EarlyChurch.org.uk


Charles Bigg
The Origins of Christianity.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909. Hbk. pp.72-84.


CHAPTER VIII

HERMAS


Hermas the prophet speaks of Clement as presiding in his time over the Church of Rome. There is no reason to doubt that he is telling us the simple truth, or that the Clement whom he mentions is that Clement whose Epistle we have just been considering. His statement is confirmed by the fact that he refers to a persecution which had recently caused trouble in Rome, and one leading motive of the Pastor is to supply an answer to the question how the Church ought to deal with the lapsed. The persecution can hardly be other than that of Domitian.

It is true that the Muratorian Fragment, an ancient Latin Canon, the archetype of which may be as old as the second century, tells us that Hermas wrote the Pastor ‘quite recently’, while his brother Pius was Bishop of Rome. But this statement is more than doubtful. Hermas was a slave who had been brought to Rome and sold there as a child by the person who had reared him. He had been exposed by his parents and picked up out of the road by one of those persons who made a trade of collecting such waifs. Where he was born he does not say, but the cast of his mind does not strike the reader as either Italian or Greek; the most probable guess is that he came from the East. If he had any brothers, it is next to impossible that it should have been known who or what or where they were. A Phrygian or Syrian foundling had no more home or belongings than a piece of seaweed.[1]

The date given by the Fragment- the reign of Pope Pius may be loosely placed between 139 and 156—is not quite impossible. We might suppose that Hermas began to prophesy in the lifetime of Clement, and that his book was not published in its complete form until 140. But it is very

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improbable. He speaks of himself in his first vision as a middle-aged man with a grown-up family, and it is difficult to suppose that his prophetic activity endured for thirty or forty years more. A certain interval must be allowed for the amendment which followed the preaching of Hermas, and in the Ninth Similitude, which in its main features repeats the Third Vision, we are told that the building of the Tower is suspended for a time; in other words, the end of the world is no longer regarded as immediately impending. We may suppose that three or four years had elapsed. But the real point upon which critics differ is whether the account which the prophet gives of himself is truth or fiction. If it is true, there can be little doubt that the author of the Fragment had made a mistake. And why should Hermas not have told the truth? Everybody must have known who he was. And his self-drawn portrait, though quite lifelike, is by no means flattering.

Hermas is indeed a very singular personage. Apparently he had been suspected of undue familiarity with his former mistress, Rhoda, and certain touches in his book show that he felt that susceptibility to feminine influences which brought many of the Gnostics and many members of the orthodox Church into dangerous relations with enthusiastic women. He could not control his wife and children, and had allowed them to bring discredit upon his name and even to cause him pecuniary embarrassment. When he tells us of himself that he ‘had never spoken the truth in his life[2] we may look upon the words as a naïve exaggeration. But he can hardly be regarded as a moral hero. He was not intelligent and he was not well educated, and if he possessed any close acquaintance with Jewish or Christian Scriptures he certainly does not display it. If he was really brother to a bishop he must have been a trial to his relation. He cannot have possessed much authority in the Church, or his prophetic gift would have marked him out for the priesthood. He does not venture to say that he knew Clement, but sends him his book as though he were disinclined to approach him in person. Strange, solitary, weak, ignorant,

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ecstatic, inspired perhaps but not inspiring, despised as ineffective, yet claiming the power to speak almost as a master by right of his singular endowment—he could not have drawn this picture of himself unless it were true. His fate has been as unequal as his character. His book all but found a place in the Canon, but Tertullian, after he became a Montanist, could not believe that Hermas was a real prophet, and the Church at large could never quite satisfy itself that the Pastor was orthodox.

Nevertheless Hermas has great historical significance. He claims to be a prophet, and he will show us, therefore, what a prophet was. Again, the contents of his prophecy will set before us the thought that was in the mind of the Roman Church in his time, all the better because he was not by any means a man of original mind.

What, then, was the Prophet?

