I’m still teaching my summer class on the Apostolic Fathers. We just had a discussion in class about the Shepherd of Hermas. Hermas claims to have had lots of visions and appearances of angels (one in the form of a shepherd—thus the name of the work) who tell him what to do and what messages he should deliver to others. This work was apparently valued by some second, third, and fourth century Christians. The immediate problem we faced in class is that in chapter 59 (Sim. 5.6), Hermas demonstrates that he believes in views of Christ and the incarnation that are incompatible with biblical Christianity. (He is an early proponent of the view later called “adoptionism.” You can look it up in a theological dictionary if you need to.) His understanding of grace is also incompatible with the New Testament’s teaching on grace. He touts many other unusual ideas, but the two doctrines that make his work most troubling to me are his Christology and doctrine of grace (or lack of it!).
So how should we evaluate a work like this? Did Hermas actually see these visions? Did he actually have these angelic visitations? As a class we came up with three options, all three of which are unacceptable in some way:
Option 1: Hermas actually saw these visions and was visited by angelic beings. But when he wrote down what he saw and heard, he inserted his own unorthodox interpretations.
Problem: Chapter 59 (Sim. 5.6) where his most troublesome Christology is found is relayed directly by an angel. How could false doctrine be communicated by a true angel of God?
Option 2: Hermas actually saw these visions and was visited by angelic beings, but these “angels” were actually demons.
Problem: This work was viewed positively by many early Christians who were concerned about demonic counterfeits, including Irenaeus, Tertullian (for a while), and Clement of Alexandria. Surprisingly, even Athanasius, the champion of orthodox Christology quoted parts of it approvingly. None of them seemed to entertain the idea that the sources of Hermas’s writings were demonic.
Option 3: Hermas didn’t actually see these visions and was not actually visited by either angels or demons. He had a message he wanted to deliver (about repentance), and decided to employ an apocalyptic genre when he wrote. Apocalyptic literature was common—even popular—in certain circles by this point in history, and Hermas thought it would be a good form to use to communicate his message.
Problem: This would be an acceptable explanation if it were known by his readers that he was simply using a standard literary convention. But Christians who followed him seemed to value his writings in large part because they thought he had actually been instructed by real angels.
So, which of these is correct? The class was split; each of the three options was defended by someone during our discussion. I’m not comfortable with any of these solutions, nor were most of the people in the class by the end of the discussion. Is there anyone out there reading this who can think of an acceptable solution to this problem?