Getting to Know the Earliest Church Fathers

The history of Christianity is long and complex, but as I’ve written previously, there are a ton of reasons why it’s worth getting to know a little more about. Learning how the earliest Christians understood and lived out their faith can help deepen ours.

In particular, we should ask: How did those who lived closer to the time of the apostles interpret the Scriptures? How did the early church wrestle with doctrinal questions and answer challenges to their faith? Studying all of this will help us get a sense of what really is most essential for Christian belief and practice — what it is that makes up Christian orthodoxy (right belief / right worship) and orthopraxy (right living).

To that end, I’m going to try to post every so often about some early Christian writings and some of the key insights we can glean from them. They won’t be exhaustive, but hopefully they’ll encourage you to go deeper in your own study of church history.

Introducing The Apostolic Fathers (c. AD 70-150)

To start, let’s look at the group of Christian writings that emerged immediately after the time in which the New Testament was written. This collection is commonly referred to as the Apostolic Fathers — so named because they were written by important Christian leaders in the early church (hence the honorific, “fathers”) who were alive early enough to have had a personal connection to Jesus’ apostles.

This diverse group of writings was produced during the time immediately after the first generation of Christians, and they give us a glimpse into the kinds of issues that most concerned the early church. Most of them were written, in part, out of a concern for maintaining apostolic doctrine and church order now that the original generation of apostles was no longer around to consult on such matters.

They come in different genres — most of them are epistles, or letter-sermons, in the same vein as Paul’s letters (1 & 2 Clement; The Epistles of St. Ignatius; The Epistle of Barnabas; The Epistle to Diognetus). There is also a handbook for church practice called The Didache. The Shepherd of Hermas is an apocalyptic-prophetic work similar to the book of Revelation. And there’s even a detailed account of an early Christian martyrdom (Martyrdom of Polycarp).

We find in the Apostolic Fathers several major, repeated themes:

  • A concern for church order and what kinds of leadership should be maintained. With the original apostles gone, church unity hinged on curbing unnecessary divisions and urging individual Christians to unite under faithful leaders. Over time, this led to the formalizing of the office of bishops presiding over churches in different regions.
  • A focus on moral purity among congregations. The pressures of the pagan Roman culture around them presented a great deal of temptation for Christians to commit sinful behavior to blend in, so the Apostolic Fathers placed a great emphasis (some might say too great) on moral purity and virtuous living in the church.
  • Guidance on how believers should relate to outsiders — in particular, Jews (their estranged spiritual brothers) and Romans.
  • The reality of persecution and the possibility of martyrdom. This especially characterizes the epistles of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, who writes zealously of his willingness and even eagerness to follow his Lord in martyrdom.

Out of the whole bunch, my personal favorites are the Didache (the earliest surviving manual for church practice) and the Epistle to Diognetus (a stirring defense of the faith, beautifully presenting Christianity as an alternative way of life). The other writings in the collection all have their important perspectives to offer, too, giving us a valuable window into a time when Christians were navigating the very practical and urgent questions of how to keep this fledgling movement going in the midst of persecution from without, dissensions from within, and the ever-present temptation to compromise with the broader culture’s morals and values.

In the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, who writes while on the way to his own imminent martyrdom, we get passionate pleas for unity under the leaders of the church. He promotes rule by single bishops in each local church, an important step on the way to later “catholic”/episcopal church structure.

In 1 Clement, we see how a Roman Christian leader attempted to curb schisms in Corinth, where Paul had already been struggling to call the church to order barely a generation prior. 

The Epistle of Barnabas, for all its strange allegorizing tendencies, represents an early attempt to define Christianity in light of its growing and undeniable distinction from the Judaism from which it grew. 

The Shepherd of Hermas wrestles with issues of morality and community ethics in the second-century church, clothing its moral instruction in the popular garb of apocalyptic visions and allegories.

And in The Martyrdom of Polycarp, we experience a gripping, firsthand account of an early Christian martyrdom under Roman persecution.

It’s certainly true that the theological reflections of these writings are quite underdeveloped compared to the later church fathers and councils, but that’s mainly because they were writing at a time when Christian leaders were responding to urgent, practical needs in an off-the-cuff manner. As such, not everything the Fathers taught would be incorporated into later orthodoxy as it developed and was systematized over time; nor do they quite live up to the heights of the writings that we now recognize as canonical (though some early church theologians considered some of the Apostolic Fathers’ writings as equal to the New Testament!).

Even so, these are vitally important historical works that I think every Christian ought to at least read once and be familiar with, considering they are the voice of those who passed the torch from the apostles to later generations. They thus serve as a crucial bridge between the New Testament and the later church fathers and theologians. As the great patristic scholar J. B. Lightfoot wrote,

“There is a breadth of moral sympathy, an earnest sense of personal responsibility, a fervour of Christian devotion, which are the noblest testimony to the influence of the gospel on characters obviously very diverse, and will always command for their writings a respect wholly disproportionate to their literary merits” (The Apostolic Fathers, Part I, 2nd ed. [London: MacMillan, 1890, 1.1.7).

We can learn a great deal about early Christianity from these courageous figures, and they’re definitely worth the time and effort to read.

You can find the Apostolic Fathers for free online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (ccel.org), or check out the fantastic critical edition by Michael W. Holmes, which includes the original Greek text side-by-side with readable, modern English translations, as well as introductions to each writing. It’s a great resource, highly recommended for pastors, scholars, students, and anyone interested in experiencing firsthand the key documents of the early post-apostolic church.

Next time we’ll dive in to some of these writings and their teachings more in depth. See you down the path.



Categories: Historical Theology

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5 replies

  1. This is a really helpful introduction to the Apostolic Fathers. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. My seminary work focused mainly on early Christian history (mostly the Church’s response to the rising heresies) and so I’m excited to follow along and read more of your posts on early Christian writing. The Epistle to Diognetus is also one of my favorites! Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

Trackbacks

  1. The Earliest Church Fathers’ Views on Election and Predestination (Part One: Clement of Rome) – Theology Pathfinder
  2. The Earliest Church Fathers on Election and Predestination (Part Two: Apostolic Fathers) – Theology Pathfinder

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