St. Clement of Rome: Soteriology and Ecclesiology

Nov 23rd, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Today, November 23, is the memorial of St. Clement I, pope and martyr. St. Clement was the third bishop of Rome, after St. Peter. He is known to us mostly through his famous letter to the Church at Corinth. Here I present a brief summary of what we know from later Fathers about St. Clement, and then examine what we learn from St. Clement concerning soteriology and ecclesiology.

I. What we know about St. Clement
II. St. Clement’s Soteriology
III. St. Clement Ecclesiology

I. What we know about St. Clement

We know St. Clement mostly through his letter to the Corinthian Church. But we also know about him through the later Church Fathers. St. Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 200 AD) was a pupil of St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna.1 St. Irenaeus later became a priest (presbyter) in Lyon under bishop Pothinus (c. 87 – 177), and around 177-178 St. Irenaeus was sent to St. Eleutherus (bishop of Rome from AD 175-189), to help bring some relief from the persecution under Marcus Aurelius.2 St. Irenaeus spent significant time with the Church at Rome, later serving as bishop of Lyon from approximately AD 177 until the end of his life. In his work Adversus haeresis, St. Irenaeus writes the following concerning St. Clement and his letter to the Corinthians:

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome despatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spoke with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the apostolical tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth. (Ad. haer. 3.3.3.) (emphases mine)

According to St. Irenaeus, St. Clement had conversed with the Apostles (i.e. Peter and Paul), and was bishop of the Church at Rome after St. Linus and St. Cletus. That is also attested to by the liturgy of the Church at Rome, which to this day preserves the name of “Clemens” after the names of ‘Linus’ and ‘Cletus’ in the litany of prayers, and these names follow directly after those of the Apostles. The recitation of these names in the Roman liturgy has been in place apparently since the second century.

Eusebius (AD 249 – 340 AD), in his History of the Church claims that St. Clement of Rome is the same Clement referred to by St. Paul in Philippians 4:3, where St. Paul writes, “I ask you also, who are a true co-worker, to help these women, for they have labored side by side with me in the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”3 Some have claimed that the Fortunatus referred to at the end of St. Clement’s letter to the Corinthians is the same Fortunatus referred to by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:17. Eusebius refers to St. Clement’s letter to the Corinthians, writing:

There is extant an epistle of this Clement which is acknowledged to be genuine and is of considerable length and of remarkable merit. He wrote it in the name of the church of Rome to the church of Corinth, when a sedition had arisen in the latter church. We know that this epistle also has been publicly used in a great many churches both in former times and in our own. And of the fact that a sedition did take place in the church of Corinth at the time referred to Hegesippus is a trustworthy witness.4

Hegesippus (c. 110-180 AD), who visited various bishops during his travels, including the bishops of Corinth and Rome, is quoted by Eusebius as having appended some remarks to Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians. These remarks indicate that the Church at Corinth remained pure in doctrine until Primus became bishop.5

The tradition has always and everywhere treated the letter of St. Clement to the Corinthians as from St. Clement of Rome. Dionysius the bishop of Corinth in AD 170 mentions St. Clement’s letter, and reports that it was still read in their Sunday gatherings.6 The letter was cited as St. Clement’s by St. Clement of Alexandria (d. c. 215) and by Origen (AD 185 – 254). Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 222), in his Prescription Against Heretics, claims that St. Clement was ordained by the Apostle Peter, as St. Polycarp was ordained by the the Apostle John.7

According to Eusebius, St. Clement was still the “head of the Roman community” in the first year of Trajan (i.e. AD 98).8 According to Eusebius, St. Clement “departed this life, yielding his office to Evarestus” in the third year of the Emperor Trajan (c. AD 100-1), having been “in charge of the teaching of the divine message for nine years in all.”9 St. Clement is therefore believed to have been the bishop of the Church at Rome from about the year AD 90-91 AD to about AD 100. The date of his letter to the Corinthians is not entirely certain, but traditionally it has been thought to come right after the persecution under Domitian, and thus around AD 96.

II. St. Clement’s Soteriology

What can we learn from St. Clement concerning soteriology? Some Protestants claim that St. Clement reveals a Protestant notion of justification by faith alone. They draw this from the following paragraph in St. Clement’s letter to the Corinthians:

Whosoever will candidly consider each particular, will recognise the greatness of the gifts which were given by him. For from him [i.e. Abraham] have sprung the priests and all the Levites who minister at the altar of God. From him also [was descended] our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh. (Romans 9:5) From him [arose] kings, princes, and rulers of the race of Judah. Nor are his other tribes in small glory, inasmuch as God had promised, “Your seed shall be as the stars of heaven.” All these, therefore, were highly honoured, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will. 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 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 for ever and ever. Amen. (St. Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians, c. 32)

