THE GENERAL CHARACTER OF THE APOSTOLIC FATHERS.
|Return to Table of Contents|
PART 3: THE APOSTOLIC FATHERS
This part of our studies will be divided into four major sections:
SECTION 1: THEIR REPUTED WRITINGS
SECTION 2: THEIR GENERAL CHARACTER
SECTION 3: THEIR DOCTRINAL SIGNIFICANCE
SECTION 4: THEIR CHURCH GOVERNMENT
The Apostolic Fathers are those early Christians who have left us literary remains, lived during the time of the Apostles, and were thought to be their disciples. Five such Fathers are thought of: Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Hermas, Barnabas. Only the literary remains of the first three are genuine. Other early literature is treated in this category.
Section 1: Their Reputed Writings
I. Clement of Romes Epistle to the Corinthians
A. Date: Seeberg, "early in A.D. 97"; Walker, "93-97"; Richardson, "A.D. 96 or 97", p. 34. ANF "about A.D. 97". Great certainty may be attached to a date in the mid-90s of the 1st century.
B. Origin: Rome
C. Character: While Clements name does not appear in the body of the Epistle there is no reason to deny and every reason to affirm that he was the author and to identify him with the Clement of the New Testament, Phil. 4:3. The purpose of this letter is by persuading them of the wrongness of their action to reverse an action of the Corinthian church in which they dismissed from office their church officers.
II. Ignatius Seven Epistles - (To the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Smyrnans, and Polycarp.)
A. Date: Seeberg - 110. Walker - 110-117. ANF, 107 or 116. Ignatius died by martyrdom at Rome while Trajan was emperor either in 107 or 116, probably in 107.
B. Origin: The Ignatian Epistles were written by Ignatius on his journey to Rome to be martyred. The first four (see above) from Smyrna, the last three, from Troas.
C. Character: The Ignatian Epistles have been the source of great controversy over their genuineness. Many additions to the genuine epistles and one subtraction from them are extant. In all probability, the seven epistles mentioned above are genuine in their shorter versions. Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch in Syria.
III. Polycarps Epistle to the Philippians - (The Martyrdom of Polycarp which is often associated with his letter was written by members of his church after his martyrdom in 156. Since he was 86 when martyred, his birth must have been about A.D. 70. Irenaeus claimed that Polycarp was a disciple of John.)
A. Date: Polycarps letter was written shortly after Ignatius martyrdom.
B. Origin: Smyrna in Asia Minor.
C. Character: This letter is a practical response to several requests made of Polycarp by the Philippians.
IV. The Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.)
A. Date: Seeberg - 100-110. Walker - 130-160. Richardson -A.D. 150* ANF - 100. The Didache is probably the work of an editor around 150 or earlier. *Sources from around 100.
B. Origin: Unknown. The guesses are Alexandria, Jerusalem or Antioch.
C. Character: The concern of the Didache is a moral life and orderly church life. It is very simple in its approach, may be the work of an early Jewish Christian, and reflects a primitive (pre-episcopal) era in church government.
V. The Epistle to Diognetus
A. Date: Walker - "Probably later than their (the Apostolic Fathers) period." Seeberg - not listed. Richardson - 129 (ch. 1-10), 200 (ch. 11-12) ANF - 130. My best guess is that Richardson is right.
B. Origin: Asia Minor
C. Character: Richardson argues that ch. 1-10 were written by Quadratus in 129 and are his lost apology to Hadrian. Ch. 11, 12 he ascribes to Hippolytus. As ANF note it deserves an early date because it reflects more purely the evangelical spirit of the Apostles than any other early writing except Clements epistle.
VI. The Epistle of Barnabas
A. Date: Walker - 131. Seeberg 96-98 (or) 130. ANF - 120-150. This writing is further removed from the Apostles than those of around 100. 131 sounds good.
B. Origin: Alexandria
C. Character: Clement of Alexandria and others after him thought this book genuine. A perusal of it shows us that the Barnabas of the New Testament did not write its wild allegorical paragraphs.
VII. The Shepherd of Hermas
A. Date: Walker - c100-140. Seeberg - 97-100 (probably) or 140-145). ANF - 165 (2nd Editor), (1st Editor gives 117-161). The 140s best fit all the data. (See below)
B. Origin: Rome
C. Character: The work is certainly not the work of the Biblical Hermas (Rom. 16:14). Its tone differs markedly from Clement. The Canon of Muratori supports a late date, but since Irenaeus and other early fathers regarded it as genuine too late a date is also unlikely.
