EarlyChurch.org.uk


Charles Bigg [1840-1908],
The Origins of Christianity.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909. Hbk. pp.63-71.


[63]

CHAPTER VII

CLEMENT OF ROME


The next writer is Clement of Rome, who in the year 96 or 97 wrote an Epistle to the Church of Corinth, which was at the time in a state of great distraction; certain presbyters having been deposed from office in consequence of some violent party strife.

The Epistle is sent as from the Church of Rome, and the author was therefore beyond a doubt the leading member of that community. He does not give his own name, but ancient testimony assures us that it was Clement. He must have borne other names also, but we do not know what they were. Nor do we know who he was. There was a Clement who filled a prominent place in the Church of Philippi and is mentioned by St. Paul, and we have already had occasion to speak of Flavius Clemens, the cousin of Domitian. Attempts have been made to identify the writer of the Epistle with the former or make him a relative of the latter, but proof fails us in either case. It has been thought that at any rate he may have been the freedman of Flavius Clemens. But Clemens was quite a common slave-name. There is really nothing that we can say about him with confidence; the legend that he was banished by Trajan to the Crimea, and there flung into the sea with an iron anchor round his neck, is merely a fiction. He uses the Greek language; his style is not that of an educated man using his native tongue, still it is good Greek, and he was clearly a person of refinement and intelligence, who could express himself with ease and in a fine strain of imaginative eloquence.

Beneath the twelfth-century basilica of St. Clement at Rome lies buried in the ground another church which was of some antiquity in the time of St. Jerome. Beneath this again is an ancient house. It is possible, even

[ 64]

probable, that this is the very spot where St. Clement gathered his flock together and ministered the Word.

But the question of chief interest to the historian is not who Clement was but what he was. Tradition makes him the third or fourth Bishop of Rome. In what sense are we to understand this statement? Were there bishops in the first century, and if so, what was the nature of their functions?

In the fourth century there were in the Church two divergent theories of the origin of the Episcopate. The first is that of Theodore of Mopsuestia, the second is that of St. Jerome.

Theodore starts from the observation that Bishop and Presbyter were originally equivalent terms, and asks how the former had come to designate a special and superior grade. He finds both the difficulty and the solution in the Pastoral Epistles. ‘Those who now have the power of ordination, who are now called bishops, were not created bishops of one single church, but governed at that time whole provinces, and were called by the name of Apostles. Thus the blessed Paul set Timothy over all Asia and Titus over all Crete.’[1] Afterwards, when not only the towns but the rural districts became filled with believers, and ‘the blessed Apostles passed away, those who were ordained after them to preside over the churches could not be equalled with those first, nor had they the same witness of miracles; nay, in many other things they seemed much weaker than they. Hence it seemed presumptuous to claim for themselves the name of Apostles. Hence they divided the names, and left to these (that is to say to the presbyters) the name of the presbytery, while the others were named bishops, those who now have power of ordination, so that they might know themselves to be in the fullest sense presidents of the churches.’ According to Theodore, then, the thing Episcopacy existed from the first, though there has been a shifting of titles; the first bishops were specially consecrated by the Apostles and by the Apostles alone, and the provincial bishop comes in order of time before the suffragan. Theodore supports his theory by one fact and by one mis-

[65]

interpretation of Scripture. The fact is that in the West and in some parts of the East bishops still governed not single cities but a considerable tract of country, and this was not improbably the ancient rule, for both Ignatius and Irenaeus appear to have been provincial bishops ruling over a group of churches in which there was no other bishop. The misinterpretation is to be found in Theodore’s application of St. Paul’s words to Timothy, ‘Neglect not the gift which is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery.’ Theodore not only takes this passage as referring to the special ordination of Timothy as bishop or Apostle, which may or may not be correct, but affirms that presbytery here means not the presbyters properly so called but the Apostles. He conceives that Timothy was consecrated not’ by one but by several Apostles, just as in his own time a bishop was consecrated not by one but by several bishops. This is certainly not the meaning of St. Paul.