But there are two things that must be noted. First, St. Clement is here making the same claim St. Paul makes in Romans 4, that what made Abraham right with God was not works of the law, but faith. St. Clement is not in this paragraph speaking about growing in righteousness, but about being transferred from the state of sin into which we are born as a result of the sin of the first Adam, to the state of grace and to the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ. St. Clement is saying here that justification (in this sense) is not by our own works or by the righteousness we have wrought or by our wisdom or our understanding or our godliness or by works we have done in holiness of heart, but by faith.10

The second thing that must be kept in mind is the nature of this faith by which we are justified, whether it is living faith or dead faith. That is, is this a faith informed by the virtue of agape, or is it a faith not informed by the virtue of agape? In Catholic soteriology, agape is a virtue (i.e. habit) poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says:

because the agape of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” [ὅτι ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ ἐκκέχυται ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ἡμῶν διὰ πνεύματος ἁγίου τοῦ δοθέντος ἡμῖν] (Romans 5:5)

In Catholic soteriology, only when faith is informed by the internal habit of agape in the soul is faith living faith, and hence justifying faith. The Council of Trent declared:

“For faith, unless hope and charity be added to it, neither unites man perfectly with Christ nor makes him a living member of His body. For which reason it is most truly said that faith without works is dead (James 2:17, 20) and of no profit, and in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but faith that worketh by charity. (Gal 5:6, 6:15)11

If any one saith that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.12

Likewise, in November of 2008, Pope Benedict said:

“For this reason Luther’s phrase: “faith alone” is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love.”

In other words, in Catholic soteriology we are already justified by faith alone (i.e. without works) if that faith is informed by the presence of the virtue of agape in the soul.

The saving faith of which St. Clement speaks is faith informed by agape, not faith uninformed by agape. We can see this in various places in his epistle. St. Clement writes:

On account of her faith and hospitality, Rahab the harlot was saved. (12)

Notice that it was not faith alone that saved her. The kind of faith that saved her was a faith working by agape. He continues:

Love unites us to God. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love bears all things, is long-suffering in all things. There is nothing base, nothing arrogant in love. Love admits of no schisms: love gives rise to no seditions: love does all things in harmony. By love have all the elect of God been made perfect; without love nothing is well-pleasing to God. (49)

For St. Clement the person without love is not united to God, and is therefore not justified. The person without love remains unforgiven. The person without love is not “well-pleasing to God”. So the person with faith alone, but lacking agape, is not justified.

St. Clement continues:

Blessed are we, beloved, if we keep the commandments of God in the harmony of love; that so through love our sins may be forgiven us. (50)

According to St. Clement, love is not merely an expression of gratitude that our sins are forgiven. Only by the presence of agape in us are our sins forgiven. Hence faith alone (so long as it is not informed by agape) does not justify.

St. Clement continues:

Abraham, styled “the friend,” was found faithful, inasmuch as he rendered obedience to the words of God.(10)

The faith of Abraham was a faith working through agape, not just mere faith.

St. Clement continues:

For what reason was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because he wrought righteousness and truth through faith? (31)

For St. Clement the faith by which Abraham was blessed, was a faith informed by agape, and which thereby wrought righteousness. So these other places in St. Clement’s epistle explain how the passage in chapter 32 should be interpreted as referring to a faith informed by agape, not faith alone. This is also how St. Augustine understood justification by faith, as I recently showed here.13

Does St. Clement mean that it is faith alone that justifies, but that justifying faith is always accompanied by or followed by works of love? No, because faith-informed-by-agape is not identical to faith-followed-by-works. The whole point is what is inside the person. Yes, of course, what is inside will manifest itself outside, in our works. The person who claims to have faith but has no works, is deceiving himself. And what we do in exercising the grace and virtues that God has infused into our soul, leads to their growth in the soul. We cannot just kick back and rest in the presence of grace and virtues within. But, the important point is that faith and agape are virtues. They are supernaturally infused habits within the soul.

So the question is this: Why kind of faith justifies? Is it faith (i.e. the virtue) alone, or is it faith (i.e. the virtue) informed by agape (i.e. also a virtue). The Catholic answer is that the faith that justifies is a faith (i.e. the virtue in the soul) informed by agape (i.e. also a virtue in the soul). The Protestant answer is: faith alone [i.e. faith simpliciter, not faith-informed-by-agape] justifies, but this faith that justifies is always followed by agape and works.

If a person thinks of agape as fundamentally external or works (and misses the fact that agape is fundamentally a virtue), he would not accurately grasp the Catholic-Protestant disagreement. That is, if he thinks of agape only as an act (or only as an external act), he would conceive of faith-informed-by-agape as though it means faith-accompanied-by-good-works. But that is not what faith-informed-by-agape means, even though good works necessarily follow faith-informed-by-agape. The Catholic Church teaches that we are justified by living faith, and what makes faith living is agape (as a supernaturally infused virtue). What makes faith to be non-living, or dead, is the absence of agape (as a virtue). Dead faith does not justify; only living faith justifies.

