Real Presence in Ignatius: Opponents and Arguments – Summary and Conclusion

The field of those who disagree with the views of the proponents hold that either Ignatius never implied real presence in his letters or, at the very least, there is not enough evidence to say what he really believed. Further, this last group might even make note of conflicting evidence within Ignatius’ own letters. It is to members of these groups that we now turn our attention. We will move from those who feel less strongly about the alleged lack of real presence in Ignatius to those who take a more strong position on Ignatius and his writings.

H. B. Swete
Swete, in an article written during the turn of the last century, assigns Ignatius to a school of thought that tended toward a position that “is shown to spiritualise the words of the Institution so far as to obscure their reference to His actual Flesh and Blood.”<note: H. B. Swete, “Eucharistic Belief in the Second and Third Centuries,” The Journal of Theological Studies 3 (1902): 168. Worship in Early Christianity (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993).> Later, he identifies this more with mysticism than real presence and notes that, on the one hand, Ignatius seems clear in the context of anti-docetist polemic, but, on the other hand, he is ambiguous when the “Docetae are not in view.”<note: Ibid., 116.>  He uses the Ad Smyrnaeans 6 and Ad Philadelphians 4 as an example of the former and Ad Trallians 8 and Ad Romans 7 for the latter. Swete, then, seems to imply that Ignatius is ambiguous overall, and the reader cannot be very certain about anything that he is writing because of these apparent contradictions.

Everett Ferguson
The researcher may be able to locate at least two sources written on the subject of the Eucharist in the second century written by Ferguson. One, included in a festschrift, covers the period of the New Testament through the Medieval period. In this article Ferguson does not even mention Ignatius. It would seem that he thinks that, in the overall scheme of this doctrine’s development, Ignatius is irrelevant. Instead, he begins with Justin to describe the overall view of the second century. The value of this article is that he clearly states that his own view of the Eucharist is to identify it with the Old Testament Passover. Inasmuch as the Passover commemorated the events of the original Passover, likewise the Eucharist commemorated the original sacrifice of Christ: “The historical deliverance is unrepeatable, but its effects are reaffirmed.”<note: Everett Ferguson, “The Lord’s Supper: The Early Church Through the Medieval Period,” in The Lord’s Supper: Believers Church Perspectives (ed. Dale R. Stoffer: Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1997), 21-22.>

The other source is Ferguson’s chapter on “The Language of the Real Presence About the Lord’s Supper.”<note: Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries. 3rd ed. (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1999) 103-14.> In this chapter, he argues that realistic language finds its way into the ante-Nicene fathers for two reasons. The first reason is that they are merely reiterating the language of the New Testament (i.e. “this is my body…this is my blood”). The second reason is because they are arguing against heresy, the main heresies being first Docetism, then later, Gnosticism. He explains the use of “flesh” as opposed to “body” as being necessary because it affirmed the difference between Docetism and orthodoxy.  The Docetists could affirm at least the form of a body, but the term, “flesh” better substantiated its significance as a real body made of actual flesh and blood.<note: Ibid., 106.> Further, Ferguson believes that the locus of Ignatius’ eucharistic theology is Johannine even if it does predate Ignatius’ actual reception of a gospel or epistle written by that apostle.<note: Ibid., 107.>

In the final analysis, Ferguson sees little to warrant a view that holds to real presence in the writings of Ignatius. He does not totally exclude the possibility, but notes that repetition of New Testament language and context mitigate against any strong case for real presence in the writings of Ignatius.

