How Do Apostolic Fathers Present a Problem for Islam?

In previous posts, I drew attention to the problems presented to Islam by the contents of the Torah and the gospels, and the letters of Paul. Here, I want to build a similar argument from the works of early church fathers. I have previously pointed out that the Qur'an maintains that Jesus' own disciples were Muslims (Surah 3:52 and 61:14). This is a problem for Islam because the historical evidence is quite strong that Jesus' disciples approved Paul's message -- and Paul's message was most certainly not Islamic. But are there any other individuals in the early church, whose writings are still extant, and who had the stamp of apostolic approval? There most certainly are. Here, I will consider a few of these.

Consider, first, the famed second century Christian martyr Polycarp of Smyrna (A.D. 80-167). Only one of his own writings survive, namely, his epistle to the Philippians. Information about him is preserved, however, in the works of others. For example, Irenaeus of Lyons (A.D. 130-202) tells us that Polycarp was a companion and disciple of none other than John the Apostle. Irenaeus would have been in a position to know this, since Irenaeus was himself self-confessedly a disciple of Polycarp. He tells us inDe Ogdoade (quoted by the church historian Eusebius): 

“…I can even describe the place where the blessed Polycarp used to sit and discourse – his going out, too, and his coming in – his general mode of life and personal appearance, together with the discourses which he delivered to the people; also how he would speak of his familiar intercourse with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord; and how he would call their words to remembrance. Whatsoever things he had heard from them respecting the Lord, both with regard to His miracles and His teaching, Polycarp having thus received [information] from the eyewitnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures.”

Irenaeus also writes of him in his still-extant Against Heresies (volume 3; chapter 3),

"But 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 Christ has handed down, and which alone are true.”

This evidence strongly suggests that Polycarp was connected with the apostles and in particular John.

If the Qur'an is true, then we might expect the apostle John (along with the other apostles with whom Polycarp was personally acquainted) to have been Muslim. Isn't it odd, then, that in Polycarp's epistle to the Philippians, we find passages like this?

“May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal High Priest Jesus Christ Himself, the Son of God, help you to grow in faith and truth, in unfailing gentleness and the avoidance of all anger, in patience and forbearance, and in calmness and purity. To you, and to ourselves as well, and to all those under heaven who shall one day come to believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and in His Father who raised Him from the dead, may He grant part and portion among His saints.”

That sounds rather Trinitarian to me. If John and the other apostles rejected the deity of Christ and the concept of God's triune nature, then one has to explain where Polycarp got this idea from -- and how he would come to be appointed bishop of Smyrna by the apostles themselves.

Polycarp also clearly approved of the teachings of his close companion Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 35 or 50 – 98 to 117). Polycarp writes:

“I appeal now to every one of you to hear and obey the call of holiness, and to exercise the same perfect fortitude that you have seen with your own eyes in the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus; and not in them alone, but in a number of your own townsmen as well – to say nothing of Paul himself and the other Apostles.”

Polycarp also clearly knew and approved of Ignatius’ letters:

“You and Ignatius have both written to me to ask whether anyone who may be going to Syria could deliver a letter from you there along with ours. I will see that this is done; perhaps by myself personally if I can find a suitable opportunity, or else by someone whom I will send to act for both of us. I am sending you Ignatius’s letters, as you requested; the ones he wrote to us, and some others that we had in our possession. They are enclosed herewith; you will be able to derive a great deal of benefit from them, for they tell you all about faith, and perseverance, and all the ways of self-improvement that involve our Lord.”

Ignatius of Antioch, however, affirmed Trinitarian concepts. In his epistle to the Ephesians, he writes:

“There is only one Physician --

Very flesh, yet Spirit too;

Uncreated, and yet born;

God-and-Man in One agreed,

Very-Life-in-Death indeed,

Fruit of God and Mary’s seed;

At once impassible and torn

By pain and suffering here below;

Jesus Christ, whom as our Lord we know.”

[…]

Deaf as stones you were: yes, stones for the Father’s Temple, stones trimmed ready for God to build with, hoisted up by the derick of Jesus Christ (the cross) with the Holy Spirit for a cable; your faith being the winch that draws you to God, up the ramp of love.”

In that text, he affirms the doctrines of the incarnation and hypostatic union, and also mentions God the Father (an idea that is foreign to Islam), and the Holy Spirit.

