Faulkner University

POLYCARP, CLEMENT, IGNATIUS, JUSTIN, IRENAEUS, TERTULLIAN, ORIGEN, CYPRIAN AND NORTH AFRICA, ATHANASIUS, EUSEBIUS, AND AMBROSE

Polycarp from Eusebius, History of the Church, IV 15

He stepped forward, and was asked by the proconsul if he really was Polycarp. When he said yes, the proconsul urged him to deny the charge. "Respect your years!" he exclaimed, adding similar appeals regularly made on such occasions: "Swear by Caesar's fortune; change your attitude; say: Away with the godless!"

But Polycarp, with his face set, looked at all the crowd in the stadium and waved his hand towards them, sighed, looked up to heaven, and cried: "Away with the godless!" The governor pressed him further: "Swear, and I will set you free: execrate Christ."

"For eighty-six years," replied Polycarp, "I have been his servant, and he has never done me wrong: how can I blaspheme my king who saved me?"

"I have wild beasts," said the proconsul. "I shall throw you to them, if you don't change your attitude."

"Call them," replied the old man. "We cannot change our attitude if it means a change from better to worse. But it is a splendid thing to change from cruelty to justice."

"If you make light of the beasts," retorted the governor, "I'll have you destroyed by fire, unless you change your attitude."

Polycarp answered: "The fire you threaten burns for a time and is soon extinguished: there is a fire you know nothing about--the fire of the judgment to come and of eternal punishment, the fire reserved for the ungodly. But why do you hesitate? Do what you want."

The proconsul was amazed, and sent the crier to stand in the middle of the arena and announce three times: "Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian." ...Then a shout went up from every throat that Polycarp must be burnt alive.

The rest followed in less time than it takes to describe: the crowds rushed to collect logs and faggots from workshop and public baths. When the pyre was ready. ..Polycarp prayed: "0 Father of thy beloved and blessed Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to know thee, the God of angels and powers and all creation, and of the whole family of the righteous who live in thy presence; I bless thee for counting me worthy of this day and hour, that in the number of the martyrs I may partake of Christ's cup, to the resurrection of eternal life of both soul and body in the imperishability that is the gift of the Holy Spirit."

When he had offered up the Amen and completed his prayer, the men in charge lit the fire, and
a great flame shot up.

Clement of Rome by Michael A. Smith

Little is known of the life of Clement, who was one of the early bishops or presbyters of Rome, and died about AD 100. His name was linked to a genera1 letter usually known as 1st Clement.

1st Clement is an open letter from the church at Rome to the church at Corinth, probably written at the end of the first century, shortly after the persecution by the Emperor Domitian. It is probably the earliest surviving Christian writing apart from the New Testament. It was written to counter the disruption and disturbance in the church at Corinth, where some of the older leaders had been deposed by a younger clique.

The letter sheds interesting light on church life soon after the age of the apostles. There is no trace of a single ruling bishop; instead the leaders of the church are called either bishops and deacons or elders (presbyters). The martyrdoms of Peter and Paul are referred to--but only in very vague terms. The letter appeals to a simple form of apostolic succession.

1st Clement puts great stress on good order, and on Christian faith being accompanied by good works, claiming that Abraham was saved "by faith and hospitality". The book quotes extensively from the Old Testament, Jewish books outside the canon, and writings of the apostles. It became widely known and popular because it was believed that its author knew Peter and Paul, and because it contained earnest exhortations to Christian humility and love. It was known to Hermas and Dionysius of Corinth in the later second century and was occasionally read in church.

2nd Clement, another early work was claimed to be by Clement of Rome, but is an anonymous sermon perhaps dating from AD 150. Several additional writings of the fourth century were falsely claimed to be by Clement.

Ignatius of Antioch by Michael A. Smith

Ignatius was the bishop of the church at Antioch early in the second century. What little is known of him comes almost entirely from seven letters written during his journey to Rome to be executed, about AD 110-115.

