An Assessment of the Writings of the
Apostolic Fathers

 

Dave Merck

 


 

Introduction.

Who were the Apostolic Fathers? They were some of the first church leaders after the Apostles, whose lifetimes overlapped those of the Apostles, who at least in part had personal contact with Apostles, and whose writings have at least in part survived. They formed the connecting link between the Apostles and the church history which followed, which should be of real interest to us.

These Apostolic Fathers include Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp; and in a broader sense Papias and the uncertain or unknown authors of The Shepherd of Hermas, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistle to Diognetus, The Didache (or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), and Pseudo-2nd Clement.

It should be noted that we know relatively little about these men other than what is told us in their writings. This is due, at least in part, to the early period of church history in which they lived, during which the church was a persecuted minority.

Our study of the Apostolic Fathers will include three issues:

I. The general character of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers

II. An overall assessment & specific observations of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers

III Their doctrinal significance of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers

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I. The general character of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers

1. Their language. The writings of the Apostolic Fathers which have survived were all written in Greek, following the pattern of the new Testament. This fact was true even when their writings originated in Rome, the capital city of the natively Latin-speaking Romans. This fact is a further evidence of how pervasive was the Greek culture and language in the Roman Empire.

2. Their extent. The surviving works of the Apostolic fathers would in total make up a volume about twice the size of our New Testament. (I.e., they are not very extensive.)

3. Their nature. These works are not primarily technical systematic doctrinal treatises, but more practical works which contain "simple direct assertions of faith and exhortations to a holy life" (Schaff, p. 634). All, except The Shepherd of Hermas, The Didache, and Pseudo-2nd Clement are in the form of epistles or letters which follow the model of the Apostle Paul. I.e., they are mainly the language of a pastor speaking or writing to God's people.

 

II. An overall assessment & specific observations of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers

A. An overall assessment.

"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" (p.66).

Schaff confirms 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 fullness 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 these were not yet so generally circulated; but they bear a testimony none the less valuable to the genuineness of the apostolic writings, by occasional citations or allusions, and by the coincidence of their reminiscences with the facts of the gospel history and the fundamental doctrines of the New Testament." (pg. 634-5)

This then is an overall assessment of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. But now let us focus in upon:

B. Some specific observations.

There was in the Apostolic Fathers

1. A conscious preservation of, adherence to, and exemplification of Apostolic Christianity -- both doctrinally and practically. These Apostolic Fathers appear as those who consciously were seeking to hold fast to, and walk in, the truths which had been passed down to them by Christ's special messengers.

But also, there was:

2. A simple, meager, indefinite, and even superficial understanding of Apostolic doctrinal teachings. These men spoke the words and truths of Scripture, but at the same time manifested that they did not understand much of what they spoke, including how it related to other truths.

Further, in the Apostolic Fathers there was:

3. A pervasive (and moralistic) practical and ethical focus.

"It is possible . . . to over-state the incipient legalism of the Apostolic Fathers (especially given the carelessness of the modern professing Christian church) . . . It is (also) 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 didn't say, or didn't emphasize. How much we need a profound understanding of truth which keeps us from such imbalance! (especially as pastors and parents)." (Waldron, p. 73).

Which brings us in the fourth place to the fact that, in the Apostolic Fathers, there was:

4. An unconscious adulteration of the Gospel resulting in incipient (Roman) Catholicism. Greek philosophy and oriental categories of thought gradually and imperceptibly slipped in even while men were standing against error. In only a preliminary or beginning way, the following later Roman Catholic errors were to be found in the Apostolic Fathers:

a. Sacramentalism, which was a looking to the sacraments for salvation

b. Penance and satisfaction, or the idea that we may merit favor from God by our own good works including suffering for Christ

c. Asceticism, which was an unbiblical looking down upon "fleshly" appetites, and exalting of celibacy (not marrying) and poverty

d. Supererogation, or the man-made notion that one may somehow exceed the righteous demands of God

e. Episcopacy and the Primacy of Rome, or the erection of an unbiblical hierarchy with church officers other than the Apostolate instituted above the elders or overseers of local churches

f. Legalism, which is the addition of extra-biblical requirements or duties or distinctions, whether regarding salvation or a moral life

This then is an attempt to assess the general character of the Apostolic Fathers. Next week we will, Lord willing, take up a third item regarding the Apostolic Fathers, their doctrinal significance. But today, as we end our time together, please consider with me:

Some final conclusions... First of all, it is crucial that we observe:

1. The supernatural character of the Scriptures of the Apostles. Listen to the words of Neander, an evangelical church historian of the Nineteenth Century:

"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." (pg. 656-7)

2. The speed of early decline from the plane of Apostolic thought. Pastor Waldron observes:

"The Church's 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 Apostle's". (pg 82.)

