Catholic / Protestant Dialogue

The Early Church Was Catholic: Ignatius Of Antioch, Letter To The Smyrnaeans

Ignatius of Antioch personally knew (and learned from) the Apostle John.

Ignatius was born around 50 AD in Syria, and was martyred in Rome. He was Bishop of Antioch, in modern-day southern Turkey, just over the border from Syria.


Antioch, southern Turkey (Image source:, red circle added by

This is the 2nd post in a series showing that the early church was Catholic. In it, we look at Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Smyrnaeans. Smyrna is in modern-day Turkey, and is one of the seven churches Jesus addresses in the Book of Revelation, Chapters 2 & 3.

The Early Church Was Catholic

Over the past year, I (as a Protestant) was stunned to learn that the writings of the early church were Catholic. Once I started reading the early church writings, and seeing the Catholicism in them, it hit me like a ton of bricks that early church writings are almost never mentioned in Protestantism.  In Protestantism, a generous portion of Biblical interpretation by authors who wrote from the time of the Reformation in the 1500s to today, and who agree with Protestantism, is served from the pulpit. For nine years I never questioned, or even noticed, the Protestant pulpit’s lack of citations from authors who wrote in the infancy of Christianity, rather than 1500-2000 years after the fact.  

When I started reading these early writings, and seeing the Catholicism in them, it occurred to me that I had never heard these writings mentioned among the plethora of extra-biblical sources cited from Protestant pulpits, sources that include Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon, Bunyan, Billy Graham, Ravi Zacharias, Martin Lloyd Jones, C.S. Lewis, on and on, Godly men all, but all of whom lived relatively late, from 1500 AD onward. At once it hit me why Protestant pulpits do not mention the writings of the early church– the writings of the early church are Catholic. Absolutely shocking.

Deep In History

Diving deep into Christian history over the past year, I have converted back to the Catholic Church, the church I was baptized into as a baby, and raised in. I invite you all to examine the early centuries of Christianity. But beware– you might find (like I did) that if a modern-day Catholic and a modern-day Evangelical took a time machine back to the church launched by Jesus and the Apostles, the Catholic would feel right at home, and the Evangelical would feel very uncomfortable.

“To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” ~ John Henry Cardinal Newman

And now, Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Smyrnaeans. My comments showing what I believe to be the Catholicism in this letter are [in red in brackets]. Enjoy.

The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans


Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church of God the Father, and of the beloved Jesus Christ, which has through mercy obtained every kind of gift, which is filled with faith and love, and is deficient in no gift, most worthy of God, and adorned with holiness: the Church which is at Smyrna, in Asia, wishes abundance of happiness, through the immaculate Spirit and word of God.

Chapter 1. Thanks to God for your faith

I Glorify God, even Jesus Christ, who has given you such wisdom. For I have observed that you are perfected in an immoveable faith, as if you were nailed to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, both in the flesh and in the spirit, and are established in love through the blood of Christ, being fully persuaded with respect to our Lord, that He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, Romans 1:3 and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled Matthew 3:15 by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. Of this fruit we are by His divinely-blessed passion, that He might set up a standard Isaiah 5:26, Isaiah 49:22 for all ages, through His resurrection, to all His holy and faithful [followers], whether among Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of His Church.

Chapter 2. Christ’s true passion

Now, He suffered all these things for our sakes, that we might be saved. And He suffered truly, even as also He truly raised up Himself, not, as certain unbelievers maintain, that He only seemed to suffer, as they themselves only seem to be [Christians]. And as they believe, so shall it happen unto them, when they shall be divested of their bodies, and be mere evil spirits.

Chapter 3. Christ was possessed of a body after His resurrection

For I know that after His resurrection also He was still possessed of flesh, and I believe that He is so now. When, for instance, He came to those who were with Peter, He said to them, Lay hold, handle Me, and see that I am not an incorporeal spirit. And immediately they touched Him, and believed, being convinced both by His flesh and spirit. For this cause also they despised death, and were found its conquerors. And after his resurrection He ate and drank with them, as being possessed of flesh, although spiritually He was united to the Father.

