Note: This is posting #11 in a series on historical theology within the Christian church. To view other postings, please click here.
In a series on historical theology, we concluded last week with a series on the Apostolic Fathers. Although we did not cover every writing that some would consider to be in this group, we covered those that are universally agreed upon (i.e. Clement of Rome, Didache, Ignatius, Polycarp, etc.). It can be easy to read those though and ask, “Why are they important?” Individually I have tried to address this in each of the writings, but I think it is important to address this topic collectively one final time before we move on.
It would seem that so many of the writings should be classified as heretical and hardly worth our effort at all. However, it would be a great tragedy for us to neglect the significance that they play in the development of theology. While it may seem that many of them emphasized too much allegory and too much moralism, to the point that many suggested a works based salvation. However, we must understand that because of the decline of morality among professing Christians, they sought to reverse this trend, and thus their theology often took a turn to the extreme.
Related to this view on Christian moralism of the day is the historical viewpoint we receive through reading the Early Church Fathers. In the past several weeks, this concept has been dwelt upon more frequently and there is no need to discuss it in more depth here. Simply put, we must remember that they allow us the opportunity to view, define, and ascertain the historical situation of the day. This in itself is of great value for the sake of church history and the development of theology within the Christian faith.
Yet, there is something more. These writings offer the first look at a defense of the Christian faith. In a time in which gnosticism and antinomianism were both rampant, these authors took it upon themselves to tackle a defense that had not ever been undertaken before. They were willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of defending the teachings of Christ and the apostles. This is to be admired. They provided the foundation for Christian defense that would lead us to the point of apologetics that we now have today.
As the author, Roger Olson notes, they “provide a bridge between the apostles and orthodox, catholic Christianity and helped preserve and establish a relatively unified and theologically sound church” even if they sometimes fell short in their theology. To this end, it is worthwhile to read, understand, and relate the Apostolic Fathers to the development of Christian history.