Polycarp Vs. The Christian Nationalists

The Christian Nationalists are proposing an American Revolution. Some of them want, in place of free churches, voluntarily attended by free Americans, to institute a federal church, directly contrary to the First Amendment of the Constitution—”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Other Christian Nationalists propose a return to the time ante 1833, when there were still state-churches in the USA. One way or another, they have a plan to “take back” or take over the USA. Like the Roman Catholic integralists, they too have given up on the tradition known as classical liberalism in which this nation was founded. In this way, and in others, the Christian Nationalist Statement, with which I have been interacting article-by-article, is, I have been arguing, in important ways, sub-Christian. It is also utterly alien to the ethos and eschatology of the early post-apostolic theologians.

This week I was impressed by how different Polycarp’s epistle to the Philippians is from the ethos and eschatology, and of the TheoRecons and the Christian Nationalists. When they think of the history of the church, the Apostolic epoch and the pre-Constantinian and pre-Theodosian (i.e., pre-AD 380), are absent from their picture of the world. Theodosius, however, even more than Constantine, is very much before them. One of their writers speaks of a charismatic Caesar-like figure to rally the “the people,” and of the “National spirit.”

I have introduced Polycarp before—some reflection on Polycarp is becoming an annual tradition—so I will not repeat all that here. The interested reader should see the resources attached to this essay. He was an important figure in the early post-Apostolic church. He was the senior pastor (ἐπίσκοπος) in Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), who had heard the Apostle John, who wrote the Epistle to the Philippians about AD 125, and who might also have written the Treatise (not epistle) to Diognetus about 25 years later,1 shortly before his martyrdom in the early to mid-AD 150s.

Philippi was a foundational apostolic church. Formed by Paul from a small group of ladies who were praying by the river (Acts 16). It was a town with strong connections to the Roman empire, where there were a number of retired imperial servants and soldiers. For this reason, both in the canonical letter to the Philippian congregation (e.g. Phil 3:20) and in Polycarp’s letter some 80 years later, there is a made a very clear distinction between the Kingdom of God and the Roman Empire. Paul says, “our citizenship is in heaven.” He was not denying that we have an earthly citizenship. He himself invoked his Roman citizenship when it advanced the gospel (after he allowed Roman officials to beat him, contrary to Roman law).

In the 14 chapters—some of them quite brief, only a sentence or two—Polycarp (“fruitful”) points the Philippian congregation to Christ, thanks them for their encouragement of Ignatius, the senior pastor of Antioch, as he was on his way with Sozimos and Rufus to Rome to be martyred. From Polycarp, we learn that, in fact, they were martyred and are with the Lord right now—not because they died, but rather “in faith” and “in righteousness” (ἀλλʼ ἐν πίστει καὶ δικαιοσύνῃ; 9:2). Polycarp knew nothing of a purgatory. He also unambiguously taught the Philippians that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone (2:1), that, despite the suffering of Christians in this life, Christ is reigning right now at the right hand of the Father (2:1). Polycarp was no Christian Nationalist but neither was he a Dispensationalist.

I say that, in part, because of the way Polycarp reads and applies both the Beatitudes of our Lord and 1 Peter to the church in Philippi. He closes chapter 2 with a quotation from Luke 6:20 or Matthew 5:10, “blessed (μακάριος) are the poor and those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.” When Polycarp wrote persecution was a reality. Christians had been put to death for Christ and many others would be. He agreed with Jesus that it is blessed to suffer for Christ. The Christian Nationalists, TheoRecons, and other triumphalists simply cannot account for this way of thinking. Like Marcionites and some of the radical Dispensationalists (or like a kick returner weaving his way downfield), they pick and choose which of our Lord’s words or which parts of the New Testament they regard as “for today.” In Christian Nationalism, it is not blessed to be persecuted. It is a pity and a situation that requires a plan to fight back politically and perhaps militarily.

