The term employed for a collection of the earliest Christian writings contemporary with and succeeding the later New Testament documents. The Monophysites already used it, but its precise denotation is still disputed. In 1672 J. B. Cotelier published works by Pseudo-Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, Clement I of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna under the name Patres aevi apostolici. In a second edition in 1698, J. Clericus used the expression Apostolic Fathers (Patres apostolici ); but L. Ittig restricted the term to Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp in 1699. However the name was extended later to include the Ad Diognetum, fragments of Papias of Hierapolis, Quadratus, the Presbyter fragments in Irenaeus and the Didache.
Apostolic Tradition. Pieces of different types and times of composition were thus bound together as a whole, but the term Apostolic in a strict sense used as a historical and traditional qualification was not applicable to each of the authors included. It would seem proper to limit the term Apostolic Fathers to those non-New Testament early Christian authors who were disciples or hearers of the Apostles (in a strict sense) or, even though without personal contact with the Apostles, demonstrate their particular respect for them, and in a comparatively truer sense are carriers and witnesses of Apostolic tradition.
Inclusion. These attributes belong to St. Clement of Rome's letter to the Corinthians, the seven letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch and the two letters of St. Polycarp of Smyrna; Quadratus, though actually an apologist, should also be added (Eusebius Hist. eccl. 4.3). All the writings falsely attributed to these men, such as the so-called Second Letter of Clement, should be excluded, as well as the reports of their martyrdom, which do not come from their works. Neither the so-called Letter of Barnabas, nor the work of the Shepherd of Hermas, qualify as Apostolic Fathers under the criteria in the sense described above. The Ad Diognetum was scarcely written by Quadratus and is of later authorship, while Papias was probably not an immediate disciple of the Apostles, but hands down an at least partially confused tradition. The Didache, recently studied as a collection of instructions given by Apostles in a generic sense, probably stands closest in time and content to the Twelve and thus could be added as an appendix to the Apostolic Fathers. Finally there are sayings of the Apostolic Fathers in the Presbyter sections of irenaeus.
Literary Form. With regard to literary form, the Apostolic Fathers imitate the Epistles of the Apostles. Their language in general, the Greek Koine, is influenced by the Septuagint and gives signs of the formation of a Christian Sondersprache or idiom. Yet there are stylistic differences among them: they extend from simple and uncontrived narrative as in Polycarp, through changes of format (Clement of Rome), to the passionately mystic expressions of Ignatius of Antioch. The classical rules of rhetoric and letter writing were not unknown to the Apostolic Fathers, and the authors are related to one another in literary dependence.
Theological Witness. In the ancient Church these writings received a high, partially canonical evaluation. They possess an uncommon significance as the oldest testimonies to the development of the christian way of life alongside and after the New Testament.
For Biblical theology, they show the way from an extraordinary consideration of the Old Testament (Clement of Rome and partly the Didache) to the formation of the New Testament canon; and in Polycarp there is all but clear certification of the Pauline Corpus.
The scriptural inspiration of the Holy Spirit is clearly taught, and doctrinally the Apostolic Fathers are the oldest witnesses for the creed tradition. Their declarations concerning the three divine Persons, and particularly their witnesses to Christology and the Redemption as the midpoint of the new faith, are a reflective and clarifying theology, in part mystical, particularly in Ignatius, and based primarily on the foundation of the Scripture and the earlier Apostolic preaching.
The concept of the church exhibited by the Apostolic Fathers is stamped with the battle against schisms and primitive heresies. Hence the essential and necessary oneness of the Catholic Church (καθολικὴ ἐκκλεσία, first used by Ignatius: Smyr. 8.2), as an organism and the Body of Christ, is signified by a unified community whose character is demonstrated in unity with the bishop and in a common celebration of the liturgy.
