Church Fathers: The Shepherd of Hermas

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 13, 2015

The Shepherd (or Pastor) of Hermas, an important second-century Christian text, is categorized as an apocryphal apocalypse; it consists of a series of visions urging repentance and penance in preparation for the end times. It contains of three books containing five Visions, twelve Commandments, and ten Similitudes.

At the beginning of the work Hermas introduces himself to us. He is a Greek Christian who was sold in Rome as a slave and later freed. Walking on the road from Rome to Cumae, he falls asleep and has a vision calling him to repentance. In the first several visions he is spoken to by a matron who represents the Church. A young man explains to Hermas that the Church appears as an old woman because she was created first of all things, and “for her sake the world was made.”

However, each times she appears the matron looks younger and more joyful until finally she takes the form of a beautiful bride. It is later revealed to Hermas that this transformation symbolizes the progress of his own soul. The implication is that the appearance of the Church reflects the spiritual life of her members.

In the fifth vision, the titular shepherd appears; it is he who gives Hermas the Commandments and Similitudes in the second and third books. These are essentially a series of sermons on moral principles delivered by the shepherd, who reveals himself as the angel in charge of repentance.

Hermas is given these visions both for his own repentance and so he can share the teachings with others. God is angry with him because he has not warned his sons against sin, but Hermas is being given an opportunity to cooperate with God in healing the evils of his house. Among these evils is that his wife (whom he is now to treat as a sister) has an undisciplined tongue and his sons are lustful. Hermas himself admits that he has been a habitual liar in the past.

He is urged to forgive his family for the wrongs they have done him, so that their sins may be cleansed, “For the remembrance of wrongs worketh death.” Many times the angel warns against the recollection of offenses, whether one’s own or those of others: “Do not trample [the Lord’s] mercy under foot, He says, but rather honour Him, because he is so patient with your sins, and is not as ye are.”

Hermas presents himself as a man of relatively small intelligence, yet one who is conscientious and intent on understanding every last detail of the visions. He is often rebuked for asking too many questions; the shepherd tells him, "You ought not to ask any questions at all; for if it is needful to explain anything, it will be made known to you." All his questions are answered in due time.

The Tower Built upon the Waters

Of the visions shown to Hermas by the matron, the most important is that of a tower being built upon the waters. The tower represents the Church which is built upon the waters of baptism. It is being built by six young men (angels) and other men (lesser angels) are carrying stones out of the water and from the land to be put into the tower.

Stones dragged from the depths of the water are placed in the building as they are, because they are already polished and fit perfectly, so that the building appears to be made of one stone. These stones are those who have suffered for the Lord’s sake. There are white square stones which also fit perfectly; these are apostles, bishops, teachers and deacons who have served God with purity and lived at peace with one another.

Of the stones taken from the earth, some are rejected while others are fitted into the building; some stones are even cut down from the building itself and cast away. Other stones lie around the building unused, because they are rough, have cracks, or are the wrong shape or size. Those which go into the tower without being polished are those who have kept God’s commandments.

The stones which are rejected but not cast far away are sinners who may yet become part of the tower if they repent; however, they must repent before the building is finished and there is no longer any room. The stones cut down and thrown far away are evil people, while the many stones lying around unused because of various defects are those who know the truth and do not remain in it, or have other sins.

There are still more types of stones symbolizing different kinds of people. For example, the stones that are white and round and do not fit are rich men who have true faith but deny the Lord when tribulation comes because of their riches; their riches will need to be shorn away before they can be useful to God.

Hermas asks the matron if repentance is possible for those who have been cast away. The answer is that it is possible, but they will not have a place in this tower. Instead, they will dwell in an inferior place, and only after suffering and having “completed the days of their sins.”

This vision contains another image which became important in Christian art: that of seven women surrounding the tower, representing Faith, Self-Restraint, Simplicity, Knowledge, Innocence, Reverence and Love.

Doctrine

The main doctrinal content of the Shepherd has to do with repentance and penance. According to Hermas there is only one remission of sins; penance is still possible but only within a certain fixed period set by the angel. However, this applies specifically to those who have already been baptized: “The repentance of the righteous has limits”; “But to the heathen, repentance will be possible even to the last day.”

While a second repentance is still possible for those who sin after the initial remission of baptism, the great difficulty of attaining salvation for those who have fallen back into their old sins is repeatedly emphasized. As Quasten notes, this is a psychological and pastoral rather than a dogmatic point. Penance is efficacious for anyone willing to repent, even apostates and fornicators. It involves fasting, self-denial and prayer not only for one’s own sins but for those of others. Bearing the name of Christ is not sufficient for salvation; one must avoid evil deeds and put on virtue.

At one point, Hermas asks the shepherd why he is being afflicted by an angel of punishment, despite his and his family’s repentance for their sins. The sheperd explains that suffering is both essential to make reparation and profitable to heal one’s soul of the effects of sin:

…do 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.

Hermas’s Christology is confused. He identifies the Holy Spirit with the Son of God, so there are seemingly only two divine Persons, the Father and the Holy Spirit, plus a Savior who is elevated to join them as a reward for his service on earth.

Ethics

The Shepherd is full of rich ethical teaching. There is an early distinction between obligatory and supererogatory works: for example, unlike some early Christian writers, the angel permits remarriage after the death of a spouse, though he says it is more meritorious to remain single.

On adultery, Hermas teaches that if a man’s wife commits this sin and does not repent he must put her away; however, he cannot remarry. (This precept applies equally to men and women.) The prohibition of remarriage in such cases is not merely negative but serves a positive purpose, that of making it easier for the unfaithful spouse to repent. For if she repents, the husband is obliged to take her back and forgive her, or he himself will have sinned greatly. The beauty of this teaching is that even in cases of infidelity, the faithful spouse remains committed to the salvation of the unfaithful one.