‘In the first place,’ says Hermas, ‘he that hath the Spirit which is from above, is gentle and tranquil and humble-minded, and abstaineth from all wickedness and vain desire of this present world, and holdeth himself inferior to all men, and giveth no answer to any man when inquired of nor speaketh in solitude (for neither doth the Holy Spirit speak when a man wisheth him to speak); but the man speaketh then when God wisheth him to speak. When, then, the man who hath the divine Spirit cometh into an assembly of righteous men who have faith in a divine Spirit, and intercession is made to God by the gathering of those men, then the angel of the prophetic spirit who is attached to him filleth the man, and the man, being filled with the Holy Spirit, speaketh to the multitude according as the Lord willeth.’[3]

The primitive Christians must have been sorely tempted to use the prophet as a substitute for the heathen Chaldean or soothsayer, going to him with money in their hands and requiring from him horoscopes, or answers to questions about their health, their journeys, their lost slaves, their dead friends. This abuse is here denounced. Those who wish to hear the oracle of God must expect only that message which the Spirit is pleased to vouchsafe. In particular, they must not imagine that the divine gift can be bought. Money

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they must not offer and the seer must not accept. Further, the prophet does not speak in church or in service-time, but in a special meeting of devout men. The assembled company unite in prayer for an outpouring of revelation; the Spirit, if He be so pleased, comes down upon His chosen vessel, the prophet falls into a trance and speaks what the Spirit wills. This was the usual method of Christian prophecy as it is described for us in the Book of Acts, and a hundred years later Tertullian gives us substantially the same account.

There is another remarkable passage. In the Third Vision the Church appears to Hermas as an aged lady seated upon a bench,-

‘and on the bench there lay a linen cushion, and on the cushion was spread a coverlet of fine linen of flax.’

She bids Hermas sit down upon the bench by her side. He replies, ‘Lady, let the priests sit down first. Do as I bid thee, saith she; sit down. When then I wanted to sit down on the right side, she would not allow me, but beckoned me with her hand that I should sit on the left side. As then I was musing thereon, and was sad because she would not permit me to sit on the right side, she saith unto me, Art thou sad, Hermas? The place on the right side is for others, even for those who have been already well pleasing to God, and have suffered for the Name’s sake.’

It seems clear that Hermas is here claiming a seat upon the linen-covered bench behind the altar, which was the official place of the bishop and priests. It is clear also that the Church of Rome did not allow this claim. Again, it is clear that Hermas was not aware that the government of the Church had ever been otherwise arranged than it was in his day. Neither he nor Barnabas has any knowledge of what has been called ‘the charismatic ministry’. Nor is any clear trace of such a ministry to be found in the first century except in the Epistles to the Corinthians. Even at Corinth the presbyteral constitution was by this time established.

We cannot say that it was established there when St. Paul sent his Epistles to Corinth. There is no trace in these Epistles of the activity, or even of the existence, of priests. At the same time the Church was in a state of extreme

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disorder, moral, liturgical, and doctrinal. Was it that the Church of Corinth had not yet received its destined organization? Was it that they had driven out their priests? Was it that the Apostle had deliberately tried there the experiment of a democratic fraternity? There were members of that Church who were strongly hostile to St. Paul; there were some who called themselves disciples of Ceplias. Were there two distinct churches in the city, one presbyteral, the other democratic? It is impossible to answer these questions satisfactorily. We know that except in the Pastoral Epistles, and except by a couple of words in the Epistle to the Philippians, St. Paul nowhere in his own writings recognizes the existence of commissioned officers in the Church, and that there was for long a coolness between him and the other Apostles, arising out of the dispute about Law, but necessarily involving the question of ecclesiastical government. It may be that for a time, and in certain churches where his influence was strong, St. Paul purposely left the conduct of affairs in the hands of the people themselves, and did not choose to establish a hierarchy. If so, the experiment failed, like the earlier experiment of socialism in the Church of Jerusalem; failed so completely that it vanished like smoke and left no trace behind. At the end of the first century nobody knows anything about a charismatic ministry.[4] The prophet remains here and there, a much venerated but solitary personage. Such an outburst of fanaticism as occurred at Corinth has never been witnessed since except at long intervals, in particular districts, and under stress of widespread excitement. We cannot judge these extravagances favourably, or build a theory upon them, or regret their disappearance.

We usually associate the prophet with a free and spiritual morality, and contrast him with the lawyer and Pharisee, who live by forms and precepts. It is therefore a remarkable fact that Hermas is more legal. more Jewish we may say, than any other of the group of writers to which he belongs. The figure which fills his mind is not that of Jesus; the name of Jesus does not occur in his book, and

