In debates between Catholics and Protestants, one will often hear, especially on the Catholic side, a great deal of discussion about the supposed rule of faith that should bind the interpretation of scripture as well as Christian practice. When we look at the Apostolic Fathers as a body of literature , though, we can see that they generally take two directions when it comes to scripture and faith. Let us attempt to wade through the thickets of this particular debate so that we may better understand the implications of the Apostolic Fathers for this favorite pet doctrine of the Catholic apologists. As one might imagine, a critical stroll through the writings of the Apostolic Fathers does not give the reader a high degree of confidence in the developing Catholic Church in terms of their ability to both follow God and preserve a sense of unity. Obviously, both are desired here, but if we must have a choice between unity with people and adhesion to God, the latter will win out every time.
Some of the Apostolic Fathers show a great deal of attention to the Scriptures. As you may remember, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians is filed with scriptural citations and allusions, with very little original thought of the author whatsoever. This is in line with the general favor that Polycarp has had as a Church Father among those who seek to follow the scripture. As Polycarp has little original to say and is quite content to cite or reference scripture to his readers, so too we can read Polycarp with a higher degree of confidence than we can with most Apostolic Fathers, despite his troubling support of Ignatius (more on that below). Likewise, the Epistle of Clement contains a great deal of scriptural citation in its urging of the brethren of Corinth to restore their godly leaders and avoid the curse of factionalism, and Clement’s high view of scripture and mildness of approach both commend themselves to the fair-minded reader, despite his odd references to the phoenix as a way of trying to provide a fashionable and contemporary “scientific” appeal to the resurrection. Likewise, the Shepherd of Hermas urges obedience to commandments, and though it is an odd text and a self-consciously fictional one as an allegory, this facet of Hermas’ thought also commends itself to the reader who wishes to follow God’s ways. When we look at the fragment of Quadratus we have an appeal to scriptural authority that seems to match Paul’s writings, the fragments of Papias appear to genuinely support the Apostles, and 2 Clement at least shows an early homily, even if its likely Alexandrine origin does not inspire much confidence in the reader.
On the other hand, not all of the Apostolic Fathers are so scrupulous when it comes to the Bible. In the Didache we have a somewhat mixed perspective, where some parts of the writing appear to be based on scripture, but where a great many reflect a growing anti-Semitism as well as a growing authoritarianism. We see the same problems when we look at the letters of Ignatius, where this power-hungry writer attempts to bolster the authority of bishops in various churches of Asia minor while boasting of the compelling of people to stop obeying the Sabbath because the author considers obedience to God in such matters a Judaizing tendency. We see the same mix of Hellenistic human reasoning and a hostility to the ancient ways of the Bible in the apologetic Epistle to Diognetus from the otherwise unknown Mathetes. Perhaps worst of the whole lot we see the Epistle of Barnabas, which does not take the laws of God seriously at all but merely as the fodder for an allegorical reading that is both strange and frequently perverse. In all of these cases the authors seek to show themselves or others they support as being the authority on faith, and in all such cases we see a determined turning away from the faith once delivered to the apostles.
What then, can we say about the tension between the Christian’s obligation to obey God as well as respect godly authorities. The tension between the two relates to the issue of obedience. We can only truly understand God’s word by following it. Where God’s word remains barren text, our attempts to understand it intellectually or to twist it and take it out of context to justify ourselves will only go awry. It is through obeying God’s word that we have a better understanding of the layers of meaning in the Bible. Let us take the Sabbath, for example, although the same exercise could be done for other aspects of God’s laws. By obeying the Sabbath we see a development of generosity towards forgiving others of their debts, a desire to release others of burdens, and a recognition of the freedom that God wants us to have from want as well as perpetual business and distraction. This we understand by practicing the Sabbath, as imperfectly as we can given our own native personalities and proclivities towards worry and distraction. One may speculate on laws that one does not obey, but in obedience one finds a great deal of depth in insight because one realizes the contrast between what it means to follow God’s ways in some way and what happens when one does not.
This naturally creates a tension when one relates to the subject of authority. On the one hand, there will be plenty of times where a wayward believer will have to be corrected by someone in authority, and this is not always handled on either side with the graciousness it requires to be done well. As we are imperfect human beings, we must be aware of the reality that authorities will have to rein us in in some fashion, hopefully gently. On the other hand, there are a great many authorities, religious and otherwise, who seek power over others but are not godly in what they command or in how they behave. In such cases we must disobey men to obey God, which puts believers in the spot of being persecuted for righteousness’ sake. In the Apostolic Fathers, we can see some clear cases where this would have happened. For example, those believers who obeyed the Fourth Commandment and disobeyed Ignatius or any of his corrupt peers or successors would have faced considerable problems within the Church that would have made it impossible to worship together with the rapidly apostasizing Hellenistic Church. In such a case, schism of some kind was absolutely necessary in order to maintain obedience to God. Catholicity had to be discarded in order to maintain one’s identity as a called out one. And so it remains today. The Rule of Faith binds believers to accept godly authority and that includes personal rebuke, at times, but simultaneously this rule of faith enjoins believers to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29) when those authorities command believers to do what is contrary to scripture. Navigating between godly but imperfect authorities while resisting ungodly authority and facing the challenge of God’s laws that we struggle to obey and understand is the task of a lifetime for the believer, and has always been that way, from the very beginning.
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