So I have this 10 volume collection of writings by the Ante-Nicene Fathers (the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325) that I’ve been carrying around with me for several years. I bought them from a library that was about to discard them and over the years I have used them occasionally as I’ve studied and prepared for sermons. A couple of years ago I finally challenged myself to actually read through them all. I got through the first volume before we moved again, and so they went into boxes, were moved, were unpacked, and then placed on new shelves – and my challenge was, not quite forgotten, but put on hold. I’d lost my inertia.
But now I’m back to it, starting into volume 2 with The Shepherd of Hermas (or, as this particular translation titles it The Pastor of Hermas – for the word “pastor” means “shepherd”…) It is a weird and interesting book, divided into three sections – 1) a series of 5 apocalyptic visions 2) a series of 12 commandments and 3) a collection of 10 Similitudes or ‘parables.’ The eponymous “Shepherd” (“Pastor”) is sent to Hermas by “a most venerable angel” to stay with him and instruct him.
Hermas frequently frustrates his shepherd with an overwhelming number of questions. Repeatedly the Shepherd chides him and warns him about asking so many questions, but each time he relents and answers them for Hermas.
And what I find fascinating to think about is how close The Shepherd of Hermas came to being included in our collection of scripture. The Muratorian fragment (~ 3rd century) – a copy of the oldest known list of the books of what is now called the New Testament – included The Shepherd. It was one of the most popular Christian writings between the 2nd and 4th centuries - but, though popular and well received, not everyone accepted it as divinely inspired. Origen described it as “a work which seems to me very useful, and, as I believe, divinely inspired.” (Comm. in Rom. 10.31, written about 244-6) Tertullian rejected it with scorn as ‘apocryphal’.
But by the time that the Canon (as we have it today) was being formulated, The Shepherd of Hermas had fallen out of favor somewhat. The Church historian, Eusebius, listed three categories for Christian writings then in existence: 1) Those writings universally accepted without dispute 2) those that are disputed and 3) those writings that are ‘spurious.’ Eusebius put The Shepherd in the third group. Though it was widely read by Christians it failed to make the cut as scripture – probably because it has no clear connection to any of the apostles.
But how different might Christianity have been had it been included in the canon? Would children memorize its verses in Sunday School class? Imagine the kids squirming at the front of the chapel as they recite together, “First of all, believe that there is one God who created and finished all things, and made all things out of nothing.” Would it be included in the lectionary readings? Would preachers use it as the text for their sermons? Imagine the pastor expounding upon these lines, “Fear the Lord, and keep His commandments. For if you keep the commandments of God you will be powerful in every action, and every one of your actions will be incomparable. For, fearing the Lord, you will do all things well.” Would the eschatological scaremongers like Jack Van Impe and John Hagee have used its description of the tribulations to come? “But the sun now shone out a little, and lo! I see a mighty beast like a whale, and out of its mouth fiery locusts proceeded. But the size of that beast was about a hundred feet, and it had a head like an urn.”
And how might our Christology have been affected? The Shepherd of Hermas seems to have an “adoptionist” understanding of the divine nature of Jesus – that is, that he was given the preexistent Holy Spirit of God, and made co-heir with the Spirit, by God the Father because of his virtue and obedience.