God’s Elect in the First Epistle of Clement
St. Clement conceives of “the elect” simply as the Christian people as a whole, not specifically as that group which will be saved on the last day.
Calvinist theology places a great deal of emphasis on the concept of God’s elect.
The term “elect” is taken from the Greek word eklektos, which means “chosen.”
In Calvinist thought, the elect are those that have been chosen by God to be saved on the last day. The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “God hath appointed the elect unto glory” (3:6).
This sense of the term is not unique to Calvinism. It is also the way the term has traditionally been used in Catholic theology, from which Calvinism inherited it.
However, it is important to be careful about the way terms have come to be used in theology, because language changes over time, and sometimes the meaning a term has in later texts does not correspond to the one it has in earlier ones.
A classic example of this is “heresy.” Originally, the Greek term hairesis just meant “opinion” or “sect” (i.e., the group of people who hold a particular opinion), but today it means something very different.
What about “elect”? Can we count on early texts using it in the sense later theologies have?
Multiple Senses of “Elect”
It’s easy to show from the Bible that the term isn’t always used in the later, theological sense. When Jesus is described in John 1:34 as the “Chosen One” (eklektos) of God, it does not mean that God has chosen Jesus to be saved on the final day.
Similarly, there are various passages in the Old Testament where God’s people Israel is described as his “chosen” (Heb., bahir; LXX, eklektos; e.g., 1 Chr. 16:13, Ps. 105:6, Is. 65:9).
However, if we set these aside and look at early Christian texts that speak of a group of people in God’s new dispensation as “the elect,” what do we find?
A striking example of where the term is not used in the later theological sense is found in 1 Clement, and it is worth looking at the way this document uses it.
Introducing 1 Clement
1 Clement is a letter written from Rome to Corinth in the first century. It is often dated to around A.D. 96, but it is more plausibly dated to the first half of A.D. 70.
Although written in a corporate manner (1 Clem. 65:2 describes it as “The letter of the Romans to the Corinthians”), its eloquence reveals that it is the product of a single author (not a committee), as was virtually universal for letters at this time.
The extensive knowledge of the Old Testament that its author clearly possesses suggests that he was of Jewish extraction.
Various early Christian sources identify the author as Clement, a bishop of Rome, and there is no good reason to doubt this identification.
It is significant for our purposes is that this Clement was a disciple of both Peter and Paul.
He may be the same Clement mentioned in Philippians 4:3, and 1 Clement describes Peter and Paul as men of “our generation” (5:1-7). Both Peter and Paul are known to have spent significant amounts of time at Rome, and both were martyred there—likely just a handful of years before the letter was written.
Although 1 Clement is not part of the New Testament, the fact it was written so early and by a disciple of Peter and Paul make its discussion of the elect significant, and it may shed light on the way this term is used in New Testament texts.
So how is the concept is handled in 1 Clement?
Election in 1 Clement
The first mention of the elect in 1 Clement occurs in its opening passage. Responding to a crisis that has occurred in the church of Corinth—whereby the leaders of that church had been unjustly expelled from office—the author notes that this “unholy rebellion” is “both foreign and strange to the elect of God” (1:1).
From this we may infer that God’s elect are to be characterized by holiness and due order in church affairs.
Clement next comments on how the Corinthians have made great efforts to seek the salvation of others. He writes:
It was your struggle, both day and night, on behalf of the whole fellowship of believers, to save the total number of his elect with mercy and conscientiousness (2:4).
This passage uses the term “elect” in a way distinctly different from its later theological use.
Here “the total number of his [God’s] elect” is identified with “the whole fellowship of believers”—a usage reminiscent of the Old Testament passages that speak of the people of Israel collectively as God’s chosen.
We thus need to be alert to the idea that Clement simply envisions the Christian community in the same way: Christians as a whole are God’s new elect or chosen people.
This understanding is strengthened by the fact he here says that the Corinthians have struggled to ensure that “the total number of his elect” be saved, for it suggests that the total number of the elect might not be saved.
This makes better sense if the elect are conceived of as Christians in general rather than those who will be saved on the last day. The former (people who have professed faith in Jesus Christ and been baptized) are not guaranteed salvation, but those who will be saved on the last day—by definition—are.
The natural sense of the passage is thus that the Corinthians have made great efforts to ensure the salvation of all believers, though this salvation is not guaranteed. (Indeed, Clement later warns those who fomented the Corinthian rebellion that they need to repent or they will be “driven out from his [Christ’s] hope,” literal translation; 57:2).
As we will see, this corporate understanding of the elect is consistent with all of the other references Clement makes to the elect.
Clement notes that, to Peter and Paul “a great multitude of the elect was gathered” (6:1).
