Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Introduction to the Apostolic Fathers (Part I)


The Baptism of Christ In the previous post I introduced that theme of seeking the face of Christ as it is reflected in the face of the Church. We see this resemblance most clearly in the faces of the fathers of the Church. The term “Apostolic Fathers” refers to a collection of texts of the earliest Christian writers to succeed the apostles. Although many of the works found in the Apostolic Fathers were revered in antiquity, some of them fell out of use and were actually lost until modern times. The full text of The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, or in its Greek title, the Didache, was only rediscovered in 1883. In fact the excitement surrounding the discovery of the Didache in 1883 was much like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in our era. Geographically the writings of the Apostolic Fathers come from a region sweeping around the Mediterranean Sea. The letter of Clement to the Corinthians and the Shepherd of Hermas are from Rome, Polycarp was from Smyrna in modern-day Turkey, the Didache and Barnabas have a variety of suggested locations from Antioch to Jerusalem, to Alexandria. The dating of the Apostolic Fathers varies considerably. Some of the materials date form the first century and are contemporary with the New Testament. The Didache is a composite document which may incorporate an earlier Jewish catechetical tract. Most of these works are dated in the early second century.

The writers of the Apostolic Fathers were not speculative theologians but most often Bishops. Clement was the bishop of Rome, Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch, Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna, the Didache is a manual of church discipline which attempts to pass on the traditions of the apostles through the bishops as they are remembered by one community. In each case the concern was with concrete pastoral problems in these new communities founded by the apostles. Questions relating to worship, liturgy, the Eucharist, catechesis of new converts, and the authority of bishops were raised in much the same manner as the New Testament. It is clear from the Gospels that Jesus had a community of followers and that he intended to pass down the leadership of this community to the Twelve Apostles. Jesus intended to found the Church (CCC 857). Peter and the other Apostles engaged in missionary activity and are soon joined by the Apostle Paul. The Church expanded rapidly into the Roman Empire around the Mediterranean establishing communities in most major cities. As the Catechism reminds us; “In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority” (DV 7). Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time” (DV 8) (CCC 77).

Wednesday, Third Week of Advent,


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