Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Polycarp and the Power of Grace

October 24th, 2023 | 79 min read

By Camron Bendfeld

Polycarp was born around the year 70 A.D., was later instituted as bishop of Smyrna, and was martyred at the age of 86. Despite Irenaeus describing him as a prolific writer, only his letter to the Philippians has survived, the dating of which is contested.[1] Some argue that the single letter we now possess was originally two separate letters.[2] However, recent scholarship tends to be moving away from this thesis.[3] Regardless, both epistles are genuine with little dispute and therefore, constitute a witness to his faith.[4] Little about Polycarp’s own life is revealed in his letter, unlike the personal transparency of Ignatius or Paul. However, there remains a great deal of external information regarding his life.[5] “There is no reason to doubt that he had conversed with the apostle John,”[6] and was the bishop of Smyrna when Ignatius was being transported to Rome.[7] Eusebius preserves the opinion of Polycrates of Ephesus (130-196 A.D.) who described Polycarp as “one of the greatest luminaries” of their time.[8] Irenaeus (180 A.D.) echoes a similar sentiment regarding Polycarp’s letter to Philippi: "Now there is also a letter of Polycarp written to the Philippians, a most adequate one; from which such as so desire, and have a care for their own salvation, can learn both the character of his faith and the message of truth."[9] 

Wesleyan theologian John Lawson summarizes the information thus: “Polycarp of Smyrna was without a doubt one of the most venerated figures in the Church of the post-apostolic period.”[10] Reformed theologian T. F. Torrance goes further to say he is “the most venerable of the Apostolic Fathers.”[11] This is attributable to the inference that “Polycarp must to a unique degree have represented in the Church of his day that precious but passing order of living witness to the Apostles, before the witness to Christ has become exclusively that of a book.”[12] It is due to his proximity and reverence alone that he “must be ranked in a position of extreme importance.”[13] This is the purpose behind Markus Bockmuehl’s proposal to refocus New Testament study to those who constituted the New Testament’s implied readership.[14] Regarding the study of grace, Polycarp’s unique situation makes him a valuable witness to apostolic teaching on the matter.[15]

His epistle has been accused by some as lacking “originality,”[16] and containing insights that are by no means “profound.”[17] This is certainly consistent with other testimonies regarding Polycarp’s pedagogical philosophy.[18] Orthodox scholar Andrew Louth considers him “no great thinker” but a man who “treasured the youthful memory of what he had heard from the apostles.”[19] It appears likely, therefore, that his doctrine of grace would be a reiteration or reapplication of what he heard from the apostles. Indeed, “in policy he is a strong traditionalist, quick to sense and repel any ‘modern’ heresy creeping in to contaminate the original faith of the Apostolic Church.”[20] On the other hand, Reformed theologian William Cunningham claims that the epistle “contains nothing filled to throw any light upon any of the more obscure and difficult passages of the word of God.”[21] Which is a rather underwhelming evaluation of the evidence and seems to overlook and presuppose passages that need clarification. Though, admittedly, the epistle may lack the substance of 1 Clement or Ignatius, there remain foundational understandings of salvation and grace that have become less foundational within modern Christendom.[22]

First, a note of caution: while possessing only one letter from Polycarp, the expectation of finding a carefully defined system of salvation is irrational. Equally so, this short letter is written for a specific audience and purpose; its presentation of saving truth is influenced by his polemic. Lutheran scholar Otto Heick provides a similar caution which is applicable here: "It is clear that the Apostolic Fathers made prominent only those elements of the Church revelation which were of special value to them and their times."[23] Therefore, silence is not evidence of absence.

Opponents’ Soteriology

Polycarp’s occasion for composition must first be examined. This literary context will be joined with Ignatius’s letters, due to the proximity of the two writers, and reappearing Gnostic themes. Consequently, Clayton Jefford notes that Ignatius and Polycarp's most essential soteriological doctrine is “the theme of salvation through the blood of Christ.”[24] Beginning with the heretics countered in Ignatius’s letter to Smyrna; they denied the salvific importance of Christ’s flesh. They seem to have rejected the goodness of the flesh and therefore a resurrection of the same flesh. Chapter 6 warns the Smyrnaeans against those who “believe not in the blood of Christ” (6.1). “The blood of Christ” being the reality of his corporeal body. These heretics also “have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty” (6.2). In the following chapter, Ignatius says, "it would be better for them to engage in acts of love, that they might also rise up" (7.1). A few things are clear thus far; the heretics in question deny that Christ had a physical body,[25] and they abstain from acts of love and prayer. Therefore, “Ignatius implies that a lack of love—that is, caring for the needy—and a denial of the salvific importance of the flesh of Jesus Christ are tied together.”[26] For a failure to love will result in the loss of eternal life and resurrection to glory; thus, he seems to imply his opponents possessed a deficient eschatology as well (disregarding a resurrection of the flesh). The past event of Christ carries huge soteriological implications for the embodied Christian life. If Christ came to give us divine life, and he possessed no body, the body, and its actions are irrelevant toward eternal life.[27] 

Proceeding to Polycarp’s polemical context, it is worth noting that he was likely addressing Gnostics local to Smyrna.[28] This is inferred by the topic’s minimal direct attention to his audience yet its underlying appearance in his writing. Ignatius also opposes Gnosticism directly in his letter to Smyrna, a topic less forceful in other letters composed at the same time. Therefore, it was likely that Ignatius knew of the situation at Smyrna to some degree and reflects Gnostic doctrines prevalent at the time. Assuming Polycarp composed the entire letter immediately after Ignatius’s letters, they are likely combatting the same group. If Polycarp’s letter was composed later, he may still have been opposing a more developed form of the same movement.

