[Editor’s Note: This is the thirteenth in a multi-part series on St. Ignatius of Antioch]
With his Letter to the Church in Philadelphia—written in the wake of St. Ignatius of Antioch and his guard leaving Smyrna for Troas, from which seaport the last of the letters will be sent before setting sail across the Adriatic to Neapolis, and then onto Rome—the vexed question of Judaism within the household of faith comes up in a more direct and detailed way than anything written heretofore. The issue is particularly grave because it threatens the unity and integrity of the Church in the most serious and unprecedented way. And unless it can be disarmed and thrown over, the threat posed by those members of the Church who have allowed themselves to be persuaded by it, the heart of the Catholic Thing will have been gutted. Nothing distinctively Christian will remain.
So, what’s the problem here? Why the insistence that, “if anyone preaches Judaism to you [i.e., the Church in Philadelphia], pay no attention to him”? Or that those who persist in doing so, who refuse “to talk about Jesus Christ,” are no better than “tombstones and graves of the dead, on which only human names are inscribed”? Why the urgency about fleeing at once such “wicked tricks and snares of the prince of this world,” as represented by the Judaizers in their midst?
Leaving aside the colorful images about “specious wolves” and such, “who, by means of wicked pleasures, capture those who run God’s race,” how exactly does Ignatius see the threat? Is there what one might call a Big Sky approach to be taken here? Some all-inclusive vision at work, to which he is especially anxious to draw the attention of the faithful living in Philadelphia?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
There is, indeed, and it is framed in the most sweeping way. Not on the strength of invective alone, although such passages contain some of the purest and most satisfying polemic, but rather by an appeal to the sheer comprehensive sweep of the Catholic Thing itself. For Ignatius, it radiates out from the very center of the Church’s faith, rooted in the absolute primacy of Jesus Christ Himself, thanks to whose divine and eternal status humankind may be delivered from the power of sin and death.
The argument, cast at the level of what Dr. Johnson calls “the grandeur of generality,” thus moves not from circumstance alone but from definition, from which height the view becomes nothing less than all-encompassing.
“I urge you,” it begins, “do not do things in cliques, but act as Christ’s disciples.” Then, poised to take off into the wild blue yonder, we see the outline of a vision so sublime that only Christology can make sense of it. But first there is this very telling exchange between Ignatius and the Judaizers, for whom Christianity will always remain a bridge too far. “When I heard some people saying [he means the Judaizers], ‘If I don’t find it in the original documents, I don’t believe it in the gospel.’”
What they mean, of course, is that only the Old Testament may provide the surest touchstone to belief, that the Law and the Prophets alone are the court of final appeal. If the truths of faith cannot be seen through that narrow and exclusive prism, which for them constitutes “the original documents,” then there is no sense looking elsewhere. Christ cannot, therefore, be of any use to the children of God.
Ignatius will have none of it:
I answered them, “But it is written there.” They retorted, “That’s just the question.” To my mind it is Jesus Christ who is the original documents. The inviolable archives are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith that came by him. It is by these things and through your prayers that I want to be justified.
What can this mean? It means that, finally, Revelation is an Event, the Act or Performance of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, coming down among us in the most daring possible descent, precisely in order, as the Scriptures say, “to pitch his tent in our very midst.” Thus, in the most radical and profound way, Christianity remains utterly and forever unlike Judaism and, indeed, infinitely superior to it.
Because, for us, there is the fact of Emmanuel, of a God who is always and intimately among us. “Priests are a fine thing,” writes Ignatius,
but better still is the High Priest who was entrusted with the Holy of Holies. He alone was entrusted with God’s secrets. He is the door to the Father. Through it there enter Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the prophets and apostles and the Church. All these find their place in God’s unity. But there is something special about the gospel—I mean the coming of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, his Passion and resurrection. The beloved prophets announced his coming; but the gospel is the crowning achievement forever.
What, then, are we to make of Judaism? Or of those Christians who will not let go of it, remaining fossilized within it, who cling to it as if salvation had never come at all? They must leave it all behind. And, yet, in letting go of the one in order to find life and liberation in the other, they may be startled to discover that the fulfillment which they had long sought was there from the beginning, like the flower mysteriously present in the seed. The prophets knew this, of course, which is why Ignatius enjoins us to love them, “because they anticipated the gospel in their preaching and hoped for and awaited Him, and were saved by believing on him.”
Christ Himself, he tells the Christians of Philadelphia, and those Judaizers willing to listen, “vouched for them and (thus) they form a real part of the gospel of our common hope.”
Here the echo of Paul’s magnificent Letter to the Romans, with its dazzling, unheard of promise to the People of the Book, can be heard resounding through Ignatius’ own letter. Speaking to the Gentiles for whom he is God’s appointed apostle, he longs to awaken the jealousy of his own race, “and thus save some of them.
For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the dough offered as first fruits is holy, so is the whole lump; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. (Romans 11:15-16)
But we Gentiles must not boast when adding up so many blessings that accrue to this or that holy branch. However, if we were inclined to boast, which is only natural, says St. Paul, “remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you” (11:18). In other words, God has not rejected His People, nor will He ever reject them. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (11:29).
However odd of God it was to choose the Jew, it was odder still that this same God should Himself have become a Jew—without, to be sure, ceasing to be God. Thus did God use the Jewishness of Jesus to save the world. “Spiritually,” Pope Pius XI would say, “we are all Semites.”
Ignatius would be the first to agree.