Yesterday, we looked at Saint Ignatius of Antioch’s seven letters, written on the road to martyrdom and dripping with Catholic doctrine. And all by A.D. 110! Judge rightly and don’t get . . .
Caught on the wrong side of history
John Calvin considered the Ignatian evidence. At this fork in the road, he went left when he should’ve gone right. Many familiar with Reformed Theology know nothing of these second century letters; nor that the light of history proves their French hero wrong. Admittedly, we have better evidence than did this sixteenth-century Reformer. For my part, I could not deny the facts; nor deny their logical conclusions. Ignatius’ letters are powerful circumstantial evidence linking the Catholic faith with the church of our Lord’s apostles. Here we will look at one of the letters.
High point of the Catholic Mass
There is an unbroken chain between the New Testament writings and the Sacrifice of the Mass in the Catholic Church. The Reformers generally, and John Calvin specifically, erred by jettisoning this centerpiece of Christian worship. As the Catholic Church teaches:
1322 The holy Eucharist completes Christian initiation. Those who have been raised to the dignity of the royal priesthood by Baptism and configured more deeply to Christ by Confirmation participate with the whole community in the Lord’s own sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.
1323 “At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.'”135
More than negatively spiritual and beyond merely symbolic, from the beginning the Church has held and taught the Real Presence of Christ:
1333 At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood. Faithful to the Lord’s command the Church continues to do, in his memory and until his glorious return, what he did on the eve of his Passion: “He took bread. . . .” “He took the cup filled with wine. . . .” The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ; they continue also to signify the goodness of creation. Thus in the Offertory we give thanks to the Creator for bread and wine,154 fruit of the “work of human hands,” but above all as “fruit of the earth” and “of the vine” – gifts of the Creator. The Church sees in the gesture of the king-priest Melchizedek, who “brought out bread and wine,” a prefiguring of her own offering.155
A closer look at Ignatius’ letters
Catholics and Protestant scholars agree on the historicity of Saint Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch. Tradition says Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch after Evodius (third, if you count Saint Peter). Ignatius and his friend Polycarp (later, Bishop of Smyrna) were disciples of Saint John the Evangelist. Some believe both Ignatius and Polycarp were auditors of Saint John. (www.newadvent.org/cathen/07644a.htm).
In approximately A.D. 107, Ignatius was arrested. In this period of persecution against Christians, Roman Emperor Trajan happened to be in Antioch where Igantius served as bishop over the church. Trajan personally sentenced Ignatius to death in the Roman Coliseum. Ten Roman soldiers escorted Ignatius and others to Rome. During the year-long trek, Ignatius wrote at least seven parting letters. One letter was addressed to the church in Smyrna where his friend Polycarp was bishop.
Rock-solid doctrine by A.D. 110
The context of Ignatius’ letter to the church in Smyrna was the Docetist heresy. Docetists denied that Jesus Christ, Son of God, came in the flesh. According to the Docetists, Jesus only appeared to be in the flesh. Accordingly, the Docetists denied John 1:14’s “[A]nd the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”.* The heresy was poison because it denied the Incarnation, the bedrock of our salvation. Christ opened heaven for us in the manhood he assumed (Saint Irenaeus). Educating believers to recognize these false teachers, Ignatius used the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist as his argument:
“They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that ye should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils.”
https://www.ewtn.com/library/PATRISTC/ignatius_smynaeans.htm: “Taken from The Early Church Fathers and Other Works originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867 (Anti-Nicene Fathers I, volume 5, Roberts and Donaldson.) The electronic text obtained from The Electronic Bible Society was not completely corrected. EWTN has corrected all discovered errors.)” (emphasis added)
Notice, Ignatius does not bother to teach the Eucharist here. He refers to this gift of God not as a novel idea being imposed upon a church celebrating a symbolic Lord’s Supper. Rather, he uses something they’ve already been taught, something they already know. Ignatius uses this already-established teaching as argument against the heresy. The fact of the Eucharist is assumed in the argument. If his readers had not already received this teaching, if they had not already believed this Good News, it would have held no sway as a warning against the Docetists.
More to the story: forgeries then Protestant proofs
In John Calvin’s defense, by the sixteenth century Ignatius’ seven letters had become thirteen letters! Apparently, in or around the fourth century, in the context of battling Arian heresies, letters bearing the name of Ignatius of Antioch were circulated along with the seven genuine letters. Putting the case in a light most favorable to Calvin, perhaps those forgeries clouded the Frenchman’s judgment. Regardless, Calvin was wrong. Calvin had thrown the baby out with the bathwater, severing an indispensable link between the Apostles and the Apostolic Fathers. I write of rashness elsewhere.
How do we know Ignatius’ original seven letters were not forgeries? How do we know John Calvin actually set up his system of theology while ignoring crucial, authentic evidence? Ironically, Protestants prove the case. If it were not so serious you might say history has a sense of humor. Protestants themselves pulled from the rubble of history Saint Ignatius’ seven letters. Reputable Protestant scholars rescued the Ignatian evidence, separating genuine from forgeries:
“Again it was Protestant historical scholarship that vindicated the authenticity of the seven epistles. Theodor Zahn, an orthodox Lutheran, published his defense in 1873. And from 1885 to 1889, Joseph B. Lightfoot, by then the Anglican bishop of Durham, wrote the definitive analysis of the evidence, together with a detailed history of the research into it.” How Do We Know Ignatius’ Letters are Genuine, by Joe Heschmeyer.
Deal with it
Ignoring the evidence is no valid option. The Sacrifice of the Mass is faithful to Scripture as handed on by the apostles to those who came after them. There is too much Scriptural and historical evidence to conclude otherwise. As Protestants, could we really understand the Scriptures better than the Bishop of Antioch who learned the faith from Saint John the Evangelist? Was John Calvin really in a better position to interpret Scripture than those who received the traditions directly from those who walked with Jesus? Affirmative answers here would reflect the great error of sola Scripture. Only by ignorance or arrogance do we snatch the Scriptures from the hands of the Catholic Church and treat the Bible like a riddle to be solved.
Saint Ignatius had every reason to faithfully pass on what he received from the Evangelist whom Jesus loved. When the old bishop wrote his letters, he was on his way to die a martyr’s death. Probably, Ignatius would have said it differently. He was on his way to live. Ignatius had received from Saint John the Lord’s promise to all who receive Him in the Eucharist:
Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats* my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. (Jn. 6:53-56)
Come and see. Come and get on the right side of history.
ONE LORD. ONE FAITH. ONE BAPTISM.
AS FOR ME, I KNOW THAT MY VINDICATOR LIVES, AND THAT HE WILL AT LAST STAND FORTH UPON THE DUST. THIS WILL HAPPEN WHEN MY SKIN HAS BEEN STRIPPED OFF, AND FROM MY FLESH I WILL SEE GOD: I WILL SEE FOR MYSELF, MY OWN EYES, NOT ANOTHER’S, WILL BEHOLD HIM: MY INMOST BEING IS CONSUMED WITH LONGING. JOB 19:25-27+
+New American Bible Revised Edition