Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cannon and Church: 8 Thoughts of the Writings of Clement of Rome

Clement of Rome is the earliest extant Christian writing outside of the New Testament. It is almost certainly a first century document[1]. It is one of the few books that was actually ‘in play’ with respect to the boundaries cannon.[2] It seems to me like that would make it an important window into the life and thought of the early church, but for some reason it gets very little attention. So here are a few quick hit reflections on what I found to be an exhilarating and nourishing little text.[3]

1. A Premature Youth Movement
Clement was written by the leadership in Rome to the leadership in Corinth[4]. Its tone is extremely humble but exceedingly stern. It condemns ‘the detestable and unholy schism, so alien and strange to those chosen by God.’ But it is the specific nature of the schism that I find so interesting. It seems that there has been a premature youth movement in the leadership of Corinth. A few young men had ousted the aging leadership in Corinth, “these we consider to be unjustly removed from their ministry.”
Ah, how times have not changed. I am not sure you will find a more passionate proponent of Xer/Millenial friendly church. But the propensity for my generation to take our ball and go home by planting a series of churches by our generation to our generations has a strong odor of self importance to it. There is a reason that leaders in the early church were called elders. Age is not a deterministic predictor of wisdom, but the two are strongly correlated.[5]

But it is not a one sided rebuke. The Roman leadership adds: “Blessed are those presbyters who have gone on ahead, who took their departure at a mature and fruitful age….” 44:5 Clement actually commends those who know when to call it quits, or at least to find an age appropriate role. In our current model, by the time you earn the right to speak, you are well beyond the age of obsolescence to speak in a compelling way to the people statistically most likely to consider a major worldview shift.[6]

Nic was telling me about a church in London where the visioning leadership is all over 50 but those who constitute the ‘face of the church’ are cultural creatives in their 20’s early 30’s. If you ignore the wisdom born of experience you tend to be shallow. If you keep talent on the bench too long, you loose your cultural voice (and the talent finds avenues outside the church to utilize those skills).[7] One of my life goals is that if I ever grow up to the point that I have serious ecclesiastical influence (a doubtful prospect for someone in my tradition who has eschewed full time ministry) that I would use it to form a church that neither I, nor the primary givers[8] ‘enjoyed,’ but would be pitched to the generation that is actually in the process of selecting long term world views.

A healthy church is intergenerational not only in age distribution but in contribution. The wise lead and the culturally connected minister. This seems to be the model Clement is arguing for. He’s pretty smart.

2. A Radical Theology of the Poor

My favorite paper that I wrote during my Theology degree was about the theology of money and possessions that emerged from the orthodox extant writings of the first 250 years of the church (essentially Clement of Rome to Clement of Alexandria). Let me summarize the paper by saying, they were extremely passionate about the dangers of wealth and the responsibilities the wealthy had towards the poor. 1 Clement is no exception. Here are his thoughts on this topic:

“Let the rich support the poor; and let the poor give thanks to God, because he has given him someone through whom his needs may be met.” 38:2
“You (God) 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.” 59:3
“But do not let it trouble your mind that we see the unrighteous possessing wealth while the servants of God experience hardship…None of the righteous ever received his reward quickly, but waits for it. For if God paid the wages of the righteous immediately, we would soon be engaged in business, not godliness; though it would appear to be righteousness, we would in fact being pursuing not piety but profit.” 2 Clem 20:1-4
(I think this last one is startlingly insightful.)

But here is the hands down winner of the ‘holy crap, are you kidding me’ shocker of the early church theology of possessions.

“Many have sold themselves into slavery, and with the price received for themselves have fed others.” 55:2
3. A Clear Early Theology of the Trinity
Those who want to deny the Trinity[9] like to point out that the word ‘trinity’ is not used in Scripture. This is true. The word is attributed to Tertullian. But it is not difficult to argue that the idea of the Trinity (which I support as true, beautiful and mysterious[10]) is something that at least some of the Biblical authors believed[11] in some form. Clement clearly demonstrates that the doctrine is, at the very least, articulated clearly within two generations of the apostles:

“For as God lives, and as the Lord Jesus Christ lives, and the Holy Spirit (who are the faith and hope of the elect)…” 58:2

4. The Pauline Structure of Leadership in Community Persists (Barely)
I have argued before that I believe that ecclesiology (how we do church) gets very little Biblical attention and is, in most ways, totally arbitrary. I have also argued that this is a very good thing, suggesting that God has allowed for cultural freedom as each culture seeks to articulate worship from their own perspectives on order, beauty and creativity. But there are a few things on which Biblical ecclesiology IS prescriptive. One of them is that leadership should not be vested in the hands of a single individual but should be entrusted to a community of people who have proven character. Let’s call this the Pauline vision of church leadership (though it also shows up in Luke’s account of the pre-Pauline church in Jerusalem).

