Catholic Elements in the Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd of Hermas, also called the Pastor, is a an early Christian tract that portrays the Church as a body of living stones fitted together to construct the Tower of God. It’s composition is dated between 85-150; it was early enough that some Fathers (Irenaeus, Origen) call it “scripture.” It is largely hortatory in nature, utilizing the vision of the Church as a tower to exhort believers to a life of piety and penance in order that they might maintain their place within the edifice. The images come in the form of a vision related to a Roman slave named Hermas. Though the book presents its teaching in the form of a vision, it is believed the vision is literary and not meant to be a record of an actual apparition—although there is no harm in taking the latter view. In this article, we will cover the main points of the Shepherd of Hermas and highlight some points that evidence a particularly Catholic theology. The purpose of this is two-fold: To edify those who love the Faith, as well as to demonstrate the Catholicity of the early Church to those who deny or question it (i.e., Protestants). The Shepherd demonstrates a character that is strongly and irrefutably consonant with subsequent Catholic theology.

Temporal Punishment for Sin in the Shepherd

A predominant image in the visions is that of the Tower, which represents the Church. The individual stones in the tower represent the individual believers who make up the Church, calling to mind St. Peter’s reference to Christians as “living stones” [1]. Many of the visions concern the various sorts of stones that compose this tower, their characteristics, and whether or not stones that are rejected or cast out for various reasons can be reintegrated into the structure—i.e., the question of repentance and full restoration after serious sin, which was a matter of intense debate in the early Church.

In keeping with the focus of this essay as highlighting the specifically Catholic nature of the Shepherd of Hermas, we must note a passage in Book I in which Hermas asks about repentance for those stones who were cast out of the tower but ultimately will be restored to their place. The response of the angel demonstrates a clear belief in a purgatorial process, or at least in the atoning nature of penitential acts:

Is repentance possible for all those stones which have been cast away and did not fit into the building of the tower, and will they yet have a place in this tower? Repentance, said [the angel], is yet possible, but in this tower they cannot find a suitable place. But in another and much inferior place they will be laid, and that, too, only when they have been tortured and completed the days of their sins. And on this account will they be transferred, because they have partaken of the righteous Word. And then only will they be removed from their punishments when the thought of repenting of the evil deeds which they have done has come into their hearts. But if it does not come into their hearts, they will not be saved, on account of the hardness of their heart.” (Book I.3.7)

The doctrine of purgatory is here in its fundamentals: those who have lapsed but repented can still be saved, but only after they have “been tortured and completed the days of their sins”, calling to mind the words of our Lord in Matt. 18:34, the debtor who was delivered to the torturers “until he should pay back what he owed.” The passivity of these individuals signifies the purgatorial state; notice the angel does not admonish them to do penance (something active), but rather stipulates a condition that will have to be endured (something passive). In other words, her statements indicate the “torturing” is something that the penitent must undergo, not a penance that is actively undertaken. This seems to suggest a purgation.

Still, the doctrine is imperfectly formed at this point; if it does refer to purgatory, the writer has only a vague conception of it, since he speaks of people “repenting of their evil deeds” while in this state of punishment. At any rate, the atoning nature of penance is affirmed, whether the penance is undertaken in this life or inflicted in the next. This is clearly not the Protestant concept of a “finished work” of Christ in which the penance of the believer is superfluous.

Another passage from the third book makes a stronger case that this “torment” takes place after this present life has ended, especially in that the duration of the “torture” is so much longer than the duration of the sins:

I said to him, Sir, explain this also to me. What is it you ask? he said. Whether, sir, I continued, they who indulge in luxury, and who are deceived, are tortured for the same period of time that they have indulged in luxury and deceit? He said to me, They are tortured in the same manner. [They are tormented much less, sir, I replied; ] for those who are so luxurious and who forget God ought to be tortured seven-fold. He said to me You are foolish, and do not understand the power of torment. Why, sir, I said, if I had understood it, I would not have asked you to show me. Hear, he said, the power of both. The time of luxury and deceit is one hour; but the hour of torment is equivalent to thirty days. If, accordingly, a man indulge in luxury for one day, and be deceived and be tortured for one day, the day of his torture is equivalent to a whole year. For all the days of luxury, therefore, there are as many years of torture to be undergone. You see, then, he continued, that the time of luxury and deceit is very short, but that of punishment and torture long. (Book III.6.4)

