...are the ones that make the biggest difference

4.12.2005

The Letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch - Consensus III

Thanks to some advice from Clifton , who has an ongoing diablog about soteriology that is meters over my head and dauntingly voluminous, I started reading through the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch last night for my personal edification. I figured I'd read through the shorter recensions first, then the longer and then come back to a little more in-depth study & comparison. I read through his letters to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians (I think) and got fairly well into his letter to the Romans before being forced to retire by my current head cold/upper respiratory hoopla.

For those coming from a Protestant background, like myself, St. Ignatius' focus on the role and authority of the bishop is startling. He frequently links submission and obedience to the bishop to our submission and obedience to Christ Himself. To Ignatius, the bishop is the hinge on which unity swings.

Wherefore it is fitting that ye should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which thing also ye do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And do ye, man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, ye may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that ye are indeed the members of His Son. It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus ye may always enjoy communion with God. Letter to the Ephesians, ch 4

Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, 'God resisteth the proud.' Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God. ibid, ch 5


It seems fairly obvious that the bishop would play a significant role in the unity of the church. If all the churches in his region were under his authority, then by virture of his position he could keep all the churches on the same page. By conferring with other bishops and coming into theolocial and ecclesiological agreement, the bishop could thus preserve unity within the larger church. So from an entirely pragmatic perspective, the office of bishop is a useful, and perhaps needful, thing. I can scarcely imagine with things would be like in America today if all of the local churches were to subject themselves to a bishop in order to bring about unity. This is an impossibility, I know, but still an attractive idea.

But here is where St. Ignatius' thinking becomes most unsettling -

For we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sends to be over His household, as we would do Him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself.ibid, ch 6 emphasis mine


This removes all pragmatic considerations from the table, or at least relegates them to the kiddie table off to the side. To Ignatius, the bishop is not merely a functionary of unity; he is an icon of Christ. The bishop manifests Christ to us in a unique way and it is more than just a derivation of authority, for we are not told to respect him like we would Christ or to obey him as if he were the Lord, but to "look upon the bishop as we would upon the Lord Himself." The implications of this are, to say the least, immense. If St Ignatius's writing accurately reflects the understanding of the earliest Christians - and despite the controversy surrounding some of his (alleged) writings and likely interpolations, it appears widely assumed that it does - then the office and role of the bishop are a central question to the Chrisitan faith. It is little wonder that Calvin repudiated all the Ignatian epistles as spurious; they are clearly opposed to Protestantism at almost every level.

This, of course, ties into my earlier posts (here and here) on the impossibility of consensus between the early church and the Reformation. This by itself is not a conclusive argument about the potential error of the Reformation, however. It is entirely possible for a modern Christian to dismiss these differences as inconsequential, to say the early church's practices were culturally determined or influenced and are not normative for the present day. But if this is true, how do we know her theology was not similarly adulterated? How can we trust the canon she produced or the doctrines she promulgated? This kind of argument would seem to leave us foundationless, with only a tenuous connection to Christ and His Apostles.

Assuming the early church's praxis is normative for the moment, what are we modern Christians to do with that? More specifically, what am I supposed to do with it? Yeah, yeah, I think I already know the answer, but man, things would be a whole lot easier if it were different.

2 comments:

Doug said...

I once heard it said that for Protestants coming to Orthodoxy the single biggest issue isn't really icons or Mary or liturgy or whatnot, but is instead the role of the bishop. I don't know if this is really true, but it's certainly true that the person and role of the bishop is a sort of axis around which a lot of other issues revolve. It's about authority and unity in the Church, it's about historical connection to the Apostles, it's about the proper context and celebration of the sacraments. I'm reminded of St Irenaeus, I think, who in reference to the Gnostic leaders of the day, asked: "Who laid hands on them?" It was a damning question in his eyes. When I visit a church like the one in which I was raised, when the pastors lead the congregation in communion, when I see ministers and pastors who lay hands on someone to 'ordain' him for the ministry or any special task, I can't help hearing St Irenaeus question: "Who laid hands on them?" I don't make judgments, minds you - my father is a pastor of a non-denominational church and I know he loves Christ. But even so, I can't help but here St Irenaeus question each time.

Over at Xanthikos in my Oct 8 and Oct 10 posts from last year, I wrote about my first experience with an Orthodox bishop.

Nathan said...

Doug -

I read your posts with interest - thanks for the heads up on them. The hierarchical structure of Orthodoxy is definitely a difficult obstacle to overcome, for me anyways. I have no problem offering respect, even obedience, but the kind of reverence that appears to be normative is unsettling for me. Its probably from a strong deficiency in understanding how the bishop functions in the life of the church. Your point about "who laid hands on them" is a good one, and well taken. Increasingly I'm seeing how this is truly an important question.