Dr. John Romanides on “The Ecclesiology of St. Ignatius of Antioch”

From Dr John Romanides’ The Ecclesiology of St. Ignatius of Antioch:

StIgnatios.jpgBy the victory of Christ over death and Satan he who believes in the flesh of Christ is restored to the communion of the life and love of God in union with his neighbors and loves “nothing but God only.” (Ign. Eph. 9, 11; Mag. 1.) “It is therefore befitting that you should in every way glorify Jesus Christ, who had glorified you, that by a unanimous obedience you may be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same opinion, and may all speak the same thing concerning the same thing.” ( Ign. Eph. 2.) For St. Ignatius the primary characteristic of Christians is their corporate and selfless spirit of love and their complete unanimity of faith. (Ign. Eph. 20; Tral. 12; Phil. sal.; Pol. 6.) Faith and love for each other is one identical reality, as well as the beginning and the end of life in Christ. (Ign. Eph. 14.) Unity with each other in love is “a type and evidence (of teaching) of immortality.” (Mag. 6.) “All these things together are good if you believe with love.” (Ign. Phil. 9.) Faith is to “be gathered together (synaxis) unto God.” (Mag. 10. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung.” (Ign. Eph. 4.) Only in such a harmony of love can we know that we are partakers of God. (Ibid.) Therefore salvation and sanctification can be accomplished only by a unity of love with each other in the life of Christ. (Ign. Eph. 2.)

For Ignatius man does not have life of himself. Only God is self-life (autozoe). Man lives be participation. Because man is held captive in death by the devil his communion with God is of a distorted nature and ends in the grave. The act of restoration of permanent and normal communion between God and man can be accomplished only by a real resurrection of man by God Himself. (Ezek. 37:12ff.) “Who alone hath immortality.” (I Tim. 6:16.) This immortality of God, however, is not to be separated in its bestowal upon creation, from God’s energy of love. Therefore, “the drink of God, namely His Blood, … is incorruptible love and eternal life.” (Ign. Rom. 7.) The love of God is not a relationship (to pros ti) dominated by ulterior motivations. If God were within the realm of happiness and so dominated thereby, then all His relationships, if such could really exist, would be necessary. [ 6 ] The life of God the Father, however, who by essence generates the Son and projects the Spirit, is personal and selfless love, which by grace and in complete freedom through the Son and in the Spirit creates ex nihilo, sustains, saves, and sanctifies creation, not by created means, but by His own uncreated energy. Salvation is not a mere restoration of proper relations between God and man. On the contrary man is saved by being restored to life which is given to created beings only by God. Saving grace, therefore, is the very uncreated life-giving energy of God which vivifies and justifies man by defeating the devil. [ 7 ] The flesh of Christ is the source of life and justification [ 8 ] not as flesh per se, but because it is the flesh of God. It is for this reason that St. Ignatius can say, “I desire the drink of God, namely His Blood.” (Ign. Rom. 7; also Eph. 1.) [ 9 ]

Moralistic doctrines of atonement whereby man is already in possession of an immortal soul, so that salvation is a matter of changing the disposition of God toward man, and man toward God, by balancing the business interest of each, are completely missing from the thought of Ignatius. Atonement is not a simple adjustment and rearrangement of divine and human psychologies. Neither is it an intellectual problem of identifying human concepts with the immutable prototypes of God’s essence which all together comprise truth. It is not the proper relationship of two immortalities, that of God and man, that is at stake, but rather the restoration of a lost immortality now bound to death, and as a consequence morally corrupted. It is only by participation in the divine life and love of God in Christ through corporate love of neighbors that one may attain to immortality, be justified, and avoid death. (Ign. Eph. 20; Rom. 7; Smyr. 7.) It is exactly for this reason that those who live in Christ with selfless love for each other are “stones in the temple of the Father, prepared for the building of God the Father, and drawn up on high by the instrument of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, making use of the Holy Spirit as a rope… You, therefore, as well as your fellow-travellers, are God-bearers, temple-bearers, Christ-bearers, bearers of holiness, adorned in all respects with the commandments of Jesus Christ.” (Ign. Eph. 9; also 15; Mag. 12; Phil. 7.) Christians do everything together “in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit.” (Mag. 13.)

St. Ignatius’ mystical conception of the Church as the body of Christ is not a result of personal enthusiasm for a mystical union with God as happens with certain philosophical types who individualistically seek ever more clear visions of eternal truths contained in the essence of the one by the soul’s transcending or penetrating material phenomena and uniting with reality. The mysticism of Ignatius has nothing to do with philosophical or natural mysticism which operates according to the presupposition that reality consists in overcoming the material so that two natural immortalities, the soul and God, may again become one. For Ignatius this world is itself reality because it was created by God to be reality and proof of this is the resurrection of Christ in history for the salvation of history and time, not from history and time. In sharp contrast to his spiritualistic adversaries, Ignatius presents a mysticism completely Christocentric and indeed Sarkocentric – only the flesh and blood of the resurrected God-man are the source of life and resurrection of all men of all ages. (Ign. Eph. 1, 7, ,19, 20; Mag. 6, 8; Smyr. 1, 3; Pol. 3; Mag. 9; Phil. 5,9.) The human nature of God is none other than salvation itself – namely 1) the restoration of immortality to those who partake corporately in selfless love, 2) the justification of man by the destruction of death and man’s accusor and captor, the devil, and 3) the granting of the power to defeat the devil by struggling to attain to selfless love for God and neighbor through the flesh of Christ. The Christocentric and flesh-centered mysticism of Ignatius is not a simple luxury of the more enthusiastically inclined, but on the contrary an absolute necessity for salvation, and constitutes the very basis of his ecclesiology, which is indeed that of the New Testament and ancient Church. . . .

