The apostolic fathers and their writings reflect the doctrine and life of the church immediately following the death of the apostles. They are called apostolic fathers because in their days the teaching and preaching of the apostles was still a matter of living memory in the church of a not yet remote past. The identity of these men and the authenticity of their writings are to some extent matters of scholarly debate which need not fully concern us. They lived and wrote roughly in the period from A.D. 100-A.D. 200. They include such men as Polycarp, the minister of the church of Smyrna, who had been a disciple of the Apostle John. They include also some names which are familiar to us from the New Testament, such as Barnabas and Clement (Philippians 4:3). Whether these men are to be identified with the men. mentioned in the New Testament is uncertain. It is possible that the Clement whom Paul mentions and the writer of a letter to the Corinthian church are one and the same individual. The writer of the Epistle of Barnabas appears to have been merely an individual in the early church who happened to have the same name as the Apostle Paul’s co-missionary in the Book of Acts.
The days in which these men lived were days of severe persecution for the church. Polycarp himself lived to be a very old man and ended his life as a martyr, being burned at the stake. Upon such men as these the care of the churches fell in the days following the apostles, and some of their letters have survived and come down to us.
It is evident from their writings that at the outset, the church, continuing in the teaching of the apostles, regarded the writings and teachings of the apostles as God’s revelation unto His people. Although the exact boundaries of the Word of God had not yet been fully drawn, nevertheless the early church recognized that Christ had spoken unto them by-His apostles, who were sent as His instruments to found and establish the church of the new dispensation, and by which Christ gave His Word to the church. Clement, speaking of the apostles, writes to the church of Corinth, “The ministers of the grace of God have, by the Holy Spirit, spoken of repentance” (1st Epistle of Clement, Chapter 8). Similarly in Chapter 47 of the same letter he says to the Corinthian church,
Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the Gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas, and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you.
They fully believed that Scripture was the work of the Holy Spirit through the apostles, and that moreover the apostles were given the Spirit in a different way and in a higher sense than they themselves wrote and spoke. Thus Polycarp, writing to the church of Philippi, recognizes this difference and the uniqueness of Paul’s letter in distinction from his own. He says to the Philippians in chapter 3 of his letter,
For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive. And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter, which if you carefully study, you will find to be the means of building you up in that faith which has been given you. . . .
While one must not read into these fathers a fully developed doctrine of inspiration, yet nevertheless the seeds of this truth lived from the very beginning in the early church. In a similar manner the Old Testament was regarded as the Word of God, and that as the Word of God to the Christian church and not as the property of apostate Judaism, as some today want to regard it. The early fathers also freely quote other writings, such as the apochryphal books. They sometimes confuse them with Scripture and they sometimes quote these books also as if they were Scripture. When seeking to determine their doctrine of Scripture it is important therefore to remember that they labored before the full determination of the canon of Scripture. They labored also in times of persecution, and with the Word of God written upon scrolls, not always easily obtainable, rather than the kind of books we have today. The result is that to quote the Scriptures, they often did so from memory, sometimes imperfectly and confusing their sources. Modern apostate scholarship likes to make much of these things as a tool with which to attack the truth of inspiration. In spite of their weaknesses in understanding the truth of inspiration, the apostolic fathers nevertheless confessed it, and that principle governed their work.
Thus, we also find in their writings the idea of the unity of Scripture and of the right relation of the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is used and applied by them to the new dispensation. It is seen as the Word of God which speaks concerning salvation in Christ, foretelling His coming, suffering, and death. Polycarp, in chapter 6 of his epistle to the Philippians, tells them,
Let us serve Him in fear, and with all reverence, even as He Himself has commanded us, and as the apostles who preached the gospel unto us, and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Lord have alike taught us.
One Word of God concerning Christ, a unity, such are the Scriptures, and this also did the early church confess. The Epistle of Barnabas shows a similar sense of the unity of the Word of God. It was written particularly with a view to the Judaizers who continued to plague the early apostolic church. This letter is an attempt to develop some of the typology of the Old Testament. This the writer does by trying to compare Scripture with Scripture. While there are many weaknesses in his exposition and principles of interpretation, yet behind them stands the sound idea that Scripture is a unity which speaks of Christ.
It is evident in their writings also that in harmony with the principle that Scripture is the Word of God, these early fathers attempted to develop the truth of the Word of God out of the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. The writer of the Epistle of Barnabas. proceeds from this principle in the whole of his letter. Though it is also quite evident that he does not thoroughly understand it with the clarity of later ages, nor does he always apply it in a proper manner, yet it is from this principle which he proceeds. The other apostolic fathers reflect this same principle and attempt to apply it to the Word of God as they had received it.
The authority of that Word of God is also evident from their writings. It is set forth and expounded and applied to the church as the Word of God, which the church must hear. The Spirit had spoken to the church through the apostles, and the church was to take heed to their word as the Word of Truth. God addressed the church through the Old Testament, setting forth Christ and the coming of salvation for the Gentiles. By that Word the church was taught concerning her salvation in Christ. The Word of God, once given unto His people in the old dispensation, now spoke with greater clarity unto them, by the fulfillment of the promise. In that Word they rejoiced with thanksgiving, conscious of its authority in both testaments, as the Epistle of Barnabas (Chapters 4, 5) demonstrates, in which the writer says of a passage in the Gospel According to Matthew, “It is written,” and of Isaiah, that it was written not only for Israel but also for us,
And all the more attend to this, my brethren, when ye reflect and behold, that after so great signs and wonders were wrought in Israel, they were thus (at length) abandoned. Let us beware lest we be found (fulfilling that saying), as it is written, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”
For to this end the Lord endured to deliver up His flesh to corruption, that we might be sanctified through the remission of sins, which is effected by His blood of sprinkling. For it is written concerning Him, partly with reference to Israel, and partly to us; and (the Scripture) saith thus: “He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities: with His stripes we are healed. He was brought as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb which is dumb before its shearer.” Therefore we ought to be deeply grateful to the Lord, because He has both made known to us things that are past and hath given us wisdom concerning things present, and hath not left us without understanding in regard to things which are to come.