The Church Fathers provide a vital link from the time of Jesus and the apostles to future generations. Who were they? What did they care about? And what can we learn for today? Sean and Scott interview Talbot professor Ken Berding with these questions and more.

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Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and professor of Christian Ethics here at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Sean McDowell: And I'm your cohost Sean McDowell, professor of Apologetics at Talbot School Theology, Biola University.

Scott Rae: We're here today with Dr. Ken Berding, who's a professor of New Testament in the undergraduate Bible and Theology program here at Biola University. Who spends his life investing the Bible and theology into the lives of hundreds of undergrad students every year. Ken also has a specialty that you might not be aware of in a book that's come out just recently on the Apostolic Fathers. so in case you're wondering who are those guys? Ken, tell us a little bit, who are the Apostolic Fathers and why are they so interesting to you?

Ken Berding: Oh, thanks for having me today. Really glad to be with you. So the Apostolic Fathers are the writings that come right after the period of the apostles. It's a collection of writings, actually a modern collection of writings, but somewhat similar to the collection of the New Testament, including letters that are of letters of Ignatius, a letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, a letter from the church in Rome, First Clement to the church in Corinth.

There was a martyrdom in there, a martyrdom of Polycarp. There's a sermon, second Clement, there's a polemical essay in the form of a letter, which is Epistle of Barnabas and there was a group of visions or like an apocalypse, the shepherd of Hermas. There's also an apology too, so an apologetic work to Diognetus. So these are just a number of different writings, kind of disparate writings that represent a lot of what is being taking place in the early second century.

Scott Rae: And these are all historical figures-

Ken Berding: Yes.

Scott Rae: ... who were leaders in the church at the time?

Ken Berding: Some of them are leaders in the church. A couple of them we don't know really who they are. So like Epistle of Barnabas often called pseudo Barnabas. We don't really know who that was. Maybe there was a person named Barnabas down in Alexandria. We don't know for sure there.

Who wrote the Didache? We don't know who that is. I didn't mention that document. And you know, who wrote to Diognetus? We have no idea who that is. We just knew who the recipient of that is. But some of the others were leaders. Polycarp was a super important leader. Polycarp's really important in my life. I actually lived in his city for two and a half years and wrote my doctoral dissertation work on Polycarp and that's how I got into this whole thing.

Clement, he was a church leader in Rome, but he writes together with the elders there and Ignatius was a church leader in Antioch on his way to be martyred in Rome.

Scott Rae: Right. Other than doing, when you were doing your dissertation on Polycarp, what makes these characters so interesting to you?

Ken Berding: Yeah. Well, part of it is that I lived in the area of the world where the center of that was taking place. Like Asia minor is where the most important discussions in the Apostolic Fathers were taking place. Though there is a bit down in Egypt, a little bit in Syria-

Scott Rae: So Berding you lived in Turkey for-

Ken Berding: ... something in Rome as well.

Scott Rae: ... for many years.

Ken Berding: I did. I lived there for seven years and one of the ... maybe the epicenter might be Smyrna, which is where Polycarp lived. And I lived in his exact city and my oldest daughter was actually born there. So I have this real close psychological connection to Turkey and that city in particular.

But I also love these writers because I'm really into the New Testament. So I mean, my normal day job is that as a New Testament teacher, I hang out with the apostle Paul a lot, but there's a lot you can learn about the New Testament from studying the earliest writings that come right after the period of the apostles.

Scott Rae: Okay, let's go a little farther on that. The Fathers you're talking about, they were not the disciples?

Ken Berding: That's right.

Scott Rae: They're not a contemporaries?

Ken Berding: Right.

Scott Rae: You know, so they're not the ones who were closest to Jesus. They're not the ones who are closest to us chronologically. So what makes them so important?

Ken Berding: Well, the thing that makes them so important is that they show you what has happened in the development of church history right after the Apostolic period. And in fact, some of them probably pushed slightly into that. Didache, maybe it was him that written in the first century, possibly before the book of Revelation. First Clement was probably written right around the same time as Revelation. It wouldn't surprise me at all. So the thing that gets me really excited, is I'm trying to answer any question that I possibly can about the Apostolic age, the writings of the New Testament, like getting just a little bit of help looking at what they wrote in the second century.