Participation of the love of God in union with each other, which is indeed communion of divine life, can be weakened and even destroyed by man’s inattention to the ways of Satan. “Flee therefore the wicked devices and snares of the prince of the world. lest at any time being oppressed by his will, you grow weak in your love.” (Ign. Phil. 6.) “Be not anointed with the bad odour of the teaching of the prince of this world; do not let him lead you away captive from the life which is set before you.” (Ign. Eph. 17.) “For there are many wolves (heretics who pluck the weak from the Church) that appear worthy of credit, who, by means of a pernicious pleasure, carry captive those that are running towards God; but in your unity they shall have no place.” (Ign. Phil. 2.) Because of unity with each other in the love of Christ Satan cannot prevail since love is the blood of Christ and eternal life by which the devil is destroyed. “Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God and show forth His praise. For when you assemble frequently in the same place (epi to auto), the powers of Satan are destroyed and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith.” (Ign. Eph. 13.) “Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God… He, therefore, that does not assemble in the same place (epi to auto), has already manifested his pride and condemned himself.” (Ign. Eph. 5.) “He that is within the altar is pure, but he that is without is not pure.” (Ign. Tral. 7.) [ 10 ]

The visible Church (both visible and invisible Church constitute one continuous reality for Ignatius), then, is composed of those baptized faithful who conduct an intense war against Satan and the consequences of his power rooted in death by their unity of love with each other in the life-giving human nature of Christ, and manifest this unity and love in the corporate Eucharist in which their very life and salvation is rooted. In other words, the Church has two aspects, one positive – love, unity, and communion of immortality with each other and with the saints in Christ, and one negative – the war against the Satan and his powers already defeated in the flesh of Christ by those living in Christ beyond death awaiting the general (or second) [ 11 ] resurrection – the final and complete victory of God over Satan. Christology is the positive aspect of the Church, but is conditioned by biblical demonology, which is the key negative factor which determines both Christology and Ecclesiology, both of which are incomprehensible without an adequate understanding of the work and methods of Satan. “For this purpose was the Son of God manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.” (I John 3:8.) . . . .

Since for Ignatius the Eucharist is the formative and manifest center of corporate love unto immortality, and at the same time the weapon which insures the continues defeat of the devil, it is quite clear that the corporate liturgy is the very pivotal point of faith in action, the participation of which is the only sure sign of continuous communion with God and neighbor unto salvation. This unity of selfless love in Christ with each other and the saints is an end in itself – not a means to another end. The existence of any other utilitarian and eudaimonistic motive other than unconditional selfless love for God and neighbor in Christ simply means slavery to the powers of Satan. “… love nothing except God.” (Ign. Eph. 9, 11; Mag. 1.)

In the Eucharistic life of selfless love is thus understood as an end in itself and the only condition for continual membership in the Church, it follows that the relationship of one community to another cannot be one of inferiority or superiority. Nor can one community be considered a part to another community because the fullness of Christ is to be found in the Eucharist which itself is the highest and only possible center and consummation of the life of unity and love. ” …whether Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” (Ign. Smyr. 8.) [ 13 ] Besides, the devil is not destroyed by an abstract idea of unity and love. He can be defeated only locally by the unity of faith and love of real people living together their life in Christ. An abstract federation of communities whereby each body is a member of a more general body reduces the Eucharist to a secondary position and makes possible the heretical idea that there is a membership in the body of Christ higher and more profound than the corporate life of local love for real people and thus the whole meaning of the incarnation of God and the destruction of the Satan in a certain place and at a certain time in history is destroyed. Each individual becomes a member of the body of Christ spiritually and physically at a special time and in a certain place in the presence of those to whom he is about to be joined. [ 14 ] Those who share in one bread are one body. (I Cor. 10:17.) This sharing in one bread cannot happen in general, but only locally. There, are, however, many liturgical centers each breaking one bread, but together totaling many breads. Nevertheless there are not many bodies of Christ, but one. Therefore each community having the fullness of Eucharistic life is related to other communities not by a common participation in something greater than the local life in the Eucharist, but by an identity of existence in Christ. “…wherever Jesus Christ is there is the Catholic Church.” (Ign. Smyr. 8.) [ 15 ] . . . .

