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Advanced Historical Theology - Theological views of the Apostolic Fathers - by C. Matthew McMahon

Historical Theology Articles

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Part 2: Advanced Historical Theology – Theological views of the Apostolic Fathers

The earliest writings in the church apart from the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament are the writings of the early church fathers. Though they were working out doctrine very early, and were more like “children” of the faith they were given the title “fathers” since it is very possible that some of them knew the last of the Apostles, and so they hold a special place being so closely connected with them. The Apostolic Fathers comprise eight figures and writings of the early church: Clement of Rome, the Didache, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Papias of Hieropolis, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermes, and the Epistle to Diognetus.

Clement of Rome wrote to the Corinthian church as bishop in A.D. 96. The epistle is mostly practical in nature and deals with the vices that cause divisions, and virtues that strengthen unity. Clement draws from the Old Testament on the one hand, and the Stoic doctrine of the natural harmony of the universe of the other. His Stoic tendencies here cause him to call God a kind of demiurge, but it is not clear exactly what he meant in this case. He does believe in the preexistence of the Savior, and that Jesus preincarnately existed “always,” and since He is mystically attached to the church, the church existed forever as well. In this epistle is found the first claim for authority based on apostolic succession. Men in office do not receive their authority from the congregation, but from Christ, through the apostles and through other ordained men. He calls these men bishop or presbyters, and deacons. Overall Clement’s Christology is confused, and his ideas about the preexistence of the church is also confused.

The Didache, or doctrine of the twelve Apostles, means “doctrine.” There are Greek, Latin, Arabic, Coptic Georgian and Syriac fragments of this work. It is sixteen chapters long divided into three main sections: the first deals with life and death, and following the true “Way”; the second contains liturgical instructions; and the third is a manual of discipline. The most interesting aspect of this document is its vague teaching on the Eucharist. It seems, at least at this time, this doctrine was not theologically solidified in the church, and as a result, it demonstrates a simplistic approach to partaking of the Lord Supper.

Ignatius of Antioch was bishop during the second century. He wrote to many of the churches in the surrounding areas, including Rome. He dealt with two sorts of false doctrines: those who denied the physical life of Christ, and those Judaizing trends simply making Christ a good teacher. It was at the point of Christology that Ignatius saw Christianity most threatened. He wrote, “There is one Physician, both flesh and spirit, begotten and unbegotten, in man, God, in death, true life, both from Mary and from God, first passable and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Ignatius also wrote extensively on the sacraments though he did not systematize the information. He was not a systematician overall, but was profoundly aware of the importance of key elements of doctrine through his writings.

Polycarp of Smyrna wrote in the same theological light as Ignatius, as well as taking the outline of John’s Gospel and moving theologically through it in that way. He placed Christ at the center of his writings and theological outlook, and wrote about the centrality of the humanity of Christ. His martyrdom is most widely known and the account of his death is the most ancient document of its nature that has been preserved in both Latin and Greek.

Papias of Hieropolis was among the disciples of the Apostle John and later became bishop of the city with the same name. He compiled and composed his Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord, and of those five books little has survived. In ancient times he was discussed mostly for his chiliastic notions – that Christ would come and reign for a thousand years.

The Epistle of Barnabas is a document that had been considered for the canon, but ultimately rejected. It was written about 135 A.D. in Alexandria, and is comprised of two parts, doctrinal and practical. Most of the doctrinal is committed to the allegorical interpretation, and the second emphasizes holy living before the risen Christ and the judgment to come.

The Shepherd of Hermas is the largest and most expansive amount of literature that is part of the Apostolic Fathers. From the information contained in the work, there were lazy Christians who needed to be instructed more carefully. What happened to Christians who heinously sinned after conversion? Is there hope for them, or not? The Shepherd of Hermas faces these questions in a collection of five visions, twelve mandates and ten parables. The five visions are exhortations to steadfastness, and the ten parables bring together the teaching so the visions with the mandates. For Hermas, Christianity is a series of commands that must be followed.

At this point a note should be made. At the end of the second century there is still no mention made of the monarchial episcopate of Rome. The church up until this time (the first hundred and fifty years) reflected a Presbyterian government.

As an overview, the Apostolic Fathers regard the early church government as a tripartite hierarchy without making a specific distinction between bishops and presbyters (who were of the same office). They focused on practical doctrines, and in terms of the death and resurrection of Christ and the Eucharist, there is simply not enough written at this time.

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