The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Reading (Page 1 of 26)

Learning from the Apostolic Fathers: Polycarp

As I wrote in the first post in this series, I have been reading through Michael W. Holmes’s edition of The Apostolic Fathers in English as part of my daily devotional readings. Generally speaking, the term “Apostolic Fathers” refers to early Christian theologians from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, some of whom would have known some of the apostles personally and sought to pass on their teachings. More specifically, “Apostolic Fathers” is frequently used in reference to Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna. Today, I want to focus on Polycarp.

The Life and Letter of Polycarp

Polycarp of Smyrna

Polycarp served as the bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, and was the recipient of one of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, his friend and mentor. Polycarp is one of the more notable figures of the early (post-apostolic) church,[1] and his fame stems from at least three streams:

  • His writing The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians
  • His death as a martyr in AD 155-160, the details of which are shared in The Martyrdom of Polycarp
  • His status as a significant link in the chain of apostolic tradition: as a child, Polycarp knew John the Apostle in his old age, and, in turn, later in his own life knew Irenaeus of Lyons when the latter was a child

In The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, Polycarp relies heavily on both the Old Testament scriptures and also early Christian writings and emphasizes the strong connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxy: wrong beliefs inevitably lead to wrong behaviors, and wrong behaviors are evidence of wrong beliefs.[2]

In The Martyrdom of Polycarp (written by anonymous eyewitnesses) records the account of the pursuit, arrest, trial, and execution of Polycarp, who is martyred for his faith at the age of 86. The Martyrdom of Polycarp reveals the growing challenge that the church of the mid-second century faced for its proclamation that Jesus was Lord. Situated firmly in an empire that proclaimed that Caesar was Lord, the Christian proclamation could not be left unchallenged, and persecution and martyrdom was increasingly the fate who held to their confession of faith in Jesus.

Themes and Insights from Polycarp

The Importance of Right BeliefsPolycarp clearly shows a strong reaction against gnostic teaching, and echoes words from 1 John. Indeed, he holds the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus and His role as judge to be essential aspects of Christian faith.

“For everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is antichrist; and whoever does not acknowledge the testimony of the cross is of the devil; and whoever twists the sayings of the Lord to suit his own sinful desires and claims that there is neither resurrection nor judgment—well, that person is the firstborn of Satan. Therefore let us leave behind the worthless speculation of the crowd and their false teachings and let us return to the word delivered to us from the beginning; let us be self-controlled with respect to prayer and persevere in fasting, earnestly asking the all-seeing God to lead us not into temptation, because, as the Lord said, ‘the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.’”

(Polycarp, To the Philippians 7.1-2)

The Importance of Right BehaviorsA key theme of Polycarp’s letter is his discussion of righteousness, which the Philippians had apparently asked him about. Relying heavily on New Testament teaching, Polycarp addresses wives, widows, deacons, younger men, and elders, instructing each group to lead righteous lives. Living a righteous life that pleases God is very important:

“If we please him in this present world, we will receive the world to come as well, inasmuch as he promised that he will raise us from the dead and that if we prove to be citizens worthy of him, we will also reign with him—if, that is, we continue to believe.”

(Polycarp, To the Philippians 5.2b)

Willingness for Martyrdom: With Ignatius, we saw an eagerness for martyrdom that is startling to modern ears. With Polycarp, one does not sense the same degree of eagerness (Polycarp actually leaves the city and then changes location again to avoid the authorities who are searching for him), but he is certainly willing to die for his faith.

After he is caught and implored to swear an oath by Caesar to deny Christ in order to secure his release, Polycarp famously responds:

“For eighty-six years I have been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

(Martyrdom of Polycarp 9.3b)

When the proconsul persists and threatens him with death by fire, Polycarp remains firm:

“You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish.”

(Martyrdom of Polycarp 11.2b)

Polycarp is killed for his faith, and his martyrdom is “in accord with the pattern of the gospel of Christ” (19.1), as he followed the example of Jesus, an innocent who was killed unjustly. His last words are a prayer to God:

“O Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, the God of angels and powers and of all creation, and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your presence, I bless you because you have considered me worthy of this day and hour, so that I might receive a place among the number of the martyrs in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit.”

(Martyrdom of Polycarp 14.1b-2b)

Powerful hope inspires powerful courage.