This may be called the accepted view, but it seems clear that Theodore, in spite of his antiquity, knew no more of the real history of the matter than we do ourselves. His opinion is merely an inference, not in all points a correct inference, from the words of Scripture combined with the usage of his own time. The one fact to which he appeals may be significant, but does not touch the essential point. The essential point is whether the Apostles by a distinct act of consecration instituted a distinct class of ecclesiastical officers whom they intended to step into their own places and wield their own authority.

St. Jerome says that they did not. He also starts with the observation that originally bishop and presbyter were convertible titles.

‘Afterwards one was elected and set over the others, as a safeguard against divisions, lest individuals following their own selfish interests should burst asunder the Church of Christ. For at Alexandria, from the time of Mark the Evangelist to that of Bishops Heraclas and Dionysius, the priests always elected one of their own number, placed him in a higher degree and called him bishop; just as if our army should make an emperor or deacons elect one of themselves and call him archdeacon.’[2]

[66]

Again:-

‘The Presbyter, therefore, is the same as the Bishop, and until parties arose in religion by the prompting of the devil, so that it was said in the communities, I am of Paul, I of Apollos, I of Cephas, the churches were governed by the common council of the priests. But when each teacher began to think that those whom he had baptised were his own, not Christ’s, it was decreed throughout the world that one of the priests should be elected and set over the others, and that on him should rest the general supervision of the Church, so that the seeds of division might be destroyed….
As therefore the priests know that by the custom of the Church they are set under him who is put over them, so let bishops know that rather by custom than by the Lord’s arrangement are they greater than priests.’[3]

According to Jerome, therefore, Episcopacy was not directly instituted by our Lord, and it is clearly implied in his words that it was not directly instituted by the Apostles. It rests upon the ‘custom of the Church’, and was devised by the Church for a particular object—the maintenance of unity. Jerome also asserts that in Alexandria down to the third century the bishop was elected, placed in office, and invested with his title by the priests.[4] We can hardly doubt him to mean that the Bishop of Alexandria received from the priests all that was necessary for the discharge of his functions, including such consecration as was then in use. This statement of fact has been much disputed, but is not without serious corroboration. If it is not true, it is evident that we have here again nothing but Jerome’s own inference from the original identity of the titles of bishop and priest.

Here, then, we have two very different theories of the Episcopate, both held by eminent churchmen of the fourth century. It will now be time to return to Clement and see what we really know about him.

We may turn first to Hermas, a contemporary writer. Hermas tells us that he was ordered by the Lady, who personified the Church, to make two copies of his Second Vision.

[67]

‘Thou shalt send one to Clement and one to Grapte. Clement then shall send it to the foreign cities, for this is his duty; while Grapte shall instruct the widows and orphans. But thou shalt read it to this city along with the elders that preside over the church.’[5]

Here Clement is mentioned as the officer whose duty it is to manage all communications between Rome and other churches. This does in fact appear to have been one of his functions, and so we find him writing the Epistle that bears his name to the Church of Corinth. But it was also in later times one special function of the bishop, who was the official correspondent of the Church over which he presided.

The next passage is from Clement himself:-

‘The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent forth from God. So then Christ is from God, and the Apostles are from Christ. Both, therefore, came of the will of God in due order. Having therefore received a charge, and having been fully assured through the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and confirmed in the Word of God with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth with the glad tidings that the kingdom of God should come. So preaching everywhere in country and town, they appointed their first fruits, when they had proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons unto them that should believe.’[6]

Here Clement uses the name bishop as equivalent to priest, and this is no doubt his regular use. He recognizes, that is to say, an Apostolical Succession of priests and deacons, but not of bishops, and in this is in complete agreement with Jerome. There is, however, another passage:-