He also refers to us approaching the Father, “who made us his own chosen [eklogēs] portion” (29:1)—an idea strongly reminiscent of and undoubtedly based on Israel as God’s portion, which he chose (cf. Deut. 7:6, 14:2, 32:9).
It is important to note that here Clement conceives of Roman and Corinthian Christians as a whole—not just certain individuals among them—as being God’s chosen.
Later he quotes from Psalm 118:25-26, writing:
“With the innocent one you [God] will be innocent and with the elect you will be elect and with the perverse you will deal perversely.”
Therefore let us cling to the innocent and the righteous, as these are the elect of God (46:3-4).
Here he identifies the elect as “the innocent and the righteous”—terms that can characterize Christians in general.
In the same chapter, he writes:
Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, for it says, “Woe to that person, it would be better for him if he had not been born than to cause one of my elect to sin. It would have been better for him to be tied to a millstone and to sink into the sea than to turn away one of my elect” (Matt. 26:24 with Luke 17:1-2). Your schism has turned many away . . . ! (46:7-9).
Here Clement envisions it being possible for the elect to sin and to “turn away”—something he says the Corinthian schism has accomplished.
Clement later writes that “All of the elect of God were made perfect in love. Apart from love, nothing is pleasing to God” (49:5), indicating that the elect are to be characterized by love.
Quoting Psalm 32:1-2 (or perhaps Rom. 4:7-9), he writes:
“Blessed are those whose trespasses are forgiven and whose sins are covered up; blessed is the one the sin of whom the Lord does not take into account, and in his mouth there is no deceit.”
This blessing was given to those who have been chosen [eklelegmenous] by God through Jesus Christ our Lord (50:6-7).
Thus the elect have been given the blessing of forgiveness.
Clement identifies the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as “both the faith and the hope of the elect” (58:2)—meaning they believe and hope in the Persons of the Trinity.
He says that the Roman church will make “earnest prayer and supplication, that the number of those who are counted among his elect throughout the whole world, the Creator of everything may guard unharmed through his beloved child Jesus Christ” (59:2). The elect thus need to be guarded from harm.
In the same chapter, Clement addresses God directly, noting that he “multiplies the nations upon earth and chose [ekleksamenon] from all of them those who love you through Jesus Christ your beloved child” (59:3).
Here the elect are again identified with “those who love you [God] through Jesus Christ”—i.e., the worldwide Christian community.
The above are the only places where 1 Clement refers to “the elect” or uses the corresponding terms for choosing to refer to a group of people in the Christian age.
He also uses these terms to refer to specific chosen individuals, such as Aaron (43:4-5), David (52:2), and Jesus (64:1), as do various passages in the Old Testament. However, these do not pertain to the subject we are examining.
What, then, can be said about 1 Clement’s understanding of the elect?
It appears that 1 Clement’s understanding of “the elect” is based on Old Testament passages (e.g., Deut. 7:6, 14:2, 32:9, 1 Chr. 16:13, Ps. 105:6, Is. 65:9) that conceive of Israel as God’s elect or chosen people.
Clement thus refers to members of the Roman and Corinthian churches as a whole (not just certain individuals) as the subject of God’s election, saying that he “made us his own chosen portion” (29:1).
Today, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “the faith and the hope of the elect” (58:2), and from among the nations, God “chose . . . those who love you through Jesus Christ your beloved child” (59:3). The elect are thus identified with the worldwide Christian community.
Therefore, “the total number of his elect” is identified with “the whole fellowship of believers” (2:4).
In Rome in particular, “a great multitude of the elect was gathered” around Peter and Paul (6:1).
The elect have been given the blessing of forgiveness. (50:6-7), and thus can be described as “the innocent and the righteous” (46:3-4), for “all of the elect of God were made perfect in love” (49:5). Consequently, they are to be characterized by holiness and due order in church affairs (1:1).
However, it is possible for members of the elect to sin and to “turn away”—something the Corinthian schism has caused to happen (46:7-9).
It is not guaranteed that “the total number of his elect” will be saved, and the Corinthians themselves have struggled to ensure their salvation (2:4). The Roman church likewise prays that God “may guard [them] unharmed through his beloved child Jesus Christ” (59:2).
We thus see that Clement—a disciple of Peter and Paul—conceives of “the elect” simply as the Christian people as a whole, not specifically as that group which will be saved on the last day.
His use of the term thus differs from the use it has in later Catholic and Calvinist theologies.
Given the fact his understanding of election closely corresponds to the Old Testament’s treatment of Israel as God’s elect people—not to mention his early date and the fact he was a disciple of Peter and Paul—this may well shed light on the way the term is used in the New Testament.
However, that is a subject for another time.