Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp: Three Bishops between the Apostles and Apostasy


The end of the apostolic era carries special fascination. Paul compared the apostles to a parade of men “appointed to death,” a spectacle in the world’s theater on their way to execution. (1 Cor. 4:9.) James, brother of John, was executed in A.D. 44 (Acts 12:2), and James, brother of the Lord, followed in 62. Nero’s persecution then destroyed Peter and Paul in 67. John outlived the rest but was not seen after the “times of Trajan” (A.D. 98 to 117). And things were not to get any better for the Church: predictions of a dark future only deepen in the last books of the New Testament, including the writings of John. What happened after he finished Revelation?

The answer can be found in the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers, Christian authors writing soon after the apostles. 1 The writings of three bishops—Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna—are particularly informative of dangerous administrative and doctrinal deviations that occurred twenty to forty years after the Church lost Peter and Paul. Their letters date from the time of John’s Revelation and a little beyond—critical years when nonapostolic church government was first fashioned and, oddly, the most poorly documented years in Christian history. Anyone arguing for Christian continuity has little evidence from the decades after the second century began, even though by the end of that century (as the accompanying chart suggests) a rich literature pours from Christian apologists, administrators, scholars, and historians. Doctrine during this time was chaotic, and would not stabilize until the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 crystallized Christian orthodoxy with the arm of secular tyranny. The pre-Nicene church visibly shows the shock of losing apostolic leadership; the earlier the writing, the deeper that shock.

To Latter-day Saints, with their understanding of an early Christian apostasy, the Apostolic Fathers have a special interest. Their writings illuminate the front of “a very ill-lit tunnel [that] extends from the later apostolic age to the great apologists of the middle and later 2nd century.” 2 Commentators recognize that these three bishops “present a unified world of ideas,” 3 even though they wrote in different sections of the Roman Empire. In all three, we see the same pessimism about the church that marks the close of the New Testament: They battle problems that threaten the church, but they do not voice confidence that it will survive.

To better understand the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, we need to understand the duties of New Testament bishops. They were appointed and supervised by apostles and presided in a defined area, assisted by such local officers as deacons. (See Philip. 1:1.) Their duty was to care for the church as a shepherd did his flock; Paul probably meant bishops when he referred to “pastors.” (Eph. 4:11.) The “Pastoral Epistles,” Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, name the qualities to look for in bishops: A bishop must be respected by both Christians and non-Christians, a successful family man with good judgment in social situations, a leader of absolute integrity and personal self-control, and one happily involved with people who also reads and has the capacity to teach. (See 1 Tim. 3:1–7, Titus 1:7–9.)

New Testament books contain many warnings that such bishops should expect the church’s disintegration in their lifetime. The leading example is Paul’s final speech to the local leaders of Ephesus. While Paul labored at populous Ephesus for a full three years, he reached “almost all Asia,” the surrounding province. Naturally, he should have been enthusiastic about the future of the work. Instead, we find the opposite. He called together the “elders” from Ephesus and alluded to their inspired calling as “overseers” (Acts 20:28), a King James term all other times translated as “bishop.” He warned them of inside dangers: “grievous wolves … among you, not sparing the flock.” False leaders would arise “of your own selves,” seeking power by “speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:29–30.) That prophecy, equally plain in English or Greek, helps clarify another of Paul’s prophecies where translation somewhat obscures the meaning. Near the time of his death, Paul wrote Timothy regarding Christian believers: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears.” (2 Tim. 4:3.) “Having itching ears” describes the false teachers in this English translation, but in Greek the participle can only modify “they.” That is, Christian believers (the topic of Timothy’s instructions) will have fickle ears for new teachers that please them. The result is simply corruption of the Christian gospel: “They shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” (2 Tim. 4:4.) Both of these prophecies have this in common: every false doctrine is brought by a false teacher. Paul warns not merely of erroneous teachings, but of the scheming leader.

The Christian letter called 1 Clement reveals exactly that situation in a major Christian center. Eusebius identifies its author, the bishop at Rome, as the same Clement Paul praised as being written in “the book of life.” (Philip. 4:3.) Because Clement’s writings seem to refer to Domitian’s persecution about A.D. 96, his letter is commonly dated then. He thus speaks of Peter and Paul in “our own generation” and seems intimately familiar with the details of Paul’s life. (1 Clement 5:1–7.) His writings reveal Clement as a man of profound love and deep ideals, serving freely despite inconvenience, persecution, or death. Writing to correct Corinthian schism, as did Paul, he similarly emphasizes the power of love to unite and refine the character to Christlike perfection. (1 Clement 49.) Clement’s conviction of the resurrection and the Second Coming is certain and his respect for the apostles and their work unlimited.

