The Early Church Fathers and the Foundations of Dispensationalism
Part 2: The Apostolic Fathers: Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias
Conservative Theological Journal [CTJ 02:5 (Jun 98) pp. 123-140]
Larry V. Crutchfield

Prof. Early Christian History and Culture
Columbia Evangelical Seminary, Longview, WA

Video Planned


    The first article in this series laid the foundation for an examination of the works of the early fathers for rudimentary features of dispensational theology. Our basic premise is that these fathers, while not dispensationalists in the modern sense, nevertheless set forth principles that foreshadowed contemporary classic dispensational concepts. The task of the present article is to present the views, relevant to the subject at hand, of the first four of the “apostolic fathers.”

The Testimony of History

    Perhaps it is fair to ask at the outset, “What value can be placed on the testimony of history to doctrine in general, and on the testimony of the fathers in particular?” The question’s answer should avoid two extremes. On the one hand, for example, the Roman Catholic editors of the Ancient Christian Writers series state that “It is important for the modern reader to realize that Clement, representing the Occident, and Ignatius, representing the Orient,” were “convinced” that apostolic tradition and Scripture supported “the Church’s monarchical form of government.” And this belief, say the editors, was “true of the rest of the Apostolic Fathers.” On this basis they ask, “Under such circumstances, is it any wonder that the Council of Trent requires Catholic theologians to interpret Scripture ‘according to the unanimous consent of the Fathers?’”[1]
    The practice of placing the church fathers—or any other human intermediary or institution—between Scripture and interpretation is pregnant with peril. Martin Luther realized that the decidedly biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone through grace, though clearly taught in Scripture by the Apostle Paul and others, was absent from Catholic teaching. And for our study, it is instructive to note that the equally biblical doctrine of the premillennial return of Christ—which was the dominant view of the ante-Nicene church, though not of Augustine and others—was rejected by Rome and is rejected by the Vatican today. It would seem that at the Council of Trent “unanimous consent” regarding the meaning of the word “unanimous” was never reached.
    On the other hand, the opposite extreme of total neglect of the teachings of those who have gone before can be just as detrimental to the development and understanding of sound doctrine. John Nelson Darby, for example, undercut the patristic precedent for his own eschatological views by summarily dismissing “the mass of primitive Fathers” as “untrustworthy on every fundamental subject …”[2] By denying the available historical support for his teaching on Bible prophecy, Darby invited the rebuke of critics who said his was nothing more than a lone benighted “voice crying in the wilderness.”
    J. A. Seiss avoids the excesses of both extremes. He observes that “History is one of the storehouses of wisdom” and declares that “We cannot be independent of what has gone before us.” Seiss asserts that “In everything wisdom bids us ‘remember the days of old.’” But while Seiss stresses the importance of doctrinal developments in history, he is quick to point out that “Antiquity alone is no evidence of orthodoxy.” He rightly insists that we do not, “rest our faith upon the mere opinions of men, whether ancient or modern. ‘The Bible, the Bible alone, is the religion of Protestants;’ and upon the Bible do I rest for the truth of what I have been teaching.”[3]
    LeRoy Froom is correct in saying that “many of the fathers departed more from the apostolic viewpoint in other respects than on prophetic interpretation.” In any case, as Froom points out, “Protestants do not cite the church fathers to authenticate doctrines, prophetic or otherwise, but only to trace their development.”[4] With regard to the teaching of the early church fathers, perhaps Thomas Burnet’s advice is best. He suggests leaving the testimony of these “Seconds to the Prophets and Apostles…to be examin’d and weigh’d by the impartial Reader.”[5]

The Apostolic Fathers

The Nature of Their Writings

    The writings of the apostolic fathers are pastoral in form, tone, and intent. They neither aim for nor accomplish a systematic presentation of early Christian doctrine. In them we find occasional references to select doctrinal concepts rather than specific theological definitions. Froom’s analysis is essentially correct. He writes:

    "The situation in the Christian church, immediately following the apostles, did not require an extensive literature of its own. Men were expecting important changes in the world. The authoritative teaching of the apostles was, of course, still fresh in memory, and the struggle between Christianity and paganism had not yet assumed any large proportions. It was the twilight period, before the literature of the early church philosophers had developed. Their first writings were not so much history, exposition, or apologies, as simply letters."[6]

    On the whole, these were epistles occasioned by special problems and needs within the ranks of the early Christian community.[7] As such, they form but a connecting link—albeit an important link—between the apostolic writings and those of the apologists and polemicists who followed. The apostolic fathers examined here are Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias. Part three in this series will cover The Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, and Hermas’ The Shepherd.

