Real Presence in Ignatius, Part 4: Proponents and Arguments

Any student of Ignatius that does not see real presence in the eucharistic references of Ignatius of Antioch is bound to find himself or herself in the minority. While not examining every survey that has been written on the subject, a rough sample of the literature from the last century will demonstrate this to be the case. There does not seem to be alignment on this issue according to theological basis, or even alignment based upon one’s understanding of New Testament passages on the same subject.  Those who claim real presence to exist in Ignatius’ theology have no problem disagreeing with him. It is interesting to note that several Roman Catholic theologians have very recently written on Ignatius with a view toward bolstering the assumption that real presence does indeed go back to John because Ignatius so clearly teaches it. For our purposes here we will look at four distinct proponents for real presence in the writings of Ignatius. We will start by looking first at a decidedly Roman Catholic group of Scholars and move through Schoedel to Kelly.

Roman Catholic Scholarship
This first group of scholars that support the notion of real presence language in the writings of Ignatius are the products of either Roman Catholic scholarship or Roman Catholicism directly. They are not alone, but they are recent representatives who have written something on either Ignatius or the Eucharist. Each of these tends to wax eloquent and, at some times, devotional when reflecting on the words of Ignatius. There is a bit less scholarly dispassionance and a bit more overt admiration for Ignatian thought so far as they understand it. Oftentimes these authors tend to give less reason for their belief in Ignatian real presence and come close to merely asserting it as fact. Here is a summary of their literature:
Paul Bradshaw has written one of the latest attempts to refute the four-action Eucharistic theory of Dix. The thrust of his argument against Dix is that he believes the second century rite for the Eucharist to be very fluid and thus susceptible to influence from both Judaism and paganism. With regard to real presence, Bradshaw suddenly, all doubts are swept aside, sees it within the text of Ignatius. He never explains his view in a substantive manner.  For Bradshaw, the most oblique allusion to the idea of real presence by Ignatius becomes a most certain proof for it,<note:  This is exemplified in his distinction between savrx and sw:ma. (Bradshaw, Eucharistic Origins, 87-89.)> but he is not alone in this. In New Testament studies this would be classified as a sort of maximalist exegetical fallacy, reading all sorts of meaning into a trivial use of free variation. Interestingly, Bradshaw notes that with many of the early Fathers there was a lack of connection between the flesh of Christ and sacrifice.  There is the connection between flesh in the sacrament and the very body of Christ, but not a connection to the sacrifice of his body and blood.  Indeed, Bradshaw believes even Justin to be ignorant of the connection.  The implication is that flesh and blood, as pictured in the Eucharist, are connected to the incarnate Lord not the sacrificed body of the Lord.<note: Bradshaw, Eucharistic Origins, 89.> Perhaps there is a hint of Irenaean recapitulation in this idea. In commenting on Heintz, Bradshaw sees a parallel between real presence at the invocation and the miracle of the incarnation:

Heintz is undoubtedly correct in recognizing that an intentional parallel is being drawn by Justin between the process of incarnation and of eucharistic consecration here, just as Ignatius had earlier insisted on the equivalent reality of Christ’s incarnation and of his eucharistic presence.<note: Ibid., 92-93.>

In review, Bradshaw spends little energy defending a near assertion that Ignatius speaks in ‘realistic’ terms. Instead he finds other fanciful connections based upon the assumption of realism within the Ignatian corpus.
Cummings seeks to place Ignatius within a long tradition of eucharistic teaching from Ignatius to Wainwright. His list is not exclusively Roman Catholic. He includes reformers and even John Wesley.  Ignatius is his first subject, and he finds real presence in the writing of Ignatius in much the same manner as Johanny. In Cummings and in Johanny the defense is made of real presence based upon Docetism rather than in spite of it.  Protestants tend to dismiss the real presence language in Ignatius because he uses it in a reaction to the Docetists.  These Catholic theologians tend to think it strengthens their case for real presence: “There can be no separation of Christ and the Eucharist. If God did not really become one of us, then not only is the Eucharist “unreal” but so also is our transformation that it is supposed to bring about.”<note: Cummings, Eucharistic Doctors, 15.> Cummings describes a eucharistic union being effected by the observation of the sacrament.  Based upon Ad Philippians 4 and the “one cup of union,” Cummings does not believe that this union with Christ’s blood, but union from his blood. Hence,

