1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Apostolic Fathers
APOSTOLIC FATHERS, a term used to distinguish those early Christian writers who were believed to have been the personal associates of the original Apostles. While the title “Fathers” was given from at least the beginning of the 4th century to church writers of former days, as being the parents of Christian belief and thought for later times, the expression “Apostolic Fathers” dates only from the latter part of the 17th century. The idea of recognizing these “Fathers” as a special group exists already in the title “Patres aevi apostolici, sive SS. Patrum qui temporibus apostolicis floruerunt . . . opera,” under which in 1672 J. B. Cotelier published at Paris the writings current under the names of Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Hermas, Ignatius and Polycarp. But the name itself is due to their next editor, Thomas Ittig (1643–1710), in his Bibliotheca Patrum Apostolicorum (1699), who, however, included under this title only Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp. Here already appears the doubt as to how many writers can claim the title, a doubt which has continued ever since, and makes the contents of the “Apostolic Fathers” differ so much from editor to editor. Thus the Oratorian Andrea Gallandi (1709–1779), in re-issuing Cotelier’s collection in his Bibliotheca Veterum Patrum (1765–1781), included the fragments of Papias and the Epistle to Diognetus, to which recent editors have added the citations from the “Elders” of Papias’s day found in Irenaeus and, since 1883, the Didachē.
The degree of historic claim which these various writings have to rank as the works of Apostolic Fathers varies greatly on any definition of “apostolic.” Originally the epithet was meant to be taken strictly, viz. as denoting those whom history could show to have been personally connected, or at least coeval, with one or more apostles; and an effort was made, as by Cotelier, to distinguish the writings rightly and wrongly assigned to such. Thus editions tended to vary with the historical views of editors. But the convenience of the category “Apostolic Fathers” to express not only those who might possibly have had some sort of direct contact with apostles—such as “Barnabas,” Clement, Ignatius, Papias, Polycarp—but also those who seemed specially to preserve the pure tradition of apostolic doctrine during the sub-apostolic age, has led to its general use in a wide and vague sense.
Conventionally, then, the title denotes the group of writings which, whether in date or in internal character, are regarded as belonging to the main stream of the Church’s teaching during the period between the Apostles and the Apologists (i.e. to c. A.D. 140). Or to put it more exactly, the “Apostolic Fathers” represent, chronologically in the main and still more from the religious and theological standpoint, the momentous process of transition from the type of teaching in the New Testament to that which meets us in the early Catholic Fathers, from the last quarter of the 2nd century onwards. The Apologists no doubt show us certain fresh factors entering into this development; but on the whole the Apostolic Fathers by themselves go a long way to explain the transition in question, so far as knowledge of this saeculum obscurum is within our reach at all. It is true that they do not include the whole even of the ecclesiastical literature of the sub-apostolic age, not to mention what remains of Gnostic and other minority types. The Preaching and Apocalypse of Peter, for instance, are quite typical of the same period, and help us to read between the lines of the Apostolic Fathers. Yet they do not really add much to what is there already, and they have the drawbacks of pseudonymity; they lack concrete and personal qualities; they are general expressions of tendencies which we cannot well locate or measure, save by means of the Apostolic Fathers themselves or of their earliest Catholic successors.
(A) In external features the group is far from homogeneous, a fact which has led to their being disintegrated as a group in certain histories of early Christian literature (e.g. those of Harnack and Krüger), and classed each under its own literary type—so sacrificing to outer form, which is quite secondary in primitive Christian writings, the more significant fact of religious affinity. Its original members, those still best entitled to their name in any strict sense, are epistles, and in this respect also most akin to Apostolic writings. Indeed Ignatius takes pleasure in saluting his readers “after the apostolic stamp” (ad Trall. inscr.), while yet disclaiming all desire to emulate the apostolic manner in other respects, being fully conscious of the gulf between himself and apostles like Peter and Paul in claim to authority (ib. in. 3, ad Rom. iv. 3). The like holds of Polycarp, who, in explaining that he writes to exhort the Philippians only at their own request, adds, “for neither am I, nor is any other like me, able to follow the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul” (iii. 2). Clement’s epistle, indeed, conforms more to the elaborate and treatise-like form of the Epistle to the Hebrews, on which it draws so largely; and the same is true of “Barnabas.” But one and all are influenced by study of apostolic epistles, and witness to the impression which these produced on the men of the next generation. Unconsciously, too, they correspond to the apostolic type of writing in another respect, viz. their occasional and practical character. They are evoked by pressing needs of the hour among some definite body of Christians and not by any literary motive. This is a universal trait of primitive Christian writings; so that to speak of primitive Christian “literature” at all is hardly accurate, and tends to an artificial handling of their contents. These sub-apostolic epistles are veritable “human documents,” with the personal note running through them. They are after all personal expressions of Christianity, in which are discernible also specific types of local tradition. To such spontaneous actuality a large part of their interest and value is due.
