Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Feast of the Annunciation

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, which celebrates the announcement, made by the Angel Gabriel, that Mary would conceive the child Jesus. We celebrate the fact that Mary was chosen to bear the Son of God made man.

As with all the Feasts involving Mary, Christ is always at the center of the celebration. Mary’s life is celebrated by Catholics precisely because she “magnifies” the Lord, as she says in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46). The powerful events in her life point us to a deeper understanding of Jesus.

Obviously the key to appreciating the significance of the Annunciation is the reality of the Incarnation – that God became flesh and dwelt among us. Mary’s participation in this event is the primary focus of this Feast Day. Much could be said about the importance of this Christological doctrine and why it is celebrated in the humble person of the peasant girl, Mary of Nazareth.

But more specifically, a thought occurred to me today as I pondered recent political events and the prevailing evils of the culture at large. How wonderful it is that the Church in her wisdom has seen fit on her Liturgical Calendar to count back precisely nine months from December 25, to toady – March 25 – and mark the conception of our Savior. What a fitting reminder of the sacredness of life from the moment of conception. In this time of “abortion on demand” and the “culture of death,” it is good to pause and reflect that God so humbled Himself, to make Himself vulnerable, fragile, as a newly conceived child.

At that moment of conception God entered the world, helpless and in need of protection. The power-that-be wanted this child dead. His mother was unwed and facing the social stigma of conceiving a child who was not her husband’s. Even her husband-to-be, Joseph, struggled with how to deal with this un-expected pregnancy. It took an Angel and a message from God to convince Joseph to care for the child as his own.

Today we face imposing obstacles in our struggle to protect unborn life. It may seem that the culture, indeed the whole world, is against us in this fight. But on this Feast of the Annunciation we can seek solidarity with the unborn Christ. Perhaps in the coming nine months we can mark the days of his development and follow Mary as she awaits her new arrival. And we can hope that one day all the unborn are anticipated with joy and love.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Patristics: Ignatius of Antioch, Part III

Having begun an examination of “authority” and Church “hierarchy” in the writings of Ignatius, we now turn specifically to his letter to the Romans. Remember that to the other churches (Magnesia, Ephesus, and so on) Ignatius offered instruction; he counseled them on matters of doctrine and discipline; he gave them advice for the functioning of their local church community. But Ignatius does not attempt to advise Rome on any of these matters, for he says to them:

“You have never envied any one; you have taught others. Now I desire that those things may be confirmed [by your conduct], which in your instructions you enjoin [on others].”

It seems it is Rome’s place to “enjoin instructions” on others, while Ignatius does not presume to enjoin instructions on Rome. Ignatius makes only one simple request – not a call to obedience or the correction of some abuse – rather, Ignatius asks for their prayers:

“Only request in my behalf both inward and outward strength, that I may not only speak, but [truly] will; and that I may not merely be called a Christian, but really be found to be one.”
Ignatius asks nothing more than their prayers as he faces his impending martyrdom. In this way the Romans will “confirm” by their “conduct” what they have conveyed in their “instructions” to the other churches.

Why this special treatment of the Roman church? Why do the other churches receive stern teaching from Ignatius, while Rome receives only praise and an earnest appeal for prayer? Lest we forget, Ignatius opened this letter with words of high admiration for the Romans unlike that of any of the other churches: “…worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love…” Why is Rome set apart in this way from the other churches?

Ignatius gives one possible indication for this rare treatment when he alludes to the two Apostles who ministered in Rome and met their end in that great city. Ignatius acknowledges the Apostles Peter and Paul. He points to their preaching in Rome and suggests that it is the preeminence of their ministry in Rome that prevents him from now issuing instruction to this church:

“I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles; I am but a condemned man: they were free, while I am, even until now, a servant.”

Ignatius, a man who himself was a student of John the Apostle and a prominent First Century Christian bishop - worthy of recognition in his own right - yet recognizes Rome’s place of honor above his own. Even while he offers instruction and guidance to other churches well outside his jurisdiction in Antioch, Ignatius withholds any such teaching for Rome. It is the city of Peter and Paul. She teaches other churches and “presides over love.”