VIII.Pseudo - 2nd Clement (An Early Christian Sermon)
A. Date: Walker - ca.160-170. Seeberg - "hardly later than A.D. 140." Richardson - "before the middle of the second century." A.D. 140 fits best.
B. Origin: Probably Alexandria
C. Character: This is a sermon, not a letter, though it was early mistaken for Clements second letter to the Corinthians. Its author combats Gnosticism, while unconsciously adopting some Gnostic modes of thought.
IX. Fragments of Papias
The only literary remains which are extant of Papias are quotations from him or references to him in other works. He was bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia. The Editor of ANF gives 70-155 as his lifetime. He made a practice of questioning and recording the sayings of disciples who had known the Lord or His Apostles. He also was a hearer of the Apostle John.
Seeberg gives A.D. 125 as the date of his lost five volume work which recorded the sayings he gleaned from early disciples.
SECTION 2: THE GENERAL CHARACTER OF THE APOSTOLIC FATHERS.
The general character of the doctrinal thought of the Apostolic Fathers is our focus here. The normal reaction of one with high expectations who sits down to read the writings of men who were the younger contemporaries of the Apostles is, to say the least, disappointment. That disappointment is the result of what I might call "the Cliff Phenomena." When one passes from the Apostles to the Apostolic Fathers he feels as if he has fallen from a cliff at the edge of a veritable garden of Eden into a desert wilderness. Schaff and Berkhof confirm this observation.
If we compare these documents with the canonical Scriptures of the New Testament, it is evident at once that they fall far below in original force, depth, and fulness of spirit, and afford in this a strong indirect proof of the inspiration of the apostles. Yet they still shine with the evening red of the apostolic day, and breathe an enthusiasm of simple faith and fervent love and fidelity to the Lord which proved its power in suffering and martyrdom. They move in the element of living tradition and make reference oftener to the oral preaching of the apostles than to their writings.....For by the wise ordering of the Ruler of history, there is an impassable gulf between the inspiration of the apostles and the illumination of the succeeding age between the standard authority of holy Scripture and the derived validity of the teaching of the church. "The Bible" - to adopt an illustration of a distinguished writer - "is not like a city of modern Europe, which subsides through suburban gardens and groves and mansions into the open country around but like an Eastern city in the desert from which the traveler passes by a single step into a barren waste." The very poverty of these post-apostolic writings renders homage to the inexhaustible richness of the apostolic books which like the person of Christ, are divine as well as human in their origin, character, and effect.
It is frequently remarked that in passing from the study of the New Testament to that of the Apostolic Fathers one is conscious of a tremendous change. There is not the same freshness and originality, depth and clearness. And this is no wonder, for it means the transition from truth given by infallible inspiration to truth reproduced by fallible pioneers. Their productions were bound to lean rather heavily on Scripture and to be of a primitive type, concerning itself with the first principles of faith rather than with the deeper truths of religion.
What, then, is the general character of the Apostolic Fathers and, in particular, what aspects of their thought give rise to such disappointment? (I begin with a balancing note in what has been heretofore a negative assessment of the Apostolic Fathers.)
They are characterized by:
I. A Conscious Preservation of, Adherence to, and Exemplification of Apostolic Christianity
In our disappointment that the Apostolic Fathers do not approach the Apostles in their doctrinal thought, it would be easy to overstate the case against them. Harnack, Torrance, and Kasemann are examples of such overstatement. Harnack said "Marcion was the only Gentile Christian who understood Paul and even he misunderstood him." Green points out that most of the literature of the Apostolic Fathers concentrates on the inner workings of the Christian communities and not the gospel they proclaimed. This is valid. (Cf. Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, and the Early Christian Sermon known as 2nd Clement.)
Only the Epistle of Diognetus really is about the business of the gospel preaching. It is true that this letter has a much more evangelical tone than much of the early literature of the church.
