Today, February 22, is the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter. For Catholics this day commemorates Jesus’ handing of the “keys” to Peter as Vicar of Christ and head of the Church on earth. In other words, we celebrate the establishment of the papacy. For obvious reasons Protestants do not share this Feast Day as part of their liturgical calendar. The Reformation rejected the primacy of the Church of Rome and the authority of the pope.
I am currently reading a book (as a part of the book review program for the Catholic Company) which points out an interesting fact regarding the historical argument in favor of Roman primacy. The book Clement and the Early Church of Rome (which I will review fully at a later date) concerns itself with the precise dating of a certain letter from Clement, a bishop of Rome, to the Church in Corinth in the First Century. The letter of Clement was intended to settle a dispute over some ousted presbyters in Corinth. Clement and the Church of Rome instructed the Corinthian Church to re-instate the presbyters, and the letter implies that Rome had the authority to make such a request and expected its wishes to be fulfilled. Of course this argues in favor of Roman primacy at a very early date, and if the thesis of the book is correct, the dating of Clement’s letter may indeed be even earlier than previously believed by scholars.
The letter itself by no means seals the deal on Roman primacy or the papacy. But it certainly drives home the point quite nicely, and is often used by Catholic apologists as one reason to favor the Catholic view. So how did the Reformers such as Luther and Calvin argue against the Letter of Clement? The answer is they didn’t have to. The letter was not known to theologians of that time and so it was never presented as a counter to Protestant charges. Father Thomas Heron, author of Clement and the Early Church of Rome, explains that the letter of Clement was discovered in relatively recent times:
“The actual text, after being lost in the Middle Ages, was rediscovered with the Codex of Alexandrinus, sent as a New Year’s present by the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople, Cyril Lucar, to the English King, Charles I, in 1627. The Royal Librarian, Patrick Young, edited and published the two Clemintine epistles contained in the codex, with modern chapter notation, in 1633…
“The Alexandrinus, however, lacks several folios and 1 Clement is missing about one tenth of its sixty-five chapters, a lacuna which extends from 57:6 to 64:1. It was not until 1875 that the remainder of the epistle was found and published. This was the accomplishment of Bryennios who found the Codex of Constantinopolitanus in the library of the Patriarch of Jerusalem… The authenticity of this manuscript was in turn substantiated by the discovery of a Syriac version only a few months later in Paris in 1876…”
Thus it was not until the Nineteenth Century that Catholics could use 1 Clement as an historic proof text for Roman primacy. Good news for Catholics today, but what about the Church during the Reformation, as Herron points out:
“As fortunate as their rediscovery was in the nineteenth century, the practical disappearance of manuscripts of 1 Clement from circulation after the eleventh century accounts for its lack of use among theologians in the Middle Ages and in the all-important Reformation period.”
So the appearance of 1 Clement was too little too late to stop the errors of Protestantism, but we can certainly celebrated its existence today of all days, and hopefully raise the awareness of our separated brethren to its importance in understanding the ancient Church.