St. Polycarp, Who Learned the Faith From an Apostle, Did Not Believe in ‘Faith Alone’

Early Christians like St. Polycarp clearly held the Catholic view on salvation.

Polycarp, Vincent of Saragossa, Pancras of Rome, and Saint Chrysogonus at Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna.
Polycarp, Vincent of Saragossa, Pancras of Rome, and Saint Chrysogonus at Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. (photo: Public Domain)

St. Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of St. John, according to St. Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 202) and Tertullian (c. 155-c. 220).

I’d like to examine his Epistle to the Philippians. It teaches us quite a bit about the doctrine of justification and the nature of saving faith in the very early Church.

He definitely did not believe in faith alone — one of the two “pillars” of the Protestant revolt. Protestants believe that works are the fruit of justifying faith, done in gratitude to God for a justification already achieved by faith alone through grace. This is the classic Protestant understanding of works, taught by both Martin Luther and John Calvin. It removes from good works any hint of merit or causal relation to salvation (even if understood as always in conjunction with works and soaked with and enabled by grace).

Sanctification is formally separated from justification and salvation in Protestant thought. Good works are promoted, but in the final analysis, they aren’t required for salvation. This is the meaning of faith alone.

The Catholic view, on the other hand, is that a person is justified by grace alone through faith, with the necessary addition (after initial justification) of meritorious good works, without which faith is dead. We do not believe in salvation by works alone. That is the heresy of Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism (which we are often unjustly accused of believing by those who haven’t studied Catholic soteriology). I shall argue that we have enough information in this letter from St. Polycarp, to determine that he held to a Catholic soteriology, not a “proto-Protestant” one.

St. Polycarp, in asserting that salvation is “not of works” (citing Ephesians 2), is simply condemning salvation by works or by self-generated works, apart from grace (i.e., Pelagianism). No one disagrees with that, so it’s not at issue. It’s not the same thing as an assertion of “faith alone.” Many Protestants fail to comprehend the fine but crucial logical distinctions in play. Already in his second chapter, St. Polycarp makes it very clear that he believes in the Catholic view of justification by grace alone through faith, with the necessary addition of meritorious good works, without which faith is dead and salvation unattainable:

But he who raised him up from the dead will raise us up also, if we do his will, and walk in his commandments, and love what he loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, false witness; not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing, or blow for blow, or cursing for cursing, but being mindful of what the Lord said in his teaching: Judge not, that you be not judged; forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that you may obtain mercy; with what measure you measure, it shall be measured to you again; and once more, ‘Blessed are the poor, and those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God.’ (Chapter 2; added verse numbers removed, but he cites five passages in this section; my italics)

Note his use of “if” in the first sentence. Our resurrection (which means salvation, since only the saved will be resurrected to glory) is conditional upon doing various works. God will “raise us up” if we “do his will” (a work, especially indicated by the “do”), if we “walk in his commandments” (several works), and if we avoid nine different sins — the avoidance of which amounts to meritorious action and behavior. That’s at least 11 things that are necessary in order for us to be saved and resurrected, followed by five more things that are opportunities for meritorious actions leading (in faith and grace) to salvation.

If St. Polycarp in fact thought like a Protestant (in this regard of salvation), this section would have been much shorter. He would have written something like, “But he who raised him up from the dead will raise us up also, if we believe in him in faith alone.” All of the rest would have been relegated to a good and praiseworthy, yet optional sanctification — not related to salvation at all.

But Polycarp makes our resurrection conditional upon doing all these good works and behaving the right (Christlike) way. It’s very Catholic. Yet some Protestants contend that St. Polycarp believed in faith alone and not in merit and the Catholic conception of sanctification and good works. I don’t see how, even giving them some slack for expected Protestant bias (we all have bias and predispositions one way or another).

If we please him in this present world, we shall receive also the future world, according as he has promised to us that he will raise us again from the dead, and that if we live worthily of him, we shall also reign together with him [2 Timothy 2:12] provided only we believe. (Chapter 5; my italics)

This is again the Catholic doctrine of merit and good works as necessary in salvation, in conjunction with faith. Faith isn’t alone. This is the furthest thing imaginable from faith alone. It reminds me of this similar passage: “… and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17).

Neither fornicators, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, shall inherit the kingdom of God [1 Corinthians 6:9-10] (Chapter 5)

He cites St. Paul in agreement. Paul is expressing merit in the opposite manner: those who habitually commit various sins and don’t cease, won’t be saved, as opposed to writing, “those who don’t have faith alone won’t inherit the kingdom of God.”

When you can do good, defer it not, because alms delivers from death. [Tobit 4:10, 12:9] (Chapter 10)

He espouses Catholic meritorious action, leading to salvation. Alms can actually “deliver” one from eternal damnation. St. Polycarp clearly would have flunked out of any evangelical Protestant or Calvinist seminary.