Protestant theology tends not to give conceptual space to agape as a virtue, seeing it only as a work. Scott Clark, for example, denies that faith and agape are virtues. And that tends to lead to a misunderstanding on the part of Protestants, who think that when Catholics talk about faith-informed-by-agape, it means faith accompanied by works. If it meant that, then we could have no confidence that baptized babies who die before reaching an age in which they can do any works, could be saved. But, we believe that at baptism, the virtues of faith, hope, and agape are infused into the soul by the Holy Spirit, and therefore that the infant is justified at that very moment, because he now has faith-informed-by-agape, even though has not yet done a single good work.

So when St. Clement says the following:

Similarly we also, who by His will have been called in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves or our own wisdom or understanding or godliness, nor by such deeds as we have done in holiness of heart, but by that faith through which Almighty God has justified all men since the beginning of time. Glory be to Him for ever and ever, amen.” (ch. 32)

The question is this: Is he talking about about living faith (i.e. faith informed by the virtue of agape), or is he talking about dead faith (i.e. faith where there is not the virtue of agape)? As I have just shown in the passages cited, the evidence in the text points to the former. Recall that he says:

Love unites us to God. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love bears all things, is long-suffering in all things. There is nothing base, nothing arrogant in love. Love admits of no schisms: love gives rise to no seditions: love does all things in harmony. By love have all the elect of God been made perfect; without love nothing is well-pleasing to God. (ch. 49)

If our faith were not informed by the virtue of agape, then it would follow (given what St. Clement says here) that such faith would not unite us to God and would not be pleasing to God. Only a faith informed by the virtue of agape unites us to God and is pleasing to God, and so therefore, we have good reason to believe that for St. Clement, “the faith through which Almighty God has justified all men since the beginning of time” is faith informed by the virtue of agape.

III. St. Clement’s Ecclesiology

What does St. Clement’s letter tell us about the Church. St. Clement opens his letter with this line: “The church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the church of God sojourning at Corinth.” Here we see the recognition of distinct [particular] Churches. There is a Church that sojourns at Rome, and there is a Church that sojourns at Corinth. Then he continues two lines later to address the Church at Corinth as “dear brethren.” These Churches then, are in some way related, within the universal Church.

The situation at the Church in Corinth was as follows. Members of the Church at Corinth had “consulted” the Church at Rome regarding a schism in the Church at Corinth. (c. 1) This schism, which St. Clement describes as a “shameful and detestable sedition,” involved the casting out by the laity (or some portion of them) of the elders (presbyters) of the Church at Corinth. Speaking to the laity at the Church at Corinth, St. Clement tells them that they had previously been “obedient to those who had the rule over you, and giving all fitting honour to the presbyters among you.” (c. 1) “Moreover, you were all distinguished by humility, and were in no respect puffed up with pride, but yielded obedience rather than extorted it, and were more willing to give than to receive.” … “Every kind of faction and schism was abominable in your sight.” (c. 2)

But, in their contentment and ease, they forsook their previous manner of living, and became puffed up and envious. (c. 3) He writes, “For this reason righteousness and peace are now far departed from you, inasmuch as every one abandons the fear of God, and is become blind in His faith, neither walks in the ordinances of His appointment, nor acts a part becoming a Christian, but walks after his own wicked lusts, resuming the practice of an unrighteous and ungodly envy, by which death itself entered into the world.” (c. 3) He shows that since the fall of Adam and Eve, many evils have arisen from this very root of envy. (c. 4) According to St. Clement, these very same evils are what led to the persecutions and martyrdoms of Peter and Paul, “the greatest and most righteous pillars [of the Church]”. (c. 5)

Who should the laity obey? St. Clement explains: “It is right and holy therefore, men and brethren, rather to obey God than to follow those who, through pride and sedition, have become the leaders of a detestable emulation.” (c. 14) The argument that St. Clement is constructing over the course of the entire epistle is that we follow God by following those authorities whom God has appointed, not those who rise up in sedition. We are not to follow those who make a rebellion, even if they do so claiming to be for peace. “Let us cleave, therefore, to those who cultivate peace with godliness, and not to those who hypocritically profess to desire it.” (c. 15)

He presents the examples of Christ, and the Old Testaments saints, in their humility and meekness. These are the examples we are supposed to emulate. “Thus the humility and godly submission of so great and illustrious men have rendered not only us, but also all the generations before us, better” (c. 19) We should be able to see this, he claims, from nature itself. God has established the whole universe in harmony and order. (c. 20) He wants all men to live in peace. And the Church likewise is set up by God in an ordered manner, to exist in the unity of a harmony (c. 37) so that if we follow that order in humility we will have peace and be to the world an example of humility like Christ and the Old Testament saints and Apostles. Therefore, we must not abandon the post that has been assigned to us in this divinely ordered body which is the Church. To do so is to go against God and the order He has set up through His wisdom and foresight. St. Clement writes:

