St. Ignatius: Holy or Insane?

St. IgnatiusThis week my Christian Spirit class here at Regent College looked at martyrdom in Christianity; specifically in the early church. The early church often saw martyrdom as a means of connecting with the crucified Christ. The ultimate act of devotion and service was to imitate Christ by dying for their faith. Martyrdom is still present in Christianity although those of us in the western world will very rarely have to deal with this (persecution, maybe, martyrdom, probably not). Martyrdom specifically marked the early church before c. 312AD when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman world. Before 312AD Christians had to suffer harsh persecution (up to and including martyrdom) through such Roman rulers as (among others) Nero and Domitian (at the local level) as well as Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian (at the state sponsored level). What grasped the Spiritual imagination of Christians of this era was the thought of martyrdom.

A few specific examples arose that exemplified Christian martyrdom. One that is particularly interesting is the story of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius was the third bishop (that is after St. Peter and St. Evodius) and was arrested in Syria (presumably because he would not offer allegiance to the pagan gods) and transported to Rome to be handed over to the lions of the arena. Ignatius was martyred in the Flavian Amphitheatre around 100AD.

While on his way to Rome, Ignatius wrote letters to many of his churches and I would especially like to point out his letter to the Roman church. In this letter Ignatius clearly spells out his desire to die as a martyr in the arena. The question that arises out of this letter (that was posed by professor Bruce Hindmarsh) is: did Ignatius have a holy longing for martyrdom or a neurotic deathwish?

Even after reading some background on Christian martyrdom as well as the specific context of Ignatius himself (see references), it is still difficult to come to an answer. Without the background and just reading his letter to the Romans, I would say that Ignatius was insane. Even with the background, I still lean that way. This is not to say that God did not use him and that he is somehow less “saintly”. In discussion, one thing that came out is what the nature of serving God is. Serving God will look like different things to different people. But I would say seeking death is not necessarily serving God even if you are doing that in the process. Serving God may end in martyrdom (or in today’s context, persecution), but martyrdom shouldn’t be the goal. The amount of sacrifice that persisted in Ignatius’ life could very easily conclude with martyrdom, it would have been completely consistent with his faith and works. But in reading his letter to the Romans, it seemed as though he was seeking martyrdom and not necessarily the service that may happen to lead to martyrdom.

That being said, I also want to mention two things that suggest Ignatius’ intentions were indeed holy. Firstly, Ignatius could have also been looking at the larger issue of church cohesiveness. There were lots of different things going on in the early church (of which many of Ignatius’ other letters address), many of them bad. Ignatius could have been using his martyrdom as a means to unite the churches around him, even in his death. He may have been at the point where he was not able to do anything for the ecumenical church so felt that his martyrdom and imitation of Christ could reinvigorate the early church. Secondly, the letter to the Romans could have been (as one student suggested in discussion) a pep-talk for himself. Essentially to build up the courage to follow his words with deeds. At one point he even says

Even if I were to come and implore you in person, do not yield to my pleading; keep your compliance for this written entreaty instead. Here and now, as I write in the fullness of life, I am yearning for death with al the passion of a lover. Earthly longings have been crucified (literally “my love has been crucified”); in me there is left no spark of desire for mundane things, but only a murmur of living water that whispers within me, ‘Come to the Father.’

This, of course, raises more questions. I do think this clearly shows Ignatius trying to prepare himself for martyrdom. He knows that if he sees the members of his church, he might not be able to follow through in deed what he has said in words so begs them to keep him on the path. But it is also clear that Ignatius wants to imitate Christ’s crucifixion at whatever cost. This still makes me think Ignatius had a neurotic deathwish that would disregard any other possibility for service in order to be like Christ in martyrdom.

As another student pointed out “if he is insane, I want to be as crazy as he is.” Amen to that.

What say you?

Ή χάρις του κυρίου ημων Ίησου Χριστου μεθ’ υμων.

Ignatius, “Epistle to the Romans,” in Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Maxwell Staniforth (London: Penguin, 1987), 81-89.

