Thursday, October 17, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Ignatius of Antioch - witness to the true body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar

The Commemoration of Ignatius of Antioch, Pastor and Martyr, on October 17 provides the opportunity to reflect briefly on the witness that this saint provides to the catholic teaching about the true body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar.  Writing around 105 A.D. Ignatius the bishop of Antioch stated concerning heretics in his area: “They stay away from the Eucharist and prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, which the Father raised up by His goodness” (To the Smyrnaeans 7.1).  Ignatius was opposing Docetists who believed that Jesus Christ only seemed to be human.  Not surprisingly, they also denied that the Sacrament of the Altar was the true body and blood of Christ.  In response to this, Ignatius affirms this truth in the strongest terms by using the word “flesh” – a term that allowed no equivocation.

Ignatius’ witness is important because of when he wrote and where he was bishop. He was bishop a mere seventy years or so after Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead.  He was also bishop in a city that was an important early Christian center – in fact it was in Antioch that believers in Jesus were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). Antioch was the same city where Paul had taught for a year (Acts 11:26) and it was the base for the apostle’s missionary journeys (Acts 13:1-3; 14:25-28; 15:35-41; 18:22-23).  It is very likely that when Paul passed on the tradition about the Lord’s Supper to the Corinthians (11:23), he passed on the liturgical tradition that he had received at Antioch.

Lutherans can never lose sight of the fact that prior to the sixteenth century, the Church had always confessed that in the Sacrament of the Altar Christ works a miracle as He gives us His true body and blood.  This confession of Lutherans about the Sacrament is the same one that the catholic (universal) Church has held for 2000 years, and has held since the beginning of the Church.

Ignatius of Antioch provides important evidence of the fact that the Church has confessed this from the beginning.  A mere seventy years after Christ, and fifty years after the apostle Paul had taught in the same city, Ignatius confesses that the Sacrament is “the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”  Because of this evidence, those who deny that Christ gives his true body and blood in the Sacrament must argue that the Church immediately got it wrong and then was completely wrong about the Sacrament of the Altar for the first 1500 years.  This is simply hard to believe.  The early Church displayed an incredible aversion to anything that appeared to be a deviation from the apostolic teaching and practice.  A Church that hotly disputed the correct day for the celebration of Easter during the second century A.D. in the Quartodeciman controversy, can hardly have failed to notice that the teaching about the Sacrament had undergone such a shift.  In fact, one can almost say that it requires more faith to believe this, than to believe that the incarnate Son of God can use bread and wine to give us his body and blood.


  1. I did a paper on Ignatius for class on the Early Church. At the time, my paper was centered on the general format of the letters. Some years later I reread them and was struck by his Eucharistic theology (see my blog post