The Church Fathers is the title respectfully given to those writers, leaders, and pastors who led the church in the first 600 years of its existence. Any modern student willing to mine writings of these old saints will find a rich repository of history, theology, and devotion. The writings of the Fathers – available as a multi-volume reference set in most higher-education libraries – are generally divided into two categories: the Ante-Nicene Fathers (those who lived before the Council of Nicea in 325 AD) and the Post-Nicene Fathers (those who lived and ministered after Nicea).
During my sabbatical, I devoted myself to reading the first volume of the Ante-Nicene Fathers series (containing the writings of those fathers who lived before 200 AD) as well as three volumes from the most eminent of the Post-Nicene Fathers: the great St. Augustine, who died in 425. Today’s reflection is from one of the earliest extant writings outside the New Testament: the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians.
The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians
[In The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. I, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds. (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885)].
Clement lived between 30 and 100 AD and was an elder in the church at Rome after the death of the apostles. His writing clearly shows him to be a contemporary of the apostles. For instance: “Let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes… the noble examples furnished in our own generation… the illustrious apostles” (Chap. V). As such he provides some remarkable insight into the first generation of Christians after the apostles. His First Epistle was written to address problems in the church at Corinth. Apparently the Corinthians had written and asked for help, and Clement wrote back on behalf of the presbyters at Rome, sending his response via a delegation to Corinth. The time of writing is clearly after the death of both Peter and Paul (since he mentions their passing in his letter).
I found deep encouragement in reading Clement’s letter. A number of features stand out:
- Clement quotes Scripture copiously, proving that the early church placed great weight on the Bible. Many of the early Fathers can seem mystical and superstitious in their writing. Not Clement. This man is clearly writing as a pastor who reveres Scripture and considers it authoritative. He quotes copiously from both Old and New Testaments, including the books of Hebrews, 1 Corinthians, and 2 Peter. He introduces these quotations using the standard formulas “it is written” or “the Scriptures say.” He references Paul’s earlier letters to the Corinthians, acknowledging that they were written “under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” and “at the time when the gospel first began to be preached” (Chap. XLVII). These statements testify to the self-authenticating nature of Scripture and to the fact that the writings of the apostles were accepted as authoritative even in the earliest churches. Many Roman Catholic apologists say that the church brought the canon into existence. Clement proves the opposite: the canon was revered even when the church was in its infancy.
- Clement writes as a presbyter (elder) of the church in Rome, not as the sole bishop. He introduces his letter, “The church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the church of God which sojourns at Corinth.” He is clearly writing as a first among equals and not as a sole bishop (note the difference of this intro from the standard Pauline intro, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus…”). In Clement’s epistle, there is no hint of the single-bishop ecclesiology that would plague the later church and eventually be enshrined in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. One of the problems at Corinth was “sedition against presbyters,” and so he urges those who are causing division to “submit yourselves to the presbyters” (Chap. LVI). There is clearly a community of elders and pastors in both churches.
- Clement stands firmly in the Pauline heritage of justification by faith. He speaks of the saints as “the elect of God” and as those whom the Lord has “taken to Himself” (Chap XLVIII) and offers this strong statement about justification: “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 works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory forever and ever, Amen” (Chap XXXI).
- Clement loves Jesus and is strongly Christological in his writing. “By [Jesus] we look up to the heights of heaven. By Him we behold, as in a glass, His immaculate and most excellent visage. By Him are the eyes of our hearts opened. By Him our foolish and darkened understanding blossoms up anew toward His marvelous light. By Him the Lord has willed that we should taste of immortal knowledge, ‘who, being the brightness of his majesty, is by so much greater than the angels, as He hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they’” (Chap XXXVI).
- Clement has no trace of the asceticism that would soon plague the early church. Soon after Clement’s day, the early church veered off into ascetic self-denial, disregarding the Scriptural injunction that “everything created by God is good.” But contrary to later writers who despised sex and marriage, Clement sees family as a primary place for the gospel to be lived out. He offers his readers wise counsel regarding matters of family, and what roles husbands, wives, and children should play in the home and in the church. He is a pastor, not a mystic, and he offers practical wisdom for living out the gospel in the context of everyday life.