Reflections on the Church Fathers: 1 Clement
If I’ve learned anything from college over the past four years it’s that once you begin learning something you quickly realize how little you actually know. My time here at Conciliar Post has been no different. At first starting to write for this website arguing for a particular version of Christianity, I soon learned how little I actually knew, both about my own tradition and of the traditions of others. Having been sufficiently disoriented as to the many differences and also close connections that Christians of all stripes share, I thought I would take up the advice of many on this blog by reading and reflecting on the Church Fathers. The translation I use is from The Apostolic Fathers in English by Michael W. Holmes.
David Brooks, writing in the introduction to his recent book The Road to Character, says, “Example is the best teacher. Moral improvement occurs most reliably…when we come into contact with people we admire and love and we consciously and unconsciously bend our lives to mimic theirs.”1 As Christians seeking to live our lives more like the example of Christ, we can often do no better than to look to those who have lived most faithfully before us, who can provide direction as to a Christian life well lived.
1 Clement, written in the 1st century by a bishop of Rome2 by the same name, provides the Church with one such example for how we ought to live as followers of Christ. Writing “to the church of God that sojourns in Corinth,” Clement calls these Christians into various virtues that are befitting those that claim to follow “the Master of the universe.”3 Having once lived as a church of “excellent and steadfast faith” and “sober and magnanimous piety in Christ,”4 the Corinthian church has since given itself over to complacency and pride in its own glory, inbreeding instead jealousy, envy, and division.
Pleading that the Corinthians turn to repentance and to “adorn” themselves with good works, Clement does not lift himself up as the exemplar of moral supremacy, but instead claims that he himself is a part of the same struggle. In probably my favorite passage of the entire letter, Clement reflects on the purpose of his letter, “We write these things, dear friends, not only to admonish you but also to remind ourselves. For we are in the same arena, and the same contest awaits us.”5 This contest, Clement continues, does not mean pulling ourselves up individually by our own bootstraps, but “conform[ing] to the glorious and holy rule of our tradition.”
Clement, much like the writer of Hebrews, then proceeds with painting a beautiful portrait of those faithful people of God who have gone before us who urge us to holiness. Abraham is commended for his faithfulness and obedience, Lot and Rahab for their “hospitality” and “godliness,” Paul for his “patient endurance,” Moses, Job, and Jesus for their humility, and all of creation in its peace and harmony. Clement concludes this vast summary of the tradition with, “Seeing, then, that we have a share in many great and glorious deeds, let us hasten on to the goal of peace, which has been handed down to us from the beginning; let us fix our eyes upon the Father and Maker of the whole world and hold fast to his magnificent and excellent gifts and benefits of peace.”6
In a passage that made my Reformed heart leap for joy, Clement urges humility even in one’s good works, for it is only faith that justifies. He worships the God of grace, “All therefore, were glorified and magnified, not through themselves or their own works or the righteous actions that they did, but through his will. And so we, having been called through his will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety, or works that we have done in holiness of heart, but through faith, by which the Almighty God has justified all who have existed from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”7
After having read my first of the Fathers, a few random reflections ensue. First, it seems obvious that the role of bishops and deacons were established from the get-go in the Christian tradition. Clement speaks of “apostles,” “bishops,” and “deacons,” as offices for leading believers. Interestingly, the biblical term “elder” is not used by Clement, though perhaps this is my ignorance of translation and interpretation.
Second, another passage that warmed my Reformed heart is when Clement “marvels” at the resurrection. He speaks of an “assurance born of good faith” that Christians have access to, though this assurance is intimately tied to having served the Creator “in holiness.” Assurance of salvation is tied not simply to looking to Christ, but to the evidence of fruit in one’s life.
Third, often in reflecting on various historical and present “schisms” in the Church, maybe we too often privilege reflecting on the macro-schisms of history, rather than the schisms that can exist within our own local congregation. Clement, like the apostles Paul and John before him, is writing to a particular church body about “every faction and every schism.”8 Perhaps what is just as, if not more so, important to Jesus’ prayer that the Church may be one, is that each local congregation may be united, rather than merely all local congregations existing under a single umbrella. Of course, Clement is writing in a pre-macro-schism time, though I think the exercise of reading his concern for a single congregation is convicting toward the way I usually think of “schism” and “union.”
Clement concludes with an incredible prayer,
“Grant us, Lord, to hope on your name, which is the primal source of all creation, and open the eyes of our hearts that we may know you, who alone are the highest among the high; you are holy, abiding among the holy. You humble the pride of the proud; you destroy the plans of nations; you exalt the humble and humble the exalted; you make rich and make poor; you kill and make alive. You alone are the benefactor of spirits and the God of all flesh, looking into the depths, scanning the works of humans; the helper of those who are in peril, the savior of those in despair; the creator and guardian of every spirit. You multiply the nations upon the earth, and from among all of them you have chosen those who love you through Jesus Christ, your beloved servant, through whom you instructed us, sanctified us, honored us. We ask you, Master, to be our helper and protector. Save those among us who are in distress; have mercy on the humble; raise up the fallen; show yourself to those in need; heal the sick; turn back those of your people who wander; feed the hungry; ransom our prisoners; raise up the weak; comfort the discouraged. Let all the nations know that you are the only God, that Jesus Christ is your servant, and that we are your people and the sheep of your pasture”9
View Sources Holmes, Michael W. The Apostolic Fathers in English, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 37
 Brooks, David. The Road to Character, (New York: Random House, 2015), xv
 I’m following Michael W. Holmes, “Tradition identifies him as the third bishop of Rome after Peter, but this is unlikely because the office of monarchical bishop, in the sense intended by this later tradition, does not appear to have existed in Rome at this time. Leadership seems to have been entrusted to a group of presbyters or bishops, among whom Clement almost certainly was a (if not the) leading figure.”
 Ibid. 46, 1 Clement 8:2
 Ibid. 42, 1 Clement 1:2
 Ibid. 45, 1 Clement 7:1
 Ibid. 51-52, 1 Clement 19:2-3
 Ibid. 56-57, 1 Clement 32:3-4
 Ibid. 43, 1 Clement 2:6
 Ibid. 70, 1 Clement 59: 3-4
Holmes, Michael W. The Apostolic Fathers in English, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 37