Christ the Good Shepherd, from the Roman Catacombs

Penance is not superfluous. Nor are good deeds superfluous in the life of the Christian. The Shepherd clearly teaches that, while the grace of justification cannot be merited, a Christian must maintain his place in the kingdom by good deeds, which help him “hold fast” to eternal life:

The deeds, then, of these are pure, and chaste, and divine. Whoever devotes himself to these, and is able to hold fast by their works, shall have his dwelling in the tower with the saints of God.” (Book I.3.8)

Indissolubility of Marriage

Another interesting aspect of the Shepherd is its affirmation of what we recognize as the Catholic belief in the absolute indissolubility of marriage. Many Protestants interpret Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:9 to mean that divorce and remarriage is not permissible except in situations where a spouse has committed adultery. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has always interpreted this verse to mean that while adultery may give justification for separation of bed and board, a validly married person can never remarry as long as their spouse is alive, even if they are physically separated [2]. In the following passage from Book II, we see this teaching fleshed out. Let’s take a look at this in its whole context:

“I charge you,” said he, to guard your chastity, and let no thought enter your heart of another man’s wife, or of fornication, or of similar iniquities; for by doing this you commit a great sin. But if you always remember your own wife, you will never sin. For if this thought enter your heart, then you will sin; and if, in like manner, you think other wicked thoughts, you commit sin. For this thought is great sin in a servant of God. But if any one commit this wicked deed, he works death for himself. Attend, therefore, and refrain from this thought; for where purity dwells, there iniquity ought not to enter the heart of a righteous man.”

I said to him, “Sir, permit me to ask you a few questions.” “Say on,” said he. And I said to him, “Sir, if any one has a wife who trusts in the Lord, and if he detect her in adultery, does the man sin if he continue to live with her?” And he said to me, “As long as he remains ignorant of her sin, the husband commits no transgression in living with her. But if the husband know that his wife has gone astray, and if the woman does not repent, but persists in her fornication, and yet the husband continues to live with her, he also is guilty of her crime, and a sharer in her adultery.” And I said to him, “What then, sir, is the husband to do, if his wife continue in her vicious practices?” And he said, “The husband should put her away, and remain by himself. But if he put his wife away and marry another, he also commits adultery.

And I said to him, “What if the woman put away should repent, and wish to return to her husband: shall she not be taken back by her husband?” And he said to me, “Assuredly. If the husband do not take her back, he sins, and brings a great sin upon himself; for he ought to take back the sinner who has repented. But not frequently. For there is but one repentance to the servants of God. In case, therefore, that the divorced wife may repent, the husband ought not to marry another, when his wife has been put away. In this matter man and woman are to be treated exactly in the same way. Moreover, adultery is committed not only by those who pollute their flesh, but by those who imitate the heathen in their actions. Wherefore if any one persists in such deeds, and repents not, withdraw from him, and cease to live with him, otherwise you are a sharer in his sin. Therefore has the injunction been laid on you, that you should remain by yourselves, both man and woman, for in such persons repentance can take place. But I do not, said he, give opportunity for the doing of these deeds, but that he who has sinned may sin no more. But with regard to his previous transgressions, there is One who is able to provide a cure; for it is He, indeed, who has power over all.” (Book 2.4.1)

A few things to notice: first, the angel clarifies the teaching of Christ by making the distinction that a man is permitted to separate not simply for an isolated case of adultery, but for a situation where the infidelity is persistent—that is to say, a spouse is not encouraged to separate from their partner simply because a spouse commits an individual sin, but only because of a habit of unrepentant adultery. Furthermore, note the emphasis that a man who leaves his wife is not to remarry. Though the angel gives practical reasons for this (i.e., so that the woman may have a window of time to repent and be reconciled), the question of whether or not to remarry is not considered a prudential one. The angel states that it is “an injunction” and specifically says that anyone who leaves his spouse and remarries, even for adultery, themselves commit the sin of adultery. This is the same teaching that has always been held by the Catholic Faith but which has always been denied by traditional Protestantism.

Shepherd of Hermas, Catacomb of San Gennaro, in Naples, Italy

Guardian Angels

The Shepherd also contains a clear teaching on the reality of guardian angels:

Hear now, said he, in regard to faith. There are two angels with a man— one of righteousness, and the other of iniquity.” And I said to him, “How, sir, am I to know the powers of these, for both angels dwell with me?” Hear, said he, “and understand them. The angel of righteousness is gentle and modest, meek and peaceful. When, therefore, he ascends into your heart, immediately he talks to you of righteousness, purity, chastity, contentment, and of every righteous deed and glorious virtue. When all these ascend into your heart, know that the angel of righteousness is with you. These are the deeds of the angel of righteousness. Trust him, then, and his works. Look now at the works of the angel of iniquity. First, he is wrathful, and bitter, and foolish, and his works are evil, and ruin the servants of God. When, then, he ascends into your heart, know him by his works.

