Video Transcript: Unit 4 Lecture 3
Today, I want to take a few minutes to review with you some of the teachings of the Apostolic Fathers. In their lives, they were confronted with a challenging situation. From the outside, they were attacked as following a terrible superstition which was worthy of being brutally stamped out. And from the inside, they were confronted by teachers who wanted to show that they were able to develop a better idea of who Jesus was than those who had walked with him.
It is the second group that I need to describe for a bit.
In our own day, we do well to be aware of the teachings of what we call heretics in the early church. Had these teachings gained the upper hand in the Church, one would be hard pressed to estimate where the church would be at a today. They were of two types: The Gnostic and the Ebionite.
In the Gnostic circles, we have the teaching of a man named Basilides. He was convinced of more than one problem in the doctrine of Paul and Peter.
His contention was that Jesus could not have been both God and man. That simply was not an option as far as he was concerned. His opposition arose from his philosophical judgment that God was so far removed from the physical realm that to think that God had become a human person was blasphemy. Since Jesus was only human, his death could not atone for all of humanity - it was finite. And secondly, he insisted that Jesus could not suffer as a substitute for others. If he suffered death, it could only be for his own sin. If he was sinless, then his death was a great mistake. He could not, as human being, save anyone but himself. He said that there could not be any situation in which one could honestly think in terms of a person dying for another. I think you see where this would have taken the church - to a point where there was no good news left to hear. It had all become bad news. For if Christ did not suffer for humanity, but only for himself, then we are still in our sin.
Another Gnostic theologian named Marcion said that indeed, Jesus was God, but not human. He therefore, could only appear to suffer and die for humanity. It was an apparent death. That again, leads us to a teaching that no one is really saved by Jesus. He, because he did not share the human nature, could not be the one who suffered for the sin of mankind.
The Ebionite teaching said that there was no more connection with God in Jesus than in any other person who has ever lived. So Jesus was not able to suffer for the sins of others any more than you or I can. Therefore, what we need to do is to observe the law of Moses very carefully - living out the full letter of the law, so that we are saved by the legalism that Paul so often rejects.
The Apostolic fathers then needed to combat these teachings. So the first thing they did was to emphasize again and again that Jesus was God and Man. Jesus was a unique person in that in him all the fullness of the godhead was to be found bodily. He was a man in whom God and human were mysteriously blended so that there was a single person we call Jesus. They were very concerned to demonstrate that the person of Jesus was the self-revelation of God to mankind. That his death was the way for our sins to be forgiven. The apostolic fathers are agreed on the importance of who Jesus is and was. They were concerned to demonstrate that the death of Jesus was a judicial situation. It had to do with judgment and sin. It had to do with the Father's wrath against the sin of humanity. It had to do with how we are now set free from our sin by the death of a substitute.
In our day as well, there are always those who are less than eager to have someone else pay their debt with God. They do not want to admit that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. They want some other way to come to the Father -preferably by their own efforts and their own sufferings. The apostolic fathers point s back to Jesus and call on us to say with Polycarp,
Christ is our savior; for through his grace we are righteous, not by works; for our sins, he has even taken death upon himself, has become the servant of us all, and through his death for us our hope and the pledge of our righteousness. The heaviest sin is unbelief in Christ; his blood will be demanded of unbelievers; for to those to whom the death of Christ, which obtains the forgiveness of sins, does not prove a ground of justification, it proves a ground of condemnation.
There is more that could be said here, I encourage you to be reading some of the works of the apostolic fathers yourselves. These are important for us to grasp something of the challenge of how to keep our faith from deviating from the truth as delivered to us once for all in the Scriptures. May your hearts be challenged to follow in the teaching of the Scriptures as you continue your studies with us here!