And He has manifested Himself through faith, to which alone it is given to behold God. For God, the Lord and Fashioner of all things, who made all things, and assigned them their several positions, proved Himself not merely a friend of mankind, but also long-suffering (in His dealings with them.) Yea, He was always of such a character, and still is, and will ever be, kind and good, and free from wrath, and true, and the only one who is (absolutely) good; and He formed in His mind a great and unspeakable conception, which He communicated to His Son alone. As long, then as He held and preserved His own wise counsel in concealment, He appeared to neglect us, and to have no care over us. But after He revealed and laid open, through His beloved Son, the things which had been prepared from the beginning, He conferred every blessing all at once upon us, so that we should both share in His benefits, and see and be active (in His service). Who of us would ever have expected these things? He was aware, then, of all things in His own mind, along with His Son, according to the relation subsisting between them....But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, 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 his in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Saviour who is able to save even those things which it was (formerly) impossibly to save...
Clement of Rome also manifests an understanding of justification by faith - and even feels the proper tension it involves. This is all the more remarkable because the atmosphere of Clements letter is moralistic. His maintenance of the sola fide is a conscious preservation of an element of Apostolic teaching, which he didnt fully comprehend and couldnt fully adjust to his system.
For from Jacob there came all the priests and the Levites who serve at Gods altar. From him came the Lord Jesus so far as his human nature goes. From him there come the kings and rulers and governors of Judah. Nor is the glory of the other tribes derived from him insignificant. For God promised that "your seed shall be as the stars of heaven." So all of them received honor and greatness, not through themselves or their own deeds or the right things they did, but through his will. And we, therefore, who by his will have been called in Jesus Christ, are not justified of ourselves or by our wisdom or insight or religious devotion or the holy deeds we have done from the heart, but by that faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the very beginning. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.
What, then, brothers, ought we to do? Should we grow slack in doing good and give up love? May the Lord never permit this to happen at any rate to us! Rather should we be energetic in doing "every good deed" with earnestness and eagerness.
As was noted before the literature of the Apostolic Fathers is almost completely concerned with the inner workings of the early Christian communities. They reveal local communities exemplifying to a high degree the ethical and practical implications of the gospel. What is more amazing is that these local communities felt a great degree of one-ness with other churches with whom they had no hierarchical connection. Rome can write Corinth and effect a reversal of its recent change of leadership by the simple expedient of brotherly exhortation. The epistles of Ignatius, Pseudo-2nd Clement, and the Didache all are evidence of a high concern for the maintenance of the Apostolic tradition and the shunning of false teachers. Cf. also Polycarps response to Philippi.
II. A Simple, Meager, Indefinite, and even Superficial Understanding of Apostolic Doctrinal Teachings.
Seeberg remarks, "The Circuit of Theology inherited from the Apostolic Age is preserved in outward form and in general content, but the connection of thought of the component thoughts is destroyed; and the apprehension of truth becomes at decisive points uncertain, when it does not entirely vanish ..... A lack of comprehensive understanding and profound apprehension of the gospel itself ... is here undeniable."
DIAGRAM OF THE CIRCUIT OF THEOLOGY
The writings of the Apostolic Fathers are characterized by their simplicity.
It is a matter of common observation that the writings of the Apostolic Fathers contain very little that is doctrinally important. Their teachings are generally in harmony with the truth revealed in the Word of God, and are often represented in the very words of Scripture, but for that very reason cannot be said to increase or deepen our insight into the truth or to shed light on the inter-relations of the doctrinal teachings of Scripture.
They are also characterized by superficiality. Note, for instance, Clements naivete regarding the instrumental means of forgiveness and justification.
You see, brothers, how great and amazing love is, and how its perfection is beyond description. Who is able to possess it save those to whom God has given the privilege? Let us, then, beg and implore him mercifully to grant us love without human bias and to make us irreproachable. All the generations from Adam to our day have passed away, but those who, by the grace of God, have been made perfect in love have a place among the saints, who will appear when Christs Kingdom comes. For it is written: "Go into your closets for a very little while, until my wrath and anger pass, and I will remember a good day and I will raise you up from your graves." Happy are we, dear friends, if we keep Gods commandments in the harmony of love, so that by love our sins may be forgiven us. For it is written: "Happy are those whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered. Happy is the man whose sin the Lord will not reckon, and on whose lips there is no deceit.:" This is the blessing which was given to those whom God chose through Jesus Christ our Lord. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Seeberg refers to 2nd Clement and comments upon that document in the following quotation.
