Thursday, 6 April 2017

Chapter 1 - The Apostolic Fathers

When we speak of the Apostolic Fathers, we usually have reference to a number of Christian authors whose writings have come down to us from the end of the first century and the beginning of the second. These writings—of an incidental nature for the most part (letters, homilies)—are of value to us because, next to the New Testament, they are the oldest sources we have that testify to the Christian faith. These writings, however, do not claim to be doctrinal presentations in the strict sense of the word, and as a result we could hardly expect to derive from them a complete picture of the articles of faith. And while they have contributed relatively little to the development of theology, they have done much to shed light on the concept of faith and the church customs that prevailed in the earliest congregations.

The most important of these writings are the following:

— The First Epistle of Clement, written in Rome about 95.

— The Epistles of Ignatius; seven letters to various addresses, written about 115 during Ignatius’ journey to Rome and his anticipated martyr’s death.

— The Epistle of Polycarp, written in Smyrna about 110.

— The Epistle of Barnabas, probably written in Egypt sometime around 130.

— The Second Epistle of Clement, written in Rome or Corinth about 140.

— The Shepherd of Hermas, written in Rome about 150.

— Fragments from Papias, written in Hierapolis of Phrygia about 150, cited in the works of Eusebius and Irenaeus (among others).

— The Didache (“The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”), written in the first half of the second century, probably in Syria.

General Characteristics

Although the writings of the Apostolic Fathers stand close to the apostles and the New Testament in a chronological sense, the difference between these sources is strikingly obvious, with respect to both form and content. Some of these writings were included for a time in the New Testament canon, but it is no accident that they were ultimately excluded. The difference between the New Testament books and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers is manifest in many respects. Attempts have been made to determine which of the apostles (Peter or Paul, for example) influenced the men who produced these writings. But this has been proved to be an unnecessary search. The theology of the Apostolic Fathers cannot be assigned to any particular member of the apostolic band; it rather reflects the faith of the typical congregation in the first years of Christian history. The similarities between these writings and the New Testament need not depend on the fact that the Apostolic Fathers borrowed in a direct way from one canonical author or the other; they rather reflect the fact that both sources deal with the same faith.

In comparison with the New Testament the Apostolic Fathers are distinctive chiefly because of their emphasis on what is generally called moralism. (Anders Nygren uses the word “nomism”; in English literature the term “legalism” is employed.) The proclamation of the Law has a prominent place in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. This is true in part because these writings are hortatory in style and also because they were directed to the new congregations whose members had recently emerged from a pagan background. It was necessary to replace their old habits with Christian order and customs. In order to accomplish this, the Jewish manner of preaching the Law was used to some extent, together with other Jewish congregational practices, despite the fact that there was a great deal of opposition to Judaism and the ceremonial law. The Gospel was presented as a new law that Christ taught and by which He showed the way to salvation. The old law was said to be abolished, obsolete, but in the teaching of Christ there was a new law. The Christian life was said to consist, above all, in obedience to this new law.

Moralism was found not in the proclamation of the Law as such but in the manner this was done. There was a strong tendency among the Apostolic Fathers to emphasize obedience to the Law, as well as the imitation of Christ, as the way to salvation and the essential content of the Christian life. Christs death and resurrection were pointed to as the basis of man’s salvation. Because of Christ’s work man can receive the forgiveness of sin, the gift of life, immortality, and release from the powers of corruption. But even in the context in which such matters were discussed it was not unusual for the Apostolic Fathers to place a strong emphasis on the Law and the new way of life. An analysis of some of the most frequently mentioned fundamentals will throw more light on this tendency.

