St Clement’s revealing Letter to the Corinthians

PETER WESTMORE

The writings of the patristic era – the period which immediately followed the Apostolic era when the Gospels and Epistles were written – have been ignored by most Christians except those involved in biblical studies.

However, there is wide public interest in the early Christian era, as evidenced by the popularity of books such as The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown.

The writings of the patristic era – the period which immediately followed the Apostolic era when the Gospels and Epistles were written – have been ignored by most Christians except those involved in biblical studies.

However, there is wide public interest in the early Christian era, as evidenced by the popularity of books such as The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown.

In contrast to the scriptures which are very widely available in bibles and scriptural texts, and read or recited in most church services, other early Christian writings have been far less accessible.

The patristic writings should not be confused with non-canonical writings such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary. These works, broadly described as the Gnostic Gospels, are heretical (or at least non-orthodox) Christian texts which were not preserved by the church and were only re-discovered in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The patristic writings have been with us since antiquity.

The writings of the patristic period are now available online, and with some of the commentaries, give surprising insights into the early church as it grew in size and began to operate across the Roman Empire.

Early letter

One of the very earliest of these works is Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, a letter well-known and widely circulated during the first centuries of the Christian era. Although the Letter is unsigned, it was attributed to Pope St Clement who is believed to have been the third successor to St Peter as Bishop of Rome.

Rome and Corinth were distant cities in the Roman Empire, at the time.

From internal evidence, and particularly a strong reference to the persecution of the Christian Church in Rome, church historians believe it was written around 96AD, about 30 years after St Peter and St Paul were executed in Rome during the murderous reign of the Emperor Nero.

It was in this period that the Emperor Domitian instigated an empire-wide persecution of the early Christians. St John’s Book of Revelation is believed to have been written at about the same time, and its description of Rome, capital of the Empire, conveys the extent of the persecution.

John described Rome as: “The mystic Babylon, great mother-city of all harlots, and all that is abominable on earth … drunk with the blood of saints, the blood of those who bore witness to Jesus.” (Rev 17:5-6)

Clement’s letter begins by making reference to the persecution. The letter is sent from “The church of God which resides in Rome to the church of God that resides in Corinth,” and refers to “the sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves”, and which delayed a response to a letter from the Corinthians.

Clement then refers to the divisions within the church in Corinth, where elders and bishops of the church were deposed by others.

Pope Clement admonished those who had damaged the unity of the church, and urged the Christians to reunite under those who had been removed from office.

He wrote, “Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate.

“For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.

“We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ, in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry.” (Para 44)

Later, he wrote, “You therefore, who laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to the presbyters, and receive correction so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn to be subject, laying aside the proud and arrogant self-confidence of your tongue.”

He ended the letter by urging the church in Corinth to reunite, saying, “Send back speedily to us in peace and with joy our messengers to you: Claudius Ephebus and Valerius Bito, with Fortunatus; that they may the sooner announce to us the peace and harmony we so earnestly desire and long for [among you], and that we may the more quickly rejoice over the good order re-established among you.”

A careful reading of this letter, sent in the very early years of the church, confirms the establishment by the apostles of the Apostolic tradition of authority, with bishops (episkopoi) and priests (called presbyters).

It also affirms the primacy which was even then accorded to the See of the Apostle Peter – facts now acknowledged by a number of Protestant church historians – and directly acknowledged by St Clement in his response to the church in Corinth.

The letter of St Clement is very important for other reasons.

Some observers have pointed out that it is heavily based on the Old Testament scriptures which are repeatedly cited in the course of the letter.

What has been barely recognised is the extent to which Clement’s letter relies on a detailed knowledge of the New Testament writers.

A very comprehensive analysis of this can be found on the web site of an American writer, John Takash (www.mortalresurrection.com).

Takash wrote, “Clement’s letter to the Corinthians contains many passages which parallel language and ideas found in Old and New Testament literature. Since this corpus was written prior to the most probable time of creation for I Clement (AD 90-95), literary dependence indicates Clement’s usage of pr-existing material.”

If true, this indicates that the New Testament had been written, published and circulated in printed form before that time.

He added, “Indeed, Clement appears to expect these citations to wield additional authority for his target audience; and he takes for granted that his readers will recognise the passages as belonging to some common set of literature approved by the Christian community.

“Overall, the First Epistle of Clement alludes to 205 passages from twenty-three books of the Old Testament, and 676 passages from twenty-five books of the current New Testament Canon.”

He points out that just as St Clement uses events and injunctions from the books of the Old Testament (without quoting the exact reference), similarly, he quoted or paraphrased words from the New Testament, including the Synoptic Gospels, Paul’s letters, as well as the Letter to the Hebrews and Peter’s letters.

As Clement was a disciple of both Paul and Peter, this is to be expected. (The lack of reference to John’s Gospel, the last written, suggests that it was not known to St Clement, an entirely reasonable conclusion.)

Takash writes persuasively that St Clement’s ability “to interweave so many hundreds of citations into one letter of this length seems to require access to written documents, as well as the years of intense study necessary to allow one to command such a plethora of quotations in a conversational manner – to have them at one’s fingertips, so to speak.”

He adds that Clement’s “confidence that the Corinthians would listen to this New Testament Scripture, even if they would not listen to their own leadership or the bishop of the church at Rome – these are the treasures bequeathed by Clement to the modern church.”

Just as the Gospels and Epistles are foundational documents of the church, Clement’s letter shows that the writings of the early church fathers, even today, can give us a deep insight into the development of the church as the instrument chosen by Christ himself to take his message to the whole world.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.