The apostolic fathers, as we have seen, did not have a formal doctrine of the Word of God or of inspiration. Rather they had an intuitive understanding that the Scriptures were the one unified and authoritative revelation of God by the apostles and prophets. We must also remember that for the apostolic fathers, the teaching and preaching of the apostles was a matter of living memory in the church. It is understandable therefore that along with Scripture, the canon of which had not yet been determined, they would place a high value upon that which they had heard directly from the apostles. Polycarp in particular had been taught directly by the apostle John. The result was that in the early church a sharp distinction was not made between the writings and teachings of the apostles. The reminiscences of those who had actually heard the apostles were eagerly sought by the church. Stories concerning them, their labors, and their deaths as martyrs were eagerly listened to. So also news concerning other believers who had suffered and laid down their lives for the faith was news which was eagerly sought in this era of severe persecution.
The result was that a body of tradition and stories began to develop in the church, some in oral and some in written form. A similar attitude prevailed concerning the teachings of Christ. The apostles’ reminiscences of the Lord, received by their disciples and hearers, were treasured by the church. One individual in particular, Papias, bishop of a church in Phrygia in the first half of the second century, endeavored to record these reminiscences. He himself may have been a disciple of the apostle John, but he also sought out the elders of other churches who had heard the apostles. The result was five books of which only fragments survive in other writers, in which many of these sayings, reminiscences, and oral traditions were recorded.
While this oral and written tradition was not accorded the status and authority of Scripture by the early church, neither was it clearly distinguished from it, particularly from the New Testament writings of the apostles. This is understandable if we remember that the canon of the New Testament, its scope and full authority as Scripture had not yet been determined. The church was still struggling to understand the heritage of the Word which God had given her. Moreover the apostolic stamp given to this tradition made it highly prized by the church, and this became more and more the case as the era of the apostles receded into the past and as those who had personally known the apostles passed away.
At the same time the church did not possess her heritage of the Word in peace and security. Even in the days of the apostles heretics had arisen in the church who sought to undermine its foundation and to corrupt the truth. These attacks continued. In particular, the church was plagued in the centuries following the apostles by those who sought to unite Christianity with paganism and with apostate Judaism. These heretics took various forms. Those who sought to bring the law into the church again, and to reduce Christianity to a form of phariseeism, repudiated the apostle Paul altogether as being a false apostle. Those of a more pagan bent tended to disregard the Old Testament and tried to combine pagan ideas and philosophy with the writings of the apostles.
These heretics varied in their sophistication and form, but they are generally called Gnostics because of a common thread which runs through all of them. That thread is the appeal to a special secret knowledge or tradition which they alone taught and through which one could obtain salvation. The church was called to defend itself from these attacks. Moreover the church was called also to defend itself against pure paganism, Greek philosophy; and Oriental mysticism. The Jews also challenged the church’s right and claim to the Old Testament as a Christian book. The result was that the church had to battle for the truth on many fronts at once.
Men arose in the church to do battle with these attacks upon the church. They are called apologists because of the. polemical character of their writings. They include such men as Irenaeus, a pupil of Polycarp, and Justin Martyr. These men met the challenges of the Jews and of pagan philosophy head-on, but the attacks of the Gnostics were more difficult to counter as they also in varying degrees appealed to the writings of the apostles or to false writings which were attributed to other apostles or other saints from the Old Testament. These false or apochryphal books included a wide variety of material, from a gospel attributed to the apostle Thomas to abridged versions of various New Testament books.
The Gnostic Marcion may serve. as an example here as he is best known. He rejected the Old Testament as the Word of God and recognized as Scripture only the Gospel of Luke, edited and condensed, and the writings of the apostle Paul, also edited to suit his purposes.
Against such men the apologists tended to take a twofold approach. First of all they refuted them on the basis of the Old Testament and on the basis of the writings of the apostles. But secondly, they also began to appeal to the apostolic tradition of the church. This latter appeal was made on the basis that those churches which had been established by the apostles were also the ones who alone could claim to know fully the traditions and true writings of the apostles, while these various sects could make no such claim. Moreover, only such churches could properly lay claim to being the successors of the apostles’ teachings and therefore the proper expounders of it. The church, they said, stood as one in its teaching throughout the world, whereas these heretics differed from one another and could not make such a claim.
This defense of the faith by the apologists and the church, and the need for it, yielded certain results. In the first place, it drove the church to search the Word and to develop the truth of the Word of God in its doctrine and teaching. It gave impetus to the development of statements of doctrine such as the Apostles’ Creed, and it stimulated the church to a study of the Scriptures.
In the second place, it forced the church to begin to wrestle with the question of what exactly constituted the Scriptures. The church began to confront the question as to which books were inspired Scripture and which were not, particularly the New Testament books. These books not only had to be discerned but also had to be defended over against false writings and false gospels. This defense was crucial, for these heretics denied the Scriptural character and authority of many of the books of our present Bible and substituted others in their place.
Thirdly, however, in this struggle, the appeal to apostolic teaching and tradition which was made, tended to reinforce the development alongside the Scriptures of a body of written and oral tradition of the apostles and to give it some authority. Thus what began as reminiscences and stories of interest to the church became a significant part of the church’s heritage alongside the Scriptures. From these seeds was later to develop, particularly in the Middle Ages, the idea of an apostolic tradition entrusted to the church and standing alongside Scripture, a tradition which was finally elevated in the Middle Ages to a place superior to that of Scripture. To this tradition was added in the process of time the interpretations of Scripture by the church fathers and apologists themselves, as being rooted in, the historic teaching of the apostles and arising out of it. This idea did not present itself full grown, but the roots of it manifested themselves already in the early church and in the writings of the apologists. This significant development of a body of tradition in the church and its parallel relation to Scripture as a source of authority was ultimately to undermine the authority of Scripture itself and to place the church and her traditions above the authoritative’ Word of God. Eventually the church I would become so bound by tradition that it, and not Scripture, became the rule of faith and life in the church. The progress of this development was not rapid. It originated in circumstances in which the church was fighting for her existence in the face of persecution and heresy.
Through that struggle, in spite of her weaknesses, the church was led to set forth, define, and defend the extent of the Word of God and under the guidance of the Spirit to begin to gather and form the writings of the apostles into the New Testament Scriptures.