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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

Polycarp and His Writings

John Stock

From The Baptist Magazine, 1858

Polycarp is the last uninspired writer who is supposed to have enjoyed a personal relationship with the apostles. After him appeared a class of men who were not only post-apostolic in age, but in many respects anti-apostolic in spirit—such as Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Athenagoras, Irenæus, and Clemens Alexandrinus. He, then, who has mastered the writings of Clemens Romanus, Ignatius, and Polycarp, has exhausted the mine of apostolic tradition.

What is known of the history of Polycarp is fraught with deep interest. He was born in Asia Minor, about A.D. 66, and was converted to God when fourteen years old. He was instructed in the religion of Jesus Christ by Bucolus, the pastor of the church in Smyrna, and during his pastorate was made deacon. That office he filled with great credit, and on the death of Bucolus was chosen bishop or pastor in his place. The year of his call to the episcopate is uncertain.

Supposing him to have been about thirty years of age, it must have been A.D. 96. It is generally believed that the apostle John assisted at his ordination. While bishop, Polycarp paid a visit to Anicetus, the bishop of Rome, touching the controversy between the Eastern and Western churches, "propter quasdam super die Paschæ quæstiones," concerning the right time of celebrating the festival now designated Easter. He was burned to death because he would not abjure the faith when he was about 100 years old, A.D. 166. This tragic event took place in Smyrna, the city where he was bishop.

Irenæus, in his epistle to Florinus, speaks thus of Polycarp:

"I can tell also the very place where the blessed Polycarp was accustomed to sit and discourse; and also his entrances, his walks, the complexion of his life, and the form of his body, and his conversations with the people, and his familiar interactions with, as he was accustomed to tell, as also his familiarity with those that had seen the Lord. How also he used to relate their discourses, and what things he had heard from them concerning the Lord. Also about his miracles, his doctrine, all these were told by Polycarp, in consistency with the Holy Scriptures, as he had received them from the eye-witnesses of the doctrine of salvation" (Eusebius, Eccl. His. l. 5, c. 20).

This evidence is conclusive as to Polycarp's personal acquaintance with the apostle John, and others who had seen Christ "in the flesh." Irenæus heard all this from Polycarp's own lips.

We have stated that he was converted to God when about fourteen years old, A.D. 80. This opinion we found on the fact, that when asked, just before his martyrdom, by the proconsul to deny Christ, Polycarp replied, "Eighty and six years have I served him;" evidently referring not to the length of his life, but of his Christian profession. Now, if he had been eighty-six years a Christian when he died, and if, as is generally supposed, he died when about a century old, he must have been added to the church at fourteen years of age.

It is uncertain in what year Polycarp visited Anicetus, the Bishop of Rome, respecting the Quartodeciman Controversy. The dates assigned by the learned range from 152 to 167. Irenæus, referring to that visit, says:

"And Polycarp, a man who had been instructed by the apostles, and had familiar intercourse with many that had seen Christ, and had also been appointed bishop by the apostles in Asia, in the church at Smyrna; whom we also have seen in our youth, for he lived a long time, and to a very advanced age, when, after a glorious and most distinguished martyrdom, he departed this life. He always taught what he had learned from the apostles, what the church had handed down, and what is the only true doctrine.

“All the churches bear witness to these things, and those that have been the successors of Polycarp to this time — a witness to the truth much more worthy of credit, and much more certain, than either Valentine or Marcion, or the rest of those perverse teachers. The same Polycarp, coming to Rome under the episcopate of Anicetus, turned many from the aforesaid heretics to the church of God, proclaiming the one and only true faith that he had received from the apostles, that, viz., which was delivered by the church." (Euseb. Eccl. H. l. 4, c. 14).

It appears, however, that Polycarp and Anicetus could not agree on the point in dispute between them, and that they separated without having at all advanced a uniformity of practice upon this matter, between Eastern and Western Christians. Polycarp was, nevertheless, received with profound respect by Anicetus, and frequently officiated in the church of which the latter was bishop.

Polycarp was bishop of the church at Smyrna for about seventy years. His martyrdom is a tale which has often been told, but of which one never wearies. We shall again relate it, omitting all that is manifestly fabulous in the accounts with which we have been furnished.

