Christian writers of the first and second centuries who are known, or are considered, to have had personal relations with some of the Apostles, or to have been so influenced by them that their writings may be held as echoes of genuine Apostolic teaching. Though restricted by some to those who were actually disciples of the Apostles, the term applies by extension to certain writers who were previously believed to have been such, and virtually embraces all the remains of primitive Christian literature antedating the great apologies of the second century, and forming the link of tradition that binds these latter writings to those of the New Testament.
The name was apparently unknown in Christian literature before the end of the seventeenth century. The term Apostolic, however, was commonly used to qualify Churches, persons, writings, etc. from the early second century, when St. Ignatius, in the exordium of his Epistle to the Trallians, saluted their Church "after the Apostolic manner." In 1672 Jean Baptiste Cotelier (Cotelerius) published his "SS. Patrum qui temporibus apostolicis floruerunt opera", which title was abbreviated to "Bibliotheca Patrum Apostolicorum" by L. J. Ittig in his edition (Leipzig, 1699) of the same writings. Since then the term has been universally used.
The list of Fathers included under this title has varied, literary criticism having removed some who were formerly considered as second-century writers, while the publication (Constantinople, 1883) of the Didache has added one to the list. Chief in importance are the three first-century Bishops: St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and St. Polycarp of Smyrna, of whose intimate personal relations with the Apostles there is no doubt. Clement, Bishop of Rome and third successor of St. Peter in the Papacy, "had seen the blessed Apostles [Peter and Paul] and had been conversant with them" (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., III, iii, 3). Ignatius was the second successor of St. Peter in the See of Antioch (Eusebius, Church History III.36) and during his life in that centre of Christian activity may have met with others of the Apostolic band. An accepted tradition, substantiated by the similarity of Ignatius's thought with the ideas of the Johannine writings, declares him a disciple of St. John. Polycarp was "instructed by Apostles" (Irenaeus, op. cit., III, iii, 4) and had been a disciple of St. John (Eusebius, op. cit., III, 36; V, 20) whose contemporary he was for nearly twenty years.
Besides these, whose rank as Apostolic Fathers in the strictest sense is undisputed, there are two first-century writers whose place with them is generally conceded: the author of the Didache and the author of the "Epistle of Barnabas". The former affirms that his teaching is that of the Apostles, and his work, perhaps the earliest extant piece of uninspired Christian literature, gives colour to his claim; the latter, even if he be not the Apostle and companion of St. Paul, is held by many to have written during the last decade of the first century, and may have come under direct Apostolic influence, though his Epistle does not clearly suggest it.
By extension of the term to comprise the extant extra-canonical literature of the sub-Apostolic age, it is made to include the "Shepherd" of Hermas, the New Testament prophet, who was believed to be the one referred to by St. Paul (Romans 16:14), but whom a safer tradition makes a brother of Pope Pius I (c. 140-150); the meagre fragments of the "Expositions of the Discourses of the Lord", by Papias, who may have been a disciple of St. John (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., V, 331-334), though more probably he received his teaching at second hand from a "presbyter" of that name (Eusebius, Church History III.39); the "Letter to Diognetus", the unknown author of which affirms his discipleship with the Apostles, but his claim must be taken in the broad sense of conformity in spirit and teaching. In addition to these there were formerly included apocryphal writings of some of the above Fathers, the "Constitutions" and "Canons of the Apostles" and the works accredited to Dionysius the Areopagite, who, though himself a disciple of the Apostles, was not the author of the works bearing his name. Though generally rejected, the homily of Pseudo-Clement (Epistola secunda Clementis) is by some considered as being as worthy of a place among the Apostolic Fathers, as is its contemporary, the "Shepherd" of Hermas.
