Archive for the ‘theology’ Tag

Ignatious of Antioch   1 comment

[This post is part of a personal reflective journey through Christian theology.  An introduction to this project was given in the first post of this series.]

Biographical details/context

As well as the book by Daryl Aaron this series is framed around, I have consulted two main sources for a summary of what is known about Ignatius: the Wikipedia entry and the 1913 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia (made available online by New Advent).

Ignatius was born in Syria (poignant given the current civil war there) , between 35 and 50 CE.  He is thought to have converted to Christianity at an early age and to have been martyred, between 98 and 117 CE, by being thrown to wild animals in the Coliseum in Rome.  He was a disciple of John the Apostle (the most theological of the gospel authors). He was appointed Bishop of Antioch (then a major trading city in Syria) possibly by St. Peter. It was at Antioch that the followers of Jesus first got the name Christians (Acts 11:26) which was probably initially a term of abuse.  Together with Clement of Rome, previously written about, he is considered one of the 5 Apostolic Fathers fo the Church.


Following his arrest and during the long overland journey to Rome he wrote seven letters; six to established churches and one to his friend Polycarp who was Bishop of Smyrna.  (Other letters in later collections are thought to be spurious.)  These writings are principally pastoral letters.  However, Arron quotes Roger Olsen:

“It may be fair to say that these letters contain the first real theology in Christianity [beyond the apostles own writings]”

English translations of Ignatius’ writings are available online via Early Christian Writings.

I read first his letter to Polycarp which is mostly encouraging his friend and fellow Bishop and arranging for a replacement for himself as Bishop in Antioch to be selected and sent.  He uses analogies familiar form Paul’s letter’s: the Christian as athlete and the Christian virtues as the armour of God.  His letter to the Romans is difficult for me to empathise with. It is mostly about his welcoming his anticipated martyrdom and asking the Christians there to do nothing to prevent it. (I cannot imagine what they could do.)

In Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians the themes that Arron highlights are more evident.  This includes the role of the Bishops (and other church leaders) in preserving unity and warnings against false teachers and false doctrines.  He addresses the big theological theme of the early centuries of the Church: the nature of Jesus Christ.  To quote from Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians, Chapter VII:

There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Arron asserts that while stating that Christ was God, Ignatius’ greater concern was that Jesus was genuinely human.  This was to counter a prevalent “Christological heresy” of the time Docetism.  Docetism claimed that Jesus only appeared to be human.  Quoting from Ignatius’ letter to the Trallians (Church at Tralles, now Ayden in modern Turkey):


Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and did eat and drink. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified, and [truly] died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not possess the true life.


But if, as some that are without God, that is, the unbelieving, say, that He only seemed to suffer (they themselves only seeming to exist), then why am I in bonds? …


Flee, therefore, those evil offshoots [of Satan], which produce death-bearing fruit, whereof if any one tastes, he instantly dies. For these men are not the planting of the Father. …

Personal Reflections

A caveat

I am going to confine my writings about the reflections I had while researching Ignatius of Antioch to thoughts about the nature of Jesus Christ.  Firstly, a caveat:  I am not trying to persuade anyone to my point of view, nor do I need to.  However, I want to be honest about the understanding I have come to (been led to?) over nearly 50 years of thinking about these things.  I certainly do not want to put a stumbling block in anyone else’s way.  I have come to love the phrase “journey to and with God“, and it would be grossly arrogant of me to think that someone elses journey should go through the same waypoints as mine. Further, my world view is complex.  In trying to sum up my thoughts in a few paragraphs I could easily, though simplification, lead others to misunderstand me.  If what I say is a stimulus or a help to you take it; if not set it aside.  [I think I should copy this caveat to the introductory page to this series.]

The nature of Jesus

Firstly, I have no problem accepting that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person.  I think anyone, theist, atheist or agnostic who spends a little time looking into this would come to that conclusion.  There are fragments in existence of the Biblical gospels dating from the 2nd century CE (100-150 years after Jesus’ death) [see Wikipedia].  Compare this with the works of Julius Caesar (approx. 100 years before Jesus) where the earliest manuscripts in existence date from the 9th century CE [see summary in blog post by Roger Pearce].  Then there is the non-christian references to him and key facts of his life and death in the writings of the Jewish / Roman historian Josephus (b. 37 CE d. after 100 CE).  Then there is the rapid growth and spread of the “sect” that became Christianity led by those who claimed to have been his disciples while he was alive; many of whom subsequently died for their beliefs about him.  So the historical existence of Jesus and  Ignatius’ assertion that Jesus was fully human presents me with no challenge.  Of all the heresies I may be guilty of Docetism is not one of them.

I have long seen a loose analogy between the theological deliberations throughout church history and my own faith journey (although the order is different).  I characterise the first 300 years or so of church history as one when it wrestled with the nature of Jesus.  (More of this to come in this series of reflections).  For the church this culminated in the setting forward of the Nicene Creed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.

I know I had questioned things through my teenage years.  I had certainly noticed that the prefered title for Jesus in the Gospels was “Son of Man”.  However, it was from my mid-twenties that this issue really came to dominate my thinking and more generally where I was spiritually.  By this time I was a least some of the time attending an Anglican church where the Nicene Creed was part of the liturgy.  So, I would say these words asking myself “what do I mean by this?“; and sometimes I could not say them at all:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father;

through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,

was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

and was made man.

