Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Warnings in the Apostolic Fathers

Last night in class I read the account of Polycarp's martydom and of his faithful endurance until the end, not denying Christ but rather confessing him even under persecution. This account comes from a group of writings that are known today as the "Apostolic Fathers." This refers to early Christian writers such as Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Barnabas, who lived in the first several centuries after the close of the New Testament canon. They wrote several centuries before Augustine, and thus their writings are the earliest extant Christian writings we possess outside of the New Testament. For instance, most scholars date the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians to about 96 A.D.! I highly recommend taking the time to read through these valuable writings at some point, and seeing how the gospel and the Christian life and nature of the church was understood by the first generations of Christians. I've linked to the book Early Christian Writings below.

In reading through these letters recently, I have been struck at how the various writers make use of warnings to exhort and encourage and rebuke the believers they are writing to. I'll try to make note of some of these warnings here in the near future. For now, I'll just point out several things that all of the warnings I have seen in these writings have in common. First, they are all addressed to believers with no hint that the writer believes they may be fakes or that warnings imply that those being exhorted may not actually be genuinely saved. In fact, these early writers often make the explicit point that they are writing the warnings for themselves as well. Second, the warnings are radically future oriented. The crown of life and the prize of salvation and similar images are referenced often, and made conditional on perseverance and endurance in discipleship. Third, these writers conceive with crystal clarity that the prize at stake in enduring to the end is salvation, and what is threatened is final condemnation and judgment. There is simply no way a "loss of rewards" view can be read out of these letters. Eternal life is what is at stake. Here are a few quotes from the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians:

"Besides these men of saintly life [i.e. Old Testament examples, and Peter and Paul], there are many more of the elect who have undergone hardships and torments instigated by jealousy, and provide admirable object lessons for ourselves. There were women, hounded by jealousy...who endured fearful and diabolical tortures, yet in spite of their bodily frailty they finished the race of faith unshaken, and received their noble reward...Now, all this is not being written as a warning to you alone, my dear friends, but for a reminder to ourselves as well, because we too are in the same arena and have the same conflict before us."

"Lot, for his hospitality and his piety, was brought safely out of Sodom, when fire and brimstone were raining down in judgment on all the region about. Moreover, on that occasion the Lord made it plain that, while He never forsakes those who place their hopes in Him, He visits pains and penaltieson the rebellious; and as a sign of this, Lot's wife, who had accompanied him in his flight, but later changed her mind and fell out with him, was turned into a pillar of salt to this day. That was to let all men see how doubt and distrust of God's power to bring a judgment upon themselves, and become a warning of future generations."

"Take care then, my friends, lest, if we fail to conduct ourselves worthily of Him and to do what is good and acceptable to Him in amity together, all this beneficence of His should turn to our condemnation."

"Therefore, since there is nothing He does not see and hear, let us approach Him with awe, and have done with this hateful fondness for mischief-making, so that we may find shelter in His mercy from the judgment to come...Then let us strain every nerve to be found among those who wait in patience for Him, so that we too may earn a share of His promised gifts. And how is this to be done, my friends? Why, by fixing our minds trustfully on God; by finding out what is pleasing and acceptable to Him; by doing whatever agrees with His perfect will; by following the paths of truth. Wickedness and wrongdoing of every kind must be utterly renounced; all greed, quarreling, malice and fraud, scandals and backbiting, enmity towards God, glorification of self, presumption, conceit, and lack of hospitality; for men who do such things--and not only men who do them, but men who consent to them--are held in detestation by God."

"Then let us show ourselves obedient to His all-holy and glorious Name, so that we may escape the doom that was pronounced of old by wisdom upon the ungodly, and may dwell in trustful reliance on the most sacred Name of His majesty. Be counseled by us, and you will have nothing to regret. As surely as God lives, as Jesus Christ lives, and the Holy Spirit also (on whom are set the faith and hope of God's elect), so surely the man who keeps the divinely appointed decrees and statutes with humility and an unfailing consideration for others, and never looks back, will be enrolled in honor among the number of those who are saved through Jesus Christ, by whom is God glorified forever and ever, Amen. But if there are any who refuse to heed the declarations He has made through our lips, let them not doubt the gravity of the guilt and the peril in which they involve themselves. For our part we will take care to be innocent of any such offense; and we will entreat the Creator of all things with heartfelt prayer and supplication that the full sum of His elect, as it has been numbered throughout all the world, may ever be preserved intact through His beloved Son Jesus Christ, by whom He has called us out of darkenss to light, and from ignorance to the clear knowledge of the glory of His name."

All of these quotes come from pp. 23-47, in Early Christian Writings:

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