Within this article, I present a Spark/Cliff Notes of the Shepherd of Hermas. Excerpts are generally dealt with in chronological order so that the flow of the original writing is reserved. I do not detail every single vision or interpretation, as the book often repeats the same ideas. Rather, I seek to present the major ideas that the book poses.
For more detail pertaining to the significance of the work, please click here.
The book begins with Hermas committing the sin of desiring beautiful woman in a river. As the book unfolds, we find out that he is married and already has children. Throughout the book, the main point is that repentance brings forgiveness from God. This is especially important because of the issue of post-baptismal sin.
The conundrum of post-baptismal sin is addressed early on–
He may bestow on them the blessing which He has promised them, with much glory and joy, if only they shall keep the commandments of God which they have received in great faith (Book 1 Chapter 3).
As we can see, God promises blessing, but this blessing is contingent upon obedience to God. Now, all Christians today would affirm the necessity of obedience, but this is the different turn that Hermas takes–that disobedience forfeits the promised blessing.
And, being that we know of disobedient Christians, the question is how does a Christian regain what was forfeited? Via repentance–
[T]hey [shall] be forgiven all the sins which in former times they committed, and forgiveness will be granted to all the saints who have sinned even to the present day, if they repent with all their heart, and drive all doubts from their minds. For the Lord has sworn by His glory, in regard to His elect, that if any one of them sin after a certain day which has been fixed, he shall not be saved. For the repentance of the righteous has limits. Filled up are the days of repentance to all the saints; but to the heathen, repentance will be possible even to the last day. You will tell, therefore, those who preside over the Church, to direct their ways in righteousness, that they may receive in full the promises with great glory (Vision 2 Chapter 2).
Hence, believers are held to a higher standard. They cannot both be Christians and continually backslidden. The Scripture would seem to teach this in Heb 10:26, so you might not like Hermas’ conclusion but it would have been one that he would have seen as both eminently reasonable and necessary for good order within the Church.
As the book continues, a passage seems to imply that at this point a plurality of Elders, and not a Monarchical Episcopate, still ruled the Roman Church (Vision Four Chapter 1 reveals the book was written from Rome.)
[Y]ou will read the words in this city, along with the presbyters who preside over the Church (Vision 2 Chapter 3).
Among one of the topics of second century Christianity that fascinates me is the early Church view on the efficacy of baptism. The best I can gather is that baptism was viewed as synonymous with repentance, just like the baptism of John. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Justin Martyr teach that this is so (as does Rom 6:6 and 1 Pet 3:21). The following passage also appears to teach the same if one understands the whole point of the Book:
Hear then why the tower is built upon the waters. It is because your life has been, and will be, saved through water (Vision 2 Chapter 3).
Obviously, there are not multiple baptisms. However, Hermas does teach the need for continual repentance. So, when saying one “will be saved through water” the reference is to the efficacy of repentance in enacting the forgiveness of sins, not that of literal water.
As the Vision continues, it appears to teach that the end times are soon. The Church is presented in an allegory about a tower being built. Each brick is a member of the Church and it is nearing completion. The point in presenting the allegory is to teach that to be part of the tower, one must be repentant and not back-slidden while one is still alive:
Those square white stones which fitted exactly into each other, are apostles, bishops, teachers, and deacons, who have lived in godly purity, and have acted as bishops and teachers and deacons chastely and reverently to the elect of God. Some of them have fallen asleep, and some still remain alive
Those then who are to repent, if they do repent, will be strong in faith, if they now repent while the tower is building. For if the building be finished, there will not be more room for any one, but he will be rejected (Vision 3 Chapter 5).
The book then gives a warning about the danger of riches (as if they are in of themselves sinful:)
For as a round stone cannot become square unless portions be cut off and cast away, so also those who are rich in this world cannot be useful to the Lord unless their riches be cut down (Vision 3 Chapter 6).
The vision then continues and speaks of rocks that were part of the tower cast away for their sins. In short, Hermas did not believe in “once saved always saved.” You could be part of the tower one day, sin, and then thrown off the tower. What happens to such men?
But I, shameless as I yet was, asked her, “Is repentance possible for all those stones which have been cast away and did not fit into the building of the tower, and will they yet have a place in this tower?” “Repentance,” said she, “is yet possible, but in this tower they cannot find a suitable place. But in another and much inferior place they will be laid, and that, too, only when they have been tortured and completed the days of their sins. And on this account will they be transferred, because they have partaken of the righteous Word. And then only will they be removed from their punishments when the thought of repenting of the evil deeds which they have done has come into their hearts” (Vision 3 Chapter 7).
For one, the above stones will have a lesser reward in heaven, and only after they suffered. Whether the suffering is on Earth, or in Purgatory, is left unsaid. The fact that they have an opportunity to repent and are removed from punishment when the thought even enters their minds appears to sound like earthly suffering. Nonetheless, as discussed previously, the Greek and Roman mind would have already been acquainted with the idea of Purgatory.