Concluding Thoughts

The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians is so heavily influenced by Scripture that large chunks of it are very familiar, and read like a cut-and-pasted pastiche of biblical teaching. It is a simple and edifying read. The Martyrdom of Polycarp is a compelling narrative that fills the reader with admiration for this elderly churchman who has clung to Christ all his life, and is determined to cling to Him in death as well.

Polycarp is burned at the stake for refusing to forsake Jesus.

[1] Michael W. Holmes, ed., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006): 130.

[2] Holmes, 132.

Scripture Reflections: Making a Name for Ourselves

In this loose series of Scripture Reflections, I am sharing brief thoughts spurred on by my Bible reading this year. By way of reminder, my goal for these brief posts is two-fold:

(1) To remark on aspects of the biblical text that I find to be of interest that the reader may or may not have thought about previously.

(2) When possible, to point ahead to the work and person of Jesus Christ. I believe the Bible is a unified story that points to Jesus, which means that He is frequently alluded to or foreshadowed in some way throughout the biblical canon.

Genesis 11.1-9 relates the fascinating story of the Tower of Babel. You are probably familiar with it: in those days, everyone spoke the same language, and people settled in a plain in the land of Shinar. There they decide to build a city with a tower that would stretch into the heavens. God does not approve of these plans, and so He confuses the language of the people so they cannot understand one another, with the end result being that the building project is suspended and the people are dispersed throughout the earth.

The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

What was the big deal about people building a tower? Why did God act so decisively to frustrate their plans?

Part of God’s strong negative reaction to the Tower of Babel was certainly located in the disobedience of the people: in Genesis 9, God had instructed Noah and his sons to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and Genesis 11 makes it clear that the people did not want to carry out that command, as 11.4 indicates that they wanted to establish a city “lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” It seems that they no longer wanted to obey God’s command to disperse and instead decided to try it their own way instead.

Furthermore, in light of the sad realities that had plagued the world since the failure of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), this also seems to have been an effort on God’s part to limit the potential for human oppression and domination. Human wickedness was so bad that it prompted God to flood the earth (Genesis 6), but this “reboot” of the system didn’t actually resolve the evil taint in humanity (Genesis 8.21). What if human ingenuity, human power, and, yes, human malevolence were all concentrated in one urban center? Clearly, this would have been undesirable, and God prevents it from happening.[1]

But there was also a significant amount of pride involved in the Babel tower project, and God would have taken exception to this attitude as well. Again in Genesis 11.4, the people say, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…” Did you catch that? Part of the motivation to build a tower to heaven was self-glorification, as the people wanted to make a name for themselves—a permanent, lasting legacy.[2]

It occurs to me that people have been wanting to make a name for themselves ever since. Surely this is a universal impulse, but I think it is especially exaggerated in individualistic cultures. The ambition of making yourself into something impressive and praiseworthy isn’t even looked down upon in our society; you could argue that it’s a significant aspect of the American Dream: “Make a name for yourself! Accomplish something that others will admire you for! Turn yourself into something special!”

As someone who has lived his entire life in the United States, I cannot help but drink deeply from my cultural surroundings, and I would suggest that, in this particular respect, my cultural surroundings have been harmful to my Christian identity. After all, as far as I can tell, the Bible teaches that I shouldn’t worry about magnifying my name at all.

In Romans 15.20-21, Paul says something interesting:

“And thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.’”

These verses display Paul’s keen missionary mindset, as he desired to preach to those who did not know about Jesus, but they also show something about the central task of the Christian life: our lives should be centered on the proclamation and magnification of the name of Jesus Christ. We should be all about making Him known to those who do not know Him.

The impulse that was prominent in the Tower of Babel incident remains prominent in our world today, but all of our efforts of self-glorification will lead to a similar end: meaningless babble with no lasting effects. Better then, to dedicate our lives to the spreading of Jesus, the Name above all names.

May God be praised and glorified, and may the name of Jesus be known.

As Christians, our lives should be centered on the proclamation and magnification of the name of Jesus Christ. Click To Tweet

[1] See John C. Nugent, Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016): 47-48.

[2] In our last post, we talked about the tragic reality of death as a part of the human experience. One very common response to the reality of death is the obsessive striving for a sort of immortality through the building of legacy, the making of a name for ourselves. Of course, God understands our quest for immortality and promises it to those who belong to Him; but it is of a very different sort than human accomplishment and the remembrance of a legacy.

Scripture Reflections: “And He Died.”

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am sharing brief thoughts spurred on by my Bible reading this year. By way of reminder, my goal for these brief posts is two-fold:

(1) To remark on aspects of the biblical text that I find to be of interest that the reader may or may not have thought about previously.