Actually, you could actually look at the Apostolic Fathers in kind of two directions. You could say, "Oh, they're way more important than any other later writings just because of their proximity." You know, because they're written in the same sort of Greek. They share the same presuppositional pool as the New Testament authors. And there's even some oral traditions still floating around at that time. We know that from [inaudible 00:05:31] during the early parts of the second century. So that's one way you could view it.

Another way you could view all the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, is that they should be more ignored and that may sound kind of funny, but they weren't used a lot in the big doctrinal disputes of the fourth and the fifth centuries and they were pretty much lost to the church from the sixth century up until maybe the 17th century when a small collection of these writings were found and published then. Didache wasn't published till 1870. So it's interesting.

They also don't have the same sort of theological depths as you would get from say, [Tertullian 00:06:15] or [inaudible 00:06:15], just after that period of [inaudible 00:06:18] when you get out to [inaudible 00:06:18], Augustine, people like that. So I really think that the way to approach the Apostolic Fathers is like a critical appreciation. So there's some good things in them, but you know, you also need to think carefully about what you're reading because not all of it is useful.

Sean McDowell: That's a great way to look at it, that there's a difference between these writers, many of whom knew the apostles and write the reflections, but they're not writing scripture as we seek in the Bible-

Ken Berding: That's for sure.

Sean McDowell: ... so we need to be appreciative but critical. Now, when I talk to my students, these are my high school students, when we'll talk about church history, I mention the Apostolic Fathers, and it's like, I see their eyes glaze over-

Ken Berding: That's right.

Sean McDowell: ... but I paused and I go, "Let me tell you about this guy Polycarp. In his eighties, he's burned at the stake, refuses to recant his faith. Let me tell about this Bishop Ignatius and how he described that, when he was being martyred, if somebody said, if he cries out and says, "No save?" he goes, "No, I want to die like Jesus." Then they just come alive. So just tell us a little bit of the story of who was Polycarp? How did he die? Who is Ignatius and why are these letters a reflection of who they were as people?

Ken Berding: Great. Well, let me back up and start with Ignatius since he's kind of earlier, maybe a little older than Polycarp. Ignatius I mean, just meet him as he starts writing letters as he's on his way to Rome to be martyred. He's being accompanied by 10 what he calls not so fondly, leopards which are Roman soldiers, who were making him take a forced march all the way across what is modern day Turkey up through Greece and then over to Rome.

So he's on his way there and he starts writing letters and this guy is super fiery. Just the way you described him here. He has all these word pictures. He keeps throwing off these one-liners. Super interesting as you read. And he's got this passion to make sure that there's no false teaching in the church. He speaks against gnosticism. He speaks against judaizing elements but he's thinks that the bishop is the way to make sure false doctrine doesn't get into the church. He has no idea in his mind that bishops can go off as well. You can just tell he doesn't even think about that, but that's sort of his issue.

So he's on his way to be mortared and along the way he writes one of his letters to Rome and it's just saying, "Please, when I get to Rome, don't try to get me released. Don't use any of your ... " I can only think of the Turkish word torpedo, "your clout, your influence to try to get me off the hook here. I want to be martyred" which is actually one of the problems with Ignatius. He's got this death wish.

Sean McDowell: And you see later, people kind of picking up on that and wanting to be martyred. Right? It becomes a trend.

Ken Berding: That's exactly right. And so he also writes to Polycarp as he's going and he actually sees Polycarp during his travels. And so later on when Polycarp's really old man, there was a guy named [Dramaticus 00:09:23], a young man who was murdered in the city of Smyrna. And right after he's murdered, they start calling out for the blood of Polycarp because he's the main leader of that area. So all the Christians dutifully go over and tell him, "Hey, they're going to come after you." And he's like, "I'm an old man. I could stay around. I can do-"

Sean McDowell: And he's in his eighties, right? At this stage?

Ken Berding: He's at least 86. The first fragments say 104. So somewhere-

Sean McDowell: Oh wow.

Ken Berding: ... between the ages of 86 and 104. And that document right there actually has a discussion built around this issue of not about Ignatius specifically, but saying, "You shouldn't try to offer yourself up for martyrdom."

There was actually a guy in Smyrna named Quintess who did that. And then he saw the wild beasts and he got really afraid and he denied Christ. And so that's actually written about the martyrdom of Polycarp as well.

