Reading: The Age of the Apostolic Fathers A.D. 96-117 (The Early Church, Chapter 4)

 The Early Church by James Orr



With the mild Nerva, after the murder of Domitian (A.D. 96), begins the series of what are sometimes known as "The Five Good Emperors.” Nerva was succeeded (A.D. 98) by the soldier-like Trajan, under whom we reach, as ordinarily counted, the 


            The Persecution in Bithynia -- Pliny and Trajan.

A correspondence preserved to us between Pliny and the emperor serves as a light to reveal the extraordinary progress made by Christianity in certain parts of Asia Minor in the beginning of the second century. 

Pliny at the time (A.D. 112) was proconsul of the extensive province of Bithynia-Pontus. So widely spread was Christianity in this province that the pagan temples were almost deserted, the sacred rites had long been suspended, and sacrificial victims could scarcely find purchasers. Persons of all ages and ranks, and of both sexes, had embraced the new "superstition."  Informers had testified before the Proconsul, and numbers of Christians had already been put to death. The test applied was to offer wine and incense before the images of the gods and emperor, and to revile Christ. The multitude of the persecutions involved Pliny in doubt as to how he should act, and he deferred to the emperor for direction. Trajan's reply in effect was that he was not to look for cases, or receive anonymous tips. But if Christians were brought before him and proved obstinate, he was to punish them. If this letter of Trajan afforded Christians a measure of protection, in other respects it was a distinct worsening of their position. Prior to this time, Christians had fallen only under the general laws of the empire; now they were, so to speak, singled out as a group definitely proscribed. Their illegal standing was directly affirmed. Henceforth the very name of Christian sufficed to condemn them. On the other hand, Pliny's letter is a powerful vindication of the Christians. Investigation, even under torture, had demonstrated that their proceedings were perfectly innocent, and that all that could be charged against them was (as Pliny judged of it) an absurd and extravagant superstition. 

The letter throws valuable light also on the worship of the time. The Christians met, it is told, on a  "stated day " (Sunday) before daybreak, sang a hymn to Christ as God, and bound themselves by an oath to abstain from every kind of crime; in the evening they reassembled to eat a harmless meal.  This evening meeting they discontinued after Pliny's prohibition. This remarkable epistle been called "the first apology for Christianity." 

                Martyrdom of Ignatius-- The Ignatian Epistles. 

 Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, is the first martyr-hero of whom we have a definite account. The often-told story of his condemnation by Trajan, his dialogue with the emperor, his play upon the word Theophoros (God-bearer), etc., is derived from a very old account and is imaginary. All we really know of the martyr is drawn from his own Epistles of which there are seven that seem authentic.  From these we learn that Ignatius was tried and condemned at Antioch (c. A.D. 110), not by the emperor but by the governor, and was sent across Asia Minor under the care of ten guards to Rome, to be thrown to wild beasts. The road to Smyrna, where a halt was made, divides into two, a northern and a southern. The martyr was taken by the upper route, but the Churches along the lower route were asked to send delegates to meet him at that city. The holy Polycarp presided over the Church of Smyrna at the time. 

This brings us to the origin of the epistles. Before leaving, Ignatius wrote letters to the Churches along the lower road -- Ephesus,  Magnesia, Tralles, and Rome --breathing an ardent desire for martyrdom. The remaining three letters - to Philadelphia, Smyrna, and a personal one to Polycarp --were written from Troas, the next important halting-place. He passes then to Philippi, and this is the last glimpse we get of him. The stop at Philippi, however, was the occasion of obtaining for us another valuable relic of the period in the Epistle of Polycarp (see below), to whom the Philippians had written, asking for copies of the martyr's letters. In due time Ignatius would arrive at Rome, would be delivered into the proper custody, then when the final day came, he would be led into the blood-stained arena, to meet his death at the jaws of the beasts, amidst the roar of thousands of delighted spectators.

His epistles are his legacy -- and his photograph. Of warm Syrian temperament, Ignatius is eager and impetuous, a warm "encourager of men," yet consumed with a passionate devotion to Christ. Ignatius did not count his life dear to him if, at any cost, he could "attain" to union with His Lord. He is, to all ages, the typical "Martyr." 

            The Literature of the Period-- The ''Apostolic Fathers"

The name "Apostolic Fathers” is given to a number of writings whose authors were believed to be, in the strict sense, apostolic men, i.e., either contemporaries or disciples of the apostles. They all emanate from the sub-apostolic age, and represent the thought of a period in regard to which they are nearly the only Christian monuments we possess. Incomparably inferior to the writings of the New Testament (a fact of which the authors themselves were fully aware), they have yet many beauties and a distinct interest. Leaves and scraps of a lost literature -- for such they really are -- they are far from lacking in variety of subject and style.  

