And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. Matthew 4:21-22
Have you ever imagined the look on Zebedee’s face?
Fishing for a living is hard work. And here is Zeb doing the tedious work of mending nets—huge fishing nets—and suddenly his sons, James and John, jump out and follow (at the time) some random teacher. It’s like taking down Christmas lights, and all of a sudden your kids (or spouse, or parents) drop their end and leave you all tangled up in green wire.
Maybe there is a good reason the Bible does not record Zebedee’s reaction.
Apostolic Fathers Held In High Esteem
It seems plausible, with the esteem given to the Apostolic Fathers, that this would be a terrible thing for sons to do to one of these honorable men. But Zebedee is not an Apostolic Father. And neither is the dad of Simon Peter and Andrew, nor any of the other apostles’ dads.
So who are the Apostolic Fathers?
And why are they held in such high esteem?
The term “Apostolic Fathers” refers to the earliest Christian writers:
- not included in the NT, but
- closest to the apostles in time (approx. 95 A.D. – 150 A.D.)
- and geography
The term gained widespread use during the 1500’s. This is the century of Luther’s 95 Theses, John Calvin’s Institutes, Augsburg Confession, Diet of Worms, Act of Supremacy, founding of the Church of England, Council of Trent, Tyndale Bible, founding of the Anabaptists and the Church of Scotland, etc. etc., to name only a few of the events marking the Great Reformation. It is easy to see why a need arose for a conventional term distinguishing early Christian writers.
The apostolic fathers are coined “apostolic” in the sense that they faithfully continued the teaching of the apostles of the NT.
The term does not include the 2nd century apologists who defended Christianity against multiple heresies and attacks.
What Are the Apostolic Fathers’ Writings?
- 1 Clement, a letter to the Corinthian Church
- Letter to the Philippian Church written by Polycarp
- 7 letters written by Ignatius
- The Didache, a manual of Christian conduct based on the teachings of the 12 apostles
- 2 Clement, a sermon
- Epistle of Barnabas, a treatise
- Shepherd of Hermas, an apocalyptic book
- Martyrdom of Polycarp
- Fragments of exegesis of the sayings of Jesus by Papias
- Letter by Diognetus*
Who Are the Authors?
Some of the apostolic writings are anonymous. However, of the writings listed above, 4 were written by bishops of the early church:
- Clement of Rome (approx. 96)
- Ignatius of Antioch (approx. 35-107)
- Polycarp of Smyrna (approx. 69-155)
- Papias of Hierapolis (approx. 60-130)
Why Did The Apostolic Fathers Write?
The writings of the Apostolic Fathers are similar to the NT letters in two ways.
They are both:
- occasional – some event, or occasion, caused the author to write
- practical – the author offers practical advice in dealing with whatever caused him to write
As one writer says, the Fathers were neither creative, self-conscious, or systematic in what they wrote. They wrote purely to address doctrinal problems in the church. In particular, they were concerned with matters of church unity, Christian conduct, and church authority. The solutions to these problems came from the tradition of the church handed down by the apostles themselves.
This also demonstrates the faithfulness of the Apostolic Fathers in following instructions found in the Pastoral Epistles. In particular, ministers have the responsibility of maintaining the traditions of the church by teaching them to subsequent generations.
“and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Timothy 2:2)
What Is the Content of the Writings
- 1 Clement – Clement of Rome wrote to the Corinthian church to assuage disunity caused by a dispute over some of the church leaders. Clement’s main purpose was to urge the church to unity and to submit to the authority of bishops and elders. His argument is supported by many references to the OT, and NT quotes of both Jesus and the apostles. He bases his appeal on the superiority of Christ, emphasizing both the Resurrection and the atonement.
- Letter of Polycarp – Polycarp both warns and instructs the Philippian Christians in several areas of Christian life, including the importance of submitting to church leaders. As in many of the NT letters, he also warns of false teachers and displays grief over one who has left the faith. His argument is supported by many NT references and Christian tradition. He bases His appeal on Christ as the eternal high priest. (here is a link to the text of Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians that has Scripture citations inserted within the text )
- Letters of Ignatius – The letters emphasize the divine nature of Christ, referring to Jesus as God more than a dozen times. Ignatius stresses the importance of the threefold order of church leadership as found in the pastoral epistles—bishop, presbyters, and deacons. He insists on each church having only 1 bishop with absolute authority.
- The Didache – a manual of Christian instruction based on apostolic teachings. This includes:
- Catechesis before baptism
- Directions for worship
- Administration of baptism
- Administration of the Lord’s Supper
- Advice on how to treat Christian missionaries
- The role of church leaders, bishops and deacons
- 2 Clement – written to the Corinthian church; this seems to be a sermon, quoting from Isaiah as well as the sayings of Jesus.
- Epistle of Barnabas – a treatise on Christianity being the complete fulfillment of the OT. [Think of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch and the letter to the Galatians].
- Shepherd of Hermas – an apocalyptic book containing visions related not to the end times, but to the possibility of repentance because the end has not yet come. A figure like a shepherd is Hermas’ guide throughout this book of practical questions surrounding righteousness and forgiveness.
- Martyrdom of Polycarp – both an account of Polycarp’s martyrdom as well as a theological treatise on Christian martyrdom.
- Exposition of Sayings of the Lord by Papias – multiple fragments of exegesis of Jesus’ sayings; Papias is said to have learned from John, the daughters of Philip, and multiple elders who knew the apostles.
- *Letter by Diognetus – an early letter, c. 130 A.D., defending Christianity from its opponents. Because of its early date and the author’s possible association with John, the letter is sometimes included with the writings of the apostolic fathers, but it fits better in the category of the 2nd century apologetic writings.
The following quote from D. A. Hagner is both a succinct summarization of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers and valuable advice for the church today:
The apostolic fathers show the early post-NT church grappling with the concrete problems of the day, using Scripture, the sayings of Jesus, and the tradition of the apostles in their attempt to consolidate the faith and practice of the church and to be faithful to what they had received. Herein lies their true contribution. And for this reason these writings are significant for the study of the emerging OT and NT canons as well as the early Christian understanding and use of Scripture.
RDRD sincerely hopes you enjoyed this brief survey of the Apostolic Fathers and their writings. And that it will incite your curiosity to read the writings themselves—especially taking note of how much those closest to the apostles of Jesus Christ relied on Scripture.
It is interesting to note how these writings 1) planted early seeds for what would grow–hundreds of years later–into the Roman Catholic Church, and 2) were later used to denounce some of its practices.
Questions to ponder:
1) What seeds do you see planted in the Apostolic Fathers’ writings that would eventually give rise to the Roman Catholic Church and the office of Pope?
2) Why did the distinguishing of the Apostolic Fathers and their writings become popular during the 1500’s?
Extra bonus: Try thinking from both Catholic and Protestant perspectives instead of judging right or wrong, or defending your own faith background. Contrasting your own doctrinal beliefs with those of another tradition sharpens understanding and builds faith.
But in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. 1 Peter 3:15
Until next time
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. 2 Corinthians 13:14
A. Hagner, “Apostolic Fathers” in New Dictionary of Theology, IVP Academic, 1988.