I have long been interested in church history, and especially the history of the early church, but despite this, I have not done a good job of immersing myself in early Christian writings outside of the New Testament. To work towards remedying this deficiency, I began reading The Apostolic Fathers in English late last year as part of my daily devotional reading. Generally speaking, the term “Apostolic Fathers” refers to early Christian theologians from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, some of whom would have known some of the apostles personally and sought to pass on their teachings. More specifically, “Apostolic Fathers” is frequently used in reference to Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna.
While these writings are not part of the Christian canon, I have still found them to be interesting and insightful, and I wanted to share some reflections from a few of them in a short series of posts. Today, I want to focus on 1 Clement.
Clement of Rome and 1 Clement
The letter known as 1 Clement is written on behalf of the church at Rome to their fellow believers in Corinth. It is believed to have been written at roughly the same time that John wrote the Book of Revelation, but while the latter has a very negative portrayal of the Roman government, the perspective of 1 Clement is more positive. As Michael Holmes states:
“…The elements of peace, harmony, and order that are so important to the author (or authors) of this letter reflect some of the fundamental values of Roman society. Thus it provides important evidence of the diverse and creative ways in which Christians sought to come to terms with the Greco-Roman culture and society within which the church was so rapidly expanding.”
First Clement is unified in style rather than disjointed, which suggests one author rather than a composite work, and well-attested ancient tradition identifies this author as Clement (despite Clement not being named in the text itself). The exact identify of “Clement” is harder to discern, however. Catholic Church tradition identifies him as the third bishop of Rome after Peter, but the “office of monarchical bishop, in the sense intended by this later tradition, does not appear to have existed in Rome at this time.” More likely, church leadership consisted of a group of presbyters or bishops, of whom Clement was likely a leading figure. It was probably written during the last two decades of the first century.
The intended recipient of the letter is the church at Corinth. This group of Christians had received repeated correspondence from Paul in previous decades, and the spiritual problems of that church (and divisiveness in particular) clearly persisted after his death. In the days of Clement, some of the younger men in the church at Corinth had apparently deposed the leadership of the congregation, and the church at Rome was so distressed by this turn of events that they produced this letter and dispatched mediators in an effort to restore unity and order to this fractured church.
Themes and Insights from 1 Clement
Close Dependence on Scripture: As I read 1 Clement, I was struck by the degree to which the author relied on Scripture, and the Hebrew Bible in particular, to make his argument. Clement gives ancient examples of both jealousy and good behavior from the Book of Genesis, and warns the Corinthians about the former while admonishing them to follow the latter. Although he references New Testament texts less, Clement is still closely connected to the apostolic era, and invokes Jesus, Peter, and Paul as examples to follow.
Orthodox Theology: I was also interested to see 1 Clement’s affirmation of key Christian doctrines that, although taught in the New Testament, are sometimes dismissed by critical scholars as later theological developments that early Christians wouldn’t have recognized. Clement is an early, extrabiblical witness to the doctrine of resurrection:
“Let us consider, dear friends, how the Master continually points out to us the coming resurrection of which he made the Lord Jesus Christ the first fruit when he raised him from the dead.”
(1 Clement 24.1)
He also reflects Trinitarian language and thinking:
“Do we not have one God and one Christ and one Spirit of grace that was poured out upon us?”
(1 Clement 46.6)
Finally, although this is a less controversial idea in the history of Christian theology and interpretation, Clement heavily emphasizes the doctrine of unity. Indeed, the whole letter represents an urging for the Corinthian Christians to give up their schisms, submit to their rightly established leadership, and be united in Christ.
A Marvelous Prayer: I was struck by a beautiful prayer near the end of 1 Clement, and wanted to share a section of it:
“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 who are 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.
For you through your works have revealed the everlasting structure of the world. You, Lord, created the earth. You are faithful throughout all generations, righteous in your judgments, marvelous in strength and majesty, wise in creating and prudent in establishing what exists, good in all that is observed and faithful to those who trust in you, merciful and copassionate: forgive us our sins and our injustices, our transgressions and our shortcomings.”
(1 Clement 59.3-60.1)
To compare it to New Testament writings, 1 Clement is a very long letter (about 50% longer than Paul’s longest letter, 1 Corinthians), and Clement is painstakingly deliberate about the way in which he constructs his argument and structures his plea to the Corinthian Christians. Perhaps this is because, unlike Paul, he cannot rely upon apostolic authority and instead has to build the weight of authority from lengthy biblical examples.
This means that 1 Clement not a fast-paced read, but it is absolutely worthwhile. The extended use of Scripture as the foundation for Christian behavior and practice is exemplary, and the drumbeat emphasis on the importance of love and unity within the Christian community is need in every time and place. First Clement is an edifying early-Christian writing that all Christians would do well to read, reflect upon, and appreciate.
 Michael W. Holmes, ed., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006): 36-38, is the source of the background information that follows.
 Holmes, 36.
 Ibid., 37.