Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Question of Penance and the Shepherd of Hermas

Reading N°51 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

During the latter part of the second century, four great problems claimed the attention of those who belonged to the Church and of those who regarded her with religious curiosity from without: a moral problem, a philosophical problem, a dogmatic problem, and an apologetic problem. Hermas, St. Justin, St. Irenaeus, and Tertullian successively broached these four problems.

The Church, expanding among the Gentiles, opened her arms wide to the converts from paganism, to converts whose former life was often voluptuous or frivolous. She thus assimilated elements that were less pure than those of her first days. The virtue of the neophytes was not sustained by the enthusiasm which marked that early period. Less frequent and less powerful were the mystical graces which at first Providence bestowed upon the Christians so lavishly. Christian communities now counted in their ranks some criminals, murderers, adulterers, and apostates. Could such offenses be blotted out by penance?

Two extreme opinions came to light. By an excusable exaggeration, many of the early Christians had imagined that Baptism and the Eucharist conferred a sort of impeccability. Did not God's gift have the power of communicating an incorruptible life? And was it possible that a rational man, permitted to nourish his soul upon his God, would reach such an excess of ingratitude as gravely to offend Him thereafter? Therefore, when these Christians witnessed the first apostasies, they saw only one possible penalty for the abominable defection: exclusion from the Church, malediction, or at least abandonment of the guilty one to God's justice. These Christians took in strict literalness the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews:
It is impossible for those who were once illuminated [by baptism], have tasted also the heavenly gift [of the Eucharist], and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost [...] and are fallen away, to be renewed again to penance. [...] For the earth that drinketh in the rain which cometh often upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is tilled, receiveth blessing from God. But that which bringeth forth thorns and briers is reprobate and very near unto a curse, whose end is to be burnt.[1]
But the harshness of such a solution provoked a radical reaction. Self-styled doctors held that every fault of a Christian should be regarded as indifferent. Did not the disciples of Carpocrates teach that man is saved by faith and charity, and that the rest does not count?[2] Did not certain Valentinians declare that once anyone has recognized the rights of the Holy Spirit over the spirit, the flesh should be given its rights?[3] These doctrines, slowly trickling into the mass of the faithful, appeared to many to be the true solution.

As usually happens, the clear declarations and the decisive tone of such teaching made converts among the people, ever ready to prefer a shocking doctrine that is asserted with clearness and force to a prudent doctrine which employs shades of difference in its formulation.

Weak but sincere souls that had yielded to sin, or feared they might yield, suffered unspeakable agony. From what he had seen with his own eyes, St. Irenaeus gives us a picture of those "who have their consciences seared as with a hot iron. [...] Some, in a tacit kind of way, despairing of attaining to the life of God, others have apostatized altogether; while others hesitate between the two courses, being neither without nor within."[4]

Between the years AD 140 and 154, according to the conjectures of the best critics, there appeared at Rome a book that aimed to bring peace to troubled consciences, to refute the two radical doctrines, and to offer a prudent solution to the problem, in conformity with the Gospel spirit of justice and mercy. This book was entitled Poimen (Shepherd), and was written by a brother of Pope Pius I. Its style was simple, figurative, and popular.

The author first relates his own history. He was born in slavery, sold by his master to a Roman matron named Rhode, later freed by her, and then married. He acquired a large fortune in business, but at the same time lost both faith and virtue. Chastised by God, and stripped of his riches, he had, he says, the grace to bow beneath the hand of the Lord who struck him. But, while he was plowing on a small farm, at the gates of the city, an angel of God appeared to him in the form of a shepherd. This angel gave him certain counsels of morality which he was to communicate to his brethren.

These counsels are divided into three books: the book of the Visions, the book of the Similitudes, and the book of the Precepts or Commandments.