Ignatius now makes an appeal to the Roman Church - that they pray for his own strength as he undergoes his martyrdom: “[R]equest in my behalf both inward and outward strength.” He is traveling to Rome to be fed to wild beasts. He wishes to embrace this martyr’s death so that he “may not merely be called a Christian, but really be found to be one.” Ignatius asks that the Romans not intervene or make any appeal to the authorities for his life. He says to them, “I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God.”
Ignatius’ plea is both gruesome and heartfelt: “May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me; and I pray they may be found eager to rush upon me, which also I will entice to devour me speedily, and not deal with me as with some, whom, out of fear, they have not touched. But if they be unwilling to assail me, I will compel them to do so. Pardon me [in this]: I know what is for my benefit. Now I begin to be a disciple. And let no one, of things visible or invisible, envy me that I should attain to Jesus Christ. Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.”

This is a man who had lived a long life serving Christ and his Church as bishop of Antioch. After decades of service, he was ready to meet his final reward. But he was not so detached from the world as to neglect those he left behind. Ignatius showed concern for the Church that would remain after his passing. We have already read a few excerpts from some of his letters. And Ignatius mentions these letter to the Romans: “I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God…” And he realizes that his own church in Antioch will be left without an earthly shepherd. So he entrusts his flock to God and to the prayers of Rome:  “Remember in your prayers the Church in Syria, which now has God for its shepherd, instead of me. Jesus Christ alone will oversee it, and your love [will also regard it].”

Thus Ignatius gives his final report to Rome upon his impending death. The tone is quite distinct from that of the other letters. To the other churches he had stressed the role of bishops and the authority of the ordained clergy within Christ’s Church. He instructed them to obey their bishops and to act in one accord with their leaders. But to Rome Ignatius seems to owe his own allegiance. He seems to acknowledge an elevated status for Rome, a place of honor, praise and holiness. He acknowledges Peter and Paul’s leadership there. And he ascribes to Rome the role of teacher of other churches. He even commends his own church to the loving prayers of Rome as he meets his final fate.

Once again, none of this definitively proves Roman primacy, the papacy, or the Catholic understanding of the hierarchical structure of the Church. But it certainly goes a long way in that direction. For a First Century student of the Apostles to bear such witness as Ignatius does gives strong support to the Catholic argument on this matter.

And finally, we are reminded of Jesus’ words to Peter before His passion and death: “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Ignatius now asks for the strength to face his own death. He turns to Rome, the city where Peter met his own end, the city which carries on Peter’s role of strengthening his brothers. Rome has “instructed others” and now her instructions are "confirmed by [her] conduct" as she receives her faithful “servant" Ignatius, so that he might go home to meet the Lord.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Patristics: Ignatius of Antioch, Part II

And so we continue our study of Ignatius. Specifically we turn our attention to his view on the role of bishops and the hierarchy of the Church. But before we look directly at any of Ignatius’ own writings, we would do well to refresh our memories on what Clement of Rome had to say on the matter, from his Letter to the Corinthians:

“Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.”

This idea, which we now term “Apostolic Succession,” preserves the teaching authority once granted to the Apostles by establishing successors to the role of “bishop” or “elder” in the Church. Likewise Paul instructed Timothy:
“You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others as well,” (2Tim 2:1-2), and to Titus: “I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town as I directed you…” (Titus 1:5). We know that the Apostles instructed the churches to take great care in selecting their bishops and ministers, as Paul further warns: “Do not ordain anyone hastily…” (1Tim 5:22), and again “…guard what has been entrusted to you.” (1Tim 6:20).