 Look now at the works of the angel of iniquity. First, he is wrathful, and bitter, and foolish, and his works are evil, and ruin the servants of God. When, then, he ascends into your heart, know him by his works. And I said to him, How, sir, I shall perceive him, I do not know. Hear and understand said he. When anger comes upon you, or harshness, know that he is in you; and you will know this to be the case also, when you are attacked by a longing after many transactions, and the richest delicacies, and drunken revels, and various luxuries, and things improper, and by a hankering after women, and by overreaching, and pride, and blustering, and by whatever is like to these. When these ascend into your heart, know that the angel of iniquity is in you. Now that you know his works, depart from him, and in no respect trust him, because his deeds are evil, and unprofitable to the servants of God. These, then, are the actions of both angels. Understand them, and trust the angel of righteousness; but depart from the angel of iniquity, because his instruction is bad in every deed. For though a man be most faithful, and the thought of this angel ascend into his heart, that man or woman must sin. On the other hand, be a man or woman ever so bad, yet, if the works of the angel of righteousness ascend into his or her heart, he or she must do something good. You see, therefore, that it is good to follow the angel of righteousness, but to bid farewell to the angel of iniquity. (Book II.6.2)

We can see clearly the traditional Catholic idea of a guardian angel appointed to guide souls on towards the Kingdom of God. The angel in this vision also speaks of an angel “of iniquity” who tempts man. While it is certain that demons certainly do tempt mankind, it has never been Catholic doctrine that every man is assigned a particular demon by the devil to tempt him. Although, so long as we do not see the Shepherd as asserting a particular demon assigned to every soul, there is nothing wrong with the statements in the second paragraph, as all men at some point in their life are tempted by the evil one and his minions. Nevertheless, the theology in development here and the emphasis on Christians “knowing the works” of the two angels bears a remarkable resemblance to the doctrine of the discernment of spirits later formulated by St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Once Saved, Always Saved?

One interesting passage from Book II of the Shepherd illuminates a problematic text of Scripture. Hebrews 6:4-6 states:

For it is impossible for those who were once illuminated, have tasted also the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost have moreover tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, and are fallen away: to be renewed again to repentance, crucifying again to themselves the Son of God, and making him a mockery.”

This biblical passage has perennially confounded Protestants, who struggle with the obvious wording, which says it is “impossible” to be “renewed again to repentance” if they have fallen away. This seems to contradict the belief that God will forgive anybody who is truly sorry. Many early Christians also struggled with these passages as well; the Donatist heretics misunderstood this to mean that a Christian who had apostasized could never be restored to communion.

The passage is only problematic if we assume the word “repentance” to mean “saying sorry for your sins and being forgiven by God”, for how could God ever refuse to forgive someone who was truly sorry? The truth is that “repentance” does not here refer to the act of being penitent before God, but is a very early Christian term that refers to the Sacrament of Baptism, as does “illuminated”, which also appears in the passage above. The Shepherd of Hermas makes plain this identification of the term “repentance” with the Sacrament of Baptism. In fact, it would not be an overstatement to say that the passage from Hebrews is not understandable apart from a sacramental theology. Consider the following passage from Book II:

I said, I heard, sir, some teachers maintain that there is no other repentance than that which takes place, when we descended into the water and received remission of our former sins. He said to me, That was sound doctrine which you heard; for that is really the case. For he who has received remission of his sins ought not to sin any more, but to live in purity…The Lord, therefore, being merciful, has had mercy on the work of His hand, and has set repentance for them; and He has entrusted to me power over this repentance. And therefore I say to you, that if any one is tempted by the devil, and sins after that great and holy calling in which the Lord has called His people to everlasting life, he has opportunity to repent but once. But if he should sin frequently after this, and then repent, to such a man his repentance will be of no avail; for with difficulty will he live. And I said, Sir, I feel that life has come back to me in listening attentively to these commandments; for I know that I shall be saved, if in future I sin no more. And he said, You will be saved, you and all who keep these commandments. (Book II.4.3)

We can also see early on that repentance is associated with “descending into the water”; this clearly identifies repentance with baptism, demonstrating that to come to repentance means to come to baptism. But the text also speaks of one opportunity to repent after baptism. This refers to the Sacrament of Penance, which is an extension of baptism, the manner by which forgiveness of sins is extended throughout the duration of a Christian’s life. The passage reflects early Christian practice of administering the Sacrament of Penance but once, and after that, committing a penitent to an unspecified term of penance, which is why the angel says “with difficulty will he live.” The theology of the Sacrament of Penance is imperfectly worked out and the vocabulary is not firm. But the point is that one cannot come again “to repentance” simply because one cannot be baptized a second time. This is what the passage in Hebrews is really saying.

