"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

St. Polycarp on the Church


The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp
From the Church of St. Polycarp, in Smyrna (modern day Izmir, Turkey)

St. Polycarp (c. 69 - c. 155 AD) was the bishop of the church at Smyrna. He was a friend and contemporary of St. Ignatius (c. 30 - c. 107 AD). He was also an auditor (i.e. hearer) of the Apostle John. We have St. Ignatius's letter to St. Polycarp. We also have St. Polycarp's letter to the Philippians, which appears to have been written around 107 AD.

St. Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 200 AD), had been a disciple of St. Polycarp in Smyrna. In his letter to Florinus (who had fallen into heresy), St. Irenaeus writes the following:
 

For I distinctly remember the incidents of that time better than events of recent occurrence ... I can describe the very place in which the Blessed Polycarp used to sit when he discoursed ... his personal appearance ... and how he would describe his intercourse with John and with the rest who had seen the Lord, and how he would relate their words ... I can testify in the sight of God, that if the blessed and apostolic elder had heard anything of this kind, he would have cried out, and stopped his ears, and said after his wont, 'O good God, for what times hast thou kept me that I should endure such things?' ... This can be shown from the letters which he wrote to the neighbouring Churches for their confirmation...

We also have a letter from St. Irenaeus to St. Victor, who was the bishop of the Church at Rome from 189 - 199 AD. In this letter St. Irenaeus describes the visit that St. Polycarp made to Rome at the very end of his life (probably in the summer of 154 AD) to talk with St. Anicetus, bishop of Rome, regarding the differences between the Asiatics and the Romans in their determination of the date for the celebration of Easter.

St. Irenaeus also refers to St. Polycarp in Ad haer 3.3.4, where he writes:


But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,— a man who was of much greater weight, and a more steadfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles — that, namely, which is handed down by the Church. There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within. And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, Do you know me? I do know you, the first-born of Satan. Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth; as Paul also says, A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sins, being condemned of himself. (Titus 3:10) There is also a very powerful Epistle of Polycarp written to the Philippians, from which those who choose to do so, and are anxious about their salvation, can learn the character of his faith, and the preaching of the truth. Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles.

The most glorious and inspiring part of the tradition that we have regarding St. Polycarp is the account of his martyrdom, which took place in 155 or 156 AD, when he was 86 years old. On trial before the proconsul, St. Polycarp says, "Eighty-six years have I served Him and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King Who has saved me?" The account of his martyrdom was written by Smyrnaean Christians who were eyewitnesses of the event.

What does St. Polycarp tell us about the Church? His very life tells us first that a faithful disciple of the Apostle John was active in the Church until the year 155 AD. If St. Polycarp reacted so strongly to the heresy of Florinus, saying that if the Apostle John had heard what Florinus was saying, he [John] would have cried out and stopped his ears, then St. Polycarp would likewise have refused to be the bishop of Smyrna, if that is not what the Apostles had ordered and prescribed. And yet we know that he was the bishop of Smyrna, appointed to that office by the Apostle John, according to St. Irenaeus. Those who claim that the Church was corrupted in doctrine and ecclesiology by the early second century have some responsibility to explain why persons of the character and virtue of the likes of St. Polycarp would raise no protest to these alleged corruptions.

St. Polycarp opens his letter to the Philippians with the following line: "Polycarp, and the presbyters with him, to the Church of God sojourning at Philippi ...". He writes as a bishop in union with his presbyters. In chapter five of his letter he speaks of the duties of deacons. Then he writes to the laity, "Wherefore, it is needful to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and deacons, as unto God and Christ." In chapter six he describes the way presbyters should behave:
 

And let the presbyters be compassionate and merciful to all, bringing back those that wander, visiting all the sick, and not neglecting the widow, the orphan, or the poor, but always providing for that which is becoming in the sight of God and man; (Romans 12:17; 2 Corinthians 8:31) abstaining from all wrath, respect of persons, and unjust judgment; keeping far off from all covetousness, not quickly crediting [an evil report] against any one, not severe in judgment, as knowing that we are all under a debt of sin.

St. Polycarp then speaks in chapter eleven about a man named Valens who was once a presbyter in the church at Philippi, but who has in some sense fallen, apparently because of sin. He writes:


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]. I exhort you, therefore, that you abstain from covetousness, and that you be chaste and truthful.... I am deeply grieved, therefore, brethren, for him (Valens) and his wife; 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.

We see here that this presbyter was married, and also that through his sin he had in some sense been removed from his office.

The account of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, written by eyewitnesses of this event, opens with an explicit reference to the "Catholic Church":


The Church of God which sojourns at Smyrna, to the Church of God sojourning in Philomelium, and to all the congregations of the Holy and Catholic Church in every place: Mercy, peace, and love from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, be multiplied.

Each particular Church is conceived as part of the "Holy and Catholic Church". The Holy and Catholic Church is made up of congregations in all the various cities. This of course would not include the 'congregations' of the heretics (e.g. Marcionites, gnostics, Valentinians, etc.) This conception of the Catholic Church can be seen again in chapter eight of the account of St. Polycarp's martyrdom:


Now, as soon as he had ceased praying, having made mention of all that had at any time come in contact with him, both small and great, illustrious and obscure, as well as the whole Catholic Church throughout the world ....

