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

The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians 

Polycarp was a bishop of Smyrna and a significant figure in the early church whose lifespan connects the time of the apostles to the succeeding period. His letter is a word of exhortation responding to certain problems in the church in Philippi. What is particularly interesting about this document is how it inseparably connects orthodoxy (right beliefs) with orthopraxy (right practice). Polycarp is concerned about both teaching and moral conduct of the  church and sees these issues as closely related to each other. 

The Martyrdom of Polycarp 

If Ignatius is very willing to be martyred, the Martyrdom of Polycarp offers a corrective to overly eager Christians who seek martyrdom. It contrasts the attitude of Quintus who volunteers to be martyred but loses courage in the face of death with that of the bishop Polycarp who does not seek death but heroically faces it when God ordains it. Polycarp’s martyrdom is presented as one „according to the gospel”. This work is the earliest non-biblical account of Christian martyrdom and by many later texts follow the model that it establishes. 

The Didache

The Didache (or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) consists of moral teaching on the „two ways of life”, instruction about the life of the church and an apocalyptic section. It is, thus, a basic summary of Christian teaching. It is fascinating in all sort of ways. We find here early eucharistic liturgy and prayers (9-10), and it contains instructions on baptism which, interestingly, are very flexible in terms of mode (7). It also shows also that the early church struggled with itinerant preachers. The anonymous author offers entertaining advice on how to spot false teachers – people who teach for material gain and ask for more than food for two or three days are certainly false teachers (12). It is also worth mentioning that The Didache supports the two-fold structure of bishops and deacons (15:1) like in 1 Clement and unlike in the letters of Ignatius.

The Epistle of Barnabas 

The Epistle of Barnabas deals with the problem of the church’s relationship to Israel and offers moral teaching in the form of ‘two ways’. Its author (who is certainly not Barnabas) argues that God has rejected Israel. He relies heavily on the allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament in order to present it as Christian Scripture and to present the church as a true heir of the covenant. This work is particularly interesting for understanding the parting of the ways between the church and synagogue. Its strongly ‘supersessionist’ position should not be, however, understood as universally accepted in the early church.

The Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd of Hermas was widely read and respected in the early church. It belongs to the genre of apocalyptic writings. Hermas receives a series of visions and explanations, first from a woman who symbolises the church and subsequently from the ‘angel of repentance’ – the shepherd from the title. The book wrestles with the topic of post-baptismal repentance. The author attempts to reconcile God’s mercy with rigorous moral views and comes up with the answer that repentance after baptism is possible, albeit only for a short time and one should hasten to repent, lest he be rejected by God. This work more than any other in the corpus of the Apostolic Fathers showed me the ‘otherness’ of the early church. Its genre, theological problems and strict moralism are very different from the modern experience in most of the mainstream Christian traditions.

The Letter to Diognetus 

Although traditionally included in the corpus of the Apostolic Fathers, this work is really more an early Christian apology. The author presents Christianity as superior to Judaism and paganism. He argues that pagans worship man-mde idols who are not really gods and do so in a way that is not worthy of gods (by animal sacrifices). Jews, on the other hand, are superior in that they worship the true God, but their cultus is also unworthy of Him. This work is interesting as an early apology and as a piece of early theologising. Its section on Jesus’ sacrifice (9:2-6) is very beautiful! 

Fragments of Papias

Papias was a bishop of Smyrna and an important link between the direct disciples of the apostles and the subsequent generations. No substantial work by him survived to our days, but many other writers preserved short citations from his writings or about him. These short fragments are often attached to the collection of the Apostolic Fathers. Polycarp is interesting because he preserved the tradition that Mark wrote down his gospel on the basis of Peter’s teaching while Matthew „composed the oracles in the Hebrew language”. He also held to a form of premillennial view and was criticised for that by some other Christian writers. 

General Thoughts on the Apostolic Fathers

The Apostolic Fathers open a priceless window into the earliest period after the death of the apostles for us. They show us how the church wrestled with fundamental questions which were vitally important for its continuing existence: authority, persecution, interpretation of Scripture, and its relationship to Judaism. What strikes me most is that the early church that emerges from these texts was rather diverse. It had various forms of government (episcopal or presbyterial), utilised both literal-parenetical and allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament (though, perhaps, this is partly explained by different genres and goals of particular writers), held to various eschatological views and took different stances on Judaism. But this diversity, I believe, is not without any sense of orthodoxy (as it would be in Bauer’s account). There are some views and concerns that unite these writers such as devotion to Jesus Christ and his gospel, monotheism, acceptance of the Old Testament scriptures and reverence for the authority and teaching of the apostles. 

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