Nor is this pre-literary and vital quality really absent even from the writing which is least entitled to a place among “Apostolic Fathers,” the Epistle to Diognetus. This beautiful picture of the Christian life as a realized ideal, and of Christians as “the soul” of the world, owes its inclusion to a double error: first, to the accidental attachment at the end of another fragment (§ 11), which opens with the writer’s claim to stand forth as a teacher as being “a disciple of apostles”; and next, to mistaken exegesis of this phrase as implying personal relations with apostles, rather than knowledge of their teaching, written or oral. Whether in form addressed to Diognetus, the tutor of Marcus Aurelius, as a typical cultured observer of Christianity, or to some other eminent person of the same name in the locality of its origin, or, as seems more likely, to cultured Greeks generally, personified under the significant name “Diognetus” (“Heaven-born,” cf. Acts xvii. 28 along with § iii. 4)—the epistle is in any case an “open letter” of an essentially literary type. Further, its opening seems modelled on the lines of the preface to Luke’s Gospel, to which, along with Acts, it may owe something of its very conception as a reasoned appeal to the lover of truth. But while literary in form and conception, its appeal is in spirit so personal a testimony to what the Gospel has done for the writer and his fellow Christians, that it is akin to the piety of the Apostolic Fathers as a group. It is true that it has marked affinities, e.g. in its natural theology, with the earliest Apologists, Aristides and Justin, even as it is itself in substance an apology addressed not to the State, but to thoughtful public opinion. But this only means that we cannot draw a hard and fast line between groups of early Christian writings at a time when practical religious interests overshadowed all others.
If thus related to the Apologists of the middle of the 2nd century, the Epistle to Diognetus has also points of contact with one of the most practical and least literary writings found among our Apostolic Fathers, viz. the homily originally known as the Second Epistle of Clement (for this ascription, as for other details, see Clementine Literature). The recovery of its concluding sections in the same MS. which brought the Didachē to light, proves beyond question that we have here the earliest extant sermon preached before a Christian congregation, about A.D. 120–140 (so J. B. Lightfoot). Its opening section, recalling to its hearers the passing of the mists of idolatry before the revelation in Jesus Christ, is markedly similar in tone and tenor to passages in the Epistle to Diognetus. Far closer, however, are the affinities between the homily and the Shepherd of Hermas, “the first Christian allegory,” which as a literary whole dates from about A.D. 140, but probably represents a more or less prolonged prophetic activity on the part of its author, the brother of Pius, the Roman bishop of his day (c. 139–154). In both the primary theme is repentance, as called for by serious sins, after baptism has placed the Christian on his new and higher level of responsibility. Thus both are hortatory writings, the one argumentative in form, the other prophetic, after the manner of later Old Testament prophets whose messages came in visions and similitudes. This prophetic and apocalyptic note, which characterizes Hermas among the Apostolic Fathers (though there are traces of it also in the Didachē and in Ignatius, ad Eph. xx.), is a genuinely primitive trait and goes far to explain the vogue which the Shepherd enjoyed in the generations immediately succeeding, as also the influence of its disciplinary policy, which is its prophetic “burden” (see Hermas, Shepherd of).
We come finally to the anonymous Teaching of the Twelve Apostles and Papias’s Exposition of Oracles of the Lord, so far as this is known to us. The former, besides embodying catechetical instruction in Christian conduct (the “Two Ways”), which goes back in substance to the early apostolic age and is embodied also in “Barnabas,” depicts in outline the fundamental usages of church life as practised in some conservative region (probably within Syria) about the last quarter of the 1st century and perhaps even later. The whole is put forth as substantially the apostolic teaching (Didachē) on the subjects in question. This is probably a bona fide claim. It expresses the feeling common to the Apostolic Fathers and general in the sub-apostolic age, at any rate in regions where apostles had once laboured, that local tradition, as held by the recognized church leaders, did but continue apostolic doctrine and practice. Into later developments of this feeling an increasing element of illusion entered, and all other written embodiments of it known to us take the form of literary fictions, more or less bold. It is in contrast to these that the Didachē is justly felt to be genuinely primitive and of a piece with the Apostolic Fathers. Thus while its form would by analogy tend per se to awaken suspicion, its contents remove this feeling; and we may even infer from this surviving early formulation of local ecclesiastical tradition, that others of somewhat similar character came into being in the sub-apostolic age, but failed to survive save as embodied in later local teaching, oral or written, very much as if the Didachē had perished and its literary offspring alone remained (see Didachē, The).