   At the head of the list stands the Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (A.D. 96). The author is the same Clement who appears in the early lists as the third of the Roman bishops whose fabulous history is given in the Clementines. The occasion was a revolt of the Corinthian Church against certain of its elders, which had resulted in their forcible removal from office. Clement writes in name of the Roman Church to urge concord and submission to authority. The tone is one of "sweet reasonableness," yet in parts there is a note of superiority. The epistle is an early witness to St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Its closing chapters (59, 60) are a prayer of a distinctly liturgical character. The so-called second epistle of Clement is really an ancient homily or sermon -- the first of its kind we possess. Its date may be about A.D. 130-40. It is a simple edifying production, with here and there a touch of ultra-spiritualizing. A peculiarity in it is the quotation of several sayings of our Lord from an apocryphal source. 

   A third writing, the so-called Epistle of Barnabas, derives its name from the belief that it was the production of the companion of St. Paul. The epistle was written after the destruction of Jerusalem (an event it mentions), and bears a strongly anti- Judaic character. Yet it is of very early date (A.D. 70-100). Its literary peculiarities suggest that it was written in Alexandria. It is marked by excessive fondness for allegorizing, and by a far-fetched, fanciful style of treatment generally. It aims at imparting a higher "knowledge” in the interpretation of "types”--the Old Testament foreshadowing of New Testament realities. Both the Epistle of Barnabas and The Shepherd of Hermas incorporate material found in the earlier chapters of the Didache -- thus raising an interesting literary problem. 

   The Shepherd of Hermas is our oldest allegory. It has been fitly called the Pilgrim's Progress of the early Church. It was held in the highest repute in the Church. Irenaeus and Origen even speak of it as "scripture." The author most likely was the brother of Pius I, Bishop of Rome (A.D. 140-155). He speaks of himself, however, as a contemporary of Clement of Rome (ch. 4), and the simplicity of the Church order in the book agrees with this earlier date (c. A.D. 100). Hermas, according to his own account, was the slave of a Roman lady, named Rhoda, who set him free and showed him many kindnesses. His book consists of three parts -- Visions, Mandates, and Similitudes. The chief figure in the Visions is the Church, represented by a venerable lady, who appears younger in each new vision. In the last Vision the Savior appears as a Shepherd (hence the name), and bids him write down the commandments and parables He would give him. The Mandates show acquaintance with the Didache.

   The Similitudes remind one of Bunyan's (in the Pilgrim's Progress) Interpreter's House. They contain ten parables, and give their interpretations. 

   The Epistles of Ignatius (A.D. 110) have already been described. Their chief interest is in their bearings on the origin of hierarchical church governance. Allusion has also been made to the origin of the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians (A.D. 110), which is remarkable for the use it makes of 1 Peter and 1 John, and for the authentication it gives to St. Paul's epistle to the same Church. 

   One of the finest of all the post-apostolic writings is the Epistle to Diognetus, which, though it really belongs to the next period (c. A.D. 150), is best taken here. It found its way into our list from the belief that its author was a disciple of the apostles; then was long attributed to Justin Martyr. The Diognetus to whom it is addressed may have been the tutor of Marcus Aurelius of that name. It combats idolatry, defends theism, and gives a strong and clear presentation of evangelical truths. One thought dwelt on is the cosmopolitan character of Christianity. "What the soul is in the body that Christians are in the world." 

    The Didache, or Teaching of the Apostles has been before us in an earlier connection. It is in part a book of moral instruction and in part our oldest work on Church order as it gives instructions about baptism, the Supper and church offices. The literary relationship of Barnabas and Hermas to the Didache can best be explained by supposing that both the Didache and Barnabas work up material from an older source -- a moral treatise on "the two ways" which must go back to apostolic times. The book in its present form may be dated about A.D. 100. 

        The Theology of '' The Apostolic Fathers" 

    The writings named above have little independent theological worth, but are valuable as reflecting the state of mind in the early Church before extensive theological reflection had begun. The descent from the full and vigorous presentation of doctrine in the apostolic epistles is very noticeable. There is plentiful use of Scriptural language, but often little real insight into its meaning. As if to efface past differences, and emphasize universal unity in the Church, there is a studious linking together of the names of St. Peter and St. Paul as of equal honor and authority. But the sharp edges are taken off the thoughts of both, with the result that we have what has been called an average type of doctrine, in which common features are retained, and distinctive features tend to be lost. 

   The Christology of these writings is in the main strong and clear. It follows the lines of New Testament teaching on the pre-existence, deity, incarnation, and true humanity as well as true divinity of the Son. Hermas has been thought to be an exception, but his ninth Similitude should clear him from this accusation. In it Hermas compares Christ to a "rock" and a "gate" -- a "rock" because it is old (so the Son of God is older than all creation, and was the Father's adviser in creation), and a "gate” because it is new (so He was made manifest in the last days) that we may enter the Kingdom of God through Him. 

    On the Doctrine of Salvation there is greater vagueness. In some of the writings the evangelical note is feeble and hardly discernible (Hermas, Didache), in others it is remarkably pronounced (Polycarp, Epistle to Diognetus). By most, stress is laid on the blood-shedding, the sufferings, the death of Christ, as the medium of cleansing and redemption, but there is no attempt at explanation. Pauline phraseology is used, but the Pauline thought is generally blunted.  Under the conception of Christianity as a "New Law" (Barnabas, Hermas, Didache), there is a tendency to obscure the relation of faith and works, and to lay a one-sided emphasis on obedience as the condition of salvation. Forgiveness is connected with Baptism; the rule after that is obedience. Good works aid repentance in the covering of sin. "Alms-giving removes the burden of sin" (2 Clem, 16). 