But the medieval church (and many evangelical churches, which are essentially cults of personality, giving unhealthy amounts of power to a single charismatic pastor) departed from this model, appointing authoritative bishops over churches in a hierarchy that ended with one guy (the pope) who could speak for God.[12] How, I have wondered, did one of the only things the Bible prescribes about ecclesiology, go so badly. The answer is, horrifyingly early.

Just fifty pages to the right (early to mid second century) in Holmes edition of the Apostolic Fathers Ignatius (who, it must be said, is a remarkable and admirable church Father with respect to his character[13] and much of his theology and who writes beautifully) has already abandoned the Pauline perspective on leadership in community in favor of a single authoritative bishop as the unimpeachable, unquestioned ‘pope’ over each church. For example, he says:

‘It is obvious, therefore, that we must regard the bishop as the Lord himself.’[14] Letter to the Ephesians 6:1
So where does Clement fall, residing approximately half way in time between Paul and Ignatius? He is firmly with the former. There is no mention of a singular ‘bishop’ over a church. Wherever church leaders are referred to, it is in plural (42:5, 47:6). It appears that the church was faithful to the apostolic vision of leadership in community at least through the end of the first century.

5. Clement Recognizes the Authority of the Hebrew Scriptures and Recommends the Letters of Paul
Nearly a third of 1 Clement is direct quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures. This would be unremarkable if it was a letter from the church in Jerusalem. But as the church in Rome, their theology would be the most Gentile and metropolitan. Yet this thoroughly Gentile church sees themselves in unbreakable continuity with the Hebrew people of God[15]. To them, likely almost entirely from pagan backgrounds, the first testament is clearly authoritative.

But the Hebrew scriptures do not appear to be the only thing they find authoritative. In the first sentence of chapter 47, Clement says ‘Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul the apostle and proceeds to argue from it in precisely the same way he argues from the Hebrew scriptures. While it is unclear if the Corinthians have copies of the gospels yet (though 23:3 seems to be a paraphrase of Mark 4:3 - see next point), or if they have a collection of Paul’s letters (though it seems to me that at least Clement does) it seems pretty indisputable that they admire the apostolic correspondence as authoritative.

6. 2 Clement and the Gospels
2 Clement does not appear to be written by the same person, but is clearly from the same era. They are grouped together because, as Holmes say (leaning on the brilliant work of none other than Lightfoot) ‘the evidence (in the) letter must be assigned essentially the same date as 1 Clement.’ So it is extremely interesting that while 1 Clement leans heavily on OT citations, 2 Clement includes at least 12 (by my count) sayings attributed to Jesus including:

“I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.” 2:4

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will be saved, but only the one who does what is right.” 4:1

“If you are gathered with me close to my breast, yet you do not keep my commandments, I will throw you out and say to you, ‘Get away from me; I do not know where you are from, you evildoers.” 4:5

“You will be like lambs among wolves.” (Peter responds ‘What if the wolves tear the lambs to pieces’) Jesus said to Peter “After the lambs are dead, let them fear the wolves no longer, and as for you, do not fear those who, though they kill you, are not able to do anything else to you, but fear the one who, after you are dead, has the power to cast soul and body into the flames of hell.” 5:3-4

“No servant can have tow masters.” 5:1

“For what good is it, if someone gains the whole world but forfeits his life?” 5:2

“If you did not guard something small, who will give you something great? For I say to you, whoever is faithful with very little is also faithful with much.” 8:5

“My brothers and sisters are those who do the will of my Father.” 9:11

“Wretched are the double minded, those who doubt in their heart and say, ‘We heard all these things even in the days of our fathers, and though we have waited day after day we have seen none of them.” 11:2-4

“When the two shall be one, and the outside like the inside, and the male with the female neither male or female.” 12:2

For the Lord says, “My name is continually blasphemed among all the nations,” and again, “Woe to him on whose account my name is blasphemed.”[16] 13:2

“It is no credit to you if you love those who love you, but it is a credit to you if you love your enemies and those who hate you.[17]” 13:4

‘my house has become a robbers den.’ 14:2

There are so many things of note about this I hardly know where to start. Let me just make 4 brief comments.

1. There is clearly a very early oral or written tradition of the sayings of Jesus that 2 Clement is tapping into. Most of it seems to be in continuity with the canonical writings.
2. But it is unlikely that 2 Clement’s sources are the canonical writings. Of the 12ish sayings of Jesus, 4 of them do not appear in the canonical Gospels.
3. Two of the 4 extra-canonical sayings have strong similarities to passages in Gnostic writings. 12:2 is preserved in the Gospel of Thomas and the passage from chapter 12 has similarities to the Gospel of the Egyptians.
4. 1 Clement and 2 Clement wrote at the same time but, obviously, had very different sorts of access to the sayings and narrative accounts of Jesus.