‘They therefore that make their offerings at the appointed season are acceptable and blessed; for while they follow the institutions of the Master they cannot go wrong. For unto the high priest his proper services have been assigned and to the priests their proper office is appointed, and unto the Levites their proper ministration is laid. The layman is bound by the layman’s ordinances. Let each of you, brethren, in his own order give thanks unto God, maintaining a good conscience, and not transgressing the appointed rule of His service, but acting with all seemliness.’[7]

[68]

These words must surely imply that there was in the Church of Rome something corresponding to the hierarchy of the Jews. There must have been in particular something analogous to the difference between high priest and priest. Yet it seems certain that Clement did not restrict the name of bishop to the chief Christian officer, for he repeatedly bestows it upon those who were merely priests. The difficulty would be adequately solved if we suppose that the difference between high priest and priest which Clement has in his mind was not that between a modern bishop and his priests, but that between a modern dean and his canons, if, that is to say, it was a distinction not of consecration but of privilege and jurisdiction. At the Church of Nitria, in Egypt, there was in the fourth century a college of eight priests, of whom only one was allowed to officiate. This senior priest was in fact what we should call a provost, and provost is in fact a title very frequently given to the bishop. It is possible that this Nitrian arrangement may have prevailed originally in all churches where there was a college of priests. Such a permanent president might easily develop noiselessly and rapidly into the monarchical bishop in some districts no doubt sooner than in others. Three steps would mark the development - the final separation of the title bishop from the title priest, the introduction of a special service of consecration for the bishop, and the belief that a bishop could only be created by his peers. None of these would make any real difference in the position of the provost, and none would cause any great shock.

The whole question has been, and will continue to be, eagerly disputed. But it may certainly be held that the Epistle of Clement confirms the view of Jerome and makes against that of Theodore, and that Clement was rather provost than bishop of the Church of Rome. It is not certain what was his exact place in the order of succession. One tradition places him first after the Apostles, another third, another fourth. The second is the best attested, but of his supposed predecessors Linus and Cletus (or Anencletus) we have no historical knowledge.

The occasion of Clement’s Epistle has already been

[69]

noticed. The Church of Corinth was still possessed of the democratic spirit which characterized it in the time of St. Paul. They had fallen into line with the rest of Christendom and an order of clergy had been appointed, but fresh dissensions had broken out and some or all of their officers had been deposed. It is partly to be regretted that Clement does not enter into details; by a few words he would have shown us the truth about one of the most disputed passages in ecclesiastical history. Yet he gives us to understand one important point. The Corinthian dispute turned not upon principles but upon persons. There was no objection to presbyteral government; what the malcontents desired was to turn out certain priests and put others in their places. His Epistle is a fine exhortation to Unity. This great grace can only be maintained by due submission to the hierarchy, who, having been appointed by the Apostles or their successors with the consent of the Church, cannot justly be thrust out of their office if they have ‘ministered unblameably to the flock of Christ in lowliness of mind, peacefully, and with all modesty, and for a long time have borne a good repute with all’. Clement evidently considers that the ejected clergy were not to blame, and exhorts the authors of the sedition to ‘submit themselves unto the presbyters and receive chastisement unto repentance’. Throughout the Epistle the strongest emphasis is laid upon the virtue of obedience. Clement sees in the Christian hierarchy an embodiment of the eternal and all-pervading will of God, which is Law and Order, and governs not the Church only, but the earth, the heavens, and the sea. The grand passage in which he develops this thought’(8) may have suggested to Richard Hooker the idea which that great divine so powerfully expounded in the first book of his. Ecclesiastical Polity. It is highly noticeable also that Clement is the first Christian writer to draw an analogy between the Christian priest and deacon and the Jewish cohen and Levite. He labours to show that there is a direct line of succession between the hierarchy of the Old and that of’ the New Testament. ‘For

