Eucharistic Reflections from Ignatius of Antioch, part 1 of 4

Eucharist, the act of giving thanks in the church, has been since from the very beginning a focal point of church worship. In the 21st century, there are more views regarding the Eucharist among denominations than deacon meetings in any given month at a Southern Baptist church. Every tradition desires to appeal to history for authority regarding their particular Eucharistic theology. Like a 49-er panning for gold, so too have Christian writers been mined for their particular Eucharistic views. In many of these cases, the author’s scope had little or nothing to do with Eucharist.

In the following entries, I will again go back to the bare quarry and dig deep into the writings of Ignatius of Antioch and interact with his various statements regarding the act of Eucharist in the church, that is, the church in the early second century. I do not expect to discover any new or rare gems that have not been previously discovered. I do hope, however, that readers will leave with a sense of that which Eucharist has always been, a mystery. Whatever your own tradition may say, Eucharist belongs to the church and is a specific act which has always pointed to the work of Christ and points forward towards his return. May this goal be achieved in your reading!


Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria, appears to us as a somewhat of a mystery. He is like a “meteor” which has traveled through space for eons, only to briefly blaze across our sky and expire in a “shower of fire.”[1] The only glimpse we receive of him is through his seven epistles written to various churches en route to martyrdom in Rome. He wrote no dialogues nor expounded on any facet of Christian theology at length, but Ignatius has become for us a window into the world of the post-Apostolic church and a “focus in scholarly discussion of Christian origins,” as Holmes insists.[2]

Though he gives us a window, this window has become murky and somewhat stained throughout centuries of theological parlay and doctrinal development. For some, Ignatius has become the banner waver in the discussion of church leadership and monarchial episcopacy.[3] Others have used him to champion various views regarding the social circumstances regarding Jews and Christians in Syria.[4] Our dear bishop has also been cited in various debates regarding his view of the Eucharist, and it is to this that will turn our attention. In his own words, how does he describe this central act of the church? How has it been interpreted variously throughout the ages? For the purposes of this study, I will summarize the statements of Ignatius regarding the Eucharist by synthesizing his words with various authors into three succinct, however not exhaustive, categories for the reader’s consideration.

Eucharistic Vocabulary

As I break down the Ignatian discourse regarding Eucharist, I feel it appropriate to categorize such language into three distinct categories: Eucharist as unity, Eucharist as devotion and Eucharist as polemic. Over the course of seven letters, Ignatius speaks variously regarding the unity of the body; mostly as it comes to their alignment with the bishop, presbyters and deacons. “Do nothing without the bishop,” Ignatius exhorts his readers at Tralles (2.2); a theme echoed throughout the extent of his letters. Eucharist, for Ignatius, signifies unity of the body to Christ under the submission of her leaders.

Also, Eucharist as revealed in these letters becomes the foremost activity of devotion. The breaking of bread in communion together is the “medicine of immortality” and the “antidote” against death in order to live forever in Jesus Christ.[5] For Ignatius, the incorporation of this devotional language to the Eucharist remains inseparable. Eucharist can be variously associated with a polemic against docetist teachings. Docetists, those who denied the corporeal sufferings of Christ, refuse to partake in Eucharist according to Ignatius because of what it represents, the passion of Christ in the flesh. Christ was truly crucified and died and was truly raised from the dead; those who say “he suffered in appearance only” can not be seen as legitimate partakers in the authentic meal.[6] In my next entry, I will expand upon this nomenclature regarding these categories of Eucharist within Ignatius’s letters. We will then continue to illustrate what the Eucharist was for Ignatius in his time as best as we can discover. My final entry will conclude with some final thoughts for our consideration in light of what Ignatius has written. Come back soon!

[1] Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 166.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Allen Brent, Ignatius of Antioch: A Martyr Bishop and the Origin of Episcopacy (New York: T&T Clark, 2007).

[4] See Thomas A Robinson, Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways: Early Jewish-Christian Relations (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2009).

[5] Eph. 20.2

[6] Trall. 9.1-2; 10


2 thoughts on “Eucharistic Reflections from Ignatius of Antioch, part 1 of 4

  1. I’m glad you are doing this series Coleman. I am really looking forward to reading it. I am a part of a Southern Baptist Church—I have been there for almost three years and we have celebrated the Eucharist 3 times in my time there. This bothers me… a lot. Christ instituted the Eucharist and for a while it was the center of Christian worship. Now, it’s the sermon. Am I saying we shouldn’t preach? No. What I am saying is if we are going to depart from the tradition, the burden of proof is on us as to why we have departed.

    I’m thinking about doing my RS102 paper on the shift of Christian worship from the Eucharist to Preaching. The time frame, the worldviews, etc… I’ve so often been told that we don’t celebrate the Eucharist more often because we don’t want it to become stagnant, but if we were worried about being stagnant, would we preach every week? Seems like a straw man, lame excuse—but why?

    Just as a side question and you can feel free to let your posts speak to this one: Is it wrong to view the Eucharist as ONLY an act of remembrance?

    • Great topic for your RS102 paper Daniel! I am sad to hear that your church has essentially only celebrated Eucharist once a year. Because we have subverted the importace of Eucharist to preaching, it implies (quite explicitly if you ask me) that leaders see little importance in the words of Christ over the words of man. This of course may be a little too harsh, and I doubt that’s what they truly believe, but I can’t help but get that feeling sometime.

      Hopefully this will come out in the following posts but I’ll go ahead and answer your question. I think it is wrong to view the Eucharist as ONLY an act of remembrance. It’s that kind of mentality that allows churches to only celebrate once a year. We have plenty of other things to remind us about Christ’s sacrifice, so if Eucharist is ONLY remembrance, why do it more than once a year? Or so the argument goes… If Eucharist is only meant to be a special time and therefore shouldn’t be celebrated every time the church gathers, what does that say about our preaching? Our music? Are they less special because we do those things every week?

      We have to see Eucharist as a part of the sanctifying work in the church for believers. It is the central act in which the church declares and strives towards unity and it is the impetus not only for devotion, but for our eschatological hope and realization of God INCARNATE, a radical and transformation notion which is unique to the Christian faith.

      I’d love to continue hearing your thoughts on the subject as this development is also something I am deeply interested in… Take care brother!

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