When the persecution had broken out which terminated the career of this venerable servant of God, and when he knew his enemies were searching for him, he very properly retired from the city, and secreted himself in a farmhouse not very far from it, thus complying with his Lord's command recorded in Matt. 10:23, “But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.”

There he lay hid with a few friends, with whom he passed his time in devout conversation and prayer. When he ascertained that his enemies had discovered this retreat, he escaped to another yet farther removed from Smyrna. But his relentless pursuers in a few days discovered him there, and, coming upon him unawares, found him in an upper room resting his aged limbs.

When he found that he was in his enemies' hands, he meekly exclaimed, "The Lord's will be done;" and, advancing to meet his pursuers with a serene countenance, he ordered a table to be spread for their wants, invited them to eat their fill, and requested them at the same time to allow him one hour for undisturbed prayer. After he had poured out his soul before God, be arose and told his apprehenders that he was now prepared to follow them.

They placed him upon an ass, and conducted him to the city. On his way he was met by Herod, the officer of the public peace, and his father, Nicetes, who asked him to sit with them in their chariot, and in the blandest manner sought to persuade him to renounce Christianity, by sacrificing to the gods. Finding, however, that they produced no impression upon the mind of Polycarp, they brutally pitched him out of the chariot, so as severely to injure his thigh. Nothing daunted, however, the good old man calmly rose and went on his way as best he could.

At length he was conducted to the Stadium, where the sacred games and shows were exhibited, and was confronted with Statius Quadratus, the proconsul. There he uttered that memorable saying which has become a proverb in the Church of God. When asked to deny his Lord, he replied, "Eighty and six years have I now served Christ, and he has never done me the least wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?"

Again and again urged to swear by the genius of Caesar, Polycarp replied, "Listen, while I, with freedom of speech, tell thee I am a Christian."

Finding persuasion and entreaty failing, the proconsul resorted to threats. "Wild beasts have I ready," said he, "to these I will cast thee unless thou repentest."

The holy martyr meekly replied, "Call for them; for to us repentance from better to worse is impossible. But it is honourable to turn from things that are dishonest to those which are just."

Quadratus replied, "If thou despisest the wild beasts, I will cause thee to be consumed by fire unless thou repentest."

Whereupon, Polycarp rejoined, "Thou threatenest me with fire that burns for as hour, and after a time is extinguished; whilst thou art ignorant of the fire reserved for the coming judgment, and for the eternal punishment of the impious! But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt."

Finding all his efforts vain, the proconsul sent the cryer into the middle of the lists to proclaim, three several times, Palycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian! Whereupon the multitude, both of Jews and Gentiles, loudly demanded his death. After some demur as to the way in which he should be killed, it was resolved to burn him alive.

When the executioners wished to nail Polycarp to the stake, he exclaimed, "Let me die as I am, for He who has given me patience to endure the fire, will also afford me strength to remain in the fire without moving, without your securing me with nails." His request was complied with, and be was simply tied to the stake.

When everything was ready, and the fire was about to be applied, the good old man poured out his soul in prayer to God, that he might be enabled to offer himself an acceptable sacrifice through Jesus Christ. No sooner had he pronounced aloud his Amen, than the fire was kindled, but, whether because it would not burn fiercely enough, or from a desire to abbreviate the tortures of the victim, an executioner was ordered to stab him to the heart. Thus, partly by fire, and partly by the sword, Polycarp was dismissed from his labours and his sorrows, and entered into an eternal and blessed rest.

After his death, the body was carefully reduced to ashes, but his friends gathered together what bones they could find, "deposited them in a suitable place," and celebrated a yearly festival in commemoration of his martyrdom.

Such was the life and such the death of Polycarp. It remains that we should now notice those writings of his which have survived to our day.

But, before we treat of these, we wish to advert to the epistle of the church of which Polycarp was bishop, to the churches of Pontus, giving a detailed account of his martyrdom. Most of the facts which we have related we have gleaned from this source. It is true that the epistle in question mentions many things which savour strongly of the miraculous, not to say fabulous.

But we have no doubt that as to the principal circumstances, the narrative is substantially true, or that it was written soon after Polycarp's death, A.D. 166, for the information of neighbouring churches. Credulity and a superstitious reverence for martyrs and their relics, alas, soon, too soon, appeared in the church, and gave a colouring to everything written on those topics.

