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St. Clement of Rome on Metanoia

March 25, 2007

I delivered the following paper on St. Clement of Rome at the 2004 North American Patristics Society held at Loyola University Chicago. I cannot recommend enough the study of the Apostolic Fathers, first because of the invaluable picture you will gain of the post-apostolic Church, and second, because of the rampant misrespresentations of the Church that are found in many popularly-read Catholic apologetics books

The Way of Metanoia: The Didactic Christology of Clement of Rome

Among the varied letters and treatises of early Christianity, the First Letter of Clement to the Corinthians occupies an eminent position. Since its rediscovery in the early seventeenth century, it remains the earliest extant writing of the Christian tradition not included within the New Testament canon. A virtual consensus among scholars situates the letter’s composition during the last decade of the first century, though some have intimated a date as early as A.D. 70, which would establish 1 Clement as a concurrent composition running parallel the New Testament writings.[1] But regardless of the precise date it was penned, 1 Clement stands as an invaluable witness to the theological and ecclesiological traditions of the first century church of Rome.

The authorship of 1 Clement is traditionally ascribed to Clement of Rome, who appears in various patristic registries as the third bishop of the Roman church. Though many scholars assert that a monarchial episcopate did not emerge in the Eternal City until the middle of the second century, there is no reason for questioning the prominence which Clement must have held within the Roman presbytery. 1 Clement is a letter of occasion, written at the particular solicitation of the Christian community at Corinth. The exact questions and concerns of the Corinthian church are not mentioned in the text, though the general nature of the problems may be ascertained through the words of Clement. Clement’s prime motive is to reestablish the order and harmony that had once bestowed great honor and reverence upon Corinth. He speaks of the malady of schism and sedition caused by the brash, unjust removal of presbyters from their posts (46.9). Because of a sort of Clementine courtesy, the perpetrators remain unnamed in the letter. Hence, Clement addresses the entire church of Corinth, and in a true communitarian spirit, holds all its faithful responsible. Thus, 1 Clement assumes an authoritative and didactic tone, admonishing the Corinthians toward a fuller understanding and application of the Christian faith.
Jesus the Christ, the highest source of revelation who maintains a place of preeminence throughout, serves as the backbone of the letter.[2] However, the urgency to assuage the turmoil at Corinth dictates the manner in which Clement crafts his work. His concern is not to communicate the kerygmatic or ontological reality of Christ, though 1 Clement certainly contains scattered references to a high Christology, but to communicate a path of metanoia or transformation.[3] Clement casts an unflinching gaze upon Jesus Christ not simply as exalted ruler, but more importantly, as humble teacher and example of discipleship. Combining the elements of Greek diatribe, synagogue homiletics, and a typological reading of the Old Testement, Clement crafts a uniquely didactic Christology in order to pastorally institute a corrective and viable path for the Christians of Corinth. But even more, he presents a means of exaltation through an astute and committed imitation of Christ and of those who heralded his coming in the Old Testament.

In this paper, I will examine the didactic features of Clementine Christology, paying attention to the manner in which Christ is established as the exemplar of Christian perfection. I intend to note how Clement prescribes a three-tiered soteriological model for Corinth, consisting of repentance, humility and obedience based upon the mission of the Redeemer. The application of this model is Clement’s remedy for healing the divisions among the Corinthians. I do not propose to provide an exegesis of the Christology of 1 Clement, but rather to observe the key theological, ethical and pastoral themes on which the letter was intended to pronounce.

Clement begins his letter by praising the renowned virtue and faith of the Corinthian church. No doubt the care and affection of the Apostle Paul toward Corinth brought the community high esteem from the churches of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean world. But just as the rich man fades away in the midst of his pursuits (Jas 1:11), Clement’s encomium is evanescent. From the glory of Corinth arose the grave vice of jealousy. For Clement, jealousy is the source and buttress of every assault on righteousness. He reminds Corinth that jealousy wrought the initial sin of fratricide after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Abel was murdered on account of Cain’s jealousy; Jacob was compelled to flee Esau in the face of the latter’s enraged envy; Joseph was sold into slavery on account of the jealousy of his brothers. Even the “greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church,” Peter and Paul, were persecuted unto death on account of unrighteous jealousy (5.1-6.1).
Within the Corinthian church, certain individuals “rose up against those who were in honor,” individuals who possessed little regard for the commandments of God (3:3-4). In their jealousy, they groped at the power of the presbytery and unlawfully removed those who rightly held the sacerdotal office (44.3-5). The result was schism and ministerial discord, the body of the faithful being wrenched apart. Clement attributes the calamities and factionalism at Corinth to the spirit of jealousy and envy. Thus, he is not merely lamenting the dissolution of a visible, hierarchical unity, but is fundamentally concerned over a lapse in the unity of faith.[4] While sacramental and hierarchical unity was of utmost importance in the post-apostolic age, such union was fraudulent without the common embrace of the Gospel. The arrogance and self-exaltation of those few individuals set them up as enemies of God who “hates those who praise themselves” (30.6). But according to Clement the blame rests upon the entire church of Corinth: “It is a shameful report, beloved, extremely shameful, and unworthy of your training in Christ, that on account of one or two persons the steadfast and ancient church of the Corinthians is being disloyal to the presbyters” (47.6). Clement reminds the Corinthians that all things are within the sight of God and that nothing escapes his counsel (27.6). Without a profound transformation in disposition, the very salvation of the Corinthians may be in jeopardy.

