Saturday, November 23, 2013

Getting the Bible & Church Right - ah, the Feast of Clement of Rome

I was excited when I saw whose feast the Church celebrates today, because St. Clement of Rome's Letter to the Corinthians (c.84-96 A.D.) is one of the earliest pieces of Christian literature we have outside of the New Testament. And because of that, it gives Christians today - arguing, 2000 yeas after the fact, over what Jesus and the Apostles meant by their words- a way to settle their disputes:  We can see how the early Church, the people who actually worked alongside the Apostles and their associates, understood Christ's teaching.

First, who was Clement of Rome?  He was Peter's third successor as the Bishop of Rome.  Irenaeus of Lyons, the Bishop of Gaul (modern France), wrote about him c.189 A.D., in his Against the Heresies:
"The Blessed Apostles [Peter and Paul] having founded and built up the church [of Rome], they handed over the office of the episcopate to Linus. Paul makes mention of this Linus in the Epistle to Timothy. To him succeeded Anencletus; and after him, in the third place from the Apostles, Clement was chosen for the episcopate. He had seen the Blessed Apostles and was acquainted with them. It might be said that he still heard the echoes of the preaching of the Apostles, and had their traditions before his eyes. And not only he, for there were many still remaining who had been instructed by the Apostles ... In this order, and by the teaching of the Apostles handed down in the Church, the preaching of the truth has come down to us.(Book III, 3:2-3).
Clement's own writing, his Letter to the Corinthians, was occasioned by the church in Corinth's rebellion against their presbyters. It was an extremely serious matter because, as Clement reminded them, it was a breach of the Church-order established by Christ Himself.  As the successor to Peter and Paul, the Corinthians took Clement's words to heart, as is witnessed to by the letter written 80 years later by their bishop, Dionysius (but more on that below)  Lets listen to what Clement wrote to them regarding the structure of the Christ's Church :
"The Apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ…they went forth in the complete assurance of the word of God, preaching the good news that the Kingdom of God is coming. Through countryside and city they preached; and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers." (Letter to the Corinthians 42:1-4) 
"Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. As for these, then, who were appointed by them, or who were afterwards appointed by other illustrious men with the consent of the whole Church…we consider it unjust that they be removed from the ministry. Our sin will not be small if we eject from the episcopate those who blamelessly and holily have offered its Sacrifices." (44:1-3) 
"Shameful, beloved, extremely shameful, and unworthy of your training in Christ, is the report that on account of one or two persons the well-established and ancient Church of the Corinthians is in revolt against the presbyters." (47:6) 
"You, therefore, who laid the foundation of the rebellion, submit to the presbyters and be chastened to repentance, bending your knees in a spirit of humility." (57:1) 
"Accept our counsel and you will have nothing to regret." (58:2) 
"If anyone disobeys the things which have been said by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger." (59:1)
Clement used the Keys of the Kingdom, passed down to him from St. Peter, to restore unity to the Family of God. It was apparently well within his rights to do so: The Apostle John was still alive at the time and would surely have intervened if the Church in Rome had overstepped its bounds. But instead of this, history tells us that the Corinthians repented. Eighty years later Dionysius, the Bishop of Corinth, wrote to Soter, then Bishop of Rome, telling him how Clement’s letter was still read aloud during Sunday worship. That means that the Corinthians would have read it right alongside Scripture! Clement’s words carried a lot of force in the minds of the early Christians.

Why not celebrate today's feast by reading Clement's Letter to the Corinthians?  You can start right now with this electronic copy; but let me also recommend a wonderful new translation and commentary from the Coming Home Network's Dr. Kenneth Howell.  And here is an insightful video where Dr. Howell discusses Clement with Marcus Grodi:

No comments:

Post a Comment