Once one has been “restored to repentance”, he has a duty to maintain his repentance by acts of self-denial, classic ascesis:

He who repents must torture his own soul, and be exceedingly humble in all his conduct, and be afflicted with many kinds of affliction; and if he endure the afflictions that come upon him, He who created all things, and endued them with power, will assuredly have compassion, and will heal him; and this will He do when He sees the heart of every penitent pure from every evil thing: and it is profitable for you and for your house to suffer affliction now. But why should I say much to you? You must be afflicted, as that angel of the Lord commanded who delivered you to me. And for this give thanks to the Lord, because He has deemed you worthy of showing you beforehand this affliction, that, knowing it before it comes, you may be able to bear it with courage.” (Book III.7.1)

In this we see a reiteration of what is taught in Acts 14:21, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” It is an affirmation of the Catholic teaching on the redemptive value of suffering, which is why the angel tells Hermas “it is profitable for you and your house to suffer affliction now.” For Protestants, suffering is typically either a mystery or something to be prayed against; Hermas and Catholic tradition teach us that suffering, whether self-inflicted in the form of penance or imposed upon us by Providence, is a manner in which the soul can shed itself of its earthly attachments and rise to the contemplation of God, “pure from every evil thing.”

Shepherd touches directly on the Calvinists idea of eternal security, better known as “once saved always saved.” Calvinists insist on this doctrine as the centerpiece of their theology, yet perhaps no doctrine of the Reformation era is so thoroughly debunkable by reading the Fathers. The Fathers clearly know nothing of this doctrine, and the Shepherd of Hermas is no exception. In speaking of the fate of those who have either fallen away and then repented or else were in the Church but relapsed, the Shepherd clearly teaches that salvation is contingent upon the choices we make, and that it can be truly lost once it has been gained:

“Some of them have repented, and there is still remaining in them,” he continued, a hope of repentance. And as many of them, he added, as have repented, shall have their dwelling in the tower. And those of them who have been slower in repenting shall dwell within the walls. And as many as do not repent at all, but abide in their deeds, shall utterly perish. And they who gave in their branches green and cracked were always faithful and good, though emulous of each other about the foremost places, and about fame: now all these are foolish, in indulging in such a rivalry. Yet they also, being naturally good, on hearing my commandments, purified themselves, and soon repented. Their dwelling, accordingly, was in the tower. But if any one relapse into strife, he will be east out of the tower, and will lose his life.” (Book III.8.8)

True repentance is possible, to those who “purify themselves”; but even if one has a place in the tower, if he “relapses into strife”, he will lose eternal life. This has always been the Catholic teaching, that mortal sin can truly destroy the charity that binds man to God and lead to the loss of one’s immortal soul.

Predestination and Free Will

Speaking of Providence, the Shepherd of Hermas gives us a fascinating insight into the manner in which its anonymous 2nd century author viewed a problem that would stir much theological debate in the Middle Ages and early modern period: predestination versus free will. The Thomists of the early modern period—while denying “double-predestination” of the Calvinists—admitted a predestination to grace ,and that who was predestined was determined by sovereign decrees of God made from all eternity, independent of any foreseen merits of any individual. This view was famously asserted by the Dominican theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange in his book Predestination. The other view, forwarded by many Jesuits and associated with Luis Molina (d. 1600), is that there is predestination to grace, but that God predestines based on the foreseen merits of individuals: that God knows what any individual would or would not do with a given grace and so gives it based on this foreknowledge of individuals’ free choices. This view is also preferred in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia (see here).