“It is right, therefore, that we should not leave the post which His will has assigned us. Let us rather offend those men who are foolish, and inconsiderate, and lifted up, and who glory in the pride of their speech, than [offend] God. Let us reverence the Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood was given for us; let us esteem those who have the rule over us;” (c. 21)

There is an intimate connection between esteeming those who have rule over us, and reverencing Jesus Christ. To leave our post and take to ourselves an authority that does not belong to us is to offend God. St. Clement refers to those who set themselves against the will of God as God’s enemies. He writes, “But who are His enemies? All the wicked, and those who set themselves to oppose the will of God.” (c. 36)

All this first part of St. Clement’s letter is written to communicate the way in which God has set up the Church in an ordered, hierarchical way so that there will be peace and harmony, just as God created nature with an order so that all things move in harmony. St. Clement at this point (c. 37) discusses the organizational structure of an army, with its generals, prefects, commanders of a thousand, of a hundred, or of fifty. He points out that the army’s ability to function in an ordered way, and also the well-being of each soldier in the army, depends upon all of its members operating in accordance with their particular rank. (c. 37) Likewise, he draws an analogy between the Church and a living body. “Let us take our body for an example. The head is nothing without the feet, and the feet are nothing without the head; yea, the very smallest members of our body are necessary and useful to the whole body. But all work harmoniously together, and are under one common rule for the preservation of the whole body.” (c. 37) His point in drawing a comparison between the Church on the one hand, and an army and body on the other is that in the Church we all need each other, and we are part of a divinely ordered whole. For that reason we cannot divide from this whole or arrogate a role or rank within it that has not been given to us by Christ. This then gives us some insight into the relation of the Church sojourning at Rome and the Church sojourning at Corinth. They are each members of one Body, and one army. They are not a mere plurality or mere collection of independent entities; they are a unity — an organic Body, with different roles and different gifts.

St. Clement then appeals to the order of the Jewish priesthood, showing how God had appointed that offerings be made at certain times and at particular places by certain persons. He writes:

These things therefore being manifest to us, and since we look into the depths of the divine knowledge, it behooves us to do all things in [their proper] order, which the Lord has commanded us to perform at stated times. He has enjoined offerings [to be presented] and service to be performed [to Him], and that not thoughtlessly or irregularly, but at the appointed times and hours. Where and by whom He desires these things to be done, He Himself has fixed by His own supreme will, in order that all things, being piously done according to His good pleasure, may be acceptable unto Him. Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they sin not. For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen. (c. 40)

He is writing about doing all the things which the Lord (Jesus) has commanded us to do, and in speaking of “offerings” he is speaking of the Eucharist, which Christ commanded to be done in memory of Him. St. Clement explains that Christ has appointed certain people to present these offerings, at the appointed times and hours. Then he immediately makes a three-fold distinction in “peculiar services.” The high priest has his own peculiar duties, and the priests have their own proper place, and so do the Levites. And even the laymen have laws pertaining to them. So in describing the functioning of the Church, St. Clement lays out a three-fold distinction in Holy Orders, as something established by Christ. Christ established in His New Covenant three different Holy Orders: new high priests, new priests, and new Levites. And these clearly are referring to the three-fold division of bishop, priest, and deacon, with the bishop being the high priest of the Church in his city. Then he mentions the laymen. (This is the first time this term is used in the existing Christian literature.) The clear implication is that just as there was a hierarchical order in the Old Covenant, so likewise is there in the New Covenant. He is writing this to show those laymen who had rebelled against their presbyters that they were going against a divinely appointed authority.

Then in the very next paragraph he writes:

“Not in every place, brethren, are the daily sacrifices offered, or the peace-offerings, or the sin-offerings and the trespass-offerings, but in Jerusalem only. And even there they are not offered in any place, but only at the altar before the temple, that which is offered being first carefully examined by the high priest and the ministers already mentioned. Those, therefore, who do anything beyond that which is agreeable to His will, are punished with death. You see, brethren, that the greater the knowledge that has been vouchsafed to us, the greater also is the danger to which we are exposed.” (c. 41)

St. Clement here is clearly speaking of the Eucharist.14 The Christians knew of the prescription set up by the Apostles for following the Lord’s command to “Do this in remembrance of Me.” St. Clement is drawing a comparison (of similarity) between the order of Jewish worship and the order of worship commanded by Christ.15

St. Clement now arrives at the fundamental basis for the authority of the presbyters of the Church at Corinth:

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. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus says the Scripture in a certain place, I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith. (c. 42)

St. Clement first explains that by having received Christ’s authorization and commission, the preaching of the Apostles is a continuation of the preaching of Jesus, which was by the authorization and commission of God the Father. This authorization and commission means that one speaks for the other, and therefore that accepting the sending one requires accepting those he sends, while rejecting those he sends entails rejecting the one who sent them. Having that pattern as the basis for their own authorization, the Apostles then, by this same authority they had received, appointed men whom they had tested, to be bishops and deacons of those who would come to believe in Christ.

