Reading Clement of Rome
Okay, I admit I went a little cheeky with the title on this one, but unlike some Church Fathers I know, my reason for doing so will be explicitly clear in this article.
So far as I know, Clement of Rome is the last of his peers that I’ll be reading, with my next article focusing on a later Church Father. I was very excited to read through his epistle to the Corinthians, a general epistle. As always, I won’t waste time giving you a piece of my mind. Here’s what I found interesting, challenging, and — in the case of St. Clement — confusing.
Clement addresses the same topic each of the other Fathers has: unity. While each of the Early Church Fathers I’ve read all has different focuses and emphases, the one thing they all in common is their call for unity within the Church. That the bride of Christ would be one was the dying wish of Sts. Ignatius and Polycarp, and was a key piece of Just Martyr’s defense of the Christian faith. Clement speaks of unity in a number of places, but two quotes jumped out at me:
Every kind of faction and schism was abominable in your sight.
-Clement to the Corinthians, ch. 2
Early in his epistle, Clement is still greeting and admonishing the Corinthians. While his entire focus in this letter, in particular, is to address the strife within Corinth, he recognizes the past unity of the Corinthian church and calls for their unity once more. It grieves me that so few in today’s Church speak this way. It grieves me that I’ve spoken so flippantly about division in the past. The unanimous testimony of the Early Church (so far as I can tell) was that we be in perfect unity and that such unity would be our witness to the world that we belong to Christ. How shameful a witness modern Christianity is in this regard.
That being said, Clement does give some instruction on how we remain unified, and it does — to some extent at least — answer a question I had in a previous post regarding a valid bishopric.
Clement describes the transmission of the Gospel from God to the present time:
The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God.
-Clement to the Corinthians, ch. 42
So it seems that the appointment of the apostles by Christ was to be continued at least in some “orderly way” by God’s will. He clarifies as he continues:
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.
-Clement to the Corinthians, ch. 44
To foster the ever-important unity of the Church, Clement describes the process by which church leaders are appointed: through succession. While this account is not detailed in the means by which this process is carried out, it does go on to say that such a position is not to be taken lightly and only terminated after a serious allegation of moral failing.
Finally, he addresses the importance of submitting to the authority of the Church:
If, however, any shall disobey the words spoken by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and serious danger…
-Clement to the Corinthians, ch. 59
There’s a number of implications here:
- Christ has spoken.
- He has spoken “through us”, the apostles and ministers appointed by them.
- To disobey what Christ has spoken, and has been communicated through His ministers is to put one’s self in grave danger.
I’m beginning to get a more rounded picture of how the early Church saw itself. From a multiplicity of Fathers, the importance of obedience and church leadership is presented as paramount. The reason for this is generally described as the Church being the means through which the teachings of Christ Himself are handed down.
There’s still a lot for me to dwell on with this, but the concept of Apostolic Succession is becoming clearer as I read through the Fathers. This still worries me. It still vexes me. It still weighs heavily on my mind.
The Role of Faith and Works
Now we get to the confusing part. While other Fathers don’t address the issue of faith and works in detail, it was one of the primary subjects that Clement wrote about, as a Protestant, it is also a pivotal difference I have with the Orthodox. In attempting to best understand what Clement was promoting, I have to remind myself that Clement wrote before both the Pelagian controversy and prior to the Reformation and the debates over the necessity vs. sufficiency of faith in salvation. His wording can’t be viewed through these lenses, as it would be anachronistic to do so. This is extremely difficult for me: my entire Christian life I’ve been taught (almost from day one) that works have nothing to do with our salvation. It was only when I became Reformed that I understood works are important to the Christian, but only for the sake of holiness; works are the result of a saving faith.
A few quotes jumped out at me:
On account of her faith and hospitality, Rahab the harlot was saved.
-Clement to the Corinthians, ch. 12
Here, Clement is fairly explicit that Rahab’s salvation was due to both her faith and hospitality (works). However, this could be referring to her eternal salvation (which would align well with the Orthodox view), or it could refer to her being saved during the destruction of Jericho (a view compatible with the Protestant view). In all honesty, the latter seems like a stretch, given that Rahab is mentioned here in almost identical terms as she’s mentioned in the book of Hebrews, where a number of saints are commended for their saving faith — in the eternal sense.
