The Early Church Fathers
in Light of Acts 20:29,30
(© Jeffrey S. Bowman, all rights reserved, use by permission only)
This essay will attempt to examine the Early Church (or also called Apostolic Fathers) in light of Paul's statement to the Ephesian Elders:
Focus will be given where the Apostolic Fathers exhibit an apparent denigration; emendation; or departure from Pauline theology. Paul's statement to Timothy that: "That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us. This thou knowest, that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me..." (2 Tim 1:14,15) provides the grounds for such a critical examination of the Apostolic Fathers.
Key areas of Pauline significance that are discussed by the Apostolic Fathers will be dealt with (but not limited to): Salvation and justification by faith alone; The creation of a new spiritual organism -- the body of Christ; Jew and Gentile / male and female equality; and Baptism.
The essay will not be an exhaustive interpretive treatment of Apostolic Fathers in these theological areas, rather it will be a collative presentation of the statements by the Apostolic Fathers.
Paul told Timothy to "Guard the good deposit...this you know that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me..." (2 Tim. 1:14,15). This is a very interesting and informative verse. It prepares us for what happened during the next century of church history that followed the Apostle Paul.
The "good deposit" was the revelation of the body of doctrine which the ascended Christ gave to Paul the Apostle. Interestingly, Paul also applies the phrase "my gospel" (2 Tim. 2:8; Rom. 16:25) to this body of theology. This truth contains not only that Christ died for the sins of humanity, but also elements not revealed to or clarified by any of the Twelve Apostles. In particular, some of the aspects of Pauline theology are:
The "good deposit" contained these particular truths that Timothy was to guard and which "all in Asia" forsook. This fact helps to explain the theological confusion that is found in Christianity just 40 years after Paul's death.
Paul had predicted that theological apostasy would come to Asia. He said to the elders of Ephesus (the capital city of Asia) "For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:29,30). He had commanded Timothy in his first letter, "As I besought you to abide still at Ephesus...that you might charge some that they teach no other doctrine" (1 Tim. 1:3). Finally in his last letter to Timothy, he indicates that "all in Asia" forsook him, his message and divine revelation.
Those who seek to "rightly divide the Word of truth" and acknowledge Paul's different ministry are often chided with, "If what you say is truth why isn't it found in the early centuries of the church?" This is a fair question, and the answer is found in 2 Tim. 1:15, "all in Asia forsook" Paul. Yet some have doubted an appeal to that verse so we are only left to search the writings of the Apostolic Fathers to see what they believed. This will provide a historical test for this concept. These Apostolic Fathers were leaders in the church from 80-170 A.D. Writings in this period will demonstrate the accepted beliefs of those 100 years after the Apostles.
If Paul's theology was abandoned then we should find confusion in specific theological areas of:
We should note well that Paul did not say they departed from Christ. They were still believers but they had departed from the "good deposit," i.e., Paul's unique theological differences from the 12 Apostles.
Clement, who was the bishop of Rome 88-97 A.D. is the author of a letter to the Corinthians, 95 A.D. A so-called second letter was attributed to him by the Fathers of the fourth century yet it is not quoted by the early writers as being his work. Nevertheless it is an accepted writing from the period. Lightfoot calls the second letter "the earliest Christian homily extant". Its date is probably 166-174 A.D.
Clement seems to have acquaintance with Paul's epistles, Hebrews, and 1 Peter. In his letter to Corinth he deals with a feud that had broken out in the church. Elders who were appointed by the apostles or their immediate successors had been removed of their office. It's ironic that come 30 or so years prior Paul dealt with similar issues.
Clement (like the other Fathers) speaks unashamedly about the Lord Jesus and His death but once we look deeper into his writing we see deviations from Paul's doctrine.
