THE PLACE OF THE APOSTOLIC FATHERS IN CHRISTIANITY
‘Apostolic Fathers’ are those Christian writers taken from a vast number of contemporary writings, who are assumed to have met the apostles themselves or an immediate disciple of them, and who have influenced Christian Theology from the 1st and 2nd century.
Most of their writings are from the East and possess the same basic theological level, compared with later theological development.
Even though the term ‘apostolic father’ dates back from the Middle Ages, these writings were highly regarded in Christendom since the first century, and some are included in the NT canon of the African Church to this day (Clement I, Didascalia, Synods, and others).
However, they were not accepted into most biblical canons, because they never claimed to have direct apostolic recognition, or were written after the apostolic era. Even in cases like Polycarp or Ignatius who are assumed to have known St John Apostle, their writings date posterior to John’s death. Only the case of the epistle of Clement to the Corinthians assumed such recognition in Ethiopia, but not in the rest of the Church, because of its contain even though it is assumed to have been written around the last years of John, but even this is uncertain.
Other books like the Didache or the Gospel of Thomas, among other many, did not enjoyed unanimous recognition as being apostolic, so they were rejected as inspired by the common consensus of Christendom.
CHRISTIANITY AS HISTORY
Apart from being a religion, Christianity is a social reality.
Christianity did not fall from the sky. It’s a Jewish theological development that turned in 100 years into a religion on its own, and has continued developing ever since, whether we agree with that development or not.
As any social phenomenon, Christianity can be studied and analyzed, the same as the person of Jesus of Nazareth, from a secular angle as historical facts. And the writings of all things related to it, are to be considered as part of that analysis.
The 27 books that today form the Christian New Testament, were selected for being considered of apostolic authorship, or from disciples contemporary to those twelve men that were the inner circle of Jesus, and for that reason, enjoyed reliability and full reception in the Christian communities from the beginning (Colossians 4:16; 2Peter 3:16). The fact that only 27 books were received as inspired from tens of other contemporary manuscripts stands their level of importance from antiquity.
Later writings, not from the apostles themselves or an authorized contemporary, are not considered to be inspired because they either occurred after the deposit of revelation was completed (After Apostol John’s death), or they were not known to have been authorized by a contemporary apostle.
There are only four cases where it is assumed the authors of the books were not one of the twelve in the NT. The Gospel according to Mark, Luke, and the letters of Paul and James.
However, Mark confirms the other synoptics in theological themes, and he always was considered to have been a follower of Paul and Barnabas, and familiar with the Apostles (Acts 12:12, 25). Other assumed him to be one of the Seventy disciples of Jesus (Luke 10:1).
Luke also confirms the apostolic gospel of Matthew in his writings, plus adds other Marian themes that came up later in Christianity; however, he also is considered to have been a disciple of Paul (Colossians 4:14; Philemon 1:24) and the other apostles, and therefore a reliable witness.
Paul on the other hand was well known for having been called by Jesus and accepted by the apostles; and St James, to have been Lord Jesus’s brother, also acknowledged by the twelve apostles.
This cannot be said about the writers called ‘Apostolic Fathers’.
Their existence is known to us by a single third hand source, the Semi-Arian church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (265-339CE), and some manuscripts reputed to these authors, like Ignatius of Antioch (?-108CE) and Tertullian (155-240CE), not from first sight, but from ‘stories they learned, from others’. In other words, their reliability is harder to established than any of the NT writings. The Gospels and the epistles had a majority acceptance by the universal Church all along, while these writings are dependent from one source, Eusebius, and the writings of the characters he mentions and whom he never knew.
Another issue with the father’s writings, is that they differ in teachings and doctrine from one to another.
Papias believed in a different death account of Judas Iscariot than the one told in the canonical Gospels and believed that some of the saved will live in Heaven while others will live on an earthly paradise, and others in the New Jerusalem (Fragments of Papias III and V).
Clement of Rome, taught about the existence of a bird called Phoenix, which lived for 500 years, died, and then resurrected from the fire (Clement I, 25:1-5).
Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr were Premillennial, while Origen (186-254CE), and later Eusebius, Jerome and Augustin opposed it.
And so on.
Leaving aside the fact of the authenticity of their writings as well as the details of their lives, the whole body of doctrines seen in the apostolic fathers are divided in two.
Most of the stories which vary from the Bible in form and essence, are explicitly mentioned by the fathers as ‘having been received’ (Papias V), meaning, they have never scriptural evidence of it, only oral tradition.
Other parts of their writings, they quote greatly the Scripture, even hundreds of years before any canon was established, and they base their authority always, on the authority of the Scriptural evidence (Clement I), never on their own, not even in ‘received tradition’.
Facing the reality of the variants among these people who are reputedly eyewitnesses from the apostles and judging by their respect of Scripture as the truest legacy of apostolic teaching, we also take the same position.
We acknowledge the reality of their manuscripts, and we study them as witnesses of the doctrinal development of the Church, but since they cannot agree and some have terrible errors against reason, we also admit that they are fallible, and only express not apostolic teaching, but personal views on that apostolic teaching, intermixed with legends they learned from their times, which they themselves attribute to ‘tradition’, and it would be most improper to use them to establish doctrine.
The so called ‘Apostolic Fathers’ are pious Christian men of their times. Their manuscripts, whose content can not be verified ever, contain a mixture of truth, fantasy and error, that can be used as a historical witness of the doctrinal development of the Christian thought, some in good direction, others not so good, therefore they cannot be used to establish doctrine, but only as historical information.
They respected Scripture though, very much as God’s oracle, and so do we.
Scripture alone always had and has today, the supreme contain of truth, infallible, inerrant, and complete, for the salvation and sanctification of humanity.