Conservative Colloquium

An Intellectual Forum for All Things Conservative

Commentary on Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians

Posted by Tony Listi on October 17, 2010

St. Polycarp was Bishop of Smyrna and a very early Church father and martyr who lived from 69 to 155 AD. From the writings of St. Irenaeus (b. ca. 115-142), we know that Polycarp was taught by the original Apostles (John in particular), had talked with those who had seen Jesus, and received his episcopate from the Apostles.

In his letter to the Philippians, he rejects sola fide, upholds the necessity of obedience for salvation/heaven, undermines the rationale behind sola Scriptura, affirms the divine authority of Church officials (deacons and presbyters), confirms the presence of virgins in the early Church, commands fear of God, says to avoid heretics who bear the name “Christian” in falsehood and hypocrisy, upholds apostolic tradition, exhorts perseverance in the faith in order to be saved, and quotes from the so-called “apocrypha.”
He also fills the letter with verses from the New Testament.

I have greatly rejoiced with you in our Lord Jesus Christ…because the strong root of your faith, spoken of in days (Philippians 1:5) long gone by, endures even until now, and brings forth fruit to our Lord Jesus Christ…. knowing that “by grace you are saved, not of works,” (Ephesians 2:8-9) but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.

The “strong root” Polycarp refers to is St. Paul. Yes, we are saved by grace because we are forgiven through grace. Grace is at work in the beginning, during, and at the end of the process of salvation. We cannot earn our salvation because we cannot earn forgiveness. But we do have to bear fruit in proportion to our ability and talents, even if the fruit is not the cause of forgiveness. Polycarp has more to say on the issue of salvation:

But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, false witness; “not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing,” (1 Peter 3:9) or blow for blow, or cursing for cursing, but being mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching….

Notice that obedience to God’s law and avoidance of sin are conditions for being raised up to heaven.

 For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom (2 Peter 3:15) of the blessed and glorified Paul. He, when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive. And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter….

Polycarp explains how the early churches were taught: primarily in person by Paul and only by letter when he was absent from them. Why on earth then should Christian doctrine be limited to letters that were driven by random circumstances? Why do Protestants reject the Word of God taught by the apostles in person to the early churches and passed down in the writings of the leaders of these early churches?

… let us teach, first of all, ourselves to walk in the commandments of the Lord. Next, [teach] your wives [to walk] in the faith given to them, and in love and purity tenderly loving their own husbands in all truth, and loving all [others] equally in all chastity; and to train up their children in the knowledge and fear of God.

Polycarp implicitly affirms the authority of husband over wife. He also implies that mothers have a responsibility to train their children to be holy (not that fathers don’t too).

Knowing, then, that “God is not mocked,” (Galatians 6:7) we ought to walk worthy of His commandment and glory. In like manner should the deacons be blameless before the face of His righteousness, as being the servants of God and Christ, and not of men.

Again, we mock God if we say we have faith and yet transgress his commandments. The Christian (especially a leader of the Church) must be obedient. Also, he mentions a specific office in the Church: the diaconate. He will go on to mention the other office of presbyter.

If we please Him in this present world, we shall receive also the future world, according as He has promised to us that He will raise us again from the dead, and that if we live worthily of Him, “we shall also reign together with Him,” (2 Timothy 2:12) provided only we believe…. they should be cut off from the lusts that are in the world, since “every lust wars against the spirit” (1 Peter 2:11); and “neither fornicators, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, shall inherit the kingdom of God,”  (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) nor those who do things inconsistent and unbecoming.

Again, he emphasizes the necessity of both belief andliving worthily if we wish to reign in heaven with Jesus. He then emphasizes the necessity of avoiding sin and of behavior consistent with belief in order to inherit the kingdom of God.

Wherefore, it is needful to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ. The virgins also must walk in a blameless and pure conscience.

Notice what great authority these Church officials have: they are to be obeyed as one would obey God and Jesus. And notice that virginity is not at all foreign to Christianity and the early Church.

Let us then serve Him in fear, and with all reverence, even as He Himself has commanded us, and as the apostles who preached the Gospel unto us, and the prophets who proclaimed beforehand the coming of the Lord [have alike taught us].