Ignatius believed that he possessed the Holy Spirit's gift of "prophecy", though he considered himself inferior to the apostles. He was a rather neurotic man, given to strong ideas and forceful language.

His seven letters (others attributed to him were added in the fourth century) were addressed to the churches at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia and Smyrna and to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. He argued strongly that there should be one "bishop" in charge of each congregation, in order to prevent splits in the church and to ensure that correct beliefs were preserved.

He strongly condemned Docetist ideas current in churches in Asia Minor, where it was held that Jesus only seemed to be a man, and was in fact a pure spirit-being, uncontaminated by this material world. Ignatius put high value on the Eucharist, or communion, as a means of ensuring unity, and of stressing the reality of Jesus' becoming man.

Ignatius was so enthusiastic to become a martyr that he begged the Christians in Rome not to prevent his expected execution

Justin Martyr by Colin J. Hemer

Justin was a convert from paganism, but became the most notable of the second century "apologists" (writers defending the Christian faith). Details of his life come chiefly from his own writings.

Justin was born at Flavia Neapolis (now Nablus) in Palestine. As a young man he searched energetically for truth in a variety of philosophical schools. One day, while meditating alone by the seashore, perhaps at Ephesus, he met an old man who exposed the weaknesses of his confident thinking. The stranger then pointed him to the Jewish prophets who bore witness to Christ. Justin had already been impressed by the remarkable moral constancy of Christians in the face of death. These themes were to recur later in his writings.


Justin responded wholeheartedly by becoming a Christian. He took his new faith into the philosophical schools. He believed he now possessed in Christ a more perfect philosophy, revealed fully by the God who had been known only in part through the wisdom of the ancient world. He taught in Ephesus and Rome, where Tatian was one of his pupils.

Justin's writings give an attractive impression of the man. They are vigorous and earnest, but discursive--urgent appeals to reason, thrashed out under the threat of persecution.

Justin's First Apology was addressed to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 138-161) and aimed to clear away prejudice and misunderstanding about Christianity. He claimed that popular charges that Christians were atheists and immoral were unfounded. He argued that Christian beliefs and practices actually reflect a higher reason and morality. His Second Apology is brief and passionate, protesting against Injustice. It was provoked by the summary execution of people innocent of any crime, except confessing the name of Christ.

The longest of Justin's three surviving works is the Dialogue with Trypho. It apparently recounts an actual encounter at Ephesus years earlier. Trypho was a cultured Jew who objected that Christians broke the Jewish law, and worshipped a man. The debate was conducted with respect and courtesy on both sides, despite deep disagreement. Justin argued from the Scriptures they shared. The Scriptures spoke of Christ, in whom the law is set aside. Justin's words are valuable examples of the way early Christians interpreted the Bible.

Justin was martyred in Rome about AD 165. It seems likely that his bold ministry was cut short in its full vigor. He had presented his faith as both scriptural and reasonable in the face of objections by both Jews and pagans.

Irenaeus by Everett Ferguson

Irenaeus was born in Asia Minor and studied under Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. He then went to Gaul where he became bishop of Lyons in AD 177. His books aimed to counteract the Gnostic ideas common in this region.

Two major writings by Irenaeus survive: Against Heresies ('Five Books Exposing and Overthrowing the So-Called "Knowledge" ') and Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, an instructional book, demonstrating that the basic Christian faith fulfils the Old Testament. Irenaeus stressed the fundamental Christian doctrines that were being challenged by Gnosticism: that the world was created by one God; that Jesus Christ, son of the Creator, died to save men; that there will be a resurrection of the body. He appealed to the historical roots of the Christian faith, and argued that Scripture contained a succession of Covenants through which "one and the same God" progressively revealed his will to men, as they were ready to receive it.

Irenaeus developed the idea that Christ, fully man as well as fully God, retraced the steps of Adam, with a different result. Because Christ passed through every age of life, all humanity shares in his sanctifying work.

