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December 20, 2009

Salvation and Ethics in St. Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius the God-bearer of Antioch (Feast Day - December 20)

Salvation (from corruption)[1] and Ethics

By Fr. John Romanides

St. Ignatius writes that "the virginity of Mary and her offspring, as well as the death of the Lord, seized (elaven) the prince of this world: three thunderous mysteries wrought in the silence of God... Henceforth all things were in a state of tumult because He meditated the abolition of death" (Ign. Eph. 19).

The abolition of death is none other than the seizure of Satan and was accomplished by these three mysteries. Satan here is closely related to death. By means of death and corruption the devil rules a captive humanity (Heb 2:14-15). "The sting of death is sin" (I Cor. 15:56). "Sin reigned in death" (Rom. 5:21). Because of the tyrant Death, man is unable to live according to his original destiny of Selfless Love.[2] He now has the instinct of self-preservation firmly rooted within him from birth. Because he lives constantly under the fear of death he continuously seeks bodily and psychological security, and thus becomes individualistically inclined and utilitarian in attitude. Sin is the failure of man to live according to his original destiny of selfless love which seeks not its own and this failure is rooted in the disease of death. Because death in the hands of Satan is the cause of sin, the kingdom of the devil and sin is destroyed by the "abolition of death" (Ign. Eph. 19).

For Ignatius, death and corruption is an abnormal condition which God came to destroy by the incarnation of His Son. The cosmology of St. Ignatius is neither Monophysite or Monothelite. Besides the will of God and the good, there exist now the temporary kingdom of Satan, who rules by death and corruption, and man oppressed by the devil but at the same time supported by God and free, at least according to will, to follow the one or the other. The world and God has each his own character - the world death, and God life (Ign. Mag. 5). Nevertheless, the material world is neither evil, nor the product of the fall. It exists now under the power of corruption (Rom. 8:20-22), but in Christ is being cleansed. Our Lord was "born and baptized that by His passion He mighty purify the water" (Ign. Eph. 18). Life and immortality are not proper to man, but to God. "For were He to regard us according to our works we should cease to be" (Ign. Mag. 10). God Himself was manifested in the flesh "for the renewal of eternal life" (Ign. Eph. 19). Christ is the source of life (Ign. Eph. 3; Mag. 1; Smyr. 4) and "breathes immortality into the Church" (Ign. Eph. 17) "apart from whom we do not possess the true life" (Ign. Tral. 9).

In the epistles of St. Ignatius the idea of natural immortality as a proper element of man's soul is completely absent. Both those before and after Christ have the death and resurrection of Christ as their source of life. Christ raised the prophets (Ign. Mag. 9) who "were saved through union with Jesus Christ" (Ign. Phil. 5). He "the High Priest ... to whom the Holy of Holies has been committed ... is the door of the Father by which enter in Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the prophets, and the apostles, and the Church" (Ign. Phil. 9). For the athletes of God "the prize is incorruption and eternal life" (Ign. Pol. 2). "The gospel is the ornament of incorruption" (Ign. Phil. 9). The Church has now peace by the flesh and blood and passion of Jesus Christ (Ign. Tral. salutation). The death of Christ "seized" the devil (Ign. Eph. 19) and as such is the source by which life was renewed (Ign. Mag. 9) that "by believing in His death you may escape from death" (Ign. Tral. 2). "The passion of Christ ... is our resurrection" (Ign. Smyr. 5). Those who ignore the death and the fleshly resurrection of Christ "have been denied by Him, being the advocates of death rather than of the truth" (Ign. Smyr. 5). He who does not confess Him a "bearer of flesh ... has in fact altogether denied Him, being a bearer of death" (Ibid). "... if they believe not in the blood of Christ, then to them there is judgment" (Ibid. 6). "Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, in the midst of their disputes, incur death" (Ibid. 7).

