Matt C. Abbott
'Ignatius of Antioch & Polycarp of Smyrna'
By Matt C. Abbott
February 1, 2010

The following is the Preface and an additional excerpt (minus footnotes) from the book Ignatius of Antioch & Polycarp of Smyrna, authored by Kenneth J. Howell. Many thanks to Coming Home Resources and Brian O'Neel of for allowing me to reprint Dr. Howell's material.


To the attentive reader of early Christian writings, the names of St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp of Smyrna stand as powerful witnesses to the life of the church in the second century. Outside the canon of the New Testament few leaders of the early church have given us so much clarity about the life of Christians of that period. A man who probably knew some of the apostles themselves, Ignatius became the second or third bishop of Antioch in Syria. Martyred in Rome some time during the reign of the emperor Trajan (98-117), Ignatius's seven authentic letters give us snapshots of the faith and life of the churches of Asia Minor in a manner that is equaled only by the Acts of the Apostles and the seven letters of the Apocalypse. More is known about the life and martyrdom of Polycarp but fewer of his letters have survived antiquity. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was martyred around the mid-second century. Ignatius passed through Smyrna around 110 en route to Rome. Together, they give us unique insights into the theology, church practice, and hope of early Christians.

St. Ignatius has been celebrated and his letters studied with great diligence for centuries. Yet, despite numerous translations into modern languages, commentators on Ignatius have not always understood the broader and deeper theology that underlies his writings. Like St Paul's letters in the New Testament, Ignatius's epistles were "occasional writings" (Gelegenheitschriften) penned while en route to Rome. They are not anything like the systematic treatises of theology that we find later in the second century (e.g. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies) but they are examples of the high regard the ancients had for writing exemplary instructional epistles. Behind and within these letters, however, lies a profound theology that was to become seminal for later Christian thinkers. In Ignatius's writings we stand at the source of a long tradition that still shapes Christianity today in both the East and the West. The translations and commentary contained in this book are designed to lay bare that Ignatian theology.

Ignatius has endured the vicissitudes of centuries of scholarship. At one extreme, there is the naive acceptance of writings ascribed to him (in the so-called long recension, e.g. Letter to Mary) which scholars now universally agree are not authentically his. The other is an atomistic hyper-historicism that makes Ignatius not only of questionable relevance today but even irrelevant to understanding the wider spectrum of Christian belief and practice of his own time. Professional scholars of early Christianity show a marked tendency to treat each of the earliest Fathers as individuals whose theology was not necessarily shared by others of that time. This, of course, is somewhat difficult to discern in the case of Ignatius because there are so few of his strict contemporaries available to us. The Didache and the Letter to the Philippians by Polycarp are some of the closest witnesses we have to the time of Ignatius.

Polycarp, like Ignatius, can boast a long history of study by scholars and general readers of early Christianity. However, the only document surviving from his pen, his Letter to the Philippians, does not display the theological profundity of Ignatius's letters. Consequently, many scholars have found his work less interesting and worthy of attention. This is a hasty judgment in my estimation. While his only letter bears the marks of pastoral concern rather than theological acumen, it draws on the rich fount of Paul's theology in the New Testament, as Kenneth Berding as recently shown. We may also be justified in making some inferences about Polycarp's teachings from the Martyrdom of Polycarp, a document dating most probably from the early third century. This account of the death of the bishop of Smyrna still today ranks as one of the most moving and inspiring martyrologies from the second century.

Every student of the early church fathers, like any scholar doing historical research, must necessarily bring certain presuppositions to the study. Often there is an implicit community of readers that each scholar is addressing, which tends to control his interpretations. I am, of course, no different. I have chosen to emphasize the affinities between Ignatius and Polycarp on the one hand, and the writings of the New Testament on the other. The theology of Paul, the most important writer in the canonical New Testament, looms large. We will see that there is a natural and almost expected development from the early catholicity of the later writings in the New Testament (e.g. the Pastorals) to these bishop-martyrs. While most available editions of Ignatius and Polycarp cite passages from the New Testament which they allude to or quote, many current translators have not explored those connections as deeply as one might.

A commentary should above all else explain the text in terms a modern reader can understand. This is a much more challenging task than appears at first. Through many years of teaching I have learned that few readers really plumb the depths of the patristic writings, even those that seem straightforward. Like St. Paul in the New Testament, there is much more to Ignatius and Polycarp than meets the eye. In many aspects of their thought, but especially in their fervent longing for martyrdom, Ignatius and Polycarp seem like men from a different and distant world. I have taken it as my task not only to make these men understandable to the modern reader but even more to engender a desire to be like them. For me, Ignatius and Polycarp are not simply objects of scholarly inquiry. For me, they are Saints, men in whom the desire for martyrdom represents the most profound expression of love for Jesus Christ. This love for Christ explains their pastoral solicitude, their love of the Eucharist, and their concern for unity within the churches. They are not only authors to be read; they are men with whom one can converse. I invite the reader into this conversation with the hope that it will engender that same love of Jesus Christ and the church that so burned in the souls of Ignatius and of Polycarp.

— Kenneth J. Howell

17 October 2009, the Memorial of St. Ignatius of Antioch

Chapter Five

The Eucharist in the Theology of Ignatius

In the previous chapter we observed how the unity of the church was central to Ignatius's theology, and how that unity implied the holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the church. More importantly, we noted that in Ignatius's mind the unity of the church has its source in Christ's pastoral care of the church. The deeper source of unity is in God himself. That is why the Eucharist is so important for Ignatius. The Eucharist is the instrument through which the unity that is in God is communicated to the members of the church so they may be truly one.