The Substance of Their Views[8]

Clement of Rome (flourished c.90–100)

    Little is known about this early church leader, but it is generally agreed that he was most likely the bishop of the church at Rome during the last decade of the first century. Some have suggested that Clement was actually installed as bishop by Peter himself,[9] while others have identified him with the Clement of Philippians 4:3. This latter view gained early support,[10] but has received a fair amount of criticism in modern times.[11] Whether or not this Clement was consecrated by Peter or was one of Paul’s “fellow workers,” he was certainly in a position to have known the views of the apostolic church. What remains of these views is contained in but one epistle, I Clement, supposed to have been written from Rome to the church at Corinth.12


    We find no direct statement in Clement concerning principles of biblical interpretation. However, his one extant epistle displays a straightforward approach to exegesis. The peculiar inclusion of the legend of the phoenix not withstanding,[13] Clement’s recourses to allegorical interpretation of Scripture are of the mildest kind. An example of this is seen in his remark about the scarlet cord given to Rahab in Joshua 2:18. Clement says, “And thus they made it manifest that redemption should flow through the blood of the Lord to all them that believe and hope in God.”[14]


    Clement of Rome is usually claimed as an early proponent of premillennialism (chiliasm). While the direct evidence for this assumption is not strong, the circumstantial evidence is certainly suggestive of the view. George N. H. Peters sets forth “three particulars” in support of Clement’s chiliasm. Peters says of Clement: 1. He preached the coming of Christ; 2. He rebuked those who scoffed at the supposed delay of that coming; and 3. He took the chiliastic view of the imminent return of Christ.[15] Peters concludes from this that,

    "Such sentiments only accord with the then prevailing Millenarian views; if opposed to it, as some too eagerly affirm because no detailed expression of eschatological opinions have reached us, how could he, when Jewish views were all around, thus employ language pre-eminently adapted to confirm Chiliasm, unless in sympathy with it."[16]

    According to Jesse Forrest Silver, since Clement knew the apostles personally and their doctrine—a solid premillennialism—one would expect him to be premillennial as well. He believes that Clement’s premillennialism is evidenced in chapters XXII-XXXVII of the first epistle by the “repeated exhortations ‘in view of the second coming of Christ.’”[17] Seiss cites references in the spurious II Clement to support the conclusion that Clement was a premillennialist.[18]


    While strong statements regarding Clement’s premillennialism are lacking, the same is not true with respect to his views on imminency. He wrote, “Of a truth, soon and suddenly shall His will be accomplished, as the Scripture also bears witness, saying, ‘Speedily will He come, and will not tarry;’ and, ‘The Lord shall suddenly come to His temple, even the Holy One, for whom ye look.’”[19] In light of the any-moment return of Christ, Clement urged watchfulness and obedient service to the Lord. Clement said of Christ, “He forewarns us: ‘Behold, the Lord [cometh], and His reward is before His face, to render to every man according to his work.’ He exhorts us, therefore, with our whole heart to attend to this, that we be not lazy or slothful in any good work.”[20] Clement went on to say, “Let us therefore earnestly strive to be found in the number of those that wait for Him in order that we may share in His promised gifts.”[21]
    A few words must be said here in response to Robert H. Gundry’s assessment of Clement’s position on imminency. With reference to the I Clement XXXIII passage, Gundry notes that it is preceded by an “illustration of a tree budding and putting forth leaves and fruit which finally ripens—an illustration which hardly conveys imminence.”[22] Clement’s source for this illustration is unknown. Nevertheless, the basic import of the illustration is self-evident. The point Clement wished to make is that just as it takes but a short time for a tree to pass from bud to fruit stage, so in reality it takes but a short time for the accomplishment of God’s will. When Christ does come—and that could be at any moment—it will result in the sudden accomplishment of His will.
    Gundry seems to assume that Clement’s point is that the whole process of budding to ripened fruit must yet take place. But it could easily be argued that his message to those “old men” who had waited in vain for Christ’s coming, is that they had seen and were currently part of the budding and putting forth of leaves stages, while only the appearance of ripened fruit remained. Some amount of time is necessary for the accomplishment of God’s plan for humankind, just as it is for a tree to bear fruit. How much time is necessary? No one knows. All of the necessary time could be spent at any moment. Suddenly, as fruit appears on a tree, Christ will return to accomplish His purpose for His people.
    Gundry goes on to discuss the Malachi 3:1 quotation in connection with Malachi 4:5f.[23] The latter passage he interprets in a posttribulational sense,[24] and then arbitrarily states that it was Clement’s position as well. Gundry concludes that it is this posttribulational coming of Christ that Clement holds forth as “their [the Christian’s] hope and object of watchfulness.” Thus, insists Gundry, “This passage can hardly be claimed for the doctrine of imminence (as has been done) when it clearly pertains to the posttribulational advent.”[25]
    Gundry’s method here is a clear example of non sequitur reasoning. Clement’s sole reason for quoting Malachi 3:1 was to set forth the suddenness of Christ’s second coming. And since he did not exegete Malachi 4, we do not know what his interpretation of that portion of Scripture was. While Gundry apparently feels comfortable putting words in Clement’s mouth in order to gain support for the posttribulational position, in the absence of Clement’s own exegesis of Malachi 4, we believe the Roman bishop’s silence speaks for itself.