The Christian should preserve his baptism without stain. It has publicly cleansed him from his sins (6. 9; 8. 6, here called a "seal"). He who in this way serves God is righteous (ll. l, 7; l2. l), and he who does righteousness shall be saved (l9.3). But he who transgresses Christs commandments incurs eternal punishment (6.7). No person nor thing can then save him: "nor anyone be our comforter, if we shall not be found having holy and righteous works" (6.9 and 7). For doing such works men must, it is true, have faith as a prerequisite; but faith is nothing more (in contrast with doubt) than a believing of the divine promise of reward (ll.l, 5.6).
Notice also Seebergs comments on The Shepherd of Hermas in the following.
His fundamental idea here is: "that there is no other repentance than this, that we go down into the water and receive the forgiveness of our past sins" (Mand. 4. 3. l; cf. 4. l. 8). It is a special favor of God, that now through the preaching of Hermas, in an exceptional way, a second repentance is granted the congregation of believers....This is the starting point of the Catholic discrimination between venial and mortal sins. The error lies not really in the general idea of repentance, but in an underestimate of minor sins. But the chief defection from the biblical standard lies in the failure to understand grace as the forgiveness of sins extending continuously throughout the whole life. Hence the moralism of Hermas.
III. A Pervasive (and Moralistic) Practical and Ethical Focus.
Throughout Clement, the Didache (2 ways), Polycarp, and Hermas (to name only those who come first to mind) there is a pervasive tone of moral exhortation. Reading them is like reading James and Ephesians 4-6, but never coming to Romans or Ephesians 1-3.
Illustration of this may be gleaned from the Shepherd of Hermas.
I said to him, "Sir, explain to me what this tree means, for I am perplexed about it, because, after so many branches have been cut off, it continues sound, and nothing appears to have been cut away from it. By this, now, I am perplexed." "Listen," he said: "This great tree that casts its shadow over plains, and mountains, and all the earth is the law of God that was given to the whole world; and this law is the Son of God, proclaimed to the ends of the earth; and the people who are under its shadow are they who have heard the proclamation, and have believed upon Him.
The Epistle of Barnabas speaks of "the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ." Christianity becomes more and more the new law during the period under discussion.
Faith, grace, and the forgiveness of sins fall into the background, and in their stead the new law and good works come into prominence. The thoughts which we have rapidly sketched are not always a real possession, but in some cases merely titles of possession, not understood by those who hold them.
Several observations need to be made on this matter:
First, it is possible (as already noted) to over-state the incipient legalism of the Apostolic Fathers. The tone of Seebergs treatment reflects a Lutheran over-emphasis on justification which makes him unable to appreciate the fact that the Apostolic Fathers in their pervasive practical and ethical focus are reflecting both Jesus and the Apostles. Second Clement provides an illustration of the kind of language which tends to make modern professing Christians very nervous.
So while we are on earth, let us repent. For we are like clay in a workmans hands. If a potter makes a vessel and it gets out of shape or breaks in his hands, he molds it over again; but if he has once thrown it into the flames of the furnace, he can do nothing more with it. Similarly, while we are in this world, let us too repent with our whole heart of the evil we have done in the flesh, so that we may be saved by our Lord while we have a chance to repent. For once we have departed this world we can no longer confess there or repent any more. Thus, brothers, by doing the Fathers will and by keeping the flesh pure and by abiding by the Lords commands, we shall obtain eternal life. For the Lord says in the Gospel: "If you fail to guard what is small, who will give you what is great? For I tell you that he who is faithful in a very little, is faithful also in much." This, then, is what he means: keep the flesh pure and the seal undefiled, so that we may obtain eternal life.
That may sound legal to us but what about Matthew 5: 17-20, 6:14-15, 7:13-26?
Second, it is necessary to recognize that the developing legalism of the Apostolic Fathers was the product of good and well-intentioned Pastors. They saw the need of moral exhortations, but did not see the need of the gospel. The gospel was, thus, forgotten. The Apostolic Fathers were moralistic not by what they said so much, as by what they didnt say, or didnt emphasize. How much we need a profound understanding of truth which keeps us from such imbalance!
IV. An Unconscious Adulteration of the Gospel resulting in Incipient Catholicism.
1. Greek Moralizing.
The Christians resisted immoral heathenism, but couldnt resist the moral heathenism of the Greek philosophers.
