Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Patristics: Polycarp of Smyrna, Part II

Having examined the life of Polycarp including his journey to Rome concerning the date of Easter, we now turn to the epistle written by this Apostolic Father. Although history suggests that Polycarp wrote many letters during his time as bishop, only one survives down to our present time. Polycarp wrote this letter to the church in Philippi, prompted by their request to send to them words of encouragement as well as copies of letters in his possession from his friend, Ignatius of Antioch:


“The Epistles of Ignatius written by him to us, and all the rest [of his Epistles] which we have by us, we have sent to you, as you requested. They are subjoined to this Epistle, and by them you may be greatly profited; for they treat of faith and patience, and all things that tend to edification in our Lord.”


Further Polycarp seems to indicate that he had not yet received confirmation of Ignatius’ martyrdom, and hoped to learn from the Philippians more news of Ignatius and his companions: “Any more certain information you may have obtained respecting both Ignatius himself, and those that were with him, have the goodness to make known to us.”


Thus this letter to the Philippians dates to around the same time period of Ignatius’ letters and subsequent death, or shortly after, which places it a decade or so after the turn of the Second Century.


Polycarp’s letter consists primarily of exhortations to live moral lives in obedience to the commands of God. While the text is shorter than most of Ignatius’ writings, it is filled throughout with quotes from Scripture, especially the writings that would later become known as the New Testament. Polycarp is a wonderful early witness to the Christian use of these books for instruction and discipline.


However, the above passage concerning the writings of Ignatius – “…by them you may be greatly profited; for they treat of faith and patience, and all things that tend to edification in our Lord” – testifies to the fact that there was not an established norm defining which writings ought to be used by Christians for the purpose of instruction and formation in the faith. Indeed while Polycarp bears strong witness to the writings that would later form the New Testament, he seldom mentions them specifically by name, but instead points to Ignatius’ letters as a source for Christian “edification.”


It must be understood that the Bible was not clearly defined by this time in the Second Century, and many of the writings of the Church Fathers (including Ignatius, and Clement of Rome) were read at Christian worship services then copied and passed along to other churches in the same way that we would expect the New Testament to be preserved and cherished. For this reason, Polycarp also includes Ignatius as one who is worthy of imitation, along with Paul and the other Apostles:


“I exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as you have seen [set] before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles. [This do] in the assurance that all these have not run in vain, but in faith and righteousness, and that they are [now] in their due place in the presence of the Lord, with whom also they suffered.”


The Bible was not compiled into one book during Polycarp’s lifetime; he therefore does not distinguish between these writings as we would today. Nor does he rely on the Bible "Alone” (as some Christian denominations insist on today) as a guide for Christian doctrine and morals. Rather than the “Bible Alone” as guarantor of Christian unity and fidelity to Apostolic teaching, Polycarp points to the hierarchy of the Church. He strongly encourages the Philippians to avoid evil and sin and then he tells them to obey the ordained clergy:


“Wherefore, it is needful to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ.”


Just as we saw with Ignatius, Polycarp insists that the priests (presbyters) and deacons derive their authority from “God and Christ,” and to them we owe our allegiance. The Church, through her ordained ministers, ensures sound teaching, moral guidance, and protects the unity of all believers.


However, Polycarp also tells us of a presbyter named Valens who fell from grace through disobedience and sin:


“I am greatly grieved for Valens, who was once a presbyter among you, because he so little understands the place that was given him [in the Church]. I exhort you, therefore, that you abstain from covetousness, and that you be chaste and truthful. Abstain from every form of evil. For if a man cannot govern himself in such matters, how shall he enjoin them on others?”


Here Polycarp confronts an issue that many today would charge against the Catholic Church throughout the centuries. How can a church lead by sinners tell others not to sin? How can a church whose leaders are guilty of immorality be the same vehicle through which God exercises His own authority?


Polycarp’s letter demonstrates that even at this early date the Church grappled with this problem. Already they had encountered leaders who did not live up to their vocation. Polycarp realizes that if a man cannot “govern himself in such matters” it would be difficult for him to expect obedience from those under him. It seems that for this reason Valens was then removed from his office.