Paul H. Jones
Jones, in is book on the historical development of the doctrine of the Eucharist does not see any firm development of real presence until the ninth century:

Because the doctrine of Christ’s eucharistic presence was not thematized and the early church’s liturgical celebrations were deliberately private, rumors quickly spread concerning the treasonous and immoral practices that attended these assemblies. In correspondence between Pliny and Trajan, for example, accusations extended beyond social and political concerns to doctrinal issues. That is, the realistic manner in which the early Christians spoke of the presence and consumption of the body and blood of Christ elicited charges of cannibalism. Thus, for practical reasons the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the eucharist surfaced in accusations, although early church theologians did not elaborate a distinct doctrine of real presence.<note: Paul H. Jones, Christ’s Eucharistic Presence: A History of the Doctrine. (New York: Peter Lang, 1994) 28.>

In dealing with Ignatius and the issue of real presence specifically, Jones postulates a continuum with realism at one end and symbolism at the other.  He states that there is not enough evidence to locate any ante-Nicene churchman at the extremes of this continuum, but he does place Ignatius as the closest to realism while placing Clement and Origen at the other end of the continuum.<note: Ibid., 28-29.> His description of what is occurring during the ante-Nicene period is one of “oscillation” between these two extremes.<note: Ibid., 29>  In doing so, he presents a stronger but more generalized view toward the development of the doctrine as a whole. He denies that any firm view was fixed in the thought and writings of theologians until the ninth century. While this view lacks the necessary specificity toward Ignatius, it does underscore the problem of a historical a priori argument for real presence in Ignatius.  The question must be asked – how can Ignatius teach  real presence when its very definition has yet to be determined? To be able to affirm this, one must believe that the doctrine existed in the second century because it had existed from the beginning of the church.

S. M. Gibbard
In a little known and less celebrated paper presented to the Fourth International Conference of Patristic Studies in 1963, Gibbard lays out a short but very organized analysis and refutation of the concept of real presence in the Ignatian epistles.  Gibbard finds five distinctly ‘catholic’ emphases within the writings of Ignatius. First, he uses sacrificial terms to describe the Eucharist like thusiasterion or ‘altar’ (Eph. 5.2, Magn.17.2, Phil. 4.1).  Martyrdom is also an altar (Rom. 2.2). Second, he describes the elements of the Eucharist is a very realistic way (Smyrn. 7.1, Trall. 8.1, Phil. 5.1, Rom. 7.3). Third, he ascribes powerful life giving forces to the Eucharist (Eph. 20.2, Eph. 13). Fourth, he stresses the efficacy of the Eucharist on the basis of a qualified administrator – the bishop (Smyrn. 8.1).  This may be qualified by his defining the whole church by its components of congregants and officers (Rom. 5.2, cf. Smyrn. 8.2). Fifth, he “emphasises the corporate aspect of the eucharist.” (Phil. 4, cf. Eph. 5.20, 2, Magn. 7:1-12).<note: S. M. Gibbard, “The Eucharist in the Ignatian Epistles,” Papers Presented at the Fourth International Conference on Patristic Studies Held at Christ Church, Oxford, 1963 8 (1966): 214-15.>

Gibbard believes that each of these ideas are found in some seminal form in the NT, but that Ignatius takes them a bit further.<note: Ibid., 116.> Therefore, he gives three possible reasons for this development over and beyond the New Testament, each one increasingly more likely than the previous: First, Ignatius was influenced by the mystery religions as in H.W. Bartsch: Gnostisches Gut und Gemeindetradition bei Ignatius von Antiochien 99-117.  There are problems because Bartsch relies on the Ad Polycarp 7.1 passage and the attainment to God.  This is not a reference to Eucharist but to martyrdom. Bartsch sees simlar mystery religion in Ad Smyrnaeans 7.1 because he sees “agape” here as “to hold an agape.” Second, Ignatius writes in an overdramatic and impassioned manner as in Ad Romans 4.1.  Some have even suggested Ignatius to be somewhat neurotic. Third, and most likely, Ignatius’ debate with the Docetists brought out some unusual polemic.  The Eucharist became the means flushing out the Docetists and reinforcing the truth of the incarnation.  Just as prayer was a revealer of doctrine in the early church, so too the Eucharist became a shibboleth separating orthodox believer from Docetist.  This panacea of sorts could be applied to doubts concerning the incarnation and problems with unity.  Both of these were resultant issues with the Docetists.<note: Ibid., 217-18.>  In a final gloss that almost smacks of a truism, Gibbard adds, “In this sense the heretics are the elucidators, if not the formulators, of the doctrines of the church.”<note: Ibid., 218.> Gibbard, then, believes that the context of Docetism provides a satisfactory explanation for the realistic language of Ignatius without actually teaching a paleo real presence.

