1. The "Apostolic Fathers"

    The term "apostolic fathers" is applied to the writings of the late 1stand early 2nd century, and might be construed to imply that the so-called "fathers" were men who had actually known the apostles personally, and therefore represented the first generation of post-apostolic leadership in the church. Actually, with some exceptions, there is not much evidence of such personal acquaintance with the apostles. Even our earliest writer, Clement of Rome, probably lived too late to have met Peter and Paul before their martyrdom in the 60's. Only the apostle John lived long enough to be acquainted with some of the 2nd century Asian leaders.

    We must not think of the Apostolic Fathers as an organized group who consciously carried on the writing and teaching traditions of the apostles, and left us with the legacy of their writings. Rather, the collection of literature termed the "apostolic fathers" represents the fragments of a small and struggling church, widely dispersed in the Empire, but still enjoying the fruits of the recent ministry of the apostles and the work of the Holy Spirit among them. Unlike Scripture, we have no warrant for expecting that just the right literature was preserved for us to read. But the surviving works are of high (though varying) quality, and do not contain heresy, and have therefore been regarded as "fathers" since the earliest days. (The name "apostolic fathers" was first used in the 6thcentury.)

    We will give a quick run-down of the leading contributions of each of the writers and writings that are traditionally contained in this category.

    1. Clement of Rome
      1. Presbyter (elder) in Rome
      2. Wrote an epistle to the Corinthians, c. 96-97, traditionally called I Clement, even though II Clement is now known not to have been written by him.
      3. Admonishes certain members of the Corinthians for rebelling against the elders of the Corinthian church, and exhorts them to restore their office and to submit to them.
      4. In many respects this is the best that the apostolic fathers can offer, and this epistle most lives up to the idea most of us would have about someone who was close to the apostles. His doctrine is thoroughly scriptural, mostly based upon the OT, but clearly also based on Jesus' words and Paul's doctrines. He proclaims the blood of Christ and justification by faith. But it is not as if this book should have been in the canon of Scripture. The sheer number of quotations from Scripture should settle that question: Clement's work is clearly derivative.
      5. Appeals to both the OT scriptures and certain NT books as authorities.
      6. Emphasizes the orderliness of the appointment of ministers (see chaps 42, 44 especially). Equates bishops and presbyters as one office (chap 44).
      7. Makes clear statements of the deity of Christ.
    2. Ignatius
      1. Wrote seven epistles as he traveled to Rome to suffer martyrdom after a persecution in Antioch. Around 110.
      2. "Bishop" of Antioch or of Syria. He is the first person of whom we have record of espousing the doctrine that there is one bishop in each church, who rules the church. In other words, bishop does not equal elder. He is the only apostolic father to espouse this doctrine, which became common in the second half of the 2nd century. For instance, even Polycarp, who received one of his seven letters, and whom Ignatius regarded as "bishop" of Smyrna, did not seem to teach this doctrine in his own epistle, which he sent out right after Ignatius'.
      3. Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, chap 8: "See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. 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. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. 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."
      4. Ignatius, other than this one flaw, is a very good writer and a solid Christian. He also is ready to fight certain heresies which were springing up in his day, such as the idea that Christ really was not truly human.
      5. Wanted the martyrdom which he was so near to achieving. Exhorted the church of Rome in one of his epistles that when he arrived, they do nothing to prevent his being received into this glorious suffering.
    3. Polycarp
      1. Wrote one epistle to the Philippian church, around 110.
      2. Occasion of epistle is unclear, but it was apparently written after the receipt of letters from Ignatius, but before any knowledge of Ignatius' death was received. He mentions Ignatius and his letters, and requests more information on what has happened to Ignatius.
      3. Mostly it is an exhortation to righteousness and perseverance. There is also the regret about one of the elders in the Philippian church who seems to have become corrupt and immoral.
      4. Chap 6: "And let the presbyters be compassionate and merciful to all, bringing back those that wander, visiting all the sick, and not neglecting the widow, the orphan, or the poor, but always 'providing for that which is becoming in the sight of God and man;' abstaining from all wrath, respect of persons, and unjust judgment; keeping far off from all covetousness, not quickly crediting [an evil report] against any one, not severe in judgment, as knowing that we are all under a debt of sin."
    4. Martyrdom of Polycarp
      1. Written by the church of Smyrna to instruct the other churches after Polycarp was martyred. (We told this story last week.)
      2. About A.D. 155.
    5. Epistle of Barnabas
      1. Not by the Barnabas who worked with Paul. Probably an Alexandrian Jewish Christian.