More motivated by conscience than authority, Clement writes the Corinthians to express his shock that they had removed their leaders. These deposed officers had been appointed by the apostles, “with the consent of the whole church.” Nothing but the jealousy of “a few rash and self-willed persons” (1 Clement 1) could have brought unlawful rejection of the priesthood leaders: “Your schism has turned aside many, has cast many into discouragement, many to doubt, all of us to grief, and your sedition continues.” (1 Clement 46:9.) A few years afterward John wrote a similar letter concerning Diotrephes, who loved “to have the preeminence” (3 Jn. 1:9) and thus rejected John’s authority. John promised to discipline him when he came.

But what would happen if there were no John in Asia and no Paul in Corinth? Then unstable members could elect the most popular men as leaders. Eusebius, the earliest known Christian historian, seemed to indicate such an occurrence when he wrote that as soon as the body of the apostles left, “the deceit of false teachers” moved into the vacuum with a counterfeit message. 4 In the prophecies of the New Testament as in such historical glimpses of the church, we see not apostolic succession but apostolic subversion.

Clement says that the apostles appointed converts, after “testing them by the spirit, to be bishops and deacons.” (1 Clement 42:4.) The apostles provided that “other approved men should succeed to their ministry” after their deaths. (1 Clement 44:2.) But Clement seems pessimistic about how long this succession would last: “Our apostles also knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the title of bishop.” (1 Clement 44:1.) Thus Clement sees the Corinthian rebellion as a fulfillment of prophecy. Certainly local leaders could be removed, but only by those holding authority—and the Corinthian Christians had just removed those who held that power. They had broken the proper priesthood chain.

Since Clement was third bishop, according to most Roman succession lists, Catholic scholars have suggested that he as Roman bishop was exercising superior jurisdiction. It is true that Clement’s letter was carried by two “witnesses” to the Corinthian church, but his letter is a complaint about their procedure, not a command to correct it. In fact, Clement does not write as their Christian leader. He reminds them that the apostles “appointed” bishops, but gives no hint that he could do the same. Even a scholar who views 1 Clement as establishing Roman authority admits “that it contains no categorical assertion of the primacy of the Roman See” and that Clement “nowhere states expressly that his intervention binds … the Christian community of Corinth.” 5

In fact, Clement does not even use his title of bishop of Rome. He begins in the name of “the church of God which sojourns in Rome to the Church of God which sojourns in Corinth”—an equal writing to an equal, concerned, but with no authoritative direction. Not one case exists within the New Testament itself of a bishop writing to someone else’s church, or even of a church writing to a church. The openings of New Testament letters invoke an apostle’s power particularly when they are calling a stubborn branch to repentance. Paul’s letter to the Galatians begins intensely: “Paul, an apostle, (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead).” (Gal. 1:1.) 6 In contrast, during the second century local churches frequently and typically gave advice to other churches. Clement’s Roman letter is only one example of Christians expressing concern to other Christians in the absence of apostles who could rightfully require obedience. As we will see, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, wrote to six churches, including Rome, but no one argues that such acts suggest the primacy of his bishopric.

When persecution descended upon Christians at Antioch, that great city above Palestine in the east, Ignatius was arrested and escorted across Asia Minor by ten soldiers and two faithful eastern Christians who held the lesser priesthood. The date was early second century, perhaps A.D. 107, as Ignatius’ group retraced Paul’s steps across Asia Minor, coming down from interior valleys toward coastal Smyrna, a major city above Ephesus. Almost there, he stood in the Christian meeting at Philadelphia (as he says in their letter) and “with a great voice” cried out to “give heed to the bishop, and to the elders and the deacons.” (Philadelphians 7:1.) Ignatius also spoke on personal living: “Keep your flesh as the temple of God, love unity, flee from divisions, be imitators of Jesus Christ, as was he also of his Father.” (Philadelphians 7:2.) Traveling the few remaining miles to the Aegean coast, the company rested at Smyrna for a time. The captive bishop found many close friends in the church, including the bishop, Polycarp. There, Christian delegates from Ephesus visited him, along with those from Magnesia and Tralles, near Ephesus. So Ignatius wrote to these cities before traveling north to Troas, where an Ephesian brother who had joined the group took dictation for two more letters, to Philadelphia and Smyrna. Ignatius then sailed from Troas, as Paul had done earlier, landing at Neapolis and then moving ten miles inland to Philippi, where Christians assisted him before he traveled across northern Greece on his way to a willing martyrdom in Rome.