But, as the most reliable result of the study of the period under review, it may be asserted that the variations of the range of Christian thought from the views of the apostles are not to be ascribed directly to Judaistic tendencies. The conclusion thus directly drawn from the general character of the prevalent conception is enforced by the fact, that in not a single point can any specific influence of Jewish-Christian thought or of the ceremonial law be detected. The legality which here appears is not of the Jewish sort, but it, nevertheless, without awakening suspicion, prepared the way for the intrusion of Judaic influences. The moralism is that of the heathen world, particularly in that age, and it has its origin in the state of the natural man as such. The misconceptions of the gospel may be traced directly to the fact that the Gentile Christians did not understand the Old Testament ideas presupposed in the apostolic proclamation of the gospel. Making much of mans own works, the age accepted )e.g., from the Book of Tobit) the legalistic works of the later Jewish piety.
2. Oriental Theorizing.
While the moralizing of the Greeks came into the church more or less consciously, oriental theorizing affected it in spite of its fierce opposition.
Ignatius, for instance, emphasizes the authority of the bishop against the Gnostic heresy and constantly warns against it. Notice, however, how he speaks of the Christian sacraments in oriental categories.
At these meetings you should heed the bishop and presbytery attentively, and break one loaf, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote which wards off death but yields continuous life in union with Jesus Christ.
Pseudo-2nd Clement is a sermon directed against the Gnostic heresy which, however, itself reflects Gnostic modes of thought.
So, my brothers, by doing the will of God our Father we shall belong to the first Church, the spiritual one, which was created before the sun and the moon. But if we fail to do the Lords will, that passage of Scripture will apply to us which says, "My house has become a robbers den." So, then, we must choose to belong to the Church of life in order to be saved. I do not suppose that you are ignorant that the living "Church is the body of Christ." For Scripture says, "God made man male and female." The male is Christ; the female is the Church. The Bible, moreover, and the Apostles say that the Church is not limited to the present, but existed from the beginning. For it was spiritual, as was our Jesus, and was made manifest in the last days to save us. Indeed, the Church which is spiritual was made manifest in the flesh of Christ, and so indicates to us that if any of us guard it in the flesh and do not corrupt it, he will get it in return by the Holy Spirit. For this flesh is the antitype of the spirit. Consequently, no one who has corrupted the antitype will share in the reality. This, then, is what it means, brothers: Guard the flesh so that you may share in the spirit. Now, if we say that the Church is the flesh and the Christ is the spirit, then he who does violence to the flesh, does violence to the Church. Such a person, then, will not share in the spirit, which is Christ. This flesh is able to share in so great a life and immortality, because the Holy Spirit cleaves to it. Nor can one express or tell "what things the Lord has prepared" for his chosen ones.
Though the church doggedly resisted the oriental denial of the incarnation and bodily resurrection it imperceptibly began to think in oriental categories of thought. Not just certain doctrines of the oriental theorists were false, but even the categories in which they thought. Oriental theorizing had infected the very intellectual air the Christians breathed. Thus baptism and the Lords table became "mysteries" and once that happened (since everything Christian must be better) greater and more tremendous mysteries than those of the oriental cults. Thus a realism developed concerning their efficacy and nature which while well-intentioned was thoroughly alien to Christianity.
Observe how subtly our intellectual environment affects our thinking in anti-Christian ways! What need we have to try the spirits!
Note all the characteristics here mentioned are only incipient. That is to say, they are only present in a preliminary or beginning way, not in the full-blown form they assumed in later Roman Catholicism.
Ignatius manifests incipient sacramentalism in these words:
They hold aloof from the Eucharist and from services of prayer, because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which, in his goodness, the Father raised (from the dead).
Hermas speaks as follows of the water of baptism. He refers to "a great tower, built upon the waters." This explanation follows, "Hear then why the tower is built upon the waters. It is because your life has been, and will be, saved through water." The ceremonies surrounding baptism also betray the growing sacramentalist flavor of Christian thinking.
Now about baptism: this is how to baptize. Give public instruction on all these points, and then "baptize" in running water, "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." If you do not have running water, baptize in some other. If you cannot in cold, then in warm. If you have neither, then pour water on the head three times "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Before the baptism, moreover, the one who baptizes and the one being baptized must fast, and any others who can. And you must tell the one being baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand.
2. Penance and Satisfaction.
Again the Shepherd of Hermas provides the clearest illustration of incipient Catholicism here.
