The Lost Gospel of Ignatius of Antioch

There is a New Testament and patristic understanding, sometimes lost to modern theology, which organically connects Christ’s death and resurrection to salvation. That is, the predicament of death, with its corruption, inherent deception, and loss, is directly addressed in the life giving truth of the work of Christ. In the modern equation, in which resurrection is a seal of sacrifice accepted, resurrection is not intrinsically connected to either forgiveness or purification and Christ’s death is simply the payment of a penalty. For example, in Calvin’s explanation: “We have in his death the complete fulfillment of salvation, for through it we are reconciled to God, his righteous judgment is satisfied, the curse is removed, and the penalty paid in full.”[1] Once Christ’s death is set in a legal framework, his death addresses a problem in the mind of God rather than a reality inherent in death. Yet, this organic connection of Christ’s death and resurrection to the predicament of death is an understanding repeated and developed in the earliest theological writing of the post-New Testament age. Ignatius of Antioch is working with categories presumed in the New Testament and early church, linking death with corruption and which makes of resurrection, as well as the life and death of Jesus, purification, release from bondage, and forgiveness. The danger is that this understanding is obscured by theological developments from Augustine to Calvin which shift the theological focus to issues of sovereignty, determinism, law, and total depravity.  

When he writes his series of letters to various churches, Ignatius is headed to Rome where he knows he will be martyred. This march toward death informs his comparatively simple theology describing the necessity to embrace death with Christ. For Ignatius, fear of death is the corruption or disease which Satan wields so as to give death the final word. His journey and his letters are a demonstration of how one can put off the corrupting power of death by reversing the instinct and orientation to flee, rather than take up the cross.

 As he explains to the Ephesians, the death and resurrection of Christ are the medicine that provides the cure for the corruption and sickness of sin in its death denying orientation. Death is corrupting precisely in that the sinful, like the false teachers, would deny its reality and would consider the fleshly embodied world as unreal. They would assign prime reality to the soul and spirit and pass over the flesh and the reality of death, and in denying this reality they transmit the original disease. For these false teachers, “He only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be [Christians].” Ignatius grants that it may happen exactly as they believe: “as they believe, so shall it happen unto them, when they shall be divested of their bodies, and be mere evil spirits.”[2] To lose the body and to become a spirit is an evil and damnable state. The docetists, who deny the reality of the flesh of Christ, “labor under an incurable disease” in that they deny the reality of the cure of the “Physician” who “is the only true God.”[3]

Ignatius explains the cure straightforwardly: “For ‘the Word was made flesh’ [John 1:14]. Being incorporeal, He was in the body; being impassible, He was in a passible body; being immortal, He was in a mortal body; being life, He became subject to corruption, that He might free our souls from death and corruption, and heal them, and might restore them to health, when they were diseased with ungodliness and wicked lusts.”[4] Life and immortality are not innate to man, but come from God. “For were He to regard us according to our works we should cease to be.”[5] God was manifested in Christ “for the renewal of eternal life.”[6] Christ is “the constant source of our life, and of faith and love.”[7] He “breathes immortality into the Church”[8] and “apart from whom we do not possess the true life.”[9]

Ignatius is reflecting the teaching of Hebrews: the defeat of death equals the seizure of the kingdom of Satan, as the devil reigns over a captive humanity through death (Heb. 2:14-15). He is following Paul’s notion that “sin reigned in death” (Rom. 5:21) and “the sting of death is sin” (I Cor. 15:56).

According to John Romanides’ explanation and expansion upon the theology of Ignatius, “Because of the tyrant death man is unable to live according to his original destiny of selfless love. He now has the instinct of self-preservation firmly rooted within him from birth.” Romanides builds upon this to say, “Because he lives constantly under the fear of death he continuously seeks bodily and psychological security, and thus becomes individualistically inclined and utilitarian in attitude.”[10] Though this may put a modern twist on Ignatius, it gets at his understanding of why the “abolition of death” is an undoing of sin and a defeat of the devil.[11]

For Ignatius, death and life are two fates: “Seeing, then, all things have an end, these two things are simultaneously set before us — death and life; and every one shall go unto his own place.” There are two kinds of coin, and each coin has stamped upon it either the character of the world or the character of God, and the sole difference is that “the believing have, in love, the character of God the Father.”[12] Those who deny Him have become the “advocates of death rather than of the truth.”[13] There is life and truth or death and a lie, but there is no means to life apart from the truth of Christ.