The Gnostics claimed to possess secret traditions passed down from the apostles. To counter this Irenaeus developed an argument involving another kind of apostolic succession. He claimed that the churches preserved public, standard beliefs handed down from apostolic times by the teachers in the churches.

Irenaeus thus developed Christian theology in several ways; for example, the "canon (or rule) of truth" preserved in the church as the key to interpreting Scripture; his view that the Eucharist contains "an earthly and a divine reality"; and the place of the Virgin Mary (the new Eve) in his theology. At the same time he tried to base his teachings and arguments on Scripture.

Tertullian by Everett Ferguson

Tertullian was the first major Christian author to write in Latin. He was therefore the first to use many of the technical words common in later Christian theological debates. Tertullian lived most of, if not all, his life in Carthage, the capital of the Roman province of Africa. He the received typical education of the late second century, and his surviving works date from between 196 and 212.

Tertullian's books reflect three main concerns: Christianity's attitude to the Roman state and society; the defense of the orthodox beliefs; and the moral behavior of Christians. His own strict moral views led him to join the Montanists around 207.

Tertullian wrote in a witty and vigorous style, marked by startling turns of phrase. It was he who claimed that 'the blood of the martyrs is seed'. But his well-known question, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" expressed a rejection of philosophy that was not true of his own work, since he demonstrated how pagan intellectual achievements could be made to serve Christianity.

Tertullian's masterpiece was the Apology, which argued effectively that Christianity should be tolerated. He longest work, the five books Against Marcion, defended the use of the Old Testament by the Christian Church, and the oneness of God, both Creator and Savior. In Against Praxeas, Tertullian developed the doctrine of the Trinity. Tertullian had two things against Praxeas: his opposition to the Montanists "New Prophecy', and his view of God. Tertullian said that Praxeas did two works for the Devil in Rome: he put to flight the Paraclete and crucified the Father.

Tertullian covered a number of other subjects. In Exclusion of Heretics Tertullian used an argument from Roman law to claim the Scriptures as the exclusive property of the church, against Gnostic heretics. Tertullian's On the Soul is the first Christian writing on psychology. On Baptism is the earliest surviving work about baptism; in it Tertullian criticized the baptism of children. In other books Tertullian argues for strictness in church discipline, remarriage and fasting, which goes beyond biblical requirements; and opposed flight to avoid persecution.

Tertullian, Apology XXI "God made the universe by his word, reason and power. Your philosophers also agree that the maker of the universe seems to be Logos-that is, word and reason . . . .(for example Zeno and Cleanthes) . . . .We also claim that the word, reason and virtue, by which we have said all that God made all things, have spirit as their substance . . . . This Word, we have learnt, was produced, and therefore is being produced, and therefore is called the Son of God, and God, from unity of substance with God. For God is spirit.

When a ray is projected from the sun it is a portion of the whole sun; but the sun will be in the ray because it is a ray of the sun; the substance is not separated but extended. So from the spirit comes spirit, God from God, as light is kindled from light . . . . This ray of God . . . .glided down into a virgin, in her womb was fashioned as flesh, is born as man mixed with God."

Origen by Everett Ferguson

Origen was the greatest scholar and most prolific author of the early church. He was not only a profound thinker but also deeply spiritual and a loyal churchman.

Origen was born into a Christian family in Alexandria about AD 185. He became a teacher, first of new converts, and later of more advanced students. Origen, who led a very ascetic life, was forced to move to Caesarea, in Palestine, because of the antagonism of Bishop Demetrius of Alexandria. Origen traveled widely in response to invitations to mediate in church disputes, or to speak in front of prominent people. His death in AD 254 was the result of injuries inflicted during the persecution under the Emperor Decius.

Origen produced the Hexapla, the greatest piece of biblical scholarship in the early church. It put in parallel columns the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, a Greek transliteration, the Greek translations by Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion, and the Septuagint. Origen made the Hexapla the basis for his interpretations of the Old Testament. His church sermons and massive biblical commentaries illustrated his theory that there are three levels of meaning in any biblical text: the literal sense, the moral application to the soul, and the allegorical or spiritual sense, referring to the mysteries of the Christian faith.