Salvation / Justification
Here Clement is confused. In one line he says:
Then the majority of the time:
The second letter is also just as confused:
It is amazing that Clement seems to lack understanding of the pure salvation by grace through faith! He was so close to Paul in time and even writing to a church that was told by Paul that a fornicator, while sinning against the Lord would still be saved "so as by fire" (1 Cor. 5:5). Yet it is clear that Clement shifted away from or at the very least misunderstood "the deposit" as regarding salvation / justification.
As members of the Body we are "Not appointed unto wrath" (1 Thess. 5:9; 1:10). This in unconditional "whether we watch or sleep" in our Christian lives (1 Thess. 5:10). Our hope is a pretribulation rapture.
We can understand where he gets his beliefs when he writes:
Whether or not he lumps the ministries of the Twelve together with Paul we do not know. One thing is certain, he fails to acknowledge the specific revelation that Christ gave to Paul. Consequently he lacks the proper understanding of eschatalogical events.
The so-called second letter is equally as uncertain concerning our future hope. In one passage haven is the believer's hope throughout eternity:
Then in other places the writer presents an earthly kingdom wherein those who have had good works can enter:
As we conclude this examination of I Clement and the anonymous letter we are shocked upon finding all these clear departures from the "good deposit." It just goes to show that in these writings there was no clear, unwavering conception of the gospel of the grace of God. Clement even quoted in his letter from Paul's epistles yet it is one thing to quote them and quite another to understand them. Salvation according to Paul is by grace without works. Salvation, according to these Apostolic letters can only be had by obeying God, keeping humble, and doing His will. Amazed we are, when we bear in mind that these were written within 40 (I Clement) to 120 (II Clement) years of the good deposit given to Paul. How quickly these fundamental Pauline truths were lost!
One final, quote from II Clement:
Almsgiving lifts the burden of sin? No, burdens are lifted at Calvary!
The Letters of Ignatius
Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch. He wrote seven letters which were penned as he as being taken from Antioch to Rome. There he would be condemned because he professed Christ. According to various scholars his letters were written 100-118 A.D. They were written to exhort and encourage the various churches and people to whom they were addressed. A major item was his impending death and for them not to be concerned or faint spiritually. Some have said that he was a disciple of the Apostle John, though no evidence of this can be seen in his writings.
He wrote to the Smyrneans, Ephesians, Magnesians, Philadelphians, Trallians, Romans, plus a letter to Polycarp. It will be interesting for our study of his letters to note just what he says to people like the Romans and Ephesians. It was to these two churches that Paul wrote the most "meaty" of his letters.
Let us look at his writings to see what he believed concerning Salvation/Justification:
Further along we find out exactly what he means by "that I may not only be called a Christian, but also be found one:
If we understand Ignatius correctly he thinks that by becoming a martyr he will definitely be a Christian. It appears from other statements that this is what he believed:
There is more to these statements than a simple willingness to be killed for Christ's sake. He is exhibiting an attitude of "I must endure to the end to be saved." While this is Biblical (Matt. 24:13), it is not Pauline theology.
Ignatius continually exhorts his readers to holiness. He stresses their need to fellowship together and to allow the church leaders to guide and direct them. The Apostle Paul also taught concerning the authority of the elders in the local church and that God gave pastor-teachers to equip them (Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Thess. 5:12,123; 1 Cor. 16:15,16; 2 Cor. 10:8; Phil. 2:12). However Ignatius takes it a step further and says:
Ignatius talks of the bishop as though he were the direct representative of God. While it is true that believers should respect the elders and pastor(s), Ignatius' type of reverence is only due to God. Ignatius could have been thinking of the Twelve Apostles, who under divine authority could forgive sin (see Matt. 16:19; 18:18; Jn. 20:23). However this was only limited to that dispensation. Today no one can forgive sins, only Christ.