Regardless, like Ignatius, it is likely that Polycarp was not opposing a defined Gnostic sect.[29] In chapter 7 of Polycarp’s letter, more is uncovered regarding these Gnostic teachers, who not only deny the flesh of Christ but also “says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment" (7.1). What was implicit in Ignatius is now explicit in Polycarp. They disregard love because they also disregard the doctrine of a future judgment. Both resurrection and judgment appear in chapter 2 as he provides his basis for righteousness, which "suggests that both were denied by the errorists" (that is, his Gnostic opponents).[30] They did so in favor of their επυμιαι (7.1), which is the same word used in 5.3 referring to the evil desires which young men should be cut off from. Meaning a denial of the importance of love also seems present. Therefore, between Ignatius and Polycarp, there are some key recurring themes; the Gnostics disregard acts of love and deny the salvific importance of the flesh and its future resurrection.

This emphasis on love begins to uncover the reasons for Polycarp’s seemingly moralistic refutation. Elaborating on the Gnostic heretics who shared similar foundational beliefs,[31] Irenaeus can shed additional light on this matter. The Gnostics he opposed claimed that good works are unnecessary for themselves, for they will not be saved according to conduct but according to their spiritual nature. This spiritual state is not obtained by good works and cannot be lost by evil ones. For the flesh is irrelevant toward salvation and cannot enjoy eternal life.[32]

This summary confirms what could be logically deduced from Ignatius and Polycarp: Their perceived opponents believe salvation is sola scientia (by knowledge alone) if you will. For only knowledge produces the "spiritual man,”[33] consequently, the deeds of the flesh are irrelevant. This is crucial for understanding the rhetoric of Polycarp's letter and his insistence to “walk worthily” (5.1). For the denial of a bodily resurrection and a judgment according to one's deeds leads to the complete irrelevance of anything done in the flesh.[34] If only the “spiritual man” will inherit life; a state that is uncorrupted or unobtainable through the actions of the flesh, the deeds of the flesh and a judgment according to them are frivolous.

Faith, Works, and Grace

This study will now advance to Polycarp's' conception of faith, love, good works, and grace. Regarding the nature of initial salvation, Polycarp quotes Ephesians 2:8-9 in 1.3 to ground not only the Christian’s salvation but their ability to believe,[35] in the will of God.[36] "Belief" or "faith" (with its cognate forms) appears some 17 times within the letter. 3.2 depicts "faith" as "the mother of us all," and the root of the hope and love which proceeds from it. This foundation is not a human merit, on the contrary, the audience is called to build on "the faith given you" (Ibid). Likewise, the community is to help others "in the faith, love, and purity given them” (4.2).  In his foundational study, patristic scholar Michael Holmes summarizes, “salvation for Polycarp is first and foremost something that God has accomplished through Jesus Christ: it is a matter of ‘grace’-that is, ‘by the will of God through Jesus Christ’- not ‘works’ (1.3). It involves ‘faith’ or ‘trust’ (1.3; 5.2)- itself a gift (3.2)- in the God who has raised from the dead (1.2; 2.1.2; 9.2; 12.2) Jesus Christ who ‘endured for our sins’ (1.2)…”[37] Here is found the “inseparable triad”[38] of faith, hope, and love which share the same origin in grace. Thus, grace is always preeminent; it proceeds all human merit. It is also incongruous; given irrespective of merits and in the absence of worth (6.1; see footnote 82).

As for the results of this initial gift, Polycarp understood the primary and direct result of the gift of grace to be the forgiveness of sins.[39] However, greater stress seems to be laid upon its transformative effects, though in an indirect fashion. This is expressed in a participationalist manner; the works of faith and love that are pleasing to God are not isolated achievements but performed "in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1.2). Likewise, the hope and “down payment” of the believer’s righteousness is Jesus Christ (8.1).[40] Therefore, William Schoedel’s claim that Polycarp understood the Christ event to result in merely the loosing of human natural powers from sin does an injustice to the evidence.[41] 

Polycarp’s demand for ethical behavior upon which salvation is contingent is highly criticized as a departure from Paul's doctrine of justification by faith.[42] However, this is a failure to read the letter in unison, and misunderstands the nature of faith and obedience; presupposing a false “either/or” dichotomy between them; which separates chapter one’s emphasis on faith/grace from chapter two’s ethical obligations. For Polycarp, the result of the initial gift of salvation is an obligation to live according to the transformation of this gift. This concept of transformation and obligation is key to comprehending Polycarp's understanding of the relationship between grace and humanity. It is important to understand that both the initial gift and subsequent transformation constitute one gift, therefore, one’s continual cooperation is essential.[43] One’s forgiveness before God is hardly the culmination of salvation but has made humanity capable of the righteousness that forms the basis of salvation at the final judgment. Therefore, throughout the letter, the primary focus is ethical; which is quite justified. His opponents have distorted Pauline grace to mean that receiving and assenting to the secret knowledge of Christ is sufficient for salvation. After this reception of secret knowledge; acts of love are unnecessary, and no sins can corrupt them.

