The Shepherd of Hermas’ Christology

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. I: The Beginnings of Patristic Literature, from the Apostle’s Creed to Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1983) 99-100.

The Shepherd of Hermas was an influential Christian document from the first-second centuries C.E. The church fathers were divided over its divine inspiration (see “Hermas”).

Quasten quotes Parable 5:6:5-7 of the Shepherd of Hermas, which pertains to the work’s Christology:

The pre-existent Holy Spirit which created all things did God make to dwell in a body of flesh chosen by himself. This flesh, in which dwelt the Holy Spirit, served the Spirit well in all purity and all sanctity without ever inflicting the least stain upon it. After the flesh had thus conducted itself so well and chastely, after it had assisted the Spirit and worked in all things with it, always showing itself to be strong and courageous, God admitted it to share with the Holy Spirit; for the conduct of this flesh pleased him, because it was not defiled while it was bearing the Holy Spirit on earth. He therefore consulted His Son and His glorious angels, in order that this flesh, which had served the Spirit without any cause for reproach, might obtain a place of habitation, and might not lose the reward of its services. There is a reward for all flesh which through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit shall be found without stain.

Quasten comments: According to this passage the Trinity of Hermas seems to consist of God the Father, of a second divine person, the Holy Spirit, whom he identifies with the Son of God and finally the Saviour, who was elevated to be their companion as the reward of his merits. In other words Hermas regards the Saviour as the adopted son of God as far as his human nature is concerned.

To be honest, I’m having a hard time understanding the Shepherd’s Christology. Here’s what I’m getting: There’s a Holy Spirit, who is the Son of God, and he created all things. God made this Spirit dwell in a body of flesh, the human Jesus. That flesh cooperated with the Spirit by keeping itself pure. God therefore rewarded this flesh.

The translation Quasten uses says that God “consulted His Son and His glorious angels,” and that somewhat stumped me, for it seems to imply that God asked his angels and the Holy Spirit who’d possessed Jesus’ flesh whether or not he should exalt Jesus, the human being. But my translations on BibleWorks (Lightfoot and APE, whatever that is) offer something different. Lightfoot has, “He therefore took the son as adviser and the glorious angels also…” This implies that the passage means God exalted the human Jesus to the status of adviser.

Yet, not so fast! In Hermas’ Parable 2:5:6-7, the master (God) consults his son on whether or not he should exalt the righteous servant to be the son’s co-heir. In Hermas’ Parable 5:5:2, the servant is identified as the Son of God. So I guess God has two sons: the Holy Spirit who dwelt in Jesus’ flesh, and Jesus the human being.

The Shepherd of Hermas’ Christology reminds me of Nestorianism, which was considered a heresy at the fifth century Council of Chalcedon. Nestorianism is the view that two separate natures (the divine and the human) dwelt inside of Jesus Christ. According to Nestorians, Jesus’ body (including all that made him a human being, such as his flesh and human soul) was something that clothed God the Word, Jesus’ divine nature. And the two were separate: Jesus’ human nature didn’t know when the Son of Man would return (Mark 13:32), for example, but his divine nature did, being omniscient (see Theodoret the Nestorian vs. Cyril the Monophysite). Similarly, the Shepherd of Hermas treats the human Jesus as a container for the Holy Spirit, the Son of God who created all things.

In a vague sense, the Shepherd of Hermas also reminds me of the heresy that “Christ” came upon the human Jesus at his baptism. But I’m not sure if I’d go that far. For one, the Shepherd of Hermas never says that the Holy Spirit came upon the human Jesus at his baptism. Still, I do wonder how the book would handle Mark 1:10, which presents the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove when he was baptized. I mean, if the Shepherd of Hermas thinks that Jesus’ divine nature was the Holy Spirit, whom he defines as the Son of God who created the universe, then when would the Shepherd place that Holy Spirit taking his residence within Jesus: at his birth? At his baptism? As far as I know, he doesn’t say, but I do wonder.

Second, the heresy that “Christ” came upon the human Jesus at his baptism also said that the “Christ” left Jesus right before his crucifixion. That would indicate that the divine “Christ” did not suffer. But I’m not sure if the Shepherd of Hermas would say that, since he maintains that the Son of God suffered trials and purged the sins of the people (Parable 5:6:2-3). But who knows? He seemed to believe that there were two sons of God: the Holy Spirit who created all things and came to inhabit Jesus, and Jesus the human being who cooperated with the Holy Spirit. Is he talking only about the latter when he says the son suffered, or does he think that the Holy Spirit suffered too, being a part of Jesus?

In any case, the Shepherd of Hermas has an interesting trinity, if I’m understanding his Christology correctly. You have God the Father, the Holy Spirit who created all things, and Jesus, who was exalted because of his obedience to the Holy Spirit who inhabited him. According to Quasten, the Shepherd thinks Jesus became part of the Godhead at his exaltation.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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