Baptists, Eucharist, and History 4 – Clement of Rome

Having already reflected on the Didache or Teaching in my previous series, I want to begin our exploration of the historical view of the Eucharist with the Letter of Clement, Bishop of Rome, to the Corinthian Church. This letter was written in the late first century. Some date it as early as 70 AD. Others as late as 96 AD, the last year of the reign of Domitian. The letter’s reference to persecutions would tend to indicate to me that it was written sometime during the latter part of the reign of Domitian (81-96).

This letter does not directly discuss the Eucharist, though it is referenced a number of times as “offerings”. However, it does contain an important look at church structure, order in worship, and the importance of unity and avoidance of schism. The issue in the Corinthian Church that Clement is writing to address is division and schism. It appears they were even trying to depose their Bishop! Of course, as we know from Paul’s letters to Corinth, with which Clement certainly seems to be familiar, schisms and divisions were apparently a recurring problem in Corinth.

I’ve realized as I’ve been rereading Clement that I probably need to briefly discuss the matter of the Holy Scriptures. There was no established “New Testament” canon for these first few centuries. Most people did not have access to all of the writings that the Church would later canonize, though the ones which would become canonical tended to become more widely read and available as the years passed. Clement obviously has at least one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Of all the other NT writings, he quotes or alludes to Hebrews the most. It also seems that he had James’ letter. Beyond that it’s hard to say from this one document how many of the writings he had read, though of course he would have been schooled in the oral tradition of the apostles and that shows most clearly in his interpretation and application of texts from the Septuagint in light of Christ.

Clement quotes extensively from the Septuagint (LXX) just as the NT authors themselves do. In the first century and in the Greek East to the present day the LXX was and is the canonical text of the Old Testament or what is referred to in the NT itself everywhere except for one reference in 2 Peter as the Scriptures. The LXX was the Greek translation of the Hebrew texts that were used in synagogues almost everywhere except in Jerusalem and Judea by the first century since Greek was the lingua franca of the diaspora and the Empire, even if Latin was used to conduct business. Since the earliest converts to the Church consisted of many Greek speaking Jews and later pagan gentiles, the Apostles and other early writers wrote entirely in Greek and quoted from the LXX. It’s clear from their texts and from surviving early liturgies that the LXX was what was read in Church. Over time, the writings that came to form the NT canon were also the texts that were read in the Church.

The entire letter is not very long and I do recommend that you take a few minutes to read it in its entirety. However, I’ll reflect on just a few excerpts. As I mentioned, the problem was that they were suffering from schisms and were trying to depose their bishop. Clement addresses the latter directly in Chapter 44.

Our Apostles, too, by the instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ, knew that strife would arise concerning the dignity of a bishop; and on this account, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed the above-mentioned as bishops and deacons: and then gave a rule of succession, in order that, when they had fallen asleep, other men, who had been approved, might succeed to their ministry. Those who were thus appointed by them, or afterwards by other men of good repute, with the consent of the whole Church, who have blamelessly ministered to the flock of Christ with humility, quietly, and without illiberality, and who for a long time have obtained a good report from all, these, we think, have been unjustly deposed from the ministry. For it will be no small sin in us if we depose from the office of bishop those who blamelessly and piously have made the offerings. Happy are the presbyters who finished their course before, and died in mature age after they had borne fruit; for they do not fear lest any one should remove them from the place appointed for them. For we see that ye have removed some men of honest conversation from the ministry, which had been blamelessly and honourably performed by them.

Clement refers here to the bishops who “blamelessly and piously have made the offerings”. That is pretty clearly a reference to the liturgy and eucharist as we saw outlined in the Didache and as Paul describes in his own first (surviving) letter to Corinth. It’s important to note that the Apostles installed bishops and deacons to care for the churches they started. We see that in the NT in a number of places. James was the Bishop in Jerusalem at the first council described in Acts 15 and officiated or facilitated that council, even though both Peter and Paul were present. Paul installed Titus and Timothy as bishops later and that’s reflected in his letters to them. After those initial bishops had fallen asleep, successors were chosen by “other men of good repute” by which we know from other sources referred to other recognized bishops (always at least two) and by the acclamation of the Church into which the successor was being installed as bishop. (Though it didn’t happen often, there are accounts of times when the people of a Church refused to accept a heterodox bishop — even if it meant gathering in the fields.) Historically, it appears that Clement may have been the first bishop of Rome installed by this method rather than directly by an Apostle.

The primary distinction, especially at this point in the life of the Church, between a presbyter (in English typically translated priest) and a bishop was that while there might be many presbyters according to the needs of the people and the size of the Church (which sometimes gathered in multiple locations in a city — Rome is a good example in Paul’s letter to them), there was never more than one bishop for any given place. Thus Corinth could have presbyters in the plural, but it only had one bishop. The presbyters helped the bishop while the deacons served the people.

I had thought I would touch on Clement of Rome in a single day with a relatively short post. As I’ve written, ideas, practices, setting, and culture on which I really need to lay some groundwork for future discussions have kept coming to mind. This post is already much longer than I typically write. So I’ll try to wrap up Clement in tomorrow’s post.

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  • By Scott Morizot on July 19, 2009 at 10:30 am

    New blog post: Baptists, Eucharist, and History 4 – Clement of Rome

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