But anyway, Polycarp, he's the dude. I don't know what else to say. He was so faithful to the Lord in all of this. So, I love Polycarp.

Sean McDowell: Let me ask you this. In these writings that you're describing, these letters and these church manuals, what are the big issues they're addressing at kind of the turn of the first century, early second century. And I mean by that, if you look at the biblical writers, Galatians, and they're talking about, "We are free from the law" or Ephesians is about unity, what are the big issues that the church is wrestling with that they address at this time?

Ken Berding: Yeah, a lot of the issues are the same actually. There's similar issues. First Clement is dealing with unity because there's been a coup in Corinth. So the leaders in Rome, they write this letter to them and saying, "Hey, you still need to submit to the elders who were appointed by the apostles." So unity is a big deal there.

Sometimes they're very specific. Polycarp has to deal with, you know an elder named [Valance 00:11:14] who has gotten into greed, and lost his place of ministry as a result of that. I already mentioned Ignatius. Some of them though, are just really different, like Shepherd of Hermas. These are just a bunch of visions trying to encourage people towards repentance though he's got some weird ideas about it there.

You talked about a church manual? That's Didache and it's just saying, "Here's some practical stuff that you need to know about living out life in the church." Didache is just a short read. You should look it up. The Teaching of the 12 Apostles is what it's sometimes called, but it's really just some wise stuff from the late first century that can help you know how to run a church. So it's a real mix actually.

Some of this ... There are some sermons and some general teaching. There is not a single issue that is driving them. Maybe false teaching might be the biggest one.

Sean McDowell: Are there any Apostolic mothers?

Ken Berding: Oh No, there are no Apostolic mothers. But I mean, when we talk about Apostolic Fathers, we don't mean apostles anyway. We Mean post-Apostolic Fathers. So the earliest writers after the New Testament, but there were people who are important in that period. There is a woman named Thecla for example, and they wrote a story called acts of Paul and Thecla.

It's a little bit of an unusual document as well. It's not part of the Apostolic Fathers. It's right afterwards, but the events in it maybe take place right around the same time.

Scott Rae: No, I'm glad you raised the question because sometimes we assume that in the early centuries of church history it was only the men who were heroic characters of faith. Sounds like we've got lots of stories of heroic women too. These just stood out.

Ken Berding: Absolutely. In fact, one of the famous martyrs, just after this period is a woman named Perpetua and she suffered for Christ.

Sean McDowell: You know, Ken. You had mentioned that the writings of the Apostolic Fathers are not on the same level with the writings of the-

Ken Berding: That's right.

Sean McDowell: ... New Testament and you urge readers of those to be critical or to read them with a critical eye, in a way different than we would read the New Testament. Can you give us some examples of some places where the writings of the Apostolic Fathers don't quite square with what we read in the New Testament?

Ken Berding: Yeah, we've got some of those. You've got, for example, we just mentioned Ignatius, where he's like wanting to be martyred. I don't think we see that in the New Testament. Shepherd of Hermas is this really interesting but very unusual writing where he has a lot of visions and he has this kind of angelic guide who is a shepherd who kind of leads him through these visions and he's really into repentance. So he's thinking about repentance. And the reason is, is because he sinned in his heart when he saw a woman named Rhoda and he didn't know if he could be forgiven for that. So basically he develops this theology that you can be forgiven after your baptism, but only once. So that's what he thinks there.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Ken Berding: Yeah, that's the Shepherd of Hermas. He also, it's interesting, his focus on repentance makes and minimize Christology I think too. So not enough focus on Jesus and a lot more on just sin and repentance and overcoming temptation and stuff like that. So that would be a good example there.

Scott Rae: So more of a works-based spirituality that's you see emerging?

Ken Berding: Yeah. Actually and you do see that in some other things too. Second Clement is a sermon that feels a little bit more in the works-based direction. Some people have tried to argue that the Doctrine of Grace was lost in the second century. I don't think it was last. I think you see it in a number of different places, but there is some minimization of it compared with Paul.

Scott Rae: Are these Fathers somewhat narrative in their writings? Do they give us details about their life and their own spiritual journey?

Ken Berding: No, not mostly we get some narrative ... We get a lot of narrative in the martyrdom of Polycarp. We actually can kind of read between the lines of a narrative and say Ignatius' letters for sure, a little bit in Polycarp's letter and some in First Clement as well. But most of the others not.

