“Fundamental” Church Father?


It would not be truthful to say that all the early church fathers were Fundamentalists like we think of the word today. But what is totally truthful is that all of the Fundamentals of the faith are as ancient as the church, there have been men all throughout the centuries of church history that could have been called Fundamentalists. For example, Polycarp does not write about all the specific fundamentals that we know today but concerning the ones he did write about he would be considered to be fundamental in his beliefs and teachings.

The earliest Church Fathers, (within two generations of the Twelve Apostles of Christ) are usually called the Apostolic Fathers since tradition describes them as having been taught by the twelve. Important Apostolic Fathers include Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Papias of Hierapolis.

Let’s take a quick look at, one of these men who are often referred to as, early “Church Fathers” or “Apostolic Fathers”. He was an early church leader, writer, preacher, and martyr who helped lead and shape the early church. We have recorded of him a wonderfully dramatic testimony, one in which the preeminence of Christ is illustrated, and also illustrated is the kind of dedication to living and yes dying for Christ if necessary, that  is sadly, seemingly lacking in our churches today.

Polycarp (69-155) was one of the well-known martyrs of the early church, Polycarp identified as a disciple of John the Apostle. What we know of Polycarp comes from his pupil and disciple, Irenaeus (d. 202), apologist and theologian, and later bishop of Lyons, Gaul [France].  Polycarp was one of the last leaders who was won to Christ by an Apostle [John] and knew many who had seen Jesus.   Philip Schaff wrote concerning Polycarp’s forceful ministry against paganism that he was denounced throughout all Asia Minor as the “atheist,” that is, “the teacher of Asia, the destroyer of our gods.[1]He was seen as glorifying a dead man and his messages on the teachings and miracles of Jesus, which John had told him firsthand, were convincing.  Schaff reports of his letter to the Philippian church, of his focus on Christ saying, “Of Christ it speaks in high terms as the Lord, who sits at the right hand of God to whom everything in heaven and earth is subject”.  [2]

Elliott Wright wrote, “He was the gentlest…of men…a case study in humility.”  He was remembered as a man of prayer—a man who, according to one ancient source, “prayed constantly night and day” – “prayer that did not interfere with his daylight hours devoted to teaching and his night to studying the Scripture”.  When persecution broke out in 156 A.D. every attempt was made to get him to recant his faith in the “cult” of Jesus.  “Why, what harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord’ and offering incense and saving yourself,” the officials continued pleading, “Swear by the divinity of Caesar; repent”, but Polycarp did no such thing and instead it is recorded the following took place:

Polycarp is recorded as saying on the day of his death, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong“. Polycarp goes on to say “How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? 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.” Polycarp was burned at the stake and was pierced with a spear for refusing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor. On his farewell, he said “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.”

Polycarp identified as disciple of the Apostle John and that he was won to Christ by the Apostle. It is often said of Polycarp that he had a forceful ministry against paganism throughout Asia Minor. He boldly proclaimed the truth of God and did not let the state of the world or efforts by it intimidate him from the calling on his life. It is also reported that though his ministry and preaching style were very forceful, he was a very humble man and gentle in his spirit. He was also a man who was very dedicated to his Savior and worked tirelessly in his ministry to the church and for Christ and was reported faithful until the end even his death.  This is a tremendous example for the church today; the dedication to Christ and the Great Commission, only if all of us had the same kind of dedication. We in America and the Western World have it so easy now as compared to the early church; we need to not let this fact make us complacent or apathetic to the things of God and His calling on our life to witness for Him. We need more of the boldness and determination of Polycarp in our church today, and the desire to constantly spread the Gospel and pushed forward in spite of adversity and less of the apathy that is so, unfortunately, commonplace in churches and Christians today.

[1] Schaff, P. (1979). Ante-Nicene Christianity, vol. 2 of History of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[2] (Schaff, 1979)

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