This dichotomy between incongruous gift (grace given to the unworthy) and transformative obligation (salvation being contingent upon living according to love) is best exemplified in the first two chapters. As covered previously, chapter one grounds salvation in the sovereign divine act of God through Christ, irrespective of worth (1.3), while the means of obtaining it is “the secure root of… faith” (1.2). For some, there is a sharp (and incompatible) tangent that follows; depicting final salvation as dependent on works: “Now he that raised him from the dead will raise us also; if we do his will and walk in his commandments and love the things which he loved, abstaining from all unrighteousness…” (2.2). Again later: “If we conduct ourselves worthily of him we shall also reign with him” (5.2).[44] These conditional phrases are a matter of salvation, not merely heavenly rewards, or lack thereof. Lawson, sympathetic toward Polycarp, considers this tangent to be a product of his devotional character and poor phraseology.[45] Such excuses are unnecessary. These statements are only incompatible if one presupposes that if grace is incongruous, it must be noncircular.[46] Or in more simple terms, if grace is given without regard to worth, it must apply no further obligations ( must have “no strings attached”). Holmes outlines three possible reconciliations (which he recognizes are deficient) which all find Polycarp incompatible with Paul.[47] However, in his influential work on gift language in Pauline and Greco-Roman thought, John Barclay concludes that for Paul, gift/grace and obligation are by no means mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are necessary and complementary aspects. The moral emphasis of Polycarp’s letter is an exposition on the effects of the initial gift of salvation.

This is illustrated by how Polycarp connects his quotation of Eph. 2:8-9 with his behavioral conditions for salvation. Polycarp’s second chapter is not an immediate departure from the prior verse. Rather, it explains its result, which is obtained and exercised through the grace of faith.[48] Chapter 2 begins with the inferential conjunction “therefore (Διο).” Charles Guth recognizes “that the material following the conjunction is the logical result of that which precedes it.”[49] The need to live according to love as expressed in chapter 2 is the necessary result of the grace given to the unworthy in chapter 1. For example, Romans 4:21-22 reads: “And being fully persuaded that, what he had performed, he was able also to perform. And therefore (διο) it was imputed to him for righteousness.” The righteousness in verse 22 was given an account of the trust in verse 21. Guth also notices that every instance of “virtue/vice lists” in Polycarp’s letter is always preceded by faith,[50] so, these lists characterize proper faith. Jefford notes that these virtue lists are used (imitating Paul) to express traits exemplified by Christ,[51] which signifies that faith is an imitation of Christ. This is the "faith" Polycarp depicts as "the basic force of the new status in Christ," and must always be situated "in a life of love."[52] For while faith itself is the foundation, love provides the basis for righteousness and salvation, and hope carries it forward.[53] However, he frequently uses only the word "faith" as a synecdoche for hope and love as well.[54] A proper understanding of Polycarpan faith will further aid in understanding how chapter 2 is not only comparable with but necessary in light of chapter 1.

Illustrated in 2.2, after the eschatological statement of Christ as supreme judge and before the statement that favorable judgment is given to those who do God's will, he states that God requires blood from “those who disobey (ἀπειθούντων) him.” The word ἀπειθούντων is most commonly translated as "disobey," however, Roberts and Donaldson translate it as "do not believe,” which is also a viable translation.[55] Especially in light of further evidence that links faith directly with faithful obedience. Chapter 5 demonstrates this when Polycarp provides a promise to obtain the world to come on the condition of a pleasing life. He then summarizes this exhortation at the end of verse 2: “We shall also reign with him if we only believe (πιστεύομεν).” Here, Polycarp equates a pleasing life, worthy of eschatological salvation, simply with faith. Similar remarks can be said of 12.2, which speaks of virtues worthy of receiving “a lot and portion with his saints” together with those who “believe (credituri) in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Finally, 10.1 directly equates faith with loving one’s brother. These passages serve to demonstrate that saving faith is obedient and must be exercised in conjunction with the virtue of love. Concluding with the German theologian Reinhold Seeberg: The Christian begins his life in faith, but only “in love” the Christian fulfills the requirement of “the law of Christ.”[56] Bounds concludes similarly: “Polycarp declares that, in the inward intention and outward practice of love, all the commandments of the law and the requirements of righteousness are fulfilled.”[57] 

This connection between love and righteousness is developed further in chapter twelve, clearly influenced by the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus exhorts various expressions of love and finishes with a command to be perfect (Matt. 38-48). Polycarp likewise caps his exhortation to acts of charity by claiming that through these manifestations of love one will be “perfect in him” (12.3); through God “building you up in faith and truth” and thereby granting “you a lot and portion among his saints” (12.2). Once again, this demonstrates that love is grounded “in him,” and faith, love, endurance, and purity (purity being sinlessness, for 5.3 places it in contradistinction to evil) are all foremost “granted” through Christ. Meaning that Christ is the preeminent and efficient cause for all matters which pertain to salvation.