(2) When possible, to point ahead to the work and person of Jesus Christ. I believe the Bible is a unified story that points to Jesus, which means that He is frequently alluded to or foreshadowed in some way throughout the biblical canon.

If you start at the beginning of the Hebrew Bible, by Genesis 5 you’ve already witnessed many important developments. God has created everything and stamped His image on humanity (Chapters 1-2). He watches in heartbreak as man rejects that image and brings sin into the good creation (Chapter 3). In Chapter 4, sin, already a part of the world, is brought to new depths as Cain kills his brother. And we have some other indications of the further progression of sin later in the chapter with the character of Lamech.

Then, Genesis 5 recounts the generations following Adam. Usually, genealogies aren’t all that interesting to us. These particular genealogies are somewhat novel because of the length of the lifespans recorded, but other than that we don’t think too much about them. If you pay close attention, though, you may be struck by three words that occur over and over: “and he died.”

Generation after generation, we read about different men—their names, how long they lived, their children—but their stories all end in the same abrupt way: “and he died” (Genesis 5.5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 27). All of this repetition has a real point: it hammers home the truth that, because of the sin in the Garden of Eden, death is now an inescapable part of the human experience. It was true for the men in Genesis 5, and it’s still true today, thousands of years later, despite all of our technological advances and our obsession with cheating and avoiding death.

And that is truly tragic news: Death is the enemy of all of us and it is a part of our existence because of the consequences of sin.

But in Genesis 5, there is a glimmer of good news as well. For one man, the story did not end with “and he died”:

“When Enoch had lived 65 years, he fathered Methuselah. Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methuselah 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enoch were 365 years. Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.”

(Genesis 5.21-24)

It seems to me that, in Enoch, we have a foreshadowing of the Gospel: for those who have a relationship with God, death is overcome. Not in the way that it was for Enoch (I fully expect to die someday, unless Jesus returns before then), but still, in a True and Eternal sense, the power of death is nullified. It does not get the last say:

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

(1 Corinthians 15.26)

Death may be an inescapable part of the human experience, but it is also inescapable for Death itself—Death will die. Resurrection is coming. Come, Lord Jesus.

Learning from the Apostolic Fathers: Ignatius

As I wrote in the first post in this series, I have been reading through Michael W. Holmes’s edition of The Apostolic Fathers in English as part of my daily devotional readings. Generally speaking, the term “Apostolic Fathers” refers to early Christian theologians from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, some of whom would have known some of the apostles personally and sought to pass on their teachings. More specifically, “Apostolic Fathers” is frequently used in reference to Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna. Today, I want to focus on the writings of Ignatius.

Ignatius and His Letters

Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius served as bishop of the church of Antioch in Syria, and we become aware of him as he is journeying to Rome to be martyred early in the second century.[1] Following his arrest in Syria for unknown reasons, Ignatius is sent to Rome in the custody of soldiers to be executed. While on the journey, Ignatius composes a series of letters: to churches that send delegations to meet him on his journey, to the church at Rome alerting them of his impending arrival, to churches he had previously visited, and to his friend Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Ignatius disappears from the historical record after being warmly received by the church in Philippi; presumably, he was thrown to the lions in the Roman Coliseum. Our best guess is that he was killed during the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan (AD 98-117).

There are seven Ignatian letters that are held to be authentic: Ignatius to the Ephesians, To the Magnesians, To the Trallians, To the Romans, To the Philadelphians, To the Smyrnaeans, and To Polycarp. As Michael Holmes says, these letters collectively represent Ignatius’s last will and testament, and are of great value:

“[These are] seven letters of extraordinary interest because of the unparalleled light they shed on the history of the church at that time, and because of what they reveal about the remarkable personality of the author. Because of the early date of these writings and the distinctiveness of some of his ideas, particularly with regard to the nature and structure of the church, Ignatius’s letters have influenced later theological reflection and continue to be a focus in scholarly discussion of Christian origins.”[2]

Themes and Insights from the Ignatian Letters

The Image-bearerEach of Ignatius’s letters begin the same way: “Ignatius the Image-bearer to…” The Greek word for Image-bearer, Theophoros, “is commonly used in Greek inscriptions as a title, describing those who carry divine images or shrines in religious processions.”[3] It is possible that here, Ignatius uses the word as a name rather than a title (e.g. “Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus”), but if so, this would be the first instance of such a usage. It is fascinating, then, that a church bishop of such renown would choose to describe himself in a way that places him on common ground with those to whom he is writing: humans created in God’s image.

