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The Apostolic Fathers - Testimony

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  September 11, 2002

As stated before, Bishop Spong is the scholar who specifically address the issue of external testimony and the Apostolic Fathers.  In his books, he has gone on record affirming Polycarp was a "literalist", and in his reply to my specific questions implied that he viewed Ignatius in this way as well.

Marcus Borg has also taken a position on this issue in a private email exchange with me.  His view is that the Apostolic Fathers were "natural literalists" and thus believed in the factuality of the gospel claims, but he makes the claim that it didn't matter to them nearly as much as the spiritual truths found therein.  They were not "concerned" to defend the literal understanding. 

Did it Matter?

How can we tell from the writings of these three whether the "true" deity, "factual" resurrection, and "happenedness" of the gospel accounts mattered to them?  First, since the volume of correspondence we're considering is so small, simply the inclusion of statements which indicate that they believe these things in this way would indicate that it's important enough to mention!  But beyond this, I would suggest these rules of thumb. 

It matters to them if:

  1. They explain it
  2. They support a contention by appealing to it as evidence
  3. They argue for it
  4. They directly entreat the reader to believe it
  5. Their point depends on it for its force

As pointed out in the earlier section, if anybody was in a position to know the meaning of the New Testament writers and the way the New Testament was understood by its first hearers, these men would.  Let us look at their statements and see where they fall. 

Clement's Testimony

Remember that we have only one letter from Clement, and he is not primarily concerned to address the issue which concerns us. However, his views on the nature of the resurrection and deity of Jesus are fairly clear.


First, Clement gives several analogies which he uses to explain what he means by Jesus' resurrection, and the resurrection of Jesus' followers. In each example, something dies and is itself transformed, becoming something else. There is no notion of resurrection as merely the soul's journey into heaven, as is portrayed by Spong, for instance. Notice in this quote that out of the seed that dies, fruit comes.

"... there shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead. . .

Let us behold the fruits [of the earth], how the sowing of rain takes place. The sower goes forth, and casts it into the ground; and the seed being thus scattered, though dry and naked when it fell upon the earth, is gradually dissolved. Then out of its dissolution the might power of the providence of the Lord raises it up again, and from one seed many arise and bring forth fruit." (xxiv)

In case this is not enough proof, Clement clearly states the resurrection of the body. There can be no doubt that he means "resurrection" in the terms of Historic Christianity, not as advanced by the Metaphorical Gospel theory.

"Do we then deem it any great and wonderful thing for the Maker of all things to raise up again those that have piously served Him . . . Job says, "Thou shalt raise up this flesh of mine, which has suffered all these things." (xxvi)

"... and I will remember a propitious day, and will raise you up out of your graves." (l)


Regarding the deity of Jesus, Clement uses "the Lord" interchangeably when referring to God and Jesus; sometimes it's even difficult to know which he's talking about. Clement indeed shows a "high" Christology. Jesus is the Son of God, greater than the angels:

"This is the way, beloved, in which we find our Saviour, even Jesus Christ, the High Priest ... By Him the Lord has willed that we should taste of immortal knowledge, 'who being the brightness of His majesty, is by so much greater than the angels, as He hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. . . But concerning His Son, the Lord spoke thus: 'Thou are my Son, today have I begotten Thee.  Ask of Me, and I will give Thee the heathen for Thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for Thy possession.' And again He saith to Him, 'Sit Thou at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies They footstool.' " (xxxvi)

But this could be interpreted metaphorically, could it not? While Clement is not concerned with presenting the true deity of Jesus, he does, almost accidentally, give us two hints. First, he talks about Jesus coming in lowliness rather than in pride (as if he could have arrived on the planet in an exalted state, had he so chosen).

"Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sceptre of the majesty of God, did not come in the pomp of pride or arrogance, although He might have done so but in a lowly condition, as the Holy Spirit had declared regarding Him." (xvi)

He also mentions that Jesus was descended from Abraham according to the flesh, which implies that he is descended from someone else according to the spirit. (We see the explicit inference in his contemporary, Ignatius).

"From him also [was descended] our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh." (xxvi)

What is the point of saying "according to the flesh" if Clement is simply saying that Jesus was descended from Abraham?

Naive Literalist

Marcus Borg makes the distinction between a naive literalist and a post-critical literalist.  The naive literalist is one who simply takes things at face value and believes that the events in the Old and New Testaments happened as described.  It appears that Clement was, himself, a naive literalist.  Much of his letters deals with "ancient examples" (1 Clem 5.1):  Abel, Joseph, Moses; also Enoch, Abraham, etc.  He contrasts these with the "noble examples furnished in our own generation":  Peter and Paul.  The contrast is not between legendary stories and real people, but between "ancient" examples and contemporary ones. 