By saying that these offices of bishop and deacon are not new, St. Clement is connecting the Old and New Covenants. And that makes his earlier three-fold distinction between high priest, priest, and Levite more obviously relevant to the New Covenant order as well. He sets up an expectation of the difference between the bishop and presbyter, as equivalent in a way, to the difference between the high priest and the priest. According to St. Clement’s explanation, order (and orders) come from the top down. God the Father sent Jesus. Jesus in turn authorized and sent the Apostles. And the Apostles in turn authorized and ordained bishops and deacons. One does not take a ‘rank’ in the army (or body) of Christ by arrogating it to oneself, but by being called to do so by one having that authority. Only those having authority can give authority, because one cannot give what one does not have. The Church in its order imitates Christ who said, “My teaching is not mine, but His who sent me.”

St. Paul did this when he was dealing with a question of supreme importance: “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.” (1 Cor 11:23)16 St. Clement goes on in chapter 43 to say the following:

And what wonder is it if those in Christ who were entrusted with such a duty by God, appointed those [ministers] before mentioned, when the blessed Moses also, a faithful servant in all his house, noted down in the sacred books all the injunctions which were given him, and when the other prophets also followed him, bearing witness with one consent to the ordinances which he had appointed? For, when rivalry arose concerning the priesthood, and the tribes were contending among themselves as to which of them should be adorned with that glorious title, he commanded the twelve princes of the tribes to bring him their rods, each one being inscribed with the name of the tribe. And he took them and bound them [together], and sealed them with the rings of the princes of the tribes, and laid them up in the tabernacle of witness on the table of God. And having shut the doors of the tabernacle, he sealed the keys, as he had done the rods, and said to them, Men and brethren, the tribe whose rod shall blossom has God chosen to fulfil the office of the priesthood, and to minister unto Him. And when the morning was come, he assembled all Israel, six hundred thousand men, and showed the seals to the princes of the tribes, and opened the tabernacle of witness, and brought forth the rods. And the rod of Aaron was found not only to have blossomed, but to bear fruit upon it. What think ye, beloved? Did not Moses know beforehand that this would happen? Undoubtedly he knew; but he acted thus, that there might be no sedition in Israel, and that the name of the true and only God might be glorified; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (emphases mine)

In this chapter St. Clement is showing that the order God provided to avert schism under Moses is present also in the New Covenant, through the apostolic succession — the appointment by the Apostles of the bishops and deacons discussed in chapter 42. He refers to the example of Moses, who had to deal with rivalry and contention concerning the priesthood and authority. St. Clement describes how Moses placed the twelve rods in the tabernacle, knowing all the while that Aaron’s rod would blossom. Moses did this not to learn which tribe ought to have the priesthood, but according to St. Clement, “he acted thus, that there might be no sedition in Israel.” In other words, Moses did this so that all the people would know who rightfully held the priesthood, and in this way would have no excuse for sedition. This leads to the key paragraph for our intention of learning what St. Clement has to say about the Church. He writes:

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. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties. Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure [from this world]; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now appointed them. But we see that you have removed some men of excellent behaviour from the ministry, which they fulfilled blamelessly and with honour. (c. 44)

St. Clement shows that the Apostles (whom St. Clement knew personally) likewise knew “with perfect foreknowledge” that there would be contention over authority in the Church, and especially over the office of the episcopate; they had been foretold of this by Jesus. So the Apostles did something that would show the people who had the rightful authority in the Church, and thus leave men without excuse with respect to sedition. According to St. Clement, in order to show the people who had the rightful authority in the Church, the Apostles publicly appointed bishops and deacons, so that everyone would know who were the rightful successors of the Apostles.

When they appointed bishops, they gave careful instructions regarding the continuation of the office, and how this was to be done. The Apostles instructed these bishops to do the same when they too approached death, so that “other approved men should succeed them [i.e. the first generation of bishops] in their ministry.” This is part of the Apostolic teaching, namely, how the episcopal office is to be perpetuated, so that contention and strife over the episcopate can be averted. The means by which it is to be averted is that ordination is only from bishop to bishop, for if laymen could ordain, then there would be unending contention over the episcopal office. Here we see the principle that underlies apostolic succession. Teaching and governing authority in the Church is given from the top-down, that is, from Christ, to the Apostles, and then to their successors. Of course the whole Church consents, or proposes candidates for ordination, but since no one can give what he does not have, those who have not received authorization from the apostles cannot give it.