"Listen," he said: "all who once suffered for the name of the Lord are honorable before God; and of all these the sins were remitted, because they suffered for the name of the Son of God. And why their fruits are of various kinds, and some of them superior, listen. All," he continued, "who were brought before the authorities and were examined, and did not deny, but suffered cheerfully - these are held in greater honor with God, and of these the fruit is superior; but all who were cowards,and in doubt, and who reasoned in their hearts whether they would deny or confess, and yet suffered, of these the fruit is less, because that suggestion came into their hearts; for that suggestion - that a servant should deny his Lord - is evil. Have a care, therefore, ye who are planning such things, lest that suggestion remain in your hearts, and ye perish unto God. And ye who suffer for His name ought to glorify God, because He deemed you worthy to bear His name, that all your sins might be healed. (Therefore, rather deem yourselves happy), and Think that ye have done a great thing, if any of you suffer on account of God. The Lord bestows upon you life, and ye do not understand, for your sins were heavy; but if you had not suffered for the name of the Lord, ye would have died to God on account of your sins.
Second Clement also contains such incipient elements.
So, Brothers, since we have been given no small opportunity to repent, let us take the occasion to turn to God who has called us, while we still have One to accept us. For if we renounce these pleasures and master our souls by avoiding their evil lusts, we shall share in Jesus mercy. Understand that "the day" of judgment is already "on its way like a furnace ablaze," and "the powers of heaven will dissolve" and the whole earth will be like lead melting in fire. Then mens secret and overt actions will be made clear. Charity, then, like repentance from sin, is a good thing. But fasting is better than prayer, and charity than both. "Love covers a multitude of sins," and prayer, arising from a good conscience, "rescues from death." Blessed is everyone who abounds in these things, for charity lightens sin.
Notice also the words of the Didache.
Do not be one who holds his hand out to take, but shuts it when it comes to giving. If your labor has brought you earnings, pay a ransom for your sins. Do not hesitate to give and do not give with a bad grace; for you will discover who He is that pays you back a reward with a good grace.
The Didache contains these words:
See "that no one leads you astray" from this way of the teaching, since such a ones teaching is godless. If you can bear the Lords full yoke, you will be perfect. But if you cannot, then do what you can."
This was the first manifestation of the so-called Councils of Perfection. These councils were based (supposedly) on statements of Matthew 19, I Corinthians 7. They were also popularized by later statements of Origen and Tertullian.
The Shepherd of Hermas also provides one of the first hints of the doctrine of supererogation.
I said to him, "Sir, I do not see the meaning of these similitudes, nor am I able to comprehend them, unless you explain them to me." "I will explain them all to you," he said, " and whatever I shall mention in the course of our conversations I will show you. (Keep the commandments of the Lord, and you will be approved, and inscribed amongst the number of those who observe His commands.) And if you do any good beyond what is commanded by God, you will gain for yourself more abundant glory, and will be more honored by God than you would otherwise be. If, therefore, in keeping the commandments of God, you do, in addition, these services, you will have joy if you observe them according to my command."
5. Episcopacy and the Primacy of Rome.
The development of Episcopacy will be covered separately under Section 4. In Ignatius there are seed ideas out of which sprung the later system. Of the Primacy of Rome there is nothing even in incipient form. Clement of Romes brotherly exhortation to Corinth is an interesting foreshadowing of the later claims. It only reflects at most, however, a sense of big-brotherly responsibility on the part of the Roman Church.