Bearing witness to these teachings, Clement wrote as a First Century Bishop of Rome, one who knew Peter and Paul and who was himself ordained and entrusted by the Apostles to carry on their mission. So too is Ignatius a faithful steward of Apostolic teaching, a student of John the Apostle, and ordained by Peter as Bishop of Antioch. Ignatius picks up the same theme of Church unity and faithfulness to Apostolic teaching as was pointed out by Clement…

“…continue in intimate union with Jesus Christ our God, and the bishop, and the enactments of the Apostles. He that is within the altar is pure, but he that is without is not pure; that is, he who does anything apart from the bishop, and presbytery, and deacons, such a man is not pure in his conscience.” (from Ignatius’ Letter to the Trallians)

Ignatius views union with the bishop and union with “the enactments of the Apostles” as directly linked to union with Jesus Christ. To separate oneself from the bishop is to make oneself “not pure” – or to step away from “the altar,” as it were. Faithful Christians owe their allegiance to their bishop, just as they owe allegiance to Christ. Ignatius even boldly proclaims to the Ephesians “we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself.” In other words, Jesus and His Church cannot be separated. Similarly strong language is found throughout Ignatius’ writings:

“See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.” (To the Smyrnaeans)

“…the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons, who have been appointed according to the mind of Jesus Christ, whom He has established in security, after His own will, and by His Holy Spirit." (To the Philadelphians)

“…your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed…Let nothing exist among you that may divide you; but be united with your bishop, and those that preside over you…” (To the Magnesisans)

Among “those that preside over you” Ignatius points out two other offices (presbyter and deacon) which, together with the bishop above them, form the basic hierarchy of Church ministry. We read the same offices described in other letters from Ignatius, as in this passage from his letter to the Trallians:

“…without the bishop you should do nothing, but should also be subject to the presbytery, as to the Apostles of Jesus Christ, who is our hope, in whom, if we live, we shall [at last] be found. It is fitting also that the deacons, as being [the ministers] of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all. For they are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God.”

Thus we see clearly the threefold nature of ordination, expressed in three Greek terms: 1) the
episcopate – the bishops, the highest degree of ordination, 2) the presbyterate – from which we derive the English word “priest,” who serve under the bishop, and 3) the diaconate – deacons, who receive a special call to minister to the needs of the people. Already in the First Century, and from no less an authority than the Apostolic Father Ignatius, who was trained by the Apostles themselves, we see that the Church recognized these distinct offices within the hierarchy. And we see that the First Century Church accepted this authority as having come from the Apostles and from Christ Himself.

This orderly arrangement within Church hierarchy was not meant to oppress Christians or stifle spiritual growth, but rather to instill unity in faith, so that all might believe with one accord - undivided - as Ignatius insisted to the Ephesians: “…obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind…" And to the Trallians Ignatius insists that this unity with the hierarchy is necessary for the very existence of the Church: “…reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the Sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church.”

The Church – that is, the union of all believers – is held together by the ministry of this three-fold hierarchy. It is a unity for which Jesus Himself prayed:
"I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one." (John 17:20-23)

None of this is to discount the role of the laity. But without the ordained ministers the Church ceases to function as a unified Body. Each is called to his or her own role within that Body. The distinct functions of each member brings about the unity of the whole, united in one Spirit, as Saint Paul writes: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” (1Cor 12:4-6)

And again: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (1Cor 12:27-30)

God ordered his Church is such a way that the teaching office of bishop (together with the presbyters and deacons) might be preserved down through the generations. We see this already in the First Century from those hand-picked by the Apostles for this role. Ignatius was ordained by the Apostles and bears witness to Apostolic teaching on this matter. And we can trace this teaching office down to the present day in the Catholic Church. Catholics remain subject to the authority of the bishops just as Scripture admonishes us:

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith...Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
(Heb 13:7,17)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Saint Patrick's Day

I would like to take a momentary break from the Church Fathers to observe that today is Saint Patrick’s Day. As everyone surely knows, Patrick is the patron saint of the Irish. Saint Patrick and Ireland are nearly inseparable - who can think of one without the other? However, this Fifth Century bishop and missionary to Ireland was actually Scottish!

Patrick was born near Dumbarton in Scotland around the year 387. He was captured by Irish plunderers when he was sixteen and sold as a slave to an Irish chieftain. He spent six years as a captive in Ireland, tending his master’s sheep. (Ironically, he would later return as Bishop of Ireland and tend THE Master’s sheep.)

