Henk Medema

The Apostolic Fathers - and some of their sons & daughters in the 21st century

The first full week of April saw a not-too-huge number of Christians assembled in one of the buildings adjacent to St.-Michael’s Church in Heliopolis, Egypt, to study the Apostolic Fathers, by way of introduction. Americans, Dutchmen, Egyptians and others sat down under the teaching of e.g. dr. Jos Strengholt, Anglican priest and ardent student of early church history. The atmosphere was warm, and the discussions lively. We went through texts that some of us had hardly seen beforehand: Polycarp, Barnabas, Hermas, the Epistle to Diognetus, fragments of Papias, First Clement, Ignatius.
Allow me to share a few elements of the studies that struck me. In a later stage I hope to come back on a few pertinent topics. 1. What actually made these days so worth while? The surprising experience of approaching the New Testament, not from some twenty centuries after the time, but being parachuted into it, viewing things from the insights of people who were close contemporaries. I had been reading a bit into the Apostolic Father, using the classic Dutch edition of A.F.J. Klijn, but was never triggered as much as I experienced in this course. 2. The strength of Christian tradition was something else that also struck me. Being from a Brethren and evangelical background, I was always quite a bit critical of Christian tradition, though not formally opposed to it. But breathing the air of these apostolic fathers made me see two things: their own self-consciousness, and their reverence for the Scriptures. They were deeply aware that they had points to make and things to say, and they did. On the other hand, they did not put themselves on a par with the Apostles or the other writers of the Scriptures. 3. Revence for Divine revelation: there are a few things here and there that some of us might not agree with in the writings of these Apostolic Father. By and large, though, we could shout a loud AMEN! - or, for that matter, give our signature to their views. They were obviously aware that they were living in just one or two generations from a time where God had shown His intervention in the course of history, through Jesus and the Spirit, and they were in deep awe about that. 4. Compare with the Apostolic Fathers, our thinking is full of theology on the one hand side, and biblicism on the other. Their firm attitude against gnosticism and docetism anticipated on the great confessions that would be framed in words several centuries after them, but did not have such a paradigmatical infrastructure. Their reading of Scripture frequently did not really take an observing distance from the text, but I was struck how in comparison many of us (including myself) tend to think in a much more biblicist way. 5. Shared reading is a joyful experience! There was a lot of interactivity during the sessions, which brought out some differences in thinking models. For example, some of us had rather clear views on the Millennium, while others, from a different theological background, had hardly spent thoughts on that topic, and they had to be explained what a-mill, pre-mill or post-mill positions would mean. My presumption, by the way, is that many of the Apostolic Fathers would not have had a clue either… In a later blog I hope to pay some attention to that.

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