I am writing a paper on the gospel and monoepiscopacy in the seven letters of Ignatius. This is a synopsis of the paper which I presented a few days ago.
[UPDATE: “Monoepiscopacy” is the doctrine that there should be one bishop per city (church). This is usually combined in a hiearchical fashion with elders (presbyters) under the bishop, and deacons under the elders. (Thanks, Jonathan.)]
Leadership in early Christian writings
(107-117 AD) Ignatius to the Magnesians 6.1 â€“ “Make every effort to do all things in the harmony of God, while the bishop presides over you in the place of God and the elders [preside over you] in the place of the assembly of the apostles and the deacons, who are dear, [preside over you]â€¦”
(80-120 AD) Didache 15:1 â€“ “Therefore, choose for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of God, men who are gentle, not lovers of money, dependable, and proven, for they also serve you with the service of prophets and teachers.” (The Didache does not mention elders, and bishops are only mentioned in the plural.)
(110-140 AD) Polycarp to the Philippians 5:3 â€“ “Therefore, it is necessary to keep away from all these things, subjecting yourselves to the elders and to the deacons as to God and to Christ.” (Polycarp does not mention bishops, much less a single bishop. He does not call himself a bishop although Ignatius does call him by the title “bishop.”)
For Ignatius, it is important that believers stay in harmony with the single bishop of their area. From reading the Didache and Polycarpâ€™s Letter to the Philippians, Ignatiusâ€™ view is not the only view of leadership at the beginning of the second century. Why would Ignatius put so much emphasis on the monoepiscopacy?
Theological Sources in Ignatiusâ€™ Letters
Sometime between 107 and 117 AD, Ignatius, the Bishop of Smyrna, was arrested and taken to Rome for execution. On the way to Rome, he wrote seven letters: one each to the churches in Tralles, Magnesia, Ephesus, Philadelphia, Smyrna, and Rome, and one to Polycarp, the bishop of the church in Smyrna.
From the text of these seven letters, it is clear that Ignatius knows of the Old Testament Scriptures. He quotes the Old Testament three times: he quotes Proverbs 3:34 in Ign. Eph. 5.3, he quotes Proverbs 18:17 in Ign. Magn. 12, and he quotes Isaiah 52:5 in Ign. Trall. 8.2. He introduces the first two citations with the scriptural formulation, â€œIt is writtenâ€ (ge,graptai). These three citations are minimal compared to Old Testament citations in the writings of other apostolic fathers. Ignatius recognizes the Old Testament as an early, but incomplete witness to Jesus Christ.
Ignatiusâ€™ recognition of and use of the New Testament writings are even more difficult to determine. From a statement in Ign. Eph. 12.2, it is clear that Ignatius knows of more than one of Paulâ€™s letters. Most scholars agree that there are allusions to some of these letters, especially 1 Corinthians. Similarly, there may be allusions to Matthewâ€™s Gospel in Ignatiusâ€™ letters. However, he does not quote from the New Testament writings with the formula, â€œIt is written.â€
For the most part, Ignatius seems to downplay written records and holds â€œthe Gospelâ€ as authoritative. For example, he says:
Moreover, I urge you to do nothing in a spirit of contentiousness, but in accordance with the teaching of Christ. For I heard some people say, â€œIf I do not find it in the archives, I do not believe it in the gospel.â€ And when I said to them, â€œIt is written,â€ they answered me, â€œThat is precisely the question.â€ But for me, the â€œarchivesâ€ are Jesus Christ, the inviolable archives are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith which comes through him; by these things I want, through your prayers, to be justified. (in Ign. Phil. 8.2)
What does Ignatius mean by â€œthe gospelâ€? For the most part, he identifies the gospel with the tradition handed down to him concerning the birth, life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He does not use the standard term for â€œtraditionâ€, nor does he use the phrase â€œrule of faith.â€ However, his teaching concerning â€œthe gospelâ€ is similar to later references to the â€œrule of faith.â€ He uses the term â€œgospelâ€ six times and the term â€œpassionâ€ fifteen times within his letters. At times, Ignatius uses â€œpassionâ€ to refer to â€œthe gospelâ€ as a whole and, at other times, â€œpassionâ€ only refers to Christâ€™s suffering or death. To a lesser extent, he refers to this tradition as â€œthe teaching of Christâ€ and â€œstewardshipâ€.
