As we continue our theme of seeking the face of Christ in the face of the early Church we must examine the letter of St. Clement to the Romans. Clement of Rome is an acclaimed figure in antiquity. Christians and heretics alike tried to claim him as their own. He is venerated in the prayers of Roman Canon, which names the first three popes (after Peter) as ‘Linus, Cletus, and Clement.’ Yet the actual text of the letter of St. Clement to the Corinthians begins with no mention of the author. Early church tradition has always ascribed the letter to Pope St. Clement I of Rome. St. Irenaeus claims that Clement had personally known the Apostles Peter and Paul and that “the preaching of the Apostles still echoed in his ears” (Adv. Haer. III, 3.3). Tertullian wrote that Clement of Rome was consecrated by Apostle Peter himself (De praescr. haeret. 32).
Clearly Clement of Rome was a well known and famous person but in spite of this little is known about his life. The name Clement was fairly common. While there are a number of intriguing possibilities, most scholars think that St. Clement was an otherwise unknown slave or freedman from a wealthy Roman family who took the name of Clemens. Traditionally scholars have dated the letter near the end of the reign of Domitian (95 or 96 A.D.)
Clement’s letter show parallels to a type of political letter in which the orator appeals for unity against factions which have arisen in a region outside of Rome. It would be rash to speculate, that this demonstrates the early church incorporated a Roman imperial model of leadership. By mid-second century, the pattern of a single bishop in each town claiming full apostolic authority and assisted by a council of presbyters emerged without dispute. St. Clement notes,
“Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and 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.” (1 Clement 44)
The fact that Clement uses a particular governing style does not mean he wishes to adopt the full Roman mindset. One must also deal with the irony of scholars who on the one hand wish for a weak and disorganized church structure in Rome during this period, but on the other hand claim Clement is marketing an imperial model power in his letter almost as though he were a patriarch!
The letter Clement writes to the Corinthians exhorts them to heal the schism or faction that a certain group of younger leaders have created by deposing some bishops who were appointed by the Apostles (1 Clement 42:1-5; 44:1-6).
Some scholars have highlighted the central theme of the letter as ‘order’ which may represent a parallel to the philosophy of Stoicism common during this period. Another group of scholars have emphasized the theme of ‘restoring peace’ following a Jewish-Christian theology which highlights obedience to the will of God as expressed by the Old Testament prophets. It is certainly possible to embrace both of these at once. Clement may well be interested in both ‘order’ and ‘peace’. Echoing St. Paul in Philippians 2:6-11 and 2 Corinthians 8:9, Clement highlights the supreme dignity of Christ under the title the “Scepter of God’s majesty” (1 Clement 16:2). Christ is the sign of ‘order’ and a model of humility. Clement writes,
“The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus the Christ was sent forth from God. So then Christ is from God, and the apostles are from Christ. Both, therefore, came of the will of God in good order. Having therefore received their orders and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and full of faith in the Word of God, they went forth with the firm assurance that the Holy Spirit gives, preaching the good news that the kingdom of God was about to come” (1 Clement 42:1-3).
We can see the pattern of authority founded by God. God recognized the lordship of Christ, who in turn shared his authority with the apostles. The apostles then passed on their unique authority to the bishops who are empowered by the Spirit to preach the Gospel and shepherd the Church. This divine order is established by God for the good of the Church. The Church exists in communion with Christ as the means through which Christ is made present in the world.
Fourth Sunday of Advent,
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