St. Ignatius emphatically and persistently points out the absolute necessity of faith in the real historical facts of the incarnation of God from the Virgin and of the death and fleshly resurrection of the God-man (Tral. 2,9,10; Phil. 8,9; Smyr. 1,2,3,4,7). "I desire to guard you ... that you fall not upon the hooks of vain doctrine, but that you attain to full assurance in regard to the birth, and passion, and resurrection which took place in the time of the government of Pontius Pilate (Ign. Mag. 11). Faith in the flesh and spirit (Smyr. 3) of Christ is the very basis of the whole structure of New Testament and ancient Christian ethics. The life of selfless love and the successful struggle against the powers of death and the devil are impossible without communion with the real life-giving and resurrected flesh of the Lord. "Consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love,..." (Ibid. 6). Most probably St. Ignatius is here referring to heretics with dualistic doctrines who ignore the true nature of material creation and by consequence the real meaning of death and corruption. It is possible to suppose that Ignatius is here exaggerating the inadequate ethics of the heretics he has in mind. Such a judgment is especially tempting when one realizes the fact that some of the heretics attacked by Ignatius admired and respected the Orthodox, even as happens today. "For what does any one profit me if he commends me but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that He is possessed of flesh?" (Ibid. 5.) Such a value judgment, however, concerning such possible exaggeration can be made only when one uses as criteria ethical theories foreign to the basis of Ignatius' thought. The ethical criteria of St. Ignatius cannot be judged according to theories of natural moral law which conceive of man's quest for security and happiness as normal. It is quite obvious that Ignatius unites the possibility of a Christian ethic not to natural utilitarian principles of happiness, but solely to the resurrected flesh of Christ. This relationship of Christian ethics to the physical death and resurrection of Christ must be comprehended for an adequate understanding of the presuppositions of Ignatian ecclesiology.

Satan rules parasitically in creation and man by death (Rom. 8:20-22; Heb. 2:14). The children of God "through fear of death were all their lifetime guilty of bondage" (Heb. 2:15). Because the rule of Satan consisted in the physical and material reality of death and corruption, the destruction of Satan could be brought about only by a real resurrection of the flesh - not by the escape of the soul from creation to some other supposed reality. By the indwelling of the life-giving flesh of Christ the faithful are liberated from slavery to the devil and by prayer, fasting, and corporate selfless love are enabled to overcome the consequences of death, viz. sin, by the grace of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit. "...the believing have in love the character of God the Father by Jesus Christ, by whom, if we are not in readiness to die into His passion, His life is not in us" (Ign. Mag. 5). Both the ontological reality and the ethical meaning of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, are necessarily united and inseparable. The denial of the one leads to the rejection of the other. If the ontological and material power of "him that had the power of death, that is, the devil" (Heb. 2:14) has not been destroyed in the death and resurrection of Christ, then sin is still reigning. "If Christ be not raised ... you are yet in your sins" (I Cor. 15:17). The struggle of Christians against sin and for salvation through selfless love would be useless and senseless. "Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die" (Ibid. 15:32). Besides the ethical implications of Christ's not having risen, there would be no hope of life after death. "Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable" (Ibid. 15:18-19). Therefore those who deny the real birth, death and resurrection of the incarnated Word of God are "advocates of death" and "bearers of death" and "their names" are "unbelief" (Ign. Smyr. 5).

Christian ethics, therefore, for St. Ignatius is not a mere matter of preserving imagined innate moral laws of a supposed natural world for the attainment of personal happiness, whether immanent or transcedental. What is considered a natural quest for security and happiness is really a life according to the dictates of death, or the flesh dominated by death, constantly seeking bodily and psychological security of existence and worth. "... let no one look upon his neighbor after the flesh, but do you continually love each other in Jesus Christ" (Ign. Mag. 6). Love in Christ differs sharply from the "kata sarka" eudaimonistic and utilitarian love of so-called natural humanity. Christian love "seeks not its own" (Rom. 14,7:15, 1-3; I Cor. 13,5:5, 15:10, 24, 29-11, 1:12, 25-26:13; II Cor. 5,14-15; Gal. 5, 13:6, 1; Eph. 4,2; I Thes. 5,11). "...exhort my brethren, in the name of Jesus Christ, that they love their wives, even as the Lord the Church" (Ign. Pol. 5). This love is such that Christ "pleased not himself" (Rom. 15:3) but "He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves" (II Cor. 5:15). For this reason a Christian wedding which has as its motive selfless love in Christ "is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church" (Eph. 5:32). That is, it is a great mystery for Christians only, not because those outside the Church are not married, but because a Christian wedding takes place in another dimension. Therefore, "it becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage be according to God, and not after their own lust" (Ign. Pol. 5).