And again in chapter sixteen:


And on his doing this, there came forth a dove, and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished; and all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna.

In chapter nineteen, Jesus Christ is described as the Shepherd of the Catholic Church:


For, having through patience overcome the unjust governor, and thus acquired the crown of immortality, he now, with the apostles and all the righteous [in heaven], rejoicingly glorifies God, even the Father, and blesses our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls, the Governor of our bodies, and the Shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the world.

Here we see the conception that the Catholic Church throughout the world needs and has a Shepherd, in Jesus Christ. This Catholic Church is not provincial; it is the one Church that Christ founded, and which extends to the ends of the world. It is this one Church to which all followers of Christ (as His sheep) should seek to be joined.

3 comments:

CD-Host said...

[BOQ] The Church of God which sojourns at Smyrna, to the Church of God sojourning in Philomelium, and to all the congregations of the Holy and Catholic Church in every place: Mercy, peace, and love from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, be multiplied.[EOQ]

Each particular Church is conceived as part of the "Holy and Catholic Church". The Holy and Catholic Church is made up of congregations in all the various cities. This of course would not include the 'congregations' of the heretics (e.g. Marcionites, gnostics, Valentinians, etc.) This conception of the Catholic Church can be seen again in chapter eight of the account of St. Polycarp's martyrdom:


I think you are wrong here regarding status of the institutional church. In 150 Valentinus is a highly respected Catholic leader who had come in second for Bishop of Rome. His followers are active members of the institutional church, in every sense. Similarly for the Sethian, their churches are part of that global fraternity of churches you are speaking about.

This is a generation before Irenaeus starts the internal battles that lead to the splits.

In fact the Gnostics are at this point also claiming an apostolic succession. And now, do not let this trouble you for the present in your desire to learn how from one first principle of all, simple, and acknowledgedby us and believed by us, ungenerated and incorruptible and good, were constituted these natures of corruption and the Middle, which are different substances, although it is characteristic of the good to generate and produce things which are like itself and have the same substance.

For, if God permit, you will later learn about their origin and generation, when you are judged worthy of the apostolic tradition which we too have received by succession. We too are able to prove all our points by the teaching of the Savior.
(letter to Flora)

Principium unitatis said...

Collin,

Valentinus came from Egypt to visit the church of Rome while St. Hyginus was bishop (138-142 AD). Marcion was excommunicated from the church in Rome in 144 (if I remember correctly), and Valentinus was excommunicated from the church in Rome, apparently at some point between 153 and 157 AD, and then spent his remaining years in Cyprus, where he died around 160-161 AD. If the account of St. Polycarp's martyrdom was written in 155, and Valentinus was not excommunicated until 157, then you would be right, that Valentinus was still part of the church at Rome when the account of St. Polycarp's martyrdom was written. But, it is also quite possible that Valentinus had already been excommunicated before St. Polycarp was martyred, and thus before the account of his martyrdom had been written.

I don't wish to quibble about whether Valentinus was excommunicated before or after St. Polycarp's martyrdom. Certainly as soon as Valentinus had been excommunicated from the church at Rome, then what I said about his sect not being included (in the minds of the Smyrnaeans writing the account of St. Polycarp's martyrdom) in the "Holy Catholic Church" would be true, especially given St. Polycarp's explicit disdain for Marcion's heresy, which was also gnostic and (in that respect) like that of Valentinus.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

CD-Host said...

Certainly as soon as Valentinus had been excommunicated from the church at Rome, then what I said about his sect not being included (in the minds of the Smyrnaeans writing the account of St. Polycarp's martyrdom) in the "Holy Catholic Church" would be true, especially given St. Polycarp's explicit disdain for Marcion's heresy, which was also gnostic and (in that respect) like that of Valentinus.

The tie between Marcion and Valentinus you are making wouldn't have been accepted in the ancient world, nor for most moderns. They are very much unlike one another. Valentinus was always seen as on the border of acceptable Christian thought. Many of the Alexandrian commentaries which continued to circulate for a century after his death are essentially indistinguishable. His ideas on Matthew and John were quoted with respect. I think the biography you quoted is later propaganda but even if true his movement most certainly is within the church.

So now that you have made your position, explicit. I'd absolutely reject the idea that these people were seen as outside the tradition. For the Sethians it is even worse. Their churches in 150 are member churches. What you are doing is reading the 3rd century rigid division back into the 2nd century.

Marcion breaks off to form his own church and so he is part of the wider Christian community but not part of the Catholic community.

So yes you have a Catholic community with soft boundaries based on allegiance. Which is going to go through purges over the next 100 years. You have a wider Christian community which includes the groups that are non Catholics and then religious communities which are non Christian but interacting. All 3 have gnostics within them.

You can define the catholic church of 150 by doctrine by institution but not by both and include the same groups. You get very different membership.