Not only that, but in order to prevent sedition, these appointments, like Christ’s authorization of the Apostles, were made in an orderly way, because “all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.” (1 Cor 14:40) By ordaining their successors in this public and orderly way, no one could claim ignorance of who was the rightful ruler, as a justification for sedition or schism. In this way strife is averted, for the leaders are approved (or proposed) by the governed, even though these leaders are authorized only by those already having authority. According to St. Clement, it is no small sin to rebel against those who were appointed and authorized according to the order laid down by Christ through the Apostles.

St. Clement lays open the source of their divisions, writing:

Why are there strifes, and tumults, and divisions, and schisms, and wars among you? Have we not [all] one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us? And have we not one calling in Christ? Ephesians 4:4-6 Why do we divide and tear in pieces the members of Christ, and raise up strife against our own body, and have reached such a height of madness as to forget that we are members one of another? Romans 12:5 Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how He said, Woe to that man [by whom offences come]! It were better for him that he had never been born, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my elect. Yea, it were better for him that a millstone should be hung about [his neck], and he should be sunk in the depths of the sea, than that he should cast a stumbling-block before one of my little ones. Your schism has subverted [the faith of] many, has discouraged many, has given rise to doubt in many, and has caused grief to us all. And still your sedition continues. (c. 46)

The damage done by schism, according to St. Clement, is very serious. It subverts the faith of many, discourages many, and gives rise to doubt in many, and causes grief to us all. The seriousness of this fault is thus treated by St. Clement as aptly described by Christ’s claim about it is better that a millstone be hung around the offender’s neck and that he be cast into the sea, than that he cast a stumbling-block before Christ’s little ones. I wonder whether we take seriously enough how much damage the various contemporary schisms in Christianity have done to the faith of many. If we realized that the millstone prescription applied to our present schisms, wouldn’t we be burning the midnight oil to be reconciled and reunited with each other?

According to St. Clement, the guilt of the Corinthian Church’s previous schism was lesser, because the persons followed then were Apostles [Cephas and Paul], and a man [i.e. Apollo] approved by the Apostles. “But now reflect who those are that have perverted you, and lessened the renown of your far-famed brotherly love. It is disgraceful, beloved, yea, highly disgraceful, and unworthy of your Christian profession, that such a thing should be heard of as that the most steadfast and ancient church of the Corinthians should, on account of one or two persons, engage in sedition against its presbyters. And this rumour has reached not only us, but those also who are unconnected with us; so that, through your infatuation, the name of the Lord is blasphemed, while danger is also brought upon yourselves.” (c. 47)

One of the things that has been handed down from the Apostles, claims St. Clement, is concord. True followers of Christ prefer to be blamed themselves rather than detract from the concord that has been handed down from the Apostles. (c. 51) This same attitude is expressed again in chapter 54 where St. Clement writes:

Who then among you is noble-minded? who compassionate? who full of love? Let him declare, If on my account sedition and disagreement and schisms have arisen, I will depart, I will go away whithersoever ye desire, and I will do whatever the majority commands; only let the flock of Christ live on terms of peace with the presbyters set over it. He that acts thus shall procure to himself great glory in the Lord; and every place will welcome him. (c. 54)

We are to rather be exiled than cause a sedition against the presbyters set over the Church. At this point, St. Clement moves to the imperative voice. First he urges those who instigated the sedition to submit to the rightful presbyters:

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. For it is better for you that you should occupy a humble but honourable place in the flock of Christ, than that, being highly exalted, you should be cast out from the hope of His people. (c. 57)

He has spoken throughout the whole letter about the good of obedience, meekness, humility, order and harmony. Now with authority he calls on those who have participated in the sedition to receive the counsel of the Church of Rome, and to observe the “ordinances and appointments given by God,” namely, the God-given authority of the Corinthian presbyters.

Let us, therefore, flee from the warning threats pronounced by Wisdom on the disobedient, and yield submission to His all-holy and glorious name, that we may stay our trust upon the most hallowed name of His majesty. Receive our counsel, and you shall be without repentance [i.e. have nothing to regret – BRC]. For, as God lives, and as the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost live,— both the faith and hope of the elect, he who in lowliness of mind, with instant gentleness, and without repentance [i.e. without regret] – BRC] has observed the ordinances and appointments given by God — the 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. Amen. (c. 58)

St. Clement makes his strongest statement in chapter 59, when he says:

“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;” (c. 59)

St. Clement is claiming that God is speaking through him and the Church at Rome, and thus that for the Corinthians to disobey the words he is speaking to them is to disobey God. This principle, that God is acting through divinely ordained authorities, can be seen both in the civil authorities as well as the ecclesial authorities, as St. Clement breaks into prayer:

