Timothy F. Kauffman was raised Catholic, converted to Protestantism in 1990, and is now a Presbyterian (PCA). He has written, “I was saved out of Roman Catholicism, and into Christianity, . . . Roman Catholicism was out of accord with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Timothy is author of the books, Quite Contrary: Biblical Reconsiderations of the Apparitions of Mary (1994), Graven Bread: The Papacy, the Apparitions of Mary, and the Worship of the Bread of the Altar (1995), and is co-author with Robert M. Zins, of A Gospel Contrary!: A Study of Roman Catholic Abuse of History and Scripture to Propagate Error (April 24, 2023). He has been blogging about theology and Catholicism since 2014. His words will be in blue; those of St. Ignatius of Antioch in green.
I will be responding to an article of Timothy’s about St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 50 – c. 110): specifically the portion regarding his view of bishops, and how this relates to his alleged acceptance of sola Scriptura. I’ll be addressing the section of his article where he critiques the following Catholic opinion: Authority in the Church is exercised by bishops who are successors of the Apostles (apostolic succession).
The issue of authority is directly related to the question of the rule of faith: what is the Christian’s authority? What is infallible authority and what is not? What is the nature of this authority? Sola Scriptura (as classically defined by Protestants) means that Scripture is the only final infallible norm and source and standard (rule of faith) for Christian doctrine and faith. It follows from this, that neither the Church, nor ecumenical councils, nor popes, nor bishops, nor sacred, apostolic tradition, nor apostolic succession are infallible sources of authority.
Even if we find a quote where a Church father seems (at first glance) to be stating something akin to sola Scriptura (since he is writing about the Bible without immediate reference to Church or tradition), we must examine what he believes about the (binding?, infallible?) authority of tradition, the Church (including ecumenical councils and bishops), and apostolic succession, because the rule of faith has to do with the relation of all those things (all but Scripture being non-infallible, according to sola Scriptura).
With this in mind, we proceed to determine what St. Ignatius of Antioch believed about bishops, and how it relates to sola Scriptura, and the opposing Catholic rule of faith (Bible-Tradition-Church all being infallible).
Timothy sets the historical context of St. Ignatius’ letters:
At the time of Ignatius’ letters, the Gnostic Apocalypse of Peter had been circulating in Asia Minor. In addition to its claim that Jesus did not have a physical body, it also claimed that “bishops” and “deacons” had not really received their authority from God, . . . Such teaching was not only dangerous. It was unbiblical. The bishops and deacons had indeed received their authority legitimately, as the Scriptures plainly attest (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1-5). The sheep were not to heed such ungodly gnostic instruction, and were by no means to attempt to rebel against godly church officers. To that end, Ignatius instructed the flocks of Asia Minor to submit to their elders who had indeed received their authority from God.
This is how he interprets St. Ignatius’ many statements about bishops. The high authority that Ignatius gives to bishops is directly caused by a polemical and apologetical intent against the Gnostics. Timothy cites Ignatius to bolster his hypothesis (all bolding and italics his own):
Was the bishop too quiet? He ought to be revered for his silence, “for we ought to receive every one whom the Master of the house sends to be over His household” (to the Ephesians 6). Was the bishop too young? The flock ought not “treat your bishop too familiarly on account of his youth” yielding “all reverence, having respect to the power of God the Father” (to the Magnesians, 3). In fact, this theme emerges constantly in his letters, as he attempts to correct the gnostic teaching that “bishops” and “deacons” were not appointed by God. How should Ignatius respond to such a threat? Simple: remind the sheep that “bishops” and “deacons” were appointed by God. The following quotes are only a sample of this:
“It is therefore befitting that you should in every way glorify Jesus Christ, who has glorified you, that … and that, being subject to the bishop and the presbytery, you may in all respects be sanctified.” (to the Ephesians 2)
“… with your most admirable bishop, and the well-compacted spiritual crown of your presbytery, and the deacons who are according to God.” (to the Magnesians 13)
“… reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles.” (to the Trallians 3)
“I salute in the blood of Jesus Christ, who is our eternal and enduring joy, especially if [men] are in unity with the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons, who have been appointed according to the mind of Jesus Christ.” (to the Philadelphians greeting)
“… follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God” (to the Smyrnæans 8)
“Give heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. My soul be for theirs that are submissive to the bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons, and may my portion be along with them in God!” (to Polycarp, 6)
This is all fine and dandy. Catholics don’t have the slightest beef with this line of argument or the fact that St. Ignatius thought in such a way. It’s perfectly harmonious with our outlook and our ecclesiology.