That willingness shows in an earlier letter to the Roman saints pleading with them not to obstruct his execution: “I will long for the beasts that are prepared for me; … I will even entice them to devour me promptly.” (Romans 5:2.) Scholars accept seven fairly long letters of Ignatius, which otherwise show him an intelligent person totally dedicated to the Christian cause. Why, then, was he so for martyrdom? Although many have seen only madness in his martyr’s zeal, his position is logical if he truly accepted the apostles’ prophecy that false teachers would succeed them. John’s Revelation had been given to the same churches that Iganatius wrote to, and its early chapters give only two choices: faithful martyrdom or unfaithful apostasy. He does not even discuss the possibility that the faithful saints will perpetuate the church on earth. If that had been a real option, then Ignatius should have hoped for continued life to extend Christianity further. Instead, he thought that his best choice was death for Christ, which exactly fits the apostolic prophecies.

Obedience to the priesthood is the last hope of the faithful, according to Ignatius, but he stresses that he is only giving advice. The Trallians are told: “I did not think myself competent, as a convice, to give you orders like an apostle.” (Trallians 3:3) And he repeats the point to the Romans: “I do not order you as did Peter and Paul; they were apostles, I am a convict.” (Romans 4:3.) He asks the churches to send delegates to his own church in Antioch, left bishopless without him. The churches on his way also send their delegates to visit him. There is no central direction, only grass-roots cooperation. It seems an interim organization, a temporary adjustment. Ignatius’ trademark in every letter is the repetitive cry, “Do nothing without the bishop.” He fears that instability of the church will increase if private meetings and private doctrines are allowed.

It is obvious from his warnings that he fears the worst. He stresses strict obedience to the bishop because it’s the only antidote to the poison of apostasy. He had raised his voice at Philadelphia for obedience, and comments sorrowfully: “Some suspected me of saying this because I had previous knowledge of the division of some persons.” (Philadelphians 7:2.) In a way, he did. Individual churches were terribly vulnerable to factions and pressure groups, and Ignatius’ fiercest criticisms were leveled at “Docetists.” Taking their name from the Greek term “to seem” or “to appear” (dokein), they taught the Gnostic concept that a divine being could not contaminate himself with the material world; consequently, they denied or explained away the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. “Be deaf,” warns Ignatius, if anyone modifies the physical mission of Christ, who was “truly born … truly persecuted … truly crucified … truly raised from the dead.” (Trallians 9.) Since he bears this same testimony eloquently in the letter to Smyrna, Ignatius becomes a valuable supplement to John, where the conviction that “Christ has come in the flesh” becomes the test of the faithful. (See 1 Jn. 4:1–3.)

Another who opposed doctrinal perversions was Ignatius’ younger contemporary, Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Writing to Polycarp’s flock, Ignatius had called him a “godly bishop.” (Smyrnaeans 12:2.) In his letters Ignatius shared spiritual and practical advice, encouraging him to pray, be diligent, and individualize his attention for each member: “Not all wounds are healed by the same plaster.” (Polycarp 2:1.) Moreover, Polycarp was not to allow those who “teach strange doctrine [to] overthrow you; stand firm as a hammered anvil.” (Polycarp 3:1.) Polycarp’s life fits the metaphor. Martyred in the middle of the second century, he had borne testimony of youthful contact “with John and with the others who had seen the Lord,” thus sharing his personal knowledge of the apostles’ preaching and witnessing “about their miracles.” 7

In Polycarp’s era, bishops were independent. As an aged man, he visited Rome and differed with the Roman bishop on the proper date to celebrate Easter; the two parted peaceably by agreeing to disagree. 8 Irenaeus adds that on this visit the impressive witness of the revered Polycarp “caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God,” a comment illustrating the fierce pressure of the Gnostic movement, which denied the physical aspects of Christ’s mission. 9

Marcion, a leading Gnostic at that time, was excommunicated at Rome, where he radically revised both the scriptures and their interpretation. In a chance meeting, he asked whether Polycarp recognized him, and the Asian bishop replied, “I recognize the first-born of Satan.” 10

The only preserved writing of Polycarp is his letter to the Philippians, sent shortly after they had assisted Ignatius on his route to Rome and execution. They had asked for copies of Ignatius’ available letters. In reply, Polycarp makes the most of his contact to “warn the Philippians against certain disorders in the Church at Philippi, and especially against apostasy.” 11 In manner Polycarp is both “earnest and gracious,” 12 but in content he is uncompromising with apostasy. Polycarp quotes John’s test of undeniable truth: “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” (See 1 Jn. 4:1–3, 2 Jn. 1:7.) Quoting this, Polycarp adds, “Whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross is of the devil”—and whoever denies resurrection or judgment “is the first-born of Satan.” (Philippians 7:1.)

Yet Polycarp’s position in leading the fight against apostasy is highly ambiguous. He acknowledges his limitations in the same letter, telling the Philippians, “I write to you concerning righteousness, not at my own instance, but because you first invited me.” He then adds, “For neither am I, nor is any other like me, able to follow the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul.” (Philippians 3:1–2.) He evidently is saying, as Ignatius had very shortly before, that he is not an apostle and therefore cannot exercise his authority beyond the local sphere of his bishopric. Some scholars use Polycarp to prove doctrinal continuity from the apostles to the second century; but since he claims no apostolic authority, he is far more a question mark than a proof.

Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp present a united picture of three great bishops dedicated to morality, seasoned in love, and vigorously alert against factions. But they all notably lack the quality that enabled the apostles to establish the church and teach the world by the vitality of their writings. This dynamic quality is revelation, manifesting itself in the dramatic new programs that swept Christianity through the ancient world. These are quoters of apostles, not apostles and prophets themselves. Therefore, reading the Apostolic Fathers without assuming that they knew of the predictions of apostasy would be like reading Acts and the epistles without assuming that the apostles knew of Christ’s ministry. All communication has a context in which it is expressed, and the closing books of the New Testament disclose conditions and concepts that dominated the apostolic bishops. John’s letters are roughly contemporary with those of Ignatius and Polycarp, and the apostle refers to the coming of the anti-Christ (not the coming of Christ) by saying that it is “the last time” (literally, “the last hour”) because there are so many anti-Christs who “went out from us.” (1 Jn. 2:18–19.) John’s Revelation is also roughly contemporary with the letters of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp, and it speaks of the coming power of Satan and his agents “to make war with the saints, and to overcome them.” (Rev. 13:7.) Obviously John had been imprisoned or was otherwise unavailable when these bishops struggled against factions in the cities of Greece and Asia, but they could not be unaware of his plain teachings. In fact, he was only the last of many prophets who foresaw total apostasy, and the writings of the earliest Christian bishops reveal events that brought about fulfillment of that prophecy.

Between the Apostolic Fathers and Nicea *

Author

Main Location

Time of Writing

Important Works

Characteristics

Hermas

Rome

c. 150 and before

The Shepherd, an apocalypse named after the angel appearing as a shepherd

Stresses the need for righteousness in the face of apostasy and emphasizes baptism for the living—and for the dead.

Justin Martyr

Rome

Before c. 155, when martyred

Two Apologies (“defenses”); Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew

Presents Christ as second God, Christianity as lawful; discloses early doctrines and worship.

Irenaeus

Bishop of Lyons

c. 200 and before

Against Heresies

Opposes Gnostic rationalizations of Christ; an independent bishop and leading theologian of his time.

Clement of Alexandria

Alexandria

c. 190–215

The Instructor; The Stromata (“Miscellanies”)

Opposes popular paganism but heavily utilizes Greek philosophy to explain Christian theology.

Tertullian

Carthage

c. 195–220

Some 45 books: “defenses” of Christianity, tracts, and exposés of heretics

Criticizes pagan and Christian society; left church and supported groups seeking primitive purity and gifts.

Origen

Alexandria and Caesarea

c. 203–53

Concerning First Principles plus enormous apologetic and doctrinal output

Most influential theologian of his day, though not a priest or bishop; author of first systematic theology, heavily influenced by Greek philosophy.

Cyprian

Bishop of Carthage

249–58

65 letters in midst of persecutions and doctrinal and administrative controversies

Holds serious view of Christians “lapsing” under pressure; insists on independence of his bishopric against Rome.

Eusebius

Bishop of Caesarea

pre-325 for best works

Ecclesiastical History and related works are most significant

Attempts to show apostolic continuity, giving invaluable quotations from early pre-Nicene literature.

[illustration] Illustrated by Kent Goodliffe

Richard Lloyd Anderson is a professor of history and ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. He lives in the Pleasant View First Ward, Provo Utah Sharon East Stake.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   *

    This chart illustrates the leading orthodox writers who followed Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp, spanning from the early second to the early fourth centuries, when Constantine assembled Christian bishops at Nicea in A.D. 325.

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Accessible editions are the paperback of J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1962) and Kirsopp Lake, The Apostolic Fathers (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949), vol. 1, which I have generally followed with minor modifications for plainer Greek translation.

  2.   2.

    A. F. Walls in James Dixon Douglas (ed.), New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Ferdmans, 1965 revision), p. 941.

  3.   3.

    Johannes Quasten, Patrology (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1962), 1:40.

  4.   4.

    Hegesippus, cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3. 32. 7–8.

  5.   5.

    Quasten, p. 46.

  6.   6.

    Of twenty-one New Testament letters, eleven expressly name “apostle” in the heading, while five use the equivalent “elder” or “servant” (the latter an Old Testament term for Moses’ priesthood leadership). The remaining five either have an implication of authority in the heading or an obvious personal reason for leaving it out.

  7.   7.

    Eusebius, 5.20.6.

  8.   8.

    Ibid., 5.24.16–17.

  9.   9.

    Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.4.

  10.   10.

    Ibid.

  11.   11.

    Lake, p. 280.

  12.   12.

    Walls, p. 942.