Early Christian Writings (Book Notes)

This morning I finished reading a short collection of Early Christian Writings (translated by Maxwell Staniforth and Andrew Louth, published by Penguin). This collection contains The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians; The Epistles of Ignatius (there are seven: to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Smyrnaens, and Polycarp); The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians and The Martyrdom of Polycarp; The Epistle to Diognetus; The Epistle of Barnabas; and The Didache. These writings date from the 2nd century and are generally known as the writings of "The Apostolic Fathers." Some of the authors may have been disciples of the original apostles.

In reading through these letters, epistles, and treatises, I observed several things.

1. Trinitarianism

These second century documents continue the pattern we see in the New Testament of ascribing worship to not only the one true God of Israel, but also to Jesus Christ His Son and the Holy Spirit.

For example, Ignatius' greeting to the Ephesians reads: "To the deservedly happy church at Ephesus in Asia; notably blessed with greatness by God the Father out of His own fullness; marked out since the beginning of time for glory unfading and unchanging; and owing its unity and its election to the true and undoubted Passion, by the will of the Father and Jesus Christ our God. Every good wish to you for perfect joy in Jesus Christ."

And the Didache follows the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) in teaching churches to baptize "in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." (Didache, 7). These kinds of statements appear over and over again. Christ is seen as fully divine and the three persons are equally invoked, praised, and honored as God. This goes to show that those who want to reinvent history and claim that the divinity of Jesus was an invention of Nicaea are absolutely mistaken. As with the New Testament itself, these earliest non-canonical Christian documents show that the early church believed in the deity of Jesus Christ.

2. Concern for false teaching

The various documents also reveal a strong concern for false teaching. There are frequent denunciations of paganism and Judaism in The Epistle of Barnabas. And Ignatius seemed especially concerned about the heresy of docetism - the belief that Jesus did not have a real body, but only seemed (Gr. dokeo) to be man. In his epistle to the Ephesians, there is a lyrical passage that some scholars believe was an early Christian hymn. The rendering in the edition I read is striking:

“There is only one Physician -
Very Flesh, yet Spirit too;
Uncreated, and yet born;
God-and-Man in One agreed,
Very-Life-in-Death indeed,
Fruit of God and Mary's seed;
At once impassible and torn
By pain and suffering here below:
Jesus Christ, as our Lord we know.”
(Ephesians, 7)

This anticipates the Definition of Chalcedon amazingly well, showing an uncompromised belief in the full humanity and deity of Jesus - the two natures joined in one person.

Other passages strongly warn against the Docetists and commend the churches for standing against them.

3. Glory in the Cross

While a theology of atonement is not worked out in detail in these early Christian writings, it is indisputable that the early believers gloried in the Cross and viewed Christ as their substitute.

Clement says, “It was in love that the Lord drew us to Himself; because of love He bore us, our Lord Jesus Christ, at the will of God, gave His blood for us – His flesh for our flesh, His life for our lives” (The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, 49).

In a brilliantly composed passage, Ignatius commends the Ephesians for resisting false teaching, saying, “Deaf as stones you were: yes, stones for the Father’s Temple, stones trimmed ready for God to build with, hoisted up by the derrick of Jesus Christ (the Cross) with the Holy Spirit for a cable; your faith being the winch that draws you to God, up the ramp of love” (Ephesians, 9).

To the Philadephians, he writes, “Certain people declared in my hearing, ‘Unless I can find a thing in our ancient records, I refuse to believe it in the Gospel’; and when I assured that it is indeed in the ancient scriptures, they retorted, ‘That has got to be proved.’ But for my part, my records are Jesus Christ; for me, the sacrosanct records are His cross and death and resurrection, and the faith that comes through Him” (Philadelphians, 8).

To the Smyrneans: “I have seen how immovably settled in faith you are; nailed body and soul, as it were to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, and rooted and grounded in love by His blood” (Philadephians, 1).

And The Epistle to Diognetus contains this passage:

“When our iniquity had come to its full height, and it was clear beyond all mistaking that retribution in the form of punishment and death must be looked for, the hour arrived in which God had determined to make known from then onwards His loving-kindness and His power. How surpassing is the love and tenderness of God! In that hour, instead of hating us and rejecting us and remembering our wickednesses against us, He showed how long-suffering He is. He bore with us, and in pity He took our sins upon Himself and gave His Son as a ransom for us – the Holy for the wicked, the Sinless for sinners, the Just for the unjust, the Incorrupt for the corrupt, the Immortal for the mortal. For was there, indeed, anything except His righteousness that could have availed to cover our sins? In whom could we, in our lawlessness and ungodliness, have been made holy, but in the Son of God alone? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable working! O benefits unhoped for! – that the wickedness of multitudes should thus be hidden in the One holy, and the holiness of One should sanctify the countless wicked!” (The Epistle to Diognetus, 9)

All of these passages (and there are many more) show that substitutionary atonement is not an invention of Anselm or the Reformers. The Cross has been at the center of Christian hope from the very beginning.

4. Joy in persecution

A remarkable feature of these documents is the joy the Christians expressed in the face of persecution and martyrdom. To the Ephesians, Ignatius said that his chains were " a collar of spiritual pearls to me" (Ephesians, 13). In his letter to the Romans, he went so far as to beg the Romans to not try to prevent his martyrdom!

