One of the more interesting questions we face each semester arises when we get to the Shepherd of Hermas, which was a wildly popular but almost certainly heretical text from (probably) the mid to late-second century A.D., is why it was so popular?
It is a strange document. The Shepherd (Ποιμην) is in three parts, apocalyptic (i.e., a series of visions), commandments, and parables. Arguably, the principal theme is Hermas’ worry about the forgiveness of sins after baptism. The opening chapter records Hermas’ vision of a beautiful woman, Rhoda, who accuses him of sin. Hermas says that he had only the purest thoughts about her but the reader is led to doubt that. Then he is comforted in another vision by a grandmotherly figure. Where Christ is the central figure of the biblical Revelation, Hermas is the central figure of the Shepherd. The theological problems of the Shepherd are many. Where most of the writers gathered together as The Apostolic Fathers are fairly clear that salvation is by grace, the Shepherd seems to say that salvation is by works. E.g., Hermas thought that he had to propitiate for his sins (2.1). The grandmother figure tells Hermas to save his family (3.1), whose sins threaten his salvation.
Further, the Shepherd is not clearly trinitarian. It is essentially Christless. In short, the Shepherd is an example of apocalyptic moralism. The visions are meant to frighten the hearer into obedience and sanctification. Think of the Shepherd as the second century’s equivalent to Thief in the Night and the Left Behind films. To help the students understand the power of such texts to capture the imagination of Christians in the ancient church, I played a clip of Thief in the Night and a little bit from Larry Norman’s classic, I Wish We’d All Been Ready. Michael W. Holmes says, “The distance from Romans (another document addressed to the Roman Christian community) in tone and perspective is considerable; the piety of the Shepherd has much more in common with 1 Clement (although its social location differs).1 Christological reflection is minimal (the Holy Spirit or angels carry out many christological functions).”2
How popular and how widely accepted was the Shepherd? Some scholars argue that Irenaeus (c. AD 170) approved of it but that argument rests on an inference from a verbal similarity with a passage in the Shepherd.3 It was approved by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Athanasius. Clement and Origen thought that it was canonical. Athanasius thought it was useful but not canonical. Not everyone approved of it. Tertullian rejected it as “apocryphal.” Eusebius knew it as a disputed text and thus did not regard it as canonical but noted that it had been read in churches. Rufinus observed the same thing. It was included at the end of the influential Codex Siniaticus.
Why was the Shepherd so popular? How did orthodox fathers approve of it and commend it? My best explanation is that the approval of the Shepherd is an outstanding example of the ability of readers to read texts selectively and thereby approve of them because they say things with which one agrees even though they say other things (perhaps many other things) with which one disagrees. People have the capacity to ignore disagreeable things, even serious errors, when a book says true things about something they think is important.
What was so important that the ancient church overlooked the many faults of the Shepherd? One of the great concerns of the ancient church was sanctification. This is a major theme of the Shepherd. Perhaps the greatest threat to the second-century church was Gnosticism, which denied the goodness of creation. The Shepherd, by contrast, affirmed creation from nothing (ex nihilo; 1.6).
One of the strongest reasons the orthodox promoted the Shepherd, despite its defects, was its high view of the visible church. According to the Shepherd, creation exists for the sake of the church (1.6; 3.4). This puts the visible church not only at the center of God’s plan for salvation but at the center of his plan for world history. Thus, even though they were marginal and persecuted, Hermas was telling them that, despite appearances, they were really very central to what was happening in the world and what would happen. This was an encouraging message to a hated people. The church was presented as central to the life of the Christian. E.g., Hermas is to consult with the officers of the church regarding his sanctification (6.6). In 8.1 we learn that the grandmotherly old woman in the 2nd vision is the church. The book she gave to Hermas to copy is for the church to read out loud. Is it Scripture or the text of the Shepherd? The vision of the tower in chapter 11 is about the visible church. Thus, the visible church is essential to the theological and moral program of the Shepherd. These are themes that the early fathers must have found irresistible, despite the defects of the Shepherd.
What should we learn here? First, that there are no golden ages in the history of the church. On this note, see the resources below. For all the wonderful things that we read in the fathers and apologists of the second century, they all had feet of clay. They were capable of teaching us wonderfully insightful things—remarkable, given that many of them had limited access to Scripture and relatively little time to work out their theology, and they did it all under the threat of martyrdom. Second, truly good men are capable of seeing in a text what they want to see, what they need to see at the time in order to reinforce truths that they want to communicate to the church. There are things in the Shepherd that are worthy of commendation but, on reflection, it seems clear to me that the dross outweighs the gold. The good things found in the Shepherd can be found in other texts from the same period, but the fathers made their judgment about the Shepherd after a little more than 150 years of church history.
We do the very same things today (commend bad books), after more than 2,000 years of church history. We have fewer excuses. We not only have the complete canonical Scriptures (which precious few had when the Shepherd was written), but we also have the ecumenical creeds and two millennia of theological reflection from which to draw. Even so, with all our resources one still sees writers, who should know better, commending deeply problematic books and sometimes even books that deny or corrupt the gospel because those books say something that they think needs to be said at the moment. Like the early fathers, they too are overlooking serious flaws and seeing what they want to see or what they need to see at the moment and ignoring things that, on reflection, will be clear to later generations. When you see what are called in the business “puffs” and “blurbs,” bear that it mind.
1. James S. Jeffers, Conflict at Rome: Social Order and Hierarchy in Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 120; Maier, Social Setting
2. Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 329.
3. See Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.20.2. “Truly, then, the Scripture declared, which says, ‘First of all believe that there is one God, who has established all things, and completed them, and having caused that from what had no being, all things should come into existence:” Irenæus against Heresies, in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 488. I approve of and agree with the passage quoted. That hardly means that I think that the Shepherd is canonical or even consistently sane.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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