Friday, December 12, 2014

Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 30-107 AD) : Brilliant Light in the Winter Sky by Chris White

Ignatius of Antioch being eaten by beasts

It was late in the fall when the emperor Trajan and his army arrived in Antioch.  It was time to resupply and rest for in two days they would be continuing their march east to battle the Parthians (ancient Persia) who had been encroaching upon the Roman frontiers.  Antioch Syria (now part of present-day Turkey) had a very large Christian community which had once been taught by both the Apostles Peter and Paul and was actually the place where people were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:19).  The Church of Antioch was born out of Roman persecution and had suffered from it sporadically for many years.  Ignatius of Antioch was the beloved bishop of the city and gave loving oversight to the church much like a father would his children.  
Antioch is in present-day Turkey

Antioch was a long ways from Rome and Trajan saw that this distance had provided the freedom for the Christian “disorder” as he called it, to take root there like an aggressive weed.  The citizens of Antioch were among those he and his army had come and would possibly give up their lives to defend but to his thinking they were hardly loyal to him.  Like other Roman emperors before and after, Trajan decided to make a stand against this movement.  Through the torture of several citizens, he learned who the Christians were and where they could be found and many in the Christian community were rounded up to be publicly “reconverted” to the gods of Rome (which among them was often the emperor himself) or be executed for treason.

Ancient "enhanced interrogation"

As a crowd assembled in the amphitheater to see what was going on, an elderly gentleman made his way through the streets to the gathering.  He was on a mission.  Trajan was seated on his portable throne to look upon the proceedings.  Church members were going to be brought forward and be asked if Caesar was lord.  If they said yes, they would be asked to fully apostasize by offering incense to the genius of the emperor.  If they denied Caesar and continued to only acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, they would be tortured and then put to death before Trajan left town.  But something entirely different happened that day.

A computer generated model of the ancient city

That same elderly gentleman seen on the streets was well-known to everyone in Antioch as bishop Ignatius.  Quite fearlessly Ignatius entered the theatre and walked directly towards Trajan.  Trajan’s guard tried to stop the meeting, but Trajan recognized that Ignatius must be a key person in town and wanted to hear what he had to say and so the two men met face to face.

“You have no call to harass these people!” said Ignatius.  “I am their spiritual leader and it is I who have taught them to give all their allegiance to the Lord Jesus.  The blame for this should fall upon me, and me alone.”

“And who are you old man?” replied Trajan.  “My given name is Ignatius, but my true name is Theophorus (meaning “God-bearer”) because as the bishop of this town, I bear the truth of God and the sacred meal of our religion which is the body and blood of our Lord and God Jesus of Nazareth.”

Most all of this was incomprehensible to Trajan, but as a skilled politician, senator, and military man, he had long ago learned to identify the strategic moment in most situations and this was certainly one of them.  Ignatius was the head of this subversive movement in Antioch and once he was disposed of, this whole Christian craze will likely die for lack of leadership or splinter apart with in-fighting about who will be his successor.

And with that thought in mind, Trajan had Ignatius the bishop of Antioch arrested and placed in chains and sent to Rome with a detachment of ten soldiers.  Normally the death sentence would have been executed then and there, but as I mentioned before, Trajan was a strategic thinker.  The people of Rome loved watching execution by wild animals as part of the entertainment program at the Circus Maximus.  Why not let them watch a great religious leader be torn apart in front of them at the very least, or, in a best case scenario, watch him cower in fear at the sight of the lions and renounce his faith in Christ and find his new found allegiance to Caesar in the capitol of the Empire?
Trajan a man skilled in war and politics

Normally the trans-shipment of a prisoner was done by sea, but with winter closing in the sea route was not going to work.  And so, even as Trajan’s army marched east towards Persia, Ignatius of Antioch, his Roman guard detail, and a few friends who were allowed to attend to him began the march west moving first though Anatolia (Asia Minor) and then joining the via Egnatia in Macedonia which would take them overland to Rome.  All along the way to Rome, in something providentially akin to the book of Acts, local Christians come to meet Ignatius, most likely feeding him and his traveling companions, and then staying to hear a brief homily (short sermon).  Ignatius also takes time to dictate letters to Christian communities and friends such as bishop Polycarp of Smyrna along the way.  These letters are the primary source of information we have about Ignatius as a person but also what he believed.  Because he is a person who lived during the apostolic age and just into the sub-apostolic age, his writings give us a picture of the pattern of life and theology of the earliest church.
Possible routes that could have been taken

The question I ask when I read these letters is why these receiving congregations thought these letters valuable enough to collect them long after the fact (which they did) and why Ignatius, in the absence of there existing anything remotely akin to a monarchial bishop in the day, felt the freedom to exhort these congregations who had their own bishop?

