St. Ignatius of Antioch and the Eucharist

Today’s the feast day of St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of my favorite Early Church Fathers.  He was a student of the Apostle John, and served as Bishop of Antioch, one of the hubs of early Christianity.

He was also one of the Eucharistic martyrs, along with St. Paul.  On his way to martyrdom, Paul described himself as being poured as a libation (sacrificial drink offering) for the Lord (2 Timothy 4:6).  In comparison, when Ignatius was on the way to martyrdom (to be eaten alive by wild animals), he famously wrote, β€œI am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”

This wasn’t a one-off comment.  Ignatius is probably the clearest of all of the very early Church Fathers in explaining the Physical Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Describing the Eucharist as β€œthe medicine of immortality,” it was Ignatius who condemned the Gnostics for denying the Real Presence, saying:

They [the Gnostics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat It with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that ye should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the Passion has been revealed to us, and the Resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils.
That’s a ringing endorsement of the Real Presence.  And not a vague spiritual Real Presence, but the Real Presence of the same Flesh of Christ that died on the Cross and was glorified in the Resurrection.  And he could scarcely be more grave about the consequences of denying this Real Presence.   In fact, Ignatius’ writings are so Catholic that John Calvin said this of them:

With regard to what they pretend as to Ignatius, if they would have it to be of the least importance, let them prove that the apostles enacted laws concerning Lent, and other corruptions. Nothing can be more nauseating, than the absurdities which have been published under the name of Ignatius; and therefore, the conduct of those who provide themselves with such masks for deception is the less entitled to toleration.

Calvin, it turns out, was wrong.  Ignatius’ writings are real, not some forgery.  And Ignatius wrote all of those incredibly Catholic epistles sometime prior to his death in 107-110 A.D. He was so close to the Apostles that he could tell you what they smelled like … literally.  So you’ve heard it from the mouth of a Reformer. Ignatius of Antioch is nauseatingly Catholic. If you want to be like the students of the Apostles, you should be nauseatingly Catholic, too.

Update: Fr. Erlenbush talks about one of Ignatius’ other central messages: the authority of bishops.  It dovetails nicely with what I just wrote.


  1. “Calvin, it turns out, w[as] wrong. Ignatius’ writings are real, not some forgery.”

    I’m curious: What is the evidence for this claim? Isn’t this still disputed? Or has there been some knock-down evidence of their genuineness since Calvin’s time?

  2. HocCogitat,

    Lightfoot’s work back in the 19th century put this question to bed. Today, only a fringe continue to deny the authenticity of the seven Ignatian letters.

    This is true regardless of one’s religious affiliation. For example, see (Anglican) Fr. Allen Brent’s Ignatius Of Antioch, in which he wrote:

    “If a forger, in other words, had been at work in the production of the middle recension [the seven commonly accepted epistles], then what he has produced would have been done with the ingenuity of a Conan Doyle specializing in false leads and loose ends in his weaving of the narrative of his detective stories.”

    A good draft of a historiography on the subject can be found here. So while there are still some folks who deny the authenticity, they’re a minority, and they’re mistaken.

    God bless,


  3. Hi Joe!

    You’re free to delete the comment after reading. I have a question and I don’t know how else to contact you.

    I’m wondering (actually my Protestant girlfriend was wondering) why Catholic children are allowed to receive Holy Communion, but not unconfirmed (but baptised) adults who fully agree with and submit to the doctrine of transubstantiation but are not yet confirmed (unless of course in the case of immenent death).

    Why is no intellectual assent required in the former, but absolutely necessary (but not enough) in the latter? Obviously I’m not suggesting that the Sacrament should be withheld from children (heaven forbid!), but I’m curious as to the logic behind this reasoning.

    Peace be with you

    1. There are three requirements to receive Holy Communion. 1) believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, 2) Be free of mortal Sin and the third and reason your girlfriend may not receive communion yet. is 3) You much be a Catholic, an official member (confirmed, baptized if the sacrament wasn’t previously performed) by the Bishop or a Priest the Bishop has given permission to perform the Confirmation). Often today many adults have participated in behaviour which would be considered mortal sin and require confession prior to receiving communion.

      The Children are Catholic and when they reach the age of reason around 7 or 8 they are instructed and prepared for Confession and then the Eucharist.

      I pray your girlfriend is being prepared to join us in full communion so that she may join us at the Lord’s Supper.

  4. You’ll have no truck with these skeptics! All right, sounds good. Sometimes you have to stop letting people pretend like terrible arguments are good arguments and move on with your life. Looks like liberal Anglican Allen Brent (Ignatius Of Antioch (New York, New York: T & T Clark International, 2009)) is on your side, too.