One of the contentions of the MG Theory is that gospel writers took Old Testament prophecies (among other O.T. themes) and wrote stories that had Jesus appear to fulfill them.  A person who understood this would not fruitfully point to fulfilled prophecy to prove his point.  Clement quotes the Old Testament, and explicitly applies this prophecy to Jesus:

"as the Holy Spirit had declared regarding Him. For He says, "Lord, who hath believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?  We have declared [our message] in His presence: He is, as it were, a child, and like a root in thirsty ground; He has no form nor glory, yea, we saw Him, and He had no form nor comeliness; but His form was without eminence, yea, deficient in comparison with the [ordinary] form of men.  He is a man exposed to stripes and suffering, anti acquainted with the endurance of grief: for His countenance was turned away; He was despised, and not esteemed.  He bears our iniquities, and is in sorrow for our sakes; yet we supposed that [on His own account] He was exposed to labour, and stripes, and affliction.  But He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities.  The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we were healed . . ."  etc. 

Ye see, beloved, what is the example which has been given us; for if the Lord thus humbled Himself, what shall we do who have through Him come under the yoke of His grace?  (1 Clem 16)

Does it Matter to Clement?

1.  Clement argues for the resurrection of our bodies, as opposed to being too difficult for God to do "Do we then deem it any great and wonderful thing for the Maker of all things to raise up again those that have piously served Him ..."  And goes to the trouble to link our resurrection with Jesus' as the first-fruits.

2.  Clement argues for the elevation of Jesus above the angels, and appeals to this in urging humility. 

3.  Clement appeals to the historical events in Jesus' life regarding his suffering as supplying an example (a real, not hypothetical or imaginary or legendary example) for us to follow.

4.  Clement appeals to prophecy.  Along with the actual events of Jesus' life, the point's force depends at least in part on the contention that this was really predicted of old.

The answer is:  certainly, Yes.

Polycarp's Testimony

As with Clement, it is difficult to build a complete view from Polycarp's short letter to the church in Philippi. However, Polycarp does teach that the resurrection of believers will be like the one of Jesus, and that Jesus is the Son of God, the ruler over heaven and earth, the judge of all.

Deity of Jesus

Regarding the deity of Christ, he says,

"To Him all things in heaven and on earth are subject. Him every spirit serves. He comes as the Judge of the living and the dead. . ."

"Jesus Christ Himself, who is the Son of God, and our everlasting High Priest." (xii)

Yet each of these could be interpreted metaphorically or factually, could they not?  I would only point to the statements by Ignatius to Polycarp as evidence that the factual deity was their common assumption.

Resurrection of Jesus

Polycarp connects Jesus' resurrection with that of believers, and his description of resurrection certainly leans towards a bodily one rather than a spiritual ascension into heaven.

".. our Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sins suffered even unto death, [but] whom God raised from the dead, having loosed the bands of the grave." (i)

"But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will" (ii)

Much later, in the account of his martyrdom (c 156 AD, written by his friends), however, Polycarp almost inadvertently promotes the bodily resurrection. They quote him as saying,

". . . that I should have a part in the number of Thy martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost." (Martyrdom of Polycarp, xiv)

Jesus and The Christ

The strongest, and most interesting, statement in this short letter is a clear denunciation of the idea that "the Christ" is not the earthly, fleshly Jesus, and that instead of making up their own gospel, people should simply believe the gospel preached by the apostles.

"For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist . . . 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" (vii)

Polycarp explicitly disagrees with the Metaphorical Gospel theory in this regard.

Does it Matter to Polycarp?

His comments are so brief that it's difficult to pinpoint anything conclusive about the deity, resurrection, and stories.  However, there's no indication - in any way - that it doesn't matter.  I'll point to three pieces of evidence that it does, which I think are compelling.

1.  He argues for the fact of Jesus Christ coming in the flesh.  If he held the MG theory, the earthly facts of Jesus' life, perhaps even the question whether he was a fleshly being, wouldn't much matter.  Opposing views certainly wouldn't have been condemned as being of the "antichrist."  And he emphasizes the "word" handed down from the beginning - an anchor of truth which is contrasted with the newly-invented metaphors of his opponents.

2.  If the account of his martyrdom is to be believed, he quite definitely holds the hope for the resurrection of the body, and he makes this statement at the moment of his impending execution!  I'd say that this would count as supreme evidence that it mattered to him.  He argues for it with his life.

3.  It is generally agreed that Irenaeus was the pupil of Polycarp.  It is clear that Irenaeus consciously opposed gnostic views consistent with the MG theory, and that these things mattered enormously to him.  It is hard to find reasons why Irenaeus could be so adamant about this point, while it mattered not to Polycarp.

All the evidence points to the affirmative on this.

Ignatius' Testimony

While Clement deals with other issues, and Polycarp's letter is frustratingly short, Ignatius writes seven letters, many of which address the very issue we are considering. In addition, as I have already pointed out, since Ignatius and Polycarp were friends (Polycarp was a sort of "junior partner"), it is reasonable to assume that they were in agreement on basic issues. The burden of proof is on those who would say otherwise.

Deity of Jesus

Ignatius expresses a very factual view of the deity of Jesus. Remember that we said a person who affirms the factually of Jesus' deity would stress his pre-existence and the notion of a true incarnation (rather than picturing Jesus as a mortal man who was in some sense God's representative).

