Polycarp & Ignatius

In Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians, he commends the letters of Ignatius of Antioch: “The Epistles of Ignatius written by him to us, and all the rest [of his Epistles] which we have by us, we have sent to you, as you requested. They are subjoined to this Epistle, and by them ye may be greatly profited; for they treat of faith and patience, and all things that tend to edification in our Lord,” (chap. 13).

Now, Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John. Further, Ignatius is the first voice for explicit episcopacy in Church History. I can’t address questions of interpolations in the letters of Ignatius, but I do know that some Protestant historians argue that Ignatius was expounding a relatively new arrangement for church government. The theory goes that since Ignatius is at such pains to stress the importance of the bishop, then he is arguing for a novel structure. If episcopacy was already the norm, then why would Ignatius need to jump up and down on it? I need to examine this argument further, but here’s a thought regarding the relationship between Polycarp and Ignatius.

As the quote above shows, Polycarp approves the epistles of Ignatius. If, as one theory alleges, Ignatius was propounding a novel conception of church governement, why does Polycarp not qualify or censure Ignatius? Perhaps Polycarp approved Ignatius’s strong statements on the role of bishops, and thus did not need to say anything about it?



  1. Obviously, Polycarp was of the same mind. There is nothing novel in Ignatius, it’s just the first time Christian writings surprised protestant German theologians, since they thought we were Lutheran at that early date. The only surprises are to those who had propounded novel theories of the Church in modern times.

  2. What is interesting to me is the theory’s premise: stressing the importance of the bishop implies a novel structure. It seems to me the more obvious reason for Ignatius’ comments would be that, like today, someone was arguing against the importance of the bishop!

  3. Let’s completely ignore the Scriptural evidence for episcopal governance for the sake of the argument. If Ignatius was establishing a novel form of Church governance, why was it adopted so rapidly, by everyone throughout the Church with no opposition whatsoever?

  4. “If, as one theory alleges, Ignatius was propounding a novel conception of church governement, why does Polycarp not qualify or censure Ignatius?”

    To offer what I see as a logical third possibility (and without meaning to disagree with those who have already commented), Ignatius might have been developing what already was. In other words, perhaps Paul and Peter did not articulate some formal “Episcopal” structure, but did leave what was in essence an episcopal. Ignatius may have been “adding” or developing to that essence only, and Polycarp may have approved — he may have thought the deeper articulation was consistent with the primitive form.

    Peace in Christ,

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