Eschatological outline

    Aside from the fact that Clement believed in the imminent return of the Lord and evidently in a millennial kingdom to follow, it is difficult to piece together any substantial outline of his eschatological expectations. That he looked for a future resurrection of the dead and judgments to follow is clear.[26] The chronology, details, and interrelationships of these events, however, are uncertain. The very simplest outline that may be attempted without elaboration is: 1. Second coming; 2. Resurrection; 3. Judgments; 4. Millennial kingdom; [5. Eternal state].

Ignatius (died c.98/117)

    No less than with Clement of Rome, our biographical data on Ignatius is meager indeed. In addition to what little can be gleaned from his seven epistles, only brief notices survive in other early patristic literature. All agree that he was a contemporary of Polycarp, bishop of Antioch,[27] and devoured by wild beasts in Rome during Trajan’s reign (98–117).
    As for Ignatius’s apostolic associations, there is controversy once again. Peter, Paul, and John are all suggested as his apostolic teachers.[28] While Lightfoot takes issue with most of the tradition surrounding Ignatius’s apostolic discipleship, he nevertheless contends that even if one supposes a late date for his conversion, “there is [no] chronological inconsistency in the supposition that Ignatius was a disciple of some Apostle…”[29] He suggests elsewhere that Ignatius’s “early date and his connexion with Antioch, a chief centre of apostolic activity, render his personal intercourse with Apostles at least probable.”[30]
    The sum of Ignatius’ views is contained in seven letters. Six of these epistles are directed to Christians at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna. The seventh letter is addressed to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. All seven epistles have survived in shorter and longer versions. The nine or so letters falsely ascribed to Ignatius are not included in this study.


    One observes quickly in reading Ignatius (short version of epistles) that he quotes sparingly from Scripture, though he alludes to the inspired text often. What examples we do have of his exegesis are marked by restraint. While Ignatius makes no direct statements in his letters regarding interpretive method, the epistles themselves reveal an approach that shuns the allegorical and fanciful.


    Ignatius is often claimed as a first-century premillenarian. As is the case with Clement, however, the position is implied rather than explicitly stated in the extant literature. Charles C. Ryrie cites Peters with approval as assigning Ignatius a place among premillenarians for his references to the “last times” and his belief in imminency.[31]
    In addition to Ignatius’s expectation of the “advent of the Redeemer,” Daniel T. Taylor cites his belief in the bodily resurrection of the saints as “his blessed hope.”[32] For Taylor, this hope, coupled with the Antiochene bishop’s silence concerning “a temporal millennium or spiritual reign” and his succession from Peter at Antioch—whose views he doubtless shared—is proof enough of Ignatius’s premillennialism.[33] While the evidence is not altogether compelling, it is nevertheless consonant with, rather than antagonistic toward, the premillennial position. This is seen especially in Ignatius’s attitude of expectancy.


    It is evident from the letters of Ignatius that he believed the church to be living in the last times and that the coming of the Lord was at hand. He wrote, “The last times are come upon us. Let us therefore be of a reverent spirit, and fear the long-suffering of God, that it tend not to our condemnation.”[34]
    In his epistle to the venerable Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, Ignatius encouraged him to “Be watchful, possessing a sleepless spirit.”[35] Further on he said, “Be ever becoming more zealous than what thou art. Weigh carefully the times. Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sake.” Just prior to this admonition, the longer version adds an exhortation “to bear all things for the sake of God, that He also may bear with us, and bring us into His kingdom.”[36]

Eschatological outline

    Ignatius’s eschatological outline is essentially the same as that of Clement. But while the second coming and resurrection are explicitly stated, the judgment, as well as the millennial kingdom and eternal state, are only implied. In the case of the judgment of mankind, Ignatius had little to say directly. He spoke only of “the wrath to come” and of “everlasting fire.”[37]

Polycarp (c.70–155/160)

    Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna, home to one of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation (2:8–11). Because of his tutelage under the Apostle John, Polycarp was held in high esteem by the early church. This contemporary of Clement, Ignatius, and Papias (bishop of Hierapolis), has the least disputed apostolic connection. His own pupil, Irenaeus, related that, Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.[38]
    Tertullian maintained that Polycarp was installed as bishop of Smyrna by John himself.[39]
    Perhaps a word should be said at this point about premillennialism and the Apostle John/Asia Minor connection. The primary teaching on the millennial reign of Christ is found in the twentieth chapter of the Revelation given to John. It is instructive to note that many of the early adherents of this doctrine either had direct contact with this apostle, or with his most famous disciple, Polycarp. Tradition says that John spent the latter portion of his life at Ephesus in Asia Minor.[40] The origins of no fewer than seven early millenarian fathers’ views may be traced in some way to the Asia Minor geographical context and this longest living apostle.[41] John survived until the time of Trajan, a.d. 98-117.
    We know from Irenaeus that Polycarp was the author of a number of epistles, for he spoke of “the letters which [Polycarp] sent either to the neighboring churches for their confirmation, or to some of the brethren, admonishing and exhorting them.”[42] Regrettably, only one lone epistle addressed to the church at Philippi remains. In addition to this, we have the Martyrdom of Polycarp, a letter from the church at Smyrna to the Phrygian church of Philomelium. Owing to the fact that only one of Polycarp’s letters has survived, and that only a very brief epistle, little is known of the views of one who was in a position to tell us so much.


