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Early Church Fathers

The Early Church Fathers are the men who led the primitive and early church after the apostles. There are various listings of early church fathers: The Apostolic Fathers, Apologists, then the usage of centuries (thus third century fathers). These are just convenient names for groups of early church fathers - it gives historians, students and readers easy ways to keep up with groups. I will try to give these listings with brief descriptions, estimated dates and links to other pages on CH101 where you can learn more.

The Apostolic Fathers

This is the group of early church fathers/leaders/writings immediately following the apostles. Not sure WHY scholars have named this group "Apostolic Fathers," but it basically means the leaders who had known or been trained by an apostle: Clement of Rome, Didache, Ignatius of Antioch, Barnabas, Polycarp, Shepherd of Hermas and the Letter of Diognetus.


Clement of Rome (90-98AD)
Clement of Rome is the name attached to two documents dating in the late first century: 1 & 2 Clement. This Clement was named by a few early church fathers as the first bishop of Rome after Peter (Tertullian writes that Clement was ordained by Peter, Jerome says this as well [Illustrious Men 15], Irenæus [Ag.Heresies, III,3]. Many early fathers pointed to Paul's mention of Clement (Phil 4:3) as this man, Clement the Roman bishop. 1 Clement is a letter written by Clement to the Church in Corinth. Clement is scolding the Corinthian Church for dismissing their bishop - he says in this document that bishops are ordained by leadership for life. 2 Clement is really more of a sermon.


Barnabas (80-128AD)
The traditional view is that the writer of the Letter of Barnabas was the traveling companion of the apostle Paul - Barnabas of the New Testament. This document adopts the basic theme of NT Hebrews - everything in the OT has been replaced by something better. Barnabas, however, has a consistent negative slant. Although most scholars do NOT believe NT Barnabas was the author of Barnabas, many early church fathers (at least Clement of Alexandria) quoted this document and referred to the author as the NT apostle by this name.


Didache (70-85AD)
This is an example of an early church writing, not a person. Yet Didache is also commonly referred to in discussions of early church fathers. Why? Because several texts from this document point to a very early tradition. Some scholars have presented good evidence that Didache uses a very early form of Matthew's gospel. It also contains a very early trinitarian baptismal formula, yet does not dictate a mode of baptism: use running water if available, if not a pool of water will do; if no pool is available, pouring or even sprinkling the water on the head is acceptable. (see a discussion of early baptism and a citation from Didache 7)


Papias (cir 90-164AD)
We have snippets from a document supposedly written by Papias, thus we call these the Fragments of Papias. Papias is called the bishop of Hierapolis and died around the same time of Polycarp's death. This, however, is not certain. It is claimed that Papias knew Polycarp, was a friend with the apostle John, and knew "others who had seen the Lord."

According to the sources we have (mainly Irenaeus and Eusebius), Papias wrote a five volume treatise called An Exposition of the Lord's Oracles in which he gives comments reflecting the early oral traditions of the gospels and their authors. This work did not survive, but we have isolated fragments preserved in quotations and references indicating that at least Irenaeus had some/all of Exposition in front of him.

Papias is interesting because some of his early traditions give us details not known from anywhere else:
  - Matthew initially wrote his gospel in Hebrew
  - Mark wrote down notes, then augmented his notes with comments and notes from Peter
  - Mark took the gospel to Egypt


Ignatius of Antioch (107-128AD)
We know of Ignatius from what is called The Letters of Ignatius, a collection of letters written by Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, as he is being led by Roman soldiers to Rome for his trial and eventual martyrdom. These letters contain several important topical texts: early references to the deity/divinity of Jesus (use of John's "Logos" texts); references to what becomes known as "docetism," an early Gnostic error; references to the belief that each city/region is to have one bishop; an early witness to what becomes The Apostle's Creed.


Polycarp of Smyrna (cir 71-155AD)
Polycarp, known as the bishop of Smyrna, was probably born in the early 70's. What we know of Polycarp comes from several early sources: Ignatius of Antioch mentions him in a few of his letters, Irenaeus claims to have been a disciple of Polycarp and also relates a story of his interaction (and disagreement) with the Roman bishop over the celebration of Easter. We also know of Polycarp from a letter supposedly written by him to the church of Philippi.

