One of the best testimonies to the early nature of the Scripture and how early Christians interpreted it was Clement’s only surviving Epistle to the Corinthians. In order to get more out of it, it helps to understand the historical context behind the letter.
Date of authorship. The internal evidence in the text itself appears to argue for an early date, perhaps as early as the late 60s to the 80s AD.
The argument in favor of a late date (90s to early second century) the argument is as follows: “An indication of the date comes from the fact that the church at Rome is called ‘ancient’ and that the presbyters installed by the apostles have died (44:2), and a second ecclesiastical generation has also passed on (44:3)” (Wikipedia).
Here’s what the text itself actually says:
Not in every place, brethren, are sacrifices offered continually, either in answer to prayer, or concerning sin and neglect, but in Jerusalem only; and even there the offering is not made in every place, but before the temple in the court of the altar, after that which is offered has been diligently examined by the high priest and the appointed ministers (1 Clem 41:2).
At the time of the epistle’s authorship, the sacrificial system is still in place, presumably at the temple. The traditional date of the destruction of the temple and the ending of sacrifices is 70 AD. So, this means that the letter was written before 70 AD, or the destruction of the temple did not bring an immediate end of temple sacrifices.
Being that the Sadduccees as a sect lived on after the temple and it was until rebellions in the second century that all the Jews were expelled, it is a good assumption to make that the sacrifices continued in the ruins of the temple (“before the temple in the court of the altar” as the Epistle says.) However, these sacrifices probably came to an end not too long afterwards.
Another clue of the Epistle’s date can be surmised in the following passage:
They [the apostles] appointed the above-mentioned as bishops and deacons: and then gave a rule of succession, in order that, when they [the Apostles] had fallen asleep, other men, who had been approved, might succeed to their ministry. Those who were thus appointed by them, or afterwards by other men of good repute, with the consent of the whole Church…have been unjustly deposed [in Corinth] from the ministry. Happy are the presbyters who finished their course before, and died in mature age after they had borne fruit; for they do not fear lest any one should remove them from the place appointed for them (1 Clement 44:2, 3, 5).
The Apostolic (first) generation has generally passed away at this point, and it appears that there are congregations led by second (“those who were thus appointed by them”) or third generation (“or afterwards by other men of good repute”) believers. Some of the second generation has passed away (“happy are the presbyters who finished their course”) which also implies that some of the second generation (as is the case of Clement, who is mentioned in Scripture in Phil 4:3) live on.
Some ancient historians balk at the idea that both generations can be alive at once, asserting that more time had to pass. But, this is just contrary to common sense. If all the Apostles were converted between 25 AD to 35 AD as adults, they would have easily passed away or be matyred by the 60s, aside from notable exceptions (such as the Apostle John.) Four or five decades is enough time for almost the entire first generation to pass, and a lot of the second too. The fact a fourth generation is not mentioned makes it impossible that the epistle could have been written much after the 80s AD.
Why? Let’s use a real-world example. Timothy is a second generation believer. He was converted by Paul, who is an Apostle, and even as early as the 60s was appointing elders himself (1 Tim 3, see also Titus 1:5). These elders would be third generation believers.
Now, let’s look at it with rough years and dates. Timothy was converted by Paul in the late 30s or early 40s AD. He was about 20 years old, but maybe even older. The last he is mentioned are in Epistles appointing him a bishop/overseer/elder (60s AD, he’d be in his 30s at the earliest, but maybe even his 50s) and in the Epistle to the Hebrews, that he was released from prison (60s or 70s AD).
Could Timothy still be alive in Clement’s time? Yes, he’d be in his 60s or 70s. Could he pass away from old age in that time? Yes, that could have happened as well. Being that Timothy was already assisting in the appointing of other Bishops in the 60s AD, with the consent of local churches, means a third generation had already begun that early.
The fact that none of those people, already called “elders” in the 60s AD have not passed to such a degree to force Clement to name a fourth generation appears to force a date in the 70s AD at the very latest. Any later, then it would appear an absolute certainty that a fourth generation would be widespread. It surely had to exist in some churches, though apparently not in Corinth.
Let’s consider another part of the Epistle and how it affects how we can surmise its date of authorship:
We have also sent faithful and prudent men that have walked among us from youth unto old age unblameably (1 Clement 63:2).
Some have used this phrase to “prove” Clement was written in at least the 90s. However, this quote regards the second generation of believers and not the third. A second generation believer like Timothy, could have been in their 20s in the 50s AD, and pushing his 50s by the late 70s AD.
The fact that many of these men are still alive, and judging from the age of the widow list in 1 Tim 5:9 that the age of 60 was an age where death was relatively close at hand, means that depending upon when “youth” is cut off (probably around age 30) a elapsing of time more than two to three decades is impossible. We need to remind ourselves that converts were made as early as the 30s AD. By the 80s AD, these men would be absolutely ancient.
However, there is no need to posit a date even that far out, though it would be early in the eyes of most liberal scholarship. The fact is, the second generation of believers in Jerusalem or even Rome (which was started by believers converted in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, Aquila and Priscilla were second generation converts in Rome) could be in their 20s or 30s in the 30s and 40s AD. These same young people would be “elderly” in the 60s AD somewhere in their 50s.
Combine the above with the fact that the Corinthian church is called “ancient” (meaning decades old in the lingo at that time) and the words of Jesus are quoted but from proto-Gospels or oral tradition (when scholarship believes that Mark was probably written before 70 AD), forces an “early date” for Clement as early as the late 60s AD, probably before the temple was destroyed.
Issue at Hand in Clement. The Church at Corinth, with a history of factional fighting as early as the writing of 1 Corinthians, is at it again, apparently with pompous “leaders” trying to install themselves over leaders that were appointed by the Apostles or Second generation elders.
The issue at hand: Can a Bishop/Presbyter who has done nothing morally wrong, and who was appointed by an Apostle or a group instated by the Apostles, be replaced for any reason?
There also appears to be an undercurrent of false teaching at Corinth, with Clement emphasizing the doctrine of the Trinity, primacy of Scripture, that the second coming is a literal teaching, salvation by grace through faith, and repentance. These are not my opinions, but facts that I will detail in my synopsis.
What does Clement teach us today? For one, he teaches that the Scripture is inerrant and defers to this and early New Testament Scriptural tradition to justify doctrine and opinions concerning how a church ought to be run. I believe this undercuts modern Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox denominations’ view of the role of Scripture.
Apostolic Succession, as fleshed out by Irenaeus, does not exist. What does exist is that the original Bishops/Presbyters were appointed by the Apostles. Unlike what many Protestants may think, following Scriptural standards for Church governance (as seen in Acts 15 and the Pastoral Epistles) is important and not every single guy who styles himself a preacher and personally inspired can just start a church.
That was the heresy that the Corinthians were succumbing to: charismatic leaders that were self-appointed. This is a dangerous trend which has splintered Christianity and has led believers to believe that everyone ought to do what they are personally inspired to do, and not fall under any Church’s discipline, which is Scriptural.
There is indeed Apostolic Succession, of a less mystical sort, through the Presbytery. The Presbyters were appointed by Apostles and they appoint new Presbyters in their place, and the process continues. So, a Reformation-minded Church can follow Apostolic Succession in this model, though historically the chain has been broken for some time now. The question is whether heresies in the Roman and Orthodox traditions forfeited their rights as churches to make claim to Apostolic Succession.