This state of sometimes wrestling with, sometimes sitting with, this questioning lasted at least 10 years.  Then it came to be less important.  There was a more sublime truth underlying this thinking and form of words which I might simply express as follows:

  • God is love
  • God seeks relationship
  • God forgives
  • God is completing His creation

The mechanism of this, the human groping in the dark with theological/philosophical explanations, often led to complexities that were obstacles, rather than, pointers to God.

I will not be shying away from some of these complexities as this series progresses, but that seems a fitting place to end this post.


Clement of Rome   3 comments

[This post is part of a personal reflective journey through Christian theology.  An introduction to this project was given in the first post of this series.]

Biographical details/context

Clement was one of the early leaders of the church following on from the apostles (those who had actually known Jesus).  A useful summary with further references is found on Wikipedia. He is one of what became known as the Apostolic Fathers of the church.  It is interesting that in the early centuries of the church his works were considered by many as “authoritative” and it was not to the C4th that the cannon of the New Testament became fixed into the form we have today and without any of his writing.  (As an aside I think more Christians and those interested in religious thought should learn about how the Bible came together.  I want to explore more of the books left out of the cannon but have only done so to date through some quotes in modern texts.)


Although the term Trinity had not come into use by this stage Clement used the form “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.

Like Paul, Clement wrote a letter to the church at Corinth and about 40 years later was still concerned with some of the same issues of unity and leadership. Clement argued for what would subsequently be known as Apostolic Succession. That is, Jesus appointed the apostles they appointed the subsequent bishops and elders and so on. Hence authority was passed down and respect and obedience was due to these leaders. (I am avoiding discussion of the meaning of the different Greek terms for the roles of church leaders that would become issues of difference and disunity especially post the Protestant Reformation in the C16th. Looking ahead on the list of theologians there will be plenty of this to come later in these reflections.)

Clement was the first to suggest what would subsequently become the distinction between the Clergy and the Laity. He did this extrapolating from the Old Testament and the roles of Priests and Levites for long periods of Jewish history.

Personal Reflections


Much more discussion of the Trinity will come with later theologians especially Athanasius and Arius. Because the Trinity has been a major area of “wrestling” for me I will set aside my personal reflections on it until then. (For those who can’t wait I am probably a heretic here!)

Church unity and leadership

One of the challenges for the early church was that Jesus did little if anything to establish a “religion” or an organisational structure for what became the church.  We have accounts in the Gospels of him sending out 70 (or 72) disciples in pairs [Luke 10].  Then his commissioning address to Peter [Matthew 16:13-20] where he renames Simon as Peter – “the rock on which he will build his church”. (The Greek word used for church here is ecclesia (literally that which is called out and formally the political assembly of citizens of an ancient Greek state).  Jesus of course gave many teachings about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven.  However, as far back as I can remember into my childhood or teen thinking these seemed to me to transcend the church (local, denominational or global).  I could go off on a long reflection on Jesus’ Kingdom Teachings here.  They are mostly expressed in parables and probably represent the core of his teachings.  They have been much debated and preached about down the centuries.  However the salient point here with reference to Clement and the early church, is they express spiritual principles not organisational structures and means of governance.

To my view, despite Peter’s commissioning (see above), and the fact that Peter commissioned Clement, it is Paul that dominates the New Testament teaching about the church.  I often think that this gets in the way of absorbing and putting into practice Jesus’ teachings.  Jesus’ teaching are usually so simply expressed but so challenging to apply to ones life.  Some examples of this:

  • You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
    Matthew 5:37-41
  • The parable of the Good Samaritan ending with the exhortation “Go and do likewise” Luke 10:25-37

Where as Paul’s teaching is often expressed in the convoluted legalese of his background as a Pharisee e.g.:

Further I consider that Paul is susceptible to the cultural biases of his age, e.g. in in his attitudes to women, where as Jesus’ teachings seem largely absent of these although of course  he used culturally relevant stories to illustrate his points.

Priests and Bishops or a Priesthood of all Believers?

I am not going into a long discussion of this at this stage.  It will doubtless come up again when we get to the Protestant Reformation theologians.  It is just interesting for me to note that the concept of “laity” and hence the concept of what might be termed church professionals emerges with Clement. I was brought up in the tradition of the priesthood of all believers.  I certainly believe we can all be used to mediate God to one another.  However I have also come to value the sacramental.  Things that mark out actions that express the sacramental as special are important to identify them as such.  I do not believe in “magic” but in saying that a priest has to consecrate the bread and the wine at mass/communion/breaking of bread* is one way of making it out as special.  I have no problem in holding these perspectives together but recognise they present challenges for some.

[* select your preferred term]

Tuesday 20 January 2011 – “Pregnancy and promise”   Leave a comment

The Bible passages for today were Isaiah 7: 10-14 and Luke 1:26-38.

The passage from Isaiah foretells the virgin birth and in Luke the angel breaks that news to Mary. However I might struggle with what may be historical truth and what symbolic myth in the Christmas story there is one bit in today’s readings that is particularly meaningful to me:

… and will call him Immanuel
[Isaiah 7: 14 NIV]

Immanuel meaning in Hebrew “God with us”.

Whatever theological wrangling has gone on throughout Church history, or inside my own head, as to the exact nature of Jesus what he represents to me is “God with us”. It is one thing to believe in the existence of God, say as creator, but it is in fact quite a big further leap to then see Him/Her as “with us”. However through the eyes of faith I have “known” that all my life.

The stories of today’s readings and indeed the whole theme of Advent is expectancy. Given my faith in “God with us”, what is my own expectancy? What does that faith really mean in my life?