As part of my reading plan this year, I have been reading the Apostolic Fathers, as compiled in this very helpful book edited by Michael Holmes. In the last couple of days, I have been working my way through The Shepherd of Hermas, written sometime in the early- to mid-2nd century AD. Hermas, the main ‘character’ in the document, initially receives some visions that convict him of his sin and the need to repent, and help him to grow in understanding, before he relays a variety of commandments also revealed to him.
What is interesting about Hermas is that in the process of receiving these visions, he finds himself unsatisfied. The more he receives, the more he wants. And not only does he begin to desire further revelations, but he also begins to ask for interpretations of the visions. At this point, the figures who reveal the visions to him begin to chastise him for these demands. In 18:8-91, we find this dialogue:
'These revelations are sufficient for you…' I answered him and said, ‘Sir, I ask only this one thing…that a complete revelation may be given.’ He answered me and said, ‘How long will you people lack understanding? Your double-mindedness causes you to lack understanding; indeed, you lack it because your heart is not set towards the Lord.'
A few chapters later, in 22:3, Hermas writes,
As I was walking by myself, I asked the Lord to complete the revelations and visions that he showed to me…in order that he might strengthen me and grant repentance to his servants who had stumbled.
Hermas is presented throughout as someone lacking in understanding and wisdom, and he seems to believe that simply by receiving these visions, he will gain the understanding he needs. Conspicuous in their absence as Hermas pleads for understanding are references to Scripture or the Church, and we are left wondering why Hermas effectively ignores these things in pursuit of further visions. I almost felt a sense of frustration as a result whilst I read the document.
Reading Hermas drew my mind to Luke 16:19-31, where Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus. After having died and gone to Hades, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family of where they will end up unless they too repent. Abraham replies that all they need to do is listen to the Law and Prophets, and that if they are not prepared to do this, not even the appearance of someone from the dead would convince them.
There is a fairly clear parallel with Hermas there, I think. Finding himself in a position of being made aware of his sin, and weak in his faith, Hermas longs for these revelatory visions, believing that if he can see just a little more, and a little more, he will have the understanding he needs to have his heart transformed and to know the truth in all its fullness. Like the rich man, though, he has in many ways already ignored Scripture and the Church. To be sure, he did not have the Bible like we have it today, but as a member of the church in Rome, and possibly even the brother to the mid-2nd century bishop there (according to Holmes’ introduction), he would have had access to the Scriptures, and whatever New Testament writings would have been circulating at that time already. Abraham’s statement in Luke 16:31 could easily be modified to apply to Hermas: 'If [he does] not listen to Moses and the Prophets, [he] will not be convinced even if [he receives several visions].'
Holmes notes that The Shepherd of Hermas, despite being such an enigmatic document, was quite popular in the Early Church. That is a bit of disturbing thought because of what it implies about the place of Scripture in the Church at that time. Perhaps more disturbing, though, is the way in which Hermas' spirit continues to operate in the Church today; not so much that we are looking for further visions and revelations, but that we so quickly turn away from the revelation already given to us in search of wisdom and guidance. The chastisement Hermas receives in 18:8, then (which Anglicans will clearly hear echoed in Article VI), is one we ought to heed whenever we pick up a Bible: 'These revelations are sufficient for you.'