However, I do not mean to form a thesis from a single proof-text, so we continue…
And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or workswhich we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men…
-Clement to the Corinthians, ch. 32
Yeah! There’s my Sola Fide quote!
Okay, in all seriousness, I imagine this would be a popular text for showing Sola Fide in the Early Church, but Clement does seem to be implying that the wisdom, understanding, godliness, and works being spoken of here are in such a way that they of “ourselves”. Quite clearly Clement is saying that these things — in and of themselves — are not enough to save us. So he rejects any kind of Sola Wisdom / Sola Workstheology, which every Christian rightly does. He also states that “by that faith…God has justified all men”. I want to say that this is a contrast of wisdom or works alone with faith alone, but I want to make sure I’m not reading my biases into the text here. Luckily, the surrounding context expounds upon the point:
What shall we do, then, brethren? Shall we become slothful in well-doing, and cease from the practice of love? God forbid that any such course should be followed by us! But rather let us hasten with all energy and readiness of mind to perform every good work.
We see, then, how all righteous men have been adorned with good works, and how the Lord Himself, adorning Himself with His works, rejoiced. Having therefore such an example, let us without delay accede to His will, and let us work the work of righteousness with our whole strength.
-Clement to the Corinthians, ch. 33
This section does not speak to salvation, but it does emphasize the importance of Christian works. Soon after, Clement says:
He forewarns us: Behold, the Lord [comes], and His reward is before His face, to render to every man according to his work. He exhorts us, therefore, with our whole heart to attend to this, that we be not lazy or slothful in any good work.
-Clement to the Corinthians, ch. 34
This is the last he speaks of works in his epistle to the Corinthians. It seems, then, that his emphasis is on both doing good works and being justified by faith. Here’s the problem for the modern reader: these two propositions are affirmed both by the Orthodox and Protestants. We both believe that we are justified by faith, and we both affirm the importance of good works for those who are saved. If anything, I’d say that this Clementine epistle seems to be a better support for the Protestant position, but then again, I’m more inclined to say that if one doesn’t explicitly say that works are necessary that they are a Protestant. If I’m perfectly honest, that’s where my bias shows up. Is it legitimate for me to apply such a rubric to a man writing 1800 years ago? Probably not, but therein lays the frustration. Prior to any Church controversies regarding the relationship of faith to works, it is difficult to get inside the head of Clement to understand what his exact intentions are. I’m a philosopher. I’m a product of Western Civilization. I want to do this, regardless of if it is possible or not.
Yet that’s what Clement says. It’s not a push one way or the other, so it seems. I think both Protestants and Orthodox could look at what he says here and affirm it; both would need clarifying remarks, but that shouldn’t surprise us 1900 years later.
In addition to my confusion regarding Clement’s view of salvation, he throws this monkey wrench into the gearbox of my mind:
[T]he same shall obtain a place and name in the number of those who are being saved through Jesus Christ, through whom is glory to Him for ever and ever.
-Clement to the Corinthians, ch. 58
This is an emphasis I rarely see in Protestant circles: salvation in the present tense. I do, however, hear it all the time in Orthodox circles. I’ve heard the argument that the vast majority of the time when salvation is mentioned in the Bible, it is in the present tense. I haven’t researched this much, but it’s something I’d like to look into. Obviously, if this is the case, it’s another pebble in my shoe.
There’s a lot to think about with Clement of Rome. He has written more clearly on the validity of Apostolic Succession than others I’ve read. He also has emphasized the role of works in salvation more so than others. Yet some of what he writes doesn’t look much different from what you’d expect to find from Reformed authors. If I’m honest — which on this site, I am — this perplexes. I find that the more I read the more questions I have. I didn’t think this would be the case, but I’ve started down a path that I can’t stop following. Come what may.
As always, friends, please pray for me.