It is by Christ alone that man has life. He is the door to life “by which enter in Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the prophets, and the apostles, and the Church. All these have for their object the attaining to the unity of God.” These too “proclaimed the Gospel, and placed their hope in Him, and waited for Him; in whom also believing, they were saved, through union to Jesus Christ.” [14] They pointed to this one in whom “is the perfection of immortality.”[15]

Ignatius tells Polycarp, his friend, to strive as an athlete for the prize of “immortality and eternal life” and he tells the Trallians that “by believing in His death you may escape death.”[16] He warns the Smyrnaeans that those who deny Jesus had a natural body simply succumb to death, and he equates belief in his suffering in the body as the equivalent of resurrection: “But he who does not acknowledge this, has in fact altogether denied Him, being enveloped in death. . . . Yea, far be it from me to make any mention of them, until they repent and return to [a true belief in] Christ’s passion, which is our resurrection.”[17]

Death is corrupting in that it poses a moral orientation which unleashes the fleshly passions, as the mortality of the flesh reigns unchallenged. In this sense, there is no division between the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Christ, in that in each he is combating the same foe. The corruption of death is overcome in his life, in his passion and taking up of death, and in his resurrection. On the other hand, the false teachers are “dumb dogs,” “raving mad,” and their bite is poisonous as they inflict the original lie, which would obscure how it is that Satan and death ensnare and enslave.[18] The truth of life in Christ exposes the lie of Satan positing a death dealing lie.

What is remarkable in this understanding are all of the things that are not only missing but if they are added, will obscure Ignatius’ understanding. There is no consideration of a legal framework or of future punishment. Rather, sin is a disease which Christ cures by uniting his immortality with his mortal body. Christ became subject to corruption which is simultaneously a physical and moral state, as is evidenced in those who are spiritually corrupt. Their corruption is not only that they are subject to death, but in denying this reality they make themselves completely corrupt, as evidenced in their foolishness and vanity, leaving them subject to death.  (Ignatius puts heavy emphasis on the importance of meekness, “by which the prince of this world is brought to nought.”[19])

 As he puts it in the letter to the Trallians, “Abstain from the poison of heretics.” Partaking of heresy is like eating poisonous herbage. So he says, “use Christian nourishment only.” Ignatius claims you can either turn to the nourishment of Christ or to poison, with the result that you will die. Or more fatally, one can ingest the poison of heresy, imagining it is the word of Christ: “For those [that are given to this] mix up Jesus Christ with their own poison, speaking things which are unworthy of credit, like those who administer a deadly drug in sweet wine, which he who is ignorant of does greedily take, with a fatal pleasure leading to his own death.”[20] The result of sin is that one becomes completely subject to death, physically and morally.

Ignatius does not speak of future punishment, and he knows nothing of limited atonement or individual election. One either entrusts herself to the love of Christ or attempts to take in “herbage of a different kind.” These “unbelieving, say, that He only seemed to suffer” and it can be said of them “they themselves only seeming to exist.”[21] They have given themselves completely over to unreality through the delusion of death.

The docetic claim, that Christ did not come in human flesh, is directly from Satan, according to Ignatius, and is equivalent in its effects to the original lie of the serpent. “Flee, therefore, those evil offshoots [of Satan], which produce death-bearing fruit, whereof if any one tastes, he instantly dies.” It is evident that such men are not planting good fruit, “For if they were, they would appear as branches of the cross, and their fruit would be incorruptible.” In denying the embodiment of Christ they deny the reality of the passion, and thus they leave themselves subject to the deadly passions (death resistance) which Christ defeated. “By it (the cross) He calls you through His passion, as being His members. The head, therefore, cannot be born by itself, without its members; God, who is [the Savior] Himself, having promised their union.”[22] The true branches springing from the cross, enflesh themselves with the clothing of Christ, such as meekness and love, in which they “become the imitators of His sufferings.” These are the salvific fruit stemming from faith; specifically, faith “that is the flesh of the Lord” and “love, that is the blood of Jesus Christ.”[23] Living in faith is, by definition, to live by the flesh and blood of Christ.

There is no room here for a disembodied, in the head alone, sort of faith. Living by faith and love connects one to the incarnate, fleshly, humanity of Christ by means of which he can “continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ our Lord.” This union can be disrupted through the heretical tendency, which is a type of the sinful tendency, of denying the reality of Christ’s enfleshment. The alternative is to trust in his works in the body which bring about life in the face of death. The ‘flesh and blood’ of Jesus directly counters the “deadly disease” of “depravity,” “foolishness,” “evil,” and “vanity.”