Eagerness for Martyrdom: As mentioned above, Ignatius composes his letters while en route to be martyred, so it is not surprising that the topic of his impending death features prominently in his writings. What is more surprising, indeed startling, to the modern reader, is the degree to which he is eager about the violent death that looms ahead of him.

“For when you heard that I was on my way from Syria in chains for the sake of our shared name and hope, and was hoping through your prayers to succeed in fighting with wild beasts in Rome—in order that by so succeeding I might be able to be a disciple—you hurried to visit me.”

(Ignatius, To the Ephesians 1.2)

“For while I strongly desire to suffer, I do not know whether I am worthy, for the envy, though not apparent to many, wages war against me all the more.”

(Ignatius, To the Trallians 4.2)

“Since by praying to God I have succeeded in seeing your godly faces, so that I have received more than I asked—for I hope to greet you in chains for Christ Jesus, if it is his will for me to be reckoned worthy to reach that goal. For the beginning is auspicious, provided that I attain the grace to receive my fate without interference. For I am afraid of your love, in that it may do me wrong; for it is easy for you to do what you want, but it is difficult for me to reach God, unless you spare me.

For I do not want you to please people, but to please God, as you in fact are doing. For I will never again have an opportunity such as this to reach God, nor can you, if you remain silent, be credited with a greater accomplishment. For if you remain silent and leave me alone, I will be a word of God, but if you love my flesh, then I will again be a mere voice. Grant me nothing more than to be poured out as an offering to God while there is still an altar ready, so that in love you may form a chorus and sing to the Father in Jesus Christ, because God has judged the bishop from Syria worthy to be found in the west, having summoned him in the east. It is good to be setting from the world to God in order that I may rise to him.

Just pray that I will have strength both outwardly and inwardly so that I may not just talk about it but want to do it, so that I may not merely be called a Christian but actually prove to be one.

(Ignatius, To the Romans 1, 2, 3.2)

“From Syria all the way to Rome I am fighting with wild beasts, on land and sea, by night and day, chained amidst ten leopards (that is, a company of soldiers) who only get worse when they are well treated. Yet because of their mistreatment I am becoming more of a disciple; nevertheless I am not thereby justified. May I have the pleasure of the wild beasts that have been prepared for me; and I pray that they prove to be prompt with me. I will even coax them to devour me quickly, not as they have done with some, whom they were too timid to touch. And if when I am willing and ready they are not, I will force them. Bear with me—I know what is best for me. Now at last I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing visible or invisible envy me, so that I may reach Jesus Christ. Fire and cross and battles with wild beasts, mutilation, mangling, wrenching of bones, the hacking of limbs, the crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil—let these come upon me, only let me reach Jesus Christ!

Neither the ends of the earth nor the kingdoms of this age are of any use to me. It is better for me to die for Jesus Christ than to rule over the ends of the earth. Him I seek, who died on our behalf; him I long for, who rose again for our sake. The pains of birth are upon me.”

(Ignatius, To the Romans 5.1-6.1.)

“For if these things were done by our Lord in appearance only, then I am in chains in appearance only. Why, moreover, have I surrendered myself to death, to fire, to sword, to beasts? But in any case, “near the sword” means “near to God”; “with the beasts” means “with God.” Only let it be in the name of Jesus Christ, so that I may suffer together with him! I endure everything because he himself, who is the perfect human being, empowers me.”

(Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans 4.2)

Ignatius is clearly eager to die. To the Romans, he specifically requests that they not interfere in any way in an attempt to prevent his martyrdom, but to allow it to happen. If the beasts of the Coliseum prove too timed, he vows to “force” them to kill him. While this may come across as off-putting to modern Christians, there are a few factors to keep in mind:

  • Ignatius clearly believed that he could only fully be a disciple of Jesus if he followed Jesus to execution, and this explains his desire to die. Furthermore, this was the clearest and most direct way for him to reach Jesus, which was his life’s desire.
  • Additonally, Ignatius’s attitude could have been affected by the fact that, “…generally, the only basis for releasing a Christian condemned to death was apostasy; even if the Roman church had won his release for good reasons (something he feared they might attempt to do [Rom. 1.1-2.1, 4.1], rumors that he had apostatized likely would have arisen, and he no doubt wished to avoid such speculation.”[4]
  • There is no evidence that Ignatius sought out persecution or prompted confrontation with Roman authorities. But, once arrested, he sought to rejoice in persecution and glorify God in his suffering, as Scripture commands.

