Note: This is posting #10 in a series on historical theology within the Christian church. To view other postings, please click here.
If there is any apostolic writing that was nearly accepted into our current Canon of Scripture, the Greek writing known as the Shepherd Hermas was it. With noted individuals like Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Tertullian, the Shepherd of Hermas was highly regarded and considered to be on the same level of the other writings of the day. Athanasius even accepted it as such at one point, although he would eventually reject it in his later years.
It should be of no surprise that the Shepherd of Hermas heavily emphasizes the moralistic nature of the Christian life. Because of the issues faced by the early church, most of the early church fathers’ writings promoted Christian virtues and the need to live within them, in a lifestyle manifested by nothing but good works. While it is quite clear that salvation does not come through ‘good works’ importance was placed on this subject because so many began to wander away from the moral implications of the Christian calling.
The writing claims to be that of Hermas, who was a former slave and now a shepherd. It was his claim that God gave him a series of visions that were to be preserved and passed onto the Christian community. As such, the book relies much on allegorical interpretations and is organized into a series of 5 visions, 12 commands, and 10 parables. While the commands and parables primarily center discussion on the Christian life, the visions are unique in that they focus heavily on the church.
In terms of theology, there is little to be gained by studying the Shepherd of Hermas. This simply was not the reason for the writing. Furthermore, what little theology is offered up is extremely disjointed and contradictory to the truth found within Scripture. Hermas attempts a high view of christology, but indicates that Jesus Christ is actually an incarnate of the Holy Spirit. In a similar discrepancy, the author suggest that God does not forgive endlessly, and therefore one must keep His commands. In fact, he goes so far as to say that God will forgive a person once after baptism. Of course, there is a natural reaction to teaching such as this. Fearful of losing one’s salvation, people would often wait until very near to death before being baptized, this way he or she could not be in as much danger for losing salvation.
Regardless of its lackluster account in theology and its overuse on allegory, the Shepherd of Hermas provides for us a glimpse into early thoughts on the Christian life, both corporately and individually. Furthermore, one is able to gain insight into the interpretation methods used by early Christians. Certainly, the writings contained within it must be verified against Scripture and should not be equated with the same level of truth found within the Bible, but at times it provides practical implications of the Christian life and definitely provides a sweeping view of early church history.
To read the Shepherd of Hermas online, please click here.