The union of the Christian community, as Ignatius understands it, comes from Christ’s body and blood.  It is not a union we experience and symbolize with Christ. It is a union effected, brought about by the Eucharist.  The church, presided over by the one bishop, is “the single altar of sacrifice” in which this unity-making Eucharist is celebrated.<note: Ibid., 14.>

Cummings also identifies the charity or agape of Ad Smyrnaeans 7 with the agape of 1 John 4:16 and its God-abiding-in-them notion.  Thus, he ties the real presence he sees in Ignatius to the moral life. Cummings believes that the reference also may refer to the agape feast, but admits it is only speculation and unnecessary.<note: Ibid., 15.> When he arrives at Ad Ephesians 20.2 he sees the realism even if it is embryonic: “This is the language of mysticism, and should be taken with the utmost seriousness.  It is the eucharistic realism of St. John’s gospel in Ignatian language.  It is the eucharistic realism of the Catholic tradition as it begins to develop in the post-apostolic period.”<note: Ibid., 17.> Cummings interpretation of John colors his interpretation of Ignatius.
Summarizing Cummings, it can be clearly seen that he does less to prove what Ignatius meant and more to demonstrate how neatly Ignatius’ eucharistic teaching fits within a broader tradition. This gives the skeptical reader a sense that Cummings is being a bit parochial in is understanding of Eucharist. He sees parallels to Ignatius’ eucharistic teaching everywhere, but he fails to answer any possible critics.  This clearly seems to be a conversation between agreeable friends, rather than a defense of a debatable position.

LaVerdiere tries to provide a theology of the Eucharist as it passes from the New Testament into the early church. He starts with 1 Corinthians and ends with Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho – roughly the period from 56 to 155. In his post-apostolic history he does not regard the Didache’s Eucharist as a valid Eucharist, but he holds to the validity Ignatius’ Eucharists along with the stipulations he places upon it.<note: LaVerdiere, The Eucharist in the New Testament and the Early Church (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 148.> He provides a thorough study covering each of Ignatius’ ecclesiastical letters; however, he omits the letter to Polycarp. LaVerdiere clearly believes that Ignatius believed in and promoted real presence. He does not so much defend his interpretation as much as he explains it. For him, Christ’s bodily presence has three different contexts:

For Ignatius, Christ was truly human, the word made flesh, in his historical life, in his risen life, and in the sacramental gift of himself in the Eucharist. There is a difference, of course, between the historical and risen presence of Christ. There is also a difference between his risen presence and his sacramental presence in the Eucharist. There is more than one way of being bodily present in the flesh.<note: Ibid., 162.>

LaVerdiere also make as much of the savrx – sw:ma language in Ignatius as Bradshaw does.
Concluding with LaVerdiere, there is again little argument for a position as much as the elucidation of a concept. As with the others, there is a connection between the necessity of real presence as it is attached to the incarnation. For them there is no incarnation without real presence and vice-versa. This seems to one of the central truths that they allegedly find stressed in Ignatius.

Johnanny presents his article on Ignatius in a festschrift edited by Rordorf. His pattern for reasoning that real presence is visible in the letters of Ignatius follows that of the other Roman Catholic scholars already mentioned. He seems especially close to LaVerdiere in his presentation. Like some of the others he sees Ignatius as a mystic, but that this ought not stop the reader from taking Ignatius seriously. In this, he at least allows for some of the over-reaching that is down at other points of Ignatius’ argument. Like LaVerdiere, Johanny connects incarnation, passion and Eucharist.  He believes that the Ignatius’ point in Ad Smyrnaeans 7.1 was to bring out this threefold meaning with an emphasis on Eucharist. For Johanny the Eucharist is a proxy making the believing memorializing participant into a real participant in the incarnation and passion of Christ without actually taking them back to the historical moment.<note: Raymond Johanny, “Ignatius of Antioch,” in The Eucharist of the Early Christians (ed. Willy Rordorf et al., trans. Matthew J. O’Connell; Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 57-58.> Later, he attaches martyrdom to the threefold essence of the eucharistic referent, making it fourfold.<note: Ibid., 65.> He does actually struggle with the Ignatius’ way of thinking, but ultimately responds affirming real presence in the thought of Ignatius:

Faith and love have as their object the flesh and blood of Christ who was born of David’s line. This flesh and blood become the Christian’s food in the eucharist, our source of immortality.  They also feed him in the sense that they must be perceived and lived in by faith and love.  The two aspects are inseparable: faith and love are necessary for receiving the eucharist, but they are also the fruit of the eucharist.<note: Ibid., 63.>