After decrying the malignant behavior of the Corinthian church, Clement calls for the first step toward the restoration of order: a communal commitment to repentance (7.4). He recalls the fervent preaching of the prophets of the old covenants, who heroically urged the rejection of evil desires and a return to the favor of God. Transgressions are forgiven, the scarlet stain of sin is made white, the soul is miraculously cleansed—all through the participation in the grace of repentance. The manifest will of God is to extend repentance to all humanity, for the very efficacy of salvation hinges upon the sincere contrition of the sinner.

Repentance, and consequently salvation, is rendered possible through the mediation of Jesus Christ. Of particular importance to Clement is the Blood of Christ, that is, the salvific death of the Redeemer, revealing an early familiarity and dependence upon the Letter to the Hebrews and perhaps even 1 Peter.[5] The Blood of Christ sealed the definitive covenant of reconciliation between God and humanity: “Let us fix our gaze on the Blood of Christ, and let us know that it is precious to his Father, because it was poured out for our salvation, and brought the grace of repentance to all the world” (7.4).

But Clement’s soteriological understanding is not limited to the death of Christ. The resurrection and glorification of Christ establishes the mediatory role of High Priest, whereby Christ is eternally united to the Father, sitting at the right hand of God as the defender and helper of the weaknesses of humanity.[6] Christ is sacrifice and priest, the offering and the one who offers, the arbiter of the available mercy of God to those who repent through him. Thus, both repentance and mercy are intrinsically bound within the very person of Christ. His blood communicates a representative repentance of all humanity to God, and yet, this same blood manifests the mercy of God who lovingly receives repentance.

For Clement, there can be no other reaction to the utter gratuitousness of redemption than that of humble-mindedness. If jealousy is the root of sin, humility is the root of righteousness. Clement reminds the Corinthians that Christ and his grace of repentance belong strictly to the lowly of heart (16.1). When one falls prey to their own inordinate desire for exultation, one effectively renounces the abundant mercy of God. Clement writes: “Self-assertion and arrogance and boldness belong to those that are accursed by God, gentleness and humility and meekness are with those who are blessed by God” (30.8). Did not the greatest of the heralds of Christ exhibit humility with great brilliance? Abraham did not allow his repute among the nations to prevent him from admitting his lowly state before the Almighty (17.2). The resplendent King David, the man after the Lord’s own heart, cried out to God in a desperate repentance stirred by the horror of sin: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy great mercy, and according to the multitude of thy compassions, blot out my transgression” (Ps 51:1-2). Clement calls for the imitation of these exemplary models of humility, for humility spurs repentance and fosters faith and hope in the unfathomable plan of God.

But for Clement, the humility of the patriarchs, kings and prophets was but a foreshadowing—a mere prelude—to a humility of such magnitude and mystery that no mortal could ever justify his own self-indulgent exaltation. Outlining a kenosis Christology reminiscent of the Christological hymn of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Clement observes that the quintessential example of humility is that of Jesus Christ. Christ, “the scepter of the greatness of God” (16.2), he who possessed the dignity and authority of God,[7] came not in pomp and glory, but in the lowliness of a man. But not just a man, but as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, the bearer of the afflictions and sins of humanity, the accursed hung upon a tree, delivered up so that judgment could become mercy. “You see, Beloved, what is the example which is given to us; for if the Lord was thus humble-minded, what shall we do, who through him have come under the yoke of his grace” (16.17)? The humility of Christ is to be imitated by all.
Through veritable repentance and sustained humility, one is expected to be obedient to the commandments of Christ. Just as all creation follows the harmonious order established by God, so too ought the Christian act according to God’s desires. Clement describes the pursuit of righteousness by grace in terms of the obedience of faith from which flow piety, hospitality, and kindness—a true losing of oneself in the service of God and neighbor. However, Clement is more exact with regard to the obedience that brings order within the Christian community: “Let each one of us, brethren, be well pleasing to God in his own rank, and have a good conscience, not transgressing the appointed rules of his ministration, with all reverence” (41.1). He portrays the arrangement and diversity of functions within the Christian community as in accordance with the will of God.

