[K:JNWTS 26/2 (2011): 60-63]

Book Review

Thomas A. Robinson, Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways: Early Jewish-Christian Relations. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009. 285pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-1-59856-323-8. $27.99.

In 1988, Thomas Robinson released The Bauer Thesis Examined: The Geography of Heresy in the Early Christian Church. The Bauer involved was Walter Bauer, more famous for his contribution to BAG (Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature [1957]). In that book, Robinson was focusing on the infamous Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzeri im ältesten Christentum (1934)—English translation Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1971). In fine, Robinson undressed Bauer's blatant revisionist thesis which itself created a paradigm shift in NT and patristic studies, namely the so-called 'trajectory' theory that claimed that orthodox Christianity was the result of the triumph of Christian power groups who succeeded in suppressing other nascent Christian communities with the charge of 'heresy'. Thus, orthodoxy in the early church was just the name for the supremacists and triumphalists, i.e., those whose greater clout and power squashed the primitive Christian diversity movement. If this sounds like a post-modernist crock, Bauer was in truth a John the Baptist to the issue. According to Bauer, there never was any such thing as Christian orthodoxy—not in the apostolic period, not in the 2nd century, not until the iron fist of Constantine, Athanasius and Nicaea. Christianity of the first three hundred years was a primeval ooze, teeming with fertile and pregnant diversities, each of which was unique, credible and worthy of the name of the inspiration which spawned this religious multi-culturalism—Christ-ians (Marcionite Christ-ians in Mesopotamia; Gnostic Christ-ians in Asia Minor; Ebionite Christ-ians in Palestine, etc.). Sadly, come the alliance of the dominant ecclesiastical personalities with the imperial personality, all minority fecundity was still-born or worse—brutally aborted.

On this theory of the evolution of Christianity, heresy preceded orthodoxy (or so Bauer argued). Out of the primal sludge of unChristianity emerged Christianity. After all, religion is just like amoebas, euglenas, paramecia (protozoan → metazoan): less complex evolves to more complex. So Bauer transposed the Darwinian transformation of species into transformation of heresy. Neat! On the ever progressive development of the species Christianus, haeriticus heterodoxus becomes triumphalis orthodoxus (with, of course, a little nudge from the political ecosystem known as Constantinus). And in truly evolutionary and progressive fashion, even today 'orthodoxy' continues to develop to higher and more enlightened politically correct, multi-cultural and unbiblical revisionisms (the modern application of the ancient paradigm).

Bauer's thesis raged like an epiphany through the halls of the academy. Finally, a convenient theory to explain how nasty so-called orthodox Christianity was. For those seeking yet one more modernist deconstruction of historic Biblical Christianity (such as Rudolf Bultmann, Helmut Koester, James M. Robinson, James D. G. Dunn, Elaine Pagels), Bauer was a God-send. Just what the unorthodox doctor ordered. A prescription that would poison orthodoxy once and for all.

Robinson picked Bauer apart piece by piece until his theory was in shambles. And the key to Robinson's deconstruction of Walter Bauer?—primary documents. Carefully sifting the sources of the first three Christian centuries, Robinson demonstrated that Christian heresy was just that—a departure from the well established and accepted Christian orthodoxy—itself derived from Christ Jesus himself, the NT apostles and their writings.

With the present volume under review, Robinson now lays his ax to the root of yet more absurd revisionism—this time as it relates to Antioch (where believers in the bodily resurrection of Christ were first called "Christians", Acts 11:26) and her early 2nd century bishop, Ignatius. Once again playing the role of the ornery contrarian, Robinson ventures into the fray to slay the agenda-mongers hip and thigh. And just what is the nature of this fray? Without the jargon of obfuscation so typical of so-called scholarly and academic discussions, the battle is over whether or not Christianity is distinct from Judaism or whether they are joint religious varieties of multi-cultural Semitism made ever more religiously syncretistic and correct by Greco-Roman mythopoeism. In other words, much current asinine 'scholarship' rejects the terms "Judaism" and "Christianity" because these two groups show religious similarities, not theological dissimilarities. Thus, if Ignatius in his primary document epistles does assert dissimilarities between Judaism and Christianity (in fact, asserts that Christianity replaces Judaism and Judaism is a distinct and separate religion), our modern effete 'scholars' will (in effect) call him a bigot and a liar, or massage his vocabulary into pluralistic religious mush.

Such fatuous modern academic narcissism is not scholarship; it is the re-imaging of Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch in the likeness of the particular "me" who is writing to justify this specious nonsense. Says Robinson, all of this revisionism is agenda in search of a "religious polysystem" (219, borrowing from Daniel Boyarin), which (surprise! surprise!) makes 1st and 2nd century religion look just like avant-garde 20th and 21st century religious multi-culturalism. And, of course, Ignatius and Christianity in Antioch must be deconstructed to this agenda in order to reconstruct Ignatius and Christianity in the image of contemporary cultural religiosity (the socialist state is 'god'; the welfare department is 'savior'; the liberal mass media is the infallible 'interpreter'; the tyrannical 'democratic' multi-millionaire icons and their despotic groupies are the 'church'; the sacred hour is the 'evening news'; the authoritative text is the ever evolving 'word' from the scions of liberal socialism; and the sacraments are the 'subsidies' and 'graft' which the ruling elite distribute to the robotic peons under their thumb—peons kept nursing at the teat of the almighty state by its messiahs).

