Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians

Our church just purchased the Schaff-edited Early Church Fathers. I have immediately begun to read it. I would like to share my thoughts on what I read. I will do a bit of poking around as well (since this edition is quite old) to see what more modern scholarship has to say on each of these works, though this will by no means be exhaustive. I will offer what is basically a short introduction, a road map through each work, or part of a work.

We start with Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians. It is sometimes called the first epistle, but the so-called second epistle is almost certainly spurious. No reasonable doubts have been raised as to the genuineness of this letter. It is generally dated to the late first century, around 96 AD. Clement of Rome is supposed by the Roman Catholic Church to be the fourth pope. However, as we shall see, his doctrine is hardly what later Romanist theologians would approve, especially on the doctrine of justification.

If you would like to read it online, you can go here, for the Schaff edition I am reading, or you can go here, for Lightfoot’s commentary. The Greek original is available here, in the Patrologia series, or, for a more elegant and streamlined version (with a gorgeous font!), here.

The occasion of this letter was very similar to what prompted Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: division in the church (see especially chapter 3 of our document). In this case, it seems that the congregation was rising up against their leaders. Envy, strife and disorder were marring what had before been a very godly situation (compare chapter 3 with chapters 1 and 2). What follows is an attempt to set forth every possible motive for humility and against division either from the example of those who have gone before, or from Christ Himself, or even from fanciful tales used as an illustration (confer the phoenix in chapter 25). This letter is Scripture-saturated. Indeed, it is remarkable how much Scripture Clement manages to cram into a mere 17 pages!

A brief outline is as follows: I. Praise of the Corinthians pre-strife (1-2); II. The destructiveness of strife (3-6); III. Call to repentance (7-12); IV. Call to humility (13-24); V. Encouragement from resurrection (25-26); VI. General encouragement to holiness (27-30); VII. How we obtain blessing (31-38); VIII. No self-conceit (39); IX. Order in the church (40-44); X. The sin of the Corinthians (45-47); XI. Love (48-55); XII. Final exhortation to submission (56-59).

I want to highlight a few things. Firstly, I want to highlight chapter 32’s statement on justification by faith alone. In the context, Clement is contrasting the holiness of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (chapter 31) with the “greatness of the gifts which were given by him” (chapter 32). A footnote indicates that the pronoun “him” is of doubtful reference. The note prefers the understanding “the gifts which were given to Jacob by Him,” i.e., God. This is also Lightfoot’s understanding, even though he acknowledges the awkwardness of the transition to the next sentence’s “from him,” obviously referring to Jacob. Regardless of the meaning of these two sentences, the contrast between works and grace is clear in the middle of chapter 32: “All these, therefore, were highly honoured, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will.” The divine passives should be obvious here. Then follows a quotation which should be quoted in full to be appreciated (emphases is mine):

And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Note the contrast between “works which we have wrought IN HOLINESS OF HEART” (presumably, this means all works done by a believer) versus “by that faith.” Whatever Clement means by faith in this passage therefore cannot include works done in holiness of heart. Faith does not equal faithfulness in justification. Note that this is in the context of justification.

Clement makes no bones about including works when it comes to sanctification, as is obvious from the immediately succeeding chapters. Someone might point to chapter 35 and claim that the promised gifts are contingent on “casting away from us all unrighteousness and iniquity.” However, it is clear in this section that Clement is thinking eschatologically. The beginning of the chapter reads “How blessed and wonderful, beloved, are the gifts of God! Life in immortality, splendour in riighteousness, truth in perfect confidence, faith in assurance, self-control in holiness! And all these fall under the cognizance of our understandings (now); what then shalle those things be which are prepared for such as wait for Him?” The Protestant will cheerfully agree that salvation in the broader sense (not just conversion) includes God enabling us to good works as a necessary result of grace (not a foundational cause). However, lest we understand Clement to be taking back what he has given, he goes on to root all blessings in the grace of Christ in chapter 36.

The effect of these chapters on the argument as a whole is to bring back the Corinthians to an understanding of why they cannot boast. Boasting brings envy and divisions. The grace of God, however, precludes the divisions which have wracked the Corinthians. So it is much to Clement’s advantage to press upon them the truth of justification by faith alone. Otherwise, the Corinthians will continue to divide.