Now, some Protestant readers may be thinking whether Hermas is rejecting the Gospel. In my estimation, no. It appears that he does defend the orthodox teaching of Faith Alone, and rightly points out that good works are the fruit of faith:
Do you see seven women around the tower?… Listen now to their functions. The first of them, who is clasping her hands, is called Faith. Through her the elect of God are saved. Another, who has her garments tucked up and acts with vigour, is called Self-restraint. She is the daughter of Faith. Whoever then follows her will become happy in his life, because he will restrain himself from all evil works, believing that, if he restrain himself from all evil desire, he will inherit eternal life (Vision 3 Chapter 8).
Another vision also teaches Faith Alone:
I was met by a beast of such a size that it could destroy peoples, but through the power of the Lord and His great mercy I escaped from it. Well did you escape from it, says she, because you cast your care on God, and opened your heart to the Lord, believing that you can be saved by no other than by His great and glorious name. You have escaped from great tribulation on account of your faith, and because you did not doubt in the presence of such a beast. Go, therefore, and tell the elect of the Lord His mighty deeds, and say to them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation that is coming. If then you prepare yourselves, and repent with all your heart, and turn to the Lord, it will be possible for you to escape it, if your heart be pure and spotless, and you spend the rest of the days of your life in serving the Lord blamelessly (Vision 4 Chapter 2).
Further, Hermas upholds the teaching in Phil 3:9 that righteousness is not our own, but it is from God:
[T]he Lord, who has dropped His righteousness down upon you, that you may be made righteous and holy from all your iniquity and depravity (Vision 3 Chapter 9).
Finally, the Shepherd (Michael the Archangel) comes. He admonished Hermas to be faithful and persevere in good works. In these admonishments he gives advice pertaining to adultery:
[Hermas asks:] “What then, sir, is the husband to do, if his wife continue in her vicious practices?” And he [the Shepherd] said, “The husband should put her away, and remain by himself [1 Cor 7:11]. But if he put his wife away and marry another, he also commits adultery [Matt 19:9]. And I said to him, “What if the woman put away should repent, and wish to return to her husband: shall she not be taken back by her husband?” And he said to me, “Assuredly. If the husband does not take her back, he sins, and brings a great sin upon himself; for he ought to take back the sinner who has repented. But not frequently. For there is but one repentance to the servants of God” (Book II Commandment 4).
An inference we may draw is that serial adulterers are not permitted re-entrance in the Church. This position, though a deal less conservative than Hippolytus, Novatian, and Tertullian (who wanted such people kicked out with no chance for penance) is still a rigoristic stand that no one affirms today. However, it does give us some grounding. After all, anyone who continually sins should have no expectation of forgiveness (again, Heb 10:26). The Church, by permitting serial adulterers to easily come back, in essence teaches against Heb 10:26, perhaps not in words, but in deed. Being that the system of Penances was not developed yet, Hermas had no solution for how to deal with continuous sin other than simply just kicking such men out of the Church. After all, a soteriology that faith alone saves, and such faith requires repentance, is seriously undercut when that repentance is questionable at best.
It is worth noting that Hermas does not forbid remarriage in the same commandment (Chapter 4), though like Paul he admonishes widows and widowers that it is better to remain celibate.
Commandment 5 teaches that salvation can be lost, in contradiction to Eph 1:13-14, through sin: “But if any outburst of anger take place, immediately the Holy Spirit, who is tender, is straitened, not having a pure place, and He seeks to depart.”
Ironically, this also contradicts Commandment 9:
Do not thus reason with yourself, but with all your heart turn to the Lord and ask of Him without doubting, and you will know the multitude of His tender mercies; that He will never leave you, but fulfil the request of your soul. For He is not like men, who remember evils done against them; but He Himself remembers not evils, and has compassion on His own creature.
Further, it contradicts Commandment 11:
[H]e who sits on the chair is a false prophet, ruining the minds of the servants of God. It is the doubters, not the faithful, that he ruins.
And Similitude 5* Chapter 3:
“He [Satan] cannot,” says he [the Shepherd], “hold sway over the servants of God, who with all their heart place their hopes in Him. The devil can wrestle against these, overthrow them he cannot. If, then, you resist him, he will be conquered, and flee in disgrace from you.”
It is probable that Hermas believed that all of the truly faithful had the gift of perseverance, while those “who tasted the Holy Spirit” (Heb 6:4) are not sealed and can thereby lose Him, forfeiting salvation.
*The same Similitude bans fasting, which shows that it was already being used wrongly like the Jews of Isaiah’s time. God chiefly wants us to fast from wickedness, not food.