Chapter 8 is particularly relevant here. He does not call the Philippians to strategize for a culture war in the Empire but to

hold steadfastly and unceasingly to our hope and the guarantee of our righteousness, who is Christ Jesus, ‘who bore our sins in his own body upon the tree, who committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth’ (1 Pet 2:24, 22). Let us, therefore, become imitators of his patient endurance, and if we should suffer for the sake of his name, let us glorify him. For this is the example he set for us in his own person (1 Pet 2:21), and this is what we have believed (Ep to Phil 8:1,2).2

Polycarp’s ethos was that suffering is a blessing. It is an opportunity for mortification. It is an opportunity to glorify Christ. He praised Ignatius, Sozimus, and Rufus as “blessed” (μακάριος; 9.1) because they served the churches all the way to Rome. They served their Lord all the way to death, because he first served them by going to his death. Ignatius pleaded with the congregation at Rome that they should not make use of whatever connections of influence to prevent him from being martyred. It is not that he had a death wish, but rather that since he had been arrested, had he not been martyred (i.e., given witness to the end), and it might have caused Christians to question whether he had lapsed and denied Christ at the end. Remember, the Romans would have demanded that he renounce Christ, swear to Caesar as a god, and to pour out an offering (a pagan sacrament) sealing his oath.

Ignatius, Sozimus, and Rufus were blessed because they were privileged: “they suffered with the Lord” (9:2; παρὰ τῷ κυρίῳ, ᾧ καὶ συνέπαθον). In chapter 10 (which we have only in Latin), he urges the Philippians to “stand fast” and “follow the example of the Lord” by showing love, by behaving well before the pagans so that the name of the Lord might not be blasphemed. Part of following the example of the Lord is to suffer for him and with him, which is exactly what the Apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:20; 3:14, 17; 4:12–14, 15, 19. It is a major theme in Peter, in the gospels, and not a minor theme in Paul.

It is certainly a major theme in Polycarp. In 12:3 we are to pray for all, for kings—remember that Claudius had been literal mortal enemies to Christians—”and for powers and principalities,” and even “for those who persecute you and who hate you and for those who are enemies (inimicis) of the cross in order that your fruit might be manifest before all, in order that you might be sanctified.”

Polycarp was not a theologian of glory (earthly conquest in this life). His expectation was that just as Jesus suffered for us, so too should we expect to suffer. Those Christians who mock suffering only show their ignorance of Holy Scripture and of the Christian experience before Christendom. It also shows how little they understand of where we are now. We ought to be paying close attention to Polycarp. He, Ignatius, and the other pre-Constantinian fathers have given us the pattern for life after Christendom.

Polycarp’s hope was not to capture the levers of power in the Roman government, nor to put to the service of Christ the hardened and bloodied armies of the empire. He was not a Muslim. The prophet led by the sword but Jesus led by the cross. The Roman authorities finally arrested and martyred Polycarp not because he was another Bar-Kokhba (who led a violent revolution against Rome in the early AD 130s). They arrested him solely because he was a Christian minister, who preached that Christ, who died and was raised, is king over all, that he has a spiritual kingdom, and that he is coming again. He died not as a criminal but as Christ did.

NOTES

1. See Charles E. Hill, From the Lost Teaching of Polycarp: Identifying Irenaeus’ Apostolic Presbyter and the Author of ad Diognetum. vol. 186, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006) and my review in The Confessional Presbyterian 5 (2009): 283–86.

2. Quotations are from Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translation (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1999).

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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12 comments

  1. Polycarp’s suffering servanthood has been a model for Christians for centuries now, and I am sure his influence will carry on. I think of 2 Corinthians 4 when I think of Polycarp, and CN’s need to brush up on that passage too.