This brings us to a third conclusion:

3. The uselessness of the Apostolic Fathers as authoritative guides. Cunningham observes:

"...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"...(p. 120)

Even Clement of Rome's Epistle to the Corinthians, that book which of any outside the New Testament could make the best claim to being authoritative, is found to be sadly deficient in comparison with the Scriptures. Consider Clement's illustration of the doctrine of the final resurrection:

"...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?..."(Waldron, p. 84)

The Apostolic Fathers, edifying as they may be at points, are by such instances shown to be in stark contrast with the New Testament Scriptures and thus to not be authoritative for us as the Word of God.

But lest we conclude our class today with a too negative perspective regarding the Apostolic Fathers, consider a final conclusion:

4. The usefulness of the Apostolic Fathers as examples of faith in Christ, and of zeal for Christ and His church, which made them willing to even lay down their lives where necessary. Would that we would have more of the bold, believing spirit of a Polycarp as he refused to deny his Lord at the cost of his life.

 

III. Their doctrinal significance of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers

This morning we will be considering the doctrinal significance of the Apostolic Fathers...

As we prepare to do so, you might be asking yourselves why we are bothering to even take up this study. If the writings of the Apostolic Fathers are so disappointing and tainted with error, why bother to ask what they said regarding key doctrines? In response to such a question, let me remind you of a reality which we identified when we studied the great change which took place with the ending of the living Apostolate. We saw that in the areas where the church eventually slid into definite error over time, those who lived closest to the time of the Apostles generally (but not absolutely) would have possessed an understanding and practice of the will of Christ closest to that of the inspired Apostles. So even where the Apostolic Fathers were sliding into the errors which would eventually ripen into an apostate Roman Catholic Church, they are still helpful to us for identifying when the errors started to creep in, and how the church ended up where she did. And they are helpful in discerning the direction of the truth as we backtrack up the church's slide into error. Thus we should not avoid studying what the Apostolic Fathers said as being irrelevant.

However, there is an opposite extreme which we must also be careful to avoid as we study what the Apostolic Fathers wrote regarding various doctrinal issues. Listen at this point to Pastor Waldron:

"...Catholics normally speak of a supposed universal consent of the Fathers. We do not seek any such supposed universal consensus. (None really exists!) We seek only to discover if any witness is borne in the Fathers to our understanding of the teaching of Scripture. We are asking, Is the atmosphere of the earliest post-apostolic church hospitable to our opinions? Precise theological issues will not be resolved, but broad perspectives may be gained." (p. 94)...

...This then has been a brief attempt to survey what the Apostolic Fathers taught regarding five key areas of biblical truth. Hopefully you have been able to observe at least two concluding realities regarding their writings:

1. We have seen flashes of the truths taught by the Apostles. Some of these biblical truths, like those associated with church government and the Doctrines of Grace, shined more brightly in the Apostolic Fathers than they did later in an increasingly apostate church. Others truths glimpsed in the Apostolic Fathers, like the deity of Christ, were to be more clearly seen and articulated in the centuries which immediately followed. How we should praise our Lord for preserving His truth in His church in the past, and for the hope of its ultimate triumph in the earth.

2. We have also seen how quickly error began to creep into the Early Church, right after the last of the Apostles had died (and even before, if we look at our New Testaments). Truly the gates of hades have raged against Christ's church from day one. And they still rage today with increasing subtle perversions of the truths of God's Word. How we must guard against the subtle inroads of error and jealously guard the truth. What was probably a simple step of appointing one of several originally equal elders to be the chairman or representative of all of the elders in some capacity in one or more local churches, because left unguarded, led to the monstrosity of the hierarchy of Rome.

 


Edited by GospelPedlar from:
Church History, by Pastor Dave Merck, Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, MI.