The Church Fathers
Who are the Church Fathers? Are they important, and if so, in what way? What can we learn from them? Why should we study what they wrote? These are some of the questions that have been asked and which we will look at in this study.
Let’s begin with the “Who...”. The Church Fathers were important leaders of the Christian church from the time of the apostles down to John of Damascus (died 754), who was the last of the Greek Church Fathers. Generally the Church Fathers are broken down into three main groups - The Apostolic Fathers, the Ante-Nicene Fathers, and the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. We will break up our study by these three groups and focus on the most important of the Church Fathers from each era.
Next, we might also wonder about the importance of the lives and writings of the Church Fathers. We realize that their writings are not inspired by the Holy Spirit as were the writings of Paul, Peter, James and others which have been preserved in our New Testament, and so they are not to be placed on the same level with them. But the writings of the Church Fathers are valuable for several reasons. We have to understand that what we find in the writings of the Church Fathers are historical accounts of the events of the early New Testament church. From these writing we can learn a great deal about the history of the early Christian church, their struggles and persecutions, as well as their witness and growth. We learn about early church organization, church doctrine, and the dangers of (and struggles with) heresy. Finally, we see a high regard for the inspired writings of both the Old and New Testament and the person and work of Jesus as the foundation for their faith and life.
The Apostolic Fathers
The first group are those Church Fathers who lived and worked within the second century, most of whom have a direct connection to the apostles themselves. The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy saying, “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Timothy was not one of the apostles, but learned from them, and was in turn told to teach others, that the message of Christ crucified would continue to be proclaimed. Peter also wrote, “Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease” (2 Peter 1:15). As we consider the Apostolic Fathers we see how these words of the Apostles were carried out after they were gone.
Clement of Rome - Little is known about Clement, though it is said that he was a disciple of Peter and Paul (1 Clement 5:1-7), and that he was the third or fourth bishop of Rome. This Clement is often associated with the Clement mentioned by Paul in his letter to the Philippians (4:3), though we cannot be sure.
Though little has been passed down about Clement himself, he is best known for the letters to the Corinthians which bear his name. The first letter was written from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth about certain problems which had arisen within the Corinthian congregation. This letter dates sometime near the end of the first century (75-100 AD). In this letter, Clement shows his knowledge of many of the letters of Paul, quoting often from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, as well as his letters to the Ephesians, to the Romans and to Titus. Regarding Paul’s writing, Clement writes, “Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the Apostle. What did he first write to you at the beginning of his preaching? With true inspiration he charged you concerning himself and Cephas and Apollos, because even then you had made yourselves partisans” (1 Clement 48:1-3). In addition to the letters of Paul, Clement also quotes from the Gospels, Acts, James and 1 Peter, and frequently from Hebrews. This shows us just how wide spread these letters were even before the end of the first century. Clement shows a great familiarity with both the Old and New Testament, and demonstrates true insight in the doctrine of grace and justification by faith (32:4).
There is a second letter to the Corinthians which also bears the name of Clement, but it seems to have been written much later, and was probably not written by this Church Father.
Ignatius (30-107 AD) - Again, little is known about the early life of this Church Father. It was told that he was the child that Jesus placed in the midst of his disciples, and while this is probably not true, it gives us an idea of the age of Ignatius at the time of the ministry of Jesus. Tradition also holds that Ignatius was a disciple of the Apostle John, and learned under him. In his later years Ignatius became the bishop of Antioch (in Syria) at the close of the first and beginning of the second century. He was condemned to death by the Roman emperor Trajan because he professed his faith in Jesus, and was taken to Rome where he suffered martyrdom at the Colosseum. During his transportation from Antioch to Rome, Ignatius wrote letters to six congregations which had supported and encouraged him on his journey and one letter to Polycarp who was the bishop of the congregation at Smyrna (from Smyrna he wrote to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians and the Romans, and from Troas he wrote to the Philadelphians, Smyrnaeans, and to Polycarp).
In these seven letters, Ignatius emphasizes the divinity of Christ and the reality of his sufferings, death and resurrection; he encourages respect in the congregations for the bishops and elders; and he protests the heresies of Judaism (O.T. law) and Docetism (seeming humanity of Jesus). In his letter to the Ephesians he writes, “For there are some who make a practice of carrying about the Name with wicked guile, and do certain other things unworthy of God; these you must shun as wild beasts, for they are ravening dogs, who bite secretly, and you must be upon your guard against them, for they are scarcely to be cured. There is one Physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and yet unborn, who is God in man, true life in death, both of Mary and of God, first passible and them impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 7:1-2).
Polycarp (69-155) - Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna, a disciple of the apostle John and a friend of Ignatius. Irenaeus, who was a student of Polycarp later wrote, “I could describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and taught... how he would speak of the conversations he had held with John and with others who had seen the Lord.” Polycarp also suffered martyrdom when he was burned at the stake during the persecution under Antoninus Pius (see the letter of the church of Smyrna to the Philomelians).
While Polycarp wrote several epistles, only one has been preserved to the present day – his letter to the Philippians. As a person reads Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, it can be seen that Polycarp was familiar with nearly all of the New Testament writings, and shows a great similarity to the writing style of John. His letter is full of practical wisdom and encouragement, emphasizes the doctrine of grace, and rebukes false teaching. Polycarp writes, “Wherefore, leaving the foolishness of the crowd, and their false teaching, let us turn back to the word which was delivered to us in the beginning, watching unto prayer and persevering in fasting, beseeching the all-seeing God in our supplications to ‘lead us not into temptation,’ even as the Lord said, ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’” (7:2).
Papias (70-155) - Papias was a friend of Polycarp, and along with Polycarp had the opportunity to sit at the feet of the apostle John and others who had seen and heard Jesus during His earthly ministry. Later in his life he became the bishop of the church in Hierapolis (just north of Laodicea) during the first part of the second century. Through his acquaintance with those who had known Jesus and His apostles, Papias gathered many of the sayings of the words of Christ together, along with other historical information, and compiled them into five books entitled, “Explanations of the Sayings of the Lord.” Very little of this work has been preserved to our day.
The Didache (the teaching of the twelve) - This document is a two part manual of church instruction. The first part, known as “The Way” dates to the time of Christ, and lays out the principles of Christian conduct and was used in the early church as an instruction for young children. The second part, called “The Teaching,” dates to the early part of the second century and offers instructions on Christian worship, baptism, fasting, the Lord’s Supper, true and false teachers, worship on Sunday, and offices of bishops and deacons.
Barnabas (the epistle of) - This is not so much a “Church Father” since nothing certain is known about the author of this letter, nor to whom it was written. Yet it is included with the writings of the Church Fathers since it was written between 70-130 AD and because some of the early Church Fathers took the author to be Barnabas the friend and companion of Paul, and seem to hold it in the same regard as the inspired letters of Paul and others. Its main goal was to warn Christians of a Judaistic conception of the Old Testament, and to point them instead to Christ. In this epistle we will find some strange and even careless interpretations of Scripture!
Note: This study was prepared for the Bible Class at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, GA by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew.
If you would like more information about this study,
please contact Pastor Mayhew