  2. I get it that suffering may be God’s refining fire, but the history of persecution has loosed as much bad fruit as good. The Roman persecutions gave us not only the Apologists, Polycarp, and a noble division of the noble army of martyr, but also gave us Novatianists and Montanists. The persecution of the Huguenots unleashed the French “prophets” and their nonsense on Britain. Kim Ilsung’s attempts to stamp out the religion of his parents (both were originally Presbyterian deacons) gave us Sun Myung Moon. Communists persecutions of Christians have birthed Eastern Lightning and Shouters.

    I do not wish to disparage those who must bear the very heavy cross of persecution, or discourage others from facing it if it must come. But we must not romanticize persecution; and must pray for the peace of God’s church, and work for the same.

    I’m not sure I fall into the Christian Nationalist category. But I pray that the true Reformed faith will be countenanced and followed (if not maintained–leave that to the giving faithful) by the civil magistrate. I pray that Gospel truth will pervade the laws and institutions of the land (something Toyohiko Kagawa, admired by such a Reformed stalwart as J.K. Van Balen, wished to see happen in his own Japan). I am not for coercion, but before an increasingly relentless juggernaut of anti-Christianity, I begin to wonder if the Sea Beggar or Covenanter right of resistance option might not be a better one than the Benedict option. After all, our opponents with one hand generously allow us our prayer closets while insisting on taking our children and affirming that “the personal is political”.

    • Peter,

      Our Lord Jesus says that suffering for his sake is blessed. There is no way for the triumphalist/theocratic/Christendom paradigm to account for that. It’s irreconcilable with the New Testament. I don’t know who is romanticizing persecution. It’s not I. It was and is an ugly reality and much to be avoided but when it comes we ought to be Germanicus and not him who rushed to it and then apostatized at the end. The Fathers themselves warned against romanticizing persecution.

      As much bad fruit as good? That’s hyperbole. The Donatist movement died out (with Constantine’s help!) as did the Novationist movement before it. Yes, there are sectarian reactions to persecution. We’re seeing it now in Moscow etc and we’re not even under actual persecution. Theocracy is also a bad reaction to persecution—so perhaps you have a point but it’s not the point you were making.

      Yes, Scripture exhorts/commands us to pray that we might live quietly and in peace but Peter also tells us that we should not surprised (1 Peter 4:12ff) when “fiery trials” come upon us. It is the nature of life between ascension and the return of Christ. It’s not always that way but it can get that way and frequently has done.

      The Covenanter program rested on some very dubious assumptions, chief among them that any nation can be “covenanted” as a nation with God. It cannot. There was one covenanted nation and that covenant was broken before it began and they were exiled from the land for their apostasy. That nation expired, as such, with the death of Christ. There is and can be no other. The purpose of that epoch was to point to the King who rules all the nations in his general providence and who rules is church specially and who is coming again. The other bad premise of the Covenanter movement was/is that Christ is Lord over the magistrate is precisely the same way he is over the church. Rutherford and Gillespie quite rightly rejected that notion as Romanizing.

      Rutherford On The Mediatorial Kingship Of Christ

      Perkins on the Mediatorial Kingship of Christ

      Variety Of Reformed Views On Mediatorial Kingship

      I certainly hope that you’re not falling for the Christian Nationalist snake oil. That is a movement we will come to regret very much.

  3. I’m no theocrat, but how do we account for Nebuchadnezar’s (attempted) enforcement of Christianity, if we can speak anachronistically?

    • Well, it could seem to be an instance of an enforcement of Christianity outside of the Mosaic Covenant, that is noted in the bible as an indication of Nebuchadnezars repentance

      • Sam,

        Interesting question. Though the substance of the covenant of grace is one (and thus, the covenant of grace is one) it is a little anachronistic to speak of “Christianity” during that epoch of redemptive history. We can speak of the church because the word Qahal means, essentially, church and is translated thus in both the LXX and the NT. The point of the end of Daniel 3 and the beginning of Daniel 4 is that the power and glory of the God of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is so great that even the pagan Nebuchadnezzar had to acknowledge it. He made a decree that forbad anyone to speak against their God but he didn’t institute the Jewish religion.