    Even though the letter to the Philippian church is short, it is brimming with quotations from the New Testament. The epistles of Paul and Peter are favorite sources, in that order, as well as the Gospel of Matthew. If we can take this single letter as an indicator of Polycarp’s interpretive approach to Scripture, like his contemporaries, Clement and Ignatius, the bishop of Smyrna simply allowed the inspired text to speak for itself in a natural way, unencumbered by artificial exegesis.


    The nearest thing we have to a direct statement of premillenarian views in Polycarp is the following:

    "If we please Him in this present world, we shall receive also the future world, according as He has promised to us that He will raise us again from the dead, and that if we live worthily of Him, 'we shall also reign together with Him,' provided only we believe."[43]

    But it is John and Irenaeus who are usually cited in support of Polycarp’s premillennialism. The authority Irenaeus gave for his belief in the unparalleled fertility of the coming millennial kingdom, “when the righteous shall bear rule upon their rising from the dead,” was “the elders who saw John the disciple of the Lord …” “And these things are borne witness to by Papias,” wrote Irenaeus, “the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp…”[44] As a disciple of the author of the Apocalypse and as the instructor of Irenaeus—whose premillennial views are beyond dispute—and on the strength of Irenaeus’ testimony, Polycarp’s inclusion in the premillenarian camp is altogether appropriate. We might say in passing here that Polycarp did not address the issue of imminency in his brief Epistle to the Philippians.

Eschatological outline

There is nothing in Polycarp that is inconsistent with the eschatological expectations of his contemporaries. The available documentation for Polycarp’s belief in the second coming of Christ and the establishment of His kingdom has been given. With respect to the resurrection and judgment, Polycarp declared, “whoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan.”[45]

Papias (c.60-c.130/155)

    Papias, bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, was contemporary with Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp. But it is highly unlikely that Papias ever met Clement. And it is doubtful that he made contact with Ignatius when the Antiochene bishop visited Smyrna briefly on his journey to Rome and martyrdom. But of Papias’ intercourse with Polycarp, there can be no reasonable doubt. As previously stated, Irenaeus pointedly affirmed that Papias was “the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp …”[46]
    The more important question here, however, is not Papias’ association with Polycarp, but whether or not he was acquainted with the Apostle John as Irenaeus stated. The significance of the question is evident when one realizes that Papias is often called the “father of Millenarianism.”[47] Jean Danielou stresses the importance of Papias’ testimony when he says that, “The earliest and most conclusive witness to this millenarianism comes from the same Asiatic background as the Revelation, namely, Papias…who records older traditions going back to Apostolic times.”[48] R. Ludwigson calls Papias “our chief link with the views of the Twelve themselves.”[49]
    For Papias’ personal testimony concerning his apostolic associations, we must trust the church historian Eusebius. All that remains of Papias’ written work are quotations recorded in the works of others. The most important of these are found in Eusebius and Irenaeus. Eusebius quoted Papias as saying:

    "But I shall not be unwilling to put down, along with my interpretations, whatsoever instructions I received with care at any time from the elders, and stored up with care in my memory, assuring you at the same time of their truth…. If, then, any one who had attended on the elders came, I asked minutely after their sayings,—what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice."[50]