"There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassible -- even Jesus Christ our Lord." (Ephesians vii)

"For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost. . . God Himself being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life." (Ephesians xviii, xix)

"Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David according to the flesh, being both the Son of man and the Son of God . . . " (Ephesians xx)

"Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed" (Magnesians vi)

He even declares the true deity of Christ to the Roman church, where Clement had been bishop (and was still bishop?), and to Polycarp himself:

"Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God." (Romans vi)

"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." (to Polycarp iii)

Resurrection of Jesus

There can be no doubt that Ignatius taught the true, real, bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the similar future resurrection of believers,

"And He suffered truly, even as also He truly raised up Himself, not, as certain unbelievers maintain, that He only seemed to suffer, as they themselves on seem to be [Christians]. And as they believe, so shall it happen unto them, when they shall be divested of their bodies, and be mere evil spirits." (Smyrneans ii)

"For I know that after His resurrection also He was still possessed of flesh, and I believe that He is so now. When, for instance, He came to those who were with Peter, He said to them, "Lay hold, handle Me, and see that I am not an incorporeal spirit.' And immediately they touched Him, and believed, being convinced both by His flesh and spirit. For this cause also they despised death, and were found its conquerors. And after his resurrection He did eat and drink with them, as being possessed of flesh, although spiritually He was united to the Father." (Smyrneans iii)

". . . in the name of Jesus Christ, and in His flesh and blood, in His passion and resurrection, both corporeal and spiritual, in union with God and you." (Smyrneans xi)

Factuality of the Gospel

Ignatius contrasts the true gospel with "strange doctrines", "old fables", "vain doctrine" which deny the factuality of Jesus' birth, suffering, and resurrection. Those who deny the faith do so by trying to mix Jesus Christ with their own ideas, trying to alter the gospel.

"I . . . entreat you that ye use Christian nourishment only, and abstain from herbage of a different kind; I mean heresy. For those [that are given to this] mix up Jesus Christ with their own poison, speaking things which are unworthy of credit, like those who administer a deadly drug in sweet wine . ." (Trallians vi)

"Be not deceived with strange doctrines, nor with old fables, which are unprofitable. ... there is one God, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son, who is His eternal Word, not proceeding forth from silence, and who in all things pleased Him that sent Him." (Magnesians vii)

"I desire to guard you beforehand, that you fall not upon the hooks of vain doctrine, but that ye attain to full assurance in regard to the birth, and passion, and resurrection which took place in the time of the government of Pontius Pilate, being truly and certainly accomplished by Jesus Christ." (Magnesians xi)

"Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary, who was truly born, and did eat and drink. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified and [truly] died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the death. He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not possess the true life." (Trallians ix)

"... that He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin . . was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. . . through His resurrection" (Smyrneans i)

And, finally, Ignatius points to the fact that he is laying his life on the line for the factual gospel. In one of the most powerful claims made by early Christians leaders, Ignatius says,

"But if, as some that are without God, that is, the unbelieving, say, that He only seemed to suffer (they themselves only seeming to exist), then why am I in bonds? Why do I long to be exposed to the wild beasts? Do I therefore die in vain? Am I not then guilty of falsehood against [the cross of] the Lord?" (Trallians x)

"But if these things were done by our Lord only in appearance, then am I also only in appearance bound." (Smyrneans iv)

Does it Matter to Ignatius?

His letters are so short that it's amazing how much of the material is devoted to a denial of the key components of the MG theory!  And these letters are not just ordinary treatises about "the faith" - they were written on the road to Rome, facing certain execution.  They are often considered to be something akin to his last Will and Testament.  He surely means business here.

1.  He explains the deity of Christ - in several places - in no uncertain terms.  Why would he make all these distinctions if it didn't matter to him?  

2.  He argues for the "true" bodily suffering and resurrection of Jesus, again in multiple passages.  He uses them as an example.

3.  He entreats his readers to guard the historicity and factuality of these things, and opposes this to "vain doctrine."  They should "stop your ears" if they hear anything "at variance with Jesus Christ" as Igantius sets him forth.

4.  He puts his life on the line for it.  He specifically argues for the "real" gospel, as opposed to "appearance" with his own situation.  (The "appearance" view, while not exactly the MG theory, is one which denies many of the things denied by the MG theory.)  At least regarding the real factuality of Jesus' suffering, he says, "But if these things were done by our Lord only in appearance, then am I also only in appearance bound."  Combined with the other arguments, this is powerful indeed.

Yes, it mattered dearly to him.


I directly asked Dr. Charles Hill whether the Apostolic Fathers do indeed hold to a "factual" gospel and explicitly deny important features of the Metaphorical Gospel Theory (the metaphorical deity and resurrection of Jesus).  He replied:

"I absolutely agree with you and think you are on ground which will hold up even under critical hammering when you say that in these writers in particular "we find a 'non-metaphorical' portrayal of the deity and resurrection of Jesus".   (Charles Hill, Critique MG4)

At this point, I believe the burden of proof is on those who wish to dispute this.