Contrary to Torrance’s conclusions,[58] spiritual perfection is accomplished only within one’s incorporation into Christ and his strength.[59] This Christian existence is characterized largely ethically (Polycarp’s insistence on righteous behavior) but on the basis of incorporation into Christ. Far from being “unconsciously opposed to grace,”[60] Polycarp views the existence of faith, hope, and love (and therefore obedience), to be a matter of grace. Both the faith by which one receives the initial gift and the obedience that follows from it constitute the one gift. Also, perfection through love elaborates on 2.2; which states that one must "love what he loved" to share in Christ’s resurrection. Thus, life begins with only faith, or trust, (3.2) but is made perfect only through love; a perfection and righteousness that is not alien, but possessive and expressed through deed.

For Polycarp, to have “faith” and to live “faithfully/obediently” are the same. Holmes summarizes this point well; “For Polycarp, as for 1 Peter, ‘faith validates itself in action, to the extent that faith and action are indistinguishable.”[61] Indeed, the dogmas of the faith, and their corresponding action, for Polycarp, are “in no way distinguished.”[62] Thus, he is also well aligned with the New Perspective on Paul’s emphasis on this matter, as James Dunn puts it: “…faith also expresses itself in obedience, that faith which does not work through love is not faith (Rom. 1:5; Gal. 5:6).”[63] Summarizing this definition’s compatibility with Ephesians 2:8-9: faith is that which apprehends God's gift of salvation, based on no prior merits. Then, faith, through love, retains that salvation in obedience. This obedience/works then form the criteria by which one receives final salvation. For obedience is a necessary product of the initial grace of salvation and obedience cannot be forfeited without also forfeiting the initial grace, for both are one. Thus, McGiffert's claim that faith here is an insufficient condition of salvation is an overly intellectual, and false understanding, of faith. However, he is correct in stating that unless obedience is present, faith is not faith.[64] Therefore, one can conclude with Burke that “salvation is through ethical behavior,”[65] as much as ethical behavior/obedience is the product of faith and one’s incorporation into Christ; or, as Paul states; “the faith of obedience” (Rom. 1:5).

This dynamic within Polycarp’s first two chapters mirrors debates between Paul’s first four in Romans. Paul appears to express salvation according to deeds in Chapter 2,[66] while 3 and 4 focus on God’s gift of salvation to the unworthy. Which, assuming that grace must apply no obligations, creates a contradiction in Paul’s thought, and, for some, renders Chapter 2 a hypothetical scenario.[67] Conversely, Polycarp begins with the complete incongruity of grace and follows it with an exposition on conditional final salvation according to deeds. First by quoting Eph. 2:8-9; salvation is giving irrespective of works, then chapter 2 expresses the need to live a life of obedience; salvation is attained through works. Barclay's resolution to the former is equally effective for the latter: "For the judgment that Paul depicts in Romans 2 is not God’s decision to allocate a new, second, and finally decisive gift but the recognition and reward of the work produced by the single, incongruous gift of life in Christ.”[68] Therefore, “the grace of God is unconditioned (given in the absence of merit or worth) but not unconditional, if by that we mean without expectation or alteration in the recipients of the gift. It is free in the sense that it is without prior conditions… but it is not free (or ‘cheap’) in the sense that it expects no transformative result.”[69] 

Faith then, enabled by grace, is humanity's response to God’s grace, and when united to the love which necessarily follows it, becomes the transformative principle by which one receives final salvation. Simply, saving faith is a faith that works, and it is by these works that one will be saved. Thus, Heick’s critique that claims a replacement of faith with works, would be a dynamic hardly intelligible to the bishop.[70] Likewise, Whitenton’s distinction between “behavior” and “belief” could only be true with regard to emphasis, not content.[71] As with those who view faith and grace in contradistinction with good works/obedience, the problem Polycarp has with the Docetists’ is not an insufficient (or too superabundant) view of God’s grace, but a misunderstood one. Likewise, both have a deficient view of faith; both in object and effect. Therefore, Polycarp largely presupposes the complete sufficiency and foundation of grace, because the Docetist agrees. For the Docetist, when one is made “spiritual,” no moral obligations proceed it. Polycarp defends the “making righteous” of the whole person through faith. For righteousness (dikaiosyne) is an inner quality (the possession and formation of love),[72] and faith is not mere doctrinal assent or trust in the absence of unattainable obedience (though initially, it is trust in the absence of obedience), but becomes bound to love, and therefore obedience.

Salvation as Present and Future

As indicated above, for Polycarp, salvation is both a past event, a present reality, and a future hope. As exemplified in the previous section, initial salvation is given through faith irrespective of prior merit, however, eschatological (or final) salvation is given according to one's outworking of that faith in love. Polycarp's letters, as an exhortation to those whom he understands to have received the gift, thus, the emphasis is almost always on the future hope of salvation.[73] Indeed, “whether the divine act on our behalf will in fact become actualized in the future depends a great deal, in Polycarp’s understanding, on how humans respond in the present.”[74] Salvation is initially given unconditioned, based on God’s will, not anything done pre-conversion (1.3), and received by the gift of faith. On the other hand, salvation at the eschatological judgment is not unconditional. After receiving the gift of grace, the Christian must live; “pleasing to him in this present world,” and abstaining “from every kind of injustice” (5.2). Thus, salvation-apprehending faith is not an action of natural humanity, but a merit of the cross. Still, the reader is constantly admonished to seek ways to “build” upon the faith given to them.[75] Likewise, love is both preeminently a gift, but most often appears as a human action.[76] Thus, a “faith that worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6) is everything, for it produces what is pleasing and abstains from what is evil. Though faith, love, and salvation in general, are preeminently and foundationally given to the unworthy; “Christians are expected henceforth to obey God (to endure) and thus to preserve the status won for them by Christ.”[77] 