    As a strident opponent of the millenarian doctrine, Eusebius was quick to make the most of Papias’ purported disclaimer about having had direct apostolic acquaintance and to the bishop’s supposed reference to two different men named John. The first “John” was presumably the apostle, while the second was identified as “the presbyter John.” Eusebius ascribed authorship of the Book of Revelation to the so-called presbyter John, rather than the apostle.[51] It was an obvious attempt to deny apostolic authority to the book that most clearly teaches the thousand-year earthly reign of Christ.
    Upon close examination, Lightfoot’s position on the relationship between Papias and John appears peculiar. Yet at the same time, it helps to bring us to the conclusion of the matter. Lightfoot agrees that John lived out the final years of his life at Ephesus and that Polycarp knew him,[52] as Irenaeus affirms.[53] Lightfoot also affirms that Papias was indeed the apostle’s contemporary for at least thirty years.[54] Furthermore, he insists that it is almost certain that Polycarp and Papias knew and associated with each other, for they were exact contemporaries, the two most famous teachers in the area, and there was no great distance between their bishoprics.[55] Yet on the basis of Papias’ supposed disclaimer to apostolic association as recorded by Eusebius, Lightfoot firmly denies that Papias had direct apostolic intercourse.[56] How are we to evaluate this data?
    Chronologically, if anything, Papias had an edge over Polycarp for acquaintance with John. The date of Papias’ birth is variously set at c.61 or 70–71.[57] If the earlier date is accepted, that would make him nearly forty years old at the time of John’s death near the end of the first century. At the very least, Papias was John’s contemporary for the same period as was Polycarp. And it is even possible that he was the apostle’s contemporary a full decade longer![58]
    Geographically, Polycarp had only a slight advantage over Papias. As bishop of Smyrna, some 45 Roman miles from Ephesus,[59] a visit to the apostle would have called for an approximate 2.6 day journey.[60] The 113 mile distance between Hierapolis and Ephesus,[61] on the other hand, would have taken some 6.6 days to cover. But as Lightfoot himself points out, this was no great distance,[62] even for those days. Therefore we must agree with the editors of the Ancient Christian Writers series who maintain that, “It would be a wonder if a man of Papias’s inquisitive mind had shut himself up in Hierapolis, instead of availing himself of his many opportunities of meeting men acquainted with the disciples of the Lord! He certainly traveled to Ephesus to meet and be the hearer of St. John.”[63]
    The literary problem surrounding the Papias-John connection poses a somewhat more difficult obstacle. Irenaeus, as cited previously, says that both Polycarp and Papias were disciples of the Apostle John. As a younger contemporary of both men, and most likely himself a resident of Smyrna, Irenaeus was in a position to know the facts of the matter.[64] Eusebius, on the other hand, more than a century removed from these events and no resident of the area (rather Caesarea in Palestine), quotes Papias to the effect that he was a hearer only of those who had personally heard the apostles. He does freely admit, however, that he had direct communication with Aristion and the so-called “presbyter John” who are described by Papias as “disciples of the Lord …”[65]
    More than one commentator has suggested that the proposed two Johns were one and the same.66 Philip Schaff concludes the matter by saying that,

"…it is certainly possible that Papias, like his friend Polycarp, may have seen and heard the aged apostle who lived to the close of the first or the beginning of the second century. It is therefore unnecessary to charge Irenaeus with an error either of name or memory. It is more likely that Eusebius misunderstood Papias, and is responsible for a fictitious John, who has introduced so much confusion into the question of the authorship of the Johannean Apocalypse."[67]

    Papias is known to have written a work entitled, Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord, in five books. Jerome also mentioned a volume entitled, Second Coming of Our Lord or Millennium, as coming from the hand of Papias.[68] Unfortunately, only fragments of and notices about Papias’ works remain. These are contained in the works of a number of early Christian writers, but as stated previously, chiefly in Irenaeus and Eusebius.


    There is precious little by which to evaluate the interpretive method of Papias. But he certainly understood the millennial teachings of John in a literal way. As Shimeall points out, “all that Papias does is, to avow this doctrine, and to tell us that there is nothing mysterious or unintelligible in it, but that it is to be understood in its plain, straight-forward, literal sense.”[69]
    On the other hand, Papias seems not to have been adverse to using the allegorical method of interpretation. Anastasius of Sinai (seventh century) said that Papias, among others, “understood the whole of the Hexaemeron as an allegory referring to Christ and the Church.” And elsewhere he maintained that Papias and his “associates, interpreted the story of paradise allegorically with reference to the Church of Christ.”[70]


    According to Eusebius, Papias taught “that there will be a period of some thousand years after the resurrection of the dead, and that the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this very earth.”[71] As to Papias’ views on the nature of this kingdom, Irenaeus wrote:

"…the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times, and say: The days will come, in which vines shall grow, each having ten thousand branches, and in each branch ten thousand twigs, and in each true twig ten thousand shoots, and in each one of the shoots ten thousand clusters, and on every one of the clusters ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed will give five and twenty metretes of wine."[72]

    In a similar way, the remarkable productivity of grain in the kingdom is described as well as the harmony that will exist among all animals who will be under man’s peaceful control. “And these things,” said Irenaeus, “are born witness to in writing by Papias, the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp…” Then Papias is quoted as saying, “Now these things are credible to believers.”[73]
    Eusebius was quick to point out Papias’ “apparent” weakness of intellect as evidenced by his “misunderstanding of the apostolic accounts.” The error, he insisted, was due to a failure to perceive “that the things said by them were spoken mystically in figures.” Eusebius then credited Papias alone with leading Irenaeus and others astray on this point.[74]
    The suggestion that Irenaeus was simply lead astray in his millennialism by the bishop of Hierapolis is incredible when the reader realizes that before and after the quotation from Papias, Irenaeus labored diligently to support his premillennial position from Scripture. He quoted extensively from all of the major prophets and John to show that the millennial kingdom will be a time of unparalleled peace and fertility.[75] This having been done, Irenaeus concluded that, “Promises of such a nature, therefore, do indicate in the clearest manner the feasting of that creation in the kingdom of the righteous, which God promises that he will himself serve.”[76] Elsewhere, in his treatment of the mark of the beast, Irenaeus revealed that it was his practice to draw doctrine from the inspired text, and only then to marshal extra-biblical support from those who presented themselves in agreement with it.[77] Such was the case regarding Papias’ teaching about the millennium.
Thomas Burnet’s final analysis of the credibility of Papias’ testimony is worth repeating. He wrote:

"… we do not depend upon the learning of Papias, or the depth of his understanding: allow him but to be an honest man, and a fair witness, and ‘tis all we desire. And we have little reason to question his testimony in this point, seeing it is backt by others of good credit; and also because there is not counterevidence, nor any witness that appears against him. For there is not extant, either the Writing, Name, or Memory, of any Person, that contested this doctrine in the first or second Century. I say, that call’d in question this Millenary doctrine, propos’d after a Christian manner; unless such Hereticks as deny’d the Resurrection wholly: or such Christians as deny’d the divine authority of the Apocalypse."[78]

Eschatological outline

    In Papias we have but a brief outline of things to come. Eusebius himself revealed Papias’ belief in the resurrection, followed by the thousand-year millennial reign of Christ.[79] This would of course have to be preceded by Christ’s second coming. While nothing is said about judgment, belief in the eternal state may be taken for granted.

Illustration 2

[1] Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe, eds., Ancient Christian Writers: The Epistles of St. Clement of Rome and St. Ignatius of Antioch, trans. James A. Kleist (New York; Ramsey, N.J.: Newman Press, 1946), pp. 6–7.
[2] John Nelson Darby, The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, 34 vols., ed. William Kelly, Ecclesiastical No. 3 (Sunbury, Penn.: Believers Bookshelf, n.d.), 14:68.
[3] J. A. Seiss, The Last Times (Baltimore: T. Newton Kurtz, 1859), pp. 231–2.
[4] LeRoy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1950), 1:207.
[5] Thomas Burnet, The Sacred Theory of the Earth (London: J. McGowan, n.d.), p. 350.
[6] Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers …,1:205–6.
[7] With respect to this epistolary characterization, exempt status must be granted to The Didache and Hermas’ The Shepherd. The former is a type of early catechism for pagans desiring to become Christians, while the latter, perhaps the work of a Jewish Christian, is an allegorical composition that presents the ethical concerns of purity and repentance couched in apocalyptic language.
[8] Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from and references to the fathers in this study are from: Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans., n.d.).
[9] See Tertullian The Prescription Against Heresies XXXII.
[10] Among those who supported this view was Irenaeus. He says of Clement, “This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles [Peter and Paul], and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes” (Against Heresies III, III, 3). For other early proponents of this view see: Origen Commentary on John 6, 36; Eusebius Church History III, IV, 10; III, XV; Epiphanius Medicine Box XXVII, 6; Jerome Lives of Illustrious Men XV; and Constitutions of the Holy Apostles VI, VIII.
[11] One of the chief opponents of this position is J. B. Lightfoot. He contends that “we have no reason to suppose that it was based on any historical evidence, and we may therefore consider it on its own merits. So considered, it has no claim to acceptance” [J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers: Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp, 5 vols. (London: Macmillan and Co., 1889–1890; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), Pt. 1, Clement, 1:22]. Lightfoot’s learned discussion of the identity of this Clement is found on pp. 22–67 of the above cited work, and in his commentary, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (London: Macmillan and Co., 1913; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1953), pp. 168–71.
While Lightfoot has difficulty with some of the support set forth for the Petrine and Pauline associations of Clement, he nevertheless concedes that “the tradition that he was the disciple of one or both of these Apostles is early, constant, and definite; and it is borne out by the character and contents of the epistle itself” (The Apostolic Fathers, Pt. 1, Clement, 1:4).
[12] Only the letter known as I Clement or The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (written a.d 96 or 97) is counted as genuine. A Second Epistle to the Corinthians (II Clement), two Letters to Virgins, the Clementine Homilies and so-called Recognitions, are all generally considered to be spurious.
[13] See I Clement XXV, where Clement retells this myth from classical antiquity as an illustration of the resurrection of the believer. While Clement appears to have been the first to employ the legend in this manner, it was later so used by Tertullian (see On the Resurrection of the Flesh XIV).
[14] I Clement XII. Later fathers followed the same line of interpretation. See Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho CXII; Irenaeus Ag. Her. IV, XX, p. 12.
[15] George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom of Our Lord Jesus, the Christ, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publishing House, 1958), 1:494–5. For all three of these “particulars,” see I Clement XXIII.
[16] Peters, 1:495.
