Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Pneumatology of Ignatius of Antioch


Of the three persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit appears less frequently than the Father or the Son in the letters
[1] of Ignatius of Antioch. The words pneuma, pneumatikos, pneumatikos and their cognates appear over thirty-five times, yet only seven refer explicitly to the Holy Spirit (Eph. 9.1; 18.2; Magn. 13.1, 2; Phld. Intro; 7.1, 2) while one other may possibly be related (Smyrn. 3.3). All of the other uses of this word group are in relation to the incorporeal aspect of a physical person, often referred to by Ignatius as “flesh and spirit” (For example Smryn. 1.1; 13.2).

The following essay will address those verses in Ignatius’ writings that relate specifically to the Holy Spirit. By doing so it will be observed that as a Trinitarian, the bishop of Antioch considers the Spirit to be equally God alongside the Father and the Son. Also, Ignatius’ understanding of the function of the Spirit within the lives of his people in relation to soteriology and ecclesiology will be examined.

Spirit as God
There are four Trinitarian statements found in the letters of Ignatius (Eph. 9.1; 18.2; Magn. 13.1-2; Phld. 7.2). In each, the Holy Spirit is afforded a place alongside the Father and the Son as a member of the Godhead. There is no doubt that he believes that the Father and the Son are both God. The introduction of his letter to the Ephesians bears this out where Ignatius refers to both “God the Father” and “Jesus Christ, our God.” Therefore the inclusion of the Holy Spirit with the Father and Son in the Trinitarian statements demonstrates that he also is God.
Magnesians 13.1 is a clear Trinitarian statement where Ignatius, after exhorting the church to “stand securely” in the faith, tells them that they will prosper in everything done “in faith and love, in the Son and the Father and in the Spirit.” The use of the word faith is significant because God is the only person that Christians are to place their faith in (Cf. Eph. 9.1). It would therefore be idolatry if one were to place their faith in the Spirit were he not God. Following this, in Magnesians 13.2, Ignatius continues this Trinitarian thinking by exhorting the church to submit to their leaders as the apostles submitted “to Christ and to the Father and to the Spirit.” Again, it would be idolatrous to expect his readers to submit to the Spirit in such a way alongside the Father and Son were he not God.

Ignatius views the Spirit as God, but he also understands him as a person, as in Philadelphians 7.1. Here Ignatius refers to those who may seek to deceive him according to the flesh. In contrast to this, he notes that the Spirit cannot be so deceived because “it comes from God.” He then says that the Spirit “knows whence it comes and where it is going.” The Spirit also “exposes the things that are hidden.” By attributing to the Spirit the ability to know, to not be deceived and to expose hidden things, Ignatius personifies him. A non-personal entity would not have the ability to know. Nor would it be possible to either deceive or not deceive something that is not a person; the idea of attempting to deceive an inanimate object is absurd. Finally, only a person can do the work of exposing things that are hidden. Later in 7.2 Ignatius speaks of the Spirit preaching about Christian unity. Only a person can preach. He then fills out the Trinitarian nature of devotion by saying, “Keep your flesh as the Temple of God; love unity; flee divisions; be imitators of Jesus Christ as he is of his Father.” Essentially, the Spirit says to imitate the Son who imitates the Father.

In each of these attributes, Ignatius is showing that the Spirit is a person who thinks, communicates and acts. Ontologically speaking the Holy Spirit is fully God. He is a person who shares equally in the divinity of the Godhead just as the Father and Son. Therefore, the Spirit is one to whom faith and submission are due.

Spirit and Salvation
Economically speaking, the Holy Spirit plays an important role in relation to the created order. With the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit has a specific part to play in the outworking of salvation, both historically and personally. Ignatius’ letters reveal certain aspects of this role in terms of salvation.

Theologians have recognised two aspects of the plan of salvation and referred to them as redemption accomplished (historia salutis) and redemption applied (ordo salutis).
[2] The former has to do with the historical outworking of this plan of the Father to redeem a people to himself primarily through his Son, Jesus Christ. The latter is the application of the finished plan to this people both as individuals and as a collective whole. In Ignatius’ letters, the Holy Spirit is mentioned in reference to aspects of both the historia salutis and the ordo salutis. In terms of the historia, the Spirit is spoken of in relation to Christ’s earthly life, especially his birth. In the ordo he places particular focus on the doctrine of sanctification.

The way that Ignatius speaks of the Spirit’s work in the history of redemption is the birth of Christ. In Ephesians 18.2, Ignatius speaks to the human and divine nature of Jesus. He was “conceived by Mary according to the plan of God” and “he was from the seed of David, but also from the Holy Spirit.” Not only does Ignatius argue for the reality of the incarnation, he does so by explicitly stating its Trinitarian nature. The plan of Mary’s conception originated with God. God here is to be understood as the Father, distinct from the other use of the word God in reference to Jesus Christ. It could literally be read, “God the Son was conceived by Mary according to the plan of God the Father.” By being born of Mary, Jesus was of the Davidic line (Cf. Eph. 20.1; Trall. 9.1; Rom. 7.3; Smyrn. 1.1). But Ignatius also points out that Jesus was “from the Holy Spirit” reflecting the teaching in Matthew 1:18 as well as Luke 1:35. In the latter the Holy Spirit is said to have come upon Mary and the power of the Most High would overshadow her allowing her to conceive the Son of God as a virgin. Therefore, one aspect of the Spirit’s role in redemptive history is the incarnation of the Messiah.

