Mystic of Unity: St. Ignatius of Antioch on the Incarnation and Imitation of Christ

Among the Apostolic Fathers, Ignatius, the God-bearing Bishop of Antioch, shines with a rare intensity. His very name, Ignatius, “the fiery one,” befits a teacher who not only imparts sound doctrine, but in whose letters “the ardent love of a saint can be felt”;[1] moreover, the name by which he styled himself in all his letters, Theophoros, “the God-bearer,” hints at a key theme of his perennial doctrine. Ignatius refers not only to himself, but to all Christians as “God-bearers.”[2] For Ignatius, this “God-bearing” is the real participation of each Christian in Christ, effected by the sacraments and mediated through the Church. It is their unity with the Church, principally with the bishop—above all, in the liturgical unity of common Eucharistic worship—which maintains the individual Christian’s participation in Christ, “for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup that leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop.”[3]The Church of our day, divided as she is along partisan lines, is sorely in need of appropriating once again the teaching of this first-century “mystic of unity.”

This paper will examine the doctrine of St. Ignatius under three aspects. First, we shall examine his teaching on the Incarnation of Christ and its consequences for his ecclesiology and Eucharistic theology, in contrast to the heretical doctrines of the Gnostics. Having established his contributions to the patristic witness on these central issues, we will then focus on Ignatius’s most distinctive themes, namely, the Christian’s participatory union with Christ and the kind of imitation of Christ required to preserve the bond of unity, with reference to the roots of these themes in the Pauline and Johannine “spiritual ‘currents’”[4] of the first-century Church. Finally, two pastoral implications of his doctrine for preaching the Mystery of Christ and the spiritual fatherhood and leadership of priests today will be suggested.

St. Ignatius on the Incarnation 

Saint Ignatius was a true son of the Church of Antioch, the theological approach of which was known for its “pronounced Christological “realism” … more focused than ever on the Incarnation of the Son of God and on his true and concrete humanity.”[5] Behind this increased focus, no doubt, was the looming threat of Docetism, a pernicious aspect of the Gnostic heresy which denied that Christ assumed a truly human nature; rather, he only seemed [δοκειν] to be human. If the Lord did not have a true body, as the Gnostics taught, then the sufferings of his Passion were only an illusion. Ignatius writes against these heretics in numerous letters; his admonition to the Trallians is typical: “If, as some atheists (that is, unbelievers) say, he suffered in appearance only … I die for no reason; what is more, I am telling lies about the Lord. Flee, therefore, from these wicked offshoots that bear deadly fruit.”[6] Against the false teaching of the Gnostics, he carefully taught the true doctrine of the Incarnate Lord, “who was of the family of David, who was the son of Mary; who really was born, who both ate and drank; who really was persecuted under Pontius Pilate, who really was crucified and died … who, moreover, really was raised from the dead.”[7] However, this Christological realism in no way undermines Ignatius’s insistence on the divinity of Christ. In language echoing the Christology of St. John’s Gospel, he teaches that Christ is the “Word that came forth from silence,”[8] “the Eternal, the Invisible, who for our sake became visible; the Intangible, the Unsuffering, who for our sake suffered.”[9] He does not hesitate to refer to him as “Jesus Christ our God.”[10] Christ is, in short, “both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man.[11]

In fact, all of Ignatius’s chief concerns are centered upon upholding the orthodoxy of the theandric Christ against the threat of Gnosticism to remove corporeality from the Christian faith. Thus, transposing the terms of the debate from Christology to ecclesiology, Ignatius insists in almost every letter upon the necessity of maintaining unity with the hierarchical leadership of the Church: “Be united with the bishop and with those who lead … As the Lord did nothing without the Father, either by himself or through the apostles (for he was united with him), so you must not do anything without the bishop and the presbyters.”[12] His letters attest unequivocally to the institution of a monarchical episcopate in the churches of the near East by the end of the first century. With the passing of the last of the apostles, the authority of those bishops whom they had appointed as their successors became essential to maintaining the apostolic tradition in its integrity. Against the Gnostics, then, who deemphasized this physical, visible element of the Church and especially the authority of the bishops in favor of the secret knowledge [γνῶσις] passed down by spiritual elites, Ignatius is absolutely clear: “Whoever does anything without the bishop and council of presbyters and deacons does not have a clear conscience”[13] and, indeed, “serves the devil.”[14] Within the tripartite hierarchy of the Church, the bishop always has the presiding and decisive role: “You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father,”[15] he teaches, for “it is right … to give him all the respect due him in accordance with the power of God the Father, just as I know that the holy presbyters … defer to him as one who is wise in God; yet not really to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of all.”[16]

This obedience to the bishop, the visible manifestation of one’s union with Christ and the Church, is expressed most essentially for St. Ignatius in partaking of one common Eucharistic worship. Once again, Ignatius is concerned to protect the corporeality of the Eucharist, the visible, tangible sign and cause of the Church’s communion, against “those who hold heretical opinions … They abstain from Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ.”[17] Therefore, immediately after exhorting them to remain in union with their bishop, Ignatius instructs the Philadelphians to “take care … to participate in one Eucharist, for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup that leads to unity through his blood; there is one altar, just as there is one bishop, together with the council of presbyters and the deacons.”[18] Significantly, unity with the Church is the guarantee of the sacrament’s efficacy in uniting the believer with Christ, since “only the Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid.”[19] One cannot be united with Christ on a purely private, individual basis, as the Gnostics claimed. For Ignatius, the bond of union with Christ is maintained only in unity with the Church, manifested in its public liturgical worship.

