Polycarp Versus The Progressives

In 1973, Charles Merritt Nielsen imagined what might have happened had Polycarp (69–155 AD), the senior pastor of the Christian congregation in Smyrna (today Izmir, Turkey), adopted the rhetoric of the theological progressives, who look for approval from the broader, unbelieving world:

Polycarp would not tolerate any deviation from the traditions of Christianity as he understood them, and he seemed forever asking his readers to turn back to the faith delivered to us from the beginning. In terms of such a point of view, one can well imagine Polycarp’s attitude toward heretics and pagans, even if such an attitude is surprising and uncongenial to many modern Protestants.

For instance, Polycarp did not embrace heretics in the following or in any other manner:

“Wow, Marcion, you have really got some beautiful insights for us to share. Man, you are truly relevant to our second-century situation with its metaphysical opposition of spirit and matter. In fact, as far as I can see, your docetic Christology is the only one compatible with our prevailing contemporary thought-forms. If Christianity is going to survive, it’s just got to relate in a positive way to the best thinking in the culture. So it’s really neat that you deny Christ a human body. Now he can speak to our modern world with contemporary effectiveness and not insult the intelligence of Christianity’s cultured despisers. So many educated people find the idea of the resurrection of the flesh so crude and repulsive that your swell description of flesh as dung forces them to accept the faith on a higher and more sophisticated level. We understand perfectly why you throw up at even the thought of sex. And as for you Valentinians, let me express my gratitude for your terrific creativity in always making up new myths. This is really exciting and necessary because in order to survive we must be constantly open to constant change…

Instead of all this, Polycarp said to Marcion: “I know you, the first-born of Satan.”

—”Polycarp: Model for Seminarians” Theology Today 30, no. 2 (July 1973): 178–80.

Thanks to WSC student Richard Haynes for this quotation.

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  1. According to modern progressives, Christ without a body is either a christ-consciousness to be channeled or a being of light, Ascended Master or spirit guide existing on an astral plane.

  2. Polycarp’s letter is also largelyu a pastiche of quotes from the canonical New Testament. I suppose a lot of moderns would be disappointed in his failure to quote from the Chenoboskion materials (presumably in their Greek exemplars rather than the extant Coptic translations).

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