But it’s all beside the point of the Catholic-Protestant discussion of authority. The question at hand, between us, is not whether bishops had authority and should be obeyed (of course they did and should have been). Rather, the question is whether Ignatius attributes infallibility to bishops. If he does so, he can’t possibly believe in sola Scriptura, by definition. And if he denies that, then he thinks like a Catholic regarding authority, not like a Protestant.
Timothy proved his case well with citations. Now I shall attempt to demonstrate that St. Ignatius attributed an authority — ostensibly infallible — to bishops that is anathema to Protestantism and sola Scriptura. Luther rebelled against the Church in part to get away from such compulsory authority. St. Ignatius wrote:
Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God. (Epistle to the Ephesians, ch. 5)
[W]e should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself. (Epistle to the Ephesians, ch. 6)
[O]bey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind . . . (Epistle to the Ephesians, ch. 20)
I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, . . . be united with your bishop, and those that preside over you, . . . (Epistle to the Magnesians, ch. 6)
Be subject to the bishop, and to one another, as Jesus Christ to the Father, . . . (Epistle to the Magnesians, ch. 13)
[Y]ou are subject to the bishop as to Jesus Christ, . . . (Epistle to the Trallians, ch. 2)
[L]et all reverence . . . the bishop as Jesus Christ, . . . (Epistle to the Trallians, ch. 3)
[T]his will be the case with you if you are not puffed up, and continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ our God, and the bishop, . . . (Epistle to the Trallians, ch. 7)
[C]ontinue subject to the bishop, as to the command [of God] . . . (Epistle to the Trallians, ch. 13)
For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. . . . If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Epistle to the Philadelphians, ch. 3)
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, . . . (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, ch. 8)
That sounds profoundly authoritative to me! It sounds like it very well could have been intended as teaching episcopal infallibility. Ignatius clearly didn’t think a Christian was allowed to disagree with his or her bishop. Submitting to them was the equivalent of being subject to “God” or “the Lord” Himself. It had to be a pure, “undivided” submission, indeed like that of Jesus “to the Father” (absolute 100% agreement and complete oneness).
That in no way is consistent with sola Scriptura, which holds that only the Bible is infallible, and therefore, that the Christian individual, Bible in hand, can correct bishops and dissent from them as necessary, according to their private judgment and consciences. Ignatius (like Jesus and Paul) would have been given a dunce cap to wear at a Protestant seminary, before he flunked out altogether, as a biblically ignorant troublemaker.
Ignatius’ conception of the authority of bishops was not John Calvin’s. A brief examination and critique of Calvin’s views might be helpful at this juncture. Calvin wanted to emphasize God’s sovereignty, which is good, but seems to repeatedly deny it when it comes to examining how God leads men for His sovereign purposes.
This approach even defeats the purpose and utility of Calvin’s own book, Institutes of the Christian Religion, if the next Christian can simply say, “that’s just Calvin’s opinion. What does it have to do with me? It undermines my confidence in Christ to determine my own doctrines; therefore, I reject it as irrelevant. I have the Holy Spirit, and my Bible. Who needs Calvin?” If a person’s “argument” undermines the very words he is writing, then we must step back and examine the faulty premises.
Folks who are equally led by the Spirit do in fact arrive at different interpretations of Scripture. Authoritative dogma and boundaries are always required, for that reason. God knew this, which is why He set up an authoritative teaching Church, not a system of individualistic subjectivism: itself far more a secular Enlightenment or Romantic or eastern religious concept than a biblical one. Calvin stated:
Men of sense see how great the danger is if so much authority is once conceded to men. They see also how wide a door is opened for the jeers and cavils of the ungodly, if we admit that Christians are to receive the opinions of men as if they were oracles. (Institutes, IV, 8:15)
Here again is the hostility to the idea of God using sinners as His instruments, for His purposes. Calvin doesn’t have faith enough to believe that God could do that. Every writer of Scripture was an oracle because he wrote inspired words. If one can believe in that miracle, as Calvin does, the gift of infallibility requires less faith. Yet he rejects the latter, as it it were at all impossible for God to accomplish, or something He likely
wouldn’t do. Apostles already spoke with extraordinary authority. Why not the Church?
Why should we take the opinion of the individual layperson over the opinion of the bishop? Why should we, moreover, assume that a lone individual has a superior interpretation of Scripture and theological tradition, over against an assembly of many learned bishops (that is, an ecumenical council)? Or if a group today (some dreaded committee of some denomination) decides to overrule Nicaea or Chalcedon, etc., why should we accept their corporate dogmatic authority more than Nicaea’s or Chalcedon’s (or Pope Leo the Great’s)?