By this reasoning, Johanny is able to reconcile the equating of the bread and wine to the body and blood as well as faith and love which Ignatius does in Ad Romans 7.2-3 and Ad Trallians 8.1. This is his way of getting around Ignatius’ obvious equivocating statements. Without introducing the influence of paganism to Ignatius’ idea of the Eucharist, this would seem unnatural. Johanny mentions nothing of pagan influence.
Summarizing Johanny, the reader finds perhaps the most developed ideas of the Roman Catholic group with some attempt to answer the apparent problems with the view. His answers, however, produce more questions. Is it possible to find such developed mystical theology in the very brief writings of an obviously impassioned man with a very short time to live separated from the present by nearly 2000 years? Can we say this much of Paul’s eucharistic theology which sports a canonically larger corpus?
With all of these scholars, there is a difficulty with the multiplication of more problems.  There were some valiant attempts that demonstrated some creative thinking, but the product produced yet another generation of problems. The skeptical mind gets the impression that they are trying to make the circumstances fit prior assumptions. Belief in the real presence and even a specific theology regarding the real presence presents itself anteriorly to their understanding of Ignatius, an almost obvious a priori assumption.

William R. Schoedel
Arguably Schoedel is the foremost scholar on Ignatian studies. The now retired Professor of Classics and Religious Studies from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is one of only two or three modern commentators on the text of the Ignatian letters. Writing in the Introduction of his commentary he finds only one passage that can be clearly thought to be referring to real presence: Ad Smyrnaeans 7.1. Although he tempers his claims for real presence in other passages, on this one he feels certain: “Yet that passage is sufficiently impressive as to suggest that sacramental realism is taken for granted (and even emphasized) by Ignatius.”<note: William R. Schoedel,  Ignatius of Antioch: A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (Hermeneia, editor Helmut Koester. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 21.> If Schoedel is to be exegeted correctly, it would seem that he is saying that Ad Smyrnaeans 7.1 is the most perspicuous passage by which all less clear passages ought to be understood. This argument would have merit only if the sure marker could be found here and not in some other passage.  The exegetical debate reduces to which passage is the clear passage, which is a chief determiner of serious exegetical difficulties.

J. N. D. Kelly
Surprisingly J. N. D. Kelly takes a similar view to Ignatius’ language as Schoedel. His somewhat more than passing comment suggests that Ignatius’ alleged real presence statements in view of Docetism may be interpreted as actual real presence statements on this basis alone:

Ignatius roundly declares that ‘the eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father in His goodness raised’[Rom. 7.3]. The bread is the flesh of Jesus, the cup His blood. Clearly he intends this realism to be taken strictly, for he makes it the basis of his argument against the Docetists’ denial of the reality of Christ’s body.<note: J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978), 197.

Kelly further argues from the standpoint of Justin and Irenaeus who, for him, seem to actually indicate the point in the rite when the elements change into body and blood.  Kelly’s interpretation allows the marginally more clear passages of Justin and Irenaeus to interpret the less clear text of Ignatius. While this logic may have its merits, it still presupposes that the condition present in the clearest and later text is built upon a teaching which must have predated that text.  It is, at best, a circular argument. He sees Ignatius as one of the early exponents of real presence and Justin and Irenaeus as mere clarifiers of Ignatius somewhat less clear assumptions.
In summary, the proponents of the view that Ignatius’ writings represent early evidence for a doctrine of real presence range from the Roman Catholic resourcement school to the less obvioiusly theologically committed schools of Schoedel and Kelly. It may be important at this time to note that both the theologically committed resourcement school and those who hold, in varying degrees, to Bauers hypothesis possess models of first century Christianity that presuppose the a belief in a very early real presence doctrine. The former tends to believe it because orthodoxy precedes heresy, while the latter tends to believe it because orthodoxy arises out of competing heresies. Bauer himself makes ample provision for a highly mystical and even real understanding of Ignatius in this quote:

The impression of a pronounced syncretism is further deepened when we observe the presence of magic and star worship, mysteries and alchemy, combined with gross superstition and a tendency toward Indian gymnosophistry, which makes Ignatius’ fanatical desire for martyrdom somewhat more explicable to us.<note: Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy, 65. >

While Bauer recognizes this as the source of Ignatius’ longing for martyrdom, it is not difficult to see how this could be applied to the real presence. Bauer could easily argue that real presence hints at the sort of things as “star worship, mysteries and alchemy, combined with gross superstition.”


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