In Ignatius there is a development of the theology and mystique of ecclesiastical offices, particularly that of the bishop. Besides the idea of spiritual unity, a Godwilled hierarchy differentiated into clergy and laity (λαϊκός, first used by Clement 40.5) is given prominence. The Didache describes a collegial hierarchy in the community, and a definite teaching authority of the charismatically gifted; meanwhile there is evidence in the other documents for a transition from a collegiate to a monarchical episcopate without loss of the benefit of extraordinary charisms. Ignatius is the first witness to the threefold order: bishop, priests, and deacons; and the commanding position of the Roman church is indicated early on (Clement of Rome and Ignatius). There is likewise evidence for the ecclesiastical position of widows and virgins. In the contribution of Ignatius one finds beginnings of patristic sacramental theology (particularly in regard to the Eucharist).
The writings of the Apostolic Fathers state the faith with regard to sin, justification and grace, as well as the possibility of cooperation in salvation, and they offer numerous examples for it. Abstracting from the "one Penance" doctrine of the Shepherd of Hermas, who does not properly belong to the Apostolic Fathers, the theology and practice of Penance is developed beyond the foundation appearing in the New Testament.
In eschatological thought the authentic Apostolic Fathers are sober, but filled with the hope of the nearness of the Lord. Finally, the letter of Clement affords an insight into contemporary preaching on the resurrection of the flesh (ch. 24–26).
In their writings, the Apostolic Fathers desire above all else to serve the divinely willed order in the Church, and directions in moral, ascetical and pastoral theology play an important role. The call to faith, fraternal charity and ecclesiastical obedience is clear and notable. Whereas in the letter of Clement and the Didache, great Old Testament influence appears, in Ignatius the imitation of and union with Christ becomes an essential motive. Stimulated also by his mysticism, Ignatius likewise elaborates an early Christian theology of martyrdom. The Apostolic Fathers approach the pagan state with express loyalty. Finally these writings are sources for the Church history of their time, especially for the history of the liturgy: the Didache records the earliest texts for the performance of Baptism and the celebration of the Eucharist; the letter of Clement gives the oldest form of prayer of the community (Ch. 59–61); and Ignatius' letters are likewise rich in liturgical allusions.
Certain Hellenistic elements from philosophy, Gnosticism and an insight into the mystery religions in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers attest the education and spiritual predilection of the authors; an example of this is the obvious Stoic influence on the letter of Clement.
Bibliography: Editions and translations. k. bihlmeyer and w. schneemelcher, Die Apostolischen Väter (Tübingen 1956–). j. a. fischer, Die Apostolischen Väter (Munich 1956). l. t. lefort, Les Pères Apostoliques en copte, 2 v. [Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum (Vienna 1866–) 135–136, Scriptores Coptici 17–18; 1952]. e. j. goodspeed, The Apostolic Fathers (New York 1950). j. a. kleist, Ancient Christian Writers 6 (1948). Literature. h. kraft, Clavis Patrum Apostolicorum (Munich 1964). b. altaner, Patrology, tr. h. graef from 5th German ed. (New York 1960) 50–54, 80–88, 97–113, 117–118. j. quasten, Patrology, 3 v. (Westminister, Md. 1950–) 1:29–105. g. jouassard, "Le Groupement des Pères dits Apostoliques," Mélanges de science religieuse, 14 (1957) 129–134. h. piesik, Bildersprache der Apostolischen Väter (Bonn 1961). j. lawson, A Theological and Historical Introduction to the Apostolic Fathers (New York 1961). g. kittel, "Der Jakobusbrief und die Apostolischen Väter," Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche, 43 (1950–51) 54–112. f. x. gokey, The Terminology for the Devil and Evil Spirits in the Apostolic Fathers (Washington 1961). The Apostolic Fathers, ed. r. m. grant, v.1 (New York 1964). s. tugwell, The Apostolic Fathers (Harrisburg, Pa. 1990). c. n. jefford, Reading the Apostolic Fathers: An Introduction (Peabody, Mass. 1996).
[j. a. fischer]