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Posts Tagged ‘Polycarp’

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.

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Commentary on St. Ignatius’ Letter to St. Polycarp

Posted by Tony Listi on February 28, 2010

St. Ignatius (d. circa. 98-117 AD) was the bishop of Syria and perhaps the earliest Church father whose writings we have. He wrote a letter to St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna.

Having obtained good proof that your mind is fixed in God as upon an immoveable rock, I loudly glorify [His name] that I have been thought worthy [to behold] your blameless face, which may I ever enjoy in God! I entreat you, by the grace with which you are clothed, to press forward in your course, and to exhort all that they may be saved. Maintain your position with all care, both in the flesh and spirit. Have a regard to preserve unity, than which nothing is better…. Bear the infirmities of all, as being a perfect athlete [in the Christian life]: where the labour is great, the gain is all the more.

Salvation is not guaranteed. One’s mind must be “fixed in God as upon an immoveable rock.” Exhortation to holy conduct is required from clergy for the benefit of the flock that they may be saved. What does Ignatius mean by “maintain your position”? Maintain the state of grace in which Polycarp is clothed? Maintain his office as bishop of Smyrna? Without recourse to the original language of the text, I think the former interpretation seems more reasonable. Is it possible for Polycarp to lose the office of bishop through neglect of body or spirit? No. But we can all lose the state of grace.

Schism is condemned; preservation of unity of doctrine and institution is affirmed.

Lastly, differential rewards in heaven are affirmed; those who labor greatly for the Lord gain greatly.

The times call for you, as pilots do for the winds, and as one tossed with tempest seeks for the haven, so that both you [and those under your care] may attain to God. Be sober as an athlete of God: the prize set before you is immortality and eternal life, of which you are also persuaded.

Bishop Polycarp is the leader of the flock whose eternal fate rests partly with him. Like St. Paul, Ignatius refers to salvation as a prize, something not yet attained until the race is run till the end.

Let not those who seem worthy of credit, but teach strange doctrines (1 Timothy 1:3, 1 Timothy 6:3) fill you with apprehension. Stand firm, as does an anvil which is beaten. It is the part of a noble athlete to be wounded, and yet to conquer. 

It is the responsibility of the bishop to “stand firm” in the face of  “strange doctrines,” i.e. heresy. It is not up to the individual believer to say what true, correct Christian doctrine is. Rather, as St. Paul writes to fellow bishops Timothy and Titus, the bishop is the guardian of true doctrine and authoritatively teaches the rest of the flock. Moreover, it does not matter if heretics are good people “who seem worthy of credit.” Good works alone are not proof of truth, though truth in action does bear fruit in good works.

Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; impalpable and impassible, yet who became passible on our account; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes.

God is timeless, outside of time, transcending time. There are interesting implications of this truth for the topics of prayer, what heaven is like, interpretation of the creation story in Genesis, and many other esoteric Christian doctrines and traditions.

Let not widows be neglected. Be, after the Lord, their protector and friend. Let nothing be done without your consent; neither do anything without the approval of God, which indeed you do not, inasmuch as you are steadfast.

Women in ancient times were totally dependent on their husbands for their livelihood. To lose your husband was to become destitute oftentimes. In our times, single mothers are widows. They should not be wards of the state but rather assisted by the Church. And no mother should be able to claim an excuse to choose infanticide because of a lack of material support.

The supreme authority of the bishop is reemphasized here. His consent is necessary for everything concerning the church under his care.

Do not despise either male or female slaves, yet neither let them be puffed up with conceit, but rather let them submit themselves the more, for the glory of God, that they may obtain from God a better liberty. Let them not long to be set free [from slavery] at the public expense, that they be not found slaves to their own desires.

There has been a lot of slander and defamation of the Church with regard to slavery. This passage succinctly expresses some major Christian points with regard to slavery:

  1. Slaves are not to be despised as if they were sub-human.
  2. Slavery, as practiced in the ancient world, was not evil in itself.
  3. Slavery of the soul to sin is the chief concern of the Church, not slavery of the body to the will of another human being. True liberty, liberty from sin and worldly “desires,” comes from God alone.

It  is interesting to note that Ignatius recognizes the obvious universal fact that slaves set free tend to become dependent upon the state just as they were dependent upon their masters before. Somehow this fact seems to have been lost on Americans during the late 19th century. The manumission of black slaves and their future welfare could have been better managed.

Flee evil arts; but all the more discourse in public regarding them.

We must flee all evil but not speech regarding what is evil. What is evil must be talked about publicly. Evil is most powerful when it is ignored and not confronted  refuted, and denounced.

If any one can continue in a state of purity, to the honour of Him who is Lord of the flesh, let him so remain without boasting. If he begins to boast, he is undone; and if he reckon himself greater than the bishop, he is ruined. But it becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust.

As St. Paul urges, Ignatius also urges virginity for those who can attain it. Virgins are held in so high regard in the early Church that the temptation to pride for them was apparently quite high then. Notice how pride is what leads one to think one is greater in authority than the bishop. And this pride spells the doom of the Christian, even of the virgin.

With regard to marriage, the bishop is involved as well, approving the union of the man and woman. The sacred character of marriage is governed by the bishop, not the urges and desires of the man and woman.

Give heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. My soul be for theirs that are submissive to the bishop, to the presbyters, and to the deacons, and may my portion be along with them in God!

Again, the authority of the bishop is reaffirmed. Obedience is due to him and the other ministers.

Please Him under whom you fight, and from whom you receive your wages. Let none of you be found a deserter. Let your baptism endure as your arms; your faith as your helmet; your love as your spear; your patience as a complete panoply. Let your works be the charge assigned to you, that you may receive a worthy recompense.

The unmistakable war-like imagery presents Christian life as a struggle for salvation. God is compared to an employer and commander of soldiers. Notice that salvation is not guaranteed. The promise and grace of baptism may not endure, for one may desert God after one has joined his legion and thus lose salvation. We are assigned by God to do certain good works. Our salvation depends on obedience to these assignments; our recompense in heaven depends on how well we carry them out.

Seeing that the Church which is at Antioch in Syria is, as report has informed me, at peace, through your prayers, I also am the more encouraged, resting without anxiety in God, if indeed by means of suffering I may attain to God, so that, through your prayers, I may be found a disciple [of Christ]. It is fitting, O Polycarp, most blessed in God, to assemble a very solemn council, and to elect one whom you greatly love, and know to be a man of activity, who may be designated the messenger of God; and to bestow on him this honour that he may go into Syria, and glorify your ever active love to the praise of Christ.

There is only one Church; it just happens to be at many places physically on the earth.

Notice that Ignatius does not presume to be saved and that he sees the prayers of others as playing a role in his salvation.

Bishops have the authority to convene local councils for various purposes.

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