Patrick escaped slavery and fled back to his homeland. But his heart remained with the people of Ireland and he wished to return there to convert them from their pagan religion. After ordination to the priesthood under the tutelage of Saint Germain, and after several years battling heresy with that great saint, Patrick received his assignment from Pope Celestine I to preach to the Irish people and bring them the Gospel message. And the rest is history, as they say…

What makes this story so utterly “catholic” to me, and I mean that in the truest sense of the word “catholic” (that is, “universal”), is that, while he is so loved by the Irish and is claimed by them as one of their own, Patrick was not a native-born Irishman. He is an adopted son. Without a doubt, Saint Patrick has been so thoroughly adopted by Ireland that one would be hard pressed to convince any Irishman today that Patrick is anything but Irish. To insist to a native Irishman that Patrick was NOT Irish might very well earn you a black eye (depending on the quantity of green beer consumed on that day).

The reason I call this “catholic” is the simple fact that we are all “adopted” into the Catholic faith and so become something we were once not. Just as Saint Patrick can truly be called an Irishman (and we all become Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day), so too we all become son’s and daughters of Christ through baptism and reception into the Catholic Church. The call is “universal” – it is meant for all peoples of all times and places – it is in that sense “catholic.” The great Scotsman, Saint Patrick, is as much a child of God as he is an Irishman.

So Happy Saint Patrick’s Day…whether you are Irish or not.

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
May the rains fall soft upon your fields,
And, until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

(Traditional Irish Blessing – attributed by some to Saint Patrick)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Patristics: Ignatius of Antioch, Part I

Because of his long life as a Christian (having converted in his youth) and his prominence as bishop of such an important ancient city as Antioch, Ignatius stands out among the early Church Fathers as an important bridge between the Apostles and the generations that followed. His life and leadership span many decades of the Church’s earliest years. Ignatius was born some time in the first half of the First Century and died around the year A. D. 107.

Ignatius was a student of the Apostle John, and was appointed bishop of Antioch by Peter himself. Thus Ignatius was an “Apostolic Father,” having known directly one or more of the Apostles. There are ancient legends (although doubtful at best and thoroughly improvable) which would have Ignatius as the child whom Jesus took into his arms in Mark 9:35. Be that as it may, it is at least certain that Ignatius knew and conversed with the Apostles, and was ordained and installed as bishop by them. His renown as a faithful witness to Apostolic teaching and his steadfast leadership as bishop of Antioch earned him the nickname Theophorus – “bearer of God.”

During a persecution under the emperor Trajan, Christians were ordered to make sacrifices to the gods; but Ignatius valiantly led his church in Antioch in disobedience to this imperial decree. His defiance was made known to the emperor, and Ignatius was arrested in Antioch and brought to Rome to be executed. On his long journey from his home to the capitol of the empire, Ignatius made many stops in towns and villages along the way where Christians lived. Word had spread beforehand of Ignatius’ arrival and many Christians came to greet this famed Christian bishop and student of John the Apostle, to hear him preach and to receive words of encouragement from him as he marched to his death.

During the course of this trip, Ignatius wrote at least seven letters (six to local churches, and one to his friend Polycarp – a fellow student of John). Six other letters have also been attributed to Ignatius (some to churches, others to individuals) but are of uncertain origins. The seven afore mentioned are of sound authenticity and to these we look to continue our study of the Church Fathers. These letters are as follows: one letter each to the churches of Rome, Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, and Smyrna, and one letter to Polycarp.

Because there are a total of seven letters for us to consider, rather than tackle each document individually, we will instead look at broader themes within Ignatius’ writings and isolate certain texts within each letter that support each theme. This will not be an all-inclusive study of every facet of each letter – we are merely looking at a general overview of Ignatius’ doctrine and how his view compares in general to the overall view of the First Century Church. To that end, we will also be looking back to Clement of Rome, whom we have already examined, and try to shape a more complete picture of the early Church.