  5. Georg,

    She’s asking the right questions, for sure! I’d have to do a bit of research to say for sure, but my hunch is this:

    Catholic kids are Baptized into the Catholic Church both spiritually and juridically. Baptized Protestants are only spiritually Catholic, which is they’re not bound by all sorts of internal Church rules (St. Paul seemingly alludes to this distinction in 1 Cor. 5:12-13).

    Communion celebrates and creates both our spiritual union and our juridical union. As the Catechism puts it: “The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being” (CCC 1325). Catholic children are fully within the Catholic Church, unlike those who are outside the juridical bounds of the Catholic Church.

    In particular, the Eucharist is inseparable from Holy Orders. You can’t have one without the other. So if someone were to accept the Eucharist, and thus, Holy Orders and Apostolic Succession, the appropriate solution would be entry into the Catholic Church. In a similar vein, the children in question are in the fullest communion possible for them, but the Protestant adult is not.

    The situation is a bit more complex than this (groups like the Orthodox, who possess Apostolic Succession, are extended the Eucharist, even though the union is imperfect: again, Holy Orders and the Eucharist are inseparable).

    This is also part of a larger question about the appropriate practice of Confirmation. The Catechism assumes that kids are confirmed prior to First Communion (see CCC 1322), but this isn’t the norm in the United States.

    Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, North Dakota has pushed for restoring the traditional order (Baptism, Confirmation, then First Communion), all by third grade.

    He argues that the way we’re doing things now has “muddied the primacy of the Eucharist as the completion of initiation into the Church and the life-long nourishment of the relationship established with the Trinity and the Church in the sacraments of baptism and confirmation.”

    I haven’t studied the issue in any great depth, but that seems like one solution to the problem your girlfriend cited.

    In Christ,


    P.S. HocCogitat, glad we agree!

  6. We need to make a difference between the Gnostic communities of the early church and gnostic tendencies within the church today. The Gnostic communities would not ascribe to the Nicene Creed or Apostles’ Creed. There is an opportunity to slide into gnostic tendencies. I remember reading a book a few years ago on the influence of gnostic tendencies in the American Christian churches today, which you may find interesting because the author really went to town on some of the Baptist and Pentecostal churches. We can easily be lulled into heretical ideas, which is why I like this blog entry. I have not thought about Gnosticism and communion, but there is clearly a link. If one denies the incarnation as the Gnostics did, then the real presence would be a problem to say the least. Interesting post.

    Since you brought up Holy Orders and Apostolic Succession in your last comment, what do you make of the Lutheran (ELCA) church being able to trace Apostolic Succession through the Swedish Bishops?

  7. Georg,

    I apologize if this is unnecessary, but I want to give you my two cents as well. I have prepared children to receive Holy Comunion and I can tell you from experience that saying that children don’t have “intellectual assent” is incorrect. While they may not understand the fullness of what they are being prepared for (by the way, who understands it in full?) they do understand enough. When you’re preparing children for their first communion, there are very specific basics that you must cover and make sure they understand, even to the point of not allowing a child to receive communion if you truly believe they are not ready.

    I know this is hard to believe, but I invite you to attend some of the classes and I assure you, you will be amazed by how much they understand and by how much they accept on faith when they cannot understand it. Some of the best memories I have in my life are from those kids that didn’t get the Trinity, but believed that what I was saying was true. That did not understand transubstantiation, but still were nervous and excited to receive their God for the first time, because they truly believed a piece of bread was their God.

    Again, I know it’s hard to believe they can understand so much, but to deny it would be to put a barrier to the Holy Spirit, who can inspire all, regardless of age.

    I wish you and your girlfriend the best.

  8. Thank you for taking the time and responding so quickly Joe!

    I especially like the solution to the “problem” proposed by Bp. Aquila. It makes a lot more sense. If I’m not mistaken the Eastern Churches do baptism and confirmation in one go? I always thought that the better option.

    Thanks again. I regularly refer my girlfriend to this blog. It’s the best apologetics site I’ve visited so far (and it’s helped me answer many questions I’ve been struggling with myself!). Keep up the great work!

    God bless

    PS I’m getting Confirmed this Sunday! Just thought I’d share it with completely random strangers πŸ™‚

  9. @Grimaud,

    Thank you for your response as well. I completely agree with you that children can and usually do give intellectual assent.

    I was under the impression however that this did not have to be explicitly present. But from your post I gather that since Communion can be refused to children, this is not the case. Thank you for clearing it up.

    God bless!

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