The ecclesiology of St. Ignatius rests exclusively and harmoniously upon the biblical teaching concerning salvation and its appropriation. The resurrected flesh and blood of God (Ign. Rom. 7; Eph. 1) is the only source of immortality, of unity with each other in Christ, and of power to struggle for selfless love and simultaneously defeat the devil. Salvation is not magical. God Himself saves those who gather together in the life of selfless love with their clergy epi to auto. The visible Church is composed of those only who continuously share in the corporate eucharistic life. This life of selfless love for God and neighbor is an end in itself. Good works are not, therefore, performed for utilitarian motivations as part of a divine-human business, but rather are expressions of the struggle for selfless love, as well as a most effective weapon against Satan. God has no need of man’s acts of charity. It is man who needs good works, prayer and fasting as a spiritual exercise for selfless love and as an effective means of remaining attentive and spiritually alert against the attacks of Satan. Justification by faith alone is a non-biblical myth (Eph. 6:11-17) of sentimental magic based on the false presupposition that salvation is primarily and essentially a matter of divine internal psychology. [ 18 ] Beyond the life of unity centered in the corporate Eucharist as an end in itself there is no Church and only God can know if there is any salvation. Where the Church is not locally manifested and being formed by God epi to auto there is the rest humanity being carried to and fro by the prince of this world. “I pray not for the world, but for them which Thou hast given me.” (John 17:9)


[ 6 ] It is exactly for this reason that the Thomists must limit real relations to the Trinity, for otherwise creation and God would be consubstantial. Because God is supposedly completely happy within Himself and is Actus Purus His actions toward the world cannot be uncreated. Therefore sanctifying grace must be of a created nature and the love of God for the world expressed not directly but through this created means, e.g. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, pt. 1, q. 43, art. 3. Thus the love of God for creation cannot be an immediate uncreated energy. This would entail pantheism. Therefore God can love the world only in the sense that He loves from all eternity the prototypes of creation which are of His essence. (Ibid. pt. 1, q. 20, art. 2, obj. 2, reply 2.)

[ 7 ] The basic presupposition of Chalcedonian Christology, “to aproslepton atherapeuton,” which understands salvation as a destruction of Satan and death by the restoration of immortality to the world through the flesh of Christ, is foreign to the moralistic and juridical Western doctrines of atonement. It is interesting to note the tendency amongst some Protestants to conclude that Nestorius was not really a Nestorian. This is quite natural since both have a moralistic understanding of salvation.

[ 8 ] For a discussion of the term “dikaiosis” or “dikaiosyne” as God’s vindicating the right, redressing wrong, and delivering men from the power of evil, see C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, London, 1932, p. 9-13.

[ 9 ] The basic biblical presuppositions of the ancient Church that God does not create, sustain, and save by created means, rejected by Arians, Macedonians, and Nestorians, have been overthrown by the Roman doctrine that grace is created. Council of Vienna; Council of Trent, Sess. VI, Canon 11.

[ 10 ] Compare this corporate understanding of Ignatius with Harnack’s praise of Augustine. “Vor allem … er hielt jeder Seele ihre Herrlichkelt und ihre Verantwortlichkelt vor, Gott und die Seele, die Seele und ihr Gott. Er fuchrte die religion aus der Gemelnde und kultusform in die Herzen als Gabe und Aufgabe hinein.” Augustine retrograted, although not completely, back to theories of individualistic happiness, etc., common to all natural religions in one way or another. It is for this reason that Harnack, who himself sought to find universal religion through and above any particualr one, could say that, “Augustine hat in der religion die religion entdeckt.” (op. cit. p. 292-293.)

[ 11 ] First resurrection is that of Christ shared by the prophets, etc., who lived before Christ and in baptism and the mysteries by those after Christ and uninterrupted by death for those who are to share in the final victory. . . .

[ 13 ] Compare St. Athanasius, Migne, P. G. t. 25, col. 260.

[ 14 ] Very interesting in this respect is a statement made by Polycarp about the presbyter Valens and his wife, “but call them back as suffering and straying members that you may save your whole body.” Epistle of Polycarp, ch. XI.

[ 15 ] The word ecclesia for Ignatius means a local community. Eph. sal., 5, 8; Mag. 1, 14, 15; Tral. sal., 3, 12, 13; Rom. sal., 9; Phil. sal., 10; Smyr. sal., 11; Pol. sal., 7, 8. the term “Catholic Church” has the same meaning as the term “to katholikon” used to designate the Church building of Orthodox monastic communities. In monastic usage it means the place of gathering where the faith according to all (kath’ holous) is expressed and maintained in liturgical worship and communion. For Ignatius “Katholike ecclesia” designates the people themselves, that is, “the Church, or community according to all.” In this term the identity of communities living in Christ is presupposed, as will become clearer in discussing the position of the bishop in the thought of St. Ignatius. . . .

[ 18 ] That man is justified by God in the eyes of God and not delivered from captivity to the devil who could be no more than the punishing agent. If Western theologians would rid themselves of their monothelite cosmologies and their happiness complexes maybe they would understand the moral and ethical implications of the biblical and patristic doctrines of salvation from corruption and the devil, and cease putting forth the accusation that Eastern theology ignores the so-called moral problem of divine justice, wrath, etc. In reality it is the West that has forgotten the meaning attached to Satan and death by the biblical witness, and has made God’s justice and happiness psychology in the image of fallen man by attributing to His essence moral attributes of corrupted human imagination.

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