In placing the Apostolic Fathers within the larger context of Christianity, it becomes increasingly clear the more one reads about Church History that the more the Apostolic Fathers are themselves present at a very early and very fateful parting of the ways . Although I am on one side of this parting of the way and a great many people are on other sides of this, it is still worthwhile to point out at least some of the ways that the Apostolic Fathers were greatly important, whether or not one appreciates their importance or laments it. Since I do not know which side of this divide you, dear reader, happen to be, I would like to be as fair-minded as possible in discussing this matter. Being somewhat naturally inclined to writing fierce polemics, this is not an easy matter, but it is a worthwhile matter since a proper understanding of the divide that exists even during the time of the Apostolic Fathers in the period of a few decades to a century after the Apostles is of great worth in understanding how things came to be as they are.
Let us take the path of the Apostolic Fathers, at least in our imagination, and see where it leads. The generally praiseworthy writing of Clement to the wayward congregation in Corinth leads eventually into the widespread interference and domination of the Roman Church over others in a similar fashion to the way the Roman Empire sought to dominate the areas under its control. Ignatius’ defense of a strong episcopacy and his hostility to Jewish customs like the Sabbath would mean increasingly strong religious leadership often (ironically in the case of the martyred Ignatius) in cahoots with civil authorities working against those who sought to preserve the Apostolic practice. In the case of Polycarp, his efforts in preserving the writings of the unworthy Ignatius and the writing of his own martyrdom would help lead to efforts to preserve the writings of later Church Fathers and various genres that dealt with martyrdom and the deeds of noted church figures. The discussions of Church discipline in the Didache would lead to increasing focus on liturgy and ceremony and increasingly centralized worship practices among professed Christians. The approach of the Epistle of Barnabas towards the law would prefigure the allegorical approach towards the law that remains a very common approach to the law even to this day among those who should know better. Early apologists like Mathetes and Quadratus would encourage later Hellenistic Christians to appeal to intelligent but unconverted people, an effort that continues even to this day in strikingly similar fashion. The early homily of 2 Clement is itself an early example of a very common form of writing sermons for public discourse and preserving them for later readers. The fragments of Papias are early efforts in textual criticism as well as recording the oral tradition of early Christians that would be continued by later believers as well.
If one is a Hellenistic Christian, it is easy to see that this is a path that one wants to follow. After all, what makes Hellenistic Christianity Hellenistic is its widespread ignorance of and lack of desire to obey God’s commandments, especially those like the Sabbath and holy days or the avoidance of unclean meats, or even the optional practice of circumcision, which tend to make a believer appear Jewish in the eyes of uncomprehending heathen eyes. While the anti-Jewish sentiment of the Apostolic Fathers deserves a more full discussion, which we will undertake soon, it is very clear that the ignorance of and hostility towards biblical worship is alive and well in mainstream Christian circles, and to a great extent this problem began in the post-Apostolic era. Very quickly, the watered down Christianity that sought increasingly to appeal to Neoplatonism and syncretic attempts to baptize heathen worship practices while increasingly ignoring and showing hostility to biblical ways and practices led to a clear division between those who sought to take the Bible at its word and those who followed the tradition of compromisers and corrupters of the Apostolic practice. That divide remains present within Christianity, among many later divides, to this very day.
While in times past some have sought to paint this divide as simply being a post-Nicene phenomenon, a reading of the texts demonstrates that it took place very soon after the Apostolic period. It is not hard to imagine how this is the case. Institutions of cultural, religious, and political authority have long attracted those who desired to wield power in order to change what they viewed as backwards ideas. Those who desire to hold on to ancient truths are not the sort of people who are drawn to positions of power. Like the olive tree or vine in the famous anti-monarchical parable of Judges 9, those who bear godly fruit are not the sort of people who desire to rule over others. They have better things to do in producing what they were put on earth to produce. On the other hand, brambles have long sought power and authority because it provides them with a legitimacy and a dignity they would not otherwise possess, and since these people often want to force change in institutions and increase their own power at the same time, over and over again we see institutions and organizations run into the ground because of a desire to reform and change what was working well already in accordance with theories dreamed up by men and not found in the Word of God. Given how common this phenomenon has been in our own experience in living memory, it should not be a surprise that this same phenomenon was present even in early Christianity from the period shortly after the death of the Apostles.
The end result of this parting of the ways can be clearly seen and understood. For those who see the cultured and sophisticated and anti-biblical ways of the philosophically inclined Neoplatonist Christians who predominated later Hellenistic Christian thought as an inspiration to follow after or learn from, the Apostolic Fathers form the first part of what can be a lengthy study of later Church Fathers who built off of the departures from the Bible in a progressive fashion, getting lost in a thicket of nonbiblical Greek and Latin terms that sought to rigorously define the nature of God in Trinitarian fashion and wrestle between the human and divine natures of God present in one body, and avoid logical contradictions in asserting three persons of a Godhead that was nonetheless one God. If this is your perspective and if this is your set of beliefs, the Apostolic Fathers are by and large going to lead to the directions that you want to go, and you will likely find other, later writers to be of great interest as well.
If, on the other hand, you seek to revive the faith once delivered through the Apostles to the earliest Christians as seen in the New Testament, the study of the Apostolic Fathers is a far more melancholy but still worthwhile area of study. One sees in these pages a betrayal of Apostolic teaching, a growing hostility to God’s ways in a misguided zeal for differentiation from Jews and appealing to philosophical pagans with no prior familiarity with God’s ways. One sees the establishment of increasingly authoritarian congregational and institutional structures that would lead to continual political conflicts and, in time, to an aggressive persecution of those who sought to maintain the ancient paths. Looking at the Apostolic Fathers is seeing what went wrong, when God’s law became something to allegorize instead of obey, when those who sought to pervert the Sabbath and call the first day of the week the Lord’s Day instead of the Sabbath viewed themselves as doing a good thing instead of a very bad thing, and when Christians would use the instruments of persecution and the combination of religious and civil authorities against others as they had been persecuted before. Here and there one can find genuinely decent leaders, but even here, as is the case with Clement and (partially, at least) Polycarp, so often one sees the seeds laid for future problems even in these bright places. So, for readers of the Apostolic Fathers, either the experience is likely to lead them not to read any more about the goings on of decreasingly godly Church leaders going further and further off the rails, or to a long period of study of increasingly speculative and philosophical thinkers who saw the Bible as a starting point to their own human wisdom rather than as the way that they should remain in and properly tend and care for. These two paths remain for us today, and we must make our own choice of which path to follow, and accept the consequences and repercussions of whichever path we pick.
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