This is, what I would call, mixed data. It is clear that there is a strong early tradition of sayings (one could say sources). It certainly points to a heterogeneous kerigmatic landscape. Access to sources of Jesus’ sayings is a spatial as well as a temporal function. But I think someone like Luke sorted through these traditions with the best critical historical tools of his day and mad the right choices regarding the historical account versus self serving innovations.

7. Vesting in a Temporally Situated Scientific Paradigm
Clement starts chapter 25 like this:

“Let us observe the remarkable sign that is seen in the regions of the east that is, in the vicinity of Arabia. There is a bird that is named the phoenix. The bird, the only of its species, lives for five hundred years…” He then proceeds to use the Phoenix as an illustration of some spiritual principal.


How really smart Christians wrote about science hundreds of years ago is something that I have found particularly intriguing lately. Around the time I read this in clement, I encountered the following passage in City of God, by Augustine (arguably, one of the smartest guys in Western Civilization):

“Why, even the irrational animals, from the immense dragons down to the tiniest worms…show that they wish to exist and avoid extinction.” p 461
And in more recent chapters he has let out some howlers where he mocked the premise of a spherical earth, contended that toads were formed by the earth and claimed that, not only did giants exist but that he had personally seen a man’s toot that was the size of a normal man’s head.[18]

After a particularly groan worthy passage in Augustine I told my reading group about this Clement’s passage on the Phoenix. My friend Alex had the most insightful thought. He said “It is really remarkable that as prevalent as that kind of thing (assuming mythical creatures are actual) is in ancient literature, that stuff like this didn’t make it into the Bible.” It is almost like God inspired it.

8. A Timeless Prayer for Governmental Leaders
Towards the end of his letter, Clement prays the following prayer for those in political power that could easily be integrated into a contemporary liturgy or worship service:

“You, Master, have given them the power of sovereignty through your majestic and inexpressible might, so that we, acknowledging the glory and honor that you have given them, may be subject to them, resisting your will in nothing. Grant to them, Lord, health, peace, harmony, and stability, so that they may blamelessly administer the government that you have given them. For you, heavenly Master, King of the ages, give to human beings glory and honor and authority over the creatures of the earth. Lord, direct their plans according to what is good and pleasing in your sight, so that by devoutly administering in peace and gentleness the authority that you have given them they might experience your mercy. You, who alone are able to do these and even greater good things for us, we praise through the high priest and benefactor of our souls, Jesus Christ, through whom be the glory and majesty to you both now and for all generations and for ever and ever. Amen.”
This seems like a pleasant, vanilla sort of prayer for governmental decision makers, until you recall, Nero fed them to lions and illuminated the streets with their squirming crucified bodies set ablaze and the letter was likely written just as Domitian was escalating persecution Empire wide. This was LITERALY the worst cultural moment the church faced politically. And Clement prays that they would be wise and receive mercy and that God’s people would be good citizens (in as much as that was possible without denying their faity).

Um…If we can’t bring ourselves to pray kindly and generously for either a Bush or Obama administration, we have probably made politics into an idol. Regardless of our alignment, Christians should take this tone into the political discourse.

