Books that Didn’t Make the Cut: The Apostolic Fathers

Capernaum - Kfar Nahum - IsraelWe place a lot of emphasis on the importance of our Founding Fathers (or we did as a culture until quite recently in our history – dead white males of European descent are really passé these days). There are good reasons for this: these important men (no sexism intended, most of them did happen to be men (and, yes, I’m aware of the significant contribution of Abigail Adams and others)) laid the foundation for our nation, particularly through the foundational documents of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution (and Bill of Rights), as well as works such as The Federalist Papers. George Washington is The Father of Our Country. Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison were among the key framers of American-style democracy. The first generation of anything is usually the most important, for this is where the direction is set for all that follows.

We’ve been considering the nature of the canon of scripture. What books made the cut, and what were the criteria by which these decisions were made? In some recent posts we’ve been considering books that didn’t make the cut for inclusion in the Old Testament: in particular the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha. We turn today to another group of books that could have been (and sometimes were) considered for candidacy in the New Testament: The Apostolic Fathers.

In church history and in historical theology we often make reference to The Fathers. Now, this term is used in a variety of different ways. My library includes 38 volumes edited by Philip Schaff: The Ante-Nicene Fathers, as well as the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. These are selections from the writings of significant Christian writers from the first millennium such as Augustine, Chrysostom, Athanasius, Eusebius and scores of others. Sometimes these authors are referred to as The Fathers. For understanding the development of Christian history and theology, these books are indispensable. However, no one has ever considered them to be scripture.

A more particular and nuanced use of the word Fathers is intended when I refer to The Apostolic Fathers. This narrower term has in view the generation of church leaders who lived in the time immediately following the days of the apostles (say around 100 AD). They lived during the twilight of the apostolic age, when the church was still in fledgling status. The apostles themselves were dying (almost always by martyrdom!), leaving behind the works that would soon be fully recognized as scripture in the New Testament. The next generation took up the baton. They included wonderful and godly men such as Clement, the bishop of Rome, Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna (and personal friend and disciple of the apostle John), and Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch. This next generation left us the works known as The Apostolic Fathers.  These can be found in many one volume editions, such as the classic Lightfoot and Harmer text edited by Michael Holmes.

These books take on a variety of forms. Some are letters, like the letters of Paul. This is true of First and Second Clement (though, in truth, First Clement is more of a sermon than a letter). These books are fascinating in part due to the way in which they treat the books we recognize as the New Testament: quoting from them as scripture with authority. First Clement is also interesting as some thought it a good candidate for inclusion in the canon. It’s non-inclusion was due primarily to its narrow geographical acceptance and to the fact that it clearly wasn’t apostolic (it self-consciously quotes from those books which are!).

The Martyrdom of Polycarp is a historical account describing the death of Polycarp, the aged Bishop of Smyrna. This inspiring account has echoes of the canonical martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7). The Roman proconsul urges Polycarp:

“Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,” Polycarp replied, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

He perseveres in faith, and is burned at the stake.

The Letters of Ignatius were written by this godly bishop while traveling in Roman custody across the Empire in order to face his trial and certain death by martyrdom. Along the way he writes seven letters: to the Smyrneans, to Polycarp, to the Ephesians, to the Magnesians, to the Philadephians, to the Trallians, and to the Romans. Astute students of scripture will recognize the significance of seven letters, especially to these particular churches, some of which are the same churches addressed in the seven letters of Revelation. Ignatius takes the occasion of his impending death to encourage his correspondents. Like Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, Ignatius gives a picture of joy and confidence in the midst of suffering.

Perhaps most interesting of all of these works from the perspective of the canon is The Shepherd of Hermas. This book is fascinating because it came closest of all of these works to being received into the canon. The book had wide acceptance throughout the church. What likely did it in was its lack of real apostolic bona fides. Reading the book, it is astonishing to consider this widespread acceptance. It is a very strange book! Shepherd is apocalyptic literature, like the book of Revelation. It is full of weird visions, angelic visitations, symbolic imagery – the kind of stuff you see in Revelation. However, (and unlike Revelation) the book has no real coherent Christocentric theological core. It is an interesting book, but it isn’t scripture.

Of what value are these books?

  1. They affirm the traditional Christian Canon. These books quote those books which are canonical with reverence, respect, and with a view to their authority as the Word of God.  In this respect, they confirm the canon as we have received it.
  2. They affirm the apostolic nature of the church. One consistent theological conviction of the faith concerning the nature of the church is that it is to be apostolic. As early as these documents are, they are by definition post-apostolic. As such they are necessarily lesser lights, with lesser significance and authority. Indeed, these documents demonstrate as much themselves, both internally and externally. They show the church living out the apostolic tradition, holding to the teaching of the apostles, imitating them in their obedience and fidelity to their Lord, even unto death.
  3. They inspire. These books put on display the continuity of the Christian witness through faithful proclamation, service, and even death. It is difficult to imagine a more convicting and motivational account than that of the martyrdom of Polycarp, or greater zeal for Christ than that of Ignatius. As such, these books provide powerful devotional literature.
  4. They serve as a helpful glimpse into early Christianity.  We can learn a lot about the history, theology, and practice of the early church through these documents.  We’ll demonstrate this by focusing in a later post on one important document: The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.
  5. They are great for practicing your Greek!  Because these books are written in the same Koine Greek as the New Testament and say bible-ish things that aren’t found in the Bible, the Apostolic Fathers serves as a great place to go for practice in your use in biblical Greek (if you’re privileged to have studied the blessed tongue).