Because of the character of the principle of sin, perfection in this age is attained to not fully but in part according to the quality of the war carried against the powers of the devil. Good works are not part of a business agreement between God and man whereby God is obligated to reward external and utilitarian acts of charity. Rather good works are the product of the double struggle waged against the devil and for non-utilitarian selfless love for God and the neighbor.[3] Therefore communion of divine life through the human nature of Christ is not enough for salvation. The mystical (sacramental) life is not a magical guarantee of eternal life. Christians must also wage an intense war against Satan. " ... if we endure all the assaults of the prince of this world and escape them we shall attain to ( or enjoy) God" (Ign. Mag. 1).

It is only when one perceives the inseparable bond which exists in the Bible and the ancient Church between the destructive powers of death, corruption and disease, and the person of Satan that he can comprehend the attitude of the first Christians toward death and martyrdom. "... they touched Him and believed, being supported by both His flesh and spirit. For this cause also they despised death, for they were found above death" (Ign. Smyr. 3). He who fears death and is thereby a slave to its consequences is incapable of living according to Christ "by whom, if we are not in readiness to die into His passion, His life is not in us" (Ign. Mag. 5). The canons of the Church are quite severe for those who would reject Christ because of fear.[4] The rejection of Christ for fear of death was considered as a fall into the hands of the devil.[5] Thus the persistent desire of St. Ignatius not to be hindered in his impending martyrdom was not the product of eschatological enthusiasm or psychopathic disturbances, but clearly the consequence of the realization of the inseparable relationship existing between death and Satan, who, with man as his co-worker, is himself the cause of ethical and physical evil. Condemned to death according to law already dead, it was impossible for St. Ignatius to seek to avoid martyrdom. This would have meant slavery to Satan. "The prince of this world would fain carry me away (or capture me), and corrupt my disposition (or opinion ) toward God. Let none of you, therefore, who are in Rome help him" (Ign. Rom. 7). St. Ignatius was not a psychopath. On the contrary he had a keen understanding of biblical demonology (II Cor. 2:11) which not only dominated his own approach to faith and practice, but also regulated the whole theology of the ancient Church concerning martyrdom. "Pray for me that I may attain ... If I shall suffer you have wished well to me; but if I am rejected you have hated me" (Ign. Rom. 8). "... let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the evil torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ" (Ibid. 5).


[1] The so-called physical or psychosomatic magical doctrine of salvation misunderstood by Western theology in general.

[2] See my article "
Original Sin According to St. Paul" St. Vladimir's Quarterly, New York 1955, Vol. IV, No. 1-2.

[3] Augustine's acceptance of a utilitarian interpretation of love for neighbor is forced upon him because of his acceptance of the pagan principle of happiness as man's goal. Love of neighbor is a means to attaining happiness, not part of a struggle for selfless love. De Doctrina Christiana, I, 20. The acceptance of such an interpretation of human destiny underlies Harnack's silly observations of the fact that in spite of baptism and participation in salvation in this life the Augustinian Christians experienced not happiness in this life, as if this were what they striving for, because they had not that feeling of being the object of irresistible grace. Their frominigkelt war ein Schwanken swischen Furcht und Hoffnung. Dogmengeschichte, Tuebingen, 1931, p. 293ff.

[4] Canons 10, 11, 12 of First Ecumenical Council; 62 of the H. Apostles; Can. 1, 2, 3, etc., of Angyra; Canons 1, etc., of Peter of Alexandria. Enumeration system followed in this paper are those of H. Alibizatos, The Holy Canons, Athens, 1949.

[5] Canon 11, Peter of Alexandria.

From "The Ecclesiology of Saint Ignatius"