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the Son of God appears only incidentally as a distant and formidable judge; but that of John the Baptist, Church discipline, the need, the conditions, the method of penitence - this is his theme from first to last. In the first section of his work he tells us how the Church came to him in the ~ guise of an aged and weary woman. She warns him of his own faults, of the faults of his brethren, of the nearness of the end, and of the pressing need of amendment before that day arrives. At each successive visit she appears to him as younger, fairer, and more gladsome, as she finds that her salutary admonitions are bearing fruit. In the Fourth Vision she comes to meet him as ‘a virgin arrayed as if she were going forth from a bridechamber, all in white and with white sandals, veiled up to her forehead, and her head-covering consisted of a turban and her hair was white’. Finally she departs, but sends another teacher in her place. ‘As I prayed in the house and sat on the couch,’ says Hermas, ‘there entered a man glorious in his visage, in the garb of a shepherd, with a white skin wrapped about him, and with a wallet on his shoulders and a staff in his hand. And he saluted me and I saluted him in return.’ But the visitor is not the Good Shepherd. Dear as was that type of the Saviour to the primitive Christians who sleep in the catacombs, it does not appeal to Hermas. His shepherd is the angel of repentance, and from him the whole book receives its name. The shepherd delivers to Hermas twelve Mandates or instructions on belief in the one God and on the rules of the Christian life, and certain Similitudes or Parables which repeat in slightly varied form the lessons of the Visions and Mandates.

Let us take as a sample the Third Vision, which is indeed the central point of the whole collection.

‘Look then,’ says the Lady, ‘dost thou not see in front of thee a great Tower being builded upon the waters of glistening square stones? Now the Tower was being builded foursquare by the six young men that came with her. And countless other men were bringing stones, some of them from the deep and others from the land, and were handing them to the six young men. And they took them and builded. The stones that were dragged from the deep they placed in

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every case, just as they were, into the building, for they had been shaped, and they fitted in their joining with the other stones; and they adhered so closely one with another that their joining could not possibly be detected; and the building of the Tower appeared as if it had been built of one stone. But of the other stones which were brought from the dry land, some they threw away and some they put into the building, and others they broke in pieces and threw to a distance from the Tower. Now many other stones were lying round the Tower, and they did not use them for the building; for some of them were mildewed, and others had cracks in them, and others were too short, and others were white and round and did not fit into the building. And I saw other stones thrown to a distance from the Tower, and coming to the way, and yet not staying in the way, but rolling to where there was no way; and others falling into the fire and burning there; and others falling near the water and yet not able to roll into the water, although they desired to roll and to come to the water.’

The Tower is the Church, which is being built upon the waters of baptism. The six builders are the six archangels; the men who hand the stones to them are angels of lower degree. The stones brought from the deep are the martyrs; the other stones which fit perfectly in their places are clergy, apostles, bishops, teachers, and deacons, of whom some have already fallen on sleep, others are still living. The stones from the dry land are the multitude of professing Christians. Some are penitent; these, with a little hewing, can be set in the courses; others desire to repent, but have not yet made amends. If they repent while the Tower is building they will be fixed in their places. ‘But if the building shall be finished, they have no more any place, but shall be castaways. This privilege only they have, that they lie near the Tower.’ The other stones are sons of lawlessness, hypocrites, they that knew the truth but did not abide in it, they that are not at peace among themselves, rich men who deny their Lord in time of persecution by reason of their riches, double-hearted men who think they can find a better way, men who fall into the fire of lust and are burned, men who seek for baptism but find the Christian life too hard. All these may repent, ‘but they cannot be fitted into this Tower. Yet they shall

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be fitted into another place much more humble; but not until they have undergone torments, and have fulfilled the days of their sins.’

There were teachers in the Church of Rome who insisted that those who after baptism had fallen into mortal sin, by which is meant specially apostasy or sexual impurity, could never be readmitted into the Church. Hermas himself regarded apostasy combined with delation, the offence of one who not only denied Christ but also betrayed his fellow believers, as unforgivable. For all other sinners, even for the apostate and the adulterer, he held that One Repentance was allowed. Only one, because a new persecution was coming soon which would bring with it the end of the world and the completion of the Tower. After that there is no more expectation of mercy. And grave offenders, even though they repented, could never attain to what was afterwards called the Beatific Vision. After long purgatorial suffering they might be admitted to one of the outer circles of heaven; they might be saved; but not crowned. If we ask what sin is, the prophet replies that it is self-indulgence; if we ask what self-indulgence is, he replies that it includes every action that a man does with pleasure; if we ask what is the appointed cure for the love of pleasure, he tells us that it is torment, measured out by a strict rule, thirty days of torment for each hour of pleasure.

Where did Hermas learn all this? Certainly not from the New Testament. Yet there are two or three dark verses in the New Testament which speak of the sin that hath no forgiveness. Hermas and his contemporaries have been brooding upon these, and labouring to interpret them with the help perhaps of Jewish apocalypses. They have drawn a sharp distinction between sins before and after baptism. The former, however enormous, are freely forgiven; the latter are never forgiven freely, never without punishment in this world or the next, perhaps are never forgiven at all. The extreme rigorists completely ignored the denial of St. Peter, but even Hermas was rigorous enough.