Sadly, Hermas appears to be teaching Binitarianism, though it is possible that he is merely referencing the spiritual, immaterial aspect, of the Logos in Similitude 5 Chapter 5:
The holy, pre-existent Spirit, that created every creature, God made to dwell in flesh, which He chose. This flesh, accordingly, in which the Holy Spirit dwelt, was nobly subject to that Spirit, walking religiously and chastely…
Similitude 6 may again be teaching about Purgatory (sins are punished for a factor of time), but Chapter 5 appears to teach that the prolonged punishment of sin is the memory and shame of it in this life, as it happens soon after the sin was committed:
He who indulges in luxury, and is deceived for one day, and who does what he wishes, is clothed with much foolishness, and does not understand the act which he does until the morrow; for he forgets what he did the day before. For luxury and deceit have no memories, on account of the folly with which they are clothed; but when punishment and torture cleave to a man for one day [i.e. he repents soon afterwards], he is punished and tortured for a year; for punishment and torture have powerful memories. While tortured and punished, therefore, for a whole year, he remembers at last his luxury and deceit, and knows that on their account he suffers evil. Every man, therefore, who is luxurious and deceived is thus tormented, because, although having life, they have given themselves over to death. The injurious acts of luxury before enumerated bring tortures and punishment upon them; and if they continue in them and do not repent, they bring death upon themselves.
Similitude 7 makes this even clearer:
[D]o you think, however, that the sins of those who repent are remitted? Not altogether, but he who repents must torture his own soul, and be exceedingly humble in all his conduct, and be afflicted with many kinds of affliction; and if he endure the afflictions that come upon him, He who created all things, and endued them with power, will assuredly have compassion, and will heal him and this will He do when He sees the heart of every penitent pure from every evil thing: and it is profitable for you and for your house to suffer affliction NOW.
Suspect Christology galore–Is Jesus/Holy Spirit conflated with Michael the Archangel or is he a guardian angel of sorts in Similitude 8 Chapter 3?
This great tree that casts its shadow over plains, and mountains, and all the earth, is the law of God that was given to the whole world; and this law is the Son of God, proclaimed to the ends of the earth; and the people who are under its shadow are they who have heard the proclamation, and have believed upon Him. And the great and glorious angel Michael is he who has authority over this people, and governs them; for this is he who gave them the law into the hearts of believers.
Similitude 9 Chapter 1 specifically says the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ are seemingly one person:
I wish to explain to you what the Holy Spirit that spoke with you in the form of the Church showed you, for that Spirit is the Son of God. For, as you were somewhat weak in the flesh, it was not explained to you by the angel.
We must conclude that Hermas was either a heretic or that his Christological assertions were not meant to be interpreted as literally and precisely as we do today. For example, the Holy Spirit may be considered A son and not THE Son. However, more likely, Hermas viewed Christ as an Angel, probably Michael. Both the Spirit and Christ in the two previous passages are conflated with an angel. It is very sad that early Christians would have esteemed such a work, as it shows that the interpretive authority of the Church was already departing from Apostolic doctrine as early as the mid second century. Hermas’ brother was only a few generations removed from the Apostles. The fact that this work was propagated in Rome reflects a very poor state of doctrine prevalent in Rome at the time.
In Similitude 8 Chapter 6 Hermas has an epic fail when he tries defending the notion of free will in predestination by saying that God forsaw those people who would be good…but He then positively affects their wills:
To them whose heart He saw would become pure, and obedient to Him, He gave power to repent with the whole heart. But to them whose deceit and wickedness He perceived, and saw that they intended to repent hypocritically, He did not grant repentance, lest they should again profane His name.
The dichotomy in the above obviously teaches the truly faithful will be able to perform penance while the false-converts will simply revert to sin.
In Similitude 8 Chapter 7, the Shepherd tells Hermas that heaven will exist in tiers:
And as many of them…as have repented, shall have their dwelling in the tower. And those of them who have been slower in repenting shall dwell within the walls. And as many as do not repent at all, but abide in their deeds, shall utterly perish.
Similitude 9 Chapter 12 implies Christ is created:
The Son of God is older than all His creatures, so that He was a fellow-councillor with the Father in His work of creation: for this reason is He old.
Chapter 16 teaches that the unbaptized remain dead, necessitating the administration of the sacrament:
Accordingly, those also who fell asleep received the seal of the Son of God. For…before a man bears the name of the Son of God he is dead.
Chapter 17 implies that the efficacy in the sacrament is that it is a rite in which brings unity in belief among Christians:
Having, therefore, received the seal, they had one understanding and one mind; and their faith became one, and their love one, and with the name they bore also the spirits of the virgins.
Rules concerning who many repent/perform penance in order to be again received in the Church are given. Idolaters may repent, but not Apostates. This is an interesting teaching, as Irenaeus in his writings shows signs of having read the Shepherd (where he quotes it as Scripture), but he also taught that Apostates may repent and be saved.
Chapter 28 adds credibility to the idea that purgatory was taught, as martyrs a remitted all sins by virtue of their martyrdom;
Listen…all who once suffered for the name of the Lord are honourable before God; and of all these the sins were remitted, because they suffered for the name of the Son of God.
Chapter 29 rejects original sin:
[I]nfant children, in whose hearts no evil originates; nor did they know what wickedness is, but always remained as children. Such accordingly, without doubt, dwell in the kingdom of God, because they defiled in nothing the commandments of God; but they remained like children all the days of their life in the same mind. All of you, then, who shall remain steadfast, and be as children, Matthew 18:3 without doing evil, will be more honoured than all who have been previously mentioned; for all infants are honourable before God, and are the first persons with Him.