These obligations are a corollary of the initial gift and cannot be separated from it, therefore perseverance in faith and love is also a matter of grace.[78] Initial forgiveness is an incongruous act, however, once received, divine forgiveness is contingent upon fulfilling the command to love (3.3). Demonstrated by Polycarp’s quotation of Jesus in 2.3 that the merciful will be shown mercy; and the petition of the Lord’s prayer to forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors. This does not apply to one's initial forgiveness and salvation, which is not awarded based on one's mercy or forgiveness. Rather, once one receives the gift of salvation, final salvation will be according to these outworkings of love or the lack thereof.

Contrary to the Gnostics, one will be held accountable for their actions. Therefore, he exhorts young men to “be blameless in all things, concerned above all else for their purity, keeping themselves in check with respect to all evil. For it is good to be cut off from the passions of the world, since every passion wages war on the spirit, and neither the sexually immoral, nor the effeminate, nor male prostitutes will inherit the kingdom of heaven” (5.3). Sinful living depicts the root of the problem, which is an absence of love and therefore genuine faith; [79] “For the one who has love is far from sin” (3.3), and faith without love is not a faith that saves.[80] In the case of the Docetists, there is a causal relationship between the loss of orthodoxy (right beliefs) and orthopraxy (right actions). If there is no judgment or resurrection, and the flesh cannot receive eternal life, one either possesses the saving hidden knowledge of Christ or perishes. If this knowledge is possessed the actions of the flesh are irrelevant. Holmes summarizes the synergy of Polycarp’s contrary soteriology (provided that “achievement” is not used in the strict sense, but is the work of grace through humanity):

It is a gift because it is the result of God’s will and grace as manifested in the sacrificial actions of Jesus; it is an achievement in that its attainment at the eschatological judgment requires a response of faithful obedience, of acknowledging certain facts about Jesus, of endurance under trial, of keeping the divine commandments in accordance with God’s will.[81] 

The passage quoted above (5.3) also exemplifies that those within the community, living as he enjoins, possess the purity by which salvation is given. The debt of sin is not a progressive reality.[82] Initial salvation is a sufficient saving action; it would be improper to say that works must be added to faith which implies a separation between the gift of faith and the works. “The ‘obedience of faith’ is not instrumental toward acquiring an additional gift, but it is integral to the gift itself.”[83] 

A biblical analogy illustrates this well. Jesus tells a parable (Matt. 18:21-35) where a man owes a great debt to the king. The debt is of astronomical proportion and he has no chance of paying it. Therefore, all his possessions and his wife and children will be sold. He pleads with the king and, moved by compassion, the king forgives him, completely unconditioned. However, the servant proceeds to find a man who owed him a small debt and strangles him, demanding he pay him back. The king hears of this, scorns him, and hands him over to be tortured until his debt is paid. For the king forgave him an unpayable debt and he could not forgive a small sum against himself. The man received an incredible unconditioned gift; which carried the obligation that he lived a transformed life. Even though one can be forgiven his debt of sin, his refusal to conform his behavior to the initial gift will result in the need to pay the debt he owed.

For Polycarp, initial salvation “dealt with past sins only… thereby bringing us into a new situation in which we are obliged to live according to the law of God.”[84] Both initial forgiveness and subsequent obedience are a matter of grace. It is not an insufficient view of grace, but a transformative one. Within the parable, the man is expected to forgive simply because he was forgiven. In the real-life order of salvation, the grace of incorporation into Christ not only forgives but renovates the soul through love making him capable of obedience and forgiveness. A renovation made possible and sustained by God, according to which man is now obligated to live unless he forfeits grace in its entirety.


The apostolic eyewitness of Polycarp provides valuable insights into the nature of grace. Polycarp affirms that the gift of salvation is given to the unworthy, and is received through the gift of faith. Humanity is then transformed through the gift of love; faith being its foundation, but itself insufficient for salvation. Thus, the true driving force behind one’s faith is love, which is inseparable from obedience. Thus, faith is most aptly faithfulness; it is that which apprehends God’s grace through no prior merits of his own and holds on to that gift with obedience, and it is by the fruits of this faith that one will be saved.


[1] It is worth noting that chapters 10-14 are primarily preserved in a Latin manuscript which seems to be more of a paraphrase of the Greek than a literal rendering.

[2] Harrison remains the most influential voice regarding this view. See P. N. Harrison, Polycarp's Two Epistles to the Philippians (Cambridge: University Press, 2017).

[3] Regarding the unity hypothesis, Schoedel gives great attention to Harrison and other arguments for its separation in his commentary. See William R. Schoedel, The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation and Commentary. Volume 5: Polycarp, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Fragments of Papias (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1967).

[4] Clayton N. Jefford, Reading the Apostolic Fathers: A Students Introduction. Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 76.

