CIn the past two weeks we’ve argued the case for studying the history of the Church and explained how the Church expanded from the day of Christ’s ascension to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. The events of the expansion of the Church largely deal with the ministry and deaths of the apostles. We now turn to discuss a new era of Church history that brings us a whole cast of characters, those whom the apostles personally discipled, the apostolic fathers.
Three things come square into view as we look at this era.
-First, developments within the Church.
-Second, the leaders within the Church.
-Third, the writings of those leaders.
Developments Within the Church
While the ministry of the apostles was largely the work of revelation (recall God through them brought about the inspired writings of the New Testament), the ministry of the apostolic fathers was largely the work of preservation. How did they seek to preserve the teaching of the apostles in the Church? We see this taking place with their efforts in the organization and worship of the church.
-Apostles dead, mostly…
-Who should lead? Bishops? Presbyters? Deacons?
-The interpretation the early church took was the bishop and presbyter both referred to the same office of leadership within the church rather than two separate offices. But in actual practice those who led the church were called bishops while those who served alongside or under the bishop’s leadership were called presbyter’s or elders. This idea goes back to what was present in the organization of the Jewish synagogues, where one senior elder, called the ‘president’ or ‘ruler’, would lead as the first among equals while being supported by a group of elders with equal authority. While this leader could be called a presbyter himself he was only called a bishop, while the presbyters serving under his leadership, who could rightly also be called bishops, were only called presbyters.
-This bishop would be elected by a congregational vote and would be installed and ordained by other bishops through the laying on of hands. Thus began what would come to be known as ‘apostolic succession.’ Where a particular bishop could trace, through his ordination family tree, a line back to the apostles themselves. While this would come to be abused within the Roman Catholic church in years to come it did not yet function in this unhealthy manner. For now, apostolic succession meant first, that you could both trace a bishop’s ordination back to the apostles themselves, and second, that the bishop must embrace and teach the same faith the apostles embraced and taught. Once establishing these things it was the bishop who slowly but surely began to be seen as the chief theologian, shepherd, and preacher for that particular congregation.
-This is why most of the prominent figures of this era and throughout much of the early history of the Church, were called bishops instead of pastors. Because the bishop was seen in such a prominent role, the role of presbyters/elders would sometimes be seen as the bishop’s assistants rather than as peers. Some may baulk against this kind of leadership that developed saying it gave too much power to one man, and it some instances that would prove correct. But where healthy and humble bishops led with a group of healthy and humble presbyters it would usually create a healthy environment.
-What about deacons? Deacons served then in much the same capacity they serve now. Whether elected by the presbyters or the congregation isn’t clear, but their responsibilities were clear: helping the poor in the community, attending to the physical needs of the church members, and aiding the bishop in the worship service (especially during the Lord’s Supper).
-Remember the apostolic fathers sought to preserve the apostles teaching in how the church was organized and in the worship of the church. How then did the bishops craft the worship of their churches? It depended who you were:
-Jewish congregations largely followed the pattern of synagogue worship until 70AD when the temple was destroyed (the remaining Jews sought to distance themselves as far as possible from the Christians).
-Gentile Christians more independent…not having that background
-But by the end of the apostolic age most echoes of synagogue worship had vanished from worship services.
Most worship services included the following elements:
-Scripture read (call to worship, various readings from OT/NT)
-Preaching (debate on how deeply it was done)
-Lord’s Supper (fenced by warning all present or by dismissing unbelievers)
-Responses/Chanting/ some singing (mainly chanting, no instruments, singing was rare at first but slowly developed)
-It’s also worth noting that all stood throughout the entirety of worship in this era. Pews weren’t introduced until the 14thcentury.
-Recall that both the organization of the church and the worship of the church was all bent towards preserving and proclaiming the teaching of the apostles. In this true sense of the word, we also today could be considered apostolic, not in the sense that I claim to an apostle but that I and the other elders here embrace and teach the faith of the apostles.
The Leaders/Writings Within the Church
What leaders were prominent during this time? And what writings did they leave behind? Much from the age of the apostolic fathers remains for us to read today:
-The Letter of Clement:taking a cue from the name, this letter was written by Clement, bishop of Rome, around 96AD to the church in Corinth. The reason of the letter was to solve a conflict in the leaders of the church. Apparently, all the older elders were removed and replaced with younger elders. Clement argued this wasn’t a move toward a healthy direction but a move in an unhealthy direction. He mentioned that a church can remove elders/deacons for just cause, but what they did was without just cause. Therefore the church ought to restore them back to their previous offices, and they in the authority of that office can install and ordain new elders if they see fit to do so.
-The Didache:dating around 100AD, the Didache is a handbook for Christian living. The first part covers matters of doctrine, contrasting the ‘way of life’ and the ‘way of death’, while the second part covers life within the church. Many early church bishops throughout the early church and theologians in our day quote the Didache to show what life and doctrine were like for the early church.