The period of time covered by these writings extends from the last two decades of the first century for the Didache (80-100), Clement (c. 97), and probably Pseudo-Barnabas (96-98), through the first half of the second century, the approximate chronology being Ignatius, 110-117; Polycarp, 110-120; Hermas, in its present form, c.150; Papias, c.150. Geographically, Rome is represented by Clement and Hermas; Polycarp wrote from Smyrna, whence also Ignatius sent four of the seven epistles which he wrote on his way from Antioch through Asia Minor; Papias was Bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia; the Didache was written in Egypt or Syria; the letter of Barnabas in Alexandria.
The writings of the Apostolic Fathers are generally epistolary in form, after the fashion of the canonical Epistles, and were written, for the greater part, not for the purpose of instructing Christians at large, but for the guidance of individuals or local churches in some passing need. Happily, the writers so amplified their theme that they combine to give a precious picture of the Christian community in the age which follows the death of St. John. Thus Clement, in paternal solicitude for the Churches committed to his care, endeavours to heal a dissension at Corinth and insists on the principles of unity and submission to authority, as best conducive to peace; Ignatius, fervent in his gratitude to the Churches which solaced him on his way to martyrdom, sends back letters of recognition, filled with admonitions against the prevailing heresy and highly spiritual exhortations to keep unity of faith in submission to the bishops; Polycarp, in forwarding Ignatian letters to Philippi, sends, as requested, a simple letter of advice and encouragement. The letter of Pseudo-Barnabas and that to Diognetus, the one polemical, the other apologetic in tone, while retaining the same form, seem to have in view a wider circle of readers. The other three are in the form of treatises: the Didache, a manual of moral and liturgical instruction; the "Shepherd", a book of edification, apocalyptic in form, is an allegorical representation of the Church, the faults of her children and their need of penance; the "Expositions" of Papias, an exegetical commentary on the Gospels.
Written under such circumstances, the works of the Apostolic Fathers are not characterized by systematic expositions of doctrine or brilliancy of style. "Diognetus" alone evidences literary skill and refinement. Ignatius stands out in relief by his striking personality and depth of view. Each writes for his present purpose, with a view primarily to the actual needs of his auditors, but, in the exuberance of primitive charity and enthusiasm, his heart pours out its message of fidelity to the glorious Apostolic heritage, of encouragement in present difficulties, of solicitude for the future with its threatening dangers. The dominant tone is that of fervent devotion to the brethren in the Faith, revealing the depth and breadth of the zeal which was imparted to the writers by the Apostles. The letters of the three bishops, together with the Didache, voice sincerest praise of the Apostles, whose memory the writers hold in deep filial devotion; but their recognition of the unapproachable superiority of their masters is equally well borne out by the absence in their letters of that distinctly inspired tone that marks the Apostles' writings. More abrupt, however, is the transition between the unpretentious style of the Apostolic Fathers and the scientific form of the treatises of the Fathers of the subsequent periods. The fervent piety, the afterglow of the day of Apostolic spirituality, was not to be found again in such fullness and simplicity. Letters breathing such sympathy and solicitude were held in high esteem by the early Christians and by some were given an authority little inferior to that of the Scriptures. The Epistle of Clement was read in the Sunday assemblies at Corinth during the second century and later (Eusebius, Church History III.16 and IV.23); the letter of Barnabas was similarly honoured at Alexandria; Hermas was popular throughout Christendom, but particularly in the West. Clement of Alexandria quoted the Didache as "Scripture". Some of the Apostolic Fathers are found in the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament at the end of the canonical writings: Clement was first made known through the "Codex Alexandrinus"; similarly, Hermas and Pseudo-Barnabas are appended to the canonical books in the "Codex Sinaiticus". Standing between the New Testament era and the literary efflorescence of the late second century, these writers represent the original elements of Christian tradition. They make no pretension to treat of Christian doctrine and practice in a complete and scholarly manner and cannot, therefore, be expected to answer all the problems concerning Christian origins. Their silence on any point does not imply their ignorance of it, much less its denial; nor do their assertions tell all that might be known. The dogmatic value of their teaching is, however, of the highest order, considering the high antiquity of the documents and the competence of the authors to transmit the purest Apostolic doctrine. This fact did not receive its due appreciation even during the period of medieval theological activity. The increased enthusiasm for positive theology which marked the seventeenth century centred attention on the Apostolic Fathers; since then they have been the eagerly-questioned witnesses to the beliefs and practice of the Church during the first half of the second century. Their teaching is based on the Scriptures, i.e. the Old Testament, and on the words of Jesus Christ and His Apostles. The authority of the latter was decisive. Though the New Testament canon was not yet, to judge from these writings, definitively fixed, it is significant that with the exception of the Third Epistle of St. John and possibly that of St. Paul to Philemon, every book of the New Testament is quoted or alluded to more or less clearly by one or another of the Apostolic Fathers, while the citations from the "apocrypha." are extremely rare. Of equal authority with the written word is that of oral tradition (Eusebius, Church History III.39; Epistle of Clement 7), to which must be traced certain citations of the "Sayings" of Our Lord and the Apostles not found in the Scriptures.