Righteousness, as a general rule, was described not as a gift of God bestowed on men of faith (cf. Rom. 3:21 ff.) but rather in terms of proper Christian behavior. It was often presented as the power of Christ which enables man to do what is right and good, but at the same time it was also said in a rather one-sided way that the new obedience is the prerequisite of forgiveness and salvation. The latter was looked upon not as a gift of grace alone, given here and now to those who believe, but as something bestowed after this life, primarily as a reward for obedience to Christ. With the exception of First Clement, the writings of the Apostolic Fathers have very little in common with Paul’s emphasis on justification by faith. It is not unmerited grace that stands at the center of this teaching but rather the new way of life that Christ taught and which He empowers. It must be remembered, however, that the character of these writings, as well as the objective the authors had in mind, was in part responsible for this emphasis. Furthermore, the fact that these were incidental writings, which made no claim to completeness, is another facet of the story. These writings presumed that those who read them also heard an oral proclamation in which other aspects of the Christian faith would be properly stressed.

Salvation is presented more often in terms of immortality and indestructibility than in terms of the forgiveness of sin. Another strongly emphasized facet in this connection is knowledge. Christ has brought us the knowledge of the truth. He is the Revealer sent by God so that we might know the true God and thereby be freed from the thralldom of idolatry and the false old covenant. The Apostolic Fathers did not say, however, that Christ is merely a teacher; they taught that He is God, the One through whose death and resurrection the gift of immortality is bestowed.

Sin is described as corruption, evil desire, and captivity to the power of death, plus error and ignorance; the idea of guilt is not strongly emphasized. We note here a counterpart to that which was said about salvation; the Apostolic Fathers looked upon this as immortality or as the enlightenment that results from the truth as it is in Christ. The relationship between salvation and forgiveness or atonement is also to be found here—especially in Barnabas—but it does not have the same place as in Paul or, for example, in the Protestant tradition. Salvation is associated with the physical life, in terms of freedom from death and corruption. Light and life, which form its content, are related to the Law. The way of obedience is the way to life.

The moralistic tendency in the Apostolic Fathers appears most conspicuously in their concept of grace. In the New Testament grace is the love of God revealed in Christ. It is related to God Himself, therefore, and to the work of redemption carried out by Christ. Man is justified by grace, not on the strength of his own works. Among the Apostolic Fathers this New Testament concept of grace was replaced by another, in which grace is looked upon as a gift that God bestows on man through Christ. This gift, which is sometimes placed in the same category with the knowledge that has come to us through Christ, is thought of as inner power associated with the Holy Spirit, by which man can strive after righteousness and walk in the way of the new obedience. Grace is therefore the prerequisite of salvation, but not in the New Testament sense—that righteousness is a gift of God bestowed on those who believe in Christ. The Apostolic Fathers rather say this, that grace conveys the power by which man can attain to righteousness and ultimately be saved.

The trend of thought here set forth clearly indicates the relationship between the medieval concept of grace, with its emphasis upon “good works,” and the pattern previously established in this earlier tradition (cf. Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 1948). There are at the same time, however, expressions that are more closely related to the Pauline doctrine of justification. Furthermore, one must also observe in this connection that we are dealing here with hortatory literature, designed to train people in the new life, strongly emphasizing the call to obey Christ’s commands. This emphasis was made in order to provide a counterbalancing influence to the pagan morality that dominated the environment in which the people addressed in these writings lived. As a result one dare not use the writings of the Apostolic Fathers to draw far-reaching conclusions in regard to the entire Christian proclamation of that period.

Concept of the Bible

As was true with the New Testament, it was thought that the books of the Old Testament possessed their own intrinsic authority. The fact that the Apostolic Fathers quoted the Old Testament as much as they did is all the more striking when we remember that their writings were directed, for the most part, to Christians who had come from a pagan background.

The church was thought of as the New Israel, and as such the heir of the writings associated with the old covenant. The true purpose of the Law and the Prophets was spiritual in nature, a fact that was revealed through Christ’s words and deeds. The Epistle of Barnabas, which dealt with this problem in a special way, does not make any obvious distinction between what came to be known later as a typological interpretation and a free allegorical interpretation. It was assumed from the very beginning that the law of Moses had a deeper purpose. When, for example, the law of Moses forbids the eating of unclean animals, it is thought to mean that the Law thereby condemns the sins which such animals symbolize. References to Christ and the New Testament were found even in the most insignificant details (cf., e.g., Barnabas IX, 8). Behind all this was the conviction that Scripture was verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit; even external details were thought to conceal spiritual wisdom of some kind, which the Jews with their method of literal interpretation were unable to find.