We see, then, that this thinking is arbitrary at every turn, and it always, inevitably logically reduces to radical individualism and doctrinal relativism, when one rejects the traditional understanding of Christian authority. It breaks down as soon as a few penetrating questions are asked. Calvin stands as a judge over bishops and councils, which declare that such-and-such a doctrine is biblical and true; Calvin says otherwise. So now we are supposed to bow and accept his authority as God’s Oracle? He can’t be infallible because it contradicts sola Scriptura. Therefore, he can be dissented against. Yet he complains about the popes having too much theological pull and power and say?
I have long argued that a guy like John Calvin, or even one’s local pastor, has far more direct influence over the Protestant individual’s day-to-day Christian life than popes have over Catholics’ lives.
But Timothy continues:
[W]e can say plainly that Ignatius did not believe that lay Christians must be under the authority of a successor to the Apostles. . . .
And Ignatius . . . was very much aware of that problem: Apostolic succession was not a reliable metric of truth.
To the contrary, Ignatius placed even the presbyters on the level of the apostles and their authority:
[Y]our presbyters [preside] in the place of the assembly of the apostles . . . (Epistle to the Magnesians, ch. 6)
[Y]ou . . . should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the apostle of Jesus Christ, . . . (Epistle to the Trallians, ch. 2)
[L]et all reverence . . . the presbyters as the . . . assembly of the apostles. (Epistle to the Trallians, ch. 3)
See that you all follow . . . the presbytery as you would the apostles; . . . (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, ch. 8)
They were to submit to the officers of the church if the bishops and deacons were faithful to the Scriptures, and if they were not faithful to the Scriptures, the Ephesians were not obligated to submit to them.
Timothy doesn’t adequately document where Ignatius supposedly taught this. He seems not to have addressed or considered a conundrum or scenario where a bishop teaches something clearly false (thus, he may possibly have thought that they were indefectible in doctrine, like Catholics believe is the case with popes). This goes beyond, by the way, the Catholic view of bishops, whereby they are only corporately infallible under certain specified circumstances in ecumenical councils, and only when the pope is in agreement. Likewise, Paul doesn’t qualify his teaching in Romans 13 about the secular authorities:
Romans 13:1-7 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,  for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.  For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.  Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.
Peter writes similarly:
1 Peter 2:17-18 Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.  Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the kind and gentle but also to the overbearing.
Bishops are certainly the “masters” of Christians. Elsewhere, however, Peter recognized the necessity of dissent in some situations:
Acts 5:27-29 . . . And the high priest questioned them,  saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”  But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
Perhaps it could be argued that that was the Jewish high priest, and he was telling them not to preach the gospel, which was unacceptable, and that the high priest was no longer the “master” of Christians, as the bishop would be, or even a secular emperor.
I don’t recall seeing in Scripture (I could be wrong), an admonition to dissent from a bishop who was teaching false doctrine. 1 Peter 2:18 (above) seems to suggest the contrary. And when St. Paul refers to “fierce wolves” who “will come in among you, not sparing the flock; . . . speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30), the implication is that they never had legitimate authority in the first place, and are counterfeit authorities, in line with what he writes elsewhere: “people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4), and in a way similar to what St. John expresses: “many antichrists have come; . . . They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us ” (1 Jn 2:18-19).
As far as I can tell, St. Ignatius thought very much like a Catholic does about ecclesiastical authority, and not at all like a Protestant: based on my argumentation above and also because it’s vastly different to adhere to the Catholic and biblical idea that infallibility is generally or potentially present in the Church (1 Tim 3:15) or bishops (Acts 15:28-29 and 16:4) or tradition (1 Cor 11:2; 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6) or apostolic succession, even if it is understood (and Catholics agree) that there are extraordinary times — rare exceptions to the rule — of permissible dissent.
The above is antithetical to the unbiblical notion and false tradition of sola Scriptura, where none of those authorities can ever be infallible and that only Scripture is infallible; therefore dissent would be a much more routine event, seeing that what is dissented against has no inherent infallibility or potential infallibility in the first place, and in the final analysis is reduced to merely optional, or “non-binding advisory”: subject to any individual believer’s de facto self-proclaimed infallibility in interpreting Scripture (in order to judge and reject ecclesiastical authority). This is the ecclesial chaos and doctrinal relativism and logical irrationality that was tragically unleashed by the Protestant Revolt.
If those two scenarios are the alternative choices (Catholic vs. Protestant ecclesiology), then St. Ignatius (along with the Church fathers en masse) is clearly in the first camp, and Timothy’s and the Protestant argument regarding what he believed about authority fails.
Photo credit: my book, Catholic Church Fathers: Patristic and Scholarly Proofs (Nov. 2007 / rev. Aug. 2013,); follow the link for much more information and samples.
Summary: Reply to Presbyterian apologist Timothy Kauffman on St. Ignatius of Antioch’s views of bishops, and whether he agrees with the Protestant “pillar,” sola Scriptura.