      2. Probably written c. 130.
      3. Emphasizes the replacement of Judaism by Christianity, and the necessity to avoid Jewish errors.
      4. Uses a lot of typology and allegory to find pictures of Christ and the Church in the OT.
      5. Ends with an exposition of the "two ways," the way of light and the way of darkness, which is also used in the Didache.
    6. Papias
      1. Said by Irenaeus (late 2nd century) to have known the apostle John personally.
      2. Only fragments of his writings remain.
      3. Was one of the church fathers known to have been a premillenialist.
      4. Contains interesting testimony as to the origin of certain Scripture books: "Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. . . . Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could."
    7. Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles)
      1. Author unknown. Probably written in Egypt or Syria in the early 2ndcentury.
      2. Contains an exposition of the Two Ways, similar to Barnabas.
      3. After this follows a very primitive church order, the first in history. Instructions on baptism, the Lord's supper, how to deal with prophets, the Lord's day, bishops and deacons.
      4. Baptism: chapter 7. ". . . baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living (running) water. But if thou hast not living water, then baptize in other water; and if thou art not able in cold, then in warm. But if thou hast neither, then pour water on the head thrice in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let him that baptizeth and him that is baptized fast, and any others also who are able; and thou shalt order him that is baptized to fast a day or two before."
      5. Fasting: chapter 8. This contains the hilarious passage: "And let not your fastings be with the hypocrites, for the fast on the second and fifth day of the week, but do ye keep your fast on the fourth and on the preparation (the sixth) day."
      6. Lord's supper: chap 9-10. Gives the form of a prayer. Also says that you must be baptized to partake.
      7. Prophets: chap 11-13. "if he abide three days, he is a false prophet. . . . if he ask money, he is a false prophet." Prophets who teach truth and wish to settle among you should, however, receive a living from their work in teaching.
      8. Lord's day: chap 14. "Gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. And let no man, having his dispute with his fellow, join your assembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled . . ."
      9. Bishops and deacons: chap 15. "Appoint for yourselves therefore bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are meek and not lovers of money, and true and approved; for unto you they also perform the service of the prophets and teachers. Therefore despise them not, for they are your honorable men along with the prophets and teachers."
      10. Second coming will be soon, chap 16.
    8. Letter to Diognetus
      1. Author unknown. Possibly written c. 130.
      2. Takes the form of an Apology, a written description of, and defense of, Christianity. May be the oldest of the Apologies.
      3. Very congenial writer.
      4. Chap 5: "For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. . . . following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. . . ."
      5. Chap 8: "He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than his righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!"
    9. "Second Epistle of Clement"
      1. An ancient sermon (or "homily"), not written by Clement.
      2. Written c. 120-140.
      3. Clearly regards Jesus Christ as God.
      4. Emphasizes the duty of holy living and perseverance. Somewhat like the epistle to the Hebrews.
      5. Confessing Christ means confessing him with deeds, not just words (chap 4)
      6. Overemphasizes good works and teaches their meritorious nature, especially almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (chap 16).
    10. Hermas
      1. One writing, called The Shepherd of Hermas.
      2. A.D. 140 to 160, possibly.
      3. Sort of like an early Pilgrim's Progress.
      4. Consists of 5 visions, 12 commandments, and 10 similitudes or parables. Each is composed of several chapters.
      5. Preaches the availability of repentance. This is thought to be against the Montanists, a schismatic group which denounced the laxity of the church and proclaimed the lack of availability of repentance.
      6. Ties Christian repentance to the doing of "penance," or at least a very early version of penance. Similitude 7, "... do you think, however, that the sins of those who repent are remitted? Not altogether, but he who repents must torture his own soul, and be exceedingly humble in all his conduct, and be afflicted with many kinds of affliction; and if he endure the afflictions that come upon him, He who created all things, and endued them with power, will assuredly have compassion, and will heal him, and this He will do when He sees the heart of every penitent pure from every evil thing . . ."
  2. SUMMARY: By the end of this time period we see several developments in the teaching: the conception of the bishop as separate from the elders (still found only in Ignatius); the concept of Catholic or universal as distinguished from heretic; the concept of needing special forgiveness for post-baptism sins.
  3. Video of early Christian art

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Copyright © 1997, 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works quoted may be found in Bibliography page.