Monday, September 12, 2011

Reading 1st Clement: The Ideal and the Problem (1 Clement 1-4)

    Last week, we started to discuss the 1st Letter of Clement to the Corinthians, its context and my aims in this series. This week, I want to get into the letter itself and see what it has to say about what the problem was in the church at Corinth at the time of Clement.
    In some ways, Clement's opening is unusual. After the customary greeting and a cursory apology for not writing earlier, Clement begins his discussion with a picture of the Corinthian church's past which looks, I must confess, pretty idyllic. Here, Clement suggests, is a church in which justice, peace and good order reigned. Here, the Christian virtues of mutual submission and brotherhood controlled how church members interacted. Here we have, if we follow Clement's imagery, the return of the post-Pentecost church, transposed to a Gentile setting- at least, until the troubles began.

    This is a little odd, of course, because we do know something of the history of the Corinthian church. We know that Paul had enough problems with the Corinthian church that he felt he had to send two letters to them to get them back onto the right track. We know that the Corinthian church at the time of Paul was also torn by the same kind of division which Clement identifies in his own time. If that is so, just when was this idyllic past of the Corinthian church? What is Clement trying to accomplish here?

    Perhaps we can explain this discrepancy by suggesting that Paul's letters and visits eventually did do some good in Corinth and that a period of peace followed Paul's correspondence which lasted right up to Clement's time. At this time, the Corinthian church was at its most fruitful and zealous, but, eventually, as the new generation began to chafe under the oversight of the older one, the younger Corinthian Christians began to try to remake the church in their own image; thus, falling into conflict with their elders.

    Perhaps Clement is indulging in a kind of 'prince's mirror' in which he is trying to induce the very virtues which he assigns to the Corinthian church at a time when it distinctly did not have them. By setting out these ecclesial virtues, Clement may have hoped to provide the Corinthians with the vision of peace, justice and order which he wanted them to enjoy.

    Regardless of which theory to explain Clement's image of the Corinthian church before this crisis, he is clear about what the problem- church division. For whatever reason (Clement doesn't really say), the Corinthian church broke into factions, quarrelling and strife which caused all the marks of the ideal church which the Corinthian church to rapidly unravel. With the collapse of justice and peace, faith weakens, doing one's Christian duty falls by the wayside and individual Christians begin to go their own sinful way. The Corinthian church was rapidly de-constructing itself, to the horror of Clement and, one presumes, the rest of the Christian world.

    I'm not sure that we understand how visceral this Corinthian scandal must have been in Clement's day. In many ways, this kind of church division, while regrettable, is a rather common occurrence today. We have normalized church division to the extent that there are, literally, hundreds of thousands of Christian denominations, with more arising each year. One of the most common reactions to disagreement and conflict in many churches today is to split off form the 'unholy' segment of one's community. It is true that this is a peculiarly Protestant disease, but, really, if we look at it, even those churches which claim an adherence to a catholic ecclesiology have experienced church division as Orthodox and Anglicans split from the Roman Catholics and splinter groups which result perpetuate the division or divide anew.

    Furthermore, I don't think that church division ends only here with the division of a community or a communion. Can we see it in our modern propensity to church shop for a community which satisfies our theological, aesthetic or political tastes? Can we see it in our willingness to dismiss a Christian brother and sister as too 'liberal, or too 'conservative' or too 'moderate'? Can we see it in our assurance in our own sense of spiritual self-sufficiency which causes us not to share our real selves with the world? This is to say nothing about muttering about the diocese or the bishop or the denomination's paper. Whatever divides us or causes us to pull back from our fellow Christian, is that not an injury to the community? And am I not as great a sinner in this area as anyone else? Of course.

    Yet, we also aren't called to the opposite extreme of placing community ties so high on our priorities that we stamp out our individual conscience and discernment. There are times when the Spirit calls us to confront sin in our church and, at those times, we need the virtues of truthfulness and humility to lead us through the conflict which will result. But does conflict necessarily entail division? Does this conflict come from a moving of the Spirit or from our own sinful desire to dominate the opposition or even to set ourselves up as the authority in the church? I'm not sure it is very easy to know and that should call us to humility and patience as we discern the way forward. Unfortunately, neither humility nor patience are the strong suits of the modern church, even if they remain indispensable for a faithful church.

    But how did the Corinthian church break apart? What caused it to turn its back on its own ideals and to descend to chaos? That is the topic for the next post.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Reading 1 Clement: An Introduction

In my last post, I noted my 'epiphany' about my study time; that it is a much more productive use of my time to merely read the Fathers in the original and not worry about any project for now. Part of the reason for that decision was lack of time, but there is also the realization that, unless I read the Fathers in the original (or as close as I can), I wouldn't be able to take myself very seriously. And that means, working on vagaries of Christian Latin and Greek. Those vagaries aren't so much vagaries in language structures or, very often, even of vocabulary, but it is that of context. So, I've decided to embark on a long-range reading program of the Fathers- not an exhaustive one, but hitting the highlights in apologetics, sermons, history and ecclesiology. And, logically, the place to start is Clement's 1st Letter to the Corinthians.
My intention in this first post is to give a bit of context, some idea where I'm going with this series and, honestly, to give the first insights into why anyone should care. That last point is an important one because, at the end of the day, I see my reading of the Fathers both as a way to deepen my understanding of my faith today and as a service to the Church to help us ask the questions that we may have forgotten to ask for so long or which we've forgotten what the answers were.
So, what is my context?
1 Clement is a letter to the church at Corinth (the same one addressed by the Apostle Paul in two letters for very similar reasons), probably in the 90s AD. The author is usually assumed to be Clement, the bishop of Rome, third in succession to Peter. This identification is, of course, something of a stretch in that the text itself mentions no Clement, but, rather, its introduction makes it clear that it is the church of Rome writing to the church of Corinth. Clement is consistently cited in manuscripts as the author and, if I'm not incorrect, this is followed by Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History. The date is established by this letter's apology that the church of Rome had been unable to write because its own problems- usually, taken as a reference to Domitian's measures against Christians in the 90s AD.
It might strike the casual observer that all this is rather a slim groundwork to base a discussion of context. Agreed, but, to someone who has done any Classical work, it has to be conceded that our information about many ancient authors is probably no better than this and, often, much worse. Caution is, of course, indicated, but, ultimately, one has to decide whether the manuscipt writers and/Eusebius had have known a thing or two more than we did about this letter.
Where am I going with this series?
This letter is, in many ways, a founding document in the establishment of a catholic theory of the church (ecclesiology). Note the small 'c' whose use is an attempt not to get bogged down in Protestant-Catholic apologetics which in both insist on using this letter and other patristic texts on ecclesiology like a tennis ball. The idea of a catholic ecclesiology centres upon a belief that all Christians are linked to each other by bonds of doctrine, liturgy and common history. As Vincent of Lerins puts it 'what is believed everywhere, always and by all'. Of course, that definition too has become a theological tennis ball because it is suitably vague. What it means to a Roman Catholic is not precisely what it means to an Orthodox person nor to a Protestant. Yet, we see attempts to work towards it, from the Roman Catholic insistence on the infallibility of the Pope in moral questions, or Orthodoxy's refusal to give up the term or C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity' and evangelicalism's comparative lack of interest in denominational boundaries. There is a hunger to return to 'catholicity', even if, too often, we want to do it on our own terms.
In this series, I hope to look at what it means to be catholic, not primarily from a theoretical view, but from an eminently practical way. Clement, in this letter, is addressing a real problem in Corinth, a schism arising from a power struggle in the Corinthian church- a problem not so uncommon in our multi-denominational universe. What I want to examine is the spiritual habits and practices which draw Christians together, not to use the letter as an apologetic weapon to defend my own claim to catholicity or my own desire to overcome an opponent in a debate. In that light, I welcome dialogue and discussion from those who have different traditions from me.
But who cares?
We all should. I firmly believe that the present divisions among Christians are a scandal, albeit a scandal with a long, difficult history filled with sincere and devout Christians believing that they had no alternative, but to split from a segment of Christ's body. Yet, it is a scandal that a group of people who, in the 2nd century AD, was described a people who drew the astonished cry of "See how they love each other' to a people who not only were willing to throw verbal darts at each other at the drop of a hat, but, from to time, to kill to prove their point (creating all sorts of dissonance with what Christ taught us about being godly human beings, much less His followers). Perhaps, if we can see ourselves in the dysfunctional and divided Corinthian church, we can start asking ourselves how we have come off track and what we need to do to get back on track individually as well as corporately.
All this is a tall order and, of course, I certainly don't expect to abolish church division in the matter of a few months. No, my aim is much more humble: to ask questions, have discussions and reflect on what it is to be a catholic church today. That is more than enough for any series.