Meagre as they necessarily are in their testimony, the Apostolic Fathers bear witness to the faith of Christians in the chief mysteries of the Divine Unity and Trinity. The Trinitarian formula occurs frequently. If the Divinity of the Holy Ghost is but once obscurely alluded to in Hermas, it must be remembered that the Church was as yet undisturbed by anti-Trinitarian heresies. The dominant error of the period was Docetism, and its refutation furnishes these writers with an occasion to deal at greater length with the Person of Jesus Christ. He is the Redeemer of whom men stood in need. Ignatius unhesitatingly calls Him God (Trall., vii; Eph., i, and passim). The soteriology of the Epistles to the Hebrews forms the basis of their teaching. Jesus Christ is our high-priest (Epistle of Clement 36-64) in whose suffering and death is our redemption (Ignat., Eph., i, Magnes., ix; Barnab., v). Diog., ix); whose blood is our ransom (Epistle of Clement 12-21). The fruits of Redemption, while not scientifically treated, are in a general way the destruction of death or of sin, the gift to man of immortal life, and the knowledge of God (Barnab., iv-v, vii, xiv; Did., xvi; Epistle of Clement 24-25; Hermas, Simil., v, 6). Justification is received by faith and by works as well; and so clearly is the efficacy of good works insisted upon that it is futile to represent the Apostolic Fathers as failing to comprehend the pertinent teaching of St. Paul. The points of view of both St. Paul and St. James are cited and considered complementary (Epistle of Clement 31-35; Ignat. to Polyc., vi). Good works are insisted on by Hermas (Vis., iii, 1 Simil., v, 3), and Barnabas proclaims (c. xix) their necessity for salvation. The Church, the "Catholic" Church, as Ignatius for the first time calls it (Smyrnæans 8), takes the place of the chosen people; is the mystical body of Christ, the faithful being the members thereof, united by oneness of faith and hope, and by a charity which prompts to mutual assistance. This unity is secured by the hierarchical organization of the ministry and the due submission of inferiors to authority. On this point the teaching of the Apostolic Fathers seems to stand for a marked development in advance of the practice of the Apostolic period. But it is to be noted that the familiar tone in which episcopal authority is treated precludes the possibility of its being a novelty. The Didache may yet deal with "prophets", "Apostles", and itinerant missionaries (x-xi, xiii-xiv), but this is not a stage in development. It is anomalous, outside the current of development. Clement and Ignatius present the hierarchy, organized and complete, with its orders of bishops, priests, and deacons, ministers of the Eucharistic liturgy and administrators of temporalities. Clement's Epistle is the philosophy of "Apostolicity," and its corollary, episcopal succession. Ignatius gives in abundance practical illustrations of what Clement sets forth in principle. For Ignatius the bishop is the centre of unity (Ephesians 4), the authority whom all must obey as they would God, in whose place the bishop rules (Polycarp 6; Magnesians 6 and 13; Smyrnæans 8 and 11; Trallians 12); for unity with and submission to the bishop is the only security of faith. Supreme in the Church is he who holds the seat of St. Peter at Rome. The intervention of Clement in the affairs of Corinth and the language of Ignatius in speaking of the Church of Rome in the exordium of his Epistle to the Romans must be understood in the light of Christ's charge to St. Peter. One rounds out the other. The deepest reverence for the memory of St. Peter is visible in the writings of Clement and Ignatius. They couple his name