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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Clement of Rome: Scripture, Boundaries, and 21st Century American Christianity

Clement of Rome (1st Century A.D.) seems to have written as the voice of the (unified?) church in Rome, “The church of God, living in exile in Rome, to the church of God, exiled in Corinth, […]” (Richardson 43). He addressed the church in Corinth about an unhappy situation in which some from within the church have thrown off the legitimate leaders, replacing them with leaders to their own liking:

“It is disgraceful, exceedingly disgraceful, and unworthy of your Christian upbringing, to have it reported that because of one or two individuals the solid and ancient Corinthian Church is in revolt against its presbyters. […] The result is that the Lord’s name is being blasphemed because of your stupidity, and you are exposing yourselves to danger” (65).

As Clement addressed this problem, he gives readers an insider’s view of how the Church (at least the church in Rome and maybe Corinth) was shaping up. Specifically, how the Church understood itself in the world context, what ecclesiastical leadership looked like, how they viewed Sacred Scripture, and the place of Christ in their perspective.

One of the obvious surprises (to a reader unfamiliar with the early pastors/theologians of the Church) is how thick the letter is with Old Testament quotations, and resounds with New Testament echoes. Many of the Old Testament stories are rehearsed and rehashed. The use of Scripture accords with the place he gives to it: “You have studied Holy Scripture, which contains the truth and is inspired by the Holy Spirit. You realize that there is nothing wrong or misleading written in it” (64). The Holy Scriptures are used in a way that clearly shows it was the rule of faith, life and practice for God’s churches. And Clements’ statement sounds very close to how classic Protestantism sees the Holy Scripture.

Though Cement’s letter has a narrow goal in mind, nevertheless he mentioned many theological issues: election (44), Christ’s atoning and redeeming action (47, 49, 60, and 66), the humility of God (50), holy living (sanctification) comes from God’s making us His ‘holy portion’ (57), justification by faith (58), and what some might argue as Apostolic succession (63-4). One could add many other categories to this list. Yet, because his real goal was ecclesial, mainly proper submission to legitimate leaders and congregational unity (65, 69, 72, etc), he didn’t spend much time on the broader and richer aspects of the Christian Faith as it was understood at the time.

Clement echoed some Greco-Roman themes, such as the Phoenix myth (55-6), as well as using the Roman military as a valid picture of the Church (60-1). But it looks to me that Clement didn’t cross over any faith-boundaries to compromise the Faith. In fact, he was at pains to make sure that he set up limits to keep from falling into the pagan hole. Some of those borders were his constant references to the authoritative Scriptures, as well as monotheistic declarations such as, “Do we not have one God, one Christ, one Spirit of grace which was poured into us” (65)? Therefore his heathen references in the letter were not for the purposes of crossing faith-boundaries, as much as simply being illustrations from his own age and time, just as Christ used in the parables, and Paul used in his writings and his sermons (Acts 17.28 and Titus 1.12).

One of the other ways Clement set up boundary lines was by his moral instruction. Clement made heavy use of Biblical passages to show that there is a moral standard for the way Christians ought to live. As he says toward the end of the letter,

“We have, indeed, touched on every topic - faith, repentance, genuine love, self-control, sobriety, and patience. […] We were, moreover, all the more delighted to remind you of these things, since we well realized we were writing to people who were real believers and of the highest standing, and who had made a study of the oracles of God’s teaching” (72).

Though some might call his moral teaching legalistic, yet in a culture where paganism and lax pagan morality prevailed, his moral teaching was essential for reinforcing a Christian counter-cultural mindset. This is why H. Richard Niebuhr placed Clement in the Christ Against Culture category, where “[…] the loyalty of the believer is directed entirely toward the new order, the new society and its Lord” (48). With this in mind, one can truly say that Clement stands in juxtaposition to some versions of modern 21st Century Americanized Christianity. In many versions of modern North American Christianity a eudaemonistic approach to life is being promoted in the name of Jesus. Eudaemonism is the idea of judging ethics based on how much happiness that ethical decision garners. So, for example, in a local private Christian School in Midland Texas, the Bible department approvingly uses Sean Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens. The problem is that Sean Covey is a Mormon, and his approach is very much the Gnostic notion of the ‘god-within-you.’ Because Covey’s book is being used uncritically in a Bible class for teenagers, the message to the kids is that Covey’s ‘god-in-you’ position is a Biblical position. Therefore, you can be a clean-cut, prosperous person and that makes you okay. Your desires for prosperity and success are god’s desires, and your goals are god’s goals. Don’t worry, be happy (i.e. in tune with the happy, prosperous god-in-you). And this is being promoted in a school that prides itself on having no creed but the Bible, and restoring New Testament Christianity!

To summarize, a reading of Clement of Rome gives us a picture of Christianity that is counter-cultural morally and Bible-believing, monotheistic, Christ-centered theologically. Much of descriptions of Christianity sound strangely close to what the 1st generation of Reformers promoted and strove for. I would encourage the Christian reader to obtain a copy and dive into it: tolle lege.


Works Cited

Clement, The Letter of the Church of Rome to the Church of Corinth, Commonly Called Clement’s First Letter. Ed. And Transl. Cyril C. Richardson. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 1953. 33-73

Covey, Sean. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. New York: Fireside. 1998.

Niebuhr, Richard, H. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers. 1951.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a good piece, Mike. I really liked your final comments re the Gnostic "God in me" attitude. The idea that God is supposed to bless MY goals for success and wealth is very American, it seems to me, and not limited to a particular Christian school in Midland. Many of us are guilty of not taking on the Lord's agenda as OUR agenda, preferring instead to have Him bless our agenda for success and wealth. Andy+