By far the most lasting account we have of the man is the document titled Martyrdom of Polycarp. This writing tells the story of the 86 year old bishop being brutally treated and then executed by the Romans and his courage and faithful witness to Christ as he passed into the next life. This document probably dates into the 160's or 170's and became a very important document encouraging later second century Christians in the face of Roman persecution. Although the story has some legendary aspects, the basic story can be trusted and is a very challenging and inspiring one. Polycarp is pressured to deny Christ - he firmly gives witness to Christ. When asked why he wants to be burned alive - Polycarp responds,

You threaten with fire that burns for a season and after a little while is quenched: for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish.   Martyrdom Poly 11.2

When Polycarp was finally being placed on a stack of wood to be burned alive, the Roman officer told his soldiers to nail him to the middle stake to keep him from escape. Polycarp told the man not to nail him to the stake - God would give him strength to stay in the fire.

The Apologists

The second century brought steady growth, but not without opponents. Early false teaching (mainly Gnostics) led the early Christian leadership to develop creeds and formulas as a way to solidify "orthodox" positions. The New Testament had not come fully into form – the writings of these early church fathers were held in high esteem. The main writers against Gnosticism are now known as The Apologists.


Justin Martyr (cir. 100-165)
Justin taught philosophy (mainly Stoicism and Platonism). In his early thirties he met an elderly man on a seashore who impressed upon him the trustworthiness of the gospel. Justin investigated the faith and became convinced. He continued to wear his philosopher's gown and teach philosophy, but now advocating the only true philosophy to be Christianity.

Justin is mainly known through his writings: The Apologies – the first Apology is addressed to the emperor Antoninus Pius (ruled 138-161) and to his son, Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180), who himself was something of a philosopher. Justin appeals to these emperors and their sense of decency, arguing against the persecution directed at Christians. Dialogue with Trypho – a treatise on the primacy of the Christian faith, with emphasis on how followers of Jesus represent the "new" people of God. Trypho was an educated Jew and also a student of philosophy.

Irenaeus of Lyons (cir. 135-202)
Irenaeus was a bishop in Gaul (modern day France) in the latter half of the second century and is mainly known for his work Against Heresies (cir 175-185AD). This work is a summary and brief history of all the heresies known by Irenaeus, focusing on Gnosticism. We learn from the author that he grew up in the faith and actually sat at the feet of Polycarp as a young boy (A.H. III.3,4). Eusebius gives us more from a letter of Irenaeus which no longer survives:

"For when I was a boy I saw you in lower Asia with Polycarp....I remember the events of that time more clearly than those of recent years. For what boys learn, growing with their mind, becomes joined with it; so that I am able to describe the very place in which the blessed Polycarp sat as he discoursed...the manner of his life, and his physical appearance...and the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the 'Word of life,' Polycarp related all things in harmony with the Scriptures...I listened to them attentively, noting them down, not on paper, but in my heart. And continually, through God's grace, I recall them faithfully."   (E.H. V.20,5-7)

Tertullian (cir. 155–230)
It is not known exactly when Tertullian was born, but he was born in Carthage, North Africa, the son of a Roman centurion. He was trained in law and apparently served as a lawyer in Rome for a while. We do not know how he came to faith, but he does seem to indicate in some of his writings that he was not always in the faith. Tertullian was a prolific writer and is the first early church father to write in Latin. He had a fiery temperament and that contributed to some very strong disagreements with others in church leadership. Tertullian falls into the rigorous camp in the issue of Christians who had failed to stand true under torture. We cannot go further into this issue, but you can read a paper on Second Repentance to get a better explanation and understanding.

Clement of Alexandria (cir. 150-215)
Clement's first major work is titled Exhortation to the Greeks and is basically a call to the educated Greco-Roman society to hear the gospel of Jesus. Another important work, The Educator appears to be something of a training manual for new Christians, covering how to eat, pray, dress and go about daily affairs as a Christian. Some scholars have argued that this document was used as a catechetical manual. Another significant work is Miscellanies a unique work covering a multitude of topics without any apparently clear outline. Clement attacks the various Gnostic leaders, mainly Basilides and Valentinus.



Other fathers to come: Polycarp, Hegesippus, Hippolytus Epiphanius

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