[17] Jesse Forrest Silver, The Lord’s Return (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1914), p. 51.
[18] Seiss, The Last Times…, pp. 238–9. See II Clement IX, XI, and XII. While this spurious epistle cannot be used in support of Clement’s premillennialism, it nevertheless provides support for the pervasiveness of this view in the early church. Written sometime between a.d 138 and 150, this sermonic letter is “probably the oldest in postapostolic literature” [J. D. Douglas, ed., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974), p. 235]. Clement said, “we shall enter into His kingdom, and shall receive the promises …” (Chap. XI). The Roman bishop maintained that in this kingdom, which will be established at God’s appearing (Chap. XII), we shall be judged and receive rewards in the flesh (Chap. IX).
[19] I Clement XXIII. The two Scripture passages are from Habakkuk 2:3 (comp. Hebrews 10:37) and Malachi 3:1 respectively.
[20] Ibid., Chap. XXXIV.
[21] Ibid., Chap. XXXV.
[22] Robert H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 173.
[23] Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation…, p. 173.
[24] Ibid., pp. 93-95.
[25] Ibid., p. 173.
[26] I Clement XXIV-XXVIII.
[27] Apparently he was the third bishop after Peter, Evodius being the second (see Eusebius Ch. Hist. III, XVIII; Jerome Lives of Illus. Men XVI; and Constitutions of the Holy Apostles VII, XLVI).
[28] Lightfoot credits the spurious Antiochene Acts and the Chronicon of Eusebius as revised by Jerome as the sources of the Johannine association (The Apostolic Fathers, Pt. 1, Clement, 1:4, and Pt. 2, Ignatius and Polycarp, 1:29 respectively). However, this connection is also made in The Martyrdom of Ignatius, Chap. I. The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles names Paul as the minister of Ignatius’ ordination at Antioch (VII, XLVI). The discipleship under Peter is no doubt a conclusion drawn from that apostle’s supposed position as first bishop of the Antiochene church.
[29] Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, Pt. 2, Ignatius and Polycarp, 1:30.
[30] Ibid., Pt. 1, Clement, 1:4.
[31] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith (Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux Brothers, 1953), p. 21. cf. Peters, 1:495.
[32] Daniel T. Taylor, The Reign of Christ on Earth: Or the Voice of the Church in All Ages, Concerning the Coming and Kingdom of the Redeemer (Boston: Scriptural Tract Repository, 1882), p. 54. It is generally assumed that Ignatius’s thirst for martyrdom was a direct result of his resurrection hope. Ignatius wrote, “But when I suffer, I shall be the freedman of Jesus, and shall rise again emancipated in Him” (Epistle to the Romans IV). “This belief [in Christ’s bodily resurrection],” says Shimeall, “in connection with his hope of having a part in the first resurrection, was what lead him to despise death and aspire after martyrdom, which was a general characteristic of the Christians of that age” [Richard Cunningham Shimeall, Christ’s Second Coming: Is It Pre-Millennial Or Post-Millennial? (New York: John F. Trow and Richard Brinkerhoff, 1865), p. 63].
[33] Ibid., p. 54.
[34] Ignatius Epistle to the Ephesians XI.
[35] Ibid., Epistle to Polycarp I.
[36] Ibid., Chap. III.
[37] See Epistle to the Ephesians XI and XVI respectively.
[38] Irenaeus Against Heresies III, III, p. 4.
[39] Tertullian The Prescription Against Heresies XXXII. Lightfoot estimates that “Polycarp was thirty years old, or possibly more, before the death of this last surviving Apostle” (The Apostolic Fathers, Pt. 2, Ignatius and Polycarp, 1:441).
[40] Irenaeus Against Heresies III, I, 1; III, III, 4; Eusebius Church History III, I, 1; III, XXXI, 1; V, XXIV, 3–4.
[41] See the appendix for the connections between the early fathers and the Apostle John.
[42] See Eusebius Church History V, XX, 8.
[43] Polycarp Epistle to the Philippians V.
[44] Irenaeus Against Heresies, V, XXXIII, 3–4. Cf. Eusebius Church History III, XXXIX.
[45] Polycarp Epistle to the Philippians VII. On the certainty of the resurrection see also Chaps. II and V, and The Martyrdom of Polycarp XIV. For reference to the judgment seat of Christ, see Chap. VI, and to the saints as judges of the world, Chap. XI.
[46] Irenaeus Against Heresies V, XXXIII, p. 4.
[47] W. E. Blackstone, Jesus Is Coming (Chicago, New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1908), p. 68.
[48] Jean Danielou, The Development of Christian Doctrine Before the Council of Nicaea, vol. 1: The Theology of Jewish Christianity (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1964), p. 380.
[49] R. Ludwigson, A Survey of Bible Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 128.
[50] Eusebius Church History III, XXXIX, pp. 3–4 (italics added).
[51] Ibid., III, XXXIX, 6-7. For a valuable discussion of the authorship of the Revelation and early support for the Apostle John, see John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966), pp. 11-14.
[52] Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Pt. 2, Ignatius and Polycarp, 1:440–41.
[53] Ibid., 441; cf. Pt. 1, Clement, 1:4; and Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III, III, 4.
