Clement of Rome and the early claim for the Authority of Rome

The question as to the authority of Rome in the history of Christianity has long been a divisive one. Whilst those in the Catholic tradition will claim an authority stretching back to the Apostle Peter, the reality of the pre-eminence of the Roman Church is to be found in the emergence of Roman authority in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The famous and divisive scholar Walter Bauer theorised that the theological tradition that he believed later became orthodox Christianity could find its roots in Rome itself. Bauer suggests that the writings attributed to Clement of Rome support this idea: that Rome held the authority within the orthodox tradition from the late first century.

Whilst I have mentioned elsewhere that the big picture of Roman authority cannot be traced back beyond the fifth and sixth centuries, here I would like to briefly address the question of using Clement in support of an argument of early Roman primacy. I believe it is a suggestion that falls down quickly in face of the evidence, and indeed, exposes the truth of where Christians can look to authority.

1 Clement: Roman authority over Corinth?

The first extant epistle attributed to Clement of Rome dates from approximately 96 AD. 1 Clement is addressed to the Church in Corinth – and sent, in the hands of the messengers Claudius Ephebus, Valerius Vito and Fortunatus, from the gathered Church in Rome.

Clement has written to the Corinthians because of a dispute that has arisen among them. The church in Corinth had ejected its elders, and installed new leadership, despite the faithful and wise service of their former presbyters. This has led to a bitter division in the church, and 1 Clement is written to encourage a Gospel unity predicated on their shared salvation in Christ.

It is worth noting that the assumption that the leader of the church in Rome commanded authority over the Corinthian church because of this letter is questioned by the first line. The letter is addressed, as mentioned above, not by Clement himself, but from “the [colony] of the church of God at Rome”. It is a letter from one local church, one family of believers, to another.

More so than this: there is a continual and clear tone throughout the letter. There are not stark commands to submission, or indications of pulling rank or setting the standard. Instead there are gentle, and indeed hard, admonitions to love one another in the truth. As I discuss below, this is a letter not grounded in the authority of Rome, but in the authority of Scripture.

Indeed, the letter continues in a shared tone of submission not to one another, but to God Himself. The encouragement is clear (9) – “Let us bow then, to that sovereign and glorious will. Let us entreat His mercy and goodness, casting ourselves upon His compassion.” The letter urges the Corinthian church to join with their Roman brothers and sisters in submitting to their Heavenly Father, and ultimately to throw off the quarrels and rivalry that have arisen. There is a clear humility with which this letter is written, and the idea of exaltation above the flock is clearly refuted (16): “Christ belongs to the lowly of heart, and not to those who would exalt themselves over His flock.”

This letter is written in a gracious style; hard and clear yes, but not overbearing or authoritative in and of itself. It is a collegiate missive, from one church to another. It is a partnership across the Empire – “dear friends” are repeatedly addressed, and the language of “we”/”us” is used as Clement encourages his brothers and sisters to strive as one. This is no vertical papal directive to a wandering church, it is a horizontal, loving correction from one church to another.

A Few Recent Scholarly Comments

In his introduction to his 1987 Penguin translation of 1 Clement, Andrew Louth writes (20) “Although Clement does not write like a Pope exercising his extraordinary jurisdiction, maybe a step had already been taken in that direction.” This seems to me, misguided. To suggest that the evidence points away from a papal authority, then question whether, regardless, such authority exists, seems erroneous. And more recent scholars would agree.

In their excellent rebuttal of the Bauer thesis, The Heresy of Orthodoxy, Michael Kruger and Andreas K√∂stenberger address the importance of Rome in the early years. “When one compares the tone of 1 Clement to that of other letters from the same time period, it is evident that the letter did not aim to impose a theological position onto the Corinthian church but to persuade the Christians there to accept it.” (43-44). They note that there is no authoritative tone, no imposition of Roman will. Louth, in his 1987 introduction, overlooks this point.

The letter came from Rome, but this does not mean it automatically carries with it a Roman authority. To read fifth/sixth century authority back into the first century is to commit the very crimes Bauer accuses those who argue for a consistent orthodox position throughout the Early Church period of embracing. 1 Clement simply does not add to the argument of an early Roman authority.

Clement’s true source of authority: Scripture

Instead 1 Clement clearly shows the reader, both ancient and modern, where the authority for their letter resides. It is found in Scripture.

Continually, Scripture is used to illustrate the points made. Scripture is used to reveal sin, to call the Corinthian Church to repentance, to offer a reminder of the truth of the resurrection, and much more. The divinely inspired pages of Scripture offer the basis of authority in this letter.

(28) “Since there is nothing He does not see and hear, let us approach Him with awe… so that we may find shelter in His mercy… As it says in the Psalms…” Time and again this letter appeals to God, and His word, not to human authority.

Because this authority is total. The above quote goes on to cite Psalm 139.

“Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

It is God’s authority that is total and complete, no Bishop or Pope or Church has authority over God’s people, and there was no sense of papal authority in 1 Clement. Instead, this letter appeals to The Authority, to God Himself. To the God that is sovereign over all, sees all, knows and keeps all. A God worth submitting to. A God worth knowing.

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