Ignatius of Antioch and the Watchtower

by Luke Wayne
5/17/17

In their widely distributed pamphlet, "Should You Believe in the Trinity?" the Watchtower Society (the governing body of the Jehovah's Witnesses) claims that none of the writers of the early church believed in the deity of Christ or the triune nature of God.1 Not only do they misrepresent each and every one of the sources they cite,2 but they also neglect even to mention key figures like Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius lived during the time of the Apostles and died as a martyr around 107/108 AD. His letters are some of the earliest sources we have from early Christianity outside the New Testament, yet he is left out of the discussion entirely by the Watchtower author.

An article in the February 1, 1992, edition of the Watchtower Magazine did claim to address the writings of Ignatius,3 but in actuality quoted only from spurious material later attributed to Ignatius. The Watchtower article never once cited Ignatius' genuine letters. Ironically, the author of the article even mentions the full scholarly consensus that this material is spurious.4 He is fully aware that what he is citing is not really the words of Ignatius at all, yet he continues to quote from it and imply to the reader that he is quoting from genuine material. In fact, he cites only from the later forged material and never from the true words of Ignatius of Antioch. It is impossible, therefore, to avoid the conclusion that the Watchtower author is willfully misleading his readers rather than merely ignorant of the material.

At any rate, while the writings of Ignatius of Antioch are not inspired Scripture and hold no infallible authority over us, it can nevertheless be valuable to examine how Christian men so early on read and understood the Word of God. While Ignatius did not write any works of systematic theology, exhaustive confessions of faith, or thorough treatises on the nature of God, a careful reading of the letters he wrote to churches and individuals of his day does help bring to light their common faith in the deity of Christ.

Jesus as God

In the opening of his letter to the church of Ephesus, Ignatius writes:

"Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which is at Ephesus, in Asia, deservedly most happy, being blessed in the greatness and fullness of God the Father, and predestinated before the beginning of time, that it should be always for an enduring and unchangeable glory, being united and elected through the true passion by the will of the Father, and Jesus Christ, our God: Abundant happiness through Jesus Christ, and His undefiled grace. I have become acquainted with your name, much-beloved in God, which ye have acquired by the habit of righteousness, according to the faith and love in Jesus Christ our Saviour. Being the followers of God, and stirring up yourselves by the blood of God, ye have perfectly accomplished the work which was beseeming to you," (Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 1).

Later in the letter, he writes again:

"Let my spirit be counted as nothing for the sake of the cross, which is a stumbling-block to those that do not believe, but to us salvation and life eternal. “Where is the wise man? where the disputer?” Where is the boasting of those who are styled prudent? For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost. He was born and baptized, that by His passion He might purify the water," (Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 18).

And:

"Hence every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared; ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished, God Himself being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life. And now that took a beginning which had been prepared by God. Henceforth all things were in a state of tumult, because He meditated the abolition of death," (Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 19).

He also speaks of prayers to Jesus Christ, hoping that Jesus would permit him to write more on a later date if this was according to Christ's will:

"If Jesus Christ shall graciously permit me through your prayers, and if it be His will, I shall, in a second little work which I will write to you, make further manifest to you [the nature of] the dispensation of which I have begun [to treat]," (Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 20).

Similarly, Ignatius opened his letter to the church at Rome:

"Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Most High Father, and Jesus Christ, His only Son; the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that willeth all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the place of the region of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love, is named from Christ, and from the Father, which I also salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father: to those who are united, both according to the flesh and spirit, to every one of His commandments; who are filled inseparably with the grace of God, and are purified from every strange taint, [I wish] abundance of happiness unblameably, in Jesus Christ our God," (Letter to the Romans, Chapter 1).

He went on to write to them:

"For our God Jesus Christ, being in the Father, is the more plainly visible. The Work is not of persuasiveness, but Christianity is a thing of might, whensoever it is hated by the world," (Letter to the Romans, Chapter 3).

And asked them to:

"Remember in your prayers the Church in Syria, which now has God for its shepherd, instead of me. Jesus Christ alone will oversee it," (Letter to the Romans, Chapter 9).

To the church at Smyrna, he declared:

"I Glorify God, even Jesus Christ, who has given you such wisdom. For I have observed that ye are perfected in an immoveable faith, as if ye were nailed to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, both in the flesh and in the spirit, and are established in love through the blood of Christ," (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 10).

And said:

"Ye have done well in receiving Philo and Rheus Agathopus as servants of Christ our God, who have followed me for the sake of God, and who give thanks to the Lord in your behalf, because ye have in every way refreshed them. None of these things shall be lost to you. May my spirit be for you, and my bonds, which ye have not despised or been ashamed of; nor shall Jesus Christ, our perfect hope, be ashamed of you," (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 10).