To our rulers and governors on the earth — to them You, Lord, gavest the power of the kingdom by Your glorious and ineffable might, to the end that we may know the glory and honour given to them by You and be subject to them, in nought resisting Your will; to them, Lord, give health, peace, concord, stability, that they may exercise the authority given to them without offence. For You, O heavenly Lord and King eternal, givest to the sons of men glory and honour and power over the things that are on the earth; do Thou, Lord, direct their counsel according to that which is good and well-pleasing in Your sight, that, devoutly in peace and meekness exercising the power given them by You, they may find You propitious. (c. 61)

All the examples to which St. Clement has appealed over the course of his letter have been aimed at showing the virtues of humility and obedience toward divinely appointed authorities. Thus he writes: “Right is it, therefore, to approach examples so good and so many, and submit the neck and fulfil the part of obedience, in order that, undisturbed by vain sedition, we may attain unto the goal set before us in truth wholly free from blame.” (c. 63)

Finally, in conclusion he says, “Send back speedily to us in peace and with joy these 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.” (c. 65) Here St. Clement urges the Corinthians to send back the Roman messengers with news of order having been re-established in the Church at Corinth.

St. Clement shows us that the solution to a schism is to locate the divinely established ecclesial authority, and submit to that authority, according to the order established by Christ. St. Clement gives an insight into the heart and mind of the Apostles regarding these things, because he still has, as St. Irenaeus says, “the preaching of the apostles … echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes.”

St. Clement, pray for us, that the many schisms that presently divide Christians would be overcome, and that all Christ’s followers would be brought into full and visible unity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Update: I discussed St. Clement’s soteriology with Lane Keister in the comments here.

  1. a. See St. Irenaeus’s description of his personal knowledge of St. Polycarp in Ad haer. 3.3.4. According to St. Irenaeus, St. Polycarp “was not only taught by the Apostles, and lived in familiar intercourse with many that had seen Christ, but also received his appointment in Asia from the Apostles as Bishop in the Church of Smyrna.” []
  2. To see the letter commending St. Irenaeus to St. Eleutherus, see Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, 5.4. []
  3. Historia Ecclesiastica, 3.4.. See also Historia Ecclesiastica, 3.15. []
  4. Historia Ecclesiastica, 3.16. []
  5. Historia Ecclesiastica, 4.22. []
  6. Eusebius quotes Dionysius’s letter in Historia Ecclesiastica, 4.23. []
  7. Liber de praescriptione haereticorum, c. 32. []
  8. See Historia Ecclesiastica, 3.21. []
  9. Historia Ecclesiastica, 3.34. []
  10. See Justification: The Catholic Church and the Judaizers in St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. []
  11. Session Six, Chapter 7. []
  12. Session Six, Canon XI. []
  13. See also here. []
  14. See St. Ignatius’s Letter to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 8. []
  15. There is no contradiction between what St. Clement is saying here (chapters 40-41) and what St. Paul says in Colossians 2:13-21 about Christians not needing to follow the Jewish ceremonial law. []
  16. Concerning the relation of Romans 10:15 to this passage see the relevant paragraph in C. Evidence from Scripture. []
Tags: , ,

Leave a comment »

  1. Bryan,

    Excellent article. It’s funny that a Protestant would use St. Clement as a proof text for any sola. I wrote a thesis on St. Clement’s concept of grace, but I did it with a Reformed theologian and expert on Calvin as my mentor. At the time, I was convinced that the Didache was a kind of “first blow” to the pure Pauline Gospel and from there we might watch a slow and steady devolution of Christianity until the Reformation. That was the narrative. My polemic was against St. Clement’s concept of grace and nature, because he certainly sees no tension between the two, and his strong sacramental view of grace . Further, he has a forceful view of the salvific nature of baptism which was against my evangelical notions at the time. However, after converting I re-read my thesis to find that my conclusions, although full of polemic undertones, stated Catholic doctrine perfectly. I also couldn’t get over the tone of his epistles (very Papal one might say).

  2. Bryan, you argue that Clements point is not primarily that the Corinthians be obedient to God directly, but that they be obedient to God by means of their obedience to the authorities that God has placed over them.

    “The argument that St. Clement is constructing over the course of the entire epistle is that we follow God by following those authorities whom God has appointed, not those who rise up in sedition.”

    While this claim is not objectionable, it seems to me, and I could be wrong, that you overstate your case. In your article, you’re trying to show a continuity between the ecclesiology of Clement of Rome and the ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic Church. This is where your article seems a bit strained. Again, most of what you say is not objectionable to a Protestant or an Eastern Orthodox believer. For example, I wouldn’t disagree when you say the following:

    “There is an intimate connection between esteeming those who have rule over us, and reverencing Jesus Christ.”

    The Protestant Reformers themselves wouldn’t disagree with this statement in and of itself. Where your article seems to go beyond Clement is in his affirmation that Clement is clearly affirming “a three-fold distinction in Holy Orders”. According to you Clement is affirming the orders of bishop, priest, and deacon by drawing a parallel between the Levitical priesthood and the priesthood under the new covenant right? You say the following:

    “Christ established in His New Covenant three different Holy Orders: new high priests, new priests, and new Levites. And these clearly are referring to the three-fold division of bishop, priest, and deacon, with the bishop being the high priest of the Church in his city.”