With that in mind, we will first examine Ignatius’ view of the Roman church and its position in relation to the other churches. For this we turn first, and most obviously, to his Letter to the Romans…

Ignatius opens his letter to the Romans with a greeting, in which he lavishes praises on the church of Rome in no uncertain terms:

“Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Most High Father, and Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that wills all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the place of the region of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love, is named from Christ, and from the Father, which I also salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father: to those who are united, both according to the flesh and spirit, to every one of His commandments; who are filled inseparably with the grace of God, and are purified from every strange taint, [I wish] abundance of happiness unblameably, in Jesus Christ our God.”

These singular remarks are themselves an unmistakable sign of distinction for the Roman church when one considers Ignatius’ own reputation. Such a great man, student of the Apostles, aged bishop of a great and ancient church in Antioch, heaps on praises for the Roman church. He ought to be a good judge of Christian piety and faithfulness, and he seems to have found such in Rome.

But when one compares this Roman greeting to the greetings found in the other letters from Ignatius, the honor bestowed on Rome becomes even more obvious. Such as this written to Magnesia:

“Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the [Church] blessed in the grace of God the Father, in Jesus Christ our Savior, in whom I salute the Church which is at Magnesia, near the Mæander, and wish it abundance of happiness in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ.”

The other letters to churches carry similar greetings. Thus Ignatius strikes a different tone when addressing Rome than when he addresses the other churches. He is more reserved with them, less apt to praise.

A quick comparison of the bodies of these letters yields further differences. To Rome Ignatius tells of his impending death and pleads with the Romans to allow him his martyrdom and to not interfere in his fate. Not much else is discussed in the text. But to the other churches Ignatius sends instructions on how to live out the faith. He corrects various fallacies and admonishes them to be obedient to their bishops. Nothing of the sort is directed to Rome. He finds no fault with them and even describes them as “purified from every strange taint.” Rome is praised and honored by Ignatius, while the other churches receive strict lessons in the faith.

As an Apostolic Father, Ignatius was well within his authority to reprimand his fellow Christians and pass on what he himself had learned directly from the Apostles. In these letters Ignatius does just that, exactly as Clement had done with the Corinthians as we have already discussed. However, Ignatius withholds such instructions to the Romans. It seems that Rome instructs others (as Clement clearly demonstrated), but not even the highly regarded Ignatius, the “bearer of God,” the student of the Apostles, the leading bishop of the ancient Church, offers so much as a slight criticism to Rome.

This does not prove Roman authority in the sense that Catholics accept it today. But nor does it disprove the Catholic position. And so we begin to see, in Clement’s boldness as Bishop of Rome correcting the Corinthians, coupled with Ignatius’ respect and adulation for the Roman church, a distinct picture of Roman authority in the ancient Christian Church. There is certainly nothing here that contradicts Catholic claims. And there is much here that supports such a position.

Next we will examine Ignatius' view of the hierarchy of the Church, and explore the implications of those findings…

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Patristics: Clement of Rome, Part II

Some more details about Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians…

Clement recalls to the Corinthians their tremendous faith and zeal and hospitality in times past, and he points out their place of honor as one of Paul’s great missionary efforts. He reminds them of all this and then says:

“Every kind of honor and happiness was bestowed upon you, and then was fulfilled that which is written, “My beloved did eat and drink, and was enlarged and became fat, and kicked.” (Deut 32:15) Hence flowed emulation and envy, strife and sedition, persecution and disorder, war and captivity. So the worthless rose up against the honored, those of no reputation against such as were renowned, the foolish against the wise, the young against those advanced in years.”

Obviously there is division and jealousy in the Corinthian church. As an example to them, Clement then reminds them of Cain slaying Abel, and the envy of Esau against his brother Jacob. He then points to more recent times…

“…let us come to the most recent spiritual heroes. Let us take the noble examples furnished in our own generation…Let us set before our eyes the illustrious apostles. Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labors; and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him. Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned.”

