Sunday, March 17, 2013

Shepherd of Hermas: The Tower built on the Rock

Upon finishing the Shepherd of Hermas, I realized that I need about six more months to really do this document justice. Alas, I have only the next thirty minutes to try and make sense of this very fascinating work. Before I get started on the theology in Hermas, some background information is in order.

The Shepherd of Hermas was written sometime during the second century, with most scholars pegging it at around 150. I would initially want to lean towards a date of about 100, only because the Shepherd mentions Clement of Rome (ca. 100) as if he was living during the time. Scholars also assert that the Shepherd was written from Rome. 

The Shepherd of Hermas was the most popular noncanonical work in the early church. Some even considered it Scripture. Even Athanasius, though not considering it canonical, taught that the Shepherd should be used as private reading for new converts. This is very important, because that means the contents of the Shepherd were highly regarded, and will give us quite a glimpse into not just Rome, but the rest of the church.

The Shepherd is very different from other documents in the Apostolic Fathers. It is not simply an epistle, but is a vision from God that is recorded by a prophet, Hermas. Therefore, the authority the Shepherd assumes is clearly that of God, for it is His revelation. This puts it at an entirely different level then any writings by the church fathers.

The basic message from this prophecy that is given Hermas is that God has proclaimed an opportunity for forgiveness for all those in the church who repent with all their heart.[1] Seriously. Because of this message, some in the early church even thought that Hermas was being too lax. Holmes, in his introduction to the Shepherd, interprets this message as Hermas trying to affirm God’s mercy while maintaining a strict moralism;[2] something many observers conclude when looking at any of the Apostolic Fathers. Charles Bigg views Hermas as teaching that Christianity is a law.[3]
Obviously, there are some major presuppositions here, which I will try to briefly unpack. 

First, the Shepherd teaches that the remission of sins is only for previous sins.[4] This makes sense then why the Church could receive a new revelation that believers have the opportunity for one more repentance. Also presupposed is the division between the desire for repentance and actual repentance. Listen to what the Shepherd says in 31:6:

And therefore I say to you, that if any one is tempted by the devil, and sins after that great and holy calling in which the Lord has called His people to everlasting life, he has opportunity to repent but once. But if he should sin frequently after this, and then repent, to such a man his repentance will be of no avail; for with difficulty will he live.
Here you have a man who repents, yet it does nothing for him. Though this sounds foreign to our ears, I cannot but think of Hebrews 12:16-17.[5]

What does the Shepherd say about justification? It is obvious that a believer’s works are a major component, and in many places the Shepherd teaches that it is possible that a true believer[6] cannot make it into the Kingdom of Heaven if he does not obey and do the right works.[7] But the best picture of justification is given in chapters 89-90, which explains the parable of a tower that is built on a rock.[8] Here we are told that everything is founded upon the rock, which is Christ. One must go through Him in order to enter the kingdom of heaven and “no one shall enter into the kingdom of God unless he receive His holy name.”[9]

Now, on top of bearing the name, one must also clothe himself with the clothes of the power of God. This is basically putting on the virtues of faith, self-control, power, patience, etc.[10] Could this be an interpretation to the parable of the wedding feast and the man who was found without the right clothing? So how is one saved according to the Shepherd? By bearing the name of the Son and clothing himself with virtue. 

The Shepherd makes it quite clear if there are doubts concerning what he means. For he shows that it is possible for some to bear the name and yet not be clothed and therefore thrown out of the kingdom of heaven.[11] He then goes even further to talk about what happens to those who have bear both the name and the clothing of virtue, yet down the road, put off the clothing of virtue.[12] These too, if they do not repent, will not enter the kingdom of Heaven.

Obviously, the Shepherd is by no means Protestant. Works factor in heavily and are essential to one’s salvation. Just like with Origen, however, God’s role is also the very foundation of salvation. I really do enjoy the imagery that is quoted in the footnotes, that without the foundation of the Son, no one can enter the kingdom of Heaven. For the Shepherd, the role of the Son is not taken to the extent that Protestants have proclaimed, but more of the responsibility lies with the believer. From the sounds of it, it looks like this idea was common in the early church, and by no means unique to the Shepherd. Origen also appears to be right in line with his time. 

I am simply excited to see how much ruckus Augustine will create, and how the church will respond to him, given such a climate.  

Before I conclude, I do want to point out that God is very much shown to be merciful and compassionate in the Shepherd. Because I just don’t have the time and am concentrating on works and justification, I am not able to focus on other aspects. I just ask that the reader understands that this is only one side of the coin, and I do really believe that the Shepherd succeeds in showing God as a forgiving and merciful God. Over and over God is said to wish all to come to Him. In fact, the very reason that the Shepherd was written was because God wanted to give his servants more time to repent and be saved.  