This post was prepared while listening to the Rise Against station on Pandora
[1] The only real debate is mid-century or late century, but no one seriously proposes a second century dating as it seems clear that some of the leaders appointed by the apostles themselves are still alive.
[2] Much has been made that the cannon of the New Testament was ‘fluid’ for a couple centuries. Too much. It is true that early lists and a few late Codex discoveries disagree about the precise books that were to be included in the NT. But what is far more interesting than the disagreement is the agreement. There is almost no disagreement (except with Marcion who was trying to ‘free Christianity from its Jewishness’ and was, plainly, outside of mainstream Christianity) on the major books, the gospels, acts, Paul’s letters. The only disagreement is on a few of the minor epistles (3 John), Revelation, and three books that didn’t make it in 1 and 2 Clement, The Shepherd of Hermas and The Didache. (All of which were clearly appropriate exclusions in my opinion). Dan Brown is just factually incorrect that the Bible was voted on at Nicaea. He is lying. There is no nice way to say it. Bart Eardman, on the other hand, with his more nuanced argument that the church edged out alternate voices late in its development (essentially post-Constantine) just does not hold up to the empirical evidence. There appears to be surprisingly consistent and early agreement on the NT cannon…centuries before Constantine and Nicaea. Clement and The Shepherd are the exceptions that prove the rule. I’ll do a post on canonicity at some point, but will leave it at that for now.
[3] So, I didn’t plan to exegete a 2000 year old text after I deconstructed a 5 day old television show in back-to-back to posts. But if you don’t think I love that that is how it played out…you don’t know me very well. It does pose the question...who would possibly read this blog. I guess you would. You have my admiration and gratitude.
[4] Yup, there is trouble in Corinth again. Go figure that you would plant a church in a city of sailors and prostitutes and it would be a little messy. I love the candor of our history. It gives me hope that our movement is made out of qualitatively the same stuff as our heroes.
[5] Days after I read studied this letter, I heard about a church in the southwest that is splitting because a new twenty-something pastor is making a lot of unilateral changes. All be it, it is a Church of Christ church, which means that the new fangled changes that the sprightly pastor wants to introduce include…musical instruments.
[6] Those before the age of 28 and then again around 32 or whenever their children start school
[7] One of the pastors at my church recently told the college pastor ‘you are stealing all of my best teachers’ (referring to myself and another guy). My response was, ‘Its because you put us in the game. I may be a huge Red Sox fan, but I’ll play for the Yankees if they start me and I am otherwise languishing on the bench.”
[8] I am convinced that this is why the vast majority of ‘intergenerational’ churches feel like they are stuck in the mid-eighties (if they are really edgy)…because that is when the primary giving base went to college and it is the experience they are paying for. But what will happen when the Boomers die and the Xers are in charge (assuming that God sees fit to allow the American church to survive that long). We will likely do the exact same thing, unless we intentionally plan otherwise.
[9] Usually Muslims, Unitarians and contemporary Arians (also known as Jehovah’s Witnesses)
[10] There was a time when I thought about becoming either a Muslim or Jewish because I was philosophically convinced of a Judaeo-Christian God but thought the doctrine of the Trinity made no sense. (I didn’t know I could just become a Jehovah Witness to the same end.) Even after I became a Christian, I was honestly embarrassed by the paradoxical nature of this idea. I’m so over that. Far from being embarrassed about the intractability of the Trinity I think it is an argument for the truth of Christianity over the other forms of monotheism. It seems like an arbitrary and unsubstantiated expectation that the fundamental nature of God would be rationally tractable. Rather, wouldn’t it be more likely that an infinite God that would be worth continuing to know more and more for eternity would seem utterly baffling to us in the short years of our lives. Only a God with mystery at his core is worthy of worship.
[11] Most notably, Matthew’s Baptism formula and Paul’s introduction to the book of Romans seem to take for granted that the one God’s fundamental threeness was part of the early confessions of the church.
[12] This strikes me as extremely problematic given the Christian doctrine of human nature. Christian community is a safeguard against the depravity of the heart of the individual. Pastors who rule their churches without submitting themselves to non-trivial body of (preferably lay) elders, are being dangerously unbiblical and betraying an impoverished thological anthropology. Plus, power corrupts, and robs humility, meaning the more powerful one person becomes, the less fit they are for leadership.
[13] Dude was marched 1000 miles across the Roman empire before he was fed to lions.
[14] Though this idea comes across less strongly in his letter to the Trallians “It is essential, that you continue your current practice and do nothing without the bishop, but be subject also to the cousil of presbyters as to the apostles of Jesus Christ…Similarly, let everyone respect the deacons just as Jesus Christ.” (2:1-3:1). Holmes refers to the Ignatian ecclesiology as ‘three teired’ bishop-elders-deacons rather than the ‘two tiered’ Pauline version of elders-deacons.
[15] Again, contra Marcion.
[16] This verse is particularly interesting. Two phrases are attributed to the same speaker. The thing is, one is from Isaiah, in the Old Testament, and the other is a saying of Jesus. There is something interesting about intertestamental hermeneutics in the early church here. But I’m not sure what it is.
[17] On this one, instead of ‘the Lord says’ 2 Clement prefaces the saying with ‘God says’ clearly underlining a very early tradition of the deity of Christ.
[18] Now Augustine was neither stupid nor ignorant. To believe either would simply be crass presentism. In the areas of scientific inquiry that his age understood (human reproduction and atmospheric sciences) he is obviously very knowledgeable. He, like so many theologians that sound ridiculous to future generations, was not insufficiently vested in the scientific paradigm of his day but accepted an older one uncritically and imbued it with religious authority. I think there is a real warning here. But that is not what I am writing about.


Ford said...

55:2 makes me smile. What an awesome model of kenosis! Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Stanford - what can I say? I know this is probably not the kind of comment you are looking for, but after a post like this all I can say is - you rock! Someone with more theological chops is going to have to say something more intelligent and relevant to Clement. (who also rocks)

Brian C

stanford said...

Audio Clement is available free here: