A good question has recently been posed to me by a highly respected Eastern Orthodox friend. He asked about the Eucharist, which those that were outside of the Church in Ignatius’ time were not to partake of since they did not believe it to be the body and blood of Christ. This seemed to mirror the situation of the Protestants who were outside of the Eastern Orthodox Church and did not partake for the same reasons.
Unfortunately, due to a time limit I was not able to give a complete answer. I will try and do so here without going into every issue the Ignatius passages bring out (such as whether Protestants really ought to follow the “bishop”). Still, perhaps there will be an upcoming post on the subject once I complete some posts on Melito and one on Qumran.
The passage at the center of this question is the following: “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ which suffered four our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes” (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Symrnaeans Ch. VII).
Some would claim Protestants are in trouble according to Ignatius. After all, they do not accept the Eucharist to be the literal body and blood of Christ. Still, I think there are several things that need to be taken into consideration within the cultural context, the passage itself, and most importantly, Scripture.
First, it is necessary to remind readers that there is a larger framework to consider. At this time, there is no idea of a separation between the outward sign and its meaning. The two were tied together. For example, the question of whether or not one could be “saved” and not be baptized never occurred to these people. If one refused baptism, it most likely meant they did not want to be converted. Throughout Acts, we constantly see the two together whether or not the people were filled with the Holy Spirit before or after baptism. My point in all of this is to say that we are asking a question that would not have occurred to Ignatius. We must consider his context.
Second, Ignatius is existing in a context where those outside of the Church are actually denying Christ. The East and West have not split yet- further dissolving Christian unity and bringing about the Reformation. There are not people outside of fellowship who affirm Jesus came in the flesh, died and was resurrected. This is not a reality. Those outside are outside because they deny these things.
When speaking about the bishop and Church unity in him Ignatius adds, “and indeed Onesimus himself greatly commends your good order in God, that ye all live according to the truth, and that no sect has any dwelling-place among you, Nor, indeed, do ye hearken to any one rather than to Jesus Christ speaking in truth” (Ignatius to the Ephesians). Ignatius isn’t speaking of some Protestant sect but of the heretics who have now successfully infiltrated the Church.
Third, it is key to know what the Eucharist meant to Ignatius. While it certainly stood at the center of Church unity, why was this? Because Christ stands at the center of the Church. He is what makes the Church the Church. In the passage cited above, Ignatius described the body of Christ. We see the essential tenants. Christ “suffered for our sins,” and “the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.” The heretics deny this. In chapter V. of his epistle, Ignatius says of them:
“some ignorantly deny Him, or rather have been denied by Him, being advocates of death rather than of the truth. These persons neither have the prophets persuaded, nor the law of Moses, nor the Gospel even to this day, nor the sufferings we have individually endured. For they think also the same thing regarding us. For what does anyone profit me, if he commends me, but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that He was [truly] possessed of a body? But he who does not acknowledge this, has in fact altogether denied Him, being enveloped in death. I have not, however, thought good to write the names of such persons, inasmuch as they are unbelievers. Yea, far be it from me to make any mention of them, until they repent and return to [a true belief in] Christ’s passion, which is our resurrection” [emphasis mine].
The heretics were not merely denying the Eucharist because they were not so sure it was actually the body and blood of Christ. They completely denied Jesus came in the flesh! This came out of a true denial of His passion and resurrection. As Ignatius reported in the other quote, they are the ones who abstained from the Eucharist and prayer and for this very reason. They denied the center of the faith- Christ. Since they did this, they denied the Eucharist as well.
Additional Passages to Wrestle With:
“Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses (Mat_18:19) such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, “God resisteth the proud” (Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians Ch.V).
Also, “It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself. And indeed Onesimus himself greatly commends your good order in God, that ye all live according to the truth, and that no sect18 has any dwelling-place among you. Nor, indeed, do ye hearken to any one rather than to Jesus Christ speaking in truth” (Ch. VI).