Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | June 7, 2008

The Apostolic Fathers

The Apostolic Fathers


Contrary to popular wisdom, there was no golden age of Christianity that occurred within the apostolic or sub-apostolic age.  A significant witness to this fact would be the apostle Paul who in his letter to the Church at Corinth, records just how unflattering the Church in this age actually was.  It should also be noted that one of the areas where the apostle Paul spent considerable time planting Churches during his ministry was in Greece.  Although there is no disrespect intended in this statement, the facts bear out that Paul was not very effective in this endeavor.  One the areas in the first few centuries that the Church grew the slowest are in the very areas that Paul spent considerable time planting Churches.  Moreover, the period immediately following the apostolic age produces some of the most disappointing writings in the history of the Church.  Thus, it is important to recognize that there was no golden age in the Church that was subjected to a significant decline and/or apostasy despite what that Mormon missionary may try to convince you to believe. 


A considerable problem that is encountered when some seek to romanticize the patristic period is that it is significantly moralistic in its content.  Many of the works produced during this period lack the grace or gospel-centered emphasis that is indicative of the New Testament, rather they seek to focus on how Christians should behave.  These works include the Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, the Shephard of Hermas, the letters of Clement of Rome and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch.  These works are characteristically concerned about internal problems confronting individual Churches.  Thus, they are profitable in gaining some insight into the questions that Christians during that age were asking along with the answers that were being given.  An interesting component included in Ignatius is a strong argument for a hierarchical Bishop with special authority over presbyters.  He is also one of the first authors to describe the Church as “catholic” and the sacraments as the medicine of God.  We are not entirely sure of how representative these writings are, because they are probably a small proportion of the things that were written in the late first century and early second century.  These works are all moralistic in nature and tend to articulate matters concerning how Christians should behave. 


Another group of works during this period include writers who were a little later known as the apologists.  As their name indicates, they are primarily concerned with presenting Christianity to the outside world.  Many of them addressed their writings to the emperor, although they were probably never read by him.  The apologists are formally concerned with making the case to the emperor that Christianity should not be categorized as an illegal religion within the empire.  Thus they attempt to dispel many of the distortions and caricatures that existed about Christianity and that Christians were good citizens who posed no risk to the Roman Empire and should be tolerated.  Amongst the writers that belong to this category include Quadratas, Aristides, and the most famous Justin Martyr. 

The kinds of things they principally want to communicate are that there is one God, uncreated, eternal and invisible.  This is emphasized clearly because it is true, however, it was a truth that would connect well with citizens of the Roman Empire who were eager to embrace monotheism.  The phenomenon of emptying peoples responsible to the civic realm of Roman life left people less connected with the Roman gods, which originally had an important role in politics.  Another emphasis of the apologist is that there will be a final judgment that will be based upon works.  The righteous will be rewarded with eternal life and the wicked will be rewarded with eternal death.  Again, this is an emphasis in part because it was a widely held belief among Roman citizens, which held as another point of contact with the surrounding culture. 





  1. There’s an excellent mp3 introduction to the Apostolic Fathers at the Theology Network site here:—-the-apostolic-fathers.htm

    While so much was moralistic, Mike Reeves reminds us of the Letter to Diognetus – not moralistic, but sweet gospel:

    “But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!”

  2. Glen,

    Great quote! It is even expressing double imputation with wonderful clarity!

    In a few weeks we will get to Irenaeus who was even discussing covenant theology in the second century.


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