Reading Ignatius of Antioch : The God Who Suffers

The Bible is our sole rule of faith and authority. Outside of the Biblical canon however there are early writings termed "apostolic fathers" (e.g. Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, etc.) which are a generation or more removed from the Apostles. Their importance lies in the fact that they are an early witness of distinctly Christian or Biblical concepts. These writings, much like the Didache, were written to local individuals or congregations. This does not make what they say true or false but it does help us to determine what people may or may not have believed during those times.

This knowledge does not prove their belief to be universal either but shows that in general it was acceptable to the writer and his particular audience. This is important to note when reading all early writers. John B. Peterson notes that these writings "are generally epistolary in form, after the fashion of the canonical Epistles, and were written, for the greater part, not for the purpose of instructing Christians at large, but for the guidance of individuals or local churches in some passing need."(1)

It is difficult to determine though if these "apostolic fathers" had genuine heritage or background with their Jewish forefathers that penned our present canon. In The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity Richard Longnecker notes, “The so-called Apostolic Fathers, the Apologists . . . and others who wrote from within Gentile Christianity; and none, with the possible exceptions of Clement of Rome and the author of the Shepherd of Hermas, can be claimed to have had any type of background in Judaism personally.”(2) 
In reading these writings we must proceed with caution. The writings of these early writers, including Ignatius do not have the textual support or integrity of our New Testament. Many of them such as Ignatius also known as Theophorus have been interpolated and given spurious letters. J.B. O'Connor suggests, "The time of its origin can be only vaguely determined as being between that of the collection known to Eusebius and the long recension. Besides the seven genuine letters of Ignatius in their original form, it also contains the six spurious ones, with the exception of that to the Philippians."(3)

While Ignatius may not have claimed any title such as Trinitarian, Unitarian or Oneness his Christology reads much closer to a Oneness Christology. Reading Ignatius certainly does not sound like popular Trinitarianism although they do make their case from his writings. Virginia Corwin, in St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch, notes that "if one term must be chosen to indicate the tendency of his thought, Ignatius must be said to be monarchian, though he is very close to the point later declared to be orthodox."(4) Corwin is speaking generally of Modalistic Monarchians. While we do not know all of their beliefs what we can find of them is from the pen of  their Trinitarian adversaries (Tertullian, Hippolytus). We can also conclude that they did not believe in more than one person who could be divine or called God. Despite this Trinitarians will appeal to the following excerpt from Ignatius' second letter to the Ephesians to support their view:
"And ye are prepared for the building of God the Father, and ye are raised up on high by the instrument of Jesus Christ, which is the cross; and ye are drawn by the rope, which is the Holy Spirit; and your pulley is your faith, and your love is the way which leadeth up on high to God."(5)
In the previous chapter Ignatius is telling the Ephesians that they are a well known church but the things they have done in the flesh, while they are spiritual, they are done in Jesus Christ. In the following chapter he encourages them to pray for all men since there is hope for repentance. They are to be counted worthy of God and their works were to instruct others. Be meek and gentle. Pray for your adversary and be armed against error with faith. To be imitators of the Lord.

It seems obvious that Ignatius is not trying to impress upon us that God consists of three divine persons. If so, why doesn't he say so? Mainly, because that is not his point here nor was it remotely present in his thinking. Ignatius uses language to speak of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit but he does not do so in the same way that Trinitarians need to support the Trinity. The Trinity asserts that there is one God which consists of three separate, divine persons. Each having their own will, mind or consciousness.

Ignatius is using obvious word play. Ignatius tells the Ephesians that they are prepared for the building of God the Father. Then raised high by the instrument or cross of Christ. They are raised to this height by a rope which Ignatius uses to refer to the Holy Spirit. The pulley used to hoist them to this salvation is "your faith" and "your love" is the way which leads on high to God. Ignatius is speaking of redemption and salvation for believers. The overall work of salvation in our lives. This word-play, these rich word pictures lead us to "on high to God." At any rate, if this text is a testimony of the Trinity it suggests one where Jesus and the Holy Spirit are subordinate to God the Father. Although indirectly, the threefold plan of redemption may be put into proper analogy here (cf. Matt. 18:19).