In the case of Corinth, the removal of presbyters violates the divinely ordered structure of the church. Clement traces the authority of the presbytery back to God through successive stages in salvation history. Christ, sent by God, selected certain men to be Apostles of the Gospel message. The Apostles themselves went forth in the power of the Holy Spirit, preaching and witnessing to Christ and his salvific work. In each city, they appointed particular individuals to be overseers of the founded community. This ministerial office would be passed to other approved men after the death of previous presbyters. Clement ties this succession to Christ himself, upon whom the authority of the office rests. Thus, those who are under the presbyters ought to humbly submit to their authority, obeying for the sake of peace and divine order. This Christocentric ecclesiology is the foundation of Christian unity and common good.
The tripartite model of repentance, humility and obedience stems from characteristics of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. What emerges in Clement is a holistic look at the Christ event; repentance looks to purpose, humility looks to example/reality and obedience looks to teaching. In all three cases, Clement draws from Christ in order to instruct the Corinthians in the spiritual and ethical obligations of the Christian life. The purpose of Christ’s death was to effectively redeem humanity, bringing the grace of repentance and reconciliation. The Incarnation and death of Christ serve as examples of humility to the Christian. Finally, Christ’s teaching ministry articulates the commandments of God for the redeemed to obey, and his authority is perpetuated through episcopal succession. What emerges in 1 Clement is a remarkable didactic Christology that relies upon a developing understanding and appropriation of the Pauline and Petrine interpretations of the divine relationship between Christ and God and the adaptation of theological principles to pastoral guidance.

At the very core of Clementine Christology is the death and resurrection of the Lord. The blood motif is the single most important element in Clement’s soteriological understanding. Again, the grace of repentance is brought about only through the death of Christ, but it is a combination of who Christ is and how he accomplished the act of redemption which renders his death efficacious for all humanity. If the divinity of Christ was lost upon Clement, one could rightly ask why the obedience and humility of an Abraham, a Moses, or David could not have accomplished the redemption. But Clement is quite conscious of the Trinitarian structure of salvation: Christ is the power of God and the means by which God manifests the depth of his love and salvific will.[8] However, Clement does not dwell long on the ontological reality of Christ, but accentuates the reverence and imitation of his humility and obedience to the will of God. Ultimately, his Christological expression is pressed and molded according to the needs of the church of Corinth, boasting not only of a divine Savior, but also of a model and teacher of fidelity, humility, and service. Through a committed life of righteousness through faith, one may then be confident in participating in the resurrection of the Lord.
[1] See L. W. Barnard’s chapter, “St. Clement of Rome and the Persecution of Domitian,” in his Studies in the Apostolic Fathers and their Background (New York: Schocken Books, 1966), 5-18. For an overview of contemporary discussion, see Andrew Gregory, “Disturbing Trajectories: 1 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Development of Early Roman Christianity,” in Rome in the Bible and the Early Church, ed. Peter Oakes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker House, 2002), 142-66. Also see Simon Tugwell, The Apostolic Fathers (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1989), 102-3 n5.

[2] See Donald Alfred Hagner, The Use of the Old and New Testaments in Clement of Rome (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1973), 121.
[3] See Samuel Laeuchli, The Language of Faith: An Introduction to the Semantic Dilemma of the Early Church (London: Epworth Press, 1962), 109. Also see Hagner, 124.
[4] See John Lawson, A Theological and Historical Introduction to the Apostolic Fathers (New York: Macmillan Company, 1961), 52.
[5] See Harold Bertram Bumpus, The Christological Awareness of Clement of Rome and its Sources (Cambridge, MA: University of Cambridge Press, 1992), 89; Philippe Henne, La Christologie chez Clément de Rome et dans le Pasteur d’Hermas (Fribourg: Éditions Universitaires Fribourg Suisse, 1992), 108-13.
[6] See Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451), trans. J. S. Bowden (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965), 103.
[7] See Clayton N. Jefford, Reading the Apostolic Fathers: An Introduction (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 108.
[8] See Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 249. Aelfric Manson points to the Christianization of a Jewish form of oath. “The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the Pre-Nicene Church,” in The Pre-Nicene Church: Papers read at the Summer School of Catholic Studies, held at Cambridge, July 28th to August 6th, 1934 (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1935), 249.

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