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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