Hermas is not a controversialist, but an apologist, in the sense that he wishes to defend the Church and make her loved. What he desires is to confound the hypocrites and the wicked and reject them so that, being thus purified, "the Church of God shall be one body, one mind, one spirit, one faith, one love."[5] A single inspiration runs through the whole work - to give hope of salvation to the fallen Christian. Its general subject is "the pardon of sins after a sincere repentance." He says:
The Lord bears no malice against those who confess their sins, but is merciful.[6]
Every fault is remissible, according to Hermas. Neither murder nor adultery nor apostasy - the three sins that some later on wished to exclude from pardon - is reserved. Yet the author attaches two conditions to the pardon: the penitent, once converted, must afflict his soul, humble and purify himself;[7] the penitent can be converted only once.[8] Hermas seems to say also that this pardon is only an exceptional grace accorded merely in view of the proximate end of the world.[9] This moral doctrine of the Shepherd was received in the middle of the second century as a voice of mercy. Today it seems severe. But, to appreciate it, we must put ourselves in spirit in the times when this work appeared.[10] In a period when martyrdom was threatening every Christian, a popular sermon, as Hermas' book really was, without aiming at too great theological exactness, gave Christians to understand that all were required to possess their soul in readiness for heroism.

Hermas is not theologically precise, either when he speaks of the end of the world, which he supposes to be imminent, or when he discourses on the Trinity, which he seems to grasp but poorly. But he loves and venerates the Church with his whole heart. It is, he says, the first of all creatures; for it the world was made;[11] it is established upon the Son of God as upon a rock, and belongs to Him as to a master.[12] And it is a hierarchical church, with its various chiefs, bishops, priests, deacons, apostles or missioners.[13] Its function is to teach the faithful, to train the elect.[14] This sole Catholic Church, superposed upon the local churches and including them all, has a supreme head. When the aged woman who stands for the Church appears to Hermas, she hands him a book; and Hermas is directed to bring this book to Clement, the head of the Church of Rome, who will see that it reaches "the cities abroad."

The Shepherd of Hermas spread rapidly among the faithful. Its diffusion is attested by St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, St. Cyprian, by several Latin versions, and by an Ethiopic version. Some churches even included it, with the Epistle of St. Clement to the Corinthians, in the canon of their sacred books.


[1] Hebrews 6:4-8.
[2] St. Irenaeus, Haereses, I, xxv, 5.
[3] Ibidem, I, vi, 3.
[4] Ibidem, I, xii, 7.
[5] Hermas, Similtudes, IX, xviii, 4.
[6] Ibidem, IX, xxiii, 4.
[7] Ibidem, IX, xxiii, 5.
[8] Precepts, IV, i, 8; iii, 6.
[9] Visions, I and II; cf. III; Similtudes, VIII, ix, 4.
[10] A. d'Alès ("La discipline pénitentielle d'après Ie Pasteur d'Hermas," in the Recherches de science religieuse, 1911, pp. 105-139, 240-263) says: "Hermas' work is not an official document, but a private document of very great worth, because it naively reflects the preoccupations of the pastors of the Roman Church in the second century, and the expedients of their zeal. [...] We can understand that it was judged inopportune to enumerate, for catechumens, the opportunities they might have for being reconciled to God, should they fall into sin after Baptism. For Christians who have fallen into sin after Baptism, specifically to adulterers and apostates, or idolaters, the Shepherd offers, for one time, on condition of penance being performed, divine pardon, and also - as is evidenced throughout the book - reconciliation with the Church. At the same time, it took pains to warn them that this favor would not be repeated. For those who fell again after a first reconciliation, we cannot see what the Shepherd offered; but doubtless it did not leave them without hope. Whatever the severities of the Shepherd for the δίψυχοι, one thing stands out clearly in the book, namely, that whoever is willing to do penance can again enter into favor with God."
[11] Visions, II, iv, 1. Cf. I, i, 6; III, iii, 3-5.
[12] Similitudes, IX, xii, 1, 7 f.
[13] Visions, II, ii, 6; II, iv, 3; III, v, 1.
[14] Ibidem, III, ix, 7-10.


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