Continuing with the views of the Church as entertained by apostolic fathers, we now call attention to another of these apostolic fathers, Polycarp. It is not at all improbable that he was the “angel” of the church in Smyrna to whom the Lord Jesus Christ had written in His letter to the church at Smyrna (see Rev. 2:10: “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.”). He is said to have been a disciple of the apostle, John. He suffered martyrdom at a very old age, testifying at his martyrdom that he had served the Lord Jesus Christ for eighty six years. Polycarp’s letters contain a surprising number of short passages which occur in the New Testament and cover a large proportion of its books. This clearly indicates that these books were familiar to him and his readers, and that for him and his readers they possessed definite authority. Also his writings are characterized by simplicity and abounds in practical admonitions.
Concerning the martyrdom of Polycarp, the following may be of interest to our readers. Polycarp was known in his day as the “teacher of Asia.” He was betrayed by members of his own household. When his pursuers finally apprehended him they were astonished that such an aged man should be the object of such a relentless and merciless pursuit, declaring: “Was so much effort made to capture such a venerable man?” He is reported to have set food before his captors who were utterly astonished because of the godliness of this aged disciple of the Christ of the Cross.
Having been brought into the stadium in Smyrna and identifying himself as Polycarp, he was asked by the proconsul to renounce the Lord Jesus Christ. When told that he would be set at liberty if he renounced the Christ, the aged man replied: “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” Hereupon the proconsul first threatened to cast him to the wild beasts and then to consume him by fire. Nothing, however, could persuade the venerable Christian from renouncing his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He answered these threats with the words: “Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, an after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.” Hereupon his execution occurred, but not until he had expressed his thanks to the Lord for the privilege bestowed upon him that day that he should be counted worthy that day to have a part in the number of His martyrs.
Without referring to other apostolic fathers, such as Hermas of Rome and Barnabas of Alexandria, we may safely remark that this conception of the Church was characterized by indefiniteness. They did not distinguish sharply but emphasized the calling unto sanctification and holiness. They did not hesitate to place the origin of the Church of God beyond creation and, therefore, in the eternal counsel of God.
The Church and Salvation
The Church and salvation were inseparably linked together by practically all the early church fathers. They all taught and emphasized in their writings that salvation is only in and with the Church and that there is, therefore, no salvation outside of the Church. Concerning this there can be no doubt.
We call attention, first of all, to Irenaeus. He was very outspoken on this matter. Irenaeus, attaining unto a great age as did Polycarp whose disciple or pupil he had been, was bishop in Gaul (as France was known at that time) and suffered a martyr’s death with thousands of his flock about the year, 202 A.D. He struggled heroically against the heresies that threatened to undermine the truth already in his day and finally closed his life in the fiendish massacre which was stimulated by the wolfish Emperor Severus. He was very outspoken, We have already observed, on the question of the Church and salvation, and surely emphasized that salvation is only in and with the Church and that there is no salvation outside of the Church. He maintained that in the Church of God all the treasures of the truth are deposited. Outside of the Church are only thieves and robbers, pools of foul water, referring, of course, to them that professed to be Christians but were not connected with the Church of the Lord. “Where the Church is,” Irenaeus declares “there is the Spirit of God; where the Spirit of God is there is the Church and all grace.” According to this ancient church father, the apostles, like a rich man depositing his money in a bank, lodged in the hands of the Church most copiously all things pertaining to the truth. The Church is the entrance to life; all others, according to him, are thieves and robbers.
Another of the church fathers to which we would call attention in connection with the Church and salvation is Clement of Alexandria. Clement was originally a pagan philosopher. The date of his birth is unknown. It is also uncertain whether Alexandria or Athens was his birthplace. Embracing Christianity he eagerly sought the instruction of its most eminent teachers; for this purpose he travelled extensively over Greece, Italy, Egypt, Palestine and other regions of the East. He is known as the teacher of Origen, the greatest thinker of the early Christian Church in the New Dispensation until his time. The close of his career is covered with obscurity. He is supposed to have died about A.D. 220. Clement defines the Church as the society of the elect. He writes the following, and we quote: “From what has been said, then it is my opinion that the true Church, that which is really ancient, is one, and that in it those who according to God’s purpose are just, are enrolled…For it is not now the place, but the assemblage of the elect, that I call Church. This temple is better for the reception of the greatness of the dignity of God.” He also calls the Church the body of the Lord, as for examples “And does he not say that these are, as it were, the fleshy parts of the holy body? As a body, the Church of the Lord, the spiritual and holy choir, is symbolized. Whence those who are merely called, but do not live in accordance with the word, are the fleshy parts. Now this spiritual body, the holy Church is not for fornication.” Moreover, Clement compares the Church to a mother to whom we owe our spiritual life and nourishment, as in the following: “O mystic marvel, the universal Father is one, and one the universal Word; and the Holy Spirit is one and the same everywhere, and she is the only virgin mother. I love to call her the Church. But she is the one virgin and mother-pure as a virgin, loving as a mother. And calling her children to her, she nurses them with holy milk, viz., with the Word for childhood.” Or, to quote the following: “Their children, it is said, shall be borne upon their shoulders, and fondled on their knees; as one whom his mother comforteth; so also shall I comfort you. The mother draws the children to herself; and we seek our mother, the Church.” It also appears from these passages that this church father viewed the Church as the gathering of the elect, and also that the Church and salvation are inseparably related.
Another of the church fathers to which we would call attention in this connection is Origen. He was surely one of the most distinguished of the fathers of the early Church. Origen was born probably at Alexandria, about the year 182, and died at Caesarea not later than 251. He was a disciple of Clement of Alexandria and surely outshone his teacher. In the year 250 A. D., persecutions of the Church broke out anew, and Origen, who had sought to follow, when a child, his father in martyrdom, did not escape these persecutions. He was tortured, pilloried, and bound hand and foot to the block for days without yielding. These tortures seem to have resulted in his death. He declared that: No one is saved outside of the Church. He, too, speaks of the Church as the body of Christ and animated by the Son of God. He was the outstanding churchman in the early Christian church of the New Dispensation.
The last church father to whom we would call attention in this connection is Cyprian. He was the bishop of Carthage and died about the year 258. A rich and well educated man, he became famous as a teacher of rhetoric, or speech. In the year 246, he was converted. Two years later he became bishop, and in 258 he was beheaded as a Christian martyr. The day after he was imprisoned he was examined for the last time and sentenced to die by the sword. His only answer was “Thanks be to God.” The execution was carried out at once and in an open place near the city. A vast multitude followed Cyprian on his last journey. He removed his garments, without assistance, knelt down, and prayed. Two of his clergy blindfolded him. He ordered twenty five gold pieces to be given to the executioner who, with a trembling hand, administered the death blow. The body was interred by Christian hands near the place of the execution, and over it, as well as on the actual scene of his death churches were afterwards erected, which, however, were destroyed by the Vandals. Concerning this Cyprian it is declared that he was the first Christian martyr in Africa. There is no record of any other, of men or priests, who were forced to forfeit their lives because of their faith in the Lord Jesus. Of him his enemies had said that he was a standard bearer of the sect, an enemy of the gods, and one who was to be an example to his people. How true were these words, even though they were spoken by his enemies! He had indeed been a standard bearer, teaching according to the standard of Christ; he had surely been an enemy of the gods, having commanded that the idols be destroyed; and he surely gave example to his friends, since, when many were about to follow in a similar manner, he was the first in the province to consecrate the first fruits of martyrdom.
Also this church father declared that there could be no salvation for anyone except in the Church. However, we will return to this in our following article.