Of this epistle Dr. Bennett says:

"A letter from the Christians at Smyrna to the Philippians, which records the martyrdom of Polycarp, is rendered suspicious by a confession, that when it was lost, and almost destroyed by time, it was recovered by a revelation from the departed saint. He is said to have been burnt alive at Smyrna in the year 166, and the stories told of miracles wrought at his death serve only to show the simplicity and truth of the Scriptures in their account of the martyrdom of Stephen." (Theology of Early Christian Church, p. 22)

Eusebius speaks of it as a production well known in his day, and has incorporated almost the whole of it in his Ecclesiastical History. Now he lived only about an age and a half after the writing of it. Neander, too, speaks of the epistle as undoubtedly a genuine production, at least in its leading historical statements, and imitates Eusebius in giving the substance of it in the body of his history. It was read publicly in the Gallican churches as late as the time of Gregory of Tours. Let it, however, be remembered, that, though Polycarp is the subject of this epistle, and it was written by his own church, he is not responsible for its statements. When it was composed he had gone to his rest.

Of Polycarp's own writings we have only one epistle left, addressed to the Philippians. There are, in addition, five supposed fragments of his collected in the Patres Apostoloci, which contain nothing contrary to sound doctrine; but, on the other hand, some very interesting remarks on Matt. 19:5; 20:23, on the commencement of the Gospel according to St. Mark, on Luke 14:12, and on John 17:4.

Of the value of his epistle the very highest opinion has been expressed by the writers of antiquity. Irenæus calls it an excellent epistle. Eusebius quotes largely from it, and Jerome says that it is a very useful epistle, which to this day is read in the public assembly of Asia (Conventu Asiæ). Whether he meant that it was read on the Lord's Day in public worship, or at some periodical ecclesiastical assembly, cannot be determined.

There is internal evidence that Polycarp's epistle was written soon after the martyrdom of Ignatius, A.D. 111, 112; for he speaks of the death of Ignatius as having only just happened, and desires further information concerning it. Some learned men have, indeed, supposed that the passages in question were interpolated to secure greater attention to the epistles of Ignatius, which had been interpolated by the same hand. Wake, as it appears to us, successfully contends for the genuineness of the passages in dispute, and, consequently, for a period immediately subsequent to the martyrdom of Ignatius as the time of the writing of the epistle.

The letter to the Philippians contains fourteen chapters, of which only the first nine and the thirteenth are in the original Greek, the 10th, 11th, 12th, and 14th, are preserved in an ancient Latin version. The whole epistle is thus published in the Patres Apostolici.•

We close our paper with a summary of the theology of this venerable servant of our Lord. He quotes frequently, and always reverently, from the Holy Scriptures. Quotations, more or less direct and frequent, are found in his writings, from Genesis, Psalms, Proverbs, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the Acts, the Epistles of Paul to the Romans, the Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, the first to the Thessalonians, the first to Timothy. Titus, Hebrews, together with the first Epistle of John, and, most frequently of all, from the first Epistle of Peter.

It is thought that he quotes from two places in the Book of Tobit. The two passages are similar. "Since charity delivers from death," and "For charity delivers from death." The supposed quotation is:—"When ye have the power to do good, do not defer it; since charity delivers from death." We prefer, however, to regard the similarity of language in this case as a mere coincidence, and consider that Polycarp gives us simply his own original sentiment. The spirit of his language is found in 1 Pet. 4:8, and James 5:20, but there is no evidence that he was intentionally quoting from the absurd book of Tobit.

He, like Ignatius and Clement, confirms the historical truthfulness of the great facts on which Christianity rests, such as the incarnation, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

He asserts the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures. He designates them, the oracles of the Lord, "the word delivered to us from the beginning," "the word of righteousness," "the Holy Scriptures." In his first fragment (if, indeed, it be his), he says, that when Adam uttered the words recorded in Gen. 2:24, "Deus per inspirationem divinam in corde Adam ista verba formavit,"—"God, by a divine inspiration, formed those words in the heart of Adam;" and the whole fragment seems to imply that this was his view, not merely of the manner in which that particular revelation, but revelation generally, was imparted.

