As Christians, we all have our spiritual heroes. We have our C.S. Lewises, our Corrie ten Booms, our C.H. Spurgeons, men and women whose lives and faith have inspired and informed our own.

Most of our heroes, if they’re no longer alive, tend to be from the comparatively recent past. For Protestants of various traditions, they might go back as far as Luther or Calvin, but rarely any farther.

Indeed, in the minds of many believers, there’s a historical gap – in fact a yawning, Grand Canyon-sized chasm – between the Apostolic Age and the Protestant Reformation. It’s as if nothing terribly significant happened from the moment the Apostle John finished the Book of Revelation until Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door. Under such a view of history, one might almost assume that the church was in hibernation for some 1,400 years.

Sadly, it’s the generations immediately following New Testament times that have fallen into the deepest obscurity, especially among modern Christians. And yet, the leading figures of that era – some of them taught by the apostles themselves – articulated the faith in ways that have shaped Christian thought and practice right up to the present.

Ignatius of Antioch

(ca 35 – ca 110)

Ignatius was born around 35 AD, only a handful of years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. As a youth, he sat under the teaching of the Apostle John and eventually became bishop of Antioch, one of the highest profile churches in the early Christian era.

Because of these connections, Ignatius is a key transitional figure between the time of the apostles and the church that immediately followed their death.

He is known primarily from seven letters that he wrote around 107-108 AD, no more than 15 to 20 years after John wrote Revelation. These letters, composed as he travelled to Rome to be executed, are among the oldest surviving Christian documents after the New Testament. Five of them were to churches he’d visited en route and one was to Polycarp, his younger fellow bishop at Smyrna. The last was to the church in Rome, asking that they pray for him to face martyrdom with courage and strength.

Through his letters, Ignatius is an important early witness to the authority of the New Testament, quoting liberally as he does from the writings of Paul and John.

Even more significant is his contribution to the theology of the early church. His overarching concern is for the churches to maintain unity in love and sound doctrine. He’s the first known individual to describe the church as “catholic” or “universal,” united by one common faith.

He also confronted two prominent heresies of his day. The first involved a group of Judaizers, similar to those Paul had faced in the Galatian churches. The second was Docetism, a Gnostic offshoot that insisted Jesus wasn’t truly human and had never actually died.

In response, Ignatius affirmed the full deity and humanity of Christ as taught by the apostles:

“There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Regarding his own impending execution, Ignatius was no less emphatic:

“No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire.”

Polycarp of Smyrna

(ca 70 – ca 155)

Similar to Ignatius, Polycarp was a disciple of John the Apostle. Evidently he also met and interacted with others who had known Jesus “in the flesh,” and was ordained by John as bishop of Smyrna.

Together, Ignatius and Polycarp form a bridge between the apostolic and post-apostolic churches. Polycarp was in fact a generation younger than Ignatius, born about 70 AD, around the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, the two men became friends and valued colleagues in the Gospel. Ignatius wrote one of his final letters to Polycarp, advice from a senior bishop to a junior one, much like Paul’s letters to Titus and Timothy.

A few years later, Polycarp wrote his one surviving letter to the church at Philippi, as a cover to a collected edition of the letters of Ignatius. The tone of this letter is warm and pastoral, reminiscent of Polycarp’s mentor, John. It’s also an early witness to the church’s high regard for Scripture, quoting freely from both Old and New Testament writings.

Polycarp was deeply concerned with linking orthodoxy to orthopraxy, a conviction that right belief must lead to right action. He was also an early opponent of Gnosticism as exemplified by the heretical teachings of Marcion, whom he described with blunt but refreshing candour as “the firstborn of Satan.”

The other primary source about Polycarp is a letter from his church describing his execution at the age of 86. It remains the earliest contemporary account of martyrdom outside the New Testament. Threatened with death unless he renounced Jesus, Polycarp replied:

“Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.”

Before he died, Polycarp prayed, “I bless you Father for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ.”

Justin Martyr

(ca 100 – ca 165)

Ignatius and Polycarp knew the apostles personally, and were pastors more than theologians. Their primary ministry was simply to reiterate the truths that the apostles had taught.

But Justin Martyr was of a new generation. He was the first of the apologists, who used philosophical and historical arguments to refute learned opponents and demonstrate the truth of the Christian faith.