Kenneth R. Morris, “’Pure Wheat of God’ or Neurotic Deathwish?: A Historical and Theological Analysis of Ignatius of Antioch’s Zeal for Martyrdom,” Fides et Historia 26 (1994): 24-41.

Louis Bouyer, “Martyrdom,” in The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers (London:Burns & Oates, 1963), 190-210.

Categories: Religion
  1. September 30th, 2005 at 08:25 | #1

    Hey there Matt.

    Somehow your weblog popped up. Oh yeah, it was when I reorganized the books in my blogger profile, and typed in “Jesus and the Victory of God,” and you were one of the guys who had put that book down too… oh, wait, no it was “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.”

    Anway, thanks for your site. My friend Jay Ewing is at Regent? Do you know him? He’s a pretty cool guy. I used to be somewhat of a Regent “groupie.” When I was about 17 my friend and I used to drive in from Chilliwack for all the public lectures. An epic way to spend a summer - with Eugene and all the greats!

    Thanks also for your thoughts on Ignatius. To paraphrase Billy Joel, “You may be right, be may be crazy… but it just might be a ‘lunatic’ your looking for…” In the parlance/verbiage of 2005, Ignatius would no doubt be called a “fanatic.” And most likely people would consider him unbalanced and unstable. But without that Spirit-inspired zeal, would the faith have survived and flourished as it did?

    But that does not change the fact that he was still one of the strongest and dedicated pastors of the first century. Have you heard the pious tradition that it was Ignatius himself who was the little child that Christ took in his arms and said, “you must become like a little child.” Anyway, I think he kept some of that childlike faith and undivided focus for the whole of his life.

    Did he become somewhat obsessed with witnessing to Christ in his death… yes! But he knew, also, that this was the holy and tragic reality that he and countless other Christians were facing. So yes, it is a sort of pep talk. There’s a great intro. to Ignatius in the “Hermeneia” edition of his works, which also has a very good commentary on his letters.

    Anyway, from one Matthew to another, thanks!

  2. September 30th, 2005 at 12:39 | #2

    Thank you very much for your well said comment. That is something I definitely should have (and meant to) touch on. Regardless of how we may feel about Ignatius, he was still a man of God that wanted to strive after God’s heart. Thank you for that comment, it was quite needed! I had not heard the tradition that says he is the child that Christ took in his arms, very interesting indeed!

    Glad you happened to stumble across my blog! Maybe I will see you hop in at Regent sometime. I can’t say that I know Jay, although I am horrible with names, so I may have met him…

    Thanks for coming by and for your thoughts. :)

  3. JillW
    October 4th, 2005 at 06:27 | #3

    Hi Matt - I think this is a most interesting question and makes me want to study Ignatius a bit. I’m wondering how old he was when he was writing to the Romans. Speaking as an “older” person, I think God plants more of a desire in us for eternal things as we get older. Even though we know that God is in control, I think we become disillusioned about world-wide events, etc., and have a longing in us for what God has for us in heaven. Now, don’t get me wrong! I love life, love my family, love my grandkids, etc., and I certainly have no death wish, but every once in awhile one thinks about how great it will be when we’re in God’s presence and don’t have to worry about earthly entanglements. Even Paul said he was having a hard time deciding whether it would be better to live for Christ on earth or be with God. As far as martyrdom, maybe Ignatius had some inkling that this was the way he was going to die, and chose to follow that path with gusto! Thanks for the interesting insights- what book are you reading about Ignatius. I’d like to read it.

  4. JillW
    October 4th, 2005 at 06:30 | #4

    Never mind - I just saw your resource list at the bottom of your blog.

  5. October 4th, 2005 at 18:11 | #5

    Thanks for the comment Jill, I think that is something to keep in mind for sure. While I may think his quest for martyrdom was a little insane, I do think he was also quite Holy and that he probably knew exactly what he was doing. Be sure to at least read the letter to the Romans since it is availble online (linked above) and if you get the chance check out the other secondary materials.

  1. October 5th, 2005 at 08:43 | #1
  2. October 5th, 2005 at 13:22 | #2

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