Here we find Ignatius confused and misinformed. First he confuses Israel's prophecy and Paul's mystery by putting us in the Tribulation:
Second, he knows that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile,
but he does not grasp that this "one Body" is the church, the mystery of God as revealed to and through Paul (Col. 1:24-28; Eph. 3:1-11). Rather to him the mystery or mysteries (as he called it) is the virginity of Mary, her childbearing and the death of the Lord:
He called these the mysteries of Jesus Christ:
This is quite a far cry from what Paul the Apostle wrote. Ignatius did not even understand the mystery given to Paul. We scratch our heads and say, "How can be have missed it?" The only answer is that the good deposit had already been lost in the fog of theological apostasy and confusion. Today we understand that the mystery is more than the birth of Christ and the virgin Mary. With Ignatius we can see the seeds sown which grew into Mariolatry.
Baptism and Communion
The Lord Jesus had sent Paul the Apostle "not to baptize" (1 Cor. 1:17) and Christ later revealed to Paul that there is only "one baptism" (Eph. 4:5) which is the Holy Spirit. Christ also gave to Paul the memorial of communion to be done "In remembrance of Me" (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
Ignatius says this about baptism:
What he means by "shield" is uncertain but the context is the spiritual armor that a believer should have. To Paul baptism had no such significance. Ignatius is paving the way for a very ritualistic approach to baptism, especially when he says only the bishop can perform it.
Communion is a subject with which Ignatius has gone far astray. How he came to such conclusions we will never know. The Scriptures must be rightly divided to understand baptism but communion is much easier to grasp. So shocked we are to find:
No one can miss the seeds planted by ignatius of what will grow into the doctrine of transubstantiation.
Ignatius was a brave courageous man. He went through persecution that we have no experience of. However as a teacher of the Word of God he failed to stick with Paul's gospel. He even held beliefs that were never taught anywhere in the Scriptures. All this took place within a generation from the pure source--the Apostles themselves.
The Didache or The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles
With the Didache we come to a very interesting piece of apostolic literature. It was a church manual of instruction for new converts. From its long title we can gather that the converts were Gentiles. Lightfoot says,
80-120 A.D. is a probable time slot for the composition of this church manual. It is the size of the Book of Galatians.
Its title is confusing, especially to Bible students who are aware of the ministries of the Twelve in contrast to Paul. Gal. 2:7-9 clearly shows that the Twelve would confine their ministry to the Jews, whereas Paul would go to the Gentiles. Immediately we can predict from Scripture that this writing will contain: legalism instead of grace, works for salvation instead of faith alone, and a basic confusion over dispensational issues. What do we find:
These are clearly not word of grace but rather of works. In line with a conditional salvation we see a strong emphasis on enduring through the end times in order to be saved.
This is almost straight, unadulterated "kingdom" truth. We must ask ourselves, where is "Body" truth?
The Scriptures teach that the church, the Body of Christ, has its citizenship in heaven (Phil. 3:20,21). This is in contrast to Israel which has its citizenship on earth. The Didache confuses and mixes these two separate groups:
The only possible way we can reconcile the teaching of the Didache with Paul is if we assign the Didache to a strictly "kingdom" group of Gentiles. Yet even this doesn't explain the fact that this was written a short generation or so from Paul. The most plausible explanation is that the church lapsed into a theological apostasy (2 Tim. 1:15) which sought to blend parts of Paul's theology with that of the Twelve Apostles. The results-- theological confusion.
We know from Paul that when the fullness of his revelation was given the "sign gifts" (tongues, healings, etc.) ceased (1 Cor. 13:8-10; cp. Col. 1:24-27). Yet look what we find in the Didache:
This a is a most interesting passage because none of the other Apostolic writings have such a reference to tongues, spirit and prophecy.
The Christian Life and Baptism
As we conclude our look at the Didache these last few items will be amazing to those who know and appreciate the revelation of the mystery. Notice what the Didache taught concerning baptism and prayer:
The Didache was confused as to the mode of baptism (sprinkling or immersing) plus the idea of fasting beforehand. What happened to the "one" baptism? The Lord's prayer to be prayed three times a day? Amazing and at the same time saddening. There were so close, how could they have confused, misunderstood, and misapplied these things?