-The Letters of Ignatius of Antioch:Ignatius was the bishop of the church in Antioch, who was martyred in Rome in 110AD. He is most well known for his letters he wrote on the journey from Antioch to Rome before his execution. Seven letters were written to churches throughout Asia Minor, and one letter was written to Polycarp (who’ll be mentioned shortly). These letters stress unity and submission to the bishops over the churches, as well as a robust devotion to Christ and willingness to lie and die for Him.
-The Fragments of Papias:somewhat strangely, Papias (the bishop of the church in Hierapolis from 110-130AD) set out to collect everything that Jesus said that wasn’t recorded in the gospel accounts. He went about this by conducting many interviews with the Jews who had been dispersed all throughout the empire. And as you can imagine, many within the Church viewed this endeavor as strange and discarded much of what he collected while some did accept them as truthful.
-Letter of Barnabas:written in Alexandria in 120AD, this letter is a doctrinal book describing how to interpret the Old Testament in a Christian manner. It claims the Jews misinterpreted much of God’s Law taking it literally instead of spiritually. In describing the Jewish error it communicates a high distaste for the Jews, so much so that many Christians in Alexandria and beyond began to have what some historians call ‘a mindless hostility’ toward the Jews who misinterpreted God’s Word and killed Christ.
-Shepherd of Hermas:written by Hermas (100-140AD) claimed to be a prophet who received visions or revelations from an angel and an old woman. His main concern was to communicate that those who commit serious sins after their baptism can truly be forgiven, but only once.
-The Letter to Diognetus:written around 100-150AD this letter is concerned with contrasting the false nature of paganism and Judaism with the wonderfully true nature of Christianity. No one knows who wrote it, but many readers find it be to one of the most beautiful letters written from this era. (example on page 96 of Needham)
-Polycarp:Begins with another martyr, Germanicus, who was so courageous at his death many watching converted. But one obstinate onlooker was maddened and cried out, “Death to the Christians, let Polycarp be sought for!” News reached Polycarp, he was encouraged to leave the city, he did, went to a country house, where he was discovered by a young boy. They came for him with many well-armed men, but they all were astonished at how old and wise and humble he seemed to be. Here’s how the rest of the account goes:
“As Polycarp was being taken into the arena, a voice came to him from heaven: “Be strong, Polycarp and play the man!” No one saw who had spoken, but our brothers who were there heard the voice. When the crowd heard that Polycarp had been captured, there was an uproar. The Proconsul asked him, “Have respect for your old age, swear by the fortune of Caesar. Repent, and say, ‘Down with the Atheists!’” Polycarp looked grimly at the wicked heathen multitude in the stadium, and gesturing towards them, he said, “Down with the Atheists!” “Swear,” urged the Proconsul, “reproach Christ, and I will set you free.” “86 years have I have served him,” Polycarp declared, “and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” “I have wild animals here,” the Proconsul said. “I will throw you to them if you do not repent.” “Call them,” Polycarp replied. “It is unthinkable for me to repent from what is good to turn to what is evil. I will be glad though to be changed from evil to righteousness.” “If you despise the animals, I will have you burned.” “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want.”
When they went to bind him to the wood with nails, he said, “Leave me as I am, for he that gives me strength to endure the fire, will enable me not to struggle, without the help of your nails.” So they simply bound him with his hands behind him like a distinguished ram chosen from a great flock for sacrifice. Ready to be an acceptable burnt-offering to God, he looked up to heaven, and said, “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of you, the God of angels, powers and every creature, and of all the righteous who live before you, I give you thanks that you count me worthy to be numbered among your martyrs, sharing the cup of Christ and the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and body, through the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received this day as an acceptable sacrifice, as you, the true God, have predestined, revealed to me, and now fulfilled. I praise you for all these things, I bless you and glorify you, along with the everlasting Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To you, with him, through the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and forever. Amen.”
Then the fire was lit, and the flame blazed furiously. We who were privileged to witness it saw a great miracle, and this is why we have been preserved, to tell the story. The fire shaped itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, and formed a circle around the body of the martyr. Inside it, he looked not like flesh that is burnt, but like bread that is baked, or gold and silver glowing in a furnace. And we smelt a sweet scent, like frankincense or some such precious spices. Eventually, when those wicked men saw that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to pierce him with a dagger. When he did this such a great quantity of blood flowed that the fire was extinguished. The crowd was amazed. Some converted, some worshiped Polycarp as a god, and many others grew in their anger toward Christ and His Christians.
Nick Needham, 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power – The Age of the Early Church Fathers, vol. 1 (London, England: Focus Publishing, 2016) page 63-99. All of what follows comes from this chapter.
Taken from Christianhistoryinstitute.com, Needham page 66, and Foxe’s Book of Martyr’s page 55-56.