And to a fellow Christian minister named Polycarp, he wrote:

"I pray for your happiness forever in our God, Jesus Christ, by whom continue ye in the unity and under the protection of God," (Letter to Polycarp, Chapter 8).

It is valuable to note that none of these statements is teaching that Jesus is God as if that is something his readers do not know. These statements all assume that it is the common faith of the believers in each of these churches that Jesus is their God, that he hears their prayers, that they are governed by His divine will, and that they are redeemed by the blood of God.

The Nature of Christ

Jehovah's Witnesses interpret passages in the Bible where Jesus is plainly called "God" as merely saying that he is "a god," or a "mighty one," and would likely do the same with the quotations above if they bothered to acknowledge the existence of such passages. Given the context, that Jesus is not merely "a god" but rather "OUR God" and is plainly the object of Ignatius' prayer, worship, and eternal hope, such a cop out is not possible. However, Ignatius goes even further in ruling this out. He describes the eternal, uncreated divine nature of Christ in plain and unmistakable terms that make it abundantly clear what he and his fellow Christians mean by calling Jesus "God." For example, to the Ephesians he wrote:

"There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; even Jesus Christ our Lord," (Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 7).

Similarly, Ignatius wrote to Polycarp:

"we ought to bear all things for the sake of God, that He also may bear with us. Be ever becoming more zealous than what thou art. Weigh carefully the times. Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; impalpable and impassible, yet who became passible on our account; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes," (Letter to Polycarp, Chapter 3).

Jesus is God who took on flesh. He is eternal, not made, invisible, above all time. He became flesh. He took on a human nature that was visible, passable, and made. Ignatius likewise urges believers to "continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ our God."5 He writes that Jesus "was with the Father before the beginning of time,"6 and that He "is His eternal Word, not proceeding forth from silence."7 The Word is eternal. He is not a creation, not a Word proceeded by wordless silence and then suddenly spoken. There was never a time when the Word was not there. The Word, Jesus Christ, did not come to be at the beginning of time. He was eternally with the Father before time itself began.

Thus, we can see in Ignatius' words that the Father and the Son are distinct from one another and yet that both are the one, eternal, true and living God. He further believes that the uncreated Word became a man on our behalf. This is the classic Christian doctrine.

Jesus and the Resurrection

Ignatius further writes that:

"Now, He suffered all these things for our sakes, that we might be saved. And He suffered truly, even as also He truly raised up Himself, not, as certain unbelievers maintain, that He only seemed to suffer," (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 2).

Here Ignatius is responding to the false teaching that Jesus was a purely spiritual being that did not really take on flesh, did not suffer, and did not die or rise again. He responds that Jesus did, indeed, suffer and die a human death. He further explains that He raised Himself from the grave! It is worth noting, as a side note, that Ignatius argues clearly and biblically that Jesus' resurrection was physical and bodily (contrary to Jehovah's Witness teaching that Jesus rose only as a spirit creature and that His body remained dead). Ignatius writes:

"For I know that after His resurrection also He was still possessed of flesh, and I believe that He is so now. When, for instance, He came to those who were with Peter, He said to them, 'Lay hold, handle Me, and see that I am not an incorporeal spirit.' And immediately they touched Him, and believed, being convinced both by His flesh and spirit. For this cause also they despised death, and were found its conquerors. And after his resurrection He did eat and drink with them, as being possessed of flesh, although spiritually He was united to the Father," (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 3).

At any rate, what is most important to our purpose here is that Ignatius credits Jesus with His own resurrection. Later in the same letter, he also credits the Father with the Resurrection:

"our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again," (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 7).

The Father raised Jesus up. Jesus raised Himself up. There is no contradiction. The Resurrection of Jesus was the work of the Triune God.

