One of the things I gained as I entered into Orthodox Christianity is a fuller sense of the history of the Christian church. As a Protestant, I considered the 14 centuries between the 1st century church of Acts, and then Luther’s reformation in the 16th century as something of a black hole,where nothing of significance happened. In hindsight, this point of view was absurd. Christ declared of the church he built, that the “gates of hell shall not prevail against it”- how could it just die for 1400 years to be revived by Luther? And to ignore this period of history, the transition between the time of Acts and our time, ignores an age when the Christian faith was spreading like wildfire despite intense persecution, ignores the works and sacrifices of many righteous martyrs, and ignores some of the most profound and influential theological writings.
Bearing God: The life and works of St. Ignatius of Antioch was written by Father Andrew Stephen Damick, a prominent Orthodox Christian author and an American priest under the Antiochian tradition. For Father Damick, learning of this “lost history” of the Christian church was the impetus for him discovering the Orthodox Christian faith. The epistles written by St. Ignatius of Antioch were especially significant for him, for reasons he explains in great detail in this preview of the book.
St. Ignatius was a prominent figure in the early Christian church in the 1st and early 2nd centuries. He was bishop of Antioch and a disciple of the Apostle John. Father Damick’s book discusses several letters St. Ignatius wrote to the churches of his time, as he was being taken to Rome to die for his faith (the texts of the letters can be found here). As someone brought up in the faith by Jesus’ disciples, St. Ignatius serves as a bridge between the church of Acts and our church today.
Father Damick writes his book not as a historical or theological treatise, rather, he discusses the letters of St. Ignatius in a pastoral, devotional manner- very focused on what these letters say about how we should live our lives today. The book is a very easy read: I finished the whole thing in a few hours. The source material, the epistles of St. Ignatius, are also very short and easy to understand.
The main themes of St. Ignatius’ letters are that of sacrifice and of community. St. Ignatius was condemned to die in faith, and he wrote these letters when as he was taken from Syria to Rome for his execution. We see how much St. Ignatius is looking forward to his martyrdom, and Father Damick explains masterfully how this ties in to Ignatius’ theology, and how even for us in modern times the attitude and practice of self-sacrifice is essential in our Christian faith.
The letters also explain at length how St. Ignatius saw the church, and how important Christian unity was to him. He writes at length about the role of the bishop, and how important it was for Christians to respect their city’s bishop, and to be united under his leadership. Father Damick emphasizes how the individualism of our day contrasts with St. Ignatius’ description of the 1st-century church.
There have been so many movements in Christianity seeking to re-establish the 1st Century Christian church- and so much ink spent on speculating what that Acts church to be like. St. Ignatius is uniquely positioned in this regard. To best understand how the church of the Apostles worked, it makes sense to consult someone who grew up in the first century, under the direct guidance of the Apostles. We see that the church that emerges from St. Ignatius’ letters it not very different from the Orthodox church today.