So Clement is insisting that the Corinthians stop their jealousy and strife and division, for such feelings have led to so much death and destruction in the past. He calls to mind people in their “own generation” and interestingly he includes Peter and Paul among these. Possibly there were those yet living among the Corinthians who would remember these illustrious Apostles. Indeed some may have even heard Paul preach with their own ears. These elders in Corinth now led the church there, and it was against these “elders” that the young and self-righteous were rebelling in Corinth. Clement then addresses this problem…

“Foolish and inconsiderate men, who have neither wisdom nor instruction, mock and deride us, being eager to exalt themselves in their own conceits… [However] since we look into the depths of the divine knowledge, it behooves us to do all things in [their proper] order… [T]heir own proper place is prescribed to the priests… The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen…It is right and holy therefore, men and brethren, rather to obey God than to follow those who, through pride and sedition, have become the leaders of a detestable emulation. For we shall incur no slight injury, but rather great danger, if we rashly yield ourselves to the inclinations of men who aim at exciting strife and tumults, so as to draw us away from what is good. Let every one of you, brethren, give thanks to God in his own order, living in all good conscience, with becoming gravity, and not going beyond the rule of the ministry prescribed to him.”

Clement then goes on to tell how the Apostles established order in the Church by appointing leaders, who would then appoint the next generation of leaders, and so on (“Apostolic Succession” - which I already mentioned in the previous post). It is this orderly arrangement which the churches ought to follow in choosing their leaders. By this arrangement men receive their proper ministry. Clement tells the Corinthians that they ought to respect those to whom the ministry has been entrusted.

So Clement is dealing with the question of who is rightly ordained to lead the flock. Without the orderly arrangement established by the Apostles, there is now discord, jealousy and strife. Clement calls on those who have caused such division to return to faithfulness and recognize the true leaders of the community…

“You therefore, who laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to the presbyters, and receive correction so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn to be subject, laying aside the proud and arrogant self-confidence of your tongue. For it is better for you that you should occupy a humble but honorable place in the flock of Christ, than that, being highly exalted, you should be cast out from the hope of His people.”

Clement himself invokes his own authority, insisting that the Corinthians ought to obey his request…

“If, however, any shall disobey the words spoken by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and serious danger; but we shall be innocent of this sin, and, instant in prayer and supplication, shall desire that the Creator of all preserve unbroken the computed number of His elect in the whole world through His beloved Son Jesus Christ…”

To sum up…Clement’s letter deals directly with the proper ordination and succession of leadership within the Church. The Apostles left instructions (and it is clear from Scripture itself) that the leaders who were first appointed by the Apostles were to test the faith of select men and, once properly tested, these men would then become the next generation of leaders, and so on down through the years. The Corinthians were disobeying this Apostolic tradition. Some Corinthians were declaring their own self-appointment rather than submitting to the proper hierarchy of the Church.

This disobedience was in turn causing division. The Corinthians were broken into competing factions. And so Clement’s letter is also about preserving UNITY within the whole Church. The proper ordering of things must be maintained in all the local churches because this order instills unity. Even Clement, in far-away Rome, is concerned with the proper order of things in Corinth. His duty as a successor to Peter, as Bishop of Rome, compels him to intervene so that the he may “preserve unbroken the computed number of His elect in the whole world…”

So Apostolic Succession and the authority granted to bishops is not about “lording it over the people” as many believe about the Catholic Church, rather it is an assurance of unity and continued teaching authority as handed on by the Apostles. The bishops hold their ministry to preserve sound doctrine and maintain a united Church. Clement is an early witness to this role of Bishop and his letter is an early indicator of the specific role Rome will take in preserving unity world-wide. Clement has an eye not only to his own flock in Rome, but to other churches throughout the Christian world.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Patristics: Clement of Rome, Part I

The first of the Church Fathers I wish to study is Clement, Bishop of Rome. He lived in the First Century A.D. and died possibly as early as the mid-90’s or as late as 101 A.D. He is considered by Catholics to be the fourth pope – third in succession from Peter.


Among the Fathers of the Church, Clement is the first of the “Apostolic Fathers” – he was in direct contact with the Apostles themselves. As a First Century leader in the Christian Church in Rome, it is believed that he knew personally at least two of the Apostles (Peter and Paul), and bore witness to their teaching. Irenaeus, who wrote in the Second Century, tells us that Clement “saw the blessed Apostles and conversed with them, and had yet ringing in his ears the preaching of the Apostles and had their tradition before his eyes, and not he only for many were then surviving who had been taught by the Apostles.” Tertullian, at the end of the Second Century, recounts that it was Peter himself who ordained Clement into the ministry. Some ancient sources (including Jerome, the highly regarded Fourth Century scholar who first translated the Bible into Latin) attest that Clement is the same Clement mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3 as his fellow laborer, although this is doubtful. Very little is known for certain about Clement’s life. It is at least clear that Clement led the Roman Church as Bishop some time in the later half of the First Century, and he was third in succession after Peter, following Linus and Cletus.

Various accounts would have it that Clement was martyred under the emperor Trajan by being tied to an anchor and cast into the sea. In the Ninth Century an iron anchor and some scattered bones were unearthed under a mound that was believed to be the tomb of Clement. But because of the late date of this find, scholars are now uncertain as to the authenticity of these relics. It is also possible that Clement died of natural causes while in exile from Rome, although he is often referred to as a “martyr.”

Two letters have been historically attributed to Clement. The first, a letter to the Corinthian Church, is most certainly his, and is widely accepted by today’s scholars as authentic. The second letter is most likely of later origin and is probably a copy of a sermon by an unknown author some time in the Second Century.

It is the first of these letters (the only writing that is certainly Clement’s own work) which we will examine. Below are a few quotes from Clement’s “Letter to the Corinthians” along with a few explanatory notes for greater historical and scriptural context.

“The Church of God which sojourns in Rome to the Church of God which sojourns in Corinth…Grace and peace from almighty God be multiplied unto you through Jesus Christ. Owing to the sudden and repeated calamities and misfortunes which have befallen us, we must acknowledge that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the matters in dispute among you, beloved…"

Two points stand out in this brief excerpt from the introduction. First, Clement writes from Rome to the far away city of Corinth to assist in a dispute among the Christians there. Why would Rome intervene in a Corinthian matter? If the Corinthians needed outside assistance, why not call on Ephesus across the Aegean Sea? Ephesus was much closer, and in those days of treacherous travel it would have been much quicker to appeal to the Ephesians. Or why not Antioch or Jerusalem - both revered churches in those days? Why Rome?

Second, it appears from Clement’s own words that it was not convenience at all which prompted him to write, but that perhaps Rome was expected to intervene. “[W]e have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the matters in dispute among you” Clement says, as if apologizing for not answering sooner to their urgent plea. Perhaps it was not a matter of who was closer to Corinth, but who had the authority to assist them in their troubles. Either way, it is obvious that as early as the First Century far-away Rome played an important role in settling church disputes.

“The Apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ was sent from God. …being full of confidence on account of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and confirmed in faith by the word of God, they went forth in the complete assurance of the Holy Spirit, preaching the good news that the Kingdom of God is coming. Through countryside and city they preached; and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the spirit, to be bishops and deacons of future believers.”

Clement is here recounting how the Apostles tested those who would be entrusted with leadership in the Church to ensure that the faith would be handed on intact. The dispute among the Corinthians involved a matter of leadership. There were some who questioned the authority of the elders and teachers in Corinth. Clement is reminding the Corinthians that their leaders have received authority through their link to the Apostles. Their leaders had been tested and ordained in line with the Apostles. On the importance of this matter Paul had warned Timothy, “Do not ordain anyone hastily…” (1Tim 5:22), and again “…guard what has been entrusted to you.” (1Tim 6:20) For Timothy was called to be of that first generation of Christian teachers after the Apostles. Timothy would one day need to hand on his authority to the next Christian generation.

