This spring I have been immersed in reading the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch (flourished early 2nd century), an early church father who penned seven letters as he was led in chains to Rome where he would be martyred as a Christian. Little is known of Ignatius as no work exists that provides his biography, his ministry, or his theology. Instead, Ignatius’ seven epistles emphasize unity within the church and ecclesiology, avoiding heretical teaching, and imitating Christ through suffering. Woven throughout Ignatius’ main emphases, the reader sees traces of Ignatius’ Christology, his understanding of the Trinity, and the sanctification of the believer.
Unfortunately, many in evangelical circles are unfamiliar with the ancient Christian writers. Too often evangelicals view the early church fathers as Roman Catholic (particularly Ignatius of Antioch, depending on how one reads his ecclesiology). For others, the trials and issues of the early Christians have little connection to the 21st century context. Lastly, if one reads current works on the church fathers, it quickly becomes apparent that there are a number of conflicting interpretations, leaving one to choose (if able) the best approach to read and apply the fathers.
In regard to the latter point, Ignatius of Antioch is a great example of conflicting interpretations. As mentioned earlier, one key theme that runs throughout Ignatius’ epistles is his impending martyrdom. Chained to his “ten leopards” (that is, the ten soldiers guarding him), Ignatius was led from Antioch to Rome to be martyred for his Christian faith (Romans 5). At times, Ignatius discusses his ultimate fate—facing the wild beasts in the coliseum—with boldness and expectation. In his epistle to the church in Rome, Ignatius pleads with them to not interfere with his ultimate fate:
I am voluntarily dying for God – if, that is, you do not interfere. I plead with you, do not do me an unseasonable kindness. Let me be fodder for wild beasts – that is how I can get to God. I am God’s wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ (Romans 4).
At other times, though, Ignatius speaks as if he may not remain faithful until the end, denying his faith instead of dying for Christ.
Moreover, pray for me. By God’s mercy I need your love if I am going to deserve the fate I long for, and not prove a ‘castaway’ (Trallians 12).
At times Ignatius seemingly assumes authority over the recipients of his epistles, while other times he speaks of himself in self-deprecatory language. As such, many modern scholars read Ignatius in a variety of ways, ranging from schizophrenic, to neurotic, to power hungry just to name a few. With almost every Ignatian scholar, an interpretive “key” is found within the epistles themselves or the culture within which he lived by which one can understand Ignatius. The reader, then, is left with a buffet of Ignatian interpretations from which to choose.
Despite the hermeneutical problems one can encounter when reading the church fathers, the value of such an endeavor far outweighs any potential interpretive problem. Over at the website for the Center for Ancient Christian Studies, Garrick Bailey writes a post highlighting a lecture given by Michael A. G. Haykin titled “Why Read the Church Fathers?” along with a list of resources that serves as a solid starting point for those seeking to begin reading the fathers. Bailey provides a podcast of an interview with Haykin in which he traces the events that led him to study the church fathers and discusses why Christians (particularly evangelicals) ought to study the church fathers. Included in the list of church father resources are links to sites selling the books suggested by Haykin. Bailey’s post in an excellent starting point for anyone seeking to delve deeper into the riches of ancient Christianity.
As a shameless plug, CACS is doing a summer Greek reading group at Southern Seminary. The focus for this summer’s reading group is Ignatius of Antioch and his epistles. What follows is the remaining schedule for the reading group:
June 2 — Coleman Ford: “Attuned to the Bishop as Strings to a Lyre”: Imitation and Virtue Formation in the Letters of Ignatius
June 9 — Dr. Michael Haykin: An Introduction to Ignatius and the Letters of Ignatius
June 16 — Dr. Danny McDonald: Ignatius and Ομονοια: Unity As a Means to Attain God
(If you’re in Louisville or the surrounding area and are interested in attending, visit the site (here) or leave a comment to this post and I’ll get in touch with you.)
In short, regardless of your field of study—whether it be philosophy, sociology, OT or NT studies, etc.—the ancient Christian writers are a treasure trove of biblical and philosophical insight that spans the vast expanse of time, reaching the “not-so-new” issues of the 21st century.
[Web-based resources of Ignatius’ epistles: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/ignatius.html].
 It goes beyond the scope of this post to discuss an approach to reading ancient texts. It is my opinion that some modern attempts to the interpretation of Ignatius are influenced too much by modern presuppositions that are read into Ignatius’ epistles. Though difficult, I believe the best approach is to give Ignatius (and any other ancient writer) the “benefit of the doubt” by seeking to understand them on their own terms first before seeking to embark on connecting the writer to 21st century issues. This is vague, I am sure, it is sufficient enough (due to time and space) to illustrate an approach that is fair to the ancient Christian writers.
 Haykin, according to sbts.edu, “serves as Professor of Church History & Biblical Spirituality. Dr. Haykin has a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Toronto (1974), a Master of Religion from Wycliffe College, the University of Toronto (1977), and a Th.D. in Church History from Wycliffe College and the University of Toronto (1982).” He is also over the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.