But Polycarp does not use this presbyter’s sin as an excuse to abandon the authoritative, hierarchical structure of the Church. To the contrary, he strongly insists on obedience to the clergy, even while in the same letter mentioning the disobedience of one of the presbyters. Polycarp recognized the sinfulness of some ranking members of the clergy, and yet continued to insist that God works through the Church leaders despite their sins. Polycarp calls for Valens to be reconciled with the Church:


“I am deeply grieved, therefore, brethren, for him (Valens) and his wife; to whom may the Lord grant true repentance! And be then moderate in regard to this matter, and do not count such as enemies, but call them back as suffering and straying members, that you may save your whole body. For by so acting you shall edify yourselves.”


There are many today who reject Catholicism based on the sins committed by members of the hierarchy. It must be admitted that these sins do occur and cause great scandal for the Church. In this matter we would do well to heed Polycarp. He sees here an opportunity for reconciliation and a healing of the Body of Christ. Some Christians down through the ages have called for rebellion and schism when faced with the sins of bishops, priests, and popes – but the early Church reacted with pity and an eye toward forgiveness, and always desirous to maintain unity among all believers. Because the Church is divinely instituted (established by Jesus and guided by the Spirit), the authority of the Church remains intact in spite of the sins of her members.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Patristics: Polycarp of Smyrna, Part I

The third Father of the Church we will examine in our study of Patristics is Polycarp of Smyrna. What we know of Polycarp comes from his own writing as well as that of Ignatius (whom we already examined) and from the writings of Irenaeus (a student of Polycarp) who became a bishop and a Father of the Church in his own right in the Second Century. We also learn about Polycarp from an account of his martyrdom written by members of his church in Smyrna shortly after his death, which we will examine in greater detail later.

Polycarp was an Apostolic Father - a man who knew and conversed with one or more of the Apostles. As with his friend and fellow bishop Ignatius, Polycarp was a pupil of the Apostle John and was converted to the faith after hearing the preaching of the Apostles. Polycarp led the church of Smyrna in Asia Minor through the first half of the Second Century, until his death around the year 155. He wrote many letters during his time as bishop, but only one survives – that which he wrote to the church in Philippi.

Polycarp was born sometime around the year A.D. 69 and was well over eighty years old when he was martyred by being burned at the stake. As with his friend Ignatius, the long life of this Christian bishop, together with his first-hand knowledge of Apostolic teaching, makes Polycarp an invaluable witness to the Church’s foundational roots. Those who were taught by Polycarp throughout his tenure as bishop received authentic doctrine which Polycarp had received straight from the mouths of the Apostles themselves. Polycarp and Ignatius bridge the gap between the Age of the Apostles and the following centuries of persecution and hardship faced by the fledgling Church.

Polycarp also bears witness to the internal struggles of the Church as cultural differences between the East and West began to come to the fore. Irenaeus tells us of the controversy surrounding the date for the celebration of Easter. Those in the East, including Polycarp and his church in Smyrna, celebrated Christ’s Resurrection annually on the fourteenth day of Nisan according to the Jewish calendar, thus following the traditional time for sacrificing the Paschal Lamb in preparation for Passover. This meant that Easter could fall on any day of the week, depending on the lunar cycle for that year. Churches in the West (including Rome) celebrated Easter every year on the following Sunday so that the precise calendar date was not fixed. They felt that it was important to recall the Resurrection on the same day of the week on which Jesus rose and the same day on which Christians observe the Eucharistic meal.

Irenaeus, recounts that Polycarp was called to Rome around the year 150 to confer with Anicetus, the bishop of Rome, concerning the date of the Easter celebration. The Roman pontiff hoped that Polycarp would change to the West’s observance of the Resurrection. But Polycarp resisted, insisting that he received his tradition from the Apostle John. In the end, neither bishop agreed to change the custom held by his respective church. Nonetheless, the Bishop of Rome and the Bishop of Smyrna parted on good terms and agreed to disagree on this matter. And so the East and West continued to keep differing dates for their celebration of Easter. (Interestingly, Irenaeus, although he was a student of Polycarp, abandoned the East’s practice, and embraced instead the Roman custom of Sunday Easter.)