On the person of the Saviour his views were orthodox. In the introduction to his epistle he presents prayer to the Lord Jesus conjointly with the Father, thus: "Mercy and peace be multiplied to you from God Almighty, and from the Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour." He styles Christ, "Sempiternus Pontifex Dei Filius, Jesus Christus,"—"Jesus Christ, the Eternal High Priest, the Son of God." In his third fragment he says, that "Luke commenced his Gospel as he did, that he might declare the deity of Christ to the Gentiles." He asserts the universal supremacy of Jesus at his Father's right hand; declares that every creature shall worship him; and that he shall come to be the universal Judge.

He asserts the doctrine of salvation by grace, "Knowing that by grace ye are saved, not by works, but by the will of God, through Jesus Christ" (c. 1).

The atonement of our Lord he fully declares:—"He suffered himself to be brought to the death for our sins;" "who bare our sins in his own body upon the tree;" "our eternal High Priest, Jesus Christ;" "be ye saved in the Lord Jesus Christ." In his fifth fragment, on John 17:4, he speaks of Christ's work consummated in the endurance of the cross, as being "the work of human salvation" (opus salutis humanæ).

The doctrine of immortality and of a general resurrection of the dead he clearly teaches (c. 2).

We have not discovered, either in his Epistle or in his Fragments, a testimony on the personality and work of the Holy Spirit. But in his last prayer at the stake, as recorded in the epistle of the church at Smyrna, he emphatically recognises both: "The resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, in the incorruption of the Holy Spirit " "with Christ, to thee, and to the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and for ever,"Amen" (c. 14).

Polycarp abounds in beautiful Christian precepts. Holiness of heart and life he earnestly recommends. And in a style truly apostolical he has a word of exhortation for persons of different ages and stations, for husbands and wives, for widows and maidens, for young and old, for elders and deacons.

He expresses his compassion and sorrow for Valens and his wife, both of whom had fallen into sin, and had thus subjected themselves to excommunication. Valens had been a presbyter of the church. Polycarp beseeches the Philippians to seek the restoration of both.

"Very much, therefore, my brethren, am I sorry for him and for his wife; to whom may the Lord give a true repentance. And be ye, too, prudent in this matter, and do not think of such as enemies, but restore them as suffering and erring members, that ye may save your whole body. For doing this, ye edify yourselves" (c. 11).

The above passage clearly shows that the discipline of the church, in excommunication and restoration, even when a presbyter was the offender, was then administered by the whole church.

There is most assuredly no recognition of the episcopal system in Polycarp's remains. The only orders of clergy that he mentions are those of the presbyter and the deacon. He does not so much as once use the term Episcopos, but invariably employs the title Presbuteros when speaking of the pastor of a Christian church:

Polycarp, and the elders who are with him, to the Church of God dwelling at Philippi." In his exhortations to the ministers of the church at Philippi, he only addresses himself to deacons and elders. "In like manner let the deacons be blameless in the sight of his righteousness, as deacons of God and of Christ, and not of men," &c. "And let the presbyters be compassionate with all mercy, converting those who have wandered, seeking after those who are weak, not neglecting the widow, the orphan, or the poor." Of the excommunicated Valens he says, "Who was formerly a presbyter among you." And again: "Wherefore it is fit to abstain from all these things, being subject to the presbyters and the deacons, as to God and to Christ" (c. 5).

One thing is clear, that in Polycarp's day, or at least when he wrote to the Philippians, there was no distinction between the presbyter and the episcopos, both names being applied to the pastors of churches. Polycarp is himself styled by the church at Smyrna, in their circular epistle, "a truly apostolical and prophetical teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church at Smyrna." But be himself has not used the term in any of his preserved writings. If he had used it, it must have been as the ecclesiastical synonym of presbuteros; for, presbuteros he has used as the synonym of episcopos.

We cannot close this paper without observing how much we have been charmed with the godly simplicity of the spirit and style of Polycarp, as contrasted with the bombast and prelatic pride apparent in the spurious epistles of Ignatius. In the latter we seem to hear the footstep of antichrist in very many sentences;—visions of the great apostasy are at once called up, and we cannot help exclaiming, The germ of that mischief is here!

But when reading Polycarp's simple and Christian sentences, we are led back in our reflections, and are cheered to find that in his pages we have much of the spirit of that "disciple whom Jesus loved." The past times of Christ and his apostles live again in the writings of Polycarp, but the coming times of a Leo and a Hildebrand are mirrored and prophesied from the epistles which have been se long ascribed to Ignatius, but which Cureton has proved to be the productions of a later age.