        In Daniel 4:25, 32 Nebuchadnezzar is still being made to know, even after he has praised the God of Daniel et al., that the Lord is God. At the end of ch. 4 he praises God (again).

        Was he converted? It’s an open question.

        Where exactly did he make the religion of Daniel et al the state religion?

        Let’s say he did. Christ has not yet come, obeyed, and died. During the life of Daniel we are still under the types and shadows. Everyone has a state religion. The point of appealing to Polycarp is that, in light of Christ, he had no interest in a state religion.

        It was the Christians who taught the world that the state could be secular. Jesus, the apostles, and the early church never asked for a state church because that epoch in redemptive history is past.

  4. Speaking of Rutherford, I think more than anyone he is an example of how one might on the one hand believe in and “fight” for an established church and yet be able to say it is *blessed* when we suffer..

    “be strong in His power; for you are in the beaten and common way to heaven, when you are under our Lord’s crosses. You have reason to rejoice in it, more than in a crown of gold; and rejoice and be glad to bear the reproaches of Christ” -To MARION MCNAUGHT, when persecuted for her principles

    He was obviously not a Covenanter as such, but clearly taught that the magistrate had a duty before God to uphold the true religion, to protect and promote it. Yet he could say from true experience, blessed are you when you suffer for righteousness sake. “When I am in the cellar of affliction I look for the Lords choicest wines”

  5. Thanks Scott.

    Quick question, have you dealt with the CN error of subsuming the Great Commission to the Dominion Mandate? This, it seems to me, is (at least) a critical presuppositional error that feeds their exegesis (if we might graciously call most of it that).

    I’ll take a look at your other posts on CN. Thx for your work.

    Reed DePace

    • Would you say that Matthew Henry commits a similar error?

      “Christianity should be twisted in with national constitutions, that the kingdoms of the world should become Christ’s kingdoms, and their kings the church’s nursing-fathers.” (Commentary on Matthew 28, in his Commentary on the Whole Bible.)

      Was Calvin way off base, writing, “[A]s the magistrate ought to purge the Church of offenses by corporal punishment and coercion, so the minister ought, in his turn, to to assist the magistrate in diminishing the number of offenders. They they ought to combine their efforts, the one being not an impediment but a help to the other”? (Inst. 4.11.3.)

      Subsequently, Calvin quotes Ambrose (writing to Valentinian): “What more honourable title can an emperor have than to be called a son of the Church? A good emperor is within the Church, not above the Church.”

      Christian Nationalists (of whom I am not one) do not hold a position much different, though I share your opinion that their “subsuming of the Great Commission to the Dominion Mandate” (those who in fact do that #notall) is erroneous.

      • James,

        As I’ve said many times here, everyone, including some/many of the Anabaptists (e.g., those involved in the Peasant’s Revolt, Münster et al.) were theocrats, i.e., the expected that there would a state-religion and that the state would enforce their version of Christian orthodoxy. This includes all the magisterial Protestants and just about all of the Reformed & Lutheran post-Reformation theologians.

        The Americans rightly rejected that consensus. So did Abraham Kuyper. That’s why he advocated for the revision of Belgic Art. 36. That’s why the CRC finally revised the Belgic (after decades of debate) and why the URCs adopted a revised version of Belgic 36. That’s why the American Presbyterians revised the WCF c. 1788.

        The phrase “nursing fathers” is confessional. The American revision of WCF 23.3 says,

        3. Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.

        That’s fine. That’s not Christian nationalism.

        The Christian Nationalist movement (have you been reading my ongoing interaction with Christian Nationalist “Statement” (which involved several of the key players in the movement)?

        Resources On Christian Nationalism

        Are you okay with Christian Nationalists invoking, Der Volksgeist and the rhetoric of “Blut und Boden” National Socialism?

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