Church Father Friday is the ongoing curation of Patristic texts. These short selections from church history remind us of where we’ve been, and what God has done throughout history for the Church. I pray these excerpts are a blessing to you.
The life and martyrdom of Polycarp are vital for understanding the church in the 2nd century. Polycarp was born in 69 AD and was the bishop of Smyrna. He had the great privilege of sitting under the Apostolic preaching of John the Apostle (1). Because of this, Polycarp has a special place in church history as one of the earliest writers after the Apostles. The key writing we have of his is the Epistle to the Philippians where he penned an extensive exhortation to that local church. Yet, today’s Church Father Friday’s excerpt wasn’t written by Polycarp. Rather, it is the detailed account of his martyrdom which occurred around 155 AD (2).
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
In section 9 of this account, we see two famous quips from Polycarp. Both have an important place in church history. The first follows the proconsuls demands for Polycarp to disavow Christianity asking him to “swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent, and say, away with the atheists.” One of the earliest charges against Christianity was that they were atheists because they denied the pantheon of gods. Syncretism was the norm in Rome. There is biblical evidence of this when Paul visits the altar of the unknown god. They had no problem including many gods from various religions. But the absolute claim of Christianity that there’s one God saw the Romans label them as atheists and “superstitious.” Pliny’s famous letter to Trajan shows the effect this had on the Roman cultus
“For this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread through the villages and rural districts; it seems possible, however, to check and cure it. ‘Tis certain at least that the temples, which had been almost deserted, begin now to be frequented; and the sacred festivals, after a long intermission, are again revived; while there is a general demand for sacrificial animals, which for some time past have met with but few purchasers. From hence it is easy to imagine what multitudes may be reclaimed from this error, if a door be left open to repentance.” – Pliny the Younger Book 10.96
Christianity had emptied the temples and harmed the local pagan economy. They called their beliefs superstition and saw it as a threat to the worship of the gods. When the proconsul commanded Polycarp to say “Away with the atheists” here’s how he replied:
“But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, Away with the Atheists.”
For Polycarp, and all orthodox Christians, there is only one God and to deny Him is to deny the truth and, in essence, is to be a true “atheist”. He said this in a bloodthirsty stadium knowing that physical death was near. The proconsul continued to plead with him to recant (which would harm the faith of many Christians). Here we see why martyrdom is a means that God uses to spread the message of the Gospel:
“Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ; Polycarp declared, ‘Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
“Eighty and six years have I served Him”
Often this phrase is used as an argument for infant baptism in the early church. Polycarp was 86 years old and if he said that he has served the Lord that long then he must be referring to the time of his baptism. The sacrament that showed his initiation into the covenant community. There are debates to be had here, but that’s not the point. Polycarp wasn’t developing an argument about baptism. He was declaring before God and man that he could never renounce the one who saved his soul. Christ never did him any harm and to deny Christ would be treason against the sovereign king. Below is the full text from the 9th section in the Martyrdom of Polycarp. It shows an old saint walking into a hostile stadium and standing for the truth. May we all have the same Spirit-given courage that Polycarp did when defending the truth.
“Now, as Polycarp was entering into the stadium, there came to him a voice from heaven, saying, Be strong, and show yourself a man, O Polycarp! No one saw who it was that spoke to him; but those of our brethren who were present heard the voice. And as he was brought forward, the tumult became great when they heard that Polycarp was taken. And when he came near, the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On his confessing that he was, the proconsul sought to persuade him to deny Christ, saying, Have respect to your old age, and other similar things, according to their custom. Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent, and say, Away with the Atheists. But Polycarp, gazing with a stern countenance on all the multitude of the wicked heathen then in the stadium, and waving his hand towards them, while with groans he looked up to heaven, said, Away with the Atheists. Then, the proconsul urging him, and saying, Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ; Polycarp declared, Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
The full text can be found here
1 – Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.3
2 – All of the quotes from Polycarp and the proconsul presiding over the trial are from the Martyrdom of Polycarp section 9