We might still quibble with aspects of Ignatius’s perspective, but on the whole, I think he represents a helpful corrective to many modern, Western Christians who seem to live in constant fear of the spectre of persecution. In the United States, Christians go to great lengths to accumulate political and cultural power as a means of remaining free to worship as we choose and to avoid persecution. I think that would be hard for Ignatius…or Paul…or Jesus to understand.

Obedience to the BishopI belong to a religious fellowship where we believe that Christ is the head of the universal church, but that local congregations are to be led by a plurality of elders (also referred to as shepherds or overseers) based on the teaching of the New Testament.[5] Although I would argue that the biblical witness is a little more complex and nuanced than we sometimes make it out to be, I affirm the basic validity of this model of church governance.

Having said that, it must be admitted that, in Ignatius, we have a very early witness to monoepiscopal church polity: the elevation of a single bishop as the leader of a church (likely, Ignatius refers to a church with deacons, presbyters/elders, and the bishop functioning as the “chief presbyter”).

Ignatius emphasizes the importance of obedience to the bishop in nearly all of his letters; some of his statements were jarring to me:

“Let us, therefore, be careful not to oppose the bishop, in order that we may be obedient to God.

Furthermore, the more anyone observes that the bishop is silent, the more one should fear him. For everyone whom the Master of the house sends to manage his own house we must welcome as we would the one who sent him. It is obvious, therefore, that we must regard the bishop as the Lord himself.

(Ignatius, To the Ephesians 5.3b-6.1)

“Flee from divisions as the beginning of evils. You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the council of presbyters as you would the apostles; respect the deacons as the commandment of God. Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid.

Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. It is not permissible either to baptize or to hold a love feast without the bishop. But whatever he approves is also pleasing to God, in order that everything you do may be trustworthy and valid.”

(Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans 8)

Honestly, I’m not quite sure what to make of this. It seems there are a few different options:

  • We can, based on Ignatius’s words and testimony, suggest that monoepiscopacy was the form of governance in the early church, and that this developed soon after the writing of 1 Timothy and Titus, or that instructions in those letters should be read in light of Ignatius.
  • We can view what Ignatius says as non-authoritative, classify the church governance model that he describes as an early departure from the biblical model, and reject it accordingly.
  • We can conclude that governance in the early church is perhaps not quite as clear as we sometimes make it out to be, and approach discussions of the topic with a dose of humility. This is my current position.[6]

Core Christian DoctrineNot unlike with Clement, we see in the writings of Ignatius an emphasis on key elements of Christian faith.

In multiple places, he emphasizes the centrality of certain facts about Jesus: that He really came in the flesh, suffered and died for our sins, was physically resurrected, and will come again:

“There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

(Ignatius, To the Ephesians 7.2)

“But the gospel possess something distinctive, namely, the coming of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, his suffering, and the resurrection. For the beloved prophets preached in anticipation of him, but the gospel is the imperishable finished work.”

(Ignatius, To the Philadelphians 9.2)

“For he suffered all these things for our sakes, in order that we might be saved; and he truly suffered just as he truly raised himself—not, as certain unbelievers sa, that he suffered in appearance only… For I know and believe that he was in the flesh even after the resurrection…And after his resurrection he ate and drank with them like one who is composed of flesh, although spiritually he was united with the Father.”

(Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans 2.1, 3.1, 3)

Wait expectantly for the one who is above time: the Eternal, the Invisible, who for our sake became visible; the Intangible, the Unsuffering, who for our sake suffered, who for our sake endured in every way.”

(Ignatius, To Polycarp 3.2b)

Ignatius also emphasizes radical daily living that echoes the Sermon on the Mount:

“Pray continually for the rest of humankind as well, that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance. Therefore allow them to be instructed by you, at least by your deeds. In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble; in response to their slander, offer prayers; in response to their errors, be steadfast in the faith; in response to their cruelty, be civilized; do not be eager to imitate them. Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters, and let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord, to see who can be the more wronged, who the more cheated, who the more rejected, in order that no weed of the devil may be found among you, but that with complete purity and self-control you may abide in Christ Jesus physically and spiritually.”

(Ignatius, To the Ephesians 10)

On the importance of the church meeting together regularly:

“Therefore make every effort to come together more frequently to give thanks and glory to God. For when you meet together frequently, the powers of Satan are overthrown and his destructiveness is nullified by the unanimity of your faith.

