In the summer of A.D. 113, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch was chained to a detachment of ten imperial soldiers and led on a trek of some 1,500 miles from his episcopal see in Syria westward to Rome, where he was to be thrown to the lions. As the entourage crossed Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Ignatius was allowed to meet with the leaders of several local churches and to write a series of letters. Seven of these letters survive, and they are among the earliest Christian documents after the books of the New Testament.
Though Ignatius’s letters are relatively short (the entire collection being only about the length of Mark’s Gospel), they reflect a profound understanding of God’s plan of redemption. Evidently, Ignatius had studied the Gospels of Matthew and John as well as several of Paul’s letters and had pondered the mystery of Christ in light of these documents and with the help of the Holy Spirit. “I think about many things in God,” he writes. In an engaging and aphoristic style, he combines the universal truth of the gospel with a deeply personal love for Jesus Christ: “Him I seek, who died on our behalf; him I want, who rose for us.” He also expresses pastoral wisdom and remarkable insight into the spiritual life: “We lack many things, in order that we may not lack God.”
Dr. Gregory Vall, associate professor of theology at Ave Maria University since 2004, has devoted the past four years to studying the seven letters of Ignatius of Antioch in their original Greek. His book, Learning Christ: Ignatius of Antioch and the Mystery of Redemption, will be published by Catholic University of America Press in 2013, the nineteen-hundredth anniversary of Ignatius’s martyrdom. Vall argues that Ignatius represents a vital link between the New Testament and the Church Fathers in the history of Christian thought.
One glimpses the importance of Ignatius’s contribution to Catholic theology by observing how many basic expressions make their first appearance in his letters. He is the first to speak of “Christianity,” the “apostolic” faith, and “the Catholic Church.” He combines the biblical titles “Son of Man and Son of God” as a shorthand way of referring to the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, a usage that will become commonplace among the Church Fathers. Ignatius is also the first to refer to the Lord’s “passion” and the first to affirm that God has “revealed himself” in Christ. Ignatius explicitly identifies the Eucharist as “the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ,” and he stresses the crucial role of the Virgin Mary in God’s plan of redemption.
The letters of Ignatius of Antioch remain a source of insight and inspiration for believers in every age. Dr. Vall’s effort to explain their importance, both in the classroom and in his scholarly publications, is characteristic of the deep respect that Ave Maria faculty members have for the Catholic Church’s rich tradition.