01.1.4 Clement’s Writing – The Start of Tradition as an Authority in Church Doctrine

Clement of Rome is significant in Christian history in a number of ways. As we have seen in previous articles his epistle, 1 Clement, was almost included in the canon of scripture we use and was included in some bibles for centuries. His writing not being included in our canon, Clement becomes the first early church father that we have writings from. As we have seen his epistle, 1 Clement introduced concepts to Christian doctrine including apostolic succession and the distinction between laity and ministry.

Clement began, for all intents and purposes, the movement where “church fathers”, early Christian writers, wrote writings that expanded, developed, and changed the church. This is exemplified in how he helped formulate the doctrines of clergy/ laity and apostolic succession. The church at that time did not rely on the bible as the sole authoritative source for truth, but looked to the writings of the bible, the tradition contained in the church fathers as well as the wisdom of whoever was the current leader(s).

This “tradition” that the early church relied on as a source of truth on a par with scripture was in part the writings of the church fathers. (The other part was oral, things handed down form generation to generation.)  The early church fathers  became a  movement because succesive writers either reinforced or expanded the doctrines started by men like Clement, and this became the developing doctrine of the Church.

In his epistle Clement also makes a few other theological points that I would like to reference. Mostly these are just odds and ends. They also illustrate how Clement as a church father helped establish church docrine:

The epistle illustrates the belief that the afterlife starts right after death:

Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance… Thus was he removed from the world, and went into the holy place [ The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Chapter V ]

Notice how both Peter and Paul are said to have changed places, from this world to the next. This clearly indicates a belief that when one dies he “passes” from this life to the next.

Clement does not make any kind of argument to establish this premise. It’s as if he writes it in passing. He is just stating that Peter and Paul departed this world to a holy, glorious place. This statement appears to reflect that this was a common belief.

The distinction is that some Christians believe that upon death Christians “sleep”, are unconscious, have no existence, until the resurrection. The other view is that on death the spirit returns to the Lord for some vague existence, and at the resurrection the body, soul, and spirit are recreated with immortality and incorruptibility. Clement’s writing reflects that the latter position was commonly held at the time of his writing.

Non-Jews in Old Testament Times were saved:

Let us look stedfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God,21 which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world. Let us turn to every age that has passed, and learn that, from generation to generation, the Lord has granted a place of repentance to all such as would be converted unto Him. Noah preached repentance, and as many as listened to him were saved.[ The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Chapter VII ]

This shows Clement’s belief that OT believers were “saved.” He specifically calls them saved.

Clement Believed Enoch Never Died

Let us take (for instance) Enoch, who, being found righteous in obedience, was translated, and death was never known to happen to him.[ The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Chapter IX ]

Clement clearly believed that Enoch never died. In the bible there are the statements about how Enoch is “translated”. It is not fully explained. Clement’s statements give further explanation: Enoch did not die like everyone else. This, like arguments above, appear to reflect commonly held beliefs. (Remember that just because a belief was commonly held does not make it true. A commonly held belief about Jesus was that he was going to re-establish the sovereignty of the kingdom. Many had a hard time believing that he wasn’t going to be the most powerful political ruler at the time he was alive and perhaps shortly thereafter.)

The next two points refer to the viability of Clement’s inspiration as a source of True Christian doctrine

Clement makes an odd reference to the phoenix.

Clement refers to the life and rebirth of the phoenix. He tells how it lives for 500 years, makes its own sepulchre of frankincense and myrrh, enters, dies, and then a worm emerges which grows into the reborn phoenix. The myth of the phoenix was popular in olden times. It was referred to by Plutarch, Philostratus, Horapollo, the Book of Enoch, Herodatus, Ovid, Pliny, and others [1]. What is strange in my opinion is that Clement uses the argument that the resurrection is reasonable because the phoenix is so unusual. It really appears he is making a case that the resurrection is real because the incredible story of the phoenix is real.

The question that begs to be answered is: how can we trust someone that believes in the myth of the Phoenix? The answer is that Clement makes no claim to be an apostle, or prophet. His only claim is that he is reporting what he has learned from the apostles. On the other hand, in my opinion, Clement loses some of his believability with this argument and the next point.

The immeasurability of the oceans

In his arguments Clements makes passing reference to the immeasurability and impassibility of the oceans (Chapter XX). “The ocean, impassible to man, and the worlds beyond it, are regulated by the same enactments of the Lord” may have once been true, but it is not now.

Again, Clement is showing his humanness here as this is clearly wrong. The oceans are passable, perhaps not in his time, but truth is not limited to certain periods of history. Clement appears to believe that the immpassability of the ocean is a divine law. After all, he likens this ocean impassiblity law to the unchangibility of the order of the seasons in his next statement. His arguments appear to be based on his own reasoning, not on what he has learned from the Apostles. Again, it works against his credibility.


Clement and the church fathers became sources for a developing Christian doctrine. Clement is referred to concerning martyrdom and the afterlife because of his reference to Peter and Paul. Martyrdom became increasingly important as Christianity spread. His statements in the epistle about the succession of bishop’s apostolic succession are used to help establish the hierarchy of the organized Catholic church and the primacy of Roman pontiffs. Whether or not we accept these developments is the issue. Still the impact of Clement and the later early church fathers is undeniable. Clement clearly presented doctrine that was beyond what was stated in in the New Testament. And some of that doctrine including the distinction between the clergy and laity and the importance of apostolic succession in establishing and maintaining church leadership became firmly established in the church. All of this happened despite incredible statements about the Phoenix, and the impassibility of the oceans.

[1] THE FAITH OF THE EARLY FATHERS, Volume 1, William A Jurgens, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1970, p. 13

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