In these obscure speculations we find the germs of Asceticism, of Casuistry, of the sacrament of Penance, of

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the doctrine of Purgatory, and of the later schisms of Montanism and of Novatianism. We see also in Hermas the cause of these developments. The Church which he describes is by no means separate from the world; in every direction it melts away by easy gradations into the heathen society by which it is surrounded. There were many Christians who mixed very freely with the pagans, in their business, in their pleasures; many who more or less regularly attended the services of the Church, but could not make up their minds to receive baptism; many who thought that the Christian way was good, but that other ways led to very much the same goal. We cannot be surprised at this. It was impossible for the brotherhood to dig an impassable gulf between themselves and their neighbours. They dealt at the same shops; their children attended the same schools; there were mixed marriages; they met in social intercourse; they could not as a body decline to fulfil their civic duties; they were extremely anxious to gain converts, and therefore to explain and justify their position. Like all subsequent churches, the sub-apostolic included the enthusiast, the devout, the docile, the doubter, the regular or irregular conformist, the time-server, the moral weakling, the hypocrite. Human nature was no doubt the same then as now. The really remarkable thing is the general tolerance and good humour of the heathen. Owing to the free intercourse between the two camps it must have been perfectly well understood who were Christians and who were not; many of their peculiar habits were quite obvious; many of their doctrines must have been fairly well known. Yet upon the whole there was but little hostility. NaturaU~y there were some Christians who insisted upon the necessity of closing the ranks and driving out all but thoroughgoing believers; others took a more moderate view, but one still harsh; others remembered the parable of the Wheat and the Tares, and durst not quench the smoking flax. This diversity of opinion makes itself strongly felt in the following history, especially in times of persecution.

One more passage deserves notice as containing the first

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draft of another belief which in later times produced considerable results. In the Fifth Similitude we have a new version of one of our Lord’s parables. A slave is sent into the Vineyard with a definite command to fence it but to do nothing else. He easily accomplishes this task and, finding that there is still time, proceeds to dig the soil and to cleanse it of weeds. For this he is highly commended by the Master and made fellow heir with the Master’s Son. The parable is explained by the Shepherd:-

‘Keep the commandments of the Lord, he says, and thou shalt be well pleasing to God, and shalt be enrolled among the number of those who keep His commandments. But if thou do any good thing outside the commandments of God thou shalt win for thyself more exceeding glory, and shalt be more glorious in the sight of God than thou wouldest otherwise have been.’

The special service which is ‘outside the commandment’ and yet ‘very good’ is Fasting.

Hermas agrees with Barnabas that Christianity is a law, and that this law does not include the duty of fasting. But he considers that the law is imperfect, that it contains only a bare minimum of moral directions, that he who would please his Master must do in addition what he has not been commanded, nay, must do what he has been forbidden to do.

Where did Hermas find this notion? Not in the New Testament. Strange that this obscure and not very attractive writer should have set in motion a chain of causes that finally brought Luther into the field and broke up the unity of the Western Church.

As regards the hierarchy, Hermas speaks in the Second Vision of priests, of widows and orphans governed by a lady superior, and names Clement apart from and apparently as superior to them all. In the Third Vision we find apostles, bishops, teachers, deacons. In the Ninth Similitude we have ten righteous men of the first generation, twenty-five of the second, and thirty-five prophets and ministers of God. These are the saints of the Old Testament; they were instructed and baptized by the forty

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apostles and teachers who were sent down to them in Hades by the Son of God. By the apostles Hermas appears to mean the Twelve; by teachers the first evangelists. It is at best extremely doubtful whether he recognized men bearing the distinctive title of teacher in his own church. Further, we read here again of bishops and deacons. By the bishop we are to understand the priest-bishop, as in Clement.

There has been much discussion as to the exact meaning of Hermas; it may therefore be as well to observe that as he lived in the same city as Clement,. and, if not precisely at the same time, then a little later, the hierarchy described by Hermas can hardly be less developed than that described by Clement. In Clement’s epistle the priest-bishops and deacons already appear as divinely appointed clergy in the full sense of that word, and there is no reason to think that Hermas took any other view.

The theology of Hermas has been the subject of much debate, and it must be owned that the uncertainty is the fault of the writer himself. Hermas must have been acquainted with the Bible, but for some reason or another he never quotes directly from any book of the Old or New Testament. The only document which he cites by name is the prophecy of Eldad and Modad, and the form in which his creed is expressed is borrowed almost entirely from Jewish writings of the same character.