[54] Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Pt. 2, Ignatius and Polycarp, 1:441.
[55] Ibid., p. 442.
[56] Ibid., Pt. 1, Clement, 1:4-5.
[57] Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe, eds., Ancient Christian Writers: The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, The Fragments of Papias, The Epistle to Diognetus, trans. James A. Kleist (New York; Ramsey, N.J.: Newman Press, 1946), p. 204.
[58] The question of the date of Papias’ conversion to Christianity has some bearing here of course, but that date is not known. However, the veneration with which he was regarded by the early church and the tone of the fragmentary references to him suggest a seasoned saint with a lifetime of commitment to the cause of Christ.
[59] William H. Ramsay, The Historical Geography of Asia Minor (London: John Murray, 1890), p. 164. A Roman mile equaled 1,614.6 yards, to 1,760 for a statute mile.
[60] Charles F. Pfeiffer and Howard F. Vos, eds., The Wycliffe Historical Geography of Bible Lands (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968), p. 455. Here it is estimated that one could walk an average of 17 miles per day on a Roman road.
[61] Ramsay, p. 168. Ramsay gives 107 Roman miles as the distance between Laodicea and Ephesus. It is an additional 6 miles between Hierapolis and Laodicea, for a total of 113 Roman miles (see Pfeiffer and Vos, p. 379).
[62] Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, Pt. 2, Ignatius and Polycarp, 1:442. Lightfoot makes this statement with regard to the distance that separated Polycarp and Papias. However, if one examines a map of the Roman road system of that day, it becomes immediately apparent that the distance between Hierapolis and Ephesus is some miles shorter than that between Hierapolis and Smyrna. If we follow Lightfoot’s reasoning, we must conclude that Papias rejected the shorter journey to see the beloved apostle of our Lord, John, for the longer excursion to visit the bishop of Smyrna! And this, if we follow Lightfoot’s line of reasoning, would have been a decision made not infrequently!
[63] Quasten and Plumpe, Ancient Christian Writers: The Didache, etc., p. 109.
[64] See Irenaeus’s letter to Florinus as quoted by, Eusebius Church History V, XX, pp. 3–8. Here Irenaeus recounts his remembrance of Polycarp and his teachings. The whole tone of the account suggests the long and steady exposure of a youngster to the teachings of the venerable old saint. This could hardly have taken place anywhere other than in the location of Polycarp’s own bishopric of Smyrna.
[65] Eusebius Church History III, XXXIX, pp. 5 and 7.
[66] Quasten and Plumpe, Ancient Christian Writers: The Didache, etc., 108; Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1910), 2:697–8.
[67] Schaff, 2:698.
[68] Jerome Lives of Illustrious Men XVIII.
[69] Shimeall, p. 27 (italics his). This is in direct contrast to Eusebius’s supposition that Papias “got these ideas [thousand year earthly millennium following resurrection] through a misunderstanding of the apostolic accounts, not perceiving that the things said by them were spoken mystically in figures” (Eusebius Church History III, XXXIX, p. 12).
[70] Quasten and Plumpe, Ancient Christian Writers: The Didache, etc., 120–1. In each citation, Anastasius connects Papias’ name with that of a well-known allegorist. In the first instance it is Pantaenus, founder of the Alexandrian School. In the second, it is Philo, the Jewish Hellenistic philosopher who laid the foundation for that school.
[71] Eusebius Church History III, XXXIX, p. 12.
[72] Irenaeus Against Heresies V, XXXII, pp. 3–4.
[73] Ibid.
[74] Eusebius Church History III, XXXIX, p. 12. The interesting thing to note here is that Eusebius evidently believed Papias really did receive his “grape story” from apostolic sources. Many contemporary writers, on the other hand, have tended to cite Jewish apocalyptic works as the well spring from which the story came. Schaff quotes the Apocalypse of Baruch [Chap. 29] as a possible source (History of the Christian Church, 2:616), while C. A. Briggs states flatly that this is its origin [“Origin and History of Premillennialism,” Lutheran Quarterly 9 (April 1879), p. 219)]. Reinhold Seeberg adds I Enoch X, p. 19, as a source [The History of Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, n.d.), p. 70]. Others have suggested that it is simply hyperbolic language (Silver, 61), or perhaps a misrepresentation of Papias’ original text by opponents of millennialism, if not in fact a mischievous interpolation (Peters, 1:452). In point of fact, however, those closest to Papias authenticated the story. They were in disagreement only as to his acquaintance with the Apostle John and his interpretation of a story believed to have come from the Lord through the apostle.
[75] Irenaeus Against Heresies V, XXXIII, 4-XXXIV, p. 4.
[76] Ibid, V, XXXIV, p. 3.
[77] Ibid., V, XXX, p. 1. Here Irenaeus said, “Such, then, being the state of the case, and this number being found in all the most approved and ancient copies [of the Apocalypse], and those men who saw John face to face bearing their testimony [to it] …”
[78] Burnet, p. 348.
[79] Eusebius Church History III, XXXIX, p. 12