Ignatius of Antioch and Transubstantiation

by Luke Wayne
11/28/18

According to Roman Catholic dogma, when a priest blesses the bread and cup of the Eucharist, they cease to be bread and wine and instead become the literal flesh and blood of Jesus' human body. The wine and wafers become Christ Himself, called down from heaven onto the altar and literally, physically present to be eaten as a sacrament of grace. As such, the bread and cup are considered rightful objects of worship. This is the doctrine of transubstantiation. While Roman Catholics do attempt to argue their position from Scripture (see our articles HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE) they also rely heavily on citations of the early church fathers. Probably their favorite writer to cite is Ignatius of Antioch. Since he wrote very early in the second century, appealing to Ignatius can seem especially persuasive. Thus, it is worthwhile to examine what Ignatius actually said.1

Does it even Matter?

As will be demonstrated below, Ignatius did not actually teach transubstantiation. As a consistent Protestant who recognizes that Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith, however, it can be tempting to simply write off the Catholic's argument up front as irrelevant anyway. Ignatius was not an inspired author. His words are not God-breathed. He is fallible and perfectly capable of error. If Ignatius taught transubstantiation, then so what? That would just mean that Ignatius was wrong on that subject! Yet, the Roman Catholic might well point out that, living so close to the time of the New Testament and having ancient Greek as his own native language, Ignatius is much more likely to properly understand the New Testament documents than a 21st-century American reading from an English translation. Thus, the Catholic will say, if Ignatius taught transubstantiation, it then strengthens their claims that the New Testament teaches it as well.

Even here, they overstate their case. For one thing, being early does not automatically make one more likely to be right. Many of the letters in the New Testament were written as refutations of false doctrines that had already sprung up in the first decades of the church while the Apostles were still alive and teaching! For example, some of Paul's earliest writings addressed people within the churches who taught that Jesus had already returned (2 Thessalonians 2) or that there was no future resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15). If people could go so wrong on such seemingly obvious things within only twenty years or so of Jesus' death and while the Apostles still present, how much more might someone go wrong seventy or eighty years later and after the Apostles were all dead and gone? Thus, if we find something even in an early source like Ignatius that does not accord with what the inspired authors taught in Scripture, we are indeed justified in disregarding it. We can even agree with Ignatius on many things and find his writings edifying while still rejecting anything he might say that does not accord with Scripture, just as we do with other Christian leaders even today.

All of this said, it can still be helpful to show Roman Catholics that Ignatius did not, in fact, teach transubstantiation.

The Bread of God, the Flesh of Christ

One passage in Ignatius to which Roman Catholics often appeal is in his letter to the church at Rome, where he writes:

"...I want the bread of God, which is the flesh of Christ who is of the seed of David; and for drink I want his blood..." (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, Chapter 7).

Even by itself without any context, this quote doesn't come anywhere close to supporting transubstantiation. To simply call the bread the "flesh of Christ" or to call the cup "His blood" says no more than any Protestant would say. Some would use the words completely figuratively. Others, following John Calvin, would say that words point to a literal spiritual reality of Christ's presence in the supper, but not a physical reality. Lutherans teach that Christ's human body is itself truly present in the supper (though the bread is also still bread and the wine is still wine). The point is, anyone from any of these perspectives could say exactly what Ignatius says here. Note, for example, the words of one prominent Protestant confession of faith:

"Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death; the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses."2

Thus, to say that the bread is the flesh of Christ and the wine His blood says no more than Baptists or Presbyterians would say. Such language doesn't imply transubstantiation at all. The Roman Catholic assumes transubstantiation and reads it into Ignatius' words here without even realizing it. Yet, even when we read the whole chapter, we see no sign that Ignatius had in mind a miraculous yet invisible transformation of substance changing the feast of bread and wine into a meal of literal human flesh.

"The ruler of this age wants to take me captive and corrupt my godly intentions. Therefore none of you who are present must help him. Instead take my side, that is, God’s. Do not talk about Jesus Christ while you desire the world. Do not let envy dwell among you. And if upon my arrival I myself should appeal to you, do not be persuaded by me; believe instead these things that I am writing to you. For though I am still alive, I am passionately in love with death as I write to you. My passionate love has been crucified and there is no fire of material longing within me, but only water living and speaking in me, saying within me, 'Come to the Father.' I take no pleasure in corruptible food or the pleasures of this life. I want the bread of God, which is the flesh of Christ who is of the seed of David; and for drink I want his blood, which is incorruptible love," (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, Chapter 7).