Scott Rae: The reason I asked about that is I'm curious to know if there were some of the same character flaws that come out with some of the Fathers as come out with some of the New Testament writers, like Peter seemed to be pretty clear about some of his character flaws. And of course, that's pretty typical for the great heroes of faith of the Old Testament too. Is that also true of the Apostolic Fathers?

Ken Berding: Oh, I'm sure it's true, but we don't see as much of that because we don't have as much narrative literature. We see the story I just told you about Hermas, and in the martyrdom of Polycarp, the story about Quintess who rushed toward martyrdom, but we don't have a lot there.

By the way, just backing up a little bit, you asked about other things that might be different from the New Testament versus the Apostolic Fathers, I think about this Epistle a pistol of pseudo-Barnabas, which is probably the earliest example of allegorical interpretation. So that is a problem actually when you read his writing, he's interpreting things allegorically and you get yourself into trouble very quickly. That's kind of like when you take something and you try to make a meaning in that is not actually there. For example, in Epistle of Barnabas, he talks about how the Old Testament food laws were actually written because they're supposed to teach us about how to stay away from people who act like the animals that are described there. Well, that's not the original purpose of the Old Testament-

Scott Rae: That's a novel interpretation.

Ken Berding: Yeah. That's exactly right. But allegorical interpretation became very popular after this period, especially in the Christian church. So that's something that we need to think more deeply about, especially because recently some people have begun to promote it again.

Sean McDowell: I was forwarded a book by a friend of mine by Craig Carter. It's called Interpreting Scripture With The Great Tradition. And he argues that when you go back to some of the earlier church Fathers, they had very different approaches to understanding scripture like you mentioned, that might trouble us. He said, but they still came up with a Nicene Creed, which is pretty Orthodox by almost any statement. So it makes me wonder. I was studying the apostles, as you know, because we had many conversations about this, the fate of the apostles, in the back of my mind as I was reading Polycarp and Ignatius was, "Do they affirm any of these core theological doctrines that we hold now from scripture?" And I remember noticing things like substitutionary atonement, the Deity of Christ. What are some of the big doctrines we hold that, although they might have a different exegesis, you see them affirming early on within the church?

Ken Berding: Oh yeah. Most of the major doctrines that show up later and you know, these more formal creeds that we have are showing up in these situational letters and documents even of the second century. So the Doctrine of the Trinity shows up a number of points. Doctrine of Salvation by Grace Through Faith, I'm thinking very clearly, the first chapter of Polycarp actually talks about that.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Ken Berding: But I need to put a caveat on this too. If you continue on in the letter, most of it's about ethics, so maybe not emphasized quite as much as you would see in the New Testament. Christology is obviously very important. You see that in Ignatius. Now there's some christological problems occasionally too, like in the Shepherd of Hermas, but see, when you were talking about the Great Tradition, a lot of times when people talk about the Great Tradition, they simply skip over the Apostolic Fathers. So they don't get included in that. They kind of start with The Great Tradition with [Eroneas 00:20:16] and Tertullian. Because the Apostolic Fathers are, to be honest, just a little bit messy, there are some that are just more straight up, like if you read Polycarp's letter, you feel like you're reading the New testament kind of and First Clement that way too though every once in a while you'll come across something that is just really strange. But I think that we can still go there and we can just see how they're trying to work it out in the early days. But yeah, the things that are going to be more written down as creeds of the church, they're already around.

Scott Rae: If you could sit down to a meal with a handful of these Apostolic Fathers, what kinds of questions would you want to ask them?

Ken Berding: Well, I think that one's easy for me because I'm really into the New Testament and these guys, they knew, some of them actually knew apostles. I mean [Paebius 00:21:15] we know for sure knew some apostles and Polycarp is for sure as well. And First Clement must have as well because it was written so early in 95AD. So I want to know questions about the New Testament. I want to know things like what happened to Paul after his first imprisonment in Rome before he was actually re-imprisoned and killed under Nero. Now First Clements sorta tells us, it says that he-

Sean McDowell: He went to Spain, right?

Ken Berding: Yeah, that's right. He doesn't say Spain specifically, but the furthest limits of the West, which must be Spain. So he actually made it there. But I want to know all the other places he went. You can kind of put things together in the pastoral Epistles, but it's hard to figure out.