with that of St. Paul, and this effectually disproves the antagonism between these two Apostles which the Tübingen theory postulated in tracing the pretended development of a united church from the discordant Petrine and Pauline factions. Among the sacraments alluded to is Baptism, to which Ignatius refers (Polycarp 2 and Smyrnæans 8), and of which Hermas speaks as the necessary way of entrance to the Church and to salvation (Vis., iii, 3, 5; Simil., ix, 16), the way from death to life (Simil., viii, 6), while the Didache deals with it liturgically (vii). The Eucharist is mentioned in the Didache (14) and by Ignatius, who uses the term to signify the "flesh of Our Saviour Jesus Christ" (Smyrnæans 7; Ephesians 20; Philadelphians 4). Penance is the theme of Hermas, and is urged as a necessary and a possible recourse for him who sins once after baptism (Vis., iii, 7; Simil., viii, 6, 8, 9, 11). The Didache refers to a confession of sins (iv, xiv) as does Barnabas (xix). An exposition of the dogmatic teaching of individual Fathers will be found under their respective names.
The Apostolic Fathers, as a group, are found in no one manuscript. The literary history of each will be found in connection with the individual studies. The first edition was that of Cotelerius, above referred to (Paris, 1672). It contained Barnabas, Clement, Hermas, Ignatius, and Polycarp. A reprint (Antwerp, 1698-1700; Amsterdam, 1724), by Jean Leclerc (Clericus), contained much additional matter. The latest editions are those of the Anglican Bishop, J.B. Lightfoot, "The Apostolic Fathers" (5 vols., London, 1889-1890); abbreviated edition, Lightfoot-Harmer, London, I vol., 1893; Gebhardt, Harnack, and Zahn, "Patrum Apostolicorum Opera" (Leipzig, 1901); and F. X. von Funk, "Patres Apostolici" (2d ed., Tübingen, 1901), in all of which abundant reference will be found to the literature of the two preceding centuries. The last named work first appeared (Tübingen, vol. I, 1878, 1887; vol. II,, 1881) as a fifth edition of Hefele's "Opera Patr. Apostolicorum" (Tübingen, 1839; 4th ed., 1855) enriched with notes (critical, exegetical, historical), prolegomena, indexes, and a Latin version. The second edition meets all just demands of a critical presentation of these ancient and important writings, and in its introduction and notes offers the best Catholic treatise on the subject.
P.G. (Paris, 1857), I, II, V; Eng. tr. in Ante-Nicene Library (Edinburgh, 1866), I, and American ed. (New York, 1903), I, 1-158; Freppel, Les Peres Apostoliques et leur époque (Paris, 1885); Batiffol, La litt. eccl. grecque (Paris, 1901); Holland, The Apostolic Fathers (London, 1897); Wake, The Genuine Epistles of the Apostolic Fathers (London, 1893); Fleming, Early Christian Witnesses (London, 1878); Crutwell, A Literary History of Early Christianity (London, 1893), I, 21-127; Oxford Society of Historical Theology, The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (Oxford, 1905); Lightfoot in Dict. of Chr. Biog., s.v.; for the doctrine, see Tixeront, Histoire des dogmes (Paris, 1905), I, 115-163; Bareille in Dict. de theol. cath. (Paris, 1903), I, 1634-46; Bardenhewer, Geschichte d. altkirchl. Litt., I.
APA citation. (1907). The Apostolic Fathers. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved April 26, 2010 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01637a.htm
MLA citation. "The Apostolic Fathers." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 26 Apr. 2010 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01637a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Nicolette Ormsbee.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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