He also says,

“As for me, my spirit is now all humble devotion to the Cross: the Cross which so greatly offends the unbelievers, but is salvation and eternal life to us. Where is your wise man now, or your subtle debater? Where are the fine words of our so-called intellectuals? Under the divine dispensation, Jesus Christ our God was conceived by Mary of the seed of David and of theSpirit of God; He was born, and He submitted to baptism, so that by His passion He might sanctify water.”

In the above passage, he again affirms the deity of Christ and refers to the Spirit of God, and even mentions that salvation is accomplished by Christ's death upon the cross (which is expressly denied by Surah 4:157-158 in the Qur'an).

In his epistle to the church in Smyrna, he writes,

“Glory be to Jesus Christ, the Divine One who has gifted you with such wisdom. I have seen how immovably settled in faith you are; nailed body and soul, as it were, to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, and rooted and grounded in love by His blood. You hold the firmest convictions about our Lord; believing Him to be truly of David’s line in His manhood, yet Son of God by the Divine will and power, truly born of a Virgin; baptized by John for His fulfilling of all righteousness…”

Again, Ignatius affirms Jesus as "the Divine One", and "Son of God by the Divine will and power", and "the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ". None of those are concepts that are compatible with Islam.

Besides his endorsement by Polycarp, whom we have strong reason to think was approved by apostles, there is also some reason to think Ignatius was probably approved by apostles. For example, in his epistle to the Ephesians, he writes:

“You are initiates of the same mysteries as our saintly and renowned Paul of blessed memory (may I be found to have walked in his footsteps when I come to God!), who has remembered you in Christ Jesus in every one of his letters."

This suggests that Ignatius was personally acquainted with the apostle Paul. He also elsewhere mentions Paul and Peter together (e.g. in his epistle to the Romans). Combined with the fact that Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch in the first century, and also that Peter and Paul spent time together in Antioch, this makes it probable that he was personally acquainted with Peter and Paul. Even if he wasn't, however, the fact that he is approved by Polycarp, a disciple of John, is adequate for my case.

Finally, let's consider Clement of Rome.

Irenaeus writes of Clement in Against Heresies (volume 3; chapter 3):

“The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles,Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, 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. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the church in Rome despatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man.

This letter that Irenaeus mentions, from Clement to the Corinthians (conventionally dated to around A.D. 96), is still extant to this day. In this letter, he explains God in terms compatible with the doctrine of the Trinity. He writes:

“The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sceptre of God's Majesty, was in no pomp of pride and haughtiness -- as it could so well have been -- but in self-abasement, even as the Holy Ghost had declared of Him.”

And,

“As surely as God lives, as Jesus Christ lives, and the Holy Ghost also (on whom are set the faith and hope of God's elect)…”

And,

“Have we not all the same God, and the same Christ? Is not the same Spirit of grace shed upon us all?”

Besides Irenaeus's testimony that Clement was personally acquainted with apostles, there are several independent reasons for thinking this. For one thing, Clement was a first-century bishop of the church in Rome. He also mentions the apostles -- specifically Peter and Paul by name -- as being "noble figures of our own generation." There is also a possible mention of Clement of Rome in chapter 4 of Paul's epistle to the Philippians. In verse 3, Paul writes:

"Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life."

Is this the same Clement? The case is not conclusive, but there is some reason to think it may well be. For example, later in the same chapter he writes (verses 21-22):

"Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar's household."

What is interesting about this reference to the members of Caesar's household is that it relates quite well to how Clement closes his epistle to the Corinthians:

"Make haste and send our messengers, Claudius Ephebus, Valerius Vito, and Fortunatus, back to us in peace and joy; so that news of the truce and the unity for which we are praying and longing may reach us the more speedily, and we may the sooner rejoice over your return to order."

What's interesting about this is that several cases have been found of the two names Claudius (or Claudia) and Valerius (or Valeria) occurring in combination with reference to servants in the Royal employment. Nero belonged to the Claudian family, and his consort Messalina to the Valerian. I would give it an historical rating of "plausible", albeit non-conclusive, that Paul refers to the same Clement in Philippians 4:3.

Let me conclude by drawing a parallel between what I have argued and the Islamic isnad, i.e. the so-called chain of narration used by Muslims for authenticating their hadith traditions. If Muslims are willing to trust the reported stories about Muhammad over hundreds of years because of “isnad”, then it is inconsistent to reject the chains of transmission that I have written about here, of which we have documentary evidence that is much earlier than exists for the traditions that concern Muhammad.

If Jesus' original disciples were Muslims, then why did they so clearly approve of Paul the Apostle, Clement of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna, and others? How did the disciples' own students and companions -- whose works are still extant in the case of some -- come to believe doctrines which are so starkly at odds with the Islamic religion?