Questions like, was Paul previously married? A lot of scholars think he had been previously married. His singleness comes after that. Maybe his wife had died. Maybe she was pulled back into her family because he was a Christian.

You know, there's another question that a lot of people would love to know is like how did gnosticism start? Because some New Testament scholars try to push that back into the period of the writing of the New Testament and lot of people put it later.

Scott Rae: And explain to our listeners what you mean by gnosticism.

Ken Berding: Sure. Gnosticism is ... well, there's various types of gnosticism, but it's basically trying to help people become more in the know. Have you ever wondered where the k in the English word know comes from? K-now? It actually comes from the Greek word gnosis, the guk, same part of your throat. So the [Gunostics 00:22:51] or the gnostics were the ones who wanted you to become in the [G-now 00:22:54] and you would move up in the levels of knowledge, kind of like secret societies, secret handshakes, all that sort of stuff.

They helped you to figure out how you can negotiate after you died the various levels where there's all these evil spirits are gonna try to mess you up. It's weird actually some of it. And it's [docetic 00:23:17], so it thinks, and dualistic so it thinks that body and physical stuff is evil and spiritual things are good.

So gnosticism is something that developed as a full-blown system in the second century and kind of combines Christianity with all these other weird ideas.

Sean McDowell: I've got a last question for you. How does the writings of the early church Fathers help us know which books should be in the Canon? And obviously by the Canon, I mean which books are scripture? Because some of these debates went into the second, into the third centuries. The Shepherd of Hermas, sometimes was considered scripture, and I haven't studied this formally, but I was reading like Ignatius and First Clement, they would quote scriptures like Ephesians and sometimes the Gospels and refer to them as Scripture. How do they kind of help us sort through that question?

Ken Berding: The great thing about the Apostolic Fathers is that they do use earlier scripture and First Clement you mentioned, Ignatius actually tie in to Paul and to a couple of the other writings as well. Polycarp's the man on this one though. Polycarp, he's ... Have you ever met like a really old person who knows the King James Bible so well, they almost talk like the King James Bible? These people are starting to die out now, but they used to be around a lot and Polycarp was like that. So when he writes, he's just like throwing off quotations from earlier writings, allusions and quotations earlier writings. Old Testament, New Testament, about half of this quotations are from Paul. So he actually cites just about every letter of Paul in his writings except for just a few. There's, I think three or four- I did a lot of my doctoral work actually on this particular question- but they don't always call it scripture. That's not always. They sometimes do. Polycarp was one place where he actually combines a quotation from Ephesians with a quotation from the Old Testament and you can tell that he's thinking of that as scripture.

I had this incredible discovery actually as I was doing my work. I discovered that Polycarp, when he quotes all of these people sometimes from Paul, sometimes from others, he has a tendency to cluster pauline quotations every time he mentions the name of Paul and he does it three times, is very distinct. And the first two times he actually has quotations from First Timothy and Second Timothy, which shows that he believed that Paul is the author-

Sean McDowell: Oh, that's interesting.

Scott Rae: Very interesting.

Ken Berding: ... of First and Second Timothy, which moves the dating of those documents all the way down to 120 or 110 when Polycarp is writing that. That's a very significant observation actually.

Scott Rae: That's really helpful. That's a great question too, because it wasn't automatic that these books were included in the Canon. It was a process and the Apostolic Fathers obviously had a contribution to make to that.

Well, Ken we're very grateful for you coming on with us today. I want to remind our listeners to be sure and get the copy of your book, The Apostolic Fathers, which is written in a really creative way. It's a really fun readable way to look into this really influential period in the history of the church after the apostles, the generation right after the apostles.

So Ken, thank you for your expertise on this and for making this come alive for us because these aren't just words on a page, these are actually flesh and blood people who spent years and years of faithfulness to Christ and endured terrible persecution in life in lots of cases and are I think great models for us of what it means to be faithful in a culture that's increasingly hostile to people of faith.

So Ken, we're delighted to have you with us. Thanks for coming on with us.

Ken Berding: Thanks so much.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr Ken Berding, and to find more episodes, go to That's If you enjoyed our conversation with Dr Berding today, give us a rating on your podcast app. Share it with a friend. Thanks for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.

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