[5] Between Polycarp's epistle, Ignatius's letter to him, the account of his martyrdom, and Irenaeus's Against Heresies (one of his pupils), more of Polycarp’s life is known from direct witnesses than the majority of the apostles. Holmes considers him “the most important Christian leader in Asia Minor in the first half of the second century” (Michael Holmes, “Polycarp of Smyrna, Epistle to the Philippians,” in The Writings Of The Apostolic Fathers ed. by Paul Foster (London: T & T Clark, 2007), 108). High praise from an area still populated by the apostle’s direct disciples.

[6] William Cunningham, Historical Theology: A Review of the Principle Doctrinal Discussions in the Christian Church Since the Apostolic Age (London, England: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1862), 105.

[7] Irenaeus (disciple of Polycarp) witnesses to his tutelage under John (as does Eusebius). Tertullian and Jerome (who also labels him the probable author of Hebrews) also record Polycarp as installed to the bishopric by John.

[8] Fragments of Polycrates.

[9] Adversus Hereses, 3.3.4

[10] John Lawson, A Theological and Historical Introduction to the Apostolic Fathers (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1961), 153.

[11] Thomas F. Torrance, The Doctrine Of Grace In The Apostolic Fathers (Eugene, Origen: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1948), 90.

[12] Lawson, A Theological and Historical Introduction to the Apostolic Fathers, 153

[13] Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 90.

[14] Markus Bockmuehl, Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).

[15] “Polycarp was not likely to have colored or changed the παραδοσιξ in process of transmitting it to others” (Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 90).

[16] Bart Ehrman, The Apostolic Fathers Vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 324.

[17] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought: From the Beginning of the Council of Chalcedon, Volume One, Revised Edition (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1970), 81.

[18] This is consistent with Irenaeus’s account of his teaching and would probably be considered flattery to the conservative bishop who taught only “the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.4)

[19] Andrew Louth, Early Christian Writings (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1988), 113.

[20] Lawson, A Theological and Historical Introduction to the Apostolic Fathers, 154.

[21] Cunningham, Historical Theology, 105-106.

[22] As for his knowledge of Romans and Galatians, which arguably provide Paul’s greatest exposition on grace. Polycarp provides allusions to Romans (3.3-Rom. 13:8-10; 10.1-Rom. 12:10). The strongest being 6.2-Rom. 14:10, 12. Which some have considered to be a very likely application of Romans. Generally, the evidence bears a probable use of Romans. As for Galatians; it is likely that 5.1 is a direct quote of Gal. 6.7 and 3.3 alludes to Gal. 4:26. It is likely that he possessed Paul’s letter to Galatia. It is also worth noting that he almost certainly possessed Paul’s letter to Ephesus as well. Both 12.1-Eph. 4:26 and 1.3-Eph. 2:5, 8-9 are highly likely to be direct quotations. See Michael W. Holmes, “Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians and the Writings that Later Formed the New Testament,” in The Reception of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers, ed. Andrew Gregory (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 202-205, 208-211.

[23] Otto W. Heick, A History of Christian Thought (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1965), 49.

[24] Clayton N. Jefford, The Apostolic Fathers: An Essential Guide (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 86.

[25] It may be that the presumption that his opponents denied Christ had any corporeal body “assumes too much” (T. Christopher Hoklotubbe, “What is Docetism?” in Re-Making the World: Christianity and Categories. Essays in Honor of Karen L. King, ed. by Taylor G. Petrey (Tubigen Germany: Mohrs Siebeck, 2019), 53). However, Smyr. 5.2 seems to lean more toward a denial of Christ’s possession of flesh.

[26] David J. Downs. “Almsgiving and Competing Soteriologies in Second-Century Christianity” (Religions 7 (2018): 7. doi:10.3390/rel9070201).

[27] If his opponents were not phantasmic Gnostics, a similar dichotomy arises: If Christ came to impart life and suffered not, such a path is superfluous.

[28] Paul A. Hartog, “The Opponents of Polycarp, Philippians, and 1 John,” in Trajectories Through the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers, ed. by Andrew Gregory (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 390n96.

[29] Ignatius: William R. Schoedel, Ignatius of Antioch: A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1985), 16. Polycarp: Paul A. Hartog, “The Opponents of Polycarp, Philippians, and 1 John,” in Trajectories Through the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers, ed. by Andrew Gregory, 389; Harry O. Maier, “Purity and Danger in Polycarp's Epistle to the Philippians: The Sin of Valens in Social Perspective,” (Journal of Early Christian Studies 1, no. 3 (1993): 231n8, doi:10.1353/EARL.0.0167).

[30] Schoedel, The Apostolic Fathers, 11.

[31] It cannot be said for certain whether Irenaeus describes the same sect encountered by Polycarp or Ignatius. However, his conclusions are consistent with, and fill in the implications of, the doctrines above.

[32] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.6.1-4

[33] “Man” here is used in an inclusive sense meaning human. Inclusive language is used outside of quotations for the rest of the paper unless the context indicates otherwise. However, Polycarp’s use of “man” is always used in an inclusive sense referring to both males and females.

