Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Polycarp and Ignatius - a Second Century model for Christian unity or not?

What are or should the core shared beliefs for Christians be? How much diversity can there be? These questions are complicated, especially in the 21st century! I'm busy reading an engaging book on the early church by Josef Lössl (The Early Church. History and Memory). In one section he discusses the unity and diversity to be found in Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch (both early second century bishop's). Ignatius clearly comes from a Hellenistic background where the liturgical processions and social order of the Greek city state receives a prominent place. Polycarp on the other hand comes from a Jewish background which colors his interpretation of among other things apostolic tradition and church liturgy. It is safe to say that at least in some sense Polycarp and Ignatius represent two radically distinct forms of ecclesiology and liturgy. But what binds them together, that Polycarp can call Ignatius his brother?
Just before being martyred Polycarp allegedly prayed: "I bless you... for the resurrection of eternal life of both soul and body in the incorruption of the Holy Spirit" (14:2).

Also on the resurrection, Ignatius writes in his letter to Smyrna: "For I know and believe that after the resurrection he [Jesus] was in the flesh...even though he was spiritually united to the father" (3:1-3).

Apparently, they agreed on the "central tenets". This included "Jesus Christ [was] 'truly' born, crucified, dead and risen from the dead, against those who believed that Christ had suffered and died 'in appearance' only" (Lössl, 2009:87).
What should constitute Christian unity today? Can the above "central tenets" be re-negotiated or not?

News from New Testament at Radboud University, Nijmegen: Johan Fourie from Tzaneen, South Africa is here for a few weeks to work on his PhD. His dissertation title is: "The Vine and the Body - A metaphorical-ecclesionlogical study on the unity and the essence of the church".

Hope you'll have a good time here with us Johan!


Anonymous said...

The unity of the church is at once biblically true and humanly spoken impossible, still I will give my life to working towards that unity!

PS!! Thanx for the midnight walk and the talks that both build up and challenge...

Johann Fourie

Steve said...

The glue that makes it work is love. God is love. Where people have God in them they are good to be around because of the faith, the hope and the love being shared indiscriminately in many ways. These fairly rare people are quite scary because they aren't, as a rule, big on talking, big on taking up the regurgitations of acclaimed theologians, big on how they appear to be to others, or big on clutching on to accumulated goods and chattels. They are big on obedience and getting on with the job. They have one fear, a holy fear of hindering the flow of love and grace in their lives. They don't sweat the small stuff when constantly aware of God's presence. It would appear Polycarp was blessed in this way.

Anonymous said...

Church unity?

I believe that unity amongst believers exist. It consists in the unity that is there in the faith commonly shared that was once delivered by the apostles. This faith is a gift from God. As such it is the most holy faith which consists of a sure conviction that God exists, that His word is the truth, that the good news of the Messiah that came in the fullness of time is true, sharing our humanity, yet without sin; doing mighty works; dying on the cross, rising on the third day and ascending into heaven from where He will come again; in the Holy Spirit who dwells mightily in us to conform us through a life of sanctification; and in the last judgement. This is then a matter of faith full of content, which produces an abundance of fruit of love and good works without which the faith is dead. Where such faith exists you will find true unity.
What then about the differences even amongst such believers? With Paul I conclude that we are one even so and that these differences will either be solved here or in the life to come. What about those that like to differ even on the essential matters of the faith? The Holy Spirit has long ago decreed that there is no unity with those who deny that Christ is the Son of God, that He did not really rise victoriously, conquering death, from the grave, that Jesus is not the only way, the only truth, or the only life, etc. We have no communion with such people - whatever they may claim to be or their position in the church.

Jan van Wijgerden said...

A more profane reason why Polycarp and Ignatius regarded each other as 'brothers' could have to do with the martyrdom of Ignatius. While on his way to Rome, he wrote his pastoral letters to the Christian communities in the region.
It's striking how Ignatius is willing to give his life for Christ without there being a solid organized body as the church. The whole idea of a authoritative leader (episkopos) was just rising and Ignatius claimed himself to be one of them, along with Polycarp. Being very popular and an example to many followers of Christ, and because his fierce defense of the bodily resurrection of Christ, Polycarp had enough reasons to call Ignatius a brother, although Ignatius'"eager" to die in a Roman arena for Christ sake was still an oddity in that time.

Frederik Mulder said...

Very interesting Jan!
It will be interesting to delve deeper into the realisation of the "solid organized church" which developed. Where and when did it actually begin? 110 AD or 150AD? Did Marcion play a role in it? Did the Christ events became reinterpreted to bolster church authority and when? I know Irenaeus used church authority for some of his arguments against Gnostics and Marcion. Tertullian in his On the Resurrection of the Flesh and Against Marcion Book V, did not really depend on church authority that much in his defence of bodily resurrection though. In fact, where Irenaeus did not discuss Rom 8:3 -(significant for a Docetic interpretation) in his Against Heresies, Tertullian took each and every contentious text and tried to argue from Scripture that Gnostic interpretations are not sustianable. He was ruthless at times though..

Will be nice to keep track of your research Jan!

Anonymous said...

Dear Frederick
From far away South Africa it is nice to follow your blog. In these times of so much one-sided theology in some influential church and theological circles in SA, your contributions are of great importance. We as mainstream theologians and church people, also in SA wish to support you in your endeavours. Best wishes. Prof JW(Hoffie) Hofmeyr(Emeritus Professor, Univ of Pretoria; Extrordinary Professor, Univ of the Free State and Ev Theol Faculty, Louvain, Belgium; Visiting Researcher, Liverpool Hope Univ, UK)