This is reflected clearly in its incipient stages in some of the earlier references. The Didache cited above reflects the beginning of extra-biblical ceremonies surrounding baptism. Hermas reflects (in incipient form) a distinction between mortal and venial sins. Seeberg says,
Although Hermas in other connections by no means regards sin as consisting merely in outward works, but includes in it inward desire (Vis. l.l.8; 3.8.4. Mand l2.l.l; 2.2; 4.2. Sim. 5.l.5), yet of repentance he can say: "For he that hath sinned is conscious that he hath done evil in the sight of the Lord, and his deed that he has done comes into his heart, and he repents and no more does evil, but does good most abundantly, and humbles his soul and afflicts it, because he has sinned" (Mand. 4.2.2; cf. Sim. 7.4). But it is not held that he whose sins have been forgiven can thereafter live without sin. The "Shepherd" himself since his conversion remains liable to many moral faults, and the righteous as well as the wicked must, after every transgression, take refuge to the Lord (Sim. 9.l.2; cf. Zahn, p. 355). Hermas does not venture to condemn to death the man who, after hearing the call to repentance, shall sin under pressure of temptation (Mand. 4.3.6). He has in mind such sins as effect a surrender of the moral power of the Gospel, a complete corruption: he is thinking of apostasy, which is to be followed by a new conversions (Sim. 9.l4.l ff.; cf. Mand.4.l.8. Sim 9.26.6). Accordingly, repentance is like conversion: "If ye turn to the Lord with your whole heart, and work righteousness the remaining days of your life, and serve him strictly according to his will, he will heal your former sins" (Mand. l2.6.2; cr. Sim. 8.ll.3). This is the starting point of the Catholic discrimination between venial and mortal sins. The error lies not really in the general idea of repentance, but in an underestimate of minor sins. But the chief defection from the biblical standard lies in the failure to understand grace as the forgiveness of sins extending continuously throughout the whole life. Hence the Moralism of Hermas.
Hermas also has clear pelagianizing tendencies in his doctrine of apostasy from true grace.
"Those stones, sir, that were rejected," I inquired,"on what account were they rejected? for they passed through the gate, and were placed by the hands of the virgins in the building of the tower." "Since you take an interest in everything," he replied, " and examine minutely, hear about the stones that were rejected. These all," he said, "received the name of God, and they received also the strength of these virgins. Having received, then, these spirits, they were made strong, and were with the servants of God; and theirs was one spirit, and one body, and one clothing. For they were of the same mind, and wrought righteousness. After a certain time, however, they were persuaded by the women whom you saw clothed in black, and having their shoulders exposed and their hair dishevelled, and beautiful in appearance. Having seen these women, they desired to have them, and clothed themselves with their strength, and put off the strength of the virgins. These, accordingly, were rejected from the house of God, and were given over to these women. But they who were not deceived by the beauty of these women remained in the house of God. You have," he said, "the explanation of those who were rejected.".....Restore to Him, therefore, a spirit sound as ye received it. For when you have given to a fuller a new garment, and desire to receive it back entire at the end, if, then, the fuller return you a torn garment, will you take it from him, and not rather be angry, and abuse him, saying, "I gave you a garment that was entire: why have you rent it, and made it useless, so that it can be of no use on account of the rent which you have made in it?" Would you not say all this to the fuller about the rent which you found in your garment? If, therefore, you grieve about your garment, and complain because you have not received it entire, what do you think the Lord will do to you, who gave you a sound spirit, which you have rendered altogether useless, so that it can be of no service to its possessor? for its use began to be unprofitable, seeing it was corrupted by you. Will not the Lord, therefore, because of this conduct of yours regarding His Spirit, act in the same way, and deliver you over to death?
Hermas also manifests pelagian tendencies in his references to the innocence of infants which he implies some Christians can attain. Note the following:
"And they who believed from the twelfth mountain, which was white, are the following: they are as infant children, in whose hearts no evil originates; nor did they know what wickedness is but always remained as children. Such accordingly, without doubt, dwell in the kingdom of God, because they defiled in nothing the commandments of God; but they remained like children all the days of their life in the same mind. All of you, then, who shall remain stedfast, and be as children, without doing evil, will be more honored than all who have been previously mentioned; for all infants are honourable before God, and are the first persons with Him. Blessed, then, are ye who put away wickedness from yourselves, and put on innocence. As the first of all will you live unto God."
The Didache unconsciously manifests an externalism often associated with legalism. Referring to Jesus warning in the gospels not to fast as the hypocrites do (Matt. 6:16; Luke 18:12), it remarks, "Your fasts must not be identical with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Mondays and Thursdays; but you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays."
A. The Supernatural Character of the Scriptures of the Apostles
This is strikingly deduced from the facts we have been considering by Cunningham.
The striking contrast between the writings of the apostles and their immediate successors has been often remarked, and should never be overlooked or forgotten. Neanders observation upon this subject is this: "A phenomenon singular in its kind, is the striking difference between the writings of the apostles and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, who were so nearly their contemporaries. In other cases, transitions are wont to be gradual; but in this instance we observe a sudden change. There are here no gentle gradations, but all at once an abrupt transition from one style of language to another; a phenomenon which should lead us to acknowledge the fact of a special agency of the divine Spirit in the souls of the apostles."
