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A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

Apostolic Fathers

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Apostolic Fathers. Definition of the Term.—The adjective Apostolicus (ἀποστολικός) is used to denote either morally or doctrinally accordance with the Apostles or historically connexion with the Apostles. In this latter sense it is especially applied to churches founded directly by Apostles or to persons associated with and taught by Apostles. The former are Apostolicae ecclesiae; the latter Apostolici viri or Apostolici simply. See especially Tertull. de Praescr. 32 "ut primus ille episcopus aliquem ex apostolis vel apostolicis viris qui tamen cum apostolis perseveravit habuerit auctorem et antecessorem. Hoc enim modo ecclesiae apostolicae census suos deferunt sicut Smyrnaeorum ecclesia Polycarpum ab Joanne collocatum refert sicut Romanorum Clementem a Petro ordinatum itidem," with the whole context. Cf. also de Praescr. 20 21; adv. Marc. i. 21 v. 2; de Carn. Chr. 2; de Pudic. 21. Hence among the Evangelists while St. Matthew and St. John are Apostoli St. Mark and St. Luke are Apostolici (adv. Marc. iv. 2). In accordance with this usage the term Apostolic Fathers is confined to those who are known or may reasonably be presumed to have associated with and derived their teaching directly from some Apostle. In its widest range it will include Barnabas Hermas Clemens Ignatius Polycarp Papias and the writer of the epistle to Diognetus. Some of these fail to satisfy the conditions which alone entitle to a place among the works of the Apostolic Fathers. Thus the "Shepherd" of Hermas has been placed in this category because it was supposed to have been written by the person of this name mentioned by St. Paul (Rom_16:14; see Origen ad loc. Op. iv. 683); but a more authentic tradition ascribes it to the brother of Pius who was bp. of Rome a little before the middle of 2nd cent. (Canon. Murat. p. 58 ed. Tregelles; see pseudo-Tertull. Poem. adv. Marc. iii. 294 in Tertull. Op. ii. 792 ed. Oehler). Thus again the claim of Papias to be considered an Apostolic Father rests on the supposition that he was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist as Irenaeus apparently imagines (Haer. v. 33 § 4); but Eusebius says that Irenaeus was mistaken and that the teacher of Papias was not the Apostle St. John but the presbyter of the same name (H. E. iii. 39). Again there is some uncertainty about the Epistle to Diognetus. Its claim is founded on an expression which occurs in § 11 and which has been interpreted literally as implying that the writer was a personal disciple of one or other of the Apostles. But in the first place the context shews that this literal interpretation is out of place and the passage must be explained as follows: "I do not make any strange statements nor indulge in unreasonable questionings but having learnt my lessons from the Apostles (lit. having become a disciple of Apostles) I stand forward as a teacher of the nations"; and secondly this is no part of the Ep. to Diognetus proper (§§ 1–10) but belongs to a later writing which has been accidentally attached to the Epistle owing to the loss of some leaves in the MS. This latter fact is conclusive. If therefore the Epistle has any title to a place among the Apostolic Fathers it must be established by internal evidence; and though the internal character suggests an early date perhaps as early as about A.D. 117 (see Westcott Canon p. 79) yet there is no hint of any historical connexion between the writer and the Apostles. Lastly the so-called Ep. of Barnabas occupies an unique position. If the writer had been the companion of St. Paul who bore that name then he would more properly be styled not an "apostolic man," as he is designated by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. ii. 20 p. 489 ὁ ἀποστολικὸς Βαρνάβας) but an "apostle," as the same Clement elsewhere styles him (Strom. ii. 6 p. 445; ii. 7 p. 447) in accordance with St. Luke's language (Act_14:14). But if the writer be not the Apostle Barnabas then we have no evidence of any personal relations with the Apostles though such is not impossible as the Epistle must have been written at some date between the age of Vespasian and that of Nerva. Three names remain Clement Ignatius and Polycarp about which there is no reasonable ground for hesitation.

All the genuine writings of these three Apostolic Fathers are epistolary in form, modelled more or less after the pattern of the Canonical Epistles, especially those of St. Paul, and called forth by pressing temporary needs. In no case is any literary motive prominent. A famous teacher writes in the name of the community over which he presides to quell the dissensions of a distant but friendly church. An aged disciple on his way to martyrdom pours out a few parting words of exhortation to the Christian brotherhoods with whom he is brought in contact during his journey. A bishop of a leading church, having occasion to send a parcel to another brotherhood at a distance, takes the opportunity of writing, in answer to their solicitations, a few plain words of advice and instruction. Such is the simple account of the letters of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp respectively.

The same form is preserved in the Ep. of Barnabas and the letter to Diognetus. But the spirit is somewhat different. They are rather treatises clothed in an epistolary dress, the aim of the one being polemical, of the other apologetic. Herein they resemble Hebrews more than the Epp. of St. Paul.

