Day Ten: St. Ignatius of Antioch: Letter to the Smyrnaeans (full text)
Who: Ignatius converted at a young age and later became Bishop of Antioch. A friend of Polycarp and fellow disciple of John, there is a long standing tradition that Ignatius was the child that Jesus held in his arms and blessed in Mark 10:13-16
What: A defence against the heresy of Docetism and an intriguing insight into the possible origins of evil spirits!
Why: Ignatius wrote a series of letters to the churches in Asia Minor whilst en route to Rome to face martyrdom by wild beasts in the Colosseum around 108 AD.
When: Around 107-108 AD
The opening chapters of this letter pulls no punches in regards to the heresy of Docetism. Ignatius commends this church for “being fully persuaded” in the truth of Christ – that he was born of a virgin, was baptised and truly did suffer and die on the cross for us; not, as some were saying, that “He only seemed to suffer”. To these, Ignatius says that they “only seem to be [Christians]” because of their false teaching!
He defends the resurrection by telling of how the Apostles ate and drank with, and touched the risen Christ since “He was still possessed of flesh”, but to this he also adds that he believes Jesus is still possessing a body of flesh, whilst being spiritually “united to the Father”. I'm not sure if he means this in the same way we might today when we talk about the glorified/resurrected bodies, since you don't often hear people say they are “flesh”, but it's probably just a semantics issue here.
With regards to the unbelievers who taught that Jesus wasn't really in the flesh, Ignatius gives us a strange insight into a belief about where evil spirits come from. Because they teach that Jesus only seemed to have a real body after his resurrection, so these people will also only seem to as well; they will essentially reap what they sow and “shall be divested of their bodies, and be mere evil spirits”! That is definitely an intriguing insight, but I'm not sure how common this belief was in the early church, or whether this is actually the implication that Ignatius meant.
But there is still hope for these people, and by extension, any today who preach heresy. Stay away from them, Ignatius says, and only pray to God for these people so that they may be brought to repentance, although this “will be very difficult”, but Jesus has the power to make this happen if he wills.
Following on from this there is a comment about this belief in regards to the Eucharist and how these unbelievers say that it is not “the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ” – an early reference to the doctrine of the Real Presence or maybe transubstantiation? Either way, the heretics taught that the bread and wine were not the flesh and blood and were condemned for it, which obviously has implications on those today who hold these to be merely symbols, if there's any weight to Ignatius's words or to early doctrine. It's something to ponder on at the very least.
The closing chapters are similar to the other letters: they praise the bishop and the church for their faith and for being steadfast against the heresies Ignatius condemns. Whilst the previous letters all say the same thing about listening to the bishop and to not do anything apart from him, this letter goes one further and says that, “he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil”!
That's some strong words and really shows the emphasis on the church hierarchy in these early days, and the seriousness of the positions of these church leaders, as though they were acting in place of Jesus and the Apostles to the individual churches, which is often how Ignatius describes it.
Like the others, this letter of Ignatius really offers some interesting viewpoints to think about and maybe gives us a glimpse of where certain doctrines had their origins.