The faithful are exhorted to make “noble and sacred expenditures”; that is, it is better to spend your time and resources “buying” souls, which will come with you to the heavenly city, rather than stocking up on worldly goods which you cannot keep.

The rich and the poor are compared to a vine and an elm. The vine bears fruit and the elm does not, but the vine needs to be suspended on the elm to bear its own fruit, since it cannot do so lying on the ground. And so the vine bears fruit both for itself and for the elm, with the elm’s assistance. The shepherd explains the meaning of this similitude:

The rich man has much wealth, but is poor in matters relating to the Lord, because he is distracted about his riches; and he offers very few confessions and intercessions to the Lord, and those which he does offer are small and weak, and have no power above. But when the rich man refreshes the poor, and assists him in his necessities, believing that what he does to the poor man will be able to find its reward with God—because the poor man is rich in intercession and confession, and his intercession has great power with God—then the rich man helps the poor in all things without hesitation; and the poor man, being helped by the rich, intercedes for him, giving thanks to God for him who bestows gifts upon him…. Both, therefore, are partners in the righteous work.… Blessed are they who have riches, and who understand that they are from the Lord.

The Shepherd gives us a picture not only of those who lived up to the ideal of the early Church by suffering martyrdom, but of those who suffered less perfectly, or even denied the Lord. Those who considered denying their faith but still suffered have less merit than those who were perfectly faithful in their hearts. The angel advises those who are tempted to give in under persecution to keep in mind the spiritual purpose and profit of suffering:

Have a care, therefore, ye who are planning such things, lest that suggestion remain in your hearts, and ye perish unto God. And ye who suffer for His name ought to glorify God, because He deemed you worthy to bear His name, that all your sins might be healed. [Therefore, rather deem yourselves happy], and think that ye have done a great thing, if any of you suffer on account of God. The Lord bestows upon you life, and ye do not understand, for your sins were heavy; but if you had not suffered for the name of the Lord, ye would have died to God on account of your sins.

Faith, Prayer, Discernment

Hermas wonders whether he is strong enough to keep the commandments; he is assured that this is rather a matter of belief and trust:

If you lay it down as certain that they can be kept, then you will easily keep them, and they will not be hard. But if you come to imagine that they cannot be kept by man, then you will not keep them. Now I say to you, If you do not keep them, but neglect them, you will not be saved, nor your children, nor your house, since you have already determined for yourself that these commandments cannot be kept by man.

Similarly, we are urged to confidence in praying to God, and warned of the dangers of doubt, which makes men “double-souled”:

Wherefore do not cease to make the request of your soul, and you will obtain it. But if you grow weary and waver in your request, blame yourself, and not Him who does not give to you.

Faith is not merely a matter of complacent belief, for we are meant to continually seek greater understanding. Those who believe, yet are too involved with business, do not understand the things of God because their minds are set on worldly matters:

Those who have never searched for the truth, nor investigated the nature of the Divinity, but have simply believed, when they devote themselves to and become mixed up with business, and wealth, and heathen friendships, and many other actions of this world, do not perceive the parables of Divinity…. …[They] go astray in their minds, and lose all understanding in regard to righteousness; for if they hear of righteousness, their minds are occupied with their business, and they give no heed at all.

The Shepherd contains a very valuable passage on an aspect of what is now called discernment of spirits. How can we tell whether a movement of the soul is of holy or demonic origin?

There are two angels with a man—one of righteousness, and the other of iniquity.… The angel of righteousness is gentle and modest, meek and peaceful. When, therefore, he ascends into your heart, forthwith he talks to you of righteousness, purity, chastity, contentment, and of every righteous deed and glorious virtue. When all these ascend into your heart, know that the angel of righteousness is with you. These are the deeds of the angel of righteousness. Trust him, then, and his works. Look now at the works of the angel of iniquity. First, he is wrathful, and bitter, and foolish, and his works are evil, and ruin the servants of God. When, then, he ascends into your heart, know him by his works.

The shepherd notes that it is impossible for the good angel and the bad angel to be in a man’s soul at the same time. When a man is (for example) overcome by anger,

[the tender Spirit] withdraws from the man in whom he dwelt, the man is emptied of the righteous Spirit; and being henceforward filled with evil spirits, he is in a state of anarchy in every action, being dragged hither and thither by the evil spirits, and there is a complete darkness in his mind as to everything good.

Origin

The Shepherd was written in Greek; no single manuscript containing the complete text in its original tongue survives, but the entire work can be collated from extant Greek fragments.

The Muratorian Fragment (c.200) says: “And very recently in our own times, in the city of Rome, Hermas wrote the Pastor, when his brother Pius, the bishop, sat upon the chair of the city of Rome.” This seems to conflict with the matron’s command in the second vision for Hermas to send one copy of the book to Clement in Rome (surely this is Pope Clement I). St. Pius I was Pope from 140-155, while St. Clement reigned sometime around the last decade of the first century, or possibly earlier. For this reason, Hermas’s reference to Clement has been regarded by some as fictional.

Another theory has it that different parts of the work were composed at different times, the older parts during Clement’s reign and the final additions and changes in Pius’s – yet this spreads the composition over a period of 40-60 years or perhaps more, depending on how early we date Clement’s reign.

Origen’s identification of Hermas with the Hermas mentioned by St. Paul in the letter to the Romans is generally dismissed.

The Shepherd was well-regarded by several of the Fathers, though there was little interest in it by St. Jerome’s time. St. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Origen considered the Shepherd inspired, while Eusebius and St. Athanasius approved of its use for catechumens.


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Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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