As regards Papias’s Exposition, which Lightfoot describes as “among the earliest forerunners of commentaries, partly explanatory, partly illustrative, on portions of the New Testament,” we need here only remark that, whatever its exact form may have been—;as to which the extant fragments still leave room for doubt—;it was in conception expository of the historic meaning of Christ’s more ambiguous Sayings, viewed in the light of definitely ascertained apostolic traditions bearing on the subject. The like is true also of the fragments of the Elders preserved in Irenaeus (so far as these do not really come from Papias). Both bodies of exposition represent the traditional principle at work in the sub-apostolic age, making for the preservation in relative purity, over against merely subjective interpretations—those of the Gnostics in particular—;of the historic or original sense of Christ’s teaching, just as Ignatius stood for the historicity of the facts of His earthly career in their plain, natural sense.
(B) Here the question of external form passes readily over into that of the internal character and spirit. Indeed much has already been said or suggested bearing on these. The relation of these writers to the apostolic teaching generally has become pretty evident. It is one of absolute loyalty and deference, as to the teaching of inspiration. They are conscious, as are we in reading them, that they are not moving on the same level of insight as the Apostles; they are sub-apostolic in that sense also. Hence there appear constant traces of study of the Apostolic writings, so far as these were accessible in the locality of each writer at his date of writing (for the details of this subject, and its bearing on the history of the Canonical Scriptures of the New Testament, see The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, Oxford, 1905). As Lightfoot points out (Apostolic Fathers, pt. i. vol. i. p. 7), however, personality, with its variety of temperament and emphasis, largely colours the Apostolic Fathers, especially the primary group. Clement has all the Roman feeling for duly constituted order and discipline; Ignatius has the Syrian or semi-oriental passion of devotion, showing itself at once in his mystic love for his Lord and his over-strained yearning to become His very “disciple” by drinking the like cup of martyrdom; Polycarp is, above all things, steady in his allegiance to what had first won his conscience and heart, and his “passive and receptive character” comes out in the contents of his epistle. Of the rest, whose personalities are less known to us, Papias shares Polycarp’s qualities and their limitations, the anonymous homilist and Hermas are marked by intense moral earnestness, while the writer to Diognetus joins to this a profound religious insight. These personal traits determine by selective affinity, working under conditions given by the special local type of tradition and piety, the elements in the Apostolic writings which each was able to assimilate and express—though we must allow also for variety in the occasions of writing. Thus one New Testament type is echoed in one and another in another; or it may be several in turn. The latter is the case in Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp; perhaps also in “Barnabas.” In Hermas there is special affinity to the language and thought of the epistle of James, and in the homilist to those of Paul. Yet their very use of the same terms or ideas makes us the more aware of “a marked contrast to the depth and clearness of conception with which the several Apostolic writers place before us different aspects of the Gospel” (Lightfoot). While Apostolic phrases are used, the sense behind them is often different and less evangelic. They have not caught the Apostolic meaning, because they have not penetrated to the full religious experience which gave to the words, often words with long and varied history both in the Septuagint and in ordinary Greek usage, their specific meaning to each apostle and especially to Paul. This phenomenon was noted particularly by E. Reuss, in his Histoire de la théologie chrétienne an siècle apostolique (3rd ed., 1864). Take for instance Clement. Lightfoot, indeed, dwells on the all-round “comprehensiveness” with which Clement, as the mouthpiece of the early Roman Church, utters in succession phrases or ideas borrowed impartially from Peter and Paul and James and the Epistle to Hebrews. He admits, however, that such mere co-ordination of the language of Paul and James, for instance, as appears in his twice bracketing “faith and hospitality” as grounds of acceptance with God (the cases are those of Abraham and Rahab, in chs. x. and xii.), is “from a strictly dogmatic point of view” his weakness. But the weakness is more than a dogmatic one; it is one of religious experience, as the source of spiritual insight. It is not merely that “there is no dogmatic system in Clement” or in any other of the Apostolic Fathers; that may favour, not hinder, religious insight. There is a want of depth in Christian experience, in the power of realizing relative spiritual values in the light of the master principle involved in the distinctively Christian consciousness, such as could raise Clement above a verbal eclecticism, rather than comprehensiveness, in the use of Apostolic language. As R. W. Dale remarks, in a note on Reuss’s too severe words (Eng. trans. ii. 295): “The vital force of the Apostolic convictions gave to Apostolic thought a certain organic and consistent form.” It is lack of this organic quality in the thought, not only of Clement but also of the Apostolic Fathers generally—with the possible exception of Ignatius, who seems to share the Apostolic experience more fully than any other, to which Reuss rightly directs attention. In virtue of this defect, due largely to the failure to enter into the Apostolic experience of mystic union with Christ, he can rightly speak of “an immense retrogression” in theology visible “at the end of the century, and in circles where it might have been least expected” (ii. p. 294, cf. 541).