Origen's major work on theology, First Principles, attempted to present the fundamental Christian doctrines systematically: God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, creation, the soul, free will, salvation and the Scriptures. Origen tried first to set out clearly the faith expressed in the church, and then to clarify and draw out what was only implicit in the faith.

Exhortation to Martyrdom and Prayer are examples of Origen's writing on the Christian life. Against Celsus was his one major writing against pagan criticisms of Christianity.

Origen tried to express the Christian faith in terms of the prevailing Platonic philosophical ideas of his time. Some of his speculations, for example about the pre-existence of souls and universal salvation, were repudiated by the church, and helped bring about his later condemnation. But Greek Christian theology continued to be concerned with the problem which Origen tackled--the relationship of philosophy and the Christian tradition.

Cyprian and North Africa by David F. Wright

Cyprian became a Christian about AD 246, when he was already a rich and cultured man of Carthage, the chief city of Roman Africa, and probably destined for high government office. He himself wrote that: "A second birth created me a new man by means of the Spirit breathed from heaven." He now dedicated himself to celibacy, poverty and the Bible with such distinction that within two years he was made bishop of Carthage.

When the persecution of the Emperor Decius began in AD 250, Cyprian left the city. Many church leaders scorned flight from persecution, and Cyprian lost face. From his hiding-place he had difficulty restraining the "confessors", Christians whose sufferings earned them great spiritual prestige. They were urging lenient treatment for "lapsed" Christians who denied the faith under pressure. After Cyprian returned in AD 251 a council of bishops fixed stricter terms for readmitting them to the church, whereupon the dissidents split off. To oppose their action, Cyprian wrote his most important work, The Unity of the Church.

From AD 255 Cyprian defiantly opposed Stephen, bishop of Rome, over the question whether Christian baptism could be received outside the catholic (mainstream) church. Cyprian believed that the Spirit's gifts of life and salvation were restricted to the Catholic Church. Unlike Stephen, he demanded that members of separatist churches who entered the church should be re-baptized. The dispute faded after Stephen's death and Cyprian's exile and courageous martyrdom in AD 258.
Cyprian was above all a churchman--a clear-headed administrator but a simple theologian. His writings deal with practical church matters. By calling regular councils of bishops he put into practice his conviction that the church depended for its unity on their harmony and equality.

Cyprian believed that all bishops were in theory equal--just as the apostles had been. He regarded ministers as priests, and the Lord's Supper as the sacrifice of the cross. He tried to integrate the Spirit-dominated puritanism of Tertullian with the church of the bishops. His pastoral zeal was best shown when he helped people during a terrible plague in AD 252-4. His influence on the later Western church was immense and largely harmful.

Athanasius by Everett Ferguson

Athanasius (about 296-373) is one of the giants of Christian history because of his part in defining the doctrine of the Trinity in the Arian struggles.

As a deacon of the church at Alexandria, Athanasius accompanied his bishop, Alexander, to the Council of Nicaea in 325. He succeeded Alexander as bishop in 328. Changing political fortunes due to the involvement of the Emperor in the affairs of the church resulted in Athanasius being exiled five times (335-37, to Trier in Gaul; 339-46, when he went to Rome; 356-61, when he lived among the monks in the Egyptian desert; 362-63 and 365-66 in concealment in Egypt. Athanasius' flock stayed loyal to him and each time he was welcomed back from exile.

His early work, On the Incarnation, set out Athanasius' basic theological viewpoint. Christ "was made man that we might be made divine". This concern with salvation motivated Athanasius as he argued against Arius and his followers. The Arians said that Christ was a created being, made by God before time. Athanasius argued that if Christ was less than God then he could not be our savior. Only God could restore man to communion with himself. For this reason he defended Nicaea's definition of Christ as of the same substance with God, and Nicaea's rejection of Arianism.