The Apostolic Fathers also testify in no uncertain terms to the fact that the four gospels and the writings of the apostles were coming to be recognized as Holy Scripture with the same authority as the Old Testament, even though the New Testament had not yet taken its final form in their time. Nearly all of the books that came to be included in our New Testament are cited or referred to in the Apostolic Fathers. The oral tradition which originated with the apostles was also considered to possess a decisive authority for congregational faith and practice. According to Ignatius the bishop was the bearer of this authoritative tradition.

The Doctrine of God; Christology

The Apostolic Fathers shared a Biblical concept of the nature of God, based on the idea of God found in the Old Testament. They thought of God as the almighty One who created the world and made His will, His righteousness, and His grace known to man. As is said in the Shepherd of Hermas: “Believe above all that God is one, He who has created and ordered all things and formed all that exists out of nothing.” Faith in the one true God is emphasized. The doctrine of the Triune God was not yet fully developed, but the Trinitarian formula was employed, for example, in Baptism, and faith in the Trinity was, quite naturally, implied. The explication of the manner in which the three Persons of the Godhead are related to one another belongs, however, to a later period.

The divinity of Christ is strongly emphasized in the Apostolic Fathers. As Pliny the Younger remarked in a well-known phrase included in a letter to Emperor Trajan, the Christians “sing to Christ as they sing to God.” Christ was thought of as the preexistent Son of God, who participated in the work of creation; He is the Lord of heaven, who shall appear as the judge of the living and the dead. Christ is specifically referred to as God, particularly in the epistles of Ignatius. “Our God, Jesus Christ, born of Mary according to God’s decree, truly of the seed of David, but also of the Holy Spirit,” he wrote in his Epistle to the Ephesians. (XVIII, 2)

Christ was said to be present in the congregation as its Lord, and Christian people are united to Him as participants in His death and resurrection. This oneness with Christ is prominently set forth by Ignatius. He wrote to the Christians in Smyrna: “I have been told that you are established in an untroubled faith, firmly attached to the cross of Christ in both body and soul, steadfast in love through the blood of Christ, and convinced that our Lord is in truth of David’s seed according to the flesh, and God’s Son according to God’s will and power.” (First Epistle to the Smyrneans)

We also find in Ignatius a number of statements directed against (or elicited by) the Jewish-Christian Gnostics, in which he emphasizes the true humanity of Christ. Jesus’ actual earthly life is asserted in opposition to those who held that Christ merely appeared to exist in human form, that He only seemed to suffer on the cross, and that after the Resurrection He returned to a nonphysical spiritual existence. This point of view is known as Docetism (from the Greek δοκειν). The struggle against Docetism was one of the more significant facets of early Christian theology, since Docetism contradicted what was basic in the apostolic proclamation, the veritable death and resurrection of Christ. Salvation resulted from this, which actually happened within the context of history, and to which the apostles were eyewitnesses. When Docetism explained away the death and resurrection of Christ, salvation was related to an abstract teaching and not to what God accomplished in Christ. Docetism assumed various forms: either it denied the claim of Christ’s true humanity with the use of a theory about a ghostlike body, or else it selected certain aspects of Christs earthly life as being potentially true, while the remainder of the Gospel account was explained away. A Gnostic by the name of Cerinthus, a resident of Asia Minor, was of the opinion that Jesus was united with Christ, the Son of God, at the time of His baptism, and that Christ left the earthly Jesus before He was crucified. It was thought that the suffering and death of Jesus was incompatible with the divinity of Christ. Another Docetic theory, associated with Basilides, suggested that a mistake took place, that Simon of Cyrene was crucified in place of Christ, and that Jesus thereby escaped the death on the cross.

