The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 1


Part IV-Historical Conflicts Compass the Early Centuries (A.D. 150 to A.D. 500)-Positions of Subapostolic and Ante-Nicene Fathers, and Post-Nicene Developments Eventuate in a Theological Trilemma

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR: Subapostolic Writers Consistently Conditionalist

I. Significance of Testimony of Apostolic Fathers

The term Apostolic Fathers, coined later, embraces those Christian writers of the subapostolic age who lived nearest to, or whose lives partly paralleled, the last of the apostles. They are usually listed as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, the writer of The Didache and of the Epistle of Barnabas, Hermas of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Papias. And to these is sometimes added the writer of The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus and that of the Homily of Clement. The time spread is about the first half of the second century. CFF1 757.1

True, the writings are fragmentary. Some are lost, but others are preserved in whole or in part, though oft in tampered form. The precise authorship of certain extant treatises such as The Didache is not known. Nevertheless they reveal the faith of the writer at that time, and reflect with some fidelity views current in that early period. They are therefore of definite value in our quest, for they are the most primitive writings of early Christian witness that have been preserved, and constitute all of the available writings of the earlier successors of the apostles. Their contrast with the inspired writings of Scripture is, of course, tremendous. CFF1 757.2

Theirs was the hazy period of early dawn, before the amplified literature of the early philosophers of the church had developed. The writings of the Apostolic Fathers were largely letters. But they form the connecting link between the apostles and the Ante-Nicene Fathers. They were, moreover, written in the time of accelerating speed in the spread of the church, and embraced the time of the early martyrs under the inhuman cruelties of pagan persecution, from Domitian onward. CFF1 757.3

Chart 1 Three Concepts Of Life And Death Among Early Church Writers:
This chronological and categorical table indicates the approximate dating and variant views on the nature and destiny of man held by approximately forty leading Church Fathers—Apostolic, Ante-Nicene, and Post-Nicene—down to Augustine. It thus classifies and groups the three conflicting postulates on human destiny and the future punishment of the wicked completely developed by the close of the third century.
The table discloses the fact that the dogma of universal innate Immortality was not introduced until toward the close of the second century A.D.—ten writers of the first school being on record before the introduction of the second school, in the third century. It identifies those responsible for first fastening upon the church the Platonic dogma of the deathlessness of all souls, and because of this the corollary of endless life in the incorrigibly wicked. It likewise shows how the Origenistic third school of Universal Restorationism did not appear until a half century later. Thus the fatal gap between the original positions of the primitive faith and these later innovations becomes apparent.
CONCLUSIONS AND OBSERVATIONS: 1. TERTULLIAN and AUGUSTINE in particular, in maintaining the position of the Endless Torment of the wicked, held that they will be cast into eternal fire for punishment, which is scriptural. But, at the same time holding to the Platonic philosophy of inherent indefeasible immortality for all men, they erred in teaching that the wicked will burn on in conscious torment, forever without end. Thus they flouted the Bible declaration that after due and just punishment the wicked will be utterly consumed, pass out of existence, and cease to be.
2. On the other hand, ORIGEN and his followers, holding to the same general Platonic premise of universal Innate Immortality, taught that God will not permit sin and sinners to continue on defiantly forever—which position is likewise borne out by Scripture. But they likewise erred by introducing Universal Restorationism as the means of accomplishing this end. They thereby equally left the Divine Word for human invention and Platonic philosophy, and promised life where God had threatened death. Moreover, such a position involves a forced salvation—coercing the will of free ma moral agents to conform to universal righteousness.
3. It remains to be added that the Augustinian theory finally prevailed and became the “orthodox” dogma of the dominant medieval Roman Catholic Church. And it was likewise retained by a majority of the Protestant bodies that emerged during the Protestant Reformation.
4. Always, through the centuries, there have been holders of the original Conditionalist Immortality and final destruction of the wicked positions of the earliest church writers, the Apostolic Fathers, and Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. These positions continued to strengthen up until Lactantius. And these continuing witnesses have steadily grown in number and volume from Reformation days onward, climaxing with major developments of the nieteenth and twentieth centuries.
[Some reserve must be made concerning a few writers, indicated by a superior figure (1), who were predominantly Conditionalist, but whose writings include always consistent therewith.]
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Picture 1 Rome:
Rome Ruled the World From Her Seven-hilled Splendor When the Followers of Christ Spread Their Message of Life Through a Risen Saviour.
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They constitute, as it were, the lingering echoes of apostolic teaching, but in progressively distorted form. Such legends as that of the fabled phoenix were by this time beginning to appear—the phoenix being a sacred bird in Egyptian mythology, supposed to live for five hundred years. And, at the expiration of its life, it allegedly made a nest of twigs on which it died by burning itself alive. Then from the ashes, according to mythology, there arose another phoenix, young and beautiful. Thus it was that the phoenix came to be taken as an early symbol of immortality and the resurrection. CFF1 760.1

The church of this period, it is to be noted, was expanding while the might of Roman dominion was at its widest and loftiest sway. Thus the full, oppressive weight of pagan persecution and philosophy was exerted upon the expanding church, and an inescapable conflict developed. The Early Church was distinctly premillennialist in her expectancy of the Second Advent, which was ever her ardent hope and anticipation, to be inseparably accompanied by the literal resurrection of the saints and the establishment of the kingdom of God. Such is her eschatology. CFF1 760.2

Picture 2Caesars:
Rome and the Caesars Provided the Setting of Christ’s Life and the Beginning of the Christian Church and Its Message of Life in Christ. Here are Nero, Augustus, and Diocletian.
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The two ways, as they are called, are constantly set forth, and the endings of the ways, life and death—with eternal life and immortality as the gift of God for the redeemed, and restricted to believers; and the contrary doom of death and everlasting destruction for the impenitently wicked. This pattern, or emphasis, is woven consistently throughout the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, which we now examine. CFF1 761.1

NOTE: At the very outset of the excerpts to follow from the various Church Fathers, we would repeat that, as with the apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writers of the inter-Testament period, we are not here offering a new and critical translation of these Early Christian Church writers. Rather, we are using standard acceptable translations as the basis for ascertaining their testimony and drawing sound conclusions therefrom, premised on their recorded teachings as to the nature and destiny of man. Occasionally, alternative translations are used for clarification. But these are taken from other recognized renderings. CFF1 762.1