Theology & Spirituality

Reflections on the Church Fathers: Polycarp

Perhaps the most important reason for reading dusty old books is the opportunity to enter into a world that is not your own. I have no clue what it means to live in second century Asia Minor (now Turkey), without technology or affluence or cars or literacy, with entirely different expectations of what it means to live a good life. Also, what is the weather like? Who are the political leaders? How do families and communities live together?

I know that the old world I encounter in old books is utterly foreign.1 And yet, I often feel completely at home while reading the Church Fathers. Their concerns are my concerns, their Christ is my Christ, and their joy is my joy. Faith, Hope, and Love, the same for all Christians everywhere. Even the language, though in translation from a language I could not decipher, is often just a beautiful retelling of the story of the scriptures, the same exhortations from Paul and John and Peter to the Church.

And perhaps as a Protestant, I continually wonder (thanks to this wretched website); am I disconnected from their apostolic succession or their “one” church or their sacraments? After all, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sermon that quotes from a Father or a Protestant friend tell me it is important to understand the writings of the early tradition. But, at the very least, I know that the content and lived experience of the Fathers’ faith is my own. Polycarp’s call for repentance, “patient endurance,” and “righteousness,” are the same in the scriptures and in the lives of Christians everywhere. The same Christ is worshiped and loved: the “one who died on our behalf and was raised by God for our sakes.”2

Of course, reading dusty old books by Christians can both confirm our current faith and shatter our modern shibboleths. Take one example, the good news of Jesus Christ is rarely presented as offensively as Polycarp proclaims in Chapter 7 of his letter to the Philippian church. He writes without nuance toward the church,

For everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is antichrist; and whoever does not acknowledge the testimony of the cross is of the devil; and whoever twists the sayings of the Lord to suit his own sinful desires and claims that there is neither resurrection nor judgment—well, that person is the firstborn of Satan.3

In our world’s imagination, only the whacked-out street preacher without any love for his neighbor would be shouting such things. Certainly not a pastor or priest with love for his community would say such things! And yet, Polycarp precedes this statement with an admonition to presbyters to “be compassionate, merciful to all, turning back those who have gone astray, visiting all the sick, not neglecting a widow, orphan, or poor person.”4 Those who have the utmost concern for the beliefs of a person ought to have the same interest in that person’s material well-being. Michael W. Holmes writes in his introduction to the letter, “For [Polycarp], orthopraxy is the other side of the coin of orthodoxy; if the community is behaving properly, it is also likely believing properly.”5

Polycarp also challenges our modern moral sensibilities in stark statements against materialism, writing, “But the love of money is the beginning of all troubles….We brought nothing into the world and cannot take anything out.”6 Apparently, Polycarp knew of a presbyter who left his church because of his love for money.7 The power of money is certainly no different in today’s society, perhaps it has an even stronger hold on us than in Polycarp’s day (see a previous series of mine on consumerism).

A final challenge from Polycarp is his willingness to die, whenever and wherever, because of his hope in Christ. In The Martyrdom of Polycarp, various eyewitnesses8 report that Polycarp, despite ongoing torture, did not renounce Christ. When the Romans placed him in a carriage to take him to the arena, the police tried to change his mind,

They tried to persuade him, saying, “Why, what harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and offering incense” (and other words to this effect) “and thereby saving yourself?” Now at first he gave them no answer. But when they persisted, he said: “I am not about to do what you are suggesting to me.”9

Upon entering the arena, a brilliant exchange takes place between Polycarp and the proconsul. I quote it at length,

The proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying, “Have respect for your age,” and other such things as they are accustomed to say: “Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent; say, ‘Away with the atheists!'” So Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, “Away with the atheists!” But when the magistrate persisted and said, “Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,” Polycarp replied, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” But as he continued to insist, saying, “Swear by the genius of Caesar,” he answered: “If you vainly suppose that I will swear by the genius of Caesar, as you request, and pretend not to know who I am, listen carefully: I am a Christian. Now if you want to learn the doctrine of Christianity, name a day and give me a hearing.”10

Perhaps in our day and age, though most of us will not face a threat of martyrdom in our lifetime, there are more gods that claim our allegiance than meet the eye. Perhaps, though America does not have a political leader calling for his own worship, there are more jealous gods in our secular age. Polycarp’s love for the poor, sick, and sojourner, and his condemnation of the love of money challenge the modern gods of comfort and prosperity, calling us into a union with Christ that unites both orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

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George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

Raised in North Carolina, George works as an accountant and lives in New York with his wife and son. His writing is animated by Abraham Kuyper’s exclamation, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

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