Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Authority and Ignatius of Antioch
The letters of Ignatius have received significant scholarly attention because of their early interest in church authority. The letters were written by Ignatius (ca. 50‒110?), the bishop of Antioch (Ign. Rom. 2.2) en route to martyrdom in Rome. He was either the second (Origen, Hom 6 in Lk) or third Bishop (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.22.26) of Syrian Antioch (cf. Acts 11.19-30; 13.1-3; 14.24-28; 15.30‒35; 18.18-23). Throughout his letters Ignatius emphasizes the supreme authority of the bishop over the church. Though we are not exactly sure when Ignatius suffered martyrdom, Eusebius places it midway through the reign of Trajan (AD 98‒117; Eccl. Hist. 3.36; cf. Pol. Phil. 9). His writings are intriguing because of his strong emphasis on hierarchical leadership at a very early period in church history.
The emphases of Ignatius' letters are quite clear. He is concerned with doctrinal purity in the church. He wants the church to "filter" out division (Ign. Phil. 3.1). Much of his concern for purity is tied to the unity of the church. This unity is practiced by strict adherence to the authority of the bishop. So he exhorts subjection to the bishop (Ign. Eph 2.2) who shares in the mind of Christ just as Christ shares in the mind of the Father (Ign. Eph 3.2; cf. 1 Cor 2.11-16). Thus, unity consists of the church being in harmony with the mind of the bishop (Ign. Eph. 4.1‒2). In a protestant context, it is difficult to appropriate Ignatius' strong rhetoric about the authority of the bishop. What does church unity look like in a post-reformation age?
Many, including myself, want to claim the Bible as the authoritative voice for the community. The problem, however, is that the Bible is not a voice but many voices that require a community to interpret them. In my reading thus far in Ignatius, OT scripture does not figure prominently. Similarly, there are very few NT quotations, though some allusions. Ignatius seems to represent an early voice in the church calling for unity of the church based on the authority of the bishop. As church history rolls on problems accumulate and bishops begin to disagree. Sometimes, congregations disagree with their Bishops (consider the Donatist Controversy). Where, then, is authority vested? Eventually, the Bishop of Rome becomes the authoritative voice. Obviously, this is an overly simplified history of the development of the papacy, but it gives some insight into why the papacy developed and why it is not necessarily a bad thing. It was the result of a church trying to maintain unity through authority.
What do you think ought to be the authoritative voice of the community of believers?