"The Apostolic Fathers," says de Pressensé, "are not great writers, but great characters" (Trois Premiers Siècles, ii. 384). Their style is loose; there is a want of arrangement in the topics, and an absence of system in their teaching. On the one hand they present a marked contrast to the depth and clearness of conception with which the several N.T. writers place before us different aspects of the Gospel, and by which their title to a special inspiration is established. On the other, they lack the scientific spirit which distinguished the Fathers of the 4th and 5th cents., and which enabled them to formulate the doctrines of the faith as a bulwark against unbridled speculation. But though they are deficient in distinctness of conception and power of exposition, "this inferiority" to the later Fathers "is amply compensated by a certain naïveté and simplicity which forms the charm of their letters. If they have not the precision of the scientific spirit, they are free from its narrowness." There is a breadth of moral sympathy, an earnest sense of personal responsibility, a fervour of Christian devotion, which is the noblest testimony to the influence of the Gospel on characters obviously very diverse, and which will always command for their writings a respect to which their literary merits could lay no claim. The gentleness and serenity of Clement, whose whole spirit is absorbed in contemplating the harmonies of nature and of grace; the fiery zeal of Ignatius, in whom the one overmastering desire of martyrdom has crushed all human passion; the unbroken constancy of Polycarp, whose protracted life is spent in maintaining the faith once delivered to the saints,—these are lessons which can never become antiquated or lose their value.

Their Relation to the Apostolic Teaching and to the Canonical Scriptures .—Of the respective provinces of the Apostolic Fathers, we may say that Clement co-ordinates the different elements of Christian teaching as left by the Apostles; and Ignatius consolidates the structure of ecclesiastical polity, as sketched out by them; while for Polycarp, whose active career was just beginning as theirs ended, and who lived on for more than half a century after their deaths, was reserved the task of handing down unimpaired to a later generation the Apostolic doctrine and order thus co-ordinated and consolidated by his elder contemporaries—a task for which he was eminently fitted by his passive and receptive character.

The writings of these three Fathers lie well within the main stream of Catholic teaching. They are the proper link between the Canonical Scriptures and the church Fathers of the succeeding ages. They recognize all the different elements of the Apostolic teaching, though combining them in different proportions. "They prove that Christianity was Catholic from the very first, uniting a variety of forms in one faith. They shew that the great facts of the Gospel narrative, and the substance of the Apostolic letters, formed the basis and moulded the expression of the common creed" (Westcott, Canon , p. 55).

But when we turn to the other writings for which a place among the Apostolic Fathers has been claimed, the case is different. Though the writers are all apparently within the pale of the church, yet there is a tendency to that one-sided exaggeration—either in the direction of Judaisms or the opposite—which stands on the very verge of heresy. In the Ep. of Barnabas and in the letter to Diognetus, the repulsion from Judaism is so violent, that one step further would have carried the writers into Gnostic or Marcionite dualism. On the other hand, in the Shepherd of Hermas, and possibly in the Expositions of Papias (for in this instance the inferences drawn from a few scanty fragments must be precarious), the sympathy with the Old Dispensation is unduly strong, and the distinctive features of the Gospel are darkened by the shadow of the Law thus projected upon them. In Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp, both extremes are avoided.

For the relation of these writers to the Canonical Scriptures the reader is referred to the thorough investigation in Westcott's Hist. of the Canon pp. 19–55. It will be sufficient here to state the more important results: (1) The Apostolic Fathers do not as a rule quote by name the canonical writings of the N.T. But (2) though (with exceptions) the books of the N.T. are not quoted by name fragments of most of the canonical Epistles lie embedded in the writings of these Fathers whose language is thoroughly leavened with the Apostolic diction. In like manner the facts of the Gospel history are referred to and the words of our Lord given though for the most part not as direct quotations. For (3) there is no decisive evidence that these Fathers recognized a Canon of the N.T. as a distinctly defined body of writings; though Barnabas once introduces our Lord's words as recorded in Mat_20:16; Mat_22:14 with the usual formula of Scriptural citation "As it is written (ὡς γέγραπται)." But (4) on the other hand they assign a special and preeminent authority to the Apostles which they distinctly disclaim for themselves. This is the case with Clement (§§ 5 7) and Ignatius (Romans 4) speaking of St. Peter and St. Paul; and with Polycarp (§ 3) speaking of St. Paul—the only Apostles that are mentioned by name in these writings. (5) Lastly though the language of the Canonical Gospels is frequently not quoted word for word yet there is no distinct allusion to any apocryphal narrative.


The standard work on the Apostolic Fathers is by the writer of the above article, the late bp. Lightfoot. His work on the principal subject, in five 8vo volumes, includes Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp. But after his death a single vol. was pub. containing revised texts of all the Apostolic Fathers, with short introductions and Eng. translations.

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Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Apostolic Fathers'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. 1911.

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