Christians seeking to learn about the early Church while deepening their spiritual lives will benefit from a thorough reading of the ancient First Letter of Clement to the Corinthians. Written sometime between 81 and 110 AD, First Clement was sent from the Roman Church to the Corinthian Church in response to divisions and conflicts that were plaguing the latter. Scholars, as always, debate endlessly about the letter’s authorship, but tradition holds that Clement, the bishop of Rome (i.e., pope) in the years 88-97, penned the document, which was often regarded as Scripture by other Church Fathers.
Clement addresses the potentially-explosive situation at Corinth (apparently some younger, power-hungry Christians had risen up again a group of holy presbyters (priests) and ousted them from their office) by reminding all Corinthian Christians of the life they are called to live in Jesus Christ. He focuses on such still-highly-relevant topics as jealousy and its consequences, repentance, obedience, faith, piety, hospitality, humility, peace, virtue, holiness, and the necessity of divinely-sanctioned order. The entire discussion is permeated by quotations from the Sacred Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, which Clement uses to support and explain his arguments and to illustrate how faithful Christians are to conduct their lives. Clement ends his letter by exhorting the Corinthians to reestablish unity among themselves through repentance and love.
Despite its early date, First Clement exhibits a sophisticated Christology, depicting Christ as the Suffering Servant Who died and rose again for the salvation of humanity. Clement also presents Christ as the divine Son of God, as a divine emissary from the Father, as a model and teacher for all people, as both priest and sacrifice, as a sign of the divinely-sanctioned order in the Church, and as the scepter of God (i.e., power and authority of God in a supremely-dignified Person).
Modern Christians will find abundant inspiration and “food for thought” in First Clement’s theology, presentation of salvation history, and practical moral guidance for authentic Christian living. The letter is also saturated with gems for meditation. For example, in chapter 19, Clement encourages his audience to “gaze intently on the Father and Creator of the entire world and cling to His magnificent and superior gifts of peace and acts of kindness.” Who wouldn’t benefit from following Clement’s instructions and reflecting on God in this way?
First Clement is featured in the Loeb Classical Library’s The Apostolic Fathers Volume I, translated by Bart D. Ehrman, quoted in this post, and available at Amazon. The letter may be found online in several full-text translations as well as in the original Greek at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/1clement.html. For more information about Clement and the other Apostolic Fathers, refer to Clayton N. Jefford’s Reading the Apostolic Fathers: An Introduction, from which much of the information in this post is drawn.