In regard to the ordo salutis, Ignatius pays specific attention to the work of the Spirit in sanctification. Just as Ignatius framed the incarnation in Trinitarian categories, in Ephesians 9.1 the progress of sanctification also involves all three members of the Godhead. He says,
You are stones of the Father’s temple, prepared for the building of God the Father. For you are being carried up to the heights by the crane of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, using as a cable the Holy Spirit; and your faith is your hoist, and love is the path that carries you up to God.

Ignatius writes this after having expressed his concern over those “with an evil teaching” who had “passed through” and his pleasure that the Ephesians “did not allow them to sow any seeds” among them. Vivid imagery is used to explain the Christian life, utilizing a crane as an illustration. The cross is the “crane of Jesus Christ” that carries Christians up to the heights of God by the hoist of faith along the path of love. Interestingly, the Holy Spirit is referred to as a “cable” or “rope” (skoini,on). The idea is that the Holy Spirit carries a person to God by faith based upon the saving power of Christ’s cross.

Another redemptive-historical theme in Ignatius that likely relates to the Holy Spirit is that of Christ’s spiritual union with the Father. In Smyrneans 3.3, when explaining Christ’s post-resurrection appearances, Ignatius points out that the Lord ate and drank with his disciples as a “fleshly being.” This was in contrast to the docetic teaching that Jesus never assumed a physical body. Yet all the while that “he was in the flesh even after the resurrection” (3.1) “he was spiritually united with the Father” (3.3). It is this spiritual union between Christ and the Father that has a potential link to the Spirit. The adverb “spiritually” (pneumatikw/j) used to explain this union may have reference to the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 2:14 the apostle Paul speaks of the “natural person” who “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God.” This is the case because such things are “spiritually discerned.” The word translated “spiritually” is pneumatikw/j the same used by Ignatius in 3.3. Only the “spiritual person” can discern such things (2:15) because he or she has “received the Spirit” (2:12) and is “taught by him” (2:13). Pneumatikw/j is to be understood in relation to the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 2:14; therefore it is a good possibility that Ignatius is using it in the same manner. If this is the case, the implication is that the Holy Spirit united Jesus Christ to the Father while he ministered on earth.

Spirit and Church
Besides soteriology, the Spirit’s role in ecclesiology is also noteworthy in the letters (Magn. 13.2; Phld. Intro;7.2). As the bishop of Antioch, Ignatius has a very high view of his office and frequently admonishes the recipients of his letters to submit to the authority of their church leaders. In a number of places he referenced the Spirit as added weight to his argument. For instance, in the introduction to Philadelphians, Ignatius claims that the bishop, presbyters and deacons were “securely set in place” by the Holy Spirit. These church officers had also been “appointed in accordance with the mind of Jesus Christ.” At the very beginning of the introduction Ignatius calls the Philadelphians “the church of God the Father.” Although not a formal Trinitarian statement, the church is founded upon the unity of purpose between the three members of the Godhead. It is within this schema that the Holy Spirit’s own role is explained, that of securely setting in place the three offices of the church.

Another text outlining the relationship of the Spirit to ecclesiology is Philadelphians 7.2. Here Ignatius makes the claim that the Spirit preached to him saying, “Do nothing apart from the bishop…” and continues on to explain the Trinitarian nature of devotion noted above. It is this appeal to Spirit’s authority for the establishing of a specific form of church government that is important to note. For Ignatius, submission to the bishop is not a mere human requirement and comes not from a “human source” but from the Spirit of God himself. To deny the bishop is essentially to deny the Spirit.

The Spirit of God does not appear as frequently as the other members of the Trinity, but his role is significant none-the-less. According to Ignatius, the Holy Spirit is an equal member of the Godhead and plays an important role in relation to God’s people. In terms of salvation, the Spirit was an active agent in redemptive history, especially regarding the incarnation. He also plays an important role in the process of sanctification. As for ecclesiology, Ignatius argues that the Spirit, as with the rest of the Godhead, played a vital part in the establishment of the three church offices.

Although Pneumatology is not a prominent theme in Ignatius’ letters, they do contain a high view of the Holy Spirit and are a helpful resource when considering this foundational Christian doctrine.

[1] Bart D. Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers Volume 1 Loeb Classical Library 24 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2005), 202-321.
[2] See John Murray, Redemption Accomplished Applied (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., ) and Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Resurrection and Redemption (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, ).

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