"So far as I am concerned, to die in Jesus Christ is better than to be monarch of the earth's widest bounds. He who died for us is all that I seek; He who rose again for us is my whole desire. The pangs of birth are upon me; have patience with me, my brothers, and do not shut me out from life, do not wish me to be stillborn. Here is one who only longs to be God's; do not make a present of him to the world again, or delude him with the things of the earth." (Romans, 6)

"I am His wheat, ground fine by the lions' teeth to be made purest bread for Christ," he said. "Better still, incite the creatures to become a sepulcher for me; let them not leave the smallest scrap of my flesh, so that I need not be a burden to anyone after I fall asleep. When there is no trace of my body left for the world to see, then I shall truly be Jesus Christ's disciple." (Romans, 4)

"Fire, cross, beast-fighting, hacking and quartering, splintering of bone and mangling of limb, even the pulverizing of my entire body - let every horrid and diabolical torment come upon me, provided only that I can win my way to Jesus Christ!" (Romans, 5).

The Martyrdom of Polycarp is also moving in its depiction of the aged saint’s fidelity to Christ in the face of execution. When pressed by the governor to “Revile your Christ,” Polycarp replied, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 9). He was then burned alive, but not consumed. The author of the account says, “Finally, when they realized that his body could not be destroyed by fire, the ruffians ordered one of the dagger-men to go up and stab him with his weapon. As he did so, there flew out a dove [this may not have been in the earliest texts and in any case is probably symbolic of a saint’s soul leaving the body], together with such a copious rush of blood that the flames were extinguished; and this filled all the spectators with awe, to see the greatness of the difference that separates unbelievers from the elect of God” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 16).

5. The priority of unity, love, and holiness in the church

Another feature of these letters is the priority on unity, love, and holiness in the church. Ignatius appeals again and again for congregants to submit to their bishops, clerics, and deacons as if to Christ himself. Unity in the body is a chief concern and is viewed as a vital means of both worshiping God and maintaining a good witness in the world.

For example, to the Ephesians he writes,

“Your justly respected clergy, who are a credit to God, are attuned to their bishop like the strings of a harp, and the result is a hymn of praise to Jesus Christ from minds that are in unison, and affections that are in harmony. Pray, then, come and join this choir, every one of you; let there be a whole symphony of minds in concert; take the tone all together from God, and sing aloud to the Father with one voice through Jesus Christ, so that He may hear you and know by your good works that you are indeed members of His Son’s Body” (Ephesians, 4)

In a rousing exhortation to holiness which is reminiscent of Paul’s words to Timothy (2 Timothy 2), Ignatius says to Polycarp (a younger bishop),

“Critical times like these need you, as the barque needs a helmsman or the storm-tossed mariner a haven, if men are ever to find their way to God. So be strict with yourself, like a good athlete of God. The prize, as well you know, is immortality and eternal life” (The Epistle to Polycarp, 2)

Then, in the same letter, Ignatius addresses the church:

“Pay careful regard to your bishop, if you wish God to pay regard to you. My heart warms to men who are obedient to their bishop and clergy and deacons, and I pray for a place in heaven at their side. For everyone must work together in unison at this training of ours; comrades in its wrestling and racing, comrades in its aches and pains, comrades in its resting and its rising, like God’s good stewards and coadjutors and assistants. Make every effort to satisfy the Commander under whom you serve, and from whom you will draw your pay; and be sure that no deserter is found in your ranks. For a shield take your baptism, for a helmet your faith, for a spear your love, and for body-armour your patient endurance; and lay up a store of good works as a soldier deposits his savings, so that one day you may draw the credits that will be due to you” (The Epistle to Polycarp, 6)

The Epistle to Diognetus, which was probably written to some kind of civil authority who was an unbeliever, contains this description of the Christian community.

“The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, or language, or customs . . . Nevertheless, the organization of their community does exhibit some features that are remarkable, and even surprising. For instance, though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behaviour there is more like that of transients [resident aliens]; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country. Like other men, they marry and beget children, though they do not expose their infants [meaning leaving to die in the outdoors]. Any Christian is free to share his neighbor’s table, but never his marriage-bed. Though destiny has placed them here in the flesh, they do not live after the flesh; their days are passed on earth, but their citizenship is above in the heavens. They obey the prescribed laws, but in their own private lives they transcend the laws. They show love to all men – and all men persecute them. They are misunderstood, and condemned, yet by suffering death they are quickened into life. They are poor, yet making many rich; lacking all things, yet having all things in abundance. They are dishonoured, yet made glorious in their very dishonor; slandered, yet vindicated. They repay calumny with blessings, and abuse with courtesy. For the good they do, they suffer stripes as evildoers; and under the strokes they rejoice like men given new life.” (The Epistle to Diognetus, 5).


These are just a few of the features and passages that stood out to me in reading these early Christian writings. I could also cite things that are more troubling to me – their views on the sacraments, some occasional hints of asceticism, extremely allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament (especially in The Epistle of Barnabas). So, I think there are good reasons why these documents were not included in the New Testament canon.

But, as a whole, I really enjoyed reading these letters and treatises from Apostolic Fathers. I am freshly challenged by the buoyancy of their faith, inspired by their heroic endurance, and strengthened in my own faith in the crucified and risen Lord of glory, our common Savior Jesus Christ.

1 comment:

cgl said...

This sounds like a great read.