Polycarp: The Heretic Fighter
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
The second century was a time when Christianity was influenced by false teachers and heretical ideas; we have reviewed these in a three-part series (CLICK HERE to start with part 1). God reserved a remnant of the faithful to fight them. He always does. There was a specific person God reserved to lead the stand against it all. His name was Polycarp.
Polycarp was appointed by the first Apostles as the Bishop of Smyrna and was a disciple of the Apostle John. By the 150s AD, he was likely the last living person who was taught by the first disciples. This made him a living legend in some ways.
Much of what we know about Polycarp comes from Irenaeus (a second-century Christian who knew Polycarp personally), an epistle he wrote called The Letter to the Philippians, and other primary sources from near that time.
The historian Eusebius recorded about 330 AD that: “Pothinus having died with the other martyrs in Gaul at ninety years of age, Irenaeus succeeded him in the episcopate of the church at Lyons. We have learned that, in his youth, he was a hearer of Polycarp” (idem, Church History, 5.5.8).
Irenaeus heard Polycarp as a youth and said the following about him: “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 [Polycarp] tarried [on earth] a very long time….having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.4; emphasis mine).
“…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 eye-witnesses of the Word of life, would recount them all in harmony with the Scriptures.…” (quoted from Fragments from the Lost writings Irenaeus, sec. 2; emphasis mine)
Irenaeus went on to say: “And I can bear witness before God, that if that blessed and apostolic presbyter had heard any such thing, he would have cried out, and stopped his ears, exclaiming as he was wont to do: O good God, for what times have You reserved me, that I should endure these things?” (ibid)
As the false doctrines were spreading rampantly throughout the Christian community, Polycarp wondered why he was kept alive to hear such things. Looking back upon the tumultuous times of the second century, we know the truth. He was being kept alive to confront these false teachings and teachers.
Between 110 and 140 AD, he wrote a letter to the Philippians. We reviewed this letter deeper in another article (click here to read about the Letter to the Philippians). In it, he affirmed keeping the commandments of God and quotes many New Testament letters almost word for word. He quoted from as many as 18 letters that we consider canon for the New Testament.
To give you an idea about the gravity of his testimony, consider the following: His letter to the Philippians was lauded by contemporaries who said it would bring assurance to the truth about salvation (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.3.4). The letter was so highly regarded that even as late as 400 AD it was routinely read in Christian assemblies in Asia.
“Polycarp – disciple of the apostle John and by him ordained bishop of Smyrna was chief of all Asia, where he saw and had as teachers some of the apostles and of those who had seen the Lord…He wrote a very valuable Epistle to the Philippians which is read to the present day in the meetings in Asia” (On Illustrious Men, 17, emphasis mine).
Tertullian, who lived in the late second and early third centuries, wrote much against heresy. One of the ways he combated false teachers was to appeal to the list of bishops in every city that went back to the first Apostles. This is usually termed ‘Apostolic Succession.’ It was very important in the second century. The heretics could not trace any of their teachers to the time of Jesus – though they claimed to do so. Here is an excerpt from Tertullian’s work Prescription Against Heretics about this topic:
“But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning… in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men, — a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John…” (idem, sec. 32)
As Tertullian recounted the records of the churches, the Church of Smyrna and Polycarp were listed FIRST to prove apostolic succession. He pointed out that there were written records in his day that confirmed Polycarp as the successor to the Apostle John. That was his chief point concerning Apostolic succession.
These details, among others we could use, clearly prove Polycarp’s weightiness as a witness for Apostolic teaching.
In about the year 155, Polycarp went to Rome to confront the Bishop Anicetus about when to keep Passover (CLICK HERE to read this article). Remember from our three part series in March 2020 (click here to read part 1 of this series) that Anicetus was the Bishop under whom many heresies increased. As Irenaeus wrote:
“For Valentinus came to Rome in the time of Hyginus, flourished under Pius, and remained until Anicetus. Cerdon, too, Marcion’s predecessor, himself arrived in the time of Hyginus… Marcion, then, succeeding him, flourished under Anicetus, who held the tenth place of the episcopate” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.4.3).
Valentinus was best known for his mixture of Gnosticism and Christianity, which included trying to mix common sayings of the day with the New Testament. This formed a new, mutilated text. Marcion also tried to mutilate the New Testament by taking out verses that did not suite his doctrine. He especially wanted to separate keeping God’s commandments from the message of Christ’s resurrection. Their greatest outreach occurred in Rome; apparently the Roman Bishops could not stop them (or did not try to).
If there was a human being alive who could combat the errors of these men, it was Polycarp. He either had many of the documents which would compose the New Testament or he knew them by heart (the Letter to the Philippians is an exceptional example of this). He was a disciple of John and held to the purity of the faith.
“…To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time– a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles — that, namely, which is handed down by the Church…And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, “Dost thou know me?” [Polycarp replied] “I do know thee, the first-born of Satan”…(Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.4, emphasis mine throughout).
Irenaeus agreed that Polycarp conversed with many who had seen Christ and his teachings were true. The Asiatic Churches (meaning those in the East) were still practicing what was originally passed down to the Apostles; he was their leader. The Western Churches, led by Rome, were being swayed by false teachings.
Polycarp was the only one equipped for the task of fighting these various difficulties. As the heretics sought to cut out portions of the New Testament or add to it, he refuted them. Of all the Apostles who could have discipled Polycarp, John was the only one who stayed with Christ through His suffering, death, and resurrection (according to the New Testament record).
When the Bishops of Rome were going astray and being swayed by all sorts of doctrines, Polycarp came to sort out the mess. He confronted Marcion and all the heretics. He even called Marcion a son of the devil! In a time of turmoil, he turned many back to the true faith. His weight as a witness was stronger and more steadfast than the newer doctrines he opposed.
Polycarp was indeed a second-century heretic fighter. In our next article on Sabbath history, we will look at another issue he sought to settle in his trip to Rome: the Quartodeciman controversy (CLICK HERE to read this article).
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org