Clement of Rome’s epistle to the Corinthian church on behalf of the church at Rome is one of the finest pieces of early Christian literature coming down to us outside the canon of the scriptures. Its historical value is immense, as it independently attests to several important Christian doctrines taught in the New Testament. But equally importantly, the whole work rings with the simplicity, godliness, and faithfulness of the early church. Clement’s words, unlike so many works we have from the first few centuries, are not polemical, but edifying; not strictly intellectual, but fundamentally spiritual; not argumentation, but exhortation as a brother. Were that this book were required reading for every student of theology, and every Christian wishing for something edifying to read in addition to the holy scriptures.
Towards the end of this wonderful letter we have a prayer of Clement recorded. This prayer (as all prayers do) provides us with great insight into how Clement thought of God. What did a man who learned from the apostles Peter and Paul think about God? To whom did he direct his prayer? The Father? The Trinity? What can this prayer tell us about the theology of the apostolic church, and in particular, of this student of the apostles?
The prayer (from chapters 54-56 of 1 Clement):
“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, through whom He called us from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge of the glory of His name, [prayer begins] our hope resting on Thy name which is first cause of every creature,—having opened the eyes of our heart to the knowledge of Thee, who alone “dost rest highest among the highest, holy among the holy,”4315 who “layest low the insolence of the haughty,”4316 who “destroyest the calculations of the heathen,”4317 who “settest the low on high and bringest low the exalted;”4318 who “makest rich and makest poor,”4319 who “killest and makest to live,”4320 only Benefactor of spirits and God of all flesh,4321 who beholdest the depths, the eye-witness of human works, the help of those in danger, the Saviour of those in despair, the Creator and Guardian of every spirit, who multipliest nations upon earth, and from all madest choice of those who love Thee through Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, through whom Thou didst instruct, sanctify, honour us. We would have Thee, Lord, to prove our help and succour. Those of us in affliction save, on the lowly take pity; the fallen raise; upon those in need arise; the sick4322 heal; the wandering ones of Thy people turn; fill the hungry; redeem those of us in bonds; raise up those that are weak; comfort the faint-hearted; let all the nations know that Thou art God alone, and Jesus Christ Thy Son, and we are Thy people and the sheep of Thy pasture. Thou didst make to appear the enduring fabric of the world by the works of Thy hand; Thou, Lord, didst create the earth on which we dwell,—Thou, who art faithful in all generations, just in judgments, wonderful in strength and majesty, with wisdom creating and with understanding fixing the things which were made, who art good among them that are being saved4323 and faithful among them whose trust is in Thee; O merciful and Compassionate One, forgive us our iniquities and offences and transgressions and trespasses. Reckon not every sin of Thy servants and handmaids, but Thou wilt purify us with the purification of Thy truth; and direct our steps that we may walk in holiness of heart and do what is good and well-pleasing in Thy sight and in the sight of our rulers. Yea, Lord, make Thy face to shine upon us for good in peace, that we may be shielded by Thy mighty hand and delivered from every sin by Thine uplifted arm, and deliver us from those who hate us wrongfully. Give concord and peace to us and all who dwell upon the earth, even as Thou gavest to our fathers, when they called upon Thee in faith and truth, submissive as we are to Thine almighty and all-excellent Name. To our rulers and governors on the earth—to them Thou, Lord, gavest the power of the kingdom by Thy glorious and ineffable might, to the end that we may know the glory and honour given to them by Thee and be subject to them, in nought resisting Thy will; to them, Lord, give health, peace, concord, stability, that they may exercise the authority given to them without offence. For Thou, O heavenly Lord and King eternal, givest to the sons of men glory and honour and power over the things that are on the earth; do Thou, Lord, direct their counsel according to that which is good and well-pleasing in Thy sight, that, devoutly in peace and meekness exercising the power given them by Thee, they may find Thee propitious. O Thou, who only hast power to do these things and more abundant good with us, we praise Thee through the High Priest and Guardian of our souls Jesus Christ, through whom be glory and majesty to Thee both now and from generation to generation and for evermore. Amen.”
There is so much that we could say about this prayer. It is full of references to the scriptures, such that at times it more resembles a string of quotes than a spontaneous prayer. This shows just how saturated in the scriptures’ teachings the early Christians were, and how much of an impression especially scripture’s descriptions of God made upon their minds. Here we see the prayer of a man whose love for God is so great that he appears to have practically memorized the many descriptions God provides of Himself throughout the Bible.
Clement’s prayer opens with a praise-filled description of Who God is. God’s identity as Creator, and as the one Who is sovereign over all things, is noted, as well as His attributes of holiness, omniscience, and goodness. We then see the first explicit indication that this prayer is directed to the person of the Father: “who multipliest nations upon earth, and from all madest choice of those who love Thee through Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, through whom Thou didst instruct, sanctify, honour us“. We thus see that this prayer is directed to the Father; a significant thing to note in itself, certainly, as this is the normal biblical and patristic pattern of prayer; but it is also noteworthy because we can now understand that in Clement’s thinking, all these passages of scripture he quotes and references about God’s glory, attributes, and actions are taken by Him to be speaking of the Father in particular.
A little later we read “let all the nations know that Thou art God alone, and Jesus Christ Thy Son, and we are Thy people and the sheep of Thy pasture.” This again makes it clear that Clement’s prayer is directed to the Father. What is also noteworthy here is that Clement uses exclusive language for the Father, not simply saying “Thou art God”, but “Thou art God alone”. This reflects the way the scriptures speak, calling the Father in particular the “one God”, and “the only true God” -while at the same time, and often in the same sentence, making mention separately of the person of the Son. This line is very similar to the prayer of Christ to the Father recorded in John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (NAS).
At last we see one more reference to the Son at the end of the prayer: “O Thou, who only hast power to do these things and more abundant good with us, we praise Thee through the High Priest and Guardian of our souls Jesus Christ, through whom be glory and majesty to Thee both now and from generation to generation and for evermore”. In this last quote we see that in Clement’s understanding, prayer is offered to the Father, through the Son. This is certainly in keeping with the pattern laid out in scripture, and with Christ’s role as High Priest.
Finally I would like to point out one last line of Clement’s prayer that has some bearing perhaps on what we can see of Clement’s trinitarianism: “dost rest highest among the highest, holy among the holy”. This description Clement gives of God, Who we have seen in particular is the Father in Clement’s prayer, speaks of Him as being Most High; “highest among the highest” “holy among the holy”. This being said in reference to the person of the Father in particular, it could be taken to even be speaking of God’s supremacy even over His Son and Spirit.
As we have noted in other articles, the reason that the Father alone is spoken of as the “one God” and “only true God” is not on the basis of Him alone possessing the divine nature (since His only-begotten Son and Holy Spirit possess the same divine nature), but is rather because the Father alone is the supreme uncaused Cause of all, and the Supreme Authority over all. He is not only the “first cause of every creature” as Clement notes at the beginning of his prayer, but is even the cause of His Son as having begotten Him before the ages, and of His Holy Spirit as the Spirit eternally proceeds from Him (see: Why There is Only One God: One Supreme Cause). Likewise the Father not only has Supreme Authority over all creation, but even over His own Son and Holy Spirit (see: Why There is Only One God: Headship). Everything we see in Clement’s prayer is consistent with this; it is directed to the Father, through the Son; the Father’s absolute supremacy is spoken of; and exclusive language is used in reference to the Father in particular (“Thou art God alone”).