    To be sure, Clement is concerned about the schism taking place in Corinth. He also teaches that God sets the universe, nature, and the church in proper order. There is no doubt that Clement desires the church to be unified and to conduct themselves in an orderly way. Additionally, Clement clearly wants the church laity to submit to their presbyters.

    But I do not see how Clement is advocating the “three-fold distinction” to which you refer. Clement refers to “high priests” of the Old Testament (chapters 40 and 41) in an effort to drive home the point that God sets up orderly administration over the people of God. But this in itself doesn’t admit of the distinction mentioned above. Protestants also admit of hierarchy in the church. Admittedly, those offices vary from denomination to denomination, but they very often entail deacons and elders as leaders or ministers of the church. So an admission of hierarchy and order in the church doesn’t necessary yield the Roman Catholic Holy Orders.

    As a Protestant, what I find interesting is that all other references to “high priests” in this letter speak of “the” high priest, not “high priests” in the plural. The High Priest is specifically named in the letter. When speaking of the New Covenant ecclesiastical structure, Clement only refers to Jesus Christ as the High Priest. (see chapter 36, 61, and 64)

    I am open to being corrected and I look forward to your response.


  3. […] and in his piece, which I hadn’t read before but read immediately following, on the soteriology of Pope St. Clement of Rome. Though our doctrine today is more fully developed, both early Fathers reflect these ideas. And if […]

  4. Actually St. Clement here teaches precisely what the reformers taught concerning Justification.

    You will notice many modern Catholic interpreters who want to define the word “justified” as “make righteous” rather than “pronounce righteous”, and therefore this suits them well because if we read any Church writers from the earliest years say that we are “justified by faith”, they can simply say that this means that the person was changed from being wicked to being holy in life by faith in Jesus. And so the re-definition of the word “justified” is important, for this is what Catholics understand the word to mean (Medieval Catholics anyway). Also, modern Catholics will say that “works” in Romans 3-5 are referring exclusively to those outward ceremonial things done in the flesh, and that there is no inclusion to works of holiness in general. However, Clement teaches that we are justified apart from any works whatsoever! Holiness or righteousness!

    Now, let’s grant it. The Catholics can affirm that we are not “justified (made righteous ontologically) because of prior righteousness or holiness. Therefore they read this with ease and harmony to their own teaching.

    However, Clement’s rhetorical question following his statement that we are “justified by faith” teaches that the word “justified” simply cannot (it really is impossible) mean to be made ontologically righteous through the power of the re-creating work of the Spirit of God for he says “Shall we continue in sin and fail to do what is right?”!!! It is just like Paul who insists that “righteousness is a free imputed gift” but then asks rhetorically “Shall we continue in sin?”.

    Therefore, Clement is really on point with the Protestant teaching, and nowhere harmonious with the Catholic teaching, for they insist that “justified” is no legal fiction because there is holiness there in the person who is justified, but why would Clement ask the question afterward if this is the case?

  5. Erick (re: #4)

    Your broader argument hangs on the following specific argument:

    However, Clement’s rhetorical question following his statement that we are “justified by faith” teaches that the word “justified” simply cannot (it really is impossible) mean to be made ontologically righteous through the power of the re-creating work of the Spirit of God for he says “Shall we continue in sin and fail to do what is right?”!!!

    In c. 32 St. Clement says:

    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 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 for ever and ever. Amen.

    Then, immediately following, at the beginning of c. 33, St. Clement says:

    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.

    Your argument goes as follows: because St. Clement asks rhetorical questions at the beginning of c. 33, this show that the word ‘justified’ at the end of c. 32 cannot mean to be made ontologically righteous by the Holy Spirit. The problem with that argument is that the conclusion does not follow from the premise. The asking of these rhetorical questions is fully compatible with the justification St. Clement refers to being an ontological change by the Holy Spirit. In order for your conclusion to follow, you would need to make explicit the hidden premise: “If a person is made ontologically righteous by the Holy Spirit, that person can no longer sin.” If that hidden premise were true, then the rhetorical questions at the beginning of c. 33 would make no sense. But in the Catholic paradigm (which you are here criticizing and which St. Clement held) being made ontologically righteous by the Holy Spirit does not remove the possibility of sinning, just as Adam and Eve were ontologically righteous, and yet were still able to sin. Hence the rhetorical questions at the beginning of c. 33 in no way show that the justification in c. 32 is not ontological, because what these rhetorical questions imply is fully compatible with the justification in c. 32 being ontological.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    St. Clement of Rome, pray for us.

    Feast of St. Clement of Rome, 2014

Leave Comment

Subscribe without commenting