Window on the Past Apostolic Fathers: Ignatius, Polycarp, and Clement of Rome Recent Master of Divinity Graduate, Reformed Theological Seminary

Article by   February 2006

It is common to think that the history of the Church between the apostles and the Reformation is irrelevant or at best good late night reading. Some have even gone so far as to distort Church history altogether in works of outrageous fiction. And so how do we combat complacency on the one hand and fictional conspiracy on the other? We should consider the lives and ministry of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Clement of Rome - ministers in the generation after the time of the apostles in the midst of persecution. How did they encourage the Church to stay faithful to Christ? The emphases in their epistles includes a strong and early doctrine of the canon of Scripture, a centralized but collegial Church government, and a vibrant faith in the midst of suffering.

In the midst of the fictitious claims of the book The Da Vinci Code, it is especially important to note their early use of a wide portion of the New Testament before the canon was formalized at the First Council of Nicaea in A. D. 325. For example, if someone takes the time to track down Polycarp's usage of the New Testament in his epistle to the Philippians, one will readily find references to the epistles of Paul, Peter, and John. Of the thirteen epistles written by Paul in the New Testament, Polycarp directly quotes or alludes to nine of them in his epistle to the Philippians. There are also multiple quotes and allusions to first and second Peter as well as to first John. There are also multiple references to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, not to mention an allusion to the book of Acts.

It is equally significant that Polycarp utilizes these quotations as the regulatory basis of doctrine and practice in the Church. It is especially noteworthy that Polycarp does not refer to his own office as a presbyter but exhorted "... all, therefore to yield obedience to the word of righteousness" (Poly. Phil. IX). Furthermore, he refers to Psalm 4:5 and Ephesians 4:26 in the same sentence as Scripture, and in another place as "Sacred Scripture" (Poly. Phil XII). In Clement's letter to the Corinthians, we find a frequent use of the Old Testament and the epistle to the Hebrews; there are also several allusions to sayings of Christ throughout the course of his letter. In Ignatius, there is a similar treatment and use of the epistles of Paul, Peter, and John as standards of doctrine and practice.

What makes these uses all the more significant is the fact that these Apostolic Fathers (so named because they were discipled by the Apostles) pre-date the First Council of Nicaea by at least two centuries! This counters the provocative, but ignorant, assertion that Emperor Constantine invented Christianity. As an aside, it is also significant to students of the Reformation that in the letters of these three Apostolic Fathers, Christ is referred to as the divine King and Lord (in Polycarp, Clement, and Ignatius), the great High Priest (Clement), and as the Teacher of the Church (Clement and Ignatius). These could form the early strands of what would later be called the munus triplex, the three-fold office of Christ, developed primarily by John Calvin in the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

A second emphasis that we must not overlook is the ambiance of fraternal collegiality that existed in the Churches at this time. Consider for a moment that Clement of Rome is considered by Catholic historians to be the fourth pope in the apostolic succession from Peter. This epistle to the Corinthians is attributed to Clement of Rome, and the large majority of scholars agree that this is an authentic letter of the Clement who labored with Paul (Phil. 4:3). A significant question then arises. Does this letter have the ring and tone of a pope seeking to exercise authority over another geographically removed Church? Consider that this epistle opens with the humble, anonymous greeting of parity, "The Church which sojourns at Rome to the Church which sojourns at Corinth."

Secondly, there is an immediate apology for a tardy response to the questions that were asked of the Roman Church by the Corinthian Church (I Clem. Cor. I). Is this papal pomp or assertions of ecclesiastical dominance which one might expect from an Apostolic See wading into the affairs of a local Church? These are the humble comments of a brother invited to speak. Moreover, when Clement does offer rebuke and reproof, it is tempered with, "these things we [emphasis mine] write to you, not merely to admonish you of your duty, but also to remind ourselves... for we are struggling in the same arena, and the same conflict is assigned to both of us" (I Clem. Cor. VII). Note that this is the opinion and holy advice of a "we" - probably a reference to the presbyters of the Church at Rome rather than a royal "we."