If there is any truth to some of the later accounts that come to us through the historian Eusebius and other church fathers, Ignatius, though not an apostle, was an eyewitness of Jesus himself but also knew personally the Apostles Peter and Paul, and was later taught, along with Polycarp, by the Apostle John in Ephesus.  The Martyrium of Ignatius says that when Jesus took a child into his arms and said let the children come to me (Mk. 9:36) the actual child he held was Ignatius at possible 4 years of age.  This is very possible if Ignatius lived to be in his 80s.  The bulk of his letters are to congregations in Asia Minor with the exception of the final one directed to the Church of Rome.  It could be that Ignatius was simply well-known in that part of the world because he was one of the last living eyewitnesses at the time or just as plausible, he actually knew many of the congregational leaders because of his strong connection to Ephesus and the Apostle John.  Whatever the reasons, the letters of Ignatius were valuable at the time they were written and are of greater importance today as the only testimony from an era in Christian history we know so little about.

So what do we learn from the epistles of Ignatius?  In all of them there are three principle concerns: Christian unity, remaining steadfast in sound doctrine, and finally that Ignatius himself would bravely face his martyrdom.  Ignatius considered being killed by the Romans for his testimony of Christ to be the ultimate form of discipleship, laying down his life for his church, even as Christ did at the cross.
Christian unity is a theme that must be understood in the context of the schismatic churches and teaching that were in blossom during this time.  Ignatius is the first Christian to actually use the term “catholic church” in his writing.  For him, this church went beyond local congregation to a world wide body of true Christians walking faithfully with the Lord and in unity with one another.  The basis for that unity was walking in fellowship and concord with your local bishop.  The bishop was the spiritual father of the area who was in charge of all instruction and celebration of the Eucharist.  Churches had a divinely charged threefold ministry of bishop, elders, and deacons and these correspond to the Father, Son, and the Apostles.

Two of the controversies that Ignatius dealt with in his day was those who believed Jesus was God but didn’t have a true human body but rather only appeared to have one as a concession to our weakness as humans.  The other was the age-old issue of whether Christians should keep the Sabbath day or not.  To these issues we find Ignatius quite direct and unequivocal.  He directly states that Jesus is God and that Jesus is God incarnate.  I would guess that even as a young lad, Ignatius would have noticed or not if Jesus didn’t have a real physical body when he held him.  This is important as Ignatius shows us the earliest theology is very much that of the later ecumenical councils.  To the Sabbath, Ignatius points out that Christians have always worshipped on Sunday because this is the day of the resurrection of Christ and it is the new day of God’s choosing for worship.  Once again, something Christians believed long before the day of Constantine and his legislation of Sunday as a day of rest for all.

Christ and Apostles Mosaic in Antioch

Most important is the theme of martyrdom as a sacrifice and offering in the letters.  It has a benefit for the faith of the entire church.  The mood of his correspondence on this topic is exaltation bordering on mania. Martyrdom is following Christ in his passion.  This was the highest form of discipleship.  Ignatius sets his face like flint to Rome in this matter.  This may have been partly out of an internal fear that he apostasize to save his own life or that a rumor get started that he did.  

Ignatius writes “Near the sword is near to God.” And elsewhere “I am the wheat of Christ, and am ground by the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.”  This echoes the teaching of Jesus about God’s judgment being a separation of the wheat and the chaff (Mt. 3:12).  As he sends a letter forward to the Christians in Rome he writes: do not show inopportune kindness to me but let me meet my doom as a witness and martyr.  He asks several times in the letter for their non-intervention.  This request to me is quite intriguing.  Does it suggest that they did have some power to save him?  Were there powerful people in the Roman church or did they have people on the inside of the military who could arrange for a timely escape?

Cave church of St. Peter in Antioch today

Traditionally it is believed that Ignatius was fed to the lions during the Saturnalia festival in December at the Circus Maximus.  Although grueling and violent, the lions were apparently quick and thorough leaving only a few bones behind at the end of their meal.  Schaff writes, “His faithful friends who accompanied him to Rome dreamed that night that they saw him standing next to Christ covered in sweat as if he had just come from great labor.”  This dream gave them the joyful confidence their bishop  was with the Lord and they carried his remains (or should I say leftovers) home for burial in Antioch.