Ignatiusâ€™ statements about â€œthe gospelâ€ are very similar to later creeds. He exhorts his readers to believe in various aspects of the birth, life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, unlike the creeds, his statements do not appear to be standardized, memorized, or verbatim. For example, consider these two statements (along with the above citation from Ign. Phil. 8.2):
But the Gospel possesses something transcendent: the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, His passion and resurrection. (Ign. Phil. 9:2a)
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 able to suffer and then not able to suffer, even Jesus Christ our Lord. (Ign. Eph. 7.2)
Throughout the seven letters, there are ten instances of these â€œgospelâ€ sayings; however, none of the ten are identical. If all of the elements of the ten gospel sayings are combined, none of the ten instances include all of the elements. From this data, it seems that even though the tradition of â€œthe gospelâ€ was very important to Ignatius, this was not a creedal-type tradition (yet). Instead of focusing on specific words to express the gospel, Ignatius was more interested in the content of the gospel. Thus, whether someone calls it suffering, passion, or crucifixion did not concern Ignatius. Instead, he was concerned that Christians believed in this gospel.
Ignatius did not turn to either Old Testament or New Testament Scriptures for his authority, although he did recognize the writings as being very important witnesses to the gospel. Similarly, he did not find authority in specific creedal statements that may have been handed down (as some suggest are found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Instead, for Ignatius, authority is found in the gospel: the events surrounded the life of Jesus Christ and the correct interpretation of those events.
The Unity of the Gospel
Importantly, even though â€œthe gospelâ€ was not a formulaic creed, there was still only one gospel for Ignatius. He states that there is one God, one faith, and one Eucharist. Based on this unity, Ignatius, encourages his readers to maintain harmony with God and with one another, and the proper way of maintaining harmony is found in the bishop. Since there is one God, and one gospel, there should be one bishop. He says:
Therefore, make every effort to take advantage of the one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup for the unity of his blood, one altar, as there is one bishop along with the elders and the deacons, my fellow servants, in order that whatever you might do, you might do according to God. (Ign. Phil. 4:1)
For Ignatius, the monoepiscopacy was necessary to maintain the unity of the gospel. Since Ignatius found his authority in the gospel, he took this unity very seriously. Anyone who found himself outside of the teachings or the practices of the bishop also found himself outside of the gospel, because the one bishop maintained the unity of the one gospel. Living according to the bishop was the same as living according to the gospel and Jesus Christ.
However, Ignatius does not seem to envision a â€œrulingâ€ bishop. While he instructed the believers in each city to submit themselves to the gospel as well as to the bishop, he did not instruct the bishops to take an authoritarian position over the Christians. In fact, this would be contrary to Ignatiusâ€™ understanding, since he finds the gospel to be the authority. Instead, Ignatius commends the bishops that he meets along the way for being humble and gentle.
For Ignatius, there is one gospel because there is one God and one Lord Jesus Christ. Within this one gospel he finds his authority. The gospel is not primarily written or recited verbatim. Instead, the gospel is the events and interpretation of the events surrounding the life of Jesus Christ. From his concerns of protecting the one gospel, he derives a need for a single human leader (the one bishop) as well as the one Eucharist, the one altar, and the one meeting. Other writers from the same time period did not derive a monoepiscopacy from the one gospel.
During the first thousand years of the history of the church, Ignatiusâ€™ letters were arguably the most cited and most influential writings of any of the apostolic fathers. However, later church figures latched onto Ignatiusâ€™ derivatives (one bishop, one Eucharist, one altar, etc.) while losing his primary emphasis on the one gospel. For Ignatius, the monoepiscopacy should exist only as an extension of the one gospel in order to protect that gospel.