We are to fear God always. He is our Lord. There is no contradiction between fear and love. Those we love we fear; those we fear we love. How is this? Because it is a fear of falling short of the love the other deserves.

Let us be zealous in the pursuit of that which is good, keeping ourselves from causes of offense, from false brethren, and from those who in hypocrisy bear the name of the Lord, and draw away vain men into error.

If you do not have a zeal for the good and the true, then you are not living the Christian life. The Christian is to avoid heretics who fancy themselves to be Christians but who are not.

…whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan. Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning (Jude 3); “watching unto prayer” (1 Peter 4:7), and persevering in fasting; beseeching in our supplications the all-seeing God “not to lead us into temptation” (Matthew 6:13; Matthew 26:41), as the Lord has said: “The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak”  (Matthew 26:41; Mark 14:38).

Heresy is typically the result of lusts of some kind. How do we know for certain what is true doctrine? By embracing the Word that has been handed down from the beginning to the saints by the apostles.

Let us then continually persevere in our hope, and the earnest of our righteousness, which is Jesus Christ….

The Christian must be “earnest” about the faith. We must “continually persevere in our hope” if we wish to enter the kingdom of God.

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 (Philippians 2:16; Galatians 2:2), 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.

Polycarp urges the Philippians to be obedient to the Word that they received from the apostles and their successors and ministers. Christians can be assured that the apostles are in heaven and did not run in vain. But Christians should not be overly confident to the point of certainty about their own eternal fate. If the apostles, especially Paul, did not express such certainty about his own fate, neither should we.

Stand fast, therefore, in these things, and follow the example of the Lord, being firm and unchangeable in the faith, loving the brotherhood (1 Peter 2:17), and being attached to one another, joined together in the truth….

Therefore, because we have no certainty of our faith, we must willfully “stand fast” and be “firm and unchangeable in the faith.” Only in this way will we be worthy of entering heaven. Also, Christian are to be one, “joined together in the truth,” not separated by schisms.

When you can do good, defer it not, because “alms delivers from death” (Tobit 4:10, Tobit 12:9).

Polycarp quotes from the misnamed “apocrypha.” Moreover, he quotes verses that would surely make the Protestant very uncomfortable. Though faith has primacy, alms-giving, which is a good work, can contribute to salvation as well. In fact, the false Protestant dichotomy between faith and good works is what this entire letter rejects. It is impossible to separate the two theologically when it comes to salvation.

For if a man cannot govern himself in such matters, how shall he enjoin them on others? If a man does not keep himself from covetousness, he shall be defiled by idolatry, and shall be judged as one of the heathen. But who of us are ignorant of the judgment of the Lord?

The “Christian” who does not obey God’s commandments will be judged among those who have no faith, among the heathens, those who have rejected the faith.

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]…. to whom may the Lord grant true repentance! And be then moderate in regard to this matter, and “do not count such as enemies” (2 Thessalonians 3:15), but call them back as suffering and straying members, that you may save your whole body. For by so acting you shall edify yourselves (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Even priests can fall into heresy and sin. All Christians who fall into sin must be truly repentant to gain forgiveness and regain the state of grace. Catholics should call upon all who stray from the Body of Christ to return.

…and may He bestow on you a lot and portion among His saints….

Again, heaven is not assured with certainty.

Advertisements

One Response to “Commentary on Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians”

  1. Rich Griese said

    Stephan Huller has an excellent series on Polycarp that I highly recommend.

    http://stephanhuller.blogspot.com/2010/09/against-polycarp-part-one.html

    It ended up being like 26 episodes, and I have made a complete list of all the links here.

    http://webulite.dyndns.org:8080/stephan_huller

    I am interested in the study of early christianity, especially the creation and formative years. perhaps the first 200. To show you some of the stuff I have been collecting, and trying to organize, take a look at these two pages, and see if anything interests you;

    http://webulite.dyndns.org:8080/christianity

    http://webulite.dyndns.org:8080/tag/christianity?do=showtag&tag=tag%3Achristianity

    I am interested in convos on anything in the early christianity general areas, what are you interested in at the moment?

    Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: