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.