Robinson's thesis does not surprise us—at least, those of us who read primary documents (like the NT and Ignatius's letters). Especially students of Geerhardus Vos who have been sated with the "new" thing God in his Triune Being has done down through the history of redemption. The "new thing" to which the NT apostles invite all religious systems—Jewish and pagan alike—is the eschatological grace of heaven's eternally Only-Begotten Son of heaven's eternally Begetting Father via heaven's eternally Proceeding Spirit of regeneration. Here is life eternal for Jew and pagan alike—union with God the Son, communion with God the Father, fellowship with God the Holy Spirit and life (eternal life) in the city of that Triune God—life (eternal life) in the Kingdom of Heaven. To our modern culture as to Ignatius's culture as to the apostle Paul's culture—come and welcome to the new creation in Christ Jesus, who is the fullness of the OT Scriptures (as he is the fullness of the Godhead) and eternal life from the dead in his eschatological resurrection from the dead.

But what about Ignatius himself? What does Robinson teach us? First (as Robinson details), there have been several fresh Ignatius studies in recent years, including monographs by Allen Brent (Ignatius of Antioch: A Martyr Bishop and the Origin of Episcopacy[2009]), Paul Trebilco (The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius [2004]), John-Paul Lotz (Ignatius and Concord [2007]) and Charles Brown (The Gospel and Ignatius of Antioch [2000]). Robinson assesses them critically. Second, the question of the extent of persecution of Christians in the 1st and 2nd century A.D. Roman empire continues to be the focus of penetrating research—most recently John Granger Cook, Roman Attitudes Toward the Christians: From Claudius to Hadrian (2010); we await the forthcoming An Anatomy of Persecution by Oliver Nicholson. As a case in point, the martyrdom of Ignatius focuses our attention upon the 'local' vs. 'ecumenical' suppression of Christianity by the Roman imperium. Robinson's study inclines the answer to the 'local' side of the debate.

Ignatius was bishop of Antioch, arrested by Roman authority, transported across Asia Minor in chains, embraced his destiny as conformity to Christ in seven letters and likely died in the arena at Rome.[1] But what precisely was his offense, such that Rome would arrest and execute him? Robinson concludes that Ignatius was the victim of Jewish and/or Greco-Roman hostility towards Christianity. Though "the puzzle of the [specific] crisis in Antioch remains unsolved" (201), Robinson contends that synagogue opposition to Christianity (they objected to the inclusion of Gentiles in the body of 'faith' without submission to Jewish ritual law, as well as [in their opinion] the demonic claims of Jesus of Nazareth—all this well-documented in the book of Acts) and Greco-Roman hostility to Christianity (because it was a religio-social force at odds with the established pagan state religion—all this well documented by Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Tacitus, Pliny, Trajan, etc.) are the cusp if not the core of the answer. On either count (or both together), Ignatius was worthy of death. But Ignatius was the minister of a revolutionary "new" thing (149ff.)—proclaiming the passing away of Judaism in and through Christ Jesus, while opening the gates of heaven to Jew and Gentile equally in and through Jesus Christ. Judaism would have none of this; paganism would have none of it either because neither would acknowledge the advent, claims and work of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. But for Ignatius, this was the only way to God and glory. The incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ made Judaism passé and paganism passé. The antithesis which is found in the Son of God and life in him embraces the eschatological, not the worldly (paganism); embraces the eschatological, not the earthly (Judaism). Ignatius stands at the "parting of the ways" in a twofold sense: Judaism has been superseded and transcended; paganism has been annulled and voided—both made "of none effect" by the gospel. A careful reading of the primary documents from Ignatius's pen reveals his possession of his Savior, his participation in the death and resurrection of his Savior, his identification with suffering on behalf of and in union with his Savior. And it is those primary documents which remain the martyr's witness against the revisionism of the post-modern era. Our thanks to Robinson for the magisterial volume; it has been worth the 20-year wait.

Let me conclude with some observations on the ecclesiological issue that surfaces in the title "bishop of Antioch". Robinson asks whether Ignatius was a bishop "in any meaningful sense" (2)? The answer is that he does use the term in his letters (95). Robinson then states that Ignatius "clearly views the bishop as the primary authority in the early church" (97). And yet, on the very next page, Robinson admits that Ignatius constantly calls for "submission to the presbytery" in his primary documents. How do we reconcile these two ecclesiological elements? Robinson leans towards episcopacy (with Allen Brent). But may we play the rôle of contrarian at this point? The duplicate or twofold language or vocabulary (terminology) here is no less confusing than that of the inspired apostle Paul in his Pastoral Epistles (more primary documents!). Paul uses "bishop" and "presbyter" as interchangeable synonyms (cf. Titus 1:5, 7; cpr. Acts 20:17, 28). The Episcopal term suggests shepherding; the Presbyterian term suggests rule. One presbyter may become primus inter pares for the sake of order in the presbytery. That is, what modern Presbyterians may call the "moderator" is not an elevation of office or authority—it is a "one among equals" keeping of "good order" in the meeting of the presbytery. Hence, Ignatius uses the title/term "bishop" to indicate his rôle within the "presbytery". He is primus inter pares ("one among equals") and not primus supra pares ("one above/over equals").

Ignatius was a Pauline Presbyterian as well as a Pauline Episcopalian. The nuance is not in ecclesiastical power, but in ecclesiastical rôle and function. In sum, in this reviewer's opinion, Ignatius's ecclesiology, rightly understood, is no threat to historic Presbyterian polity. He is as Pauline as our Presbyterian forbears.

—James T. Dennison, Jr.


[1] Cf. my "Ignatius of Antioch." The Outlook 53/9 (November 2003): 10-13.