Fearless in the Face of Heresy

For all the outward hostility of the pagan world to the Church, it is as nothing compared to the threat from within. 

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[Editor’s Note: This is the ninth in a multi-part series on St. Ignatius of Antioch]

Along with the usual repeated exhortations regarding submission to the bishop on matters of faith and supplications to God for St. Ignatius of Antioch on the matter of martyrdom—to cite the two most obvious and defining themes of the correspondence—there is a third item of unfinished business about which we cannot remain silent. Even in as short a missive as the Letter to the Trallians, it fairly screams for attention. Were one to leave it out, or even to marginalize its importance, the whole point of the correspondence would fall apart. 

And that is the matter of heresy, a most wicked and unwelcome thing, which the Church has always seen as a scourge of the soul, fraught with the gravest possible peril to the life of faith. Indeed, from its poisonous fallout Christianity stands in greater danger than even that which the most brutal of imperial persecutions have sought to inflict. For all the outward hostility of the pagan world, it is as nothing compared to the threat from within. 

Ignatius knows all this, of course, which is why the least of his torments on the journey to Rome are the “ten leopards” dragging him across much of Asia Minor. It is the fear of heresy that bedevils him more than anything else. There is no threat greater, nor more insidious, than that posed by heresy, which amounts to a rejection of this or that distinctively Catholic belief. 

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And what is heresy? It is any opinion adjudged to be at variance with, or held at sword’s point to, the official teaching authorized by the Church herself. This is especially the case when such opinion tends to separate and divide one from the main body of believers. As the word itself suggests, heresy is what happens when one is free to pick and choose those elements of belief with which one feels most at home, thus refusing all the rest. “Murdering to dissect,” is how the poet Wordsworth put it, resulting in a rage of reductionism which leaves everything in ruins.

“I urge you, therefore,” writes Ignatius to the Christians living in Tralles, 

—not I, but Jesus Christ’s love—use only Christian food. Keep off foreign fare, by which I mean heresy. For those people mingle Jesus Christ with their teachings just to gain your confidence under false pretenses. It is as if they were giving a deadly poison mixed with honey and wine, with the result that the unsuspecting victim gladly accepts it and drinks down death with fatal pleasure.

Christians are obliged thus to be on their guard, resolute and unfailing in their resistance to the siren sound of the syncretist, i.e., one who joins disparate elements which simply cannot be reconciled with the faith and the hope and the love of Jesus Christ. “Be deaf, then,” he continues, 

to any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David’s lineage, of Mary; who was really born, ate, and drank; was really persecuted under Pontius Pilate; was really crucified and died, in the sight of heaven and earth and the underworld. He was really raised from the dead, for his Father raised him, just as his Father will raise us, who believe in him, through Christ Jesus, apart from whom we have no genuine life. 

Is there a particular heresy he has in mind here? Or is this just a scattergun approach to the problem? If you take a closer look at that passage you’ll see at once how it has a certain compact—even credal—character, not unlike, say, the Creed of Nicaea that the Church will hammer out in the next century, summarizing the basic beliefs of her faith. 

At the center of that Creed stands the Incarnation of God, His very enfleshment in the human being Jesus. Not an idea or supposition about God, mind you, some shadowy abstraction wholly prescinded from the world of sensate experience. God is not this Mysterious Other, emitting epiphany rays which only the wise and the clever possess the mental acuity to identify, plucking them up like so many pieces of celestial lint for the deserving few. There is no concept of God at work here, no mental construct or conceit, to which only the brainy and the bright need apply.  

The Incarnation of God is a fact, a datum as simple and plain as a potato. In other words, the Eternal Word Himself, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, entered into time in order to become one of us. The Glory of the Lord descended into the grit, into the very depths of this most humble and realistic earth, to establish a relation to the whole human and material order, while remaining at once both immanent and transcendent to it. 

To deny this—to pretend that it never happened, or that it could ever happen—is the very essence of heresy, of the gnostic spirit specifically, of which there is no taint whatsoever in the mind of Ignatius. It has been the perennial human temptation, antedating Christianity, and Ignatius is the sworn enemy of all its lies and deceits. For it holds a dagger at the heart of the Catholic Thing, which is the insistence that matter is good because the good God created it, and that to prove His point He undertook the most daring descent of all into the very muck and the mire of our material world in order, not merely to lay hold of it in His own body, but to lay it all at the feet of His Father’s glory. 

And if, as some atheists (I mean unbelievers) say, his suffering was a sham (it’s really they who are a sham!), why, then, am I a prisoner? Why do I want to fight with wild beasts? In that case I shall die to no purpose. Yes, and I am maligning the Lord too!

Flee, then, these wicked offshoots which produce deadly fruit. If a man taste it, he dies outright. They are none of the Father’s planting. For if they had been, they would have shown themselves as branches of the cross, and borne immortal fruit. It is through the cross, by his suffering, that he summons you who are his members.

He has surely summoned Ignatius, who, while on his way to a martyr’s death, is not above a pun or two to make his point. For the enemies of Christ with whom he bravely jousts are aptly named Docetists—from the Greek word dokeo, meaning “seem”), who, having fabricated a phony Christ—one who only “seems” to be human—prove themselves to be equally so. 


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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