At least three important conclusions can be drawn from this event. First it can be noted that Sunday had become such a fixed point of reference for Christian worship that in the West, despite a strong tradition otherwise in the East, Sunday worship determined the date for the observance of Easter. Polycarp, a staunch supporter of Apostolic Teaching did not dispute the West’s claim to Sunday worship, nor did he condemn Rome for observing Easter on this day. The two parties went their separate ways amicably. Certainly Polycarp could have chastised Anicetus and the Western churches for rejecting the fourteenth of Nisan celebration if it had been a key component of Apostolic Teaching as he understood it from the Apostle John, but he did not. Obviously Polycarp respected the Sunday observance as Rome’s prerogative regaurdless of the Apostle John’s teaching. Polycarp did not insist that the fourteenth of Nissan teaching should overrule the Roman bishop’s decision. This gives strong support to the early tradition within Christianity of Sunday as the Lord’s Day. Sunday worship was accepted by Polycarp as justification for Rome to decide the date of Easter for churches in the West.

This transference of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday and the West’s practice of a Sunday Easter both support the idea of an authoritative Church in the early centuries of Christianity. There is no specific Biblical mandate for Sunday worship except a few passing remarks that seem to suggest the beginnings of such a tradition. We do though have the words of Ignatius on the subject (which we examined earlier) in which he insists that Sunday worship was the norm in First Century Christianity. And now we see that Polycarp, another student of the Apostles, accepted Sunday as the day of Easter for the Western churches even though he had received a different tradition from John. Apparently the Church had the authority to establish and modify the days of worship and annual liturgical celebrations, and Polycarp did not dispute the Roman bishop’s authority to maintain this practice, as he left Rome on good terms.

The second lesson we can take away from this Easter dispute is the position of honor held by Rome among the churches in the mid-Second Century. Here we have Polycarp, a well respected bishop, a man who received his training in the faith from the Apostles; he was converted by John, and was the first successor to the Apostle in Smyrna. He had been a companion to Ignatius (also highly regarded as a bishop and martyr) and shared in his friend’s prestige and renown. At the time he confronted Anicetus in Rome, he was an old man - around eighty years old – and as such, he served as one of the last remaining voices in the Church who could personally attest to the Apostles’ own preaching. But despite his prominent status and despite the frailty that came with his age and in spite of the perils of travel in those days, Polycarp made the long journey to Rome…Anicetus did not go to Smyrna.

It would seem rather odd that an aged witness to Apostolic Preaching would be required to make such a long and arduous trip at a time when Christians risked life and limb for their faith. Furthermore, by going to the city of Rome itself, the capitol and center of the Empire, the risks were surely heightened. Why would Anicetus, who was further removed from the Apostles than Polycarp (being the tenth successor to Peter), not travel to Smyrna out of respect for Polycarp’s position and age? Why should an Apostolic Father be expected to travel so far to meet with what would seem to be his junior in episcopal rank?

If we call to mind Ignatius’ words of praise for Rome written a few decades prior to this event, an answer begins to suggest itself. Ignatius described the Roman church in the following terms: “…worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love…” And so too, we should recall the letter written by Clement of Rome (the third bishop after Peter) to the Corinthians, in which he intervened in a dispute among the Christians there - seeming to invoke an authority to do so. At this early date, Rome’s influence was far-reaching and her honor and prestige widely acknowledged. Polycarp’s visit to the Roman Bishop (younger in age, but influential in his office) does not then seem so out of place. We have here a picture emerging of a Roman primacy acknowledged by the First and Second Century Christians, including Polycarp of Smyrna.

Our third observation we can arrive at after carefully considering the implications of our previous two conclusions. We have seen that the early Church relied on the witness of men like Polycarp and his testimony to Apostolic Teaching to pass on the authentic faith. But we have also noted that such teachings may result in conflicts and must be weighed one against another among the various traditions (such as the two competing dates for the celebration of Easter). Thus we can see that the Church has the task of sorting out which traditions are essential to the faith and which can be safely compromised. Also we have shown that bishops play an essential role in conferring with one another (as in the case of Polycarp and Anicetus) to arrive at a conclusion on matters of faith. But among these bishops, the Roman church has a place of honor that surpasses that of the other churches.

So our third and final conclusion must be that the function of the early Church closely resembles that of the Catholic understanding of ecclesiology, in its hierarchical structure as well as its reverence for Apostolic Tradition. It is the Church’s responsibility, specifically through the bishops in communion with
Peter's successor, to preserve the faith handed on from the Apostles and ensure unity among all believers and soundness of doctrine. In this event from the life of Polycarp we see that the Church has the authority to govern the worship of the Christian faithful. Diversity can still be found within the Catholic fold, but wherever such divergent practices exist we must travel with Polycarp to Rome, we must seek the council of Peter, and preserve the fraternal bond. Unity finds its center in Rome.