Because Ignatius was writing occasional letters to the churches of Asia Minor, he does not address the subject of the Eucharist in any direct way, just as he does not address any major theological topic in a direct manner. However, by examining his passing comments on the Eucharist as reflections of his deeper theology, we come to see this mystery as intimately connected to other aspects of his thought. Ignatius mentions the Eucharist explicitly in three of his letters (Letter to the Ephesians, Letter to the Philadelphians, and Letter to the Smyrneans) but there are clear eucharistic allusions in other letters such as the Letter to the Romans. The passages in the first three letters have to do with the liturgical celebration proper while other allusions are embedded within other aspects of Ignatius's theology. The relevant passages seem on the surface to be unproblematic, but the history of the study of Ignatius reveals quite disparate opinions of what Ignatius actually believed. Pierre Battifol has noted two opposing assessments of Ignatius's sacramental theology. The first claims that Ignatius believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist; the other is that Ignatius saw the Eucharist in less realistic and more symbolic terms. The latter conclusion seems rather odd given the realistic language that Ignatius uses. Let us carefully examine the context of Ignatius's eucharistic statements.

The theme of unity, so germane to Ignatius's theology, surfaces again in his references to the liturgy. The Letter to the Philadelphians seems especially concerned with the ravenous wolves which can tear the church apart (Philad 2:2). The answer to division and evil teaching (cf. 2:1) is to follow the shepherd appointed for the church. Schism must be consciously rejected by believers if they are to remain faithful to Christ. Avoiding schism can best be accomplished by liturgical unity and so Ignatius exhorts the Philadelphians,

    Therefore, be diligent to employ only one Eucharist. For there is [only] one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and there is [only] one cup for unity in his blood. There is one altar as there is one bishop together with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow servants. The purpose of all this is so that your practices will be in accord with God's intention (Philad 4:1).

The structure of this exhortation is worth noting closely. "Eucharist" (eucharistia) provides the overarching term for the entire liturgy while the succeeding terms designate specific parts of or actors in the liturgy (flesh, cup, altar, and bishop). In each case the repetition of "one" leaves us in no doubt that Ignatius is distinguishing between an aberrant, unauthorized liturgy and a legitimate celebration under the authority of the bishop. The emphasis on the "one flesh" and "one cup for unity in his blood" reveals the deepest ground for Ignatius's idea of the Eucharist. The "one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ" evokes the continuity between the historical Jesus and the liturgical celebration of the church. The "one cup for unity in his blood" is reminiscent of Paul's words in his letter to the Corinthians:

    is not the cup which we bless a participation in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body because we all partake of the one bread (1 Cor 10:16,17).

Paul teaches that it is the body and blood of Christ which makes the members of the church truly one. It is "because we all partake of the one loaf" that we become one body.

Ignatius draws on Paul's teaching and extends it into a new situation that allows for a clear view of the meaning of the eucharistic liturgy. Implied in the phrase "one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ" is the reality of the God-man Jesus. This becomes evident if we ask in what sense many different churches with different altars can all be said to be one. One answer might be found in the symbolic actions of each church. If, for example, all the churches of Asia Minor have the same liturgy, they are symbolically representing their unity. However, Ignatius places the emphasis elsewhere. His command to celebrate "one Eucharist" is based, not on a common liturgy, but on the "one flesh" of the real Incarnation. One can hear the docetic denials just below the surface. If, as the Docetists claimed, Christ only appeared to have taken on human flesh, and only appeared to have suffered, then the celebration of the Eucharist only appears to have his body too. In countering the virtual denial of Christ's humanity, Ignatius carefully chooses "one flesh" as the reason why unity is more than symbolic. The churches are one because they all ultimately have the same altar (the heavenly), the same bishop (Christ), and most of all the same nourishment (one flesh).

If the Docetists are just beneath the surface in Ignatius's exhortation in Philad 4:1, they are front and center in his condemnation of them in the Letter to the Smyrneans where the problem of unity and liturgy seems to have been quite acute:

They abstain from the Eucharist and [appointed times] of prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins and which the Father in his kindness raised. Those who speak against Godís gift will die in their disputes. It was better for them to love so they may be raised (Smyrn 7:1).

It is important not to read these lines with a modern mentality. The Docetists' abstention from the liturgy was more than a decision in favor of diversity of opinion and practice. They abstained from the authorized liturgy because they would not confess the faith of the church in the real humanity of Jesus in the Eucharist. When Ignatius says they abstained from prayer, he does not mean all prayer but public prayer with the church. The refusal of the Docetists to pray with the church at the eucharistic feast was grounded in their denial of a true Incarnation. Denial of the Incarnation leads to denial of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If the eternal Word never truly became a man, how could his humanity be conveyed in the Eucharist? Yet we should not suppose that the Docetists necessarily denied any presence at all. Perhaps they even confessed Jesus's body in the sacrament. Their belief might be inferred from Ignatius's explanation of what they denied when he adds, "the flesh ... which suffered for our sins and which the Father in his kindness raised." They denied any identity between the historical body of Jesus and the eucharistic body. Thus, it is impossible not to view Ignatius as teaching the real human presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist....

© Matt C. Abbott


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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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