The Letter of Barnabas
Now we turn to a letter that has as its author Barnabas, the friend, apostle and co-worker of the Apostle Paul. However the writer nowhere claims to be the biblical Barnabas. It is Clement of Alexandria who wrote at the close of the second century who connects this letter with him. Yet according to Lightfoot, Clement of Alexandria "does not hesitate to criticize the work, and clearly therefore did not regard it as final and authentative." Lightfoot dates the time period of its composition somewhere between 70-132 A.D. with 70-79 A.D as a more specific date.
The so-called letter of Barnabas had upwards to fifty commands that are found in the Didache. It is quite uncertain which writing came first, but one thing is certain, the unanimous letter is a genuine representation of the beliefs during the apostolic period. Let us search and see what this letter teaches about the fundamentals of the "good deposit."
Quickly, in the beginning of his introduction the writer says:
We are puzzled and ask ourselves what exactly does he mean "saved." In the next paragraph he tells us:
Finally down in paragraph four we see that he felt one must "endure to the end" in order to be saved. Read it slowly:
This type of salvation by endurance is his theme over and over. Notice how clearly he taught that this salvation was both physical and spiritual. There is no way that we can simply explain away his statements as only being those made during persecution and thus in defense to physical salvation exclusively. His ideas are parallel with Revelation 2,3 where the seven churches are told similar things by the inspired Apostle John. They must "overcome" in order to eat of the tree of life, to not be hurt of the second death, or to have God's approval, etc. (Rev. 2:7,11,17). Note the parallels:
There is no hint of a salvation/justification by grace through faith and not of works. How diametrically opposed are "Thou shalt work with thy hands for a ransom for thy sins" (19) and "not by works of righteousness that we have done but according to his mercy he saved us" (Titus 3:5).
Like the other fathers and writings, we have previously studied, the Letter of Barnabas places us in the tribulation and confuses the Body of Christ with Israel. In fact, he says, "We therefore are they whom He brought into the good land" (6). Consider the following:
Don't forget the previous references under salvation/justification where we saw him exhorting people to enure to the end of the Tribulation.
This brings us to a unique aspect of this so-called Letter of Barnabas--his handling of the Old Testament. The writer definitely failed to practice the biblical principle of 2 Tim. 2:25, "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." He was one of the first people in the apostolic period to abandon a literal interpretation of the Scripture in favor of a spiritualization or allegorical approach to the O.T. Note well the following where he writes concerning the Levitical laws:
Truly one who is familiar with the Bible can see the vast difference between this letter's uninspired contents and the perfect, flawless word of God. Today there are those within Christianity who treat the Bible in the same way as this letter. Here in Barnabas we see a prime a example of the absolute uncertainty of an allegorical approach to the Scriptures. All objectivity is lost in the sea of subjectivity. We must always allow the Bible to mean with it says.
The letter has some definite statements concerning baptism. The writer is convinced that it is necessary for salvation:
Again there is no hint of an understanding of the "one baptism" of Eph. 4:5.
In summary we can say that the letter of Barnabas is another demonstration that what Paul said is true, "All in Asia be turned away from me" (2 Tim. 1:15). We did not see anything whatsoever that resembled Pauline truth. In fact we saw clear departures plus a failure to interpret the word correctly in its normal, natural, literal manner.
The Early Church Apostolic Fathers do demonstrate departures from Pauline theology. Their confusion is more a result of a theological abandonment of Pauline theology than caused from persecution. Such departure was predicted by Paul in Acts 20:29,30 and fulfilled by the time Paul wrote "Guard the good deposit...this you know that all they which are in Asia be turned away from me..." 2 Tim. 1:14,15.
In my research into the Apostolic Fathers, such a hypothesis has not been offered. I think it deserves careful examination because it views the writings of the Apostolic Fathers from a vantage point provided by Paul himself.