Each fall I teach a lecture course on the Ancient Church and a seminar on Patristics. For the first half of the seminar we use Michael Holmes (3rd edition) of the Apostolic Fathers. The Apostolic Fathers is a collection of texts mainly from the 2nd century. As a collection it didn’t begin to come into existence until the 17th century. It’s not as if there has always been a collection of texts, as we have them today, known as the Apostolic Fathers. Holmes has done a terrific job with this volume. It has useful, well written introductions. Each text contains a clear, accurate English translation with Greek (and sometimes Latin, Armenian, and Syriac) on the facing pages. It’s well bound and a joy to use.
Today, however, we covered the Shepherd of Hermas. Last week was Barnabas and next week is Diognetus, so I suppose a little suffering is good for the soul. The Shepherd (Ποιμην), comprised of a 114 chapters, is by far the largest document in the collection. It is also by far the most bizarre. It’s date, original setting, and authorship are in doubt. The external evidence would seem to suggest the second half of the 2nd century. It’s possible that there are connections to Rome but there is internal evidence that might suggest other locations. There is debate over there is one author or whether there were multiple hands. Evidently the work was composed/compiled over an extended period of time. In contrast to Barnabas (before the Shepherd) and Diognetus (after the Shepherd) there is very little mention of Christ. It is replete with references to the Spirit but there there are only a couple of mentions of “the Son of God.” Nevertheless this work was evidently well received by some important figures in the early church (e.g., Irenaeus) and it was widely copied and read.
You may not be surprised to learn there is almost no good news in the Shepherd. There is, however, a great number of visions (revelations) and fascination with the judgment and a great lot of morality. Here’s the point of this short post. A year or two ago someone pointed out in another seminar that this book reminded them of some aspects of contemporary evangelicalism: fascination with eschatology, ongoing revelation, and morality. Then the light went on. It’s therapeutic, moralistic, apocalypticism. There is an evangelical group in Southern California that has made a living propagating just this recipe for decades.
It was popular then for the same reason that the Left Behind series is popular. It offers an explanation of the seeming absence of God in history. About the same time the Shepherd appeared the first neo-Pentecostal movement, Montanism, would appear in the ancient church for similar reasons. People felt the absence of the direct, special revelation and unique Apostolic demonstrations of power. In other words, it was a way to ameliorate the pain of living in the inter-regnum, that period between Christ’s ascension and visible, glorious return.
As distressing as it is to re-read the Shepherd every year it is salutary. It reminds me that Solomon was right: there is nothing new under the sun. The Apostolic period was no golden age and neither was the 2nd century. It’s not true that “if we could only get back to the 2nd century” everything would be well. The Shepherd is evidence that it wouldn’t be so. We would no sooner leave behind the Left Behind series only to find it again (or before! Time travel is confusing isn’t it?) in the 2nd century.
This is not to say that we couldn’t learn a thing or two from the 2nd century. Diognetus provides a brilliant pattern for negotiating what seems to most of mere mortals to be a post-Constantinian age. What message do we Christians want to send to the pagans around us? Diognetus worked that out in some detail and said as well as it can be said.
We can also learn a good deal about public worship. In our age we seem bent on including as much of the popular culture as possible into our services. Judging by Justin, the Didache, and other sources it seems as if the early church was mindful that what takes place in public worship is distinct from daily life. This was one of their reasons for excluding instruments from public worship. They regarded the use of instruments as pagan and inappropriate for Christian worship. It not entirely clear what they sang but the evidence seems to be that they sang God’s Word in response to his Word read, preached, and made visible in the sacraments.
They made a distinction between that which is sacred (unique, holy, set apart) and that which shared (common or secular) with the surrounding culture. They treated worship and Christian instruction as sacred but they did not attempt to sacralize those aspects of daily life they shared with the unbelieving world around them, even though the Christians had a quite different explanation for the meaning of the world around them than did the pagans.
Romanticism is the quest to recover a certain intense feeling, it is the turn to the subjective, to experience. History is one of the cures for for it but history is no license for skepticism or bitterness, however. Yes, the Shepherd was popular but we also have Ignatius, Polycarp, and others who testify that the teaching and practice of the Apostles was not lost.