As a quick review, the first part of a reading plan for Christian apologists is to read the Bible indepth, in context and often. That includes an understanding of the overarching truths of the Bible. The second part is to have at least a basic working knowledge of the original languages of the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic, Koine Greek). The third part is to learn from the great apologetic voices of the early Church Fathers. Those Christians from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries fought many of the same battles we are fighting today. There is much we can learn from how they identified and addressed challenges to Christianity from both inside and outside the Church.
Some of the best known of the ancient apologists are known as the “Apostolic Fathers.” They were men who were disciples of the apostles. They lived during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD and their apologetic ministries had a powerful influence on the early Christian Church. They included Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Symrna (some scholars include Papias of Hierapolis in the group). We learned about Clement of Rome in our last study. We move now to Ignatius of Antioch.
Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius of Antioch was a 1st century Bishop of Antioch who reportedly knew the apostles Peter and John. The Romans arrested Ignatius when he was an old man and took him to Rome to be killed. Ignatius wrote several letters to churches as he traveled to Rome for martyrdom, including to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Smyrneans, Trallians, Philadelphians, and Romans. He was a prisoner, in bonds, taken by force to Rome, so his writings reflect his difficult situation.
Ignatius desired to imitate the “passion” of Christ – “Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God. If any man hath Him within himself, let him understand what I desire, and let him have fellow-feeling with me, for he knoweth the things which straiten me.” (Ignatius to the Romans, 6:3, Translated by J.B. Lightfoot, 1891) He also emphasized the importance of “unity” in the Church – “And do ye, each and all, form yourselves into a chorus, that being harmonious in concord and taking the key note of God ye may in unison sing with one voice through Jesus Christ unto the Father, that He may both hear you and acknowledge you by your good deeds to be members of His Son. It is therefore profitable for you to be in blameless unity, that ye may also be partakers of God always.” (Ignatius to the Ephesians, 4:2, Translated by J.B. Lightfoot, 1891)
Of important note to Christian apologists today is Ignatius’ emphasis on addressing heretical schisms vigorously – “Be not deceived, my brethren. If any man followeth one that maketh a schism, he doth not inherit the kingdom of God. If any man walketh in strange doctrine, he hath no fellowship with the passion.” (Ignatius to the Philadelphians, 3:3, Translated by J.B. Lightfoot, 1891)
Here are some examples from the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. Notice the variety of heresies he addressed and how many of them we still deal with today. (All of the translations are by J.B. Lightfoot.)
“But if any one propound Judaism unto you, here him not: for it is better to hear Christianity from a man who is circumcised than Judaism from one uncircumcised. But if either the one or the other speak not concerning Jesus Christ, I look on them as tombstones and graves of the dead, whereon are inscribed only the names of men. Shun ye therefore the wicked arts and plottings of the prince of this world, lest haply ye be crushed by his devices, and wax weak in your love. But assemble yourselves all together with undivided heart.” Philadelphians 6:1-2
“But if it were as certain persons who are godless, that is unbelievers, say, that He suffered only in semblance, being themselves mere semblance, why am I in bonds? And why also do I desire to fight with wild beasts? So I die in vain. Truly then I lie against the Lord.” Trallians 10:1
“Be not seduced by strange doctrines nor by antiquated fables, which are profitless. For if even unto this day we live after the manner of Judaism, we avow that we have not received grace: for the divine prophets lived after Christ Jesus. For this cause also they were persecuted, being inspired by His grace to the end that they which are disobedient might be fully persuaded that there is one God who manifested Himself through Jesus Christ His Son, who is His Word that proceeded from silence, who in all things was well-pleasing unto Him that sent Him. If then those who had walked in ancient practices attained unto newness of hope, no longer observing sabbaths but fashioning their lives after the Lord’s day, on which our life also arose through Him and through His death which some men deny — a mystery whereby we attained unto belief, and for this cause we endure patiently, that we may be found disciples of Jesus Christ our only teacher — if this be so, how shall we be able to live apart from Him? seeing that even the prophets, being His disciples, were expecting Him as their teacher through the Spirit. And for this cause He whom they rightly awaited, when He came, raised them from the dead.” Magnesians 8:1 – 9:2
“For He suffered all these things for our sakes [that we might be saved]; and He suffered truly, as also He raised Himself truly; not as certain unbelievers say, that He suffered in semblance, being themselves mere semblance. And according as their opinions are, so shall it happen to them, for they are without body and demon-like.” Smyrnaeans 2:1
“For I know and believe that He was in the flesh even after the resurrection; and when He came to Peter and his company, He said to them, Lay hold and handle me, and see that I am not a demon without body. And straightway they touched Him, and they believed, being joined unto His flesh and His blood. Wherefore also they despised death, nay they were found superior to death. And after His resurrection He [both] ate with them and drank with them as one in the flesh, though spiritually He was united with the Father.” Smyrnaeans 3:1-3
Ignatius of Antioch also wrote a letter to Polycarp, a fellow bishop and a disciple of the Apostle John. It is fascinating to read this very personal letter written by an elderly Christian bishop on his way to martyrdom to a younger Christian bishop still fighting the battles for God with fellow believers in Smyrna. I recommend this letter to today’s Christian apologists for the many reminders important to our service to Christ and His Church.
“I exhort thee in the grace wherewith thou art clothed to press forward in thy course and to exhort all men that they may be saved. Vindicate thine office in all diligence of flesh and of spirit. Have a care for union, than which there is nothing better. Bear all men, as the Lord also beareth thee. Suffer all men in love, as also thou doest. Give thyself to unceasing prayers. Ask for larger wisdom than thou hast. Be watchful, and keep thy spirit from slumbering. Speak to each man severally after the manner of God. Bear the maladies of all, as a perfect athlete. Where there is more toil, there is much gain.” Polycarp 1:2-3
“Let not those that seem to be plausible and yet teach strange doctrine dismay thee. Stand thou firm, as an anvil when it is smitten. It is the part of a great athlete to receive blows and be victorious. But especially must we for God’s sake endure all things, that He also may endure us.” Polycarp 3:1
“A Christian hath no authority over himself, but giveth his time to God. This is God’s work, and yours also, when ye shall complete it: for I trust in the Divine grace, that ye are ready for an act of well- doing which is meet for God. Knowing the fervour of your sincerity, I have exhorted you in a short letter.” Polycarp 7:3
Polycarp of Symrna
In the next part of our series we will look at the writings of Polycarp of Symrna and what Christian apologists can learn from him.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.