I arm you beforehand by my admonitions, as my beloved and faithful children in Christ, furnishing you with the means of protection [literally, ‘making you drink beforehand what will preserve you’] against the deadly disease of unruly men, by which do ye flee from the disease by the good-will of Christ our Lord.[24]

As Mako Nagasawa notes, Ignatius links ransom language to cleansing: “When He gave Himself a ransom for us, that He might cleanse us by His blood from our old ungodliness, and bestow life on us.” Life is purification and cleanliness, just as death is corruption. For Ignatius the ransom, while addressing the work of Satan, also “concerns ridding human nature of ‘the depravity that was in us.’ Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves: heal his human nature, and rid it of sin, by uniting it perfectly with God. He can therefore do in us what we cannot do by ourselves.”[25]

 Ignatius, according to Nagasawa, reflects (and quotes) the participatory thought of 2 Peter: “He (Peter) reminds them of the power and promises of Jesus, that ‘you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust’ (2 Pet.1:4). The term ‘corruption’ occurs two more times in Peter in connection with false teachers (2 Pet.2:10, 19), who ‘indulge the flesh’ (2 Pet.2:10) and ‘entice by fleshly desires’ (2 Pet.2:18).” One can either follow the dogs and pigs (2 Pet.2:22) or overcome this corruption through “purification” and healing by participation in ‘the divine nature’ in and through Jesus Christ (2 Pet.1:9).[26]

This divine nature, the cure to the predicament of death, is imparted throughout his incarnation and is made available through the fact that his flesh and blood are shared. Church historian Philip Schaff writes of Ignatius’ theology, “The central idea is the renovation of man (Eph.20), now under the power of Satan and Death (ib. 3, 19), which are undone in Christ, the risen Savior (Smyrn.3), who ‘is our true life,’ and endows us with immortality (Smyrn. 4, Magn. 6, Eph. 17).’27 Jesus’ new humanity is the ‘cure’ for our corrupted humanity. It is what the eucharist points to: the ‘cleansing remedy to drive away evil.”[27]

Again, what is missing, is the notion of wrath as a legal category (removed from death), the notion of a limited atonement, or any hint of a monophysite or monthelite will or any discussion of will. Augustine’s notion of original sin, focus on God’s sovereignty, focus on human free will or total depravity, and individual predestination, change the landscape of theology to such a degree that by the time of Calvin, even those Arminians who would oppose him were caught up in the same web. They are seemingly unable to extract themselves from the world put into place by Augustine and Calvin. Thus, they pose the innovation of prevenient grace to combat total depravity, and are left with a focus on voluntarism in which the issue of human will and God’s will is the dominant factor in the universe. What they did not have access to was the world of Ignatius and the New Testament.

 In the description of Romanides, for Ignatius death and its corruption are the condition God would destroy through the incarnation, and next to the will of God and the good, there is only the temporary kingdom of Satan, who exercises his power through death and corruption. Man is oppressed by the devil but is still free, at least in regard to will, to follow one or the other. “The world and God has each his own character – the world death, and God life (Ign. Mag. 5.) . . . It exists now under the power of corruption (Rom. 8:20-22), but in Christ is being cleansed.”[28]

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.xvi.13

[2] Ignatius, The Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 2.

[3] Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 7.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians 10.

[6] Ignatius, Ephesians 19.

[7] Epistle to the Magnesians 1.

[8] Ephesians  17.

[9] Epistle to the Trallians 9.

[10] John S. Romanides, The Ecclesiology of St. Ignatius of Antioch,

[11] Ephesians 19.

[12] Magnesians 5.

[13] Smyrnaeans 5.

[14] Philadelphians 5.

[15] Ibid. 9.

[16] Epistle to Polycarp 2

[17] Smyrnaeans 5.

[18] Ephesians 7.

[19] Trallians 4.

[20] Ibid, 6.

[21] Ibid 10.

[22] Ibid 11.

[23] Ibid 8.

[24] Ibid, 8. Comments on the translation are those of Mako A. Nagasawa, “Penal Substitution vs. Medical-Ontological Substitution: A Historical Comparison” Documents/atonement/article-penal-substitution-vs-ontological-substitution-historical-comparison.pdfignatius.pdf

[25] Nagasawa, Ibid.

[26] Nagasawa, Ibid.

[27] Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 2, Volume 4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1867), p.37. Quoted in Nagasawa.

[28] Ibid. Romanides.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.