Ignatius and Papal Succession

Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35-ca. 107), one of the so-called “Apostolic Fathers,” is important for our understanding of the shape of early Christian practice. It is said that he was a disciple of the apostle John and thus shares in the “living memory” of our Saviour. Ignatius’ seven letters written on the way to certain death in Rome open a window onto the first century’s view of martyrdom and church governance. On this last matter he also offers a surprise.

Papal succession is a Roman Catholic teaching, based upon Matthew 16:18, that Peter is the first pope and his lineal successors through history occupy his chair of papal authority. This doctrine involves the argument for a traceable organic line of popes. In the case of Ignatius, however, Roman Catholics are posed with a problem.

Enchained by the state, Ignatius was brought by ten soldiers to Rome to face execution. Along the way he wrote six letters to various churches and one to the famed Polycarp (ca. 69-ca. 155), bishop of Smyrna. In five of his letters directed to specific churches—to Tralles, Magnesia, Ephesus, Philadelphi, Smyrna—he formally addressed the bishop of the church and admonished the congregation theologically and practically. The purpose of his letter to the church in Rome, however, was specific. Ignatius feared that if somehow the church managed to free him from his fate that it would be a blow to the Christian cause; martyrdom for him was an important apologetic. His plea to Rome was that they would not intervene. He did not know this church personally, thus there is a formality to the letter that is not evident in the others, but his plea is impassioned.

What is curious about the epistle to Rome is its absence of any address to her bishop. This is important for three reasons: first, it breaks from the convention that Ignatius follows in his other five letters; second, for such a formal letter, a failure to address the bishop is out of order; third, and most importantly, it would further Ignatius’ desire to be martyred to appeal to the authority of Rome’s bishop to keep politically influential congregants from preventing his death.

There are a number of possible reasons why Ignatius did not address the bishop of Rome, but the one favoured by a significant number of recent scholars is that there was no bishop in Rome at that time. This answer puts Ignatius in the best possible light—other unlikely answers require that he either forgot to mention the bishop, that the two were at odds personally, or that he was ignorant of who the bishop was.

For the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal succession, Ignatius’ letter to Rome thus poses a challenge. If there was no bishop in Rome at the time then there is no historic link back to Peter. Thus, from the earliest days of the church there is a gaping link in the chain of succession that weakens the doctrine. While we cannot be absolutely sure whether there was a bishop in Rome or not, there is strong reason to doubt it. Roman Catholics may not abandon papal succession for this one problem, but it should put serious doubts into their mind about the notion as a whole.

Originally posted on July 18, 2011 at the Sola Scriptura Ministries blog.