(Ignatius, To the Ephesians 13)

Concluding Thoughts

I enjoyed the letters of Ignatius more than 1 Clement; although the content from letter to letter is similar, the individual letters are much shorter so it is easier to follow the argumentation throughout each.

Ignatius’s views on martyrdom and church bishops were jarring enough to me that they forced me to reflect upon my own views of these topics. Although I am ambivalent about his exhortations regarding church governance, I do believe that his perspective on suffering and martyrdom is a needed corrective for Christians who are so used to comfort and power that we seek to avoid persecution at all costs. This reason alone is sufficient for Christians to read Ignatius today; his powerful testimony of important Christian doctrines is an added bonus.

[1] Michael W. Holmes, ed., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006): 87-95, is the source of the background information that follows.

[2] Holmes, 87.

[3] Ibid., 96.

[4] Ibid., 89.

[5] Typically speaking, Churches of Christ are opposed to the “Senior Pastor” model, and are rigidly opposed to hierarchical models where multiple churches fall under the authority of a regional bishop (or archbishop, or Pope, etc.).

[6] I think it is worth pointing out here that there is a wide gulf between what Ignatius seems to describe here—a singular bishop of a congregation or perhaps a city who functions as the head of a group of elders/presbyters, possibly a “first among equals”—and the full-blown hierarchy that was later developed and still exists within the Roman Catholic Church. But, it is easy to see how the principle of the former could have led to the development of the latter.

C.S. Lewis on Dogs and the Love of God

As regular readers of The Doc File have probably surmised, I am a big fan of C.S. Lewis. I reread Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia in 2020, and so far in 2021, I have reread The Screwtape Letters and am currently in the middle of The Problem of Pain.

I think there is a lot to like about Lewis’s writing, but one helpful quality is his ability to use helpful analogies to illustrate theological points. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis describes different ways in which it can be said that God “loves” humanity:

Another type is the love of a man for a beast—a relation constantly used in Scripture to symbolise the relation between God and men: ‘we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.’ This is in some ways a better analogy than the preceding, because the inferior party is sentient, and yet unmistakably inferior: but it is less good in so far as man has not made the beast and does not fully understand it.

Its great merit lies in the fact that the association of (say) man and dog is primarily for the man’s sake: he tames the dog primarily that he may love it, not that it may love him, and that it may serve him, not that he may serve it. Yet at the same time, the dog’s interests are not sacrificed to the man’s. The one end (that he may love it) cannot be fully attained unless it also, in its fashion, loves him, not can it serve him unless he, in a different fashion, serves it.

Now just because the dog is by human standards one of the ‘best’ of irrational creatures, and a proper object for man to love—of course, with that degree and kind of love which is proper to such an object, and not with silly anthropomorphic exaggerations—man interferes with the dog and makes it more lovable than it was in mere nature. In its state of nature it has a smell, and habits, which frustrate man’s love: he washes it, house-trains it, teaches it not to steal, and is so enabled to love it completely.

To the puppy the whole proceeding would seem, if it were a theologian, to cast grave doubts on the ‘goodness’ of man: but the full-grown and full-trained dog, larger, healthier, and longer-lived than the wild dog, and admitted, as it were by Grace, to a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests, and comforts entirely beyond its animal destiny, would have no such doubts. It will be noted that the man (I am speaking throughout of the good man) takes all these pains with the dog, and gives all these pains to the dog, only because it is an animal high in the scale—because it is so nearly lovable that it is worth his while to make it fully lovable. He does not house-train the earwig or give baths to centipedes. We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses—that He would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves: but once again, we are asking not for more love, but for less.

The Problem of Pain, 35-36

Lewis’s analogy is astute:

(1) Indeed, God does interfere in the lives of those who would be His followers. He does not leave us alone to follow our natural impulses and, instead, makes all sorts of demands upon us and calls us to live in ways that are decidedly unnatural (what can be more unnatural than voluntarily laying power aside to instead serve others, or foregoing the opportunity for retaliation when it is presented?) This can certainly be frustrating.

(2) However, as we mature beyond being spiritual “puppies” and begin to grow and be trained through the sanctification of God’s Spirit, it becomes easier to see the grace that was present, all along, in God’s demands. We are so much better off than if we had been left to our own devices.

Praise God for His interference, a great manifestation of His abundant love!

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