Chapter 4. Beware of these heretics

I give you these instructions, beloved, assured that you also hold the same opinions [as I do]. But I guard you beforehand from those beasts in the shape of men, whom you must not only not receive, but, if it be possible, not even meet with; only you must pray to God for them, if by any means they may be brought to repentance, which, however, will be very difficult. Yet Jesus Christ, who is our true life, has the power of [effecting] this. But if these things were done by our Lord only in appearance, then am I also only in appearance bound. And why have I also surrendered myself to death, to fire, to the sword, to the wild beasts? But, [in fact,] he who is near to the sword is near to God; he that is among the wild beasts is in company with God; provided only he be so in the name of Jesus Christ. I undergo all these things that I may suffer together with Him, Romans 8:17 He who became a perfect man inwardly strengthening me. Philippians 4:13

Chapter 5. Their dangerous errors

Some ignorantly deny Him, or rather have been denied by Him, being the advocates of death rather than of the truth. These persons neither have the prophets persuaded, nor the law of Moses, nor the Gospel even to this day, nor the sufferings we have individually endured. For they think also the same thing regarding us. For what does any one profit me, if he commends me, but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that He was [truly] possessed of a body? But he who does not acknowledge this, has in fact altogether denied Him, being enveloped in death. I have not, however, thought good to write the names of such persons, inasmuch as they are unbelievers. Yea, far be it from me to make any mention of them, until they repent and return to [a true belief in] Christ’s passion, which is our resurrection.

Chapter 6. Unbelievers in the blood of Christ shall be condemned

Let no man deceive himself. Both the things which are in heaven, and the glorious angels, and rulers, both visible and invisible, if they believe not in the blood of Christ, shall, in consequence, incur condemnation. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it. Matthew 19:12 Let not [high] place puff any one up: for that which is worth all is faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred. But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty.

Chapter 7. Let us stand aloof from such heretics

They [heretics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ [Wow! I was taught for years in Protestantism that communion bread was not the flesh of Jesus Christ, and that it was merely symbolic. But here is Ignatius, who learned from the Apostle John, asserting that communion bread is the flesh of Jesus Christ, and that those who deny it are heretics! But we should not even need these words from Ignatius because we have the unambiguous words of Christ himself:

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.

For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. [Jesus said his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink. Jesus did not say his flesh was symbolic food and his blood was symbolic drink.] 

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.

John 6:53-56

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 you 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 [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils.

Chapter 8. Let nothing be done without the bishop

See that you all follow the bishop [The English word “bishop” is from the Greek New Testament word “episkope” (ep-is-kop-ay’), which appears in the New Testament in Luke 19:44, Acts 1:20, 1 Timothy 3:1, and 1 Peter 2:12.] even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery [The presbytery are the priests, also called “elders” in Protestant Bibles. The English word “priest” contracts the Greek word “presbyteros” from which is derived the Greek word “presbuterion” which appears in the New Testament in 1 Timothy 4:14– “Neglect not the grace that is in thee, which was given thee by prophesy, with imposition of the hands of the priesthood [presbuterion].” ~ 1 Timothy 4:14, Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition Bible.] as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons [The English word “deacons” is from the Greek words “diakonos” and “diakoneo” which appear collectively many times in the New Testament and correspond alternately among various Bible versions to the English words “deacon,” “minister,” and “servant.”], as being the institution of God. [Bishop above priest and priest above deacon is the chain of command in each Catholic parish to this day] Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it [To this day, Eucharist in a Catholic Church can be administered only by Ordinary Ministers of the Eucharist (the bishop, or a priest or deacon serving under the bishop), or by Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist (lay persons who receive special training, preparation, and approval to administer Eucharist when no bishop, priest, or deacon is available; or when the bishop, priest, or deacon is unable to administer Eucharist due to failing health; or when the congregation is so large that multiple people are necessary to administer the Eucharist so that the service is kept to a reasonable amount of time).

Contrast this careful scrutiny of who gets to touch communion bread in Catholic churches with how communion is handled in Evangelical churches. In Evangelical churches, anyone can hand out communion. In fact, often times a bowl full of crackers (instead of bread) is passed from person to person down each row until every person has a cracker. Each person who reaches into the bowl of crackers likely touches other crackers as they pick up the one they want. Many people may have touched your communion cracker by the time you eat it.