In fact the perspective of the Gospel was seriously changed and its most distinctive features obscured. This was specially the case with the experimental doctrines of grace. Here the central glory of the Cross as “the power of God unto salvation” suffered some eclipse, although the passion of Christ was felt to be a transcendent act of Divine Grace in one way or another. But even more serious was the loss of an adequate sense of the contrast between “grace” and “works” as conditions of salvation. There was little or no sense of the danger of the legal principle, as related to human egoism and the instinct to seek salvation as a reward for merit. The passages in which these things are laid bare by Paul’s remorseless analysis of his own experience “under Law” seem to have made practically no impression on the Apostolic Fathers as a whole. Gentile Christians had not felt the fang of the Law as the ex-Pharisee had occasion to feel it. Even if first trained in the Hellenistic synagogues of the Dispersion, as was often the case, they apprehended the Law on its more helpful and less exacting side, and had not been brought “by the Law to die unto the Law,” that they might “live unto God.” The result was too great a continuity between their religious conceptions before and after embracing the Gospel. Thus the latter seemed to them simply to bring forgiveness of past sins for Christ’s sake, and then an enhanced moral responsibility to the New Law revealed in Him. Hence a new sort of legalism, known to recent writers as Moralism, underlies much of the piety of the Apostolic Fathers, though Ignatius is quite free from it, while Polycarp and “Barnabas” are less under its influence than are the Didachē, Clement, the Homilist and Hermas. It conceives salvation as a “wages” (μισθός) to be earned or forfeited; and regards certain good works, such as prayer, fasting, alms—especially the last—as efficacious to cancel sins. The reality of this tendency, particularly at Rome, betrays itself in Hermas, who teaches the supererogatory merit of alms gained by the self-denial of fasting (Sim. v. 3. 3 ff.). Marcion’s reaction, too, against the Judaic temper in the Church as a whole, in the interests of an extravagant Paulinism, while it suggests that Paul’s doctrines of grace generally were inadequately realized in the sub-apostolic age, points also to the prevalence of such moralism in particular.
(C) In attempting a final estimate of the value of the Apostolic Fathers for the historian to-day, we may sum up under these heads: ecclesiastical, theological, religious. (a) As a mine of materials for reconstructing the history of Church institutions, they are invaluable, and that largely in virtue of their spontaneous and “esoteric” character, with no view to the public generally or to posterity. (b) Theologically, as a stage in the history of Christian doctrine, their value is as great negatively as positively. Impressive as is their witness to the persistence of the Apostolic teaching in its essential features, amidst all personal and local variations, perhaps the most striking thing about these writings is the degree in which they fail to appreciate certain elements of the Apostolic teaching as embodied in the New Testament, and those its higher and more distinctively Christian elements. This negative aspect has a twofold bearing. Firstly, it suggests the supernormal level to which the Apostolic consciousness was raised at a bound by the direct influence of the Founder of Christianity, and justifies the marking-off of the Apostolic writings as a Canon, or body of Christian classics of unique religious authority. To this principle Marcion’s Pauline Canon is a witness, though in too one-sided a spirit. Secondly, it means that the actual development of ecclesiastical doctrine began, not from the Apostolic consciousness itself, but from a far lower level, that of the inadequate consciousness of the sub-apostolic Church, even when face to face with their written words. This theological “retrogression” is of much significance for the history of dogma, (c) On the other hand, there is great religious and moral continuity, beneath even theological discontinuity, in the life working below all conscious apprehension of the deeper ideas involved (E. von Dobschütz, Christian Life in the Primitive Church, 1905). There is continuity in character; the Apostolic Fathers strike us as truly good men, with a goodness raised to a new type and power. This is what the Gospel of Christ aims chiefly at producing as its proper fruit; and the Apostolic Fathers would have desired no better record than that they were themselves genuine “epistles of Christ.”
Literature.—This is too large to indicate even in outline, but is given fully in the chief modern editions, viz. of Gebhardt, Harnack and Zahn jointly (1875–1877), J. B. Lightfoot (1885–1890) and F. X. Funk (1901); also in O. Bardenhewer, Gesch. der altkirchlichen Litteratur (1902), Band i., and in Neutestamentliche Apokryphen, with Handbuch thereto, edited by E. Hennecke (Tübingen, 1904). The fullest discussion in English of the teaching of Barnabas, Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp is by J. Donaldson, The Apostolical Fathers (1874), which, however, suffers from the imperfect state of the texts when he wrote. The most useful edition for ready reference, containing critical texts (up to date) and good translations, is Lightfoot’s one-volume edition, The Apostolic Fathers (London, 1891). (J. V. B.)
- Cotelier included the Acts of Martyrdom of Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp; and those of Ignatius and Polycarp are still often printed by editors.
- See G.A. Deissmann, Bible Studies, pp. 1-60, for this distinction between the genuine “letter” and the literary “epistle,” as applied to the New Testament in particular.
- One result is their inability to form a true theory of Judaism and of the Old Testament in relation to the Gospel, a matter of great moment for them and for their successors.