Paul Tillich, A History Of Christian Thought


Apostolic Fathers: Clement. Ignatius.

We come now to the so-called Apostolic Fathers, the earliest post-biblical writers, partly earlier than some of the later books of the New Testament. These so-called Apostolic Fathers (Ignatius, Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, and others) are more dependent on a Christian conformism which slowly had developed, than on the outspoken position of Paul in his Letters. Insofar as Paul still was effective in this period, it was mostly not directly but more through John and Ignatius. The reason for this was, partly at least, that the fight with the Jews was a matter of the past, that the conf lict with the Jewish Christians did not have to be continued and repeated.

Instead of that, the positive elements became important which gave an understandable content for the pagans. One can say that in the generation of the Apostolic Fathers, the great visions of the first ecstatic breakthrough had disappeared, and that instead of that, a given set of ideas was left, a set of ideas which produced a kind of ecclesiastical conformity and made the missionary work possible. Some people have complained about this development, complained that so early after the second generation the power of the Spirit was on the wane. But this is an unavoidable thing in all creative periods. After the breakthrough – one only needs to think of the Reformation – and after the first generation which received the breakthrough (i. e., the second generation), a fixation or concentration on some special points begins; the need to preserve what was given, the educational needs – all this working together to a Christianity which, compared with the Christianity of the Apostolic age, had considerably lost its Spiritual power.

Nevertheless, this period is extremely important since it was what was preserved and what was needed for the life of the early congregations. The first question to be asked was: Where could one find the expression of the common spirit of the congregation? Originally the real mediators of the message were those who were the bearers of the Spirit, the “pneumatics” who had the pneuma (the spirit). But, as you know from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, especially the 12th chapter, he already had difficulties with the bearers of the Spirit because they produced disorder. Therefore he already emphasizes the order besides the Spirit. In the supposedly Pauline letters of the New Testament, this emphasis on ecclesiastical order becomes increasingly important. In the generation of the Apostolic Fathers, the ecstatic Spirit almost had disappeared. It was considered to be dangerous, and why, one asked, do we need it?: everything the Spirit has to say has already been classically expressed in Bible and tradition; therefore, instead of the prophets, who travelled from place to place, following the Apostles we now have definite norms and authorities in the early Christian congregations, and the first thing we must do is to find out about these norms and authorities.

The first and basic authority is the Old Testament, and the older parts of the New Testament, as they already had appeared and were collected. But the New Testament at that time had a very vague edge: there were many books which were not yet decisively received into the canon of the Bible. It took more than 200 more years before the Church finally decided about all those books which we now consider as the New Testament. But in any case, the Church possessed the whole Old Testament and a central basic amount of New Testament books.

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