Reading History: John Chrysostom on Ignatius of Antioch

John Chrysostom (347-407) was an influential Christian leader during the fourth century. He was known as an eloquent speaker and writer. His “last name” means “golden mouthed” and in 392 was included in Jerome’s collection On Illustrious Men (link #129). That would essentially make him a “legend in his own time”. He served as a leader in Antioch (~386-397), under bishop Flavian, until he was kidnapped and taken to Constantinople to become its arch-bishop (link).

In Antioch a day was set aside to to commemorate their hero Ignatius. On one of these occasions, John Chrysostom gave a noteworthy homily that we still have today (link). As John gave this speech, he and those who heard him enjoyed “deep peace on all sides”. This was in contrast to Ignatius and the early Christians who faced “precipices and pitfalls, and wars, and fightings, and dangers” during the first two centuries of its existence. This was also a time when the Arian controversy, which has consumed nearly a century of debate and the attention of two ecumenical councils, has finally started to fizzle out.


Antioch, envisioned as the whole world

This speech, as much as it is about remembering Ignatius, is also reminding people about the place that Antioch holds. In commending Ignatius, John lauds the size and history of the city in which he is speaking.

[Ignatius] was entrusted with our own native city. For it is a laborious thing indeed to have the oversight of a hundred men, and of fifty alone. But to have on one’s hands so great a city, and a population extending to two hundred thousand, of how great virtue and wisdom dost thou think there is a proof? For as in the care of armies, the wiser of the generals have on their hands the more leading and more numerous regiments, so, accordingly, in the care of cities. The more able of the rulers are entrusted with the larger and more populous. And at any rate this city was of much account to God, as indeed He manifested by the very deeds which He did. At all events the master of the whole world, Peter, to whose hands He committed the keys of heaven, whom He commanded to do and to bear all, He bade tarry here for a long period. Thus in His sight our city was equivalent to the whole world.

The city itself, particularly its bishop, wields considerable influence at this time, being one of the “metropolitan” sites. Metropolitan cities are major centers of Christianity from which its bishop governs over a larger province of churches. Canon 6 of Nicea (325) established Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria as the three metropolitan cities. The First Council of Constantinople (381) seems to add other centers, including Constantinople (Canon 2 and Canon 3).

Ignatius the crowned hero

As we read through this short work, we can see some of John’s noted skills on display as he exhorts the people to emulate Ignatius of Antioch through vivid illustrations. One of the devices he uses is to describe the multiple crowns that this hero of Antioch was able to wear as a champion of the faith.

[the holy martyr Saint Ignatius is] a soul which despised all things present, glowed with Divine love, and valued things unseen before the things which are seen; and he lay aside the flesh with as much ease as one would put off a garment. What then shall we speak of first? The teaching of the apostles which he gave proof of throughout, or his indifference to this present life, or the strictness of his virtue, with which he administered his rule over the Church; which shall we first call to mind? The martyr or the bishop or the apostle. For the grace of the spirit having woven a threefold crown, thus bound it on his holy head, yea rather a manifold crown.

John argues that Ignatius, as bishop of Antioch, was a disciple of extraordinary virtue. Thus he was “worthy of so great an office”, such as presiding over Antioch. He bases this on the presumption that the apostles appointed him to the position.

But had [the apostles] not seen all this virtue planted in the soul of this martyr [they] would not have entrusted him with this office.

… this man succeeded to the office after [Peter]. For just as any one taking a great stone from a foundation hastens by all means to introduce an equivalent to it, lest he should shake the whole building, and make it more unsound, so, accordingly, when Peter was about to depart from [Antioch], the grace of the Spirit introduced another teacher equivalent to Peter, so that the building already completed should not be made more unsound by the insignificance of the successor.

Here is an outline of the argument that John Chrysostom is making.

  • The apostles (presumably Peter) appointed Ignatius as the bishop of Antioch as his successor.
  • The apostles placed strict requirements on the person that would serve as a bishop (Titus 1:7-9; 1 Tim 3:1-3).
  • The apostles would want to appoint bishops that would demonstrate who should fill the role in the future.
  • The apostles knew that if they appointed an unworthy bishop that they would share in the sin (1 Tim 5:22).
  • Therefore, Ignatius was a man of great character.

Ignatius and the apostles

Let’s examine the early evidence, without commenting on the character of Ignatius, who after all was willing to write:

I am the wheat of God and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ

First, it is questionable whether the position of bishop existed in the first century or to what extent. Here the role of bishop is defined as a single elder ruling over a church or churches in a geographical area.

However, if we assume that Antioch was governed by a single bishop during the first century, it is still questionable whether Peter ever led this church as its bishop. It seems reasonable to assume that the initial role would not have been filled by Peter. Antioch was founded sometime, probably in the mid-30s AD, after the death of Stephen and the resulting persecution (Acts 11:19). However during this time Peter is found working in Jerusalem and Joppa, and is not mentioned during the commissioning of Paul (Acts 13:1-3).

While it is unlikely that Peter was the first bishop of Antioch, there are attempts to place him in there as bishop after the Council of Jerusalem (link). This outline of events would have Ignatius assuming the role of bishop from Peter in 54 and governing until his death in 110. However, there is little evidence to support this outline. Add that to the general lack of evidence prior to the fourth century that Ignatius was appointed by the apostles (see post) and it is hard to support the first premise in John Chrysostom’s argument.

That does not mean that John Chrysostom was misleading us. It is possible that he accepted the premise as true based on tradition. And, despite the lack of early evidence, it is possible that he isn’t wrong.

Where did you dig up that old fossil

In a closing flourish John compares the city of Rome that saw Ignatius die, with the greater honor of Antioch receiving back its hero:

For that city received his blood as it dropped, but ye were honoured with his remains, ye enjoyed his episcopate, they enjoyed his martyrdom. They saw him in conflict, and victorious, and crowned, but ye have him continually. For a little time God removed him from you, and with greater glory granted him again to you. And as those who borrow money, return with interest what they receive, so also God, using this valued treasure of yours, for a little while, and having shown it to that city, with greater brilliancy gave it back to you.

While the focus of the speech is on the life of Ignatius, there is a strong appeal for people to come to Antioch and avail themselves of the power that is contained in the remains and sepulcher of this ancient martyr.

For not the bodies only, but the very sepulchres of the saints have been filled with spiritual grace. … one touching a sepulchre, with faith, should win great power …

But that might have to be a topic to explore in a different post.

Jesus our crucified and risen Lord

John Chrysostom points to the martyrdom of Peter, Paul, and Ignatius as proof of the resurrection.

For in reality it is the greatest proof of the resurrection that the slain Christ should show forth so great power after death, as to persuade living men to despise both country and home and friends, and acquaintance and life itself, for the sake of confessing him, and to choose in place of present pleasures, both stripes and dangers and death. For these are not the achievements of any dead man, nor of one remaining in the tomb but of one risen and living.

John uses the willingness of such heroes to die for their faith, not only as an apologetic, but, as encouragement for every faithful disciple to live out Jesus’ call to forsake the world (Luke 14:26-27,33). Like Ignatius, who traveled far to meet his fate, we are all on a “kind of long journey and migration from this world”, a journey whose destination is to “ascend to the crucified Jesus, and to see him in the heavens.”

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