He does not mention the Eucharist. The sacrament of Baptism, on the other hand, is of such power and necessity that even the saints of the Old Testament could not enter the kingdom of heaven until they had received ‘the seal’ in Hades. It is called Baptism ‘into the Name of the Lord’, and ‘Lord’ throughout the Shepherd seems to be used in its ancient Hebrew sense. Yet the seal carries with it also the Name of the Son of God. Two Names at any rate must have been employed in the administration of the sacrament, and there is no need for supposing that the third was not also used. ‘Church’ is a word of the greatest significance in the eyes of Hermas. From the Church he receives his visions; she sends to him the angel of repen-

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tance; those who are not built into her have no place in the kingdom. ‘She was created before all things; and for her sake the world was framed.’ In the~ Eighth Similitude the great tree which overshadows the whole earth is identified with the Law of God, and again the Law of God with the Son of God.

But Hermas does not employ the word Jesus, or Christ, or Scripture, or Jew, or Christian. He nowhere speaks of a single incident in our Lord’s life, nor of His Death, nor of the Cross; the Resurrection is barely alluded to. The main article in the prophet’s creed is the Return to judgement. This, and the urgent need for preparation by repentance and good works, by fasting, and by readiness to suffer for the Name, are the thoughts that fill his mind.

Who is the Son of God? We see Him only in dim, occasional, terrible glimpses behind the persons of the angels. Four angels carry in the chair or bench upon which Lady Church is seated, but Hermas cannot see their faces because they are turned away; they are the four cherubim who bear the throne of God. Six angels build the Tower; they are the Archangels, the First Created, the Watchers of Enoch. Chief of them is Michael, the special guardian of the people of God. In the Ninth Similitude Hermas sees the six builders who come to inspect the building; in their midst is a seventh, ‘a man of such lofty stature that he overtopped the Tower. And the six men who superintended the building walked with him on the right hand and on the left, and all they that worked at the building were with him, and many other glorious attendants round him. And the virgins that watched the Tower ran up and kissed him, and they began to walk by his side round the Tower. And that man inspected the building so carefully that he felt each single stone; and he held a rod in his hand and struck each single stone that was built in.’ He is the Lord of the Tower, the Son of God; and even of the six glorious angels ‘not one shall enter in unto God without Him; whosoever shall not receive His Name shall not enter into the kingdom of God’. He is the Church, the Law, the Rock, the Gate. He is ‘older than all His creation, So that He became the Father’s adviser in His creation’.

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‘He was made manifest in the last days of the. consummation.’ He ‘cleansed the sins of His people by labouring much and enduring many toils. He showed them the paths of life, giving them the law which He received from His Father.’ ‘Thou seest, he says, that He is Himself Lord of the people, having received all power from His Father.’ The words which follow these in the Fifth Similitude have been taken to mean that the Son of God was ‘chosen as a partner with the Holy Spirit’ because of His good behaviour in the flesh, but they refer not to the Son but to the servant, that is to say to the believer.

The Son of God, then, according to Hermas, was agent of creation, bears the Name, was made ‘manifest’ in the flesh, is Saviour of angels, and Saviour by His labours and toils of men, is the Law and the Church, builds the Church by the instrumentality of angels, will return as Judge. This we may say is the theology of Hermas. The Holy Spirit is hardly recognized as distinct from the Son; the Father is hidden behind the Son, as the Son is almost hidden behind the angels.

If we attempt to compare the belief of Hermas with that of Barnabas or that of Clement we may easily go wrong, for not one of the three has given us more than a partial glimpse of his mind. But Hermas strikes us as very different from the other two, not so much in his points as in his estimate of values, in his way of seeing and feeling. The difference appears to be due to a strong Jewish infusion which affects the very substance of his thought. It may be that he was a Jew himself, it may be merely that he had lived in the Roman Ghetto and saturated himself with books and ideas that were current there. He lies rather outside the direct line of ecclesiastical traditions. But many of his most peculiar and least pleasing ideas were I destined to reappear and play a considerable part in the making of the Church. The bent of the later Church was in fact impressed upon it not by powerful or lucid thinkers, not by the great doctors, only in part by great organizing bishops. The movement came rather from obscure and uneducated enthusiasts of much the same type as Hermas.


[1] is the technical term for a child which had been exposed, picked up, and reared as a slave. See Pliny, Epp. 71, 72. He cannot have had a brother.

[2] Mand. iii.

[3] Mand. xi. 8, 9.

[4] Unless, of course, the Didache be regarded as a first-century document.


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