James White and Ignatius of Antioch

I’ve been wanting to post a rephrasing of an argument I once formulated on a Youtube video as a response to James White’s video series (actually a clip from the radio show The Dividing Line, as I recall) on Ignatius of Antioch and the Eucharist. Finally, here it is.

What’s the issue?

Catholic apologists often use a quote by st. Ignatius to defend or “prove” the real presence or “transubstantiation”. In it, Ignatius says that some heretics keep away from the Eucharist, because they don’t confess it is the flesh of Jesus Christ, which suffered for us on the cross and which was raised to glory by the Father.

James White is too well educated to take the common Protestant strategy of saying “if it’s not in the Bible…” White realizes Ignatius wrote very early (around AD 107) and was a representative of apostolic Christianity. White uses Ignatius against the Muslims when he wishes to show the early Christians believed in the divinity of Jesus (and he’s right: Ignatius calls Jesus “God” several times).

So what does White do? He accuses the Catholic apologists of taking Ignatius out of context, claiming that they never discuss the context, which is describing the Docetist heresy. The Docetists denied Jesus had a real body at all, so of course they would keep away from a meal that remembered and represented Jesus’ body! White also has a favorite Ignatius quote on the Eucharist, where Ignatius offers a very symbolic interpretation of the body and the blood.

Why White is wrong

I think White’s argument fails on several grounds. Most importantly, I have been aware of the context of the letter for a long time before White told me about it, having read all the apostolic fathers in my mother tongue. I think the context of Docetism makes the case all the more powerful for the Catholic understanding, because Ignatius says that the Eucharist is the very flesh the Docetists deny, the crucified and risen body!

The fact that Ignatius also uses symbolic language is not really an argument against the Catholic understanding, because the same is present both before and after Ignatius as well: in John 6, and in later Church Fathers. The body and blood are both deep in symbolism and really present in the Eucharist. Catholics wouldn’t wish to deny the rich symbolism.

In addition, White didn’t deal with the many other Eucharistic passages in Ignatius which strongly support the Catholic understanding: that the Eucharist is medicine for immortality, that we celebrate it on an altar, that Satan is conquered by frequent Eucharistic celebration…

Transubstantiation and consistency

The last point that needs to be made concerns transubstantiation. Yes, it is a concept based on Aristotelian philosophy, and the Apostles as well as Ignatius wouldn’t have been thinking in those categories. If some apologists carelessly say Ignatius “proves transubstantiation”, they should be instructed to present the matter in a more sophisticated way. (Ignatius bears witness to a reality of faith which was later explained using more precise philosophical terminology.)

This argument of White’s is the most destructive for his own apologetics against Islam, because he defends such philosophical concepts as homoousios and the distinction between hypostasis and ousia, which were categories equally unknown to the Jewish Apostles. As White explained in a recent debate on the Trinity, the Church had to (as it still has to) present the faith in the terms used by the culture it faced. Same thing here.

James White often asks for consistency from his (especially Islamic) opponents. The same could be asked of him in terms of the above argument. Either oppose the mixture of Greek philosophy with Christian dogmas altogether, or then stop arguing against transubstantiation. Furthermore: either stop using Ignatius of Antioch as a representative of orthodox Christianity, or stop arguing that the Catholic understanding of the Mass is a false Gospel.

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3 Comments on “James White and Ignatius of Antioch”

  1. Sam Says:

    Thanks Emil. I enjoy good rational thought. I particularly like the apologetic coherence of your 2nd-to-last paragraph regarding the strange aversion to developed ways of teaching the faith.

  2. Nick Says:

    I enjoyed this post a lot and agree with a lot of your arguments.

    I (also) never understood why White’s argument had any merit to begin with since clearly St Ignatius is emphasizing Christ’s real flesh. The argument is bogus: Ignatius wanted to emphasize the bread symbolized Christ had a real body. That neither fits the actual wording of Ignatius nor a good argument.

    Also, you make a good point about consistency. I believe you hit upon one of the most difficult problems for Protestants to answer: Which of the ECFs, if any, were genuine Christians? The Protestant hesitates to answer this question, since they will lose ground in opposing the title of “Christian” for Catholics.

  3. pointvicente Says:

    Once I became aware of St Ignatius’s writings I really struggled to understand why Protestants embraced a symbolic view of the Eucharist. I am sure there are other clever Protestants besides White that try to explain away from a different angle but I haven’t heard of any as of late. What are other popular Protestant views regarding St Ignatius?


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