In the Catholic Church to this day, once the communion host is consecrated (transubstantiated into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ), no one but those pre-approved by the bishop may touch it to hand it to the person who will eat it.].

Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be [To this day, the main church in each Catholic diocese is the cathedral, the church to which the bishop of that diocese is assigned, and in which his chair resides.]; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church [Here is an appearance of the term “Catholic Church” in a document written around 100 AD. Popular belief in Protestant circles is that the Catholic Church was created by the Emperor Constantine in the 300s AD, or that it came into being in the Middle Ages or Medieval times, and that the earliest Christian church looked Protestant, not Catholic. This is a false premise that precious few Protestants (including pastors) ever verify. The earliest Christian writings show that the Catholic Church pre-dates Medieval times, the Middle Ages, and the reign of Constantine. Indeed, the Catholic Church pre-dates not only the reign of Constantine, but the birth of Constantine by at least 160 years!] It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.

Chapter 9. Honour the bishop

Moreover, it is in accordance with reason that we should return to soberness [of conduct], and, while yet we have opportunity, exercise repentance towards God. It is well to reverence both God and the bishop [Does your church have a bishop? If yes, is there an unbroken line of the laying on of hands from your bishop back to the Apostles? Catholics can answer “yes” to this question.] He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil [What does this say about Protestant churches? Before you get mad at me, I want to point out that for a decade in Protestantism, I regularly heard the Catholic Church referred to as a false church, and the pope referred to as the Antichrist, and Catholics referred to as not being saved. Protestants regularly attach Satanic labels to the Catholic Church, so what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and Protestants should not get hypocritically angry that non-Catholic churches can be referred to in the same terms, especially by someone (Ignatius) who learned from the Apostle John personally.]. Let all things, then, abound to you through grace, for you are worthy. You have refreshed me in all things, and Jesus Christ [shall refresh] you. You have loved me when absent as well as when present. May God recompense you, for whose sake, while you endure all things, you shall attain unto Him [Much of Protestantism believes “once saved, always saved,” a teaching which asserts that a person cannot lose their salvation after accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Catholicism does not teach “once saved, always saved.” The Bible tells us that to be saved, we must endure in our faith.  

And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved. ~ Matthew 24:12-13

And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end shall be saved. ~ Mark 13:13]

Chapter 10. Acknowledgment of their kindness

You have done well in receiving Philo and Rheus Agathopus as servants of Christ our God, who have followed me for the sake of God, and who give thanks to the Lord in your behalf, because you have in every way refreshed them. None of these things shall be lost to you. May my spirit be for you, and my bonds, which you have not despised or been ashamed of; nor shall Jesus Christ, our perfect hope, be ashamed of you.

Chapter 11. Request to them to send a messenger to Antioch

Your prayer has reached to the Church which is at Antioch in Syria. Coming from that place bound with chains, most acceptable to God, I salute all; I who am not worthy to be styled from thence, inasmuch as I am the least of them. Nevertheless, according to the will of God, I have been thought worthy [of this honour], not that I have any sense [of having deserved it], but by the grace of God, which I wish may be perfectly given to me, that through your prayers I may attain to God [Earlier, Ignatius mentioned the idea of attaining to God through endurance, and here he mentions attaining to God through the intercessory prayers of others. Protestantism teaches attaining to God through “Sola Fide” (faith alone). Catholics also believe faith is necessary for salvation, just not faith alone. In addition to endurance and the intercessory prayers of others mentioned by Ignatius as methods of attaining to God, let us not forget that in John 6:54 (shown earlier in this post), Jesus Christ himself says “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…”

