A Reading of Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians
Having read through Ignatius’ epistles last week, I have decided to read his contemporary Polycarp this week. Polycarp’s only surviving work is his letter to the Philippians. The Smyrnaeans — of whom Polycarp was Bishop — also wrote to the surrounding churches of his martyrdom. It is these two documents I have read. Here is what I found interesting, and what challenged me:
For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul.
-Polycarp to the Philippians, Ch. 3
Polycarp had tremendous respect for the Apostles, which is no surprise given that tradition holds him as a direct disciple of John, and appointed Bishop by the Apostles themselves. Even as a member of one of the first generations of Christians, Polycarp was humble and conceded that he could not match Paul. I find the word choice of “glorified” interesting, almost as if he were applying Paul’s words in Romans 8:28 to the apostle himself, who speaks of our glorification is such certain terms that he does so in the past tense.
However, I was challenged by what he writes next:
[Paul], when among you, accurately and steadfastly taught the word of truth in the presence of those who were then alive. And when absent from you, he wrote you a letter, which, if you carefully study, you will find to be the means of building you up in that faith which has been given you, and which, being followed by hope, and preceded by love towards God, and Christ, and our neighbour, is the mother of us all.
-Polycarp to the Philippians, Ch. 3
There are a few implications here, but they take some time to unpack. We know that a) Paul taught the Philippians when he lived with them, b) that he left them, c) that he wrote them a letter (Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians), and d) that they should study this letter.
None of this is surprising. This is the language we should expect to describe Scripture. But the following phrase, “you will find to be the means of building you up in that faith which has been given to you” implies that the studying of Scripture is to build up the faith that Paul gave to them. It would seem a bit odd here if Polycarp was implying that the letter Paul wrote would build up a faith they also received in one of his letters (or written Scripture). Paul’s epistle, written to the Philippians, was meant to be studied so that they could build up the faith that Paul had already delivered to them in person. This is a humbling reminder that many of the earliest Christians were taught verbally, and many didn’t have access to the complete Scriptures as we do today. It is also a reminder to follow the spiritual example of those in authority over us:
The Apostolic Teaching
I exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as you have seen [set] before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles.
-Polycarp to the Philippians, Ch. 9
Admittedly, I see whispers of what modern theologians would call Apostolic Succession here. The Christian faith was exemplified by Ignatius, Zosimus, and Rufus, by those in Philippi, and the Apostles. This example was “set before [our] eyes” going back to the Apostles, and is present (at least in the time of Polycarp) in the church body to which he was writing.
I find myself wondering how I would explain myself to Polycarp. He exhorts me to “yield obedience… as you have seen.” Certainly, I have had Godly leaders in my life, but can I say that the faith they have practiced was laid before them by men holding to a faith laid before them in succession to a period of time more than 500 years ago? Part of me screams “of course!” for I know the Gospel, yet a part of me quietly whispers “no” because these letters I’m reading from the Early Church describe a Church structure and practice of which I know nothing…
And to drive the point home, Polycarp then makes a quotation that is utterly foreign to me:
When you can do good, defer it not, because alms delivers from death.
-Polycarp to the Philippians, Ch. 10
This is a quote from Tobit. Tobit. I’d have to Google this book to even get a synopsis. I’ve heard of it before, but I’ve never read it. It’s apocryphal, I’ve been told. Yet Polycarp quotes it the same way he quotes the epistles of Peter and Paul. So not only do the Biblical writers quote from sources deemed apocryphal — a phenomenon quickly explained away, never quite to my satisfaction — but even the Early Church Fathers cite them as though they’re scripture. Have I ever received an exhortation from Tobit? From Esdras? From Maccabees?
It seems as though I’m missing something. Oddly enough, this is something Polycarp and I both feel about ourselves:
For I trust that you are well versed in the Sacred Scriptures, and that nothing is hid from you; but to me this privilege is not yet granted.
-Polycarp to the Philippians, Ch. 12
I find this odd. Polycarp’s entire letter is filled with multiple quotations, all of which he fits perfectly into his point, and yet he claims he is not well-versed. Though, there is one other way of reading this: Polycarp didn’t have access to all the books he knew to be scripture. Either way, this is humbling to see in a man so wise.
Now for the big one:
[By the Epistles of Ignatius] you may be greatly profited; for they treat of faith and patience, and all things that tend to edification in our Lord.
-Polycarp to the Philippians, Ch. 13
I must admit I didn’t catch this phrase the first few times I read this epistle. It was in reviewing it later that it began to unnerve me. Polycarp is speaking of the letters Ignatius wrote in the same terminology — almost as if he’s quoting scripture like many times before — that Paul spoke of the scriptures in 2 Timothy 3:16–17. The wording is almost an exact match. No, he doesn’t say that Ignatius’ letters are God-breathed, but he describes them as profitable and edifying and that they are for “faith and patience”. I’ll have to chew on this some more. Maybe I’m making too much out of it, but maybe there’s something here worth considering more.
Moving from Polycarp’s letter to the account of his martyrdom, just two quotes stood out to me:
I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.
-The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. 14
This is a very, very early testimony of the Trinity outside of Scripture. This was proclaimed by Polycarp at his death, which was likely in the 150s, less than half the life of the Church compared to the Council of Nicaea.
Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us…
-The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. 18
As a Protestant, the concept of relics has always been confusing to me. Not only that, I’ve always either assumed or have been taught that the practice is novel. Oddly enough, it seems that it dates back to the 2nd century.
Relics isn’t an issue I intended to research yet, but this may be something to which I return when I get to that point. Again, more to chew on.
It seems I continue to have many questions reading through the Fathers. I thought this would all seem familiar. It seems like I’m reading about a different faith at times. I knew I was 1900 years removed from these saints, but I thought I’d be much closer to them in belief and practice. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.
Please, friends. Pray for me.