Summary and Conclusion
In this paper we have covered the background of Ignatius and his historical situation, the debate spanning the last 125 years in liturgical studies, those who argue for real presence in Ignatius, and those who argue against it. It is prudent to suggest that there is difficulty in taking any position too dogmatically because of many apparent contradictions, evidence of metaphorical language, and an urgent context full of passion on the part of Ignatius in his writing of these letters. Those who suggest that Ignatius gives us a clear example of real presence very early in the second century are seriously over-reaching. Those who would suggest that Ignatius gives us no possibility to construe his words as implying real presence would be over-reaching as well.  A via media ought to be prescribed for such a situation, but I believe that this middle way leans away from the certainty of Ignatius holding to real presence. At the same time, it cannot categorically deny the possibility of its existence because the corpus is too small and filled with contradictions.

I have developed five reasons why we might be able to say that Ignatius could have something short of real presence in mind in his letters.  First, Ignatius presents too little information. At no time is he very clear, and when he seems clear he contradicts himself elsewhere. Such is the situation when Ad Smyrnaeans 7.1 is compared with Ad Trallians 8.1, Ad Philadephians 5.1, and Ad Romans 7.3. While the first reference equates the elements of the Eucharist with the flesh of Christ, the others equivocate and relate the elements with faith, gospel, and love respectively.<note: Smyrn. 7.1 “They abstain from the eucharist and prayer, since they do not confess that the eucharist is the flesh of our saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered on behalf of our sins and which the Father raised in his kindess. . .” (Ignatius, Smyrn. 7.1[Ehrman, LCL]) Trall. 8.1 “. . . You should therefore take up gentleness and create yourselves anew in faith, which is the flesh of the Lord, and in love, which is the blood of Jesus Christ.” (Ignatius, Trall. 7.1 [Ehrman, LCL]) Phld 5.1 “But your prayer to God will perfect me, so that I may attain to God by the lot that I have been mercifully assigned, when I flee to the gospel as to the flesh of Jesus and to the apostles as to the presbytery of the church.” (Ignatius, Phld. 5.1 [Ehrman, LCL])Rom. 7.3 “. . . I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, from the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is imperishable love.” (Ignatius, Rom. 7.3 [Ehrman, LCL]).> Second, the equivocation mentioned above lends itself to great ambiguity that cannot be surmounted for a clearer understanding. While Schoedel and Kelly may think that all the real presence passages in Ignatius ought to be interpreted in light of Ad Smyrnaeans 7.1, this seems a bit arbitrary especially given its polemical context. Third, the similarity of Ignatius verbiage to John’s means that we have to enough of a difference between  John’s gospel and Ignatius to make a distinctively different case. How we understand John will inevitably determine how we understand Ignatius. Fourth, there seems to be too much assumption as to the clarity of Ignatius argument. Roman Catholic ressourcement argues that Docetism in the context supports its assertion that Ignatius speaks rather clearly of real presence. This argument is only valid if we assume that Ignatius was advancing a valid argument. The case may actually be quite to the contrary given the circumstances of travel fatigue, passionate feelings, impending torture, and near death. Fifth, and finally, a definite instance of real presence in Ignatius seems a bit early for such clear statements if we take the development of doctrines seriously.  This is by no means a hard and fast rule, but if difficulty is encountered with the Justin, Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen. How can we be more certain of Ignatius who predates them? Those who argue for a realistic Ignatius deny both Bauer and any view of doctrinal development. Indeed, they imply a very advanced pristine orthodoxy very early in the history of the church. If they do no allow this for the doctrines of Trinity and atonement, why should they for the Eucharist?

In summary, while we cannot argue that Ignatius had no concept of real presence in his writings, we can argue that his writings do not give enough evidence that he taught real presence with any certainty. He provides for us, perhaps, necessary conditions for real presence, but certainly no sufficient conditions for real presence.


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