In a similar manner, Polycarp writes to the Philippians, "These things, brethren, I write to you concerning righteousness, not because I take anything upon myself, but because you have invited me to do so" (Poly. Phil. III). Here we have a presbyter quite self-conscious that a congregation and their presbyters are asking his opinion and advice on a particular point. Likewise Ignatius flatly states, "I do not issue orders to you, as if I were some great person. For though I am bound for His name, I am not yet perfect in Jesus Christ. For now I begin to be a disciple, and I speak to you as my fellow-servants" (Ign. Eph. III). We see in all three the overtone of humility and fraternity.

Ignatius is also a lone voice in the context of the Apostolic Fathers in that he devotes a significant part of his letters on the offices of ecclesiastical government. In reading his epistles, it is a closely contested issue as to whether he holds a three-office view of Church government (bishops, presbyters, and deacons) or a two-office view the bishop serving as a type of moderator of the presbytery. Consider Ignatius' illustration as to the relationship between the bishop and the presbytery stating, "For your justly-renowned presbytery, being worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Thus, being joined together in concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And you, man by man, become a choir" (Ign. Eph. IV). We have here an overarching theme of unity and collegiality. In the same letter Ignatius presents the picture of a bishop as a servant of the Church and as the public representative of the Church to the Roman authorities. For example, he instructs the Ephesian Church that as they are united in one mind "being subject to the bishop and the presbytery, you may in all respects be sanctified" (Ign. Eph. II). In his Epistle to the Trallians (Tralles was a city in Asia Minor), Ignatius exhorts the Church to "do nothing without the bishop" and then exhorts them in the same section to "be subject also to the presbytery, as to the apostles of Jesus Christ" (Ign. Tral. II). However, even if one grants the three-fold distinction in Ignatius' understanding of Church polity, the force of these statements is to impel them towards unity of action and belief (Ign. Tral. III.1; VII.3ff).

Finally, it is noteworthy that all three of these saints were committed to Christ even to the point of death. We can learn much not only from their humility in service to the Church, their love of the Word of God, but also their passion for Christ. All three of them suffered martyrdom; Clement of Rome according to tradition was drowned at sea with an anchor tied to him, Polycarp was burned to death in the Roman arena, Ignatius was torn apart by wild beasts in the Colisseum at Rome. In his trial before Emperor Trajan in Antioch, tradition (via the Martyrdom of Ignatius) states that Trajan asked "Who is this Theophorus?" (Ignatius' Greek name) and Ignatius replied, "He who has Christ within his breast." We see, if you will, a vibrant evangelical faith, a gospel faith in Jesus Christ fueling such a passionate and bold profession of Him. For his confession of Christ he was sentenced to death. As Ignatius was on his way to martyrdom he wrote to Polycarp this exhortation, "Stand firm, as does an anvil which is beaten. It is the part of a noble athlete to be wounded, and yet to conquer." (Ign. Poly. III.2-3) Afterwards Polycarp, when commanded to reproach Christ by the Roman governor, replied, "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?" These martyrs rejoiced in the opportunity to suffer for Christ's sake. They were also painfully aware that they needed God's sustaining grace in order to run the course set before them. Ignatius in his letter to the Romans begs them not to intercede so as to prevent his death, but rather to pray that he might make good his profession. What an attitude so contrary to what I fear would be the response of too many! Would you be like Ignatius begging the Roman brethren NOT to use their influence and clout to effect your release?

In conclusion it is worth asking the question for what sort of Christ would these men die? Would it be for a Jewish rabbi with kids, as The Da Vinci Code proposes? Certainly not! The only acceptable answer is a Christ who is God and Man. If tradition is accurate, these men knew the apostles - Ignatius and Polycarp were disciples of John and Clement a disciple of Paul. They believed the gospel and received their words as Sacred Scripture. It is the result of Christ that they speak so firmly and humbly about the necessity of true peace within the Church, submission to the rulers of the Church, and loyalty to Christ in doctrine and life even unto death. And so it would serve us well to hear the voice of the Church that sojourned in the 2nd century to the Church that sojourns in the 21st as we wait the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sources:

Lightfoot, J. B. The Apostolic Fathers. Part I: Volumes 1 and 2, Clement; Part II: Volumes 1 - 3, Ignatius and Polycarp. Reprinted from first edition (1889, Macmillan Publishers), Hendriksen Publishers: Peabody, 1989.

Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin Development, and Significance. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1987.

Roberts, Alexander and James Donaldson, eds. Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers Down to A. D. 325. Volume 1, The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Reprinted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1, The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885. Fourth printing, Hendriksen Publishers 2004.

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