Most of Athanasius' writings are aimed at opposing Arianism, dealing with it historically, doctrinally, or from Scripture. Athanasius stood like a rock in defense of the creed adopted at Nicaea. His personality, preaching and writings did more than anything else to achieve victory for the Nicene position. His zeal made him uncompromising--even harsh--in dealing with opponents, and slow to recognize good in those he disagreed with. Athanasius' Life of Antony did much to promote monasticism by praising the life of the desert ascetics. Athanasius found echoes of his own experiences and emotions in the psalms (Letter to Marcellinus) and helped to introduce the personal devotional use of the psalms which Christians have ever since adopted. His Easter Letter 39 (367) is the earliest witness to the twenty-seven-book New Testament Canon.

Eusebius by Michael A Smith

Eusebius (about 263-about 339) was the first to attempt a history of the church on a grand scale. Born in Palestine, he was on the run during the Great Persecution. He saw much martyrdom in Egypt and was himself imprisoned for his faith. In 313-14 Eusebius was made bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, and later became a close friend of the Emperor Constantine, for whom he composed many flattering speeches. His political ideas helped to create the Christian Empire of Byzantium. In the Arian dispute Eubesius' own theology was suspect. He supported the banishment of Athanasius at the Council of Tyre (335). Eusebius was a typical court-bishop of the fourth century. A voluminous writer, his works include Chronicles, works to justify Christianity directed against pagans, biblical and theological works and letters, and above all his Church History. He was a keen follower of Origen.

The Church History was completed initially in either 303 or 311, but several supplements were added by Eusebius to bring the story up to 324 and the final triumph of his admired friend Constantine.

Eusebius dealt mainly with the succession of Christian bishops and teachers from apostolic times, heresies, the suffering of the Jews, and the persecution and martyrdom of Christians. He also recounted traditions about the New Testament writers and details about the canon of Scripture. Eusebius wrote in a heavy, verbose and difficult style. However, his book is priceless since it preserves extracts from otherwise lost works. Much of his history is told by means of long quotations from previous writers. As a writer Eusebius was neither utterly credulous nor very critical. He does not stuff his work with improbable miracles, but accepts most of his sources at face value.

Although he was not the first church historian (Hegesippus and Julius Africanus were before him, but only fragments survive of their works), Eusebius was the first to attempt a history on a grand, comprehensive scale. He both set the pattern for future church historians, and was used extensively by later writers, for example, Jerome and Bede.

Ambrose of Milan by Michael A. Smith

In 374, after the death of the Arian bishop of Milan, Ambrose was elected bishop by popular acclaim even though at that time he was not even baptized. Ambrose (339-97) came from a noble Roman family and received a classical education. He became a provincial governor in northern Italy, residing at Milan.

He read widely, especially the Greek theologians, and became famous both as a preacher and as a church administrator and politician. He was the leading spokesman against the petition of the pagan Symmachus in 384 to have the altar of the goddess Victory restored to the Senate House in Rome; his influence ensured that the altar was not restored.

Ambrose took a strong stand against Arianism, and completed its overthrow in the West. He clashed with the Empress- mother Justina, mother of Emperor Valentinian II, and in 385 organized a sit-in when she tried to take over one of the churches of Milan for Arian worship. This made her give up the idea.

Later Ambrose became a close adviser of the Emperor Theodosius, when he had his court at Milan. He used his position to prevent the Emperor from punishing rioting monks who had burned down a synagogue at Callinicum, but he also forced the Emperor to make a form of public confession after he had sanctioned a massacre of civilians at Thessalonica. Ambrose was the first church leader to use his office successfully to coerce civil rulers.

Ambrose did much to encourage early monasticism in the West; he had considerable influence on Augustine, and baptized him in Milan in 387. He was the first to introduce community hymn-singing in the church, during the sit-in against Justina, and at least four Latin hymns are correctly credited to him. His writings mainly concern matters of Christian practice.

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