He contributed greatly to the doctrine of the Church

We begin this month with a new series entitled “Faith of our Fathers”. This series explores the rich theological and spiritual heritage of the Church by reflecting on the writings of the saints. These servants of God hailed from diverse backgrounds and lived in different historical and cultural contexts. They were pastors, elders, theologians, mystics, bishops and lay people in the Church. Their writings display penetrating spiritual insight, theological depth and moral courage. Most of all, their works testify to their unshakable faith in the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. It is my sincere prayer that as we reflect on the faith of these servants of God, we will be challenged to a deeper commitment and service.


Ignatius of Antioch (AD 50-117)

WE BEGIN THIS SERIES by surveying the writings of two Christian leaders – Ignatius and Polycarp – who lived in the second century. These writers are traditionally called the Apostolic Fathers because some of them were contemporaries of either the apostles themselves or their disciples. Their writings are extremely valuable because next to the New Testament they are the oldest sources that testify to the Christian Faith.

The first letter of Clement, the Bishop (overseer) of the Church in Rome, addressed to the Christians at Corinth, was written at around 95. The letter of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, to the Philippians was written at around 110, while the seven letters of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, were dated around 115. Apart from these epistles, the authors in this period also produced a document called The Didache (also known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) at around 120. These documents offer invaluable insight into the lives of Christians in this early period in the history of the Church. But they also offer a glimpse at how the Church understood and applied its faith in the face of profound challenges.

Ignatius was the Bishop of Antioch, one of the oldest churches outside Jerusalem. The Christian refugees who fled the persecution in Jerusalem brought the Gospel to Antioch when they settled there. Under the spiritual leadership of prophets and teachers (Acts 13:1), the church in Antioch flourished and became a significant community. It was at Antioch that believers or followers of Christ were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). And Antioch served as a home base for the Apostle Paul (Acts 11:25-26, 14:26-27, 15:35).

Although the church at Antioch was a vibrant community when Ignatius became bishop, it had its fair share of problems and controversies.

Antioch had one of the largest Jewish communities among the cities in Asia Minor. When these Jews of the Diaspora were converted to Christianity, they not only insisted on obeying the Jewish ceremonial laws, but also made a similar demand on all believers. A major controversy soon broke out on this issue that threatened to divide the church. In responding to the teachings of these Judaizers, Ignatius provided the clearest teaching on this issue in Christian antiquity (besides Paul). In his Epistle to the Magnesians, Ignatius wrote: “It is absurd to talk Jesus Christ and to practise Judaism. After all, Judaism believed Christianity, not Christianity Judaism” (10.3).

The Judaizers, however, were not the only ones that threatened to polarise the young Church. Ignatius was also concerned about the growing influence of the Docetists – heretics who rejected the traditional understanding of the Incarnation. The Docetists taught that in the incarnation, the second Person of the Trinity did not take upon himself human flesh: he only appeared to have become a human being. The Docetists therefore affirmed the deity of the incarnate Son, but rejected his humanity. Because they believed that God could not suffer, the Docetists also rejected the claim that the Son suffered for humanity on the cross.

IN DEALING WITH the Docetists, Ignatius did not mince his words. He called them atheists. In an attempt to show the incredulousness of their claims, Ignatius wrote: “But if, as some atheists … say, he suffered in appearance only … why am I in chains? And why do I want to fight with the wild beasts? If that is the case, I die for no reason; what is more, I am telling lies about the Lord.” In answering these heretics, Ignatius became one of the first theologians to articulate the most basic tenet of orthodox Christology – that in the incarnation, the Son of God is fully God and fully human.

These heretics introduced serious factions in the Church. Ignatius was naturally concerned to preserve the unity of the Christian community at Antioch. His writings on this issue became one of the most important contributions to the doctrine of the Church in early Christianity. The unity of the Church, Ignatius believed, must be attributed to Christ, its head. But there are also other important secondary elements that help to bind Christians together. The list that Ignatius drew up includes both the institutional (e.g., the hierarchy) and sacramental (e.g. the Eucharist) aspects of the Church.

But most significantly, Ignatius insisted that obedience to the Bishop was imperative if the unity of the Church was to be preserved. For the Bishop, according to Ignatius, “is nothing less than God’s representative to the congregation”. He went so far as to insist that members of the Church must “regard the bishop as the Lord himself”. Ignatius was instrumental in developing the “monarchical episcopacy” in the early Church.

Ignatius was arrested because of his uncompromising orthodoxy and also because he was revered by the churches. Unwilling to yield to the mounting pressures exerted by the authorities, Ignatius provocatively declared that “Christianity is greatest when it is hated by the world”. While journeying to Rome under guard to be martyred, Ignatius once again displayed his profound moral courage by urging Christians not to rescue him: “I implore you: do not be ‘unseasonably kind’ to me. Let me be food to the wild beasts, through whom I can reach God. I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I might prove to be God’s bread.”

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.