[34] The gospel of Thomas is one first-hand Gnostic source (possibly first century, more probably second) that is similar to what is found in Ignatius, Polycarp, and Irenaeus. The practice of good works, prayer, and fasting is dismissed and even labeled as harmful; “Jesus said to them, “If you fast, you will give rise to sin for yourselves; and if you pray, you will be condemned; and if you give alms, you will do harm to your spirits.” Downs describes the theology of the gospel of Thomas largely as “world-denying” (David J. Downs, “Almsgiving and Competing Soteriologies in Second-Century Christianity,” 4). It is critical of not only Jewish practice but also ethical concerns like caring for the poor. Downs summarizes his findings: “On the whole… the Gospel of Thomas emphasizes an individualized soteriology with minimal concern for communally embodied existence” (Ibid, 5) There is no connection between the life obtained and deeds done. The one who “shall find the interpretation of these words shall not taste death.”

[35] Faith, for Polycarp, is foremost grounded in orthodox beliefs, particularly regarding Christological facts. Whitenton notes that 4.3 use of “pistis is equated with “teaching of the Lord” or similar phrases (Michael R. Whitenton, “After Πιστις Χριστου: Neglected Evidence from the Apostolic Fathers,” The Journal of Theological Studies 61, no. 1 (2010): 100-101). In this respect, he is closely aligned with the language and concepts of the Johannine corpus (1 John 2: 22-23; 4: 2-3). Guth finds that faith/belief in Polycarp is not only an expression of orthodox doctrine, but it is also "the motivating force for righteous living" (Charles J. Guth, “The Relationship of Faith and Works in the Soteriologies of the Apostolic Fathers” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Aberdeen, 1994. OpenDissertations), 181). Which will find examination at length later.

[36] The use of this text may be no coincidence. Gnostics were notorious for constructing a canon of only Pauline literature (Adolph Harnack, History of Dogma, Volume One (New York, NY: Russell and Russell, 1958), 228). Irenaeus gives us the first Gnostic interpretation of this text; “…but as being free, live as they please, for men are saved through grace, and not on account of their own righteous deeds. For such deeds are not righteous…” (Irenaeus describes this as the early doctrine of Simon Magus also belonging, in some form, to Marcionites and Valentinians. It is tempting to equate this interpretation as one combated by Polycarp in his use of the passage in Chapter 1). For the Gnostic, one uncovers the secret knowledge of the Gospel which secures their salvation. They are now free to live as they please because they are saved by grace. This could be the reason for the Philippians requesting Polycarp give an exposition on "righteousness." The Gnostics viewed any action done through the body as corrupt. The "highest righteousness," the only true righteousness, comes through the secret knowledge of Jesus. The Gnostic interpretation of "the rich man" in Luke 18:18 portrays him as the carnal person. The point of the parable is this; nothing done in the flesh will ever be enough, only through secret knowledge is one capable of the “true righteousness.” Polycarp's response initiates by making a distinction between works done before faith and works done in faith as a fruit of the Spirit. For the Gnostic, pre-conversion, and post-conversion works are all corrupt.

[37] Holmes, “Polycarp of Smyrna, Epistle to the Philippians,” 116.

[38] Schoedel, The Apostolic Fathers, 15.

[39] Harnack, History of Dogma, 201n1. See 1.2; 8.1; 9.2.

[40] This serves to show that righteousness is something yet to be obtained in full, and hope and perseverance are a gift. The verse ends by explaining how Christ not only bore the suffering of the cross to atone for sin, “but that we might live in him." The renewed Christian life is now lived in, and through, Christ. This gives the work of Christ a twofold effect; first, it loosed the chains of death (1.3) and incorporates one into the strength of Christ.

[41] Schoedel, The Apostolic Fathers, 9-10. McGiffert also errs in claiming there to be no mystical union between Christ and the believer, only “a moral system based on divine sanction” (Arthur Cushman McGiffert, A History of Christian Thought. Volume 1: Early and Eastern. From Jesus to John of Damascus (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954), 68). Mysticism is certainly lacking, but not the concept.

[42] Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 94.

[43] “While the Apostolic Fathers recognize Christian dependency on God for the work of perfection, they do not absolve believers of any responsibility… Polycarp and the Shepherd of Hermas assume that Christians can choose to walk in the way of perfection or choose not to” (C.T. Bounds, “The Doctrine of Christian Perfection in the Apostolic Fathers” (Wesleyan Theological Journal 42 (2007)): 24). Polycarp is aligned with the other apostolic fathers in that, “no one is immune from the damning effects of sin” (Laura Welker, “Post-Baptismal Sin and Ecclesiastical Discipline in the Apostolic Fathers” (Master’s Thesis, Briercrest Seminary, 2010,, 3)). The initial gift does not necessitate the ultimate vindication of that person at the last judgment. This is most evident in 11.1-2, where he warns those who are pure not to be "defiled by idolatry and be judged among the outsiders who know nothing about the judgment of the Lord." See also; 6.1; 5.3.

[44] Following the advice of Wright and Thomas; an inner harmony should be presupposed between the two statements. Lest it is supposed that Polycarp was so cognitively deficient he would blatantly contradict himself in so short a time (Matthew J. Thomas, “Faith, Works, and Justification in 1 Clement” (, 2014), 1.)

[45] Lawson, A Theological and Historical Introduction to the Apostolic Fathers, 160.

[46] Schaff commits this error by juxtaposing the necessity of love in chapter 3 with the “gift of free grace” in chapter 1 (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church. Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity A.D. 100-325 (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1959), 667). Torrance is most adamant that Pauline faith and mercy is incompatible with any notion of condition (Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 93).