B. The Speed of Early Decline from the Plane of Apostolic Thought.
The Churchs apprehension of the teaching of the Apostles was not lost through a slow decline into the middle ages. Rather there is a swift plummet into the simplistic thinking of the Apostolic Fathers. It is from that low point of understanding (out of which error quickly developed) that the church has only through immense pains and conflict with error through the centuries been gradually raised by the work of the Spirit.
Thus, the thought of the Apostolic Fathers is not only a bit lower, but a great deal lower than the Apostles. This brings us to the third conclusion:
C. The Uselessness of the Apostolic Fathers as Authoritative Guides
Hear Cunningham again.
Such are the apostolical fathers, and such their writings, in as far as God has been pleased to preserve them, and to afford us the means of distinguishing them. And I think this brief survey of them must be quite sufficient to show the truth of the two positions which I laid down in introducing this topic - viz., first, that we have no certain information, nothing on which we can rely with confidence as a mere question of evidence, as to what the inspired apostles taught and ordained, except what is contained in the canonical Scriptures; and, secondly, that there are no men, except the authors of the inspired books of Scripture, to whom there is any plausible pretence for calling upon us to look up as guides or oracles. It was manifestly, as the result proves, not the purpose of God to convey to us, through the instrumentality of the immediate successors of the apostles, any important information as to the substance of the revelation which He made to man, in addition to what, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has been embodied in the sacred Scriptures, and has in His good providence been preserved pure and uncorrupted. The apostolical fathers hold an important place as witnesses to the genuineness, authenticity, and integrity of the Scriptures; but this is their principal value. There is much about them, both in their character and in their writings, which is fitted to confirm our faith in the divine origin of Christianity, and the divine authority of the Scriptures; but there is nothing about them that should tempt us to take them instead of, or even in addition to, the evangelists and apostles as our guides. They exhibit a beautiful manifestation of the practical operation of Christian principle, and especially of ardent love to the Saviour, and entire devotedness to His service, which is well fitted to impress our minds, and to constrain us to imitation; but there is also not a little about them fitted to remind us that we must be followers of them only as they were of Christ, and that it is only the word of God that is fitted to make us perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
Illustration of this is provided by Clement of Romes letter to the Corinthians. This letter most closely parallels the thought of apostolic literature of any of the Apostolic Fathers. If any book outside the New Testament could be argued to be authoritative it is this. It was in fact frequently included in early lists of the New Testament books. Even here, however, the contrast with the Apostles is apparent.
Let us consider, dear friends, how the Master continually points out to us that there will be a future resurrection. Of this he made the Lord Jesus Christ the first fruits by raising him from the dead. Let us take note, dear friends, of the resurrection at the natural seasons. Day and night demonstrate resurrection. Night passes and day comes. Day departs and night returns. Take the crops as examples. How and in what way is the seeding done? The sower goes out and casts each of his seeds in the ground. When they fall on the ground they are dry and bare, and they decay. But then the marvelous providence of the Master resurrects them from their decay, and from a single seed many grow and bear fruit.
Let us note the remarkable token which comes from the East, from the neighborhood, that is of Arabia. There is a bird which is called a phoenix. It is the only one of its kind and lives five hundred years. When the time for its departure and death draws near, it makes a burial nest for itself from frankincense, myrrh and other spices; and when the time is up, it gets into it and dies. From its decaying flesh a worm is produced, which is nourished by the secretions of the dead creature and grows wings. When it is full-fledged, it takes up the burial nest containing the bones of its predecessor, and manages to carry them all the way from Arabia to the Egyptian city called Heliopolis. And in broad daylight, so that everyone can see, it lights at the altar of the sun and puts them down there, and so starts home again. The priests then look up their dated records and discover it has come after a lapse of five hundred years. Shall we, then, imagine that it is something great and surprising if the Creator of the universe raises up those who have served him in holiness and in the assurance born of a good faith, when he uses a mere bird to illustrate the greatness of his promise? For he says somewhere: "And you shall raise me up and I shall give you thanks"; and, "I lay down and slept: I rose up because you are with me." And again Job says, "And you will make this flesh of mine, which has endured all this, to rise up."
Section 3: Their Doctrinal Significance