The passage is filled with flowery metaphor. Expressions like "the fire of material longing" and "water living and speaking in me." No Catholic would claim that he was talking about desires transforming into literal, physical flames or Ignatius' insides changing into literal, physical water. These are metaphors. Likewise, when he raises the picture of the flesh and blood of Christ, he does not even say that the blood is wine but rather that the blood is "incorruptible love." Ignatius often uses this kind of figurative language. For example, earlier in this letter, Ignatius wrote:

"...I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, so that I may prove to be pure bread," (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, Chapter 4).

And note what He said in another letter:

"...You, therefore, must arm yourselves with gentleness and regain your strength in faith (which is the flesh of the Lord) and in love (which is the blood of Jesus Christ)," (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Trallians, Chapter 8).

Here, faith is the flesh of Christ and, again, love is His blood. Its obviously poetic language not meant to be read in a wooden, literal sense. Indeed, when we look at what Ignatius was writing to the Romans about, he was not saying that he longed to partake of the Eucharist. He was saying that he wanted to die as a martyr! It was not the communion meal Ignatius yearned for, but final separation from the world in death so He could be with Christ and free from sin. 

One Flesh and One Cup

Another place to which Roman Catholics often turn is in Ignatius' letter to the church of Philadelphia, where he said:

"Take care, therefore, 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..." (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Philadelphians, Chapter 4).

Just as in our previous example, there just isn't anything here. Protestants have always happily used this same kind of language, and doing so is perfectly consistent with Protestant views of the supper. That said, it is worth again briefly noting the context. The words just before this passage read:

"...Do not be misled, my brothers and sisters: if any follow a schismatic, they will not inherit the kingdom of God. If any hold to alien views, they disassociate themselves from the passion," (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Philadelphians, Chapter 3).

Ignatius concern here is over the unity of the church. He is warning against schism. In this context, he goes on to use the example of the "Eucharist" (literally "thanksgiving") to point out that, just as there is but "one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ," so too should a local church be one. There is "one cup that leads to unity through his blood." The focus, again, is unity. Indeed, Ignatius doesn't say that the cup contains Jesus' blood, rather he says that when the brothers share together in one cup it "leads to unity in His blood." The cup points us to that which unites us: the blood of Christ. Thus, if anything, this passage fits better with Protestant interpretations of the supper than with the Catholic one. At any rate, it certainly gives no positive evidence for transubstantiation.

The Eucharist is the Flesh

But perhaps the most commonly cited and the most seemingly relevant passage in Ignatius is in his letter to Smyrna, where he warns of false brothers who:

"...abstain from Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up," (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnians, Chapter 6).

At first glance, and taken by itself, this passage at least seems to assume that the Eucharist is literally the actual flesh that suffered for our sins and which the Father raised up. Even taken that way, however, it falls short of affirming transubstantiation. As we have already noted above, a Lutheran would affirm that the body of Jesus is literally present in the supper and that, when one eats the bread, they literally eat the body of Christ. Yet they deny transubstantiation. They deny that the bread has ceased to be bread or that the wine had ceased to be wine. On this position, the body and blood of Christ are present in, over, and around the bread and wine, but the bread and wine are still bread and wine. They have not invisibly transubstantiated into anything else. Thus, to affirm transubstantiation over against the Lutheran position, Ignatius would have needed to say much more than he did. So, even if the Roman Catholics were right about what Ignatius meant here, it would fall short of affirming their dogma.

Yet, when we look at the context a little closer, we realize that Ignatius is not saying what the Roman Catholic thinks he is saying. To understand this, we first need to understand what the error is that Ignatius addresses. After opening the letter with an affirmation of Jesus' bodily life, suffering, and resurrection, Ignatius goes on to write immediately:

"For he suffered all these things for our sakes, in order that we might be saved; and he truly suffered just as he truly raised himself— not, as certain unbelievers say, that he suffered in appearance only (it is they who exist in appearance only!). Indeed, their fate will be determined by what they think: they will become disembodied and demonic," (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnians, Chapter 2).

