Kerry and I were married in St Polycarp’s church in Sheffield. The most common question asked of us when people were told the venue was: “Who was Polycarp?” To which the best response I could give was: “He had many fish?”
I have to admit that my view of church history can sometimes look a bit like this: Jesus, Acts … (here be dragons) … Luther, Calvin, 1662, today. This has meant that I have ignorantly thought that the Church Fathers were as guilty of Roman innovations as the medieval church. Thankfully, it was Calvin that showed me the error of my ways.
Calvin was very keen to show he wasn’t an innovator. He made constant referral to the Church Fathers in his defence of the Protestant faith. I was chastened. Time to read the Fathers, Phil.
I picked up the Penguin Classics “Early Christian Writings“. It contains the letters of Ignatius, Clement and the text of the Didache amongst others. One of the letters in the book was the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians. Finally, I could find out about Polycarp and stop making bad jokes about fish.
Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John and he lived for 86 years. He was committed to the apostolic faith which he heard at the apostle’s feet and was a defender of it in the face of the growing gnostic heresies. He was martyred for the faith in Smyrna by being burnt alive. He was resilient to the end.
His letter to the Philippians is wonderful. We see the early development of the New Testament canon as he quotes from the Gospels, Galatians, I & II Corinthians, 1 Peter and 1 John. At one point he says: “You are well versed in Holy Scripture… it says there, Do not be angry to the point of sin; do not let the sun go down on your indignation.” Here he quotes Ephesians 4:26, showing the authority that Paul’s letters had already received. This letter is a great mirror of the apostolic message and well worth reading. I’ll leave you with a quote from the opening chapter to whet your appetite:
In Jesus Christ, endurance went so far as to face even death for our sins; but God overruled the pangs of the grave, and raised him up to life again. Though you never saw him for yourselves, yet you believe in him in a glory of joy beyond all words, well knowing that it is by his grace you are saved, not of your own doing but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.