   In Eschatology, besides retaining the ordinary elements of apostolic doctrine such as the resurrection, and the return of Christ to judgment, most of the Fathers seem to have been millenarians, i.e. held the doctrine of 1,000 years' reign of Christ upon the earth. The punishment of the wicked is viewed as eternal. In 2 Clement 8 we find, "For after we have departed out of the world, we can no more make confession there, or repent anymore." 

             The Ignatian Episcopacy

  We are brought at this stage face to face with the question of the origin of a hierarchical form of church government (Episcopacy). Two sets of facts meet us:  

             A large body of evidence exists to show that, just after the apostolic age, in the Churches of the West, the organization of the church was not essentially different from that which prevailed earlier. The Churches are ruled by elders or bishops and deacons, and there is no hint of any higher office. Thus, in Clement's Epistle, elders and bishops are still the same persons, and these, with deacons, are the only office-bearers. This is evidence for both Rome and Corinth. The writer, afterwards called Bishop of Rome, makes no claim of the kind for himself. The testimony of Hermas is to the same effect. Hermas knows only of bishops who are also elders. The names are interchangeable. The Didache bears the same witness, "Choose for yourselves bishops and deacons." A higher order is unknown. Ignatius, in his Epistle to the Romans makes no reference to a bishop existing in that city similar to the bishops in Antioch, Smyrna, Ephesus, etc. This, in so strenuous an upholder of episcopacy, shows that even in his time there was still no leading bishop in Rome. Polycarp's Epistle to the Philippians bears testimony of the same kind for Philippi. There was still in that Church no office higher than the apostolic bishops and deacons. 

    When we turn to the remaining Epistles of Ignatius different conditions confront us. It will be observed that the evidence here relates to the Churches of a defined area -- Syria and Asia Minor. We find not only a bishop for each Church distinct from the elders, but an extravagant adoration of the office of the bishop. The bishop is as God, and the elders as the council of God. Or the bishop is as Christ, and the elders are as the council of the apostles. The elders are to be attuned to the bishop, as the strings of a lyre to the lyre. The great thing is to be united with the bishop.  Without the bishop it is not lawful to baptize or celebrate the Eucharist. There is here, therefore, three grades of office-bearers -- bishops, elders and deacons -- as in the previous section there were two. Other evidence confirms the testimony of these epistles. We have Polycarp at Smyrna and Papias at Hierapolis. 

     How is this state of things to be accounted for?  By apostolic authority? Or by the operation of natural causes which elevated the bishops from the elders? It is important, in answering this question, to look precisely at the nature of the Ignatian Episcopate. Distinction must be made between the facts to which Ignatius witnesses and the theory he holds. Ignatius was firmly persuaded that in exalting the power of bishops he was taking the best means of securing the peace and unity of the Church. But it does not follow that bishops had all the power he claimed for them. The very vehemence of his advocacy implies that they had not. 

When various facts are considered, it is surprising to discover how little similarity, after all, the Ignatian bishop has to the bishop of the developed episcopal system.

          In Ignatius, the bishop is a purely congregational, not a diocesan bishop. Each Church -- Antioch, Smyrna, Ephesus, Tralles, etc. -- had its own bishop, who, in this respect, differs little from the modem "pastor."

           Ignatius makes no claim to apostolic succession. Had the idea existed, a defender of episcopacy like Ignatius could not have passed it over.

            The bishop has no priestly functions. There is not throughout these letters the slightest tinge of a separate priesthood with reference to the Christian ministry. 

     This should be decisive as to the ideas of the time period we are considering. Such are the facts -- a government by elders in the Churches of the West; a form of congregational episcopacy in Asia Minor and Syria. By the middle of the second century all the Churches would seem to have advanced to the Ignatian stage. 

How did the change come about?

The theory of a direct appointment of bishops, as a third higher order by the original apostles is not tenable. There remains the possibility that the system, however it was introduced, had the approval of apostles -- at least of the Apostle John. Clement of Alexandria has a statement that St. John went about from place to place establishing bishops and organizing Churches. That statement can neither be proved nor disproved, for Clement may well be reading back into John's action a meaning from his own times, and we have no clue to the nature of the office.

The simplest explanation for the origin of the hierarchy of bishops is probably the most likely. The president of the Council of Elders, as the official representative of the Church, having the ordinary direction of business, the conduct of public worship and generally an outstanding man, would naturally acquire a position of prominence in distinction from the other elders. Times of stress and trial, such as came to the Church after the death of the apostles, when tendencies to disintegration and schism were rife, would powerfully strengthen his authority. The need of the time was good leaders, strong and stable government, and wise direction. Under these circumstances, a system of bishops, such as we know it in Ignatius' day, may well have arisen. 

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