Thus, the error in view is the false belief that Jesus never actually took on a physical human nature and that, as a result, he only appeared to suffer and die on the cross. This theme continues throughout the letter. Indeed, just before the often-quoted section, we read:

"Certain people ignorantly deny him, or rather have been denied by him, for they are advocates of death rather than of the truth. Neither the prophecies nor the law of Moses have persuaded them, nor, thus far, the gospel nor our own individual suffering; for they think the same thing about us. For what good does it do me if someone praises me but blasphemes my Lord by not confessing that he was clothed in flesh? Anyone who does not acknowledge this thereby denies him completely and is clothed in a corpse. Given that they are unbelievers, it did not seem worthwhile to me to record their names. Indeed, far be it from me even to remember them, until such time as they change their mind regarding the passion, which is our resurrection," (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnians, Chapter 5).

Immediately following this, we come to the relevant chapter, which says:

"Let no one be misled. Even the heavenly beings and the glory of angels and the rulers, both visible and invisible, are subject to judgment if they do not believe in the blood of Christ. Let the one who can accept this accept it. Do not let a high position make anyone proud, for faith and love are everything; nothing is preferable to them. Now note well those who hold heretical opinions about the grace of Jesus Christ that came to us; note how contrary they are to the mind of God. They have no concern for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the oppressed, none for the prisoner or the one released, none for the hungry or thirsty. They abstain from Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up," (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnians, Chapter 6).

The issue is not what these false teachers believe about the physical nature of the bread and wine during communion. It is what they believe about the nature of Jesus Himself and about His passion and resurrection. Note the words that come right after this: 

"Therefore those who deny the good gift of God perish in their contentiousness. It would be more to their advantage to love, in order that they might also rise up. It is proper, therefore, to avoid such people and not speak about them either privately or publicly. Do pay attention, however, to the prophets and especially to the gospel, in which the passion has been made clear to us and the resurrection has been accomplished," (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnians, Chapter 7).

You are not to avoid these teachers because they might mislead you on the nature of the bread and cup. You are to avoid them because they deny what the Scriptures teach about the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. So, then, what is Ignatius' point in bringing up communion at all? He is illustrating the falsehood of these heretical beliefs. He points out that they cannot even participate in communion because they cannot speak of the bread and cup as the body and blood of Jesus since they do not believe that Jesus had a body or blood.

"Even so," the Roman Catholic might object, "doesn't Ignatius' argument only make sense if the bread and wine really are Jesus' physical body and blood?" Actually, no. Ignatius' point, in context, seems to be that they reject communion because they reject that Jesus actually had flesh and blood and actually died and rose again. Even if one takes the bread and wine to simply symbolize and commemorate the literal body and blood rather than physically becoming them, such a symbol assumes a reality that these false teachers could not affirm. And that reality is Ignatius' focus, not the physical nature of the bread itself. Indeed, we see this same argument come up in the writings of other church fathers. Note, for example, how Tertullian later expresses the exact same point against the very same false teaching: 

"Then, having taken the bread and given it to His disciples, He made it His own body, by saying, 'This is my body,' that is, the figure of my body. A figure, however, there could not have been, unless there were first an actual body. An empty thing, or phantom, is incapable of a figure," (Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book 4, Chapter 40).

Tertullian has no problem saying of the bread that Jesus "made it His own body," and yet means that it is the "figure" of His body. And he further explains that the existence of the figure points to the reality that Jesus really did have a body and was not merely a spirit or phantom. If Jesus' appearance on earth itself was only a figure or image of a body and not an actual body, then of what could the bread be a symbol? It couldn't! Thus, these heretics had to reject communion. Partaking of communion would be a confession that Jesus really did have a body and really did suffer physically for our sins, something these false teachers did not believe. That was Tertullian's point, and it was Ignatius' point as well. Ignatius' was not claiming, nor was he assuming, anything like transubstantiation.
 

 

 

  • 1. All citations of Ignatius in this article are quoted from Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers in English (Baker Publishing Group, 2006)
  • 2. 1689 London Baptist Confession, Chapter 30, Section 7; see also the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 29, Section 7