Ignatius of Antioch and the “Real Presence Doctrine”

 Ignatius of Antioch wrote seven letters that are extant.  The situation Ignatius was in while composing his seven epistles is unique to say the least.  Showing his love for Christ and His church, Ignatius selflessly and voluntarily presented himself before the Emperor Trajan as a Christian bishop and was subsequently charged and condemned to death by wild beasts. 

All seven letters were written while Ignatius was a Roman prisoner in rout to Rome where he was to be killed. Four of the letters were written during a stop in Smyrna where Pollycarp was bishop; they consist of his letter to the Ephesians, the Magnesians, the Trallians, and the Romans.  The remaining three letters to the Philadelphians, the Smyrnaeans, and Polycarp were written from Troas where they tarried a few days. 

The works of Ignatius can be somewhat confusing because of what are called, long recensions.  The long recensions are longer versions of Ignatius’ letters that were created in the late fourth or early fifth century.  Even the authenticity of the short (or shorter) recensions is in question by some scholars.  Nevertheless, I will treat the short recensions as authentic because they are generally believed to be authentic, and I have found a clear reference to one of them in the writings of Irenaeus.

From Ignatius’ letter to the Smyrnaeans, there is a quote that has become somewhat famous in Catholic apologetic circles.  The quote has been credited for convincing many former Protestants that the Catholic Church is Christ’s true church, not that any of these people needed Ignatius to help them get there; they were headed there anyway.  But the quote is believed to be quite powerful in persuading Catholic leaning inquisitors.  Here is the quote:

They abstain from the eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.” (From Chapter 7)

As always, in order to understand the quote, the context must be considered.  Who are “they?”  Why do they not confess the eucharist to be the flesh of Christ?  And what does Ignatius mean by eucharist and prayer?

Who was Ignatius referring to?  Prior to making the above statement, Ignatius identified the heretics in a couple of different places.  “He [Jesus] suffered truly, even as also He truly raised up Himself, not, as certain unbelievers maintain, that He only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be Christians.” (ibid, Chapter 2) And, “For what does any one profit me, if he commends me, but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that He was [truly] possessed of a body? But he who does not acknowledge this, has in fact altogether denied Him, being enveloped in death.” (ibid, Chapter 5)

The they Ignatius was talking about are Dosetists (Greek dokesis).  The word means “to seem.”  Docetism claimed that Christ did not exist in human form.  And, as Ignatius points out, they claim He only seemed to suffer, to which Ignatius replied, “they only seem to be Christians.”

They do not confess the eucharist to be the flesh of Christ because they didn’t believe he truly suffered.  And the eucharist itself, Ignatius describes, is: “our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.”  In other words, the eucharist is the celebration of the passion and resurrection of our Lord.  Ignatius goes on to say this:

Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that ye should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved.”

It is utterly criminal what the catholic apologists have done to the compassionate work of Ignatius.  They attempt to make it look as though the Dosetists objected to the eucharist because they didn’t believe the bread and wine used to celebrate it to be the literal flesh and blood of Christ.  That simply isn’t true; rather, Ignatius conveys that the gift of God is eternal life made possible by the sacrifice of Christ.  That sacrifice is what the eucharist is all about.  It is the sacrifice and suffering of Christ the Dosetists spoke against and, therefore, abstained from celebrating the eucharist in which thanksgiving is offered for Christ’s passion. 

There is absolutely no contextual support for claiming that Ignatius was referring to the eucharist bread as being the literal flesh of Christ.  That is merely assumed by those who already believe it.  We should also keep in mind that Ignatius was about to be martyred, and this letter to the Smyrnaeans was written to exhort the church to keep the unity in truth, obeying the Gospel of Christ, and to be aware of heresies like Docetism.  If there had been anything like the sacrifice of the mass or eucharistic adoration existing during that time, Ignatius would have certainly included something about it in this letter. 

In his letter to the Philadelphians, Ignatius wrote, “If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ.].  Take ye heed, then, to have but one eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood.”  (Letter to the Philadelphians, Chapters 3 and 4)

There is only one sacrifice for sin, one flesh of Christ, and one altar in heaven, and one truth which is in Jesus Christ.  He exhorted the Philadelphians to come together to give thanks and praise, to celebrate the passion of Christ in unity and love.  This exhortation is echoed in His letter to the Ephesians where he said, “Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when ye assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end.” (To the Ephesians, Chapter 13)

Notice, he didn’t exhort them to come together to participate in offering up Christ in an un-bloody sacrifice.

Most of Ignatius’ letters were exhortations to peace, unity, and vigilance, but his letter to the Romans was quite different.  The thing that troubled Ignatius most was the potential hindrance of his martyrdom by the Christians in Rome.  Ignatius wanted to make clear to the church in Rome his desire to be martyred. Fortunately for us, doing so provided opportunity for him to expound a bit on his understanding of the bread of Christ.

I am the wheat of God, and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.” (Letter to the Romans, Chapter 4)

Ignatius identifies himself as wheat and bread of God.  This comes from the biblical understanding of the eucharist celebration.  The Apostle Paul said, “For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.” (1Cor. 10:17)  That bread representing not only the body of Christ that was broken for us, but also our oneness with him.  And, the Lord promises we too will suffer persecution because if we are one with Him, the world will hate us as it does Him.  A better explanation is found in the words of Irenaeus who referenced Ignatius’ words:

And therefore throughout all time, man, having been moulded at the beginning by the hands of God, that is, of the Son and of the Spirit, is made after the image and likeness of God: the chaff, indeed, which is the apostasy, being cast away; but the wheat, that is, those who bring forth fruit to God in faith, being gathered into the barn. And for this cause tribulation is necessary for those who are saved, that having been after a manner broken up, and rendered fine, and sprinkled over by the patience of the Word of God, and set on fire [for purification], they may be fitted for the royal banquet. As a certain man of ours said, when he was condemned to the wild beasts because of his testimony with respect to God: “I am the wheat of Christ, and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.” (Irenaeus Against Heresies, 5:28)

By calling himself the wheat of Christ and the pure bread of heaven, Ignatius identifies himself to be in union with Christ’s passion.  And this is what Ignatius wanted more than anything, to partake of the bread of God; that is, to be martyred for his faith and live forever more with Christ.  He eloquently explained to the church in Rome that he desired the ultimate prize: eternal life made possible by the flesh and blood of Christ.

For though I am alive while I write to you, yet I am eager to die. My love has been crucified, and there is no fire in me desiring to be fed; but there is within me a water that liveth and speaketh, saying to me inwardly, Come to the Father. I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.” (To the Romans, Chapter 7)

Ignatius speaks of the Spirit of God within him (there is within me a water) beckoning him to come.  He had no delight in corruptible food such as earthly bread, but rather the living bread come down from heaven, namely, the flesh of Christ that was sacrificed for the sins of the world.  And for drink he desired not corruptible wine, but the incorruptible blood of Christ shed for the remission of sins.  Ignatius was about to encounter his Lord face to face!

Attempts to use Ignatius’ words here to support transubstantiation are nothing short of ridiculous.  It is incomprehensible to think that anyone could ignore the obvious context of this letter (or any of Ignatius’ letters) just to promote their agenda.  Unfortunately it will continue to be the case.  But for those who truly desire truth and are willing to take the time, the agendas of some will not prevail over truth. 

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