Recently Pope Benedict XVI wrote that Ignatius is a ‘doctor of unity’ because he teaches the church that unity comes by common faith in Christ but also our devoted efforts to one another because we are part of a common body.  To this I add the summation of Michael Holmes:  “Just as we become aware of a meteor only when, after traveling silently through space for untold millions of miles, it blazes briefly through the atmosphere before dying in a shower of fire, so it is with Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria.” As we recall the brave witness of this early Christian bishop, truly a brilliant light is still seen by all in the skies of winter.
Circus Maximus in Rome today where Ignatius was killed





Ferguson, Everett.  Church History vol. 1 : From Christ to the Pre-Reformation.  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 2013).

Frend, W. H. C.  Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church.  (Cambridge : James Clarke and Co. Ltd., 2008)

Ignatius.  Letter to the Ephesians, Letter to the Romans.  The Early Christian Fathers.  Bettenson, ed.  (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1984)

“Ignatius of Antioch”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiological Literature.  McClintock and Strong eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker, 1981)

“Ignatius of Antioch”  Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity.  Angelo di Berardino ed.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity, 2008)

Jefford, Clayton N.  The Apostolic Fathers : An Essential Guide.  (Nashville : Abingdon Press, 2005)

Pope Benedict XVI.  The Fathers.  (Huntington : Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2008)

Saint of the Day: Lives, Lessons, and Feasts.  Foley and McCloskey O.F.M. eds., rev.  (Cincinnati : St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001)

Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church Vol. 2.  (Grand Rapids :  Eerdmans, 1994)

The Apostolic Fathers in English.  Michael W. Holmes, translator and ed.  ( Grand Rapids : Baker Academic, 2006)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Origen (185-255 AD) : The Scholar with an Iron-Will by Chris White

Origen Adamantius
 Like so many human stories, the story of Origen is deeply connected with his hometown.  In ancient times, Alexandria Egypt was known as the 2nd City of the Roman Empire and the teacher of the world.  Its great library (which stood until Muslim control of Egypt in the 7th century) had once been the repository of all human scholarly endeavor and was considered a wonder of the world.  As a result, Alexandria attracted scholars, philosophers, religious leaders and students from all over the Mediterranean.  200 years before Christ, Alexandria had a larger Jewish community than did Jerusalem.  It was because of this that the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Greek (known as the Septuagint) and this became the Bible that Jesus and his apostles would later read.  When Christianity came to Alexandria and the church became established, it was a natural thing for them to establish a school there to teach young Christians and seekers of the truth.  This school was also to be a witness in a city dedicated to higher learning.  By the time Origen was born, the School of Alexandria was considered a great center of Christian scholarship.  This reputation would only increase as the years passed and Origen became its leader.
Alexandria in Ancient Times

Born around 185 AD, Origen is said to have received his name from the mountain range or village where his devout and wealthy parents were hiding out from an early persecution of Christians.  At some point his parents returned to Alexandria and when Origen was old enough he was given the best education of his day.  As a young boy Origen was known to have memorized large portions of scripture and often astounded his parents with his penetrating questions.  Later he went to a school of Greek philosophy and then the famed School of Alexandria where he studied under the church father Clement.  Origen was also given the surname ‘Adamantius’ (from our word adamant) because of his remarkable firmness in thought and iron-will as regarding bodily discipline.
Roman persecution lasted centuries

Around the time Origen was 17, his father Leonidas was imprisoned  with other Christians during a Roman persecution in Alexandria.  Daily Origen would write his father and others he knew not to recant their faith and hold strong even if it meant certain death.  So passionate was Origen that he wanted to turn himself into the authorities and invite martyrdom.  His life was saved by his well-meaning mother who hid all his clothes from him so he couldn’t go outside.  Origen’s father was eventually put to death and the family property was confiscated leaving Origen’s mother and his 7 siblings in poverty.  Origen in those days was able to help support his family by teaching philosophy and copying manuscripts of great books for the wealthy.

Many Christian scholars including Clement fled Alexandria because of the persecution.  This huge brain drain led the bishop of Alexandria to appoint Origen as the head of the great school when he was just 18 years old.  Far from being a questionable move, the brilliance and intensity of love for the Lord by this “Teen Dean” attracted many new students to the school.

