Baptists, Eucharist, and History 7 – Ignatius to the Philadelphians

Next, let’s look at the letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Philadelphians. This is a very short letter and I recommend reading the entire letter. For the purpose of this post, though, we’re going to focus on chapter 4.

Be diligent, therefore, to use one eucharist, for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup, for union with his blood; one altar, even as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons, who are my fellow-servants, to the end that whatever ye do, ye may do it according unto God.

One eucharist or thanksgiving because there is one flesh of Jesus. One cup in union with his blood. And the one eucharist and one altar are associated with the one bishop of a particular place.

Here in a single sentence forming a single section of his letter, we find the ideas of oneness with each other associated with the eucharist united to the body and blood of Jesus tied to the single bishop of a particular physical place. We find here the tangible physicality of our faith. It is not something invisible or ethereal. It is not something abstract. Rather, each aspect is tied to our physical reality and ultimately to the physical reality of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This sentence describes an experiential reality that is very different from what Zwingli described. Moreover, it’s extremely early and is consistent with what we find in the Holy Scriptures that we call the New Testament and the other writings of the first century such as the Didache. As we move forward, we’ll see that continuity maintained. Certainly there are refinements to the liturgical practice of the church. And it is influenced by and adapted to the cultures it meets as Christianity spreads. Nevertheless the differences are minor and the understanding of the church and of the eucharist remains largely uniform and consistent. There is no significant point of discontinuity where the belief or practice of the church changed in the ancient world. There are battles already with gnostics, judaizers, and schismatics. Nevertheless, the thread of the church is easy to find and follow through them. It continues. The other groups fade away and vanish.

The reason I wanted to start here at the beginning and move forward is in part because of the arguments of the restorationists. They generally claim that either after the Apostles died or after the first century or after Constantine (or pick your date or event) the whole church basically apostasized. The restorationists then claim they are restoring “true” Christianity. The problem is that there is no such point of historical discontinuity in the ancient church. We’ll see that as we continue. The more we learn about the ancient world and our ancient faith, the more that fact is confirmed. So basically, for the claims of the restorationists to be true, we have to say that the Apostles failed to either understand the teaching of Jesus or to communicate those teachings to those churches they established and those people whom they personally taught. However, if the faith could not even be communicated to those directly in contact with Jesus or with the apostles, how on earth are we supposed to rediscover it two thousand years later? If it was lost that early, it’s gone. We have no idea what the correct interpretation of our texts might be. And we have no hope as far as I can see of recovering it. It strikes me that the perspective of the restorationists is ultimately one of hopelessness.

I’ve noticed that Protestants don’t generally like Ignatius. You’ll find all sorts of attempts to dismiss him if you look for them. And I understand why. Ignatius is writing perhaps 60 to 75 years after the Church in Antioch, a Church that was home to Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, was established. There were likely people still around who had known one or more of them at least in their childhood. Does what Ignatius describes sound anything like the Protestant reality today? We have more of his letters still to read. Judge for yourself.

I want to close today’s reflections on this letter with another sentence from it. It’s one that sticks in my mind. Think on it.

For where there is division and anger, God dwelleth not.

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  1. Posted July 22, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Scott. Keep ’em coming!

  2. mike
    Posted July 26, 2009 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    ….as i read this i can “feel” something inside of me resonate….as i ponder and contemplate on this “ancient faith” in my minds eye.. i sense that im making a connection with something ive never known before in a way ive never done before….i think i understand what your saying here: ” We find here the tangible physicality of our faith”…and its profound….

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