The Witness of the Early Christian Church: St. Ignatius of Antioch

In his conversion story to the Catholic Church from Calvinism Dr. Peter Kreeft conveys a story in which a professor warned him that “some day you are going to meet a Roman Catholic and they are going to say you that you are in the wrong church because our church was founded by Christ and is 2,000 years old and your church was only founded by Calvin and 450 years old”. The professor argued that they better be well equipped to respond to such allegations. That Catholics were wrong that the reformation actually restored Christianity in its early form. That Christ found a church and that it was a protestant church, but like an Ark after 1,500 years of sailing it accumulated barnacles on its hull. What the reformers did was to scrap off those barnacles; they didn’t make anything new they restored something old. Dr. Kreeft was elated by the professor’s response and follows up with a question:

“If I took a time machine and when back 1900 years to the early church like around the one hundred you are saying to me that I would find it that it was a protestant church and if a Catholic and I both took the same time machine I would feel more at home than he would? The professors said “exactly”.

He was elated because at least he would have empirical proof to disprove the historical claims of the Catholic Church all he had to do was to read the accounts of the early Christian and show that they weren’t Catholic. And so it began, as many others before him, Dr. Kreeft was on the way to Rome.

So, what is it about early Christians that speaks so deeply and faithfully about the catholicity of the Church that Christ founded?

Their witness is one covered in the blood of martyrs and embedded in an intense and unflinching love for Christ and his Church. These are the Christians who heard the gospel from the apostles and were entrusted by them to boldly preach the name of Christ to all nations. Their writing gives us a first hand account of what it meant to be a Christian in the first century, but above all they give us a witness of how to be a Christian in the middle of persecutions and even in the confusion of heretical teachings:

st-ignatius-of-antioch-3

“Pray unceasingly for others; in their case there is hope for repentance, that they may obtain God. Permit them to become disciples by [seeing] your works. With regard to their expressions of anger; be meek; with regard to their boasts, be humble. Meet their blasphemies with your prayers and their deception with your steadfastness of faith. Meet their unruly life with your gentleness, and be diligent not to imitate them. Let us be found to be their brothers in gentleness and diligent to be imitators of the Lord. Who has been more wronged? Who has been defrauded? Who has been rejected? This is so that no wee of the devil may be found among you but that in purity and sobriety you may remain in Jesus Christ both bodily and spiritually”.

St. Ignatius of Antioch
Letter to the Ephesians

Their writings give us a clear description of the universality of the Church, the authority of the Bishop, and the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome in addition to a firm believes in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. One of such witness is St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in Rome during the reign of the Emperor Trajan earlier around the year 110. He was the third bishop of Antioch (a city in modern day Turkey) and knew the apostle John, the beloved disciple. On the way to his execution, he wrote six letters to different churches and one to St. Polycarp another witness of the early Church. His writings, reflect an intense devotion to Christ and an ardent love for his fellow Christians. He fervently talks about the unity of the Church under the bishop and the universality of the Church:

“See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church”.

Letter to the Smyrnaeans

 and the supremacy of the bishop of Rome:

” Ignatius, also called Theophorus, to the Church that has found mercy in the greatness of the Most High Father and in Jesus Christ, his only son; to the Church beloved and enlightened after the love of Jesus Christ, our God, by the will of him that has willed everything which is; to the Church which also holds the presidency in the place of the country of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of sanctification, and because you hold the presidency of love, named after Christ and named after the Father; here therefore do I salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father”.

 Letter to the Romans

 On the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist:

Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ, which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God… They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, Flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.

Letter to the Smyrnaeans

The early writings of Christians are a treasure for all. They tell the stories of people who were in love with Christ to the point that they gave their lives for the Cross. It is our history and they serve as a reminder that Christ is with us until the end of the age:

“…I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:20

To ignore them is a tragedy.

I highly recommend Dr. Peter Kreeft talk “Seven Reasons to be Catholic” distributed by Light House Media.

I strongly encourage readers to go the source! That is go out and read the Apostolic Fathers in their own words:

The epistle of Ignatius of Antioch.

St. Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna

Clement of Alexadria: The Exhortation to the Greek The Rich Man’s Salvation. To the Newly Baptized

Among many others…

Another great books are: Four Witnesses and the Apostasy that wasn’t both books by historian Rod Bennett.

 

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