And so Clement continues…

“Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.”
Therefore Paul also writes to Timothy: “You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others as well.” (2Tim 2:1-2)

And to Titus: “I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town as I directed you…” (Titus 1:5)
And so the Apostles deliberately established a hierarchy within the local churches. And they passed on the authority to teach and to govern the flock, and expected those leaders to pass on their authority to the next generation. This is what the Church terms “Apostolic Succession.” The Apostles were appointed by Jesus Himself to be leaders in the Church. The Apostles appointed the next generation, and these then passed on the task to still others. With that in mind, Clement scolds those in the Corinthian church sowing discord …

“You, therefore, who laid the foundation of the rebellion, submit to the presbyters and be chastened to repentance, bending your knees in a spirit of humility…Accept our counsel and you will have nothing to regret…If anyone disobey the things which have been said by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger…You will afford us joy and gladness if, being obedient to the things which we have written through the Holy Spirit, you will root out the wicked passion of jealousy, in accord with the plea for peace and concord which we have made in this letter.”

Clement’s goal is unity, “peace and concord” within the whole Church. He expects the Corinthians to obey what he has written “through the Holy Spirit” and if they “disobey the things which have been said by Him through us” they will be “in no small danger.”
Clement’s letter is not merely a friendly greeting from one far-away church to another it is a pastoral letter urging obedience. It is the first example of the Church of Rome settling a dispute in the larger Church.

To put this in perspective we must realize that this Letter to the Corinthians was written around the same time as the Book of Revelation. So the Bible itself had not yet been completed. John the Apostle was yet living. It had been little more than fifty years since the death and resurrection of Jesus. This was the close of the First Century, and the Spirit was alive and active in the infant Christian community. It was then that Rome began to emerge as the center of Christianity.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Patristics: the Early Church in Her Own Words


The first few centuries A.D. was not an easy time to be a Christian. Some of the earliest Christians paid for their belief with their very lives. Indeed, many were martyred for professing faith in Jesus of Nazareth. These men and women were great witnesses to the faith. (The word “martyr” in fact means “witness.”) The early Christian witnesses were sure in their convictions; they were steadfast in faith. So certain were they in the correctness of their doctrine that they were willing to die for what they believed.

If we were asked to likewise die, could we be as certain as they? How are we to know whether our doctrine is in fact authentic – authentic enough to die for? Do we believe as the first Christians did?

Christianity today offers many competing doctrines; there are many sects and denominations. No two groups teach exactly the same beliefs about God or Jesus or salvation or any other tenet of the faith. Yet all of these various Christian churches, as different as they are, attempt to make an appeal to the early Christians. The churches and denominations of today strive to link themselves to those who first believed. Everyone wants to believe as the Christian martyrs did in the First or Second or Third Centuries, when the faith was young and the Spirit was so clearly at work.

But would these early Christians recognize our brand of Christianity? Can any of our churches today truly be in line with the Christianity of the first centuries? Would we be dying for the same beliefs?

To study this question in depth we must explore what is called “patristics” – from the Latin “pater” or “father.” We must look to what are called the “Fathers” of the Church. These early Christians left behind a written record of their belief. Before they were fed to lions or cast into the flames or finished off in any number of various gruesome methods, these Christian witnesses wrote letters, compiled histories, explained Scripture, and otherwise documented a host of details from this early period of Christianity. This is a vast treasure trove of information from which we can build an idea of what the early Christians thought and believed on a whole host of issues and matters of faith.

These records are not complete. That is, they do not present a concise summary of all doctrines and dogmas that early Christians held. They were never meant to be an all-in-one reference guide to the faith. But they do give us priceless gems of insight scattered throughout centuries of writing, which when taken together, give us a broad view of what Christianity was truly all about in the first few hundred years. By studying what these Church Fathers had to say we can survey the landscape of today’s Christianity and come to see which church, if any, can truly claim an authentic relationship with the Apostolic Church.

I propose to examine several of the earliest Fathers, one by one, to examine their lives, sample some of their writings, and explore their doctrine, in an attempt to better understand the Church as she was from the beginning...

(Next: Clement of Rome)