Indwelling, Union, and Imitation

In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “no Church Father has expressed the longing for union with Christ and for lifein him with the intensity of Ignatius. In fact, two spiritual ‘currents’ converge in Ignatius, that of Paul, straining with all his might for union with Christ, and that of John, concentrated on life in him.”[20] We have remarked already on the significance of Ignatius’s chosen nom de plume, Theophoros, and his doctrine that Christ “dwells in us,” that Christians are “his temples” and Christ is “in us as our God.”[21] This is no innovation, but a strong affirmation of the teaching of St. Paul, who asked, “Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Cor 13:5) and who dared to proclaim, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).[22] For Ignatius, as for Paul, Christ is alive and present in the human soul. “But Christ is not only in us,” as J. Quasten notes: “We are also one with Christ, hence all Christians are linked by a divine union.”[23] Here the Johannine influence comes to the fore. St. John, who alone among the evangelists records the Lord’s appeal to “abide in me, and I in you” (Jn 15:4), instructs the Church in his first epistle: “By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 Jn 2:5-6), since “all who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them” (3:24).  For Ignatius, as for John, remaining in and maintaining this union is the most essential duty of the Christian life. Therefore, “let us be found in Christ Jesus,”[24] “blameless in him,”[25] he continually exhorts the churches: “I pray that in them there may be a union of flesh and spirit … of faith and love … of Jesus and the Father.”[26]

These spiritual currents converge in St. Ignatius and produce his most distinctive development in the tradition: the imitation of Christ as the means of maintaining and deepening the bond of unity. “Let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord,” he exhorts the Ephesians, “that with complete purity and self-control you may abide in Christ Jesus physically and spiritually.”[27] This imitation is not a purely moral matter; it is a configuration of one’s whole life to Jesus, not only spiritual but physical, accomplished above all through obedience to the bishop and Eucharistic communion: “Be subject to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ in the flesh was to the Father, and as the apostles were to Christ and to the Father, that there may be unity, both physical and spiritual.”[28] The Christian who imitates Christ’s obedience to the Father through obedience to his bishop and who partakes of the flesh of Christ, “the medicine of immortality,”[29] will be christified and “live forever in Jesus Christ.”[30] We cannot fail to mention here the ultimate imitation of Christ, that of martyrdom, which St. Ignatius joyfully accepted in order “to be an imitator of the suffering of my God.”[31] Although N. Russell considers that “even those who are inclined to maximize Ignatius’ mystical side do not consider him a proponent of deification,”[32] and certainly the Platonic categories of θέωσις found in later authors such as Clement of Alexandria are not to be found in the Bishop of Antioch, it is also true that “it will not be long before the Christian who is christified will be said to be deified.”[33] In Ignatius, although we do not have a fully developed doctrine of deification, universus est in semine.


 Space permits only two brief observations on the implications of Ignatius’ doctrine for the Church today. First, priests must take care to preach the Mystery of Christ in his true and concrete humanity; there can be no imitation of Christ if he is not “a man like us in all things but sin.”[34] Secondly, all the faithful, but particularly the priests, ought to imitate Christ in maintaining unity with the diocesan bishop. In this, the priest should be the first to lead the way, such that he can credibly say to his people the words of St. Paul: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). The Church today must heed the counsels of the God-bearing Bishop of Antioch: “God does not dwell where there is division and anger. The Lord, however, forgives all who repent, if in repenting they return to the unity of God and the council of the bishop.”[35]


[1] Benedict XVI, “Saint Ignatius of Antioch” [General Audience] (14 March 2007).

[2] Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Ephesians,” 9, 1, trans. Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 190.

[3] Ignatius, “Letter to the Philadelphians,” 4, 1.

[4] Benedict XVI, “Ignatius of Antioch.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ignatius, “Letter to the Trallians,” 10-11, 1.

[7] “Trallians,” 9, 1.

[8] Ignatius, “Letter to the Magnesians,” 8, 2.

[9] Ignatius, “Letter to Polycarp,” 3, 2.

[10] Ignatius, “Letter to the Romans,” prologue.

[11] “Ephesians,” 7, 2. Emphasis added.

[12] “Magnesians,” 6, 2; 7, 1.

[13] “Trallians,” 7, 2. 

[14] Ignatius, “Letter to the Smyrnaeans,” 9, 1.

[15] “Smyrnaeans,” 8, 1.

[16] “Magnesians,” 3, 1.

[17] “Smyrnaeans” 6, 2.

[18] “Philadelphians,” 4, 1. 

[19] “Smyrnaeans,” 8, 1.

[20] Benedict XVI, “Ignatius of Antioch.”

[21] “Ephesians,” 15, 3.

[22] The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010).

[23] Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. 1 (Utrecht: Spectrum Publishers, 1950), 72.

[24] “Ephesians,” 11, 1.

[25] “Trallians,” 13, 3.

[26] “Magnesians,” 1, 2.

[27] “Ephesians,” 10, 3.

[28] “Magnesians,” 13, 2.

[29] “Ephesians,” 20, 2.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Romans,” 6, 3.

[32] Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), 92.

[33] Russell, Deification, 12.

[34] Roman Missal, Eucharistic Prayer IV.

[35] “Philadelphians,” 8, 1.

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