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Fathers of the Early Church – Part 1 – Why should we take notice?

August 1999 | by Jonathan Bayes

Why should we take notice?

‘The Early Church Fathers’ is the collective name given to the men who wrote the first few generations of Christian books after the New Testament. The period of the fathers stretches roughly from the 90s of the first century to the dawn of the Middle Ages some 700 years later.

The writings of the fathers are often neglected by Evangelicals. The main reason for this is that we tend to trace our roots to the Reformation (and rightly so, in many ways). We realise that for a considerable time prior to the Reformation, the church was thoroughly corrupt, but we can overlook the fact that the corruption set in gradually. We forget that the story of the early period was not one of continuous decline, but of ups and downs in biblical religion.

There are some real gems amongst the writings of the fathers, and we may read them with profit. Even works of lesser quality may be of some help as we seek to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

My purpose in this series of articles is twofold. First, I want to introduce you to three early Christian texts. Second, I hope to show how these texts are still relevant by highlighting three common themes which are still topics of debate in the church today.

The Apostolic Fathers

The writers of the first generation after the apostles are called ‘The Apostolic Fathers’. They include Barnabas, Clement, Hermas, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp. Some of them knew the apostles personally. Their works are mainly pastoral letters. They vary in value, but the seven letters of Ignatius are a treasure. That is not to say that we will want to endorse everything that he says, but they contain much to challenge us and warm the heart.

Ignatius: letter to the Magnesians

Ignatius wrote while travelling to Rome. He was being escorted to martyrdom by a group of Roman soldiers. He had been arrested during a persecution at Antioch, probably around A. D. 110. The Christians throughout Asia Minor heard about Ignatius’ impending death. When he arrived in Smyrna, delegates from the three churches of Ephesus, Magnesia and Tralles came to wish him God’s blessing.

Before leaving Smyrna Ignatius wrote four letters, one to each of the churches represented by the delegation, and one to the church at Rome, the city which would be his final destination on earth. Later, from Troas, he wrote three more letters, two to churches which had shown him hospitality during his journey – at Philadelphia and Smyrna – and a personal letter to Polycarp, the pastor of the church at Smyrna.

Let me introduce you to the letter to Magnesia. Ignatius begins with an exhortation for unity within the local church. This is one of his uppermost concerns. Alongside this plea for unity, Ignatius sets warnings against division. It is clear that, in his mind, division and heresy are very closely linked. Heresy is the main cause of division. Ignatius roundly condemns heresy for its untruth, but he is also critical of its plain divisiveness.

The humanity of Christ

One of the main sources of division at that time was ‘docetism’. This heresy taught that God was so elevated and spiritual that it was impossible for him to have any contact at all with material things. Docetism believed that Jesus Christ was God but, because of its view of God, argued that Christ cannot have been truly human – he only seemed to be. It went on to say, therefore, that his suffering was only apparent and not real, and that his resurrection was purely spiritual.

Ignatius insists on the absolute deity of Christ, but against docetism he urged the church ‘to be fully assured about the birth and the suffering and the resurrection which happened during the time of Pontius Pilate’s governorship; they were truly and certainly done by Jesus Christ our hope’.

The sufferings of Christ

This stress on the reality of Christ’s suffering relates to Ignatius’ understanding of the suffering of the Christian believer. Let him speak for himself. Three passages are worth quoting.

1. ‘If, in Jesus, we endure every instance of abuse by the ruler of this world, and escape, we shall attain to God’.

2. ‘Everything has an end, and two things are set before us simultaneously, death and life, and each is destined to reach its own place; for there are two currencies, one of God, the other of the world, and each has its own image stamped upon it; unbelievers bear the image of this world, and believers that of God the Father in love through Jesus Christ; unless we go voluntarily to death through him, in order to share in his Passion, his life is not in us’.

3. ‘For this cause we endure, in order that we may be found to be disciples of Jesus Christ, our only teacher’.

These quotations bring us to the heart of Ignatius’ theology. Five statements will sum up the truths he loved: (1) The world is in the power of Satan and is therefore fundamentally opposed to God and his Kingdom; (2) The end is near; a ‘last days’ atmosphere pervades Ignatius’ letters; (3) Suffering is an inevitable part of Christian experience, because the church is the suffering community of the end times; as it engages in spiritual warfare with Satan, it shares in the Passion of Christ, its great example; (4) Suffering, and particularly martyrdom, is true discipleship, and is the route of escape from the world and attainment to God; (5) In Christ alone true life is found; his resurrection is the model for that of the church.

Challenging our comfort

As Evangelicals we will not take exception to much of this. We agree with Ignatius about the basic opposition between this world and God. Our Lord said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36), and the apostle warns us that ‘friendship with the world is enmity with God’ (James 4:4). Ignatius reminds us that the committed believer cannot expect an easy time in this world. Hence, we accept that the spiritual battle in which we are engaged will involve cost, and we recognise that ‘Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example’ (1 Peter 2:21).

We are less rash than Ignatius in predicting the imminence of the Second Coming, but agree that we must live every day in the light of the Lord’s sure return, whenever it may be. Jesus said, “Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matthew 24:44). Is it perhaps sadly true that believers today have become too accustomed to the present order, that we have ceased to live in constant expectancy of the Lord’s return and with a heavenly longing in our hearts? Ignatius’ thrill at the prospect of the end is a challenge to our tendency to focus our vision on this present life.

Perhaps statement (4) will make us raise our eyebrows. Ignatius no doubt overemphasises the virtue of martyrdom. Nevertheless, in one sense he is right, for our Lord did say: ‘he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me’ (Matthew 10:38).

We may not have to experience these words in a literal sense. ‘The cross’ was the place and instrument of execution. There have, of course, been Christians throughout the generations who have had to face this challenge quite starkly. Just in the last few years we have read in this very paper of Christians in Iran and Pakistan, for example, who have had to lay down their lives for Christ. Like Ignatius, they have become martyrs. That has not been our calling. Nevertheless, our Lord’s words must pose a challenge to the comfortable lives to which most of us have grown accustomed.

They remind us that we should at least be marked by the willingness to be martyred, if God so appoints for us. Beyond that, they call us to wholehearted service for our Master. We must die to self – to our own interests, prestige, pleasures and comforts – in uncompromising devotion to Jesus Christ.

Finally, we certainly agree with Ignatius that true life is found only in Christ, and that his resurrection is the pattern for our own. Paul speaks of ‘Christ who is our life’, and points out that when he appears, ‘then you also will appear with him in glory’ (Colossians 3:4). We therefore echo Peter’s question and statement; ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’ (John 6:68).

Ignatius writes with obvious humility, and concludes his letter to the Magnesians with a request for their prayers.

The second part of this series is available here: Fathers of the Early Church – Part 2 – The letter of Diognetus

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