The Shepherd of Hermas was a most revered Christian text from the second through the fourth century, and it was widely read throughout the early Church. Numerous Church fathers argued for it to be included in the canon, but it ultimately was excluded from canonicity by the Council of Carthage in 397 AD. Despite its ancient and strange literary character it still has volumes of wisdom available for contemporary readers.
The Shepherd of Hermas is a text likely composed by a redactor, a person editing several other texts together to create one literary piece. There are interesting theories regarding the identity of this redactor/author, but none are so compelling as to mention them here. This redaction likely took place over several decades, and as a result the text possesses different literary genres. Some portions are apocalyptic in nature, containing a record of spiritual visions designed to provide a glimpse of true reality (God in charge of the world); and other sections of The Shepherd read more like traditional, Jewish wisdom literature (think book of James).
The Shepherd divides itself into three main parts: Visions (5), Mandates (12) and the Similitudes (10). In the first four Visions Hermas encounters a woman, Rhoda, initially presenting herself as an old woman and later presenting herself as a younger woman. This woman reveals and explains the different visions as they progress. These visions involve warnings to repent of sin (a common theme throughout the text), a tower representing the Church, and commands to the rich regarding how they handle their wealth. The urgent call for repentance, particularly from double-mindedness, is driven by the anticipation of an eschatological “great tribulation.” (Vis. 4.2.4) Particularly relevant for the Church of the second century was the disclosure that a one time, post-baptismal forgiveness of sin was allowed, and those outside the church have until the completion of the Tower or the end of the current age to repent. We will return to this issue of post-baptismal forgiveness of sin later.
The fifth Vision functions to introduce the second section of The Shepherd, the Mandates. The Mandates are commands to regulate behavior ranging from sexual purity, marriage and divorce. These commands also touch on other matters of daily life such as fear, faith and discerning false prophets from true ones, and scholarly consensus is that this portion of the Shepherd is written as a development of Jewish wisdom literature along the lines of the New Testament book of James. Thus, practical wisdom for holy living appears to be the perlocution in mind for the redactor.
The last section, the Similitudes, uses a number of images in six different visions to describe different groups of people and their variegated relationship to the Church and Christ. We will spend no time unpacking this section of The Shepherd, but our focus will be on the issue of grace found in the Visions and demands for holy living found in the Mandates.
There is a debate regarding the date of composition of the Shepherd. In Vis. 2.4.3 the author mentions a person named Clement, and he is described as the one who will send the book of visions to the other cities because that is his job. Many have taken this Clement to be Clement of Rome, a late first century bishop of Rome, and if that assumption is correct then the Shepherd was likely composed in the last decade of the first century, within the lifetime of the last apostle John. However, there is some reason to believe that The Shepherd was written in the second century. Since Irenaeus alluded to the Shepherd in his Against Heresies, 175 AD, it can be reliably dated to no later than the middle of the second century. As such, this popular text gives us a glimpse into the concerns of the early, post-apostolic Church.
The Shepherd was a widely read text, and it was considered authoritative (canonical) by many in the early Church. A number of the second century church fathers made use of the text in constructing their arguments and admonitions to the Church. Irenaeus, one of the most important figures of Church history from the second century, was the earliest known bishop to quote the Shepherd authoritatively, and Clement of Alexandria frequently quoted the text, citing it as divinely inspired. Other early canonical lists included the Shepherd, and well into the fourth century significant bishops argued for its inclusion in the canon. One of the most significant figures of the fourth century, Athanasius, held The Shepherd to be canonical.
Athanasius was the bishop of Alexandria that literally fought and suffered for the apophatic expression of Trinitarian thought the Church universal holds to today, so his endorsement of the book was no small matter. Athanasius ultimately relented in his advocacy for its canonicity because of the particular Christology (Spirit-Christology) which was largely rejected at that time and would eventually be excluded as an orthodox option after Chalcedon in 481 AD. Thus, by the end of the fourth century The Shepherd was no longer considered a canonical text, and the Council of Carthage in 397 AD confirmed this consensus. Yet, it was still considered profitable for private reading and encouragement.
BAPTISM AND FORGIVENESS OF SIN
The Church of the second century believed that water baptism had the effect of washing away the effects of original sin. This view of baptism seems rather foreign and strange to contemporary American evangelicals since our understanding of baptism is built around a different set of cultural values, namely radical individualism and existentialism, but this view of the sacrament by the second century Church was uncontested and not remotely controversial. It did raise, however, the obvious question as to what could wash away post-baptismal sin.
While contemporary evangelicals turn to the cross and a particular theory of the atonement (penal – substitutionary atonement) to deal with the issue of post-baptismal (or post-conversion) sin, the early Church did not express its understanding of the cross and atonement in these contemporary, evangelical terms. For them salvation and atonement had more to do with the Incarnation than crucifixion, with crucifixion being but part of the Incarnation. The Incarnation allowed for God to become man to heal mankind ontologically. The early Church fathers were often fond of saying “that which is not assumed (of humanity by God) is not healed.” Nevertheless, their particular, contextual understanding of salvation and the sacrament of baptism led to this question of how post-baptismal sins were washed away.
Many in the Church speculated that nothing could wash away post-baptismal sin, leaving many believers unwilling to be baptized until late in life. At times people would even wait until they were near death before being baptized to make sure that their sins were washed away in total. It was for this context and concern that The Shepherd of Hermas was written.
The Shepherd of Hermas’ main theme, not surprisingly, is repentance, and it claims to disclose a new, more generous rule, for confession and the washing of sin after baptism. The Shepherd reveals that there could be a single, post-baptismal forgiveness of sin, and while such an assertion seems strange to our ears, limiting the hope for grace, it would have sounded like overflowing waters of good news and grace to the early Church.
Despite the ancient nature of the Shepherd of Hermas it still speaks a relevant message for the Church today. The Church, in its various expressions, struggles to preserve a right tension between the already and inaugurated nature of the kingdom and the not yet or the “to be consummated” nature of the kingdom. In short, we need to live in the tension that in Jesus’ first ministry the kingdom and its benefits have come and yet Jesus will return to bring the kingdom and it benefits in fullness at his second coming, so we must neither under-realize or over-realize our position in Christ.
Some expressions of the Church today have an over-realized eschatology. This is seen among Christians that believe God desires to pour out all blessings, usually material, upon the believer in this lifetime. Alternatively, some parts of the Church have an under-realized eschatology, seeing salvation as purely an individualistic means to escape final judgement and then only wait for Jesus to come and bring the Kingdom, without working to bring the Kingdom here and now. Both of these extremes are to be rejected, and the Shepherd of Hermas attempted to strike a right eschatological balance, allowing for post-baptismal forgiveness yet demanding purity.
On the one hand The Shepherd wanted to assure people of the grace available for those that were in Christ even after their baptism, but on the other hand the author did not want to allow for licentious living, abusing grace. While grace was offered in the Visions the Mandates brought to bear the rigorous demands of holiness that ought to mark those in Christ. This book brings a relevant word for the Church today to take seriously both holy living and grace found in true repentance. It is grace and holy rigor help us live out our lives in the tension we experience in between the advents of Christ. In his first advent we experience the benefits of being in him, his death and his resurrection, but it will not be until his second advent that we will experience the fullness of that benefit of Christ’s work.