To say that Origen was intense is a bit of an understatement.  Origen was known to sleep on a bare floor after spending most of the night in prayer and study.  On the rare occasion he stopped to take a meal, he never indulged in a glass of wine or ate meat of any kind.  He went without shoes at all times, had only one coat, and refused all gifts from his students.  He had no money and took no thought at all for the morrow.  He was neither a kook or an eccentric, but rather an advocate for the idea that a disciplined body serves a disciplined mind that more readily perceives the voice and presence of God.

Scholarship was a sacred calling

At one point in his 30s, Origen did something quite controversial and had himself castrated in literal obedience to Matthew 19:12 which says that some are eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of God.  He is said to have done this as a defense against fleshly temptation, but it may have been a matter of practicality.  He was constantly teaching and working with girls and women and such a bodily state would free him from both temptation and scandalous accusations.  The great irony in this whole affair is that Origen has never been known for literal exegesis of any passage of scripture.  It is odd that the only record we have of him interpreting scripture in this fashion is found when he emasculates

Read more about how Christianity first came to Alexandria 

For the remainder of his life Origen tried to relate Christianity to the science and philosophy of his day.  He believed that philosophy could prepare someone to understand the scriptures and used the phrase “spoiling the Egyptians” to describe his process of taking from the wealth of pagan learning to explain and defend Christianity to the people of his day.  This is not an original idea (pardon the pun) but an inherited idea from the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria.  He was the first to integrate the teaching of the Greeks with the revelation of the Old Testament and this enterprise was picked up later by the Christian church.  In his day Origen did more than anyone to promote the cause of Christian scholarship and to make the church respectable in the eyes of the learned.
Alexandria attracted scholars from all over

In his later 30s and 40s his reputation as a Christian scholar had spread well beyond Alexandria and he was invited to Rome, Greece, and Antioch to debate prominent leaders of a false religion known as Gnosticism.  Origen was also a notable preacher and was asked by many churches to speak and expound the scriptures.  Through conflict with his bishop in Alexandria over his guest speaking  (partly from jealousy over his success and partly because being castrated precluded a man from ordination in the church) , Origen eventually left his hometown of Alexandria and settled in Caesarea where he started another school of philosophy, literature, and theology that would in time eclipse the school of Alexandria.  
Ruins of Caesarea today

Systematic presentation of theology begins with the books of Hebrews and Romans, but Origen is to many the father of this method.  He is known for preparing short summaries of biblical teachings on various theological ideas.  He is considered by many to be the greatest Bible teacher outside the apostolic circle and the greatest biblical scholar in ancient times having done more than anyone else to master and research the text.  One of the greatest contributions to the Church was a 28 year long project where ancient manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments were collected, compared, and collated and then published for side-by-side study.  This book known as the Hexapla (the sixfold Bible) was lost forever during the Muslim invasions of Egypt in the 7th century but was an invaluable resource to Bible scholars for centuries.  Jerome himself made extensive use of it when he translated the Bible into what is known as the Latin Vulgate.

Watch a short video here on Origen and his historic context 

Origen’s method of Biblical interpretation shaped the Church for more than a thousand years and still does to some extent today.  His interpretive formula was based on the idea that the Bible had three layers of meaning corresponding to human nature of body, soul and spirit.  This is attributed by some to Origen’s affirmation of Platonic philosophy and it certainly may be true, but it is not without any biblical precedent either.  His method called for a literal sense, a moral sense, and finally a mystical or spiritual sense.

As an example, in Numbers chapter 33, 42 stopping places for Israel in the wilderness are listed.  In the literal sense, this is a catalog of their journeys.  Morally, we must understand that our lives are a long spiritual journey to prepare us for heaven and we must not allow this time to be wasted by sloth and neglect.  Spiritually, the purpose of our journey is to end up on the banks of the Jordan.  As we arrive at the river of God, the waves of divine wisdom and knowledge of God will water us and purify us and make us ready and worthy to enter into the Promised land.

Read or download a book by Origen on prayer here 

The organizing principal is that every verse in the Bible leads the believer in his advance towards perfection.  When that insight is found, the deepest meaning of a passage is fully understood.  The strength of this idea is that it demonstrates the Old and New Testaments are rightly a guide to Christians and need to be interpreted in light of Christian doctrine.  Origen felt that in some cases the spiritual sense of a passage was the only possible interpretation.  This was especially true of passages where what is said seems to be difficult to believe or needs reconciliation with other passages that seemingly contradict it.  Origen took such passages as a cue from the Holy Spirit that a deeper sense was intended.

