Apostolic and Apologists
I wonder if we would be discussing Christian Theology today if not for the Apostolic and Apologists. It’s quite possible we would not. The fact is that with the passing of the Apostle John, an extraordinary event in time–in our history–was coming to an end. As described by Roger Olson in his book, “The Story of Christian Theology,” the Apostolic Fathers and Apologists refused to allow the church to pass away without a fight. Less these brave workers for Christ we might not know today what all the fuss was about. While, in all reality, we know that God’s word and the news of our Lord Jesus would never come to an end, an institution we know as “the church,” might have.
And it certainly was a fight for our Apostolics and Apologists during the history of the early church. A fringe religious group known as the Gnostics caused a plethora of trouble for the church, as according to Olson, “a leading Gnostic teacher in Ephesus” known as Cerinthus, caused the Apostle John to scurry out of a public bath in a frenzy, “around 90,” (Olsen, 1999, pp. 28). This was happening as the church was just coming into its own in the second century.
Unlike the emerging church, I have learned of no organizational structure for the Gnostics. The group seems to be fluid throughout the first couple of centuries with no vitally clear leaders. I believe one of the reasons the Gnostics were such trouble to the church is due to the fact that both they and the church were riddled with disagreements amongst themselves respectively. And thus the great importance of the church fathers and apologists’ work.
First, Polycarp, who was known as a direct student of the Apostle John, is probably the glue which holds all the others together in clarifying and defending the church’s beliefs. While Polycarp certainly had an impact on the early church, the bulk of the work, I would say, was taken upon by Irenaus after Polycarp was martyred.
Around 177 Irenaus, who had used his opportunities to advance among the Christian leadership in France (Gaul), was called to make his way to Rome “to protest the heresies that were being brought to Christians in his home region from there,” (Olsen, 1999, pp. 68). It was this trip to Rome that both spared him from the persecution going on in France in 177 and elevated his status among Christians even more., providing him with a greater platform from which to speak with authority. This platform gave Irenaus the ability to spend “much of his time and energy fighting the growing influence of Gnosticism, (Olsen, 1999, pp. 69).
While he might be a lesser known of the Apologists, Athenagoras is probably one of the most important for his “theological explanation of the Doctrine of the Trinity, (Olsen, 1999, pp. 63). The Doctrine of the Trinity is so vitally important to the Christian faith, that we cannot overlook the importance of his work. Athenagoras, like some of his contemporaries, wrote an open letter to the Roman Emperor; in his case, it was Marcus Aurelius.
Clement of Rome was one of the notable apostolic fathers as Olsen wrote, “…based on internal evidence, that Clement must have known Paul personally…” and that he “…imitated his [Paul] style and message…” (Olsen, 1999, pp. 42).
Following in the footsteps of the apostle, Clement, at one point, also wrote a letter to the church in Corinth, apparently for similar reasons, with one interesting difference as Olsen points out. While the apostle was helping them to understand their strength through unity, Clement stressed the importance of them in obeying “the bishop God had appointed over them,” (Olsen, 1999, pp. 42). I think we can look at this contrasting move by Clement as part of reaffirming and shoring up the foundations of the early church, predicated on leadership rebellion affecting the church in Corinth. Clement was a staunch presumptor of apostolic succession and as Olsen points out, “Later developers and defenders of the theory of papal supremacy would use Clement’s presumption as evidence to support it,” (Olsen, 1999, pp. 44). I believe this helped the church become more stable throughout the early centuries of the church.
I would say that Ignatius of Antioch fills a larger role among the Apostolic fathers known well for writing letters to seven different churches even as he was being taken to Rome to be executed. He was the bishop of the city of Antioch and this was of much importance since we know of the church there as being homebase of sorts to Paul and Barnabas. Of course, this is also the place where believers were first known as “Christians,” (Acts 11:26).
The prominence of Antioch alone as mentioned in Scripture allowed it to continue as one of the foundational anchors of the early church. This alone likely helped, among other things, catapult Ingnatius into the limelight, so to speak. Ignatius however, used it well to clarify and advance an orthodox theology in the church.
As was the case with Clement of Rome, Ignatius was also a well-known and strong proponent of instituting and maintaining obedience to the bishops and their authority over their respective churches. According to Olsen, he too “condemned the docetic Christology of Gnosticism without actually taking on Gnosticism as a whole,” (Olsen, 1999, pp. 46).
We are left now with what would come to be known as The Shepherd of Hermas. It is alluded to that its author “may have been the brother of Pius whas the bishop of Rome around 140 to 145,” (Olsen, 1999, pp. 49). According to Olsen, much reverence was given to this writing because while it was ultimately rejected from the New Testament Canon, it was by the most very thin margin. Both Clement of Alexandria and Origen accepted it as Scripture as well as Athanasius who ultimately excluded it from his famous Easter letter of 367.
Olsen, R. (1999) The Story of Christian Theology. (Kindle) Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity
©2023 Clayton Moore for History of Christian Thought.
(As was previously submitted towards requirement for MA. Min. 2022)