The Trinity

The 1992 Watchtower cited above raises the objection:

"Even if Ignatius had said that the Son was equal to the Father in eternity, power, position, and wisdom, it would still not be a Trinity, for nowhere did he say that the holy spirit was equal to God in those ways,"8

This, of course, falsely assumes that Ignatius was attempting to write a systematic theology, which he was not. I could just as well say that Ignatius rejected the Jehovah's Witness teaching that the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force simply because he never explicitly says that the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force. Jehovah's Witnesses would likely not find such an argument from silence convincing, and well they shouldn't. It's a bad argument, and it's just as bad when they use it against the Trinity. Everything Ignatius writes about the Father and the Son is consistent with the biblical doctrine of the Trinity and contrary to the Jehovah's Witness teaching that Jesus is a created being and is Michael the Archangel. Even if Ignatius said nothing about the Holy Spirit at all, his writings would in no way contradict the doctrine of the Trinity and would, indeed, point affirmatively to its truth. That said, Ignatius does make statements which, taken alongside his Christological claims above, are positively Trinitarian. For example, he writes:

 "while I desire to belong to God, do not ye give me over to the world. Suffer me to obtain pure light: when I have gone thither, I shall indeed be a man of God. Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God. If any one has Him within himself, let him consider what I desire, and let him have sympathy with me, as knowing how I am straitened," (Letter to the Romans, Chapter 6).

In the phrase "the passion of my God," Ignatius refers again to His God as the one who suffered the crucifixion. It is the suffering of Christ that Ignatius is imitating in His own martyrdom. In the next phrase, "if any one has Him within himself," Ignatius identifies the Spirit dwelling within believers as the same God.

Ignatius elsewhere says that the leaders of the church "have been appointed according to the mind of Jesus Christ, whom He has established in security, after His own will, and by His Holy Spirit" and that they have obtained their ministry "by the love of God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ."9 Thus, not only are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting together when God appoints a leader, but the Holy Spirit is Christ's Holy Spirit. The three persons of the Trinity are likewise joined in the work of redemption:

"being stones of the temple of the Father, prepared for the building of God the Father, and drawn up on high by the instrument of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, making use of the Holy Spirit as a rope, while your faith was the means by which you ascended," (Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 9).

Ignatius also blesses the Magnesian Church "in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit,"10 and professes that the Apostles submitted "to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit."11 He likewise closes the letter, "Fare ye well in the harmony of God, ye who have obtained the inseparable Spirit, who is Jesus Christ."12 While none of Ignatius' letters were a systematic presentation of His view of the Holy Spirit or the nature of God, when we take His statements together, it is clear that he and his readers regarded the Holy Spirit to be God alongside the Father and the Son.

Conclusion

When we look at the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, we find remarkable evidence that he and the many churches to whom he wrote all shared a common faith that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all the one true and living God. They held the Son to be eternal alongside the Father, offering the Son prayers and submitting to His divine will. They believed that the eternal Son became a man, suffered for our sins, and rose physically from the dead in same flesh in which He died. All of this is consistent with biblical Christianity and in stark contradiction to the novel and unchristian teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

 

Inside the Bible

Jesus said
John 8:24, "Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins."

Paul said
Colossians 2:9, "For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form,"

John said
John 1:1-3, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being."

The Book of Hebrews says:
Hebrews 1:8-12, "But of the Son He says, 'Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, And the righteous scepter is the scepter of His kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You With the oil of gladness above Your companions.' And, 'You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, And the heavens are the works of Your hands; They will perish, but You remain; And they all will become old like a garment, And like a mantle You will roll them up; Like a garment they will also be changed. But You are the same, And Your years will not come to an end.'"

 

Inside CARM

What is the Trinity?
The word "trinity" is a term used to denote the Christian doctrine that God exists as a unity of three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Each of the persons is distinct from the other yet identical in essence.

Romans 8:9-11 and the Trinity
The terms used for the Spirit and the way the Father, Son, and Spirit are described in Romans 8 reflects and depends on truth of the doctrine of the Trinity

The Book of Jude and the deity of Christ
The book of Jude is one of the shortest books in the New Testament, containing only one small chapter. Yet, even in these few lines, Jude manages to add to the vast biblical testimony of the deity of Christ.

The Watchtower and 1975
The Watchtower Organization predicted, based on their interpretation of Scriptures throughout the Old and New Testaments and on the logical conclusions of their central doctrines, that end of this system of things and the dawn of a new era of peace on earth would come in 1975. This prophecy failed and is a powerful example of why the Watchtower Organization is false and how their doctrines and interpretation of scripture are utterly untrue.

  • 1. Should You Believe in the Trinity, 1989, pg 7
  • 2. see our articles on this pamphlet's abuse of Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Origen.
  • 3. Watchtower, February 1, 1992, pg 20-21
  • 4. ibid, 21
  • 5. Letter to the Trallians, Chapter 7
  • 6. Letter to the Magnesians, Chapter 6
  • 7. ibid, Chapter 8
  • 8. Watchtower, February 1, 1992, pg 21
  • 9. Letter to the Philadelphians, Chapter 1
  • 10. Letter to the Magnesians, Chapter 13
  • 11. ibid
  • 12. ibid, Chapter 15