[47] The first is Torrance’s conclusion that Polycarp utterly fails to understand grace. The second is correct in identifying that faith has a character of work and provides a condition for the resurrection but fails by differentiating it from the initial gift of faith. Finally, the third dismisses it as evidence of the Hellenization of the Gospel. Holmes, “Polycarp of Smyrna, Epistle to the Philippians,” 117n43. Holmes himself provides circumstantial reasons for reader charity but not much reconciliatory explanation.

[48] “Walking in his commandments and loving the things he loved, abstaining from every kind of injustice, greed, love of money, slander, and false witness, not paying back evil for evil, or abuse for abuse, or blow for blow, or curse for curse…” (2.2).

[49] Guth, “The Relationship of Faith and Works in the Soteriologies of the Apostolic Fathers”, 173.

[50] 2.2; 9.2; 10.2; 12.2; 5.1-3

[51] Jefford, The Apostolic Fathers and the New Testament, 81-82.

[52] Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 94; 96.

[53] It is within this sense that "almsgiving sets free from sin" (10.2). For almsgiving is simply a manifestation of the love which supplies divine life, and means of favorable eschatological judgment. Which is little more than 1 Peter 4:8’s exhortation to love for the covering of sins (see Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 94).

[54] Bultmann’s critique that Polycarp’s use of faith is rather un-Pauline is rather shallow (Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 172). It may have a larger intellectual emphasis, but this is a matter of perspective not difference.

[55] Lightfoot, J.B., Lake, K. and Roberts-Donaldson (trans.) St. Polycarp of Smyrna. Available at: (Accessed: May 6, 2023).

[56] Reinhold Seeberg, History of Doctrines in the Ancient Church, Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1956), 69.

[57] Bounds, “The Doctrine of Christian Perfection in the Apostolic Fathers,” 19.

[58] The death of Christ “does not set man’s life on wholly new basis” (Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 95). 

[59] Though Bultmann recognizes the “already” and “not yet” nature of salvation in Paul is also present in Polycarp, he finds Paul’s stress on spiritual transformation to be lacking in Polycarp (Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 173). This may be valid, Polycarp’s letter is rather non-mystical, however, Polycarp seems to express this concept subtly; Transformation is expressed primarily through the gift of love received through divine incorporation.

[60] Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 97.

[61] Holmes, “Polycarp of Smyrna, Epistle to the Philippians,” 117-118.

[62] Harnack, History of Dogma, 166.

[63] James D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul. Revised Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 371.

[64] McGiffert, A History of Christian Thought, 84.

[65] Jonathan Burke, “Then the Devil Left: Satan’s Lack of Presence in the Apostolic Fathers” (, 2015), 25.

[66] “Who will render every man according to his deeds: to them that seek for glory, honor and immortality, eternal life: but unto them that are contentious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath” (Rom. 2:6-7).

[67] See George Buttrick, The Interpreters Bible (New York, NY: Abingdon Press, 1954), 409.

[68] John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Power of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 81.

[69] Ibid, 87.

[70] Heick, A History of Christian Thought, 50.

[71] Whitenton, “After Πιστις Χριστου: Neglected Evidence from the Apostolic Fathers,” 100.

[72] See 3.3; 4.1; 9.2.

[73] Jefford, The Apostolic Fathers and the New Testament, 136.

[74] Holmes, “Polycarp of Smyrna, Epistle to the Philippians,” 117.

[75] 12.2, 3.2.

[76] 2.2; 3.3; 4.2; 9.2.

[77] Holmes, “Polycarp of Smyrna, Epistle to the Philippians,” 117.

[78] Perseverance in faith is a matter of grace: “So may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal priest himself, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, build you up in faith and truth and in all gentleness, without anger, and in patience, forbearance, tolerance, and purity; and he may grant to you the lot and portion to be among his saints” (12.2). Thus, building in faith is both a command and a gift.

[79] “Ignatius, and Polycarp all narrate a vision of Christian identity in which care for the poor is not only central but is also integrated into an eschatological hope that emphasizes bodily resurrection and God’s judgment of deeds done in the body.” In other words, in contrast to the Gnostics, the early church saw words of love as forming the basis of eschatological judgment (Downs, “Almsgiving and Competing Soteriologies in Second-Century Christianity,” 11).

[80] 2.2; 3.3; 4.2; 9.2.

[81] Holmes, “Polycarp of Smyrna, Epistle to the Philippians,” 117.

[82] Torrance comments on 6.1 that Polycarp’s expression of debt to sin indicates that the Christian remains in debt to sin (Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 95). However, Schoedel seems to better capture the totality of Polycarp’s expression when he recognizes that the expression is simply a reminder of the human person’s continual reliance on forgiveness, so one must therefore be forgiving (Schoedel, The Apostolic Fathers, 22). Jefford echoes a similar understanding when he summarizes: "We have no right to ask God for forgiveness if we ourselves do not offer the same to others" (Jefford, Reading the Apostolic Fathers, 83). Therefore, this passage seems to better encapsulate what Barclay recognizes in Pauline study; that while transformed through grace, the worth and capacity of the believer are still incongruous to the grace he receives (Barclay, Paul and the Power of Grace, 81).

[83] Barclay, Paul and the Power of Grace, 100.

[84] Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers, 93.

feature image

Camron Bendfeld

Camron Bendfeld is a student at Wayland Baptist University.