Baptists, Eucharist, and History 9 – Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans Redux

I decided to open and close the posts in this series reflecting on St. Ignatius with different chapters in his letter to the Smyrnaeans. In my first look at this letter, I focused on chapter 8. In this post I’m going to consider chapter 6.

Let no man be deceived. Even the heavenly things, and the glory of the angels, and the principalities, both visible and invisible, if they believe not on the blood of Christ, for them also is there condemnation. Let him who receiveth it, receive it in reality. Let not high place puff up any man. For the whole matter is faith and love, to which there is nothing preferable. Consider those who hold heretical opinions with regard to the grace of Jesus Christ which hath come unto us, how opposite they are to the mind of God. They have no care for love, nor concerning the widow, nor concerning the orphan, nor concerning the afflicted, nor concerning him who is bound or loosed, nor concerning him who is hungry or thirsty. They refrain from the eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father of his goodness raised up.

One of the things about any ancient faith grounded in a predominantly oral culture that is difficult for many in a modern literate culture to truly “get inside” is the fact that they don’t tend to “document” normal practice and belief. For instance, you won’t really grasp Hinduism simply by reading the Vedic literature. You won’t penetrate very far in understanding Buddhism simply by reading the life of Siddhartha Gautama or any of the scriptures or traditional texts. In order to advance in understanding either path, you must find a guru or teacher or school that will then communicate to you the practice of this way of life. (In the West today, a number of these paths actually have been reduced to writing, so you can follow a guru to some extent without actually working with them in person. But that is not the preferred means of communicating their way.)

When we read the New Testament canon and ancient Christian writings, we encounter a similar dynamic. Nowhere does anyone actually write down in a formal structured manner all that Jesus opened the eyes of the disciples to see and understand following the Resurrection. We are told in several places that he did so, but frustratingly are not told what he taught. Similarly, we are never actually given details of the practice of worship in the Church in any organized manner. Instead, we get snippets here and there as the NT authors write letters to be delivered by trusted coworkers in the faith who would convey them accurately in order to resolve problem situations that the author could not, for whatever reason, resolve in person. Sometimes we’re told what the problem is. Sometimes we aren’t.

However, rather than expecting people to learn from individual gurus or within schools that preserved a particular piece of the teaching, new Christians were expected to learn the traditions of the faith from the bishops installed and taught first by the apostles and then by the later bishops in turn. The knowledge of the practice of the faith was thus conveyed from generation to generation in the predominantly oral cultures of the era. I think some of our English translations have something of an agenda behind them in this regard. For instance, the nine occurrences or so of a negative usage of the Greek paradosis (or variants) are typically translated tradition, as in the tradition of the Pharisees.  (Cue somber, warning music.) However, in the three or so instances where paradosis is used positively in the NT, it is translated teaching instead in some translations. Personally, I think that somewhat distorts what Paul is saying when he, for example, tells the Thessalonian church to hold onto the traditions they were taught, whether orally or in writing (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

I’ve prefaced my thoughts on today’s letter excerpt with these reflections because once again we are not seeing a formal written Confession, Statement of Faith, or written rule of worship. Those will be as uncommon in the ancient writings as they are in the New Testament itself. In the first century, the Didache comes as close as we get to such a written statement and even it is more the confession of the tradition intended to be recited by catechumens at their Baptism than something broader or more comprehensive. As in the NT, the ancient Christian writers were typically writing to address a specific problem or counter a specific heresy the author could not deal with in person.

And we see that here with Ignatius. From the description, he was clearly writing to address some variation of gnostic belief and practice that was apparently gaining some traction in Smyrna. Gnostics generally believed in special knowledge rather than the practices of love common to Christians. And they believed the physical was evil and the spiritual good. So they often did not believe Jesus ever actually had a body or was really a human being at all. (We also call that heresy docetism.) Gnostics loved lots of levels and ranks of powers. In the first sentence, Ignatius dismisses all such structures, however powerful they might appear to be, by asserting that all reality rests on the blood of Jesus. And he stresses that he who receives that blood needs to receive it in reality.

Finally, in the last sentence, St. Ignatius notes that the heretics refuse to receive the eucharist because they will not confess it is the flesh of Jesus. By contrast then, those who do receive the eucharist must confess that it is the flesh of Jesus. Naturally a gnostic, with the deeply engrained belief that all physical bodies are evil would be particularly repelled by the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood. (It was generally understood as a strange belief among Christians by those completely outside the faith as well.) Yet even by the close of the first century Christians not just believed that in the eucharist they were consuming Christ, but actually confessed it was his flesh before receiving it. That image stands in sharp juxtaposition with the modern Baptist belief and even with the 1689 London Confession.

This is why the Baptist perspective has a fundamental historical problem. As we proceed, we will see the Christian liturgy better described and the understanding of the Eucharist more deeply explored. But the basic idea that the bread is the flesh of Christ and the wine is the blood of Christ and that we consume Jesus in order to receive life is not something dreamed up in the 4th century, or in the 8th century, or in the 13th century, or even in the mid to late 2nd century. The thread of this belief can effectively be traced all the way back to the start of the Church. It’s impossible to find a point where this belief ever changed from one thing to something different in the ancient church. In order to say that Baptists (or Zwingli or Calvin) have the correct perspective on the Eucharist, you virtually have to say that the Apostles got it wrong — or at least that they weren’t able to teach anyone following them the “correct” understanding.

Now, don’t misunderstand me on this point. Nothing we’ve looked at means you have to or even should accept the 13th century theory of transubstantiaton, which is one attempt to explain the mystery. You don’t need to know Aristotle or believe that Aristotle correctly describes the nature of reality. In fact, the list of things you don’t have to believe is pretty long. The two beliefs that are not supported historically, though, are the belief that it is “just” a symbol (whatever that may mean) and the alternative belief that while more than a mere symbol it remains a “purely” spiritual feeding.

Gnostics had no problem with symbols or with the spiritual. In fact, they had something of an overabundance of both.

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  • By Scott Morizot on July 24, 2009 at 10:30 am

    New blog post: Baptists, Eucharist, and History 9 – Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans Redux

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