Baptists, Eucharist, and History 6 – Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans

Next we will move into a set of letters from the end of the first century or the beginning of the second century by St. Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius was born around 50 AD and was the second bishop of Antioch after Evodius. Some of the second and third century accounts have him installed as bishop by Peter and others by Paul. Whether or not that is the case, it does seem clear that he knew both of those apostles. It also appears likely that he may have ‘sat at the feet’ of John with his friend Polycarp.

As an interesting historical note, the ancient city of Antioch in which the followers of Jesus were first called Christian, which received much from both Peter and Paul, and which sent Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys to the gentiles, was greatly damaged in a siege in the First Crusade despite its large Christian population, was then captured by the Turks, and finally was conquered by Egypt in the thirteenth century. Under Egypt, the Patriarch was able to return to Antioch from exile in Constantinople. However, Antioch had been reduced to a much smaller town and the seat of the Patriarch eventually moved to Damascus where it remains to this day. In today’s post, we’re going to look at the letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans. I want to focus on chapter 8.

But avoid divisions, as being the beginning of evils. Do ye all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ doth the Father; and follow the presbyters as the apostles; and have respect unto the deacons as unto the commandment of God. Let no one, apart from the bishop, do any of the things that appertain unto the church. Let that eucharist alone be considered valid which is celebrated in the presence of the bishop, or of him to whom he shall have entrusted it. Wherever the bishop appear, there let the multitude be; even as wherever Christ Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful either to baptize, or to hold a love-feast without the consent of the bishop; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that also is well pleasing unto God, to the end that whatever is done may be safe and sure.

Ignatius begins with the admonition to avoid divisions. I did warn those reading this series that such admonitions permeate these writings. We see again the three orders drawn from within the priesthood of the baptized laoikos, the bishop with his presbyters and deacons. The eucharist is only valid when celebrated with the bishop present or with a presbyter present working on behalf of the bishop. And we see that the consent of the bishop was required for baptism and for the love-feast that was the setting for the eucharist.

The beginning of the second century was an interim period. Some still had the full feast. Others had only the eucharist without the feast. That shift began with Paul when he ordered the Corinthian church to cease the feast, eat before they gathered, and hold only the eucharist. He told them that because they were not sharing all as one. Some would go hungry while others would gorge themselves and get drunk. Their practice also seemed to be enflaming both pride in some and envy in others. Eventually the practice of the full love-feast faded away and the liturgy became focused on  the eucharist everywhere. At least that’s my take on the relevant texts and historical information that we have. I’m sure others have a different perspective.

I will also note something that I did not understand for a long time. I had understood catholic to mean universal. I picked that up along the way and it stuck for years. But that’s not the greek word that means universal. The word from which we derive ecumenical is actually the word that means universal. Catholic is probably best translated as whole or full. That will be important as we read along. Basically Ignatius is saying that where you have the one bishop of a place with the multitude of the people of God who live in that place gathered around him, you have the whole church or the fullness of the church. It’s at least something on which to reflect.

This letter is short and as always I encourage you to read the entire text. But we see in this short section that the eucharist is something of special quality and importance, that it requires the bishop, and if done improperly is neither safe nor sure.

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3 Comments

  1. mike
    Posted July 26, 2009 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    ..wow..this excellent history lesson on early church practices is truely an eye-opener for me…i feel like such a fool for not knowing any of this tradition..i trying to understand how i could have been a christian for so long and yet never be exposed to this line of teaching on the church….?….i dont know…as i said before..im finding this a bit disturbing Rabbi…i just returned from a week-long vacation today so im playing catch up here..i read a good book on church history while away and i had the interesting experience of a book ” finding me ” at a Good Will store..its titled: Holy Sacraments for Orthodox Christians..its published by the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America and its very good in explaining the succession of traditions….it seemed more than an odd coincidence though…dont you think…..

  2. Posted July 26, 2009 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    You ran into a book from the Romanian Orthodox in Good Will?!? I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Orthodox book in Good Will or even any used bookstores, much less one from the Romanian Episcopate. Wow!

    I do understand why churches that claim the early church quickly became apostate and that they have rediscovered and are restoring the church don’t talk about anything before the start of their tradition. (Of course, as I hope I’m illustrating there is not actually any historical point of massive discontinuity in the ancient church. We move from NT writers to their successors to their successors and the practice remains pretty much consistent.) I don’t really know why the many churches that do not claim that is the case also don’t pay much real attention to church history. In my mind, you can’t really even interpret the NT, very much a text of that era, unless you have some understanding of the church within which it was written and that several centuries later canonized it.

    But that’s just me.

  3. Posted July 26, 2009 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and I hope your vacation was fun!

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