According to Irenaeus, the Gospel of John was written for this purpose, among others, to refute the Gnostic Cerinthus mentioned above. The latter’s point of view was characterized by the sharp distinction he made between the man Jesus and the heavenly spiritual being, Christ, who could have made His abode in Jesus for a brief time only. In opposition to this, the Gospel of John tells us that “the Word became flesh”; similarly, the First Epistle of John asserts that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” (2:22; 4:2–3)

Opposition of this same kind can be discerned in Ignatius’ struggle against Docetism. Against those who said that Christ only appeared to suffer, Ignatius expressed the conviction that Christ was truly born of Mary, that He was actually crucified, and that He resuscitated Himself. Christ was “in the flesh” even after His resurrection, said Ignatius; He was not a “nonphysical spirit.”

Concept of the Church

We can tell from the writings of the Apostolic Fathers that ecclesiastical regulations were being consolidated at that time. The office of bishop developed to the point where it was distinct from the college of elders. According to Ignatius, the bishop was the symbol of Christian unity and bearer of the apostolic tradition. The congregations were therefore admonished to hold fast to their bishop and to be obedient to him. Unity was said to consist primarily of a commondoctrinal corpus, and the dominant position of the bishop in the congregation was explained on the basis of the fact that he was the representative of the true doctrine. This harmony which centered on the bishops was emphasized as a protection against heresy, which threatened to destroy the unity of the church. Originally the elders and the bishops were on the same level, but by this time the bishops occupied a position which was elevated above the presbyterial rank. This so-called monarchical episcopate first appeared in Asia Minor and is clearly pointed to in the epistles of Ignatius, while First Clement and the Shepherd of Hennas, which were written in Rome, do not mention an office superior to the college of elders. But First Clement also emphasizes the significance of the bishop’s office and insists that those who hold this office are the successors of the apostles. The idea of apostolic succession developed out of a Jewish prototype.Two things are implied: first, the bishops received the true teaching from the apostles, just as the prophets learned from Moses (doctrinal succession), and second, they had been appointed by the apostles and their successors in an unbroken line, just as the family of Aaron alone had the right to appoint priests in Israel (ordination succession).

As a result a more specific type of congregational order, with ecclesiastical jurisdiction, developed within the early Christian church. This development has been evaluated in a variety of ways. The well-known legal historian Rudolph Sohm has put forth the idea that every church law is in opposition to the essence of the church. It is the Holy Spirit alone who rules in the church, and because of this the emergence of ecclesiastical “institutions” denotes a departure from the original spirit of Christianity (Kirchenrecht, I, 1892). Others have denied this thesis, however, by pointing out that ordinances are necessary. This development is not a later accretion; its origins take us back to the time of the apostles themselves. What happened later was the stricter application of existing forms and the acceptance of new ones (Seeberg). It has also been said in this context, and properly so, that the Holy Spirit and ecclesiastical offices are not contrary to one another; they rather belong together. The fact that the church is a creation of the Holy Spirit does not preclude the development of regulations, offices, and traditions. The services and offices of the church are related to the work of the Holy Spirit. (Linton, Das Problem der Urkirche in der neueren Forschung, 1932)


The eschatology of the Apostolic Fathers included the idea that the end of time was imminent, and some of them (Papias, Barnabas) also upheld the doctrine of an earthly millennium. Barnabas accepted the Jewish idea that the world would exist for 6,000 years, as foreshadowed in the six days of creation. And thereupon, it was said, would follow the seventh millennium, in which Christ will visibly reign on earth with the assistance of His faithful (cf. Bey. 20). This is to be followed by the eighth day, eternity, which has its prototype in Sunday. Papias, too, supported the doctrine of an earthly millennium, and he described the blissful condition which will prevail during that time. This point of view (“millennialism” or “chiliasm”) has been largely discredited in more recent times. In fact, Eusebius did this in his evaluation of the writings of Papias. (Ecclesiastical History, III, 39)

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