Reading Theological Classics #1: The Apostolic Fathers (1/2)

I strongly believe in reading Scripture in the great Christian Tradition. We are not the first people to reflect on God’s revelation, on the contrary, we stand on the arms of giants. It is of utmost importance to pay attention to historical theology. Reading classical theological works provides checks and balances for our idiosyncratic tendencies in interpreting Holy Scripture. It provides us with a framework for understanding theological problems. It saves us from repeating old errors and old heresies. It roots us in the Church catholic, the two-thousand years old community of believers who strive to understand and live out the gospel. One of the reasons for creating this blog was motivating myself to read (and re-read) some of the classical works of Christian theology. Hence this series, where I share my thoughts on them. 

The Apostolic Fathers is a name traditionally given to the diverse group of writings that come from the first generation of Christians after the apostles. This period lasts, roughly, from the second half of the first century to the first half of the second century. And it is a period of great importance for the church. After the death of the apostles, the church was confronted with the question of authority; how should important decisions be made, once there are no apostles whose judgment can be referred to? During this period the episcopal model of church-government gradually became universal. It is also the time in which the distinct identity of Christianity vis-à-vis Judaism emerged. Moreover, this was also the time when Roman authorities became increasingly aware of the distinct nature of Christianity, causing the church to face persecution. All of these issues are in various ways reflected in the writings that form the corpus of the Apostolic Fathers.

There are several editions of the Apostolic Fathers available in English. I use the Greek-English edition prepared by Michael Holmes which was developed from his revision of the venerable older edition by J. B. Lightfoot.1 Those, who do not need the Greek text, may be interested in the English-only edition by the same author. Another standard edition was prepared by Bart Ehrman in the Loeb Classical Library series. Less complete, albeit popular, is the selection from the writings of the Apostolic Fathers published in the Penguin Classics series as Early Christian Writings. 

First Clement

First Clement is probably my favourite text in the corpus of the Apostolic Fathers. It is the lengthy letter from the Roman church to the church in Corinth. Eusebius and most manuscripts ascribe it to a certain Clement. According to the tradition, this Clement was the third bishop of Rome after Peter, but this is certainly false since the letter itself shows that at that time the Roman church was still governed by the collegium of presbyters (44:1-6). He may have been some sort of clerk for the Roman church, which would explain why he is the primary author of the letter.

The occasion for writing the letter was a conflict in Corinth. Clement is writing in the name of the church in Rome to exhort the community in Corinth to preserve unity and restore the disorderly deposed elders. But alongside exhortations, this letter contains an abundance of teaching. One thing that I especially appreciate about it is its rich parenetical use of the Old Testament. Clement makes extensive use of the Old Testament as Christian Scripture and applies it to the life of his readers in a very rich way.

Second Clement 

Despite its traditional title, this work is neither a letter nor does it come from the same person who wrote 1 Clement. It is rather an anonymous early Christian sermon that contains an exhortation and call to repentance. Although it is not based on any particular text, the author makes use of various Old Testament passages and at one place cites the Gospel of Matthew and calls it ‘Scripture’ (Matt 9:13 in 2 Clem. 2:4).

The Letters of Ignatius 

Ignatius was a bishop of Antioch. He is known to us primarily due to his seven letters which he wrote in the last weeks of his life on the way to Rome where he was most likely martyred. The letters are written on the way and addressed to six churches (Tralles, Magnesia, Ephesus, Rome, Philadelphia, Smyrna) and to Polycarp of Smyrna. There are three existing recensions of Ignatius’ letters: extended (including six additional letters), middle (seven letters) and short (containing only abridged letters to the Ephesians, Romans and Polycarp). Because of this and due to Ignatius’ strong endorsement of the episcopal authority many Protestant scholars in the past considered these letters to be inauthentic. However, the work of Theodor Zahn, Adolf von Harnack and J. B. Lightfoot settled the matter and confirmed the authenticity of the middle recension.2

Ignatius’ letters are fascinating and potentially perplexing for the modern (Protestant) reader. He forcefully argues for the episcopal system and urges Christians to obey their bishop as Jesus Christ himself. But, interestingly, he does not appeal to the concept of apostolic succession to substantiate his position. If some see in 1 Clement the early form of the doctrine of apostolic succession albeit without the episcopal system, Ignatius apparently holds to episcopacy without the apostolic succession. Ignatius is also perplexing in his aggressive insistence that he wants to be martyred and urging the church in Rome to refrain from any attempts to release him. My favourite fragment is Rom. 5:2 where he claims that shall the beasts be hesitant to devour him, he will coax them to do so! But what may seem odd in Ignatius’ letters is more understandable when we see him in the context. He is grappling with the conflict that divided his church in Antioch. His insistence on the episcopal authority is rooted in his experience of disorder in the church. And his willingness to be martyred is strengthened by the awareness that in most cases one had to deny Jesus Christ in order to be released. He is probably afraid that even if he were to be released in a legitimate way, many people would still think that he denied the Lord.3

My thoughts will be continued in a second post. 

  1. Michael Holmes ed., The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).
  2. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 171-173.
  3. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 169.

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