 The great weakness of  this method was that often the literal sense of a passage has much to say, but is ignored or undeveloped in favor of a more mystical understanding.  Such interpretive methods remained popular throughout the Middle Ages but with the Renaissance and Reformation, came a return to the emphasis on the grammatical-historical setting of a scripture verse.  However, this is not a denial of the legitimate existence of layered meaning in the scriptures.

Copying books was an art in the ancient world

Through the patronage of a wealthy Christian, as Origen taught, a staff of stenographers would write down his every word.  These notes in turn would be given to a staff of secretaries for editing and then would be turned over to calligraphers who would turn them into artfully produced books.  Using this method, Origen was able to write nearly 6000 books in his lifetime.  Most of these books presented either theology or arguments against heretics and pagans.  St. Jerome is believed to have said “all that Origen wrote was more than a person could read in a lifetime.”  Unfortunately, nearly two centuries after his death, a great controversy erupted in the church over some of his ideas and because they were not understood in their original context, he was declared a heretic at a church council (Constantinople II in 553 AD) and many of his works were destroyed or no longer copied, thus today very few of his works remain in their complete form.

Critics of Origen are many and their charge that he employed the speculative thinking of his philosophically trained mind a bit too much in his theology is not unwarranted.  Origen believed all of us pre-existed in eternity before being born on earth and that we had a Pre-fall even before the one in the Garden of Eden.  He was also one of the first Christian universalists who held that all people would be eventually redeemed by God including the possibility of even the devil repenting!  He did believe in the Trinity and believed in the divinity of Christ, however, he believed that Jesus was somehow less than the Father and the Holy Spirit somehow less than Christ.
Maybe a bit optimistic on that point!

Origen believed the redeeming work of Christ even had significance for rational creatures living on distant stars and galaxies.  He also believed that creation is eternal and is constantly going through metamorphosis.  The creation is eternal because God is eternally and a creator.

Not surprisingly Origen denied a bodily resurrection.  This was not out of incredulity or disbelief, but more from his philosophical leanings.  He didn’t think the body had much purpose in this life except to house the spirit and so looked forward to leaving it behind and having solely a spiritual existence.

Origen also did not look for a millennial reign of Christ on earth, but like many Christian teachers of his day interpreted Revelation 20 as happening in heaven and upon death, Christians are immediately transferred to the Kingdom of God which is in heaven.

Against this, it has been argued that Origen was orthodox by the standards of his time as he lived prior to the more formal creedal statements set by the Church councils.  He was an early thinker and began planting the seeds of thinking and interpretation of the Bible that would be considered orthodox at a later time.  Had he died as a martyr he probably would have been forgiven for his shortcomings and over speculation as martyrdom has always had the effect of covering a multitude of sins.

Schaff estimates Origen as a man who held erroneous views but was anything but a heretic, especially in an era where the theology of the church was still emerging and was far from fixed.  That said, Origen was not orthodox in the Catholic or Protestant sense, but more of a guide from philosophy and Gnosticism to Christianity.  He had a fertile mind and moral imagination (including a bit of over optimism it would seem) but had no heart to knowingly lead people into apostasy or error.
In 250 Origen was imprisoned and sentenced to death in another Roman persecution of Christians.  He was eventually released but his health was broken and he died in the next few years at age 70.
Since his death Origen has been vilified as a heretic for some of his doctrinal ideas and hailed as a hero by others for his pioneering efforts in critical biblical scholarship.  Even heathens and heretics admired the brilliant talent and vast learning of Origen.  

In the Eastern Church today, Origen is considered the father of Christian theology.


Cairns, Earle. E.  Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. (Grand Rapids : Academie, 1981)

Ferguson, Everett.  Christian History  vol. 1.  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 2013)

Jenkins, Philip.  The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia----and How It Died.  (New York : HarperOne, 2008)

McManners, John.  The Oxford History of Christianity.  (Oxford: Oxford University Press,2002)

“Origen”  Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters.  Donald K. McKim ed.  (Downers Grove: Intervarsity,2007)

“Origen”  Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity vol. 2.  Angelo Di Berardino ed.  (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2014

“Origen”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature.  McClintock and Strong Eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Books, 1981)

Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church vol. 2.  (Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 1994)