So just in this short examination of the words of Ignatius (a disciple of the Apostle John), and the words of Jesus Christ himself, we see three components of salvation (endurance, intercessory prayer, and eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus) in addition to faith. To the person who mentions the thief on the cross as proof that faith is all that is needed, I ask you to check whether your hands are nailed to a cross. If so, belief is all you are capable of, and God knows that. But if your hands are not nailed to a cross literally (like the thief), or figuratively (like those living in Islamist or Leftist nations in which the Church is outlawed), the example of the thief does not apply to you.]. In order, therefore, that your work may be complete both on earth and in heaven, it is fitting that, for the honour of God, your Church should elect some worthy delegate; so that he, journeying into Syria, may congratulate them that they are [now] at peace, and are restored to their proper greatness, and that their proper constitution has been re-established among them. It seems then to me a becoming thing, that you should send some one of your number with an epistle, so that, in company with them, he may rejoice over the tranquility which, according to the will of God, they have obtained, and because that, through your prayers, they have now reached the harbour. As persons who are perfect, you should also aim at those things which are perfect. For when you are desirous to do well,God is also ready to assist you.

Chapter 12. Salutations

The love of the brethren at Troas salutes you; whence also I write to you by Burrhus, whom you sent with me, together with the Ephesians, your brethren, and who has in all things refreshed me. And I would that all may imitate him, as being a pattern of a minister of God. Grace will reward him in all things. I salute your most worthy bishop, and your very venerable presbytery, and your deacons, my fellow-servants, and all of you individually, as well as generally, in the name of Jesus Christ, and in His flesh and blood, in His passion and resurrection, both corporeal and spiritual, in union with God and you. Grace, mercy, peace, and patience, be with you for evermore!

Chapter 13. Conclusion

I salute the families of my brethren, with their wives and children, and the virgins who are called widows. Be strong, I pray, in the power of the Holy Ghost. Philo, who is with me, greets you. I salute the house of Tavias, and pray that it may be confirmed in faith and love, both corporeal and spiritual. I salute Alce, my well-beloved, and the incomparable Daphnus, and Eutecnus, and all by name. Fare well in the grace of God.

Source of The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans:

The Bible is always proven true.


St. Ignatius of Antioch devoured by lions at his martyrdom in Rome. (Image source: The Menologion of Basil II, via

5 replies »

  1. Tom, I recently heard a talk given by a former Presbyterian minister, Dr. Scott Hahn, that denying the true presence of Jesus Christ’s flesh and blood in the Eucharist is inasmuch the same as denying Christ was born of a virgin. Protestants as a whole accept the latter at face value because it is in the Bible, but for some reason reject the notion that communion is truly flesh & blood, despite Christ saying so in Scripture Himself.

    • Karen,

      That’s a great point by Hahn. From what I can gather, for the first 800 – 1000 years of Christianity (and back then, “Christianity” automatically meant the Catholic Church), those inside the Church unanimously asserted Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. Those that denied it always came from outside the Church, and were quickly and forcefully labeled heretics by those inside the Church (just as Ignatius did in his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans).

      Back then, it was the Catholic Church defending the virgin birth of Jesus, and it was the Catholic Church defending the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist– as it is today. I appreciate the fact that our Protestant brethren accept the virgin birth, but it’s unfortunate that they deny the Real Presence. To deny the Real Presence, one must step around the mountain of Biblical and historical support for it.

      The great missing link in Protestantism (in my opinion and experience) are those 1500 years between Jesus Christ and Martin Luther, especially the first 700 years after Christ. They are seldom if ever mentioned in Protestantism, yet to examine them is to see that the early church was Catholic.

      Thank you for bringing up Scott Hahn. I read his book “Rome Sweet Home,” and I am right now reading “The Lamb’s Supper.” He is a brilliant scholar and a zealous servant of Christ. I hear he wrote a book on how the New Testament books were chosen for inclusion in the Bible. I intend to read that one too.

      Thank you so much for your comment. Be encouraged and stay encouraged!

      Blessings, and thank you!

  2. Tom
    Great work on St. Ignatius. Many people who are not educated on the matter believe that it was Rome who made the Catholic Church. This is a great article about the early church!!! Blessing be upon you and your loved ones!!

  3. Efrain,

    I agree. Many Protestants believe a rumor about the Roman Emperor Constantine creating the Catholic Church. The writings of the earliest Christians refute this myth because these writings pre-date Constantine.

    Blessings be upon you and your loved ones too. Thank you as always for the encouragement. And please be encouraged too! Your zeal for, and level of knowledge of, the things of God are rare and commendable!


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