Reading the Fathers – Saint Clement of Rome

I have always loved church history, but lately I’ve had a real desire to read primary sources – and not just any primary sources, but the reports of respected Christians in the early church. Of course, the Bible is the first stop here, but there is a lot that the Bible simply does not say or cover, and it was not meant to be the only book ever read by faithful Christians.

So, I’ve picked up a copy of the Ante-Nicene, Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers on Kindle – covering over sixty authors and 16 million words, or so the marketing print goes. The text is in the public domain, so it can be had for a song (or $3.27 if you want it on Kindle through Amazon) and I will be reading through it. I also wanted to journal my thoughts. So, here goes!

St. Clement (image from Wikipedia)

St. Clement of Rome
Clement of Rome is primarily known to us through his one surviving genuine
letter to the Corinthians. This letter does not establish what sort of title he had at the time (ie. whether or not his contemporaries called him Pope or Bishop or presbyter or something else) but he was clearly a leader in the church at Rome from about 92 – 99/101. Tradition asserts that he was appointed by Peter, and that he is the Clement mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. (Philippians 4:3)

Summary of the Epistle
Clement starts his letter by reminding the Corinthians how things used to be – they were humble, virtuous, forgiving and they obeyed those that “had the rule over them.” After buttering them up a bit, he moves on to his main point of order: the Corinthians have started to split into factions, and this is due to pride and envy.

Clement gives a brief history of pride and envy, starting with Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Moses and Aaron and Miriam, David and Saul… then he moves on to the present. He even chalks up the murder of both Peter and Paul, “pillars of the church,” as due to envy.

He then goes on to point out that God offers repentance, and treks through scripture. He shows that God desires above all repentance. Clement then goes on to talk about the importance of obedience, and again goes back to scripture – Enoch, Abraham, Lot and Rahab all feature in this section.

Finally, he gets around to tying these themes together into a specific command or request for the Corinthians: be humble, obey God, seek peace, follow the example of Christ in humility (and the saints, and David,) join the universe in God’s peace – and obey those that have the rule over them in the church. All Christians (young men, women and children are called out especially) ought to be raised to love and worship God.

Clement moves on to other themes. He reminds them that punishment awaits evildoers, to look for the return of Christ, proof of resurrection both of Christ and our future resurrection in nature (his examples are the rising and setting of the sun and the mythical phoenix,) to be pure in heart, how we are justified by faith and not by our own efforts, how righteous men have been adorned with good works and will be rewarded for those works by God, all blessings come through Christ…

Again, he eventually turns back to the subject of leadership. He compares Christians to an army of soldiers, under Christ. He reminds the Corinthians that not all can be prefects or commanders but all must perform the commands of the king and his generals. All members of the church must submit to each other, and the church itself has a certain order ordained by God.

The order that Clement talks about is as follows: God sent Christ, Christ sent the apostles and the apostles appointed bishops and deacons. The apostles, according to Clement, gave instructions that those appointed officials should then appoint others once the apostles had fallen asleep. Those leaders that have been appointed this way and serve faithfully cannot be dismissed. He criticizes the Corinthians for allowing strife, division and schism in the body of Jesus Christ, which cannot be divided. Schism causes doubt and grief, and this is even worse than the factionalism Paul rebukes in his Scriptural epistle. (I Corinthians)

Clement continues speaking about love, and how love admits no schisms. Forgiveness should be given on all sides, and Clement especially calls upon those who have rebelled against the presbyters to submit to them and receive correction. He closes his letter in this way:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you, and with all everywhere that are the called of God through Him, by whom be to Him glory, honour, power, majesty and eternal dominion, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen.

This is one of the earliest documents we have from Christians outside of the New Testament and perhaps the Didache. It’s clear that Clement believes in a visibly unified, apostolic church. The church leadership is seen by Clement and his audience as a group that can trace its authority to God through Christ and the apostles. Of the apostles, he calls Peter and Paul pillars of the church.

Clement draws on a wide variety of sources – observations from nature, the Apocrypha (Judith,) the Old Testament, events in recent memory – and weaves them together to make his arguments.

It’s also clear that Clement’s letter contains mistakes. He quite readily believes in the mythological phoenix, and uses this as a large plank in his argument about the possibility of resurrection.

Next up: The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus


One thought on “Reading the Fathers – Saint Clement of Rome

  1. Pingback: Coming Home (Part 3) | Iesus et Ecclesia

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