The value of the “Apostolic Fathers” is evident for a better understanding of the New Testament and the formative years of the “Jesus Movement” that came to be called Christianity. The Apostolic Fathers (AF) can help us measure our own understanding of that early phase of church history. In other words, is our own perspective different from the way in which the second generation interpreted the meaning of the events that gave birth to the faith which they possessed? The reading of the AF can also prove to be profitable for some concrete questions and issues that Christians face today.
Clayton Jefford offers a balanced perspective on the value of the AF to the modern reader:
In the final analysis it would be a gross overstatement to claim that the Apostolic Fathers offer an answer to all of our modern questions about the development of the church after the New Testament period. At the same time, however, it is certainly fair to say that our helpful knowledge of these materials enables us to better understand how the views of the biblical authors came to fruition in the subsequent years of Christianity’s historical evolution.The Apostolic Fathers: An Essential Guide, 129
It is always helpful to look back at the sources of a movement to see if its subsequent history has followed its earlier exemplars. This approach is not to intended to “canonize” those earlier documents, but to force us to ask if we understand the issues the way that early generations of Christians understood them and responded to them. Despite the vast social and economic differences from the second to the twenty-first century, the same religious and social issues in our world resemble that ancient context far more than we recognize at first. Historians have often testified that the second century was almost as pluriform a world as exists today. The Roman Empire comprised a kaleidoscope of different religions and philosophies that can challenge the minds of students attempting to comprehend them all. These ancients faced similar fundamental problems, but under the different conditions of their time. There are important issues that emerge from their reading, such as the vital subjects of identity formation; conflict with a syncretistic environment; a theology that is relevant and not other-worldly; and how to respond to a culture that sometimes views committed Christians as similar to strange aliens. These are just a few of the parallels between these centuries so far apart in time and historical context.
“It is always helpful to look back at the sources of a movement to see if its subsequent history has followed its earlier exemplars.”
No, we should not exalt these writings as containing the long-lost solutions to our modern problems. The AF themselves would resist such an elevated evaluation since they were often simply sharing from their hearts and minds. This body of writings, slightly shorter than the New Testament, is not simply a treasure house for arcane specialists. These people were attempting to live their lives as Christians do today, and to find a way through the same dense forests that we also encounter. These writers deserve careful reading if for no other reason than that they are not always uniform in their modes of expression, as a church manual (Didache) is not the same type of document as an allegory (Shepherd of Hermas)! But a careful review of them can still return us to the center of their world which is similar to ours, the world of a first century Nazarene whose teachings and actions, both in his earthly life and in his death and afterlife, had transformed their lives and can still do so today for those who have ears to hear.
Even if these works are not viewed as “inspired” and canonical, they have much to teach us because some of them knew the apostles or at least conferred with those who knew the apostles personally. They are important today because they contain the earliest reflections of Christian life outside the New Testament. They show us corporately what the Church was coming to be and individually what the Christian life looked like. Whether we view this glimpse into their world as a decline or a development, Christians today, whether rejecting or accepting the ideas of these writers, are their heirs.
Featured image: Chi Rho Mosaic, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, AD 425, Ravenna by Carole Raddato, via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)