Have you ever noticed that in the large, lucrative frenzy of Christian media, we rarely if ever hear from ancient Christian voices? Yes, we read biblical texts from the Apostle Paul, John, Peter, James, and the gospel writers. But what about the writings of those whom they mentored– the writings of 2nd, 3rd, or 4th Century Christians? For the most part, they’ve been lost into obscurity, tucked away on the bookshelves of seminaries and church history professors. Meanwhile, everyday Christians never get to benefit from the wisdom and inspiration that comes from the writings of our ancient Church Fathers. Foundational Church leaders like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Augustine, and many others have such wisdom and inspiration to share with us 21st Century disciples of Jesus, but so few of us ever get to hear from them.
So what awakened me to give them a second read?
I recently alluded to them in a sermon illustration by saying that we Christians often look to the saints of the past for direction and encouragement in the present. I then rattled off names of several prominent Christian saints, realizing right then that most of my congregation may never have heard a word from any of them or have easy access to their writings. To them, people like Augustine, Julian of Norwich, and Francis of Assisi are just names and faces. What’s to learn from that?
Sensing a desire for their wisdom and inspiration, I felt drawn to hear from these saints again. Ministry can get downright draining and frustrating. Ancient brothers like Clement or Ignatius just might have something to say to me in my day to day struggles. I had studied a sampling of their writings while taking seminary church history courses, but since then, I haven’t read those books again to read them just for myself, for my own benefit.
So today I dug up one of my seminary books: the Penguin Classics edition of Early Christian Writings. Not too long ago I finished reading Clement of Rome’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Clement was the presiding elder (traditionally “bishop”) of the church in Rome, writing out of concern for the divisions and factions he had heard about in the Corinthian church. Apparently, some folks were trying to uproot and replace the leadership of their church. Clement wrote his letter to encourage humility, repentance, love, cooperation, and a respect for the authority which Paul himself probably appointed. His writings were laced with Old Testament scripture and allusions to numerous New Testament scriptures. Clement even referenced Paul’s first letter to them, what we now call First Corinthians, which had already become a widely circulated letter among the early church. (I thought that was way cool!) All in all, Clement was passionate, unquestionably thorough, sometimes less than perfect, but authentically sincere in encouraging this sister church of his to seek out Christ’s healing and reconciliation.
Here’s a sample from Clement’s letter:
If there is true Christian love in a man, let him carry out the precepts of Christ. Who can describe the constraining power of a love for God? It’s majesty and its beauty who can adequately express? No tongue can tell the heights to which love can uplift us. Love binds us fast to God. Love casts a veil over sins innumerable. There are no limits to love’s endurance, no ends to its patience. Love is without servility, as it is without arrogance. Love knows of no divisions, promotes no discord; all the works of love are done in perfect fellowship. It was in love that all God’s chosen saints were made perfect; for without love nothing is pleasing to Him. It was in love that the Lord drew us to Himself; because of the love He bore us, our Lord Jesus Christ, at the will of God, gave blood for us– His flesh for our flesh, His life for our lives. (The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, chapter 49)
Did you hear echoes from 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love chapter”? That was intentional on Clement’s part. He pulled his Corinthian listeners back to those all-too-familiar words of Paul in order to address their present crisis. There’s also an allusion to 1 Peter 4:8.
Clement’s entire letter reads like this. It was really a joy to wipe the dust off this book and give it a fresh read. I can’t wait to dig into the letters of Ignatious and Polycarp, too!
One more thought: as I was reading, I kept thinking how fantastic it would be for an influential Christian publisher like Zondervan, Tyndale, or Thomas Nelson to re-translate and publish these ancient Christian writings into a book for contemporary Christians. It might create a new surge of interest in the early Church Fathers who would provide far more biblically based wisdom and inspiration than much of the popular tripe that passes for Christian teaching these days. Otherwise, these ancient writers will only stay buried on academic bookshelves while we miss the priceless treasure they offer us.