Born in Palestine around the turn of the second century, Justin came from an educated pagan background. In his formative years he explored various philosophies, including Stoicism and Platonism. But he found that none of them could adequately explain God; none could give satisfactory answers to his questions or speak to his heart.

Finally he had an encounter with an old man who explained the Gospel to him. In Justin’s words:

“A fire was suddenly kindled in my soul. I fell in love with the prophets and these men who had loved Christ; I reflected on all their words and found that this philosophy alone was true and profitable.”

Upon his conversion, Justin became an itinerant philosopher, willing to engage any and all in order to persuade them of the truth of Christianity. He also founded schools for the study of Christian knowledge, the most notable one being in Rome.

Although he was a prolific author, only three of his works survive. Two of them are apologies, defenses of the faith addressed to a pair of Roman emperors. The third is a dialogue with a Jew named Trypho, showing that Jesus as Messiah is the fulfillment of the Jewish religion.

Justin’s writings offer early testimony to all the core doctrines of orthodox Christianity. He quotes extensively from the Old Testament as well as the New, which he calls “the memoirs of the apostles.” He also references pagan sources to make his case, similar to the Apostle Paul’s approach at the Areopagus. Fittingly, he’s the first known early church author to quote from the Book of Acts.

In the end, Justin was falsely denounced to the authorities by a pagan opponent, arrested and martyred together with the students from his Roman school.

At his trial, upon being pressed to sacrifice to the pagan gods, he replied, “No one who is rightly minded turns from true belief to false.”

However, Justin’s most vital contribution to theology was his view of history and culture, his conviction that all truth is God’s truth. Like Paul in Athens, Justin recognized shards of truth in the writings of pagan thinkers, which could be marshalled in service of the Gospel. In this, he anticipated the later doctrine of common grace, the acknowledgement of God as the source of all truth and beauty, whether expressed by non-believers or believers.

Irenaeus of Lyons

(ca 125 – ca 200)

Born in Smyrna between 120 and 140 AD, Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp and also spent time at Justin’s school in Rome. As a young man, he took part in a missionary journey to Gaul, eventually becoming bishop of Lugdunum, now Lyons in France.

Irenaeus followed Justin as the second great apologist theologian of the second century. He further developed and expounded Christian orthodoxy in response to the growing influence of Gnosticism. This was the central concern of his lone surviving major work, titled Against Heresies.

In broad strokes, Gnosticism claimed to have secret knowledge directly from Jesus, apart from the teaching of the apostles. It espoused a dualistic view of reality, in which the physical world was evil, created by a separate and inferior Old Testament deity. Consequently, Jesus wasn’t seen as being truly human or as actually having died on the cross. To support these beliefs, Gnostics rejected all of the Old Testament and much of the New.

Responding to these challenges, Irenaeus taught that the catholic (universal) faith of the whole church could be traced back to the apostles and prophets. He brought greater clarity to the developing canon of Scripture, quoting from almost every book in the New Testament and affirming the canonicity of four, and only four, Gospels. He reiterated the core doctrines of the faith: the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Christ, and the authority of the Scriptures.

Following the pattern of Justin, Irenaeus developed an organic theology of history and Biblical revelation as God’s grand narrative of salvation, culminating in Christ.

In addition, his assessment of theological error remains a wise warning for all generations:

“Error, indeed is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced more true than truth itself.”

According to the much later Westminster Catechism, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. But this cogent summary of life’s ultimate purpose is anticipated 1,500 years earlier, in Irenaeus’ most famous comment:

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive; and to be alive consists in beholding God.”

On the shoulders of giants

The Christian leaders who came after the apostles weren’t perfect or infallible. Their work doesn’t bear the authority of Scripture, any more than the writings of modern Christians do. In fact, they held more than a few strange ideas alongside the truth, which continued to cause problems for centuries to come.

But at the same time, they weren’t inventing their theology out of thin air. As Michelangelo once observed, sculpting isn’t a matter of creating something from a slab of marble; it’s discovering the sculpture that’s already in the marble.

Even so, these early churchmen sought to extract the theological concepts already present in the Scriptures. They were finding new ways to articulate the truth in response to the challenges of their time.

As a result of their efforts, generations of Christians have been able to see more clearly what they believe and why, a process that continues to the present day.

A casual glance at church history shows how much we owe to those who came before us, our forefathers in the faith. It reveals that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants – flawed, but still giants for all that.

Let’s be edified by the view they afford us. But also, let’s enjoy it.

© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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