale. Thus one harmonious strain will rise up from all and reach the ears of the Father. (Ephes. IV).

Quite what happens when the tune is false, when it is the bishop who has fallen into error (or in a Church which has become so divided that it has to introduce a pattern of episcopacy that bears no relation to anything that has gone before, such as has come to pass within the Anglican communion - the Church of England’s so-called ‘flying bishops’, for example) is not clear.

The Magnesians have a bishop, Damas, of whose lack of years they are bidden not to take advantage. The bishop in Tralles was Polybius. He had brought with him to Smyrna a gift of some kind for Ignatius, and is described by him as possessed of a gentle demeanour. The bishop in Philadelphia is not named by Ignatius but having passed through the city en route to Smyrna had obviously made a significant impact upon him:

your bishop does not owe his office to any human appointment or any spirit of vain-glory, but to the love of God the Father and of Christ. His gentleness overwhelms me; his silence more powerful than the speech of others; for he is attuned to perfect harmony with the commandments, like the strings of a lyre. Therefore I praise and bless his godly mind, knowing its virtues and perfections, its calmness and forbearance, which are of God. (Phil. I)

No mention is made of a bishop in the letter to Rome. This need not mean that episcopacy was not yet known there. The most likely explanation is that because Ignatius was writing to churches rather than individuals (with the exception of Polycarp whom he knew well) he had nothing directly to say to or about someone of whom he knew nothing, perhaps not even his name. In the same way the letter to Rome makes no reference to docetism and is best accounted for in terms of his ignorance of the details of Church life there.

Two letters went back to Smyrna from Troas: one to the Church and the other to their bishop, Polycarp (though in the latter there is a section clearly intended for the congregation). In the former Ignatius links the unity which the bishop makes possible to the celebration of the Eucharist, itself a sign of the unity of the people of God:

Shun divisions. Follow the bishop and presbyters, and respect the deacons. Do nothing without the bishop. The eucharist is not valid without his consent. Where the bishop is, there should the laity be found. (Smyr. VIII)

Polycarp, whom Ignatius addresses as ‘Overseer (or bishop) of the church in Smyrna. being himself overseen by God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ (or, who has as his own bishop God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ) receives the fullest benefit of Ignatius’s guidance for his work in the community of which of all those to whom he wrote Ignatius knew best. his opening words could be well received by a bishop in any age:

I welcome thy firm faith in God. and I give glory that I have seen thee face to face. Be more diligent in thine own life, and exhort all men to be saved. Vindicate thine office; be zealous for unity; bear the burdens of all; give thyself to prayer and ask for more grace; address thyself to each man severally; bear the sicknesses of all. The greater the pain, the greater the gain. (Poly. I)

He goes on to encourage Polycarp to use his office to the full in the defence of the faith and in refuting error, urging him to stand firm as an anvil, ready to receive such blows as come as part of the training of the athlete of God. The words were well-heeded for Polycarp was to serve almost a further fifty years in his office and then himself die an heroic martyr.


Ignatius offers a fascinating insight into the heart of a true man of God given over to His will. It is tempting to want to leap from his example and vision of episcopacy to its practice within our own Church at this time, but such a leap needs great care. A bishop in the first decade of the second century cannot fairly be compared even to one of 250 years later let alone in the Church of today. The three-fold ministry was still in an early stage of its development. Even though Lightfoot has cogently argued that a case can be made for regarding episcopacy as being of Apostolic direction, and therefore possessing Divine sanction, long years of evolution and growth lay before it. At this stage too the Church across the Roman Empire faced the daily possibility of considerable persecution and martyrdom. That demanded a particular kind of shepherding and witness.

On the other hand a bishop at the beginning of the third millennium might profitably and properly ask (or be asked) whether endless committees and synods are really the way in which their lives are to be laid down for their flock? An institution requires administration, but in the New Testament list of charisms, administrators are quite low in the order of priorities, and of its pastors at this time the Church has other, more pressing, needs. Rather than imposing upon an already disheartened clergy systems of appraisal (mostly copied from secular models of management) it would be good for parish priests to experience bishops as those who were around so much that they could afford regularly to ‘drop in’ and just be with them. It is hard to expect the parish clergy to make visiting a priority if their fathers in God do not set an example.

In some dioceses the more obviously pastoral role has sometimes been exercised by a suffragan but as more and more diocesan bishops, at least within the Church of England, are being selected from the ranks of the suffragans the temptation is for those who are ambitious to prove their worth more as potential managers than those given to the ‘Word of God and prayer’ (Acts 6.2). If the communities within which the bishops are to exercise their ministry of unity and care are too large for them to do their work has not the time come to press for smaller dioceses and for bishops to strip themselves of the remnants of the grandeur their office once held and be found, above all, with their clergy and amongst the people, drawing them together into the unity for which Christ gave himself?

No doubt some bishops will themselves feel the force of such comments but admit a helplessness in the face of a system over which they seem to have so little control. None of them individually could change the system but to have even one who decided that enough is enough and made of himself a witness (martyr?) to a very different sort of episcopal ministry, above all centred on the Word of God and prayer, would make such a difference to the morale of the clergy, the life of the diocese and the whole Body of Christ.


When all is said and done, it was the death rather than the life of Ignatius that made the deepest impression on the Church. (Staniforth op.cit. p70)

The letter to Polycarp brings down the curtain upon our certain knowledge of the fate of Ignatius. From Polycarp’s own letters we read nothing to inform us and only the legendary Acts of Martyrdom purport to tell of his eventual arrival in Rome and glorious end in accordance with his wishes and hopes. In the years following his death it was chiefly his letter to the Romans which won fame for Ignatius. To a Church that had much persecution and many more martyrs to surrender it was received as a source of encouragement and strength. If, as some believe, we are moving into a new age of testing, we may well wonder whether the counsels of Ignatius are not more appropriate to where we are than ever before. It is becoming both more demanding and also more important to maintain a true witness. Care needs to be taken as we read the great martyr’s letters, but he is still a bright light and as darkness falls he may be more than ever needed:

Pray that strength may be given me within and without, so that I may not only say, but will; may not be called, but be found a Christian. The name will follow in due course. My faithfulness will then be manifest, when I am no more seen by the world. Nothing visible is of any worth. Our God Jesus Christ Himself is the more clearly seen, since he has returned to the Father. The work of the Gospel is not a matter of persuasive rhetoric: Christianity is a thing of energy and power... (Rom. III).

‘Endure unto the end in Christ Jesus’.

 © R D Hacking  2001

Quotations from St Ignatius’s writings are taken from Bishop Lightfoot’s translations in his 5-volume edition of The Apostolic Fathers. I recommend this work as an example of the best and most accessible scholarly work by an Anglican divine. It is available in an attractive hard-back edition published by Hendrickson Publishers, Massachusetts, at a very reasonable price.

An Australian scholar, G R Treloar, of the University of Sydney, has published his Ph.D. thesis on Lightfoot and given notice of an intention to produce a major biography. His present work is called Lightfoot the Historian and is published by Mohr Siebeck (ISBN 3-16-146866-X).

Penguin Books publish an inexpensive edition of translations of Ignatius and others called Early Christian Writings with notes and an introduction.

In his Introduction to an edition of St Athanasius’s De Incarnatione C S Lewis observed that as a Tutor in English Literature he had often observed that when students wanted to find out something about Platonism it hardly ever occurred to them to read Plato! No less with the Fathers.It never fails to repay the effort with interest. A variety of editions are now available.