[1] Shepherd of Hermas  6:4-8:
For after you have made known to them these words which my Lord has commanded me to reveal to you, then shall they 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.  5 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.  6 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.  
7 Stand steadfast, therefore, ye who work righteousness, and doubt not, that your passage may be with the holy angels. Happy ye who endure the great tribulation that is coming on, and happy they who shall not deny their own life.  8 For the Lord hath sworn by His Son, that those who denied their Lord have abandoned their life in despair, for even now these are to deny Him in the days that are coming. To those who denied in earlier times, God became gracious, on account of His exceeding tender mercy.
[2] Holmes, Michael. The Apostolic Fathers. 3rd edition. 443
[3] Bigg, Charles. The Origins of Christianity. 1909. 81
[4] Chapter 31
[5] “That there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.”
[6] See 75:1 where there are those who believe but do not do the works of faith and 76:3 where some believe but are doing the works of lawlessness. It is stated that they never fell way from God, but if they do not repent they will die.
[7] This is assumed throughout the entire work. Hermas brings the message of repentance to the Church, and those who repent are saved, while those who do not will die. See the Parable of the willow tree, which starts in chapter 76, for a great example of this.
[8] I think it is worthy of a full quote:
"First of all, sir," I said, "explain this to me: What is the meaning of the rock and the gate?" "This rock," he answered, "and this gate are the Son of God." "How, sir?" I said; "the rock is old, and the gate is new." "Listen," he said, "and understand, O ignorant man.  2 The Son of God is older than all His creatures, so that He was a fellow-councilor with the Father in His work of creation: for this reason is He old." "And why is the gate new, sir?" I said.  3 "Because," he answered, "He became manifest in the last days of the dispensation: for this reason the gate was made new, that they who are to be saved by it might enter into the kingdom of God.  4 You saw," he said, "that those stones which came in through the gate were used for the building of the tower, and that those which did not come, were again thrown back to their own place?" "I saw, sir," I replied. "In like manner," he continued, "no one shall enter into the kingdom of God unless he receive His holy name. 
5 For if you desire to enter into a city, and that city is surrounded by a wall, and has but one gate, can you enter into that city save through the gate which it has?" "Why, how can it be otherwise, sir?" I said. "If, then, you cannot enter into the city except through its gate, so, in like manner, a man cannot otherwise enter into the kingdom of God than by the name of His beloved Son.  6 You saw," he added, "the multitude who were building the tower?" "I saw them, sir," I said. "Those," he said, "are all glorious angels, and by them accordingly is the Lord surrounded. And the gate is the Son of God. This is the one entrance to the Lord. In no other way, then, shall any one enter in to Him except through His Son.  7 You saw," he continued, "the six men, and the tail and glorious man in the midst of them, who walked round the tower, and rejected the stones from the building?" "I saw him, sir," I answered.  8 "The glorious man," he said, "is the Son of God, and those six glorious angels are those who support Him on the right hand and on the left. None of these glorious angels," he continued, "will enter in unto God apart from Him. Whosoever does not receive His name, shall not enter into the kingdom of God." 
"And the tower," I asked, "what does it mean?" "This tower," he replied, "is the Church."  2 "And these virgins, who are they?" "They are Holy Spirits, and men cannot otherwise be found in the kingdom of God unless these have put their clothing upon them: for if you receive the name only, and do not receive from them the clothing, they are of no advantage to you. For these virgins are the powers of the Son of God. If you bear His name but possess not His power, it will be in vain that you bear His name.  3 Those stones," he continued, "which you saw rejected bore His name, but did not put on the clothing of the virgins." "Of what nature is their clothing, sir?" I asked. "Their very names," he said, "are their clothing. Every one who bears the name of the Son of God, ought to bear the names also of these; for the Son Himself bears the names of these virgins.  4 As many stones," he continued, "as you saw |come into the building of the tower through the hands¦ of these virgins, and remaining, have been clothed with their strength.  5 For this reason you see that the tower became of one stone with the rock. So also they who have believed on the Lord through His Son, and are clothed with these spirits, shall become one spirit, one body, and the color of their garments shall be one. And the dwelling of such as bear the names of the virgins is in the tower." 
6 "Those stones, sir, that were rejected," I inquired, "on what account were they rejected? for they passed through the gate, and were placed by the hands of the virgins in the building of the tower." "Since you take an interest in everything," he replied, "and examine minutely, hear about the stones that were rejected.  7 These all," he said, "received the name of God, and they received also the strength of these virgins. Having received, then, these spirits, they were made strong, and were with the servants of God; and theirs was one spirit, and one body, and one clothing. For they were of the same mind, and wrought righteousness.  8 After a certain time, however, they were persuaded by the women whom you saw clothed in black, and having their shoulders exposed and their hair disheveled, and beautiful in appearance. Having seen these women, they desired to have them, and clothed themselves with their strength, and put off the strength of the virgins.  9 These, accordingly, were rejected from the house of God, and were given over to these women. But they who were not deceived by the beauty of these women remained in the house of God. You have," he said, "the explanation of those who were rejected."
[9] 89:4
[10] For the virtues the Shepherd lists, see chapter 92. It is a very similar list to 2 Peter 1:5-11
[11] 90:2
[12] 90:7-9


  1. can you email me at I have some questions for you about the shepherd of hermas

  2. This little book saved my life, it is as if God showed me I had it all wrong, and the way I thought was missing the mark. I've heard on the radio about some would say its okay to sin, here it clearly shows us sin has no place for the believer. Or even to think its acceptable as many in the faith think, here it says, we should grieve. Message me. JohnCamping FB or

  3. What is interesting about the Shepherd of Hermas is that it is devoid of modern Protestant theology, also the modern idea of vicarious atonement (that dates from the 11th century onwards), and shows that early Christianity was one of spiritual ethics in one's life (not one of just belief alone). It is also completely devoid of modern trinitarianism. This latter aspect I found very interesting upon a reread of the work. I discuss it in "The Ancient Christology of the Shepherd of Hermas" - in the context of what the early Church believed before the Nicene Creed.