In his letter to Polycarp Ignatius speaks in the clearest terms what is also believed by Oneness Pentecostals to this day. He points out we should not allow those who teach "strange doctrines" do so without our also standing for truth as "a great athlete". He says we shall bear things for the sake of God and to discern the times in which we live. Notice the following encouragement as He speaks of God who is "invisible" yet "became visible" who is "impassible" and "for our sakes suffered". 
"Be discerning of the times. Look for Him that is above the times, Him who has no times, Him who is invisible, Him who for our sakes became visible, Him who is impalpable, Him who is impassible, Him who for our sakes suffered, Him who endured everything in every form for our sakes."(6)
Reading Ignatius however does have its upside. It is not worthless by any stretch. If what has been said of Ignatius is true then he was also willing to die for his beliefs in Rome. The Greek term theos or God is found to be used repeatedly of Jesus. In his letter to the Ephesians he speaks of "being the followers of God" and that the Ephesians were to stir themselves up "by the blood of God..." In his letter to the Romans he says something similar. Notice these two excerpts below from the short renderings:
"I have become acquainted with your name, much-beloved in God, which ye have acquired by the habit of righteousness, according to the faith and love in Jesus Christ our Saviour. Being the followers of God, and stirring up yourselves by the blood of God, ye have perfectly accomplished the work which was beseeming to you."(7) 
"I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life."(8)
When we speak of Jesus then we rightly say that God suffered, bled and died. God purchased the church with his own blood. In Acts 20:28 we read “the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood.” (NKJV) As David S. Norris has pointed out, "The textual history of the Greek manuscripts that lie behind this seems to indicate that the Greek text changed theos to kurios because it became offensive as church history evolved that God could shed His own blood. Because the textual evidence on the verse is mixed, some versions read “the church of the Lord. . . .”(9) This rendering was present in the 1901 ASV.
Elsewhere in his letter to the Ephesians Ignatius speaks about God being Jesus Christ and in same sentence being conceived in the womb of Mary, of the seed of David, and by the Holy Ghost. Notice the short rendering:
“Where is the wise man? where the disputer?” Where is the boasting of those who are styled prudent? For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost. He was born and baptized, that by His passion He might purify the water."(10)
For Ignatius it seems God was active in time and space and was not aloof to the extent that He could not enter into His own creation. Although there is debate on the interpretation of the following excerpt the shorter rendering is apparent. In his letter to the Romans Ignatius seems to suggest that Jesus Christ is the "mouth...by which the Father has truly spoken." Notice the short rendering followed by the long:
"I no longer wish to live after the manner of men, and my desire shall be fulfilled if ye consent. Be ye willing, then, that ye also may have your desires fulfilled. I entreat you in this brief letter; do ye give credit to me. Jesus Christ will reveal these things to you, [so that ye shall know] that I speak truly. He is the mouth altogether free from falsehood, by which the Father has truly spoken. Pray ye for me, that I may attain [the object of my desire]. I have not written to you according to the flesh, but according to the will of God. If I shall suffer, ye have wished [well] to me; but if I am rejected, ye have hated me."
"I no longer wish to live after the manner of men, and my desire shall be fulfilled if ye consent. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet no longer I, since Christ liveth in me.” I entreat you in this brief letter: do not refuse me; believe me that I love Jesus, who was delivered [to death] for my sake. “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits towards me?” Now God, even the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, shall reveal these things to you, [so that ye shall know] that I speak truly. And do ye pray along with me, that I may attain my aim in the Holy Spirit. I have not written to you according to the flesh, but according to the will of God. If I shall suffer, ye have loved me; but if I am rejected, ye have hated me."(11)
The editors of this translation note that the "He" in the phrase "He is the mouth" may refer to Ignatius. They suggest, "Some refer this to Ignatius himself."(12) This is disputed as the editors suggest by the use of "some". The nearest antecedent to "He" however is "Jesus Christ". Understanding Ignatius in the shorter rendering is in harmony with his writings elsewhere. The shorter rendering is probably preferred or more credible but these translators also offer two strikingly different renderings. The latter of which subtly attempts to weaken the true deity of Jesus and the thought of a suffering God.

Ignatius does not say Jesus is the Father in an equivocal sense. Neither do most Oneness Pentecostals. However Ignatius does not distinguish between Jesus and the Father as would later apologists. Oneness Pentecostals believe that Jesus is the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19) but that does not mean they fail to recognize certain distinctions (1 Tim. 2:5, 3:16). God the Father is God existing as God. Jesus is the same undivided God existing as a man and mediator. A true Incarnation. Every characteristic of the Father is also a characteristic of Jesus as the Son of man. There are no distinctions between the Father and Jesus except those produced by His humanity.

Unfortunately, the writing's of Ignatius have been used to support many views (e.g. Antiochenes, Alexandrians, Monophysites, and Chalcedon). We should not read writings such as the "apostolic fathers" as though they are inspired Scripture but we should respect and attempt to understand what they are saying. Even when we agree or disagree we must allow for and strive to hear the voice of the author.


1) Peterson, John Bertram. "The Apostolic Fathers." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 31 Jul. 2011 .

2) Longnecker, Richard N. The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity. Studies in Biblical Theology 17. Naperville IL: Alec R. Allenson, 1970. pg. 16

3) O'Connor, John Bonaventure. "St. Ignatius of Antioch." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 31 Jul. 2011 .

4) Corwin, Virginia. St. Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960.

5) Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (1997). The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol.I : Translations of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325 (101). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.

6) ibid. pg. 99

7) ibid. pg. 49

8) ibid. pg. 76

9) Norris, David S. (2009-09-30). I AM: A Oneness Pentecostal Theology (Kindle Locations 7769-7772). Word Aflame Press. Kindle Edition.

10) Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (1997). The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol.I : Translations of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325 (57). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.

11) ibid. pg. 77

12) ibid. pg. 

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Adversus Trinitas

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