[70]

of Jacob are all the priests and Levites who minister unto the altar of God; of him is the Lord Jesus as concerning the flesh’[9]; thus the Saviour is both Priest and King as heir according to the flesh of him who was father both of Levi and of Judah. Further, Clement is the first to apply to the Christian priest the title hiereus because by the will of God he has to make ‘offerings’ at fixed times and seasons.[10] To Barnabas the priest is primarily one who ‘speaks the word of the Lord’ and ought to be listened to. To Clement he is primarily one who offers a gift which cannot be offered by others, and who ought therefore to be obeyed. This is new language pointing to a new direction of thought, and both language and thought are derived, not from the New Testament, but from the Old. Thus at Rome by the end of the first century we find ourselves fairly launched upon the stream of ecclesiastical development. Ecclesiastical development is in one aspect the articulation of the contents of this new sense of the word priest; in another, the corresponding articulation of the word faith. As to the last point, it cannot be said that Clement’s teaching is novel; it certainly has its roots in the New Testament, but in the Epistle to the Hebrews, or in the Epistle of St. James, not in St. Paul. Thus, to take the crucial passage, Clement writes, ‘Wherefore was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because he wrought righteousness and truth through faith?’[11] Faith is in his view such a conviction as will produce obedience I to the instructions of the priest. It is not necessary for us to ask here whether he is right or wrong; all that need be said is that in those two correlative ideas, priest and faith, as they are understood by Clement, lies enfolded the whole system of the mediaeval Church.

For Clement’s theology we may content ourselves with a bare catena of passages. The Father, the Most High and Almighty, is the great Creator and Sovereign (despot) of all things. He is pitiful in all things, and ready to do good, and hath compassion on them that fear Him. The Son is the Sceptre of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the High Priest of our offerings, the Guardian and Helper of our

[71]

weakness; the true and only Lord. Clement quotes of Him the opening verses of the Epistle to the Hebrews. There is One God, One Christ, one spirit of Grace, who all ‘live’. By faith in Christ we are justified, and our ransom is the Blood of Christ that was given for us.

Here we have a sketch of the official theology of the Church of Rome at the end of the first century.

The only book of the New Testament which Clement actually quotes by name is the ‘First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. Bishop Lightfoot credits him with actual citations from the three synoptical Gospels, Acts, Titus, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, and the Apocalypse, but he uses words and phrases which may show a much wider acquaintance with the canonical writings.

No reader of the Epistle can fail to be struck by the many fine passages which it contains. One on the Divine Law has already been noticed. Another may have suggested to Bishop Pearson his admirable description of the Annual Resurrection. But noblest of all is the sublime prayer which is inserted towards the close, and forms a solemn climax to this powerful and affecting piece of exhortation. Beginning with praise and adoration, it goes on to make intercession for all sorts and conditions of men, for all sufferers, and for all rulers and governors. It may not improbably be the very prayer that St. Clement used when he celebrated the Liturgy. Not that he would always employ these precise words. The Liturgy, though it bad already perhaps fallen into a fixed scheme, was not reduced fully into a written form until long after this time. Even in the third century a bishop who possesses the gift of praying from the heart is exhorted not to suffer it to lie idle. But words like these, embodying the same thoughts in much the same sequence, Clement was in the habit of pouring forth when be led the worship of his people, probably in that ancient house which lies beneath his modern church. There Flavia Domitilla and her husband may have knelt and listened; there, too, Hermas the prophet may have recounted after service his visions to the priests.


[1] In Ep. 1 Tim. iii. 8, vol. ii, ed, Swete, p. 118 foll.

[2] Ep. cxlvi ad Evang. 1. 1076, ed. Vell.

[3] Comm. in Tit. i. 5, Opp. t. vii, p. 694.

[4] Loc. cit.

[5] Vis. II. iv. 3.

[6] Ep. Clem. a. xlii.

[7] Ib. a. xl, xli; but cf. a. xliv.

[8] c. xx.

[9] c. xxxii.

[10] c. xl.

[11] c. xxxi; cf. c. x.


Support this siteAdvertisement - Sponsor a Child with International Needs