There are many arguments for and against both positions. The Shepherd of Hermas, however,  seems to take what would later be identified as the Molinist position, that God predestines based on foreseen merits:

Sir, I said, did not all these repent? He answered, To them whose heart He saw would become pure, and obedient to Him, He gave power to repent with the whole heart. But to them whose deceit and wickedness He perceived, and saw that they intended to repent hypocritically, He did not grant repentance, lest they should again profane His name. (Book III.8.6)

Salvific Power of Baptism

And how is salvation accomplished in the life of the believer? We know that he who would maintain his position in the tower must purify himself by persevering in good deeds. But how does one become a living stone in the first place? Not simply by faith, but by the Sacrament of Baptism, which literally restores life and brings man out of spiritual death, which is described as a “seal”:

Before a man bears the name of the Son of God he is dead; but when he receives the seal he lays aside his deadness, and obtains life. The seal, then, is the water: they descend into the water dead, and they arise alive. And to them, accordingly, was this seal preached, and they made use of it that they might enter into the kingdom of God. (Book III.9.16)

Clearly the water is not simply a symbol for the author of the Shepherd; it is the actual means through which a believer “obtains life.” The reference to baptism as a “seal” is interesting and may shed some light on a passage in Rev. 7:3 that refers to the angel of God “sealing” God’s servants on their foreheads. Later, of course, the seal (sphragis) of Christ came to be associated much more with Confirmation rather than Baptism. However, because Confirmation and Baptism were typically administered at the same time in the early Church, it is not uncommon to see the same vocabulary applied to both sacraments in patristic literature. It is not until the 3rd century that a unique vocabulary of Confirmation as distinct from Baptism starts to emerge, although one can still make a distinction between the two prior to this.

Problematic Passages in the Shepherd of Hermas

We have been highlighting some of the specifically Catholic aspects of the Shepherd of Hermas, that is, portions of the text that prove the authors held a distinctively Catholic theology. This is not to say the document is not without its problems. The Shepherd was popular for a time but was not widely quoted in the later patristic era. With the advent of more precise theological speculation in the 4th and 5th centuries, some of the formulas in the Shepherd may have begun to seem either too ambiguous or reeking of error.

Some passages, such a II.4.3 quoted above, can easily be taken in a Donatist manner. When the Shepherd says that there is but one chance to repent after baptism, it is uncertain whether this is to be taken in the sense we expressed above (i.e., that it was common for the Sacrament of Penance to be administered only once, and after that, sins had to be atoned by extended durations of penitence) or rather in the absolute sense the Donatists inferred (that there is no repentance or penitence that can atone for certain serious sins committed after baptism.) So there is some ambiguity as to the objective meaning of certain passages.

More serious is the Shepherd‘s defective pneumatology. The author of the work seems uncertain of the place of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity. This is not surprising; the great Christological and Trinitarian disputes of the patristic era were still almost two centuries off when the Shepherd was written. And a solid pneumatology was not worked out until the early Middle Ages. Still, the Shepherd apparently takes a view of the Spirit that few Catholics today would be comfortable with:

After I had written down the commandments and similitudes of the Shepherd, the angel of repentance, he came to me and said, I wish to explain to you what the Holy Spirit that spoke with you in the form of the Church showed you, for that Spirit is the Son of God. For, as you were somewhat weak in the flesh, it was not explained to you by the angel.”(Book III.9.1)

This may be a misunderstanding of 2 Cor. 3:17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit”, which has traditionally been taken to mean that Christ is present to us through the Holy Spirit, as is suggested in that very same verse where the Holy Spirit is referred to as “the Spirit of the Lord”; or in a more general sense, that the Lord is God, and the Holy Spirit, being God, is also to be called Lord. Orthodox Christianity, however, does not and cannot affirm the personal identification of the Son with the Spirit. The Shepherd seems to take the language of 2 Corinthians one step too far.

The Christology is also ambiguous. The following passage from Book III that refers to Christ as “older” than Creation can be interpreted in a manner either orthodox or Arian:

Listen, he said, “and understand, O ignorant man. The Son of God is older than all His creatures, so that He was a fellow-councilor with the Father in His work of creation: for this reason is He old.” (Book III.9.12)

What does it mean that Christ is “old”? Is He old simply in that He was created first by God, or in that He is co-eternal with God? Saying He was a fellow-councilor does not resolve the difficulty, since the Arians said as much: Jesus was the first creation of God, who after He was brought forth, together with God subsequently created the Universe. [3] Arians affirmed Christ as the first creation of God and that the Universe was created through Christ, but they did not affirm His co-eternity with the Father. That being the case, it is unclear in what sense the author of the Shepherd means that Christ is “old” or “older” than creatures. In traditional theology, even though God is before all His creatures, it is not fitting to refer to God as being “old” or “older” since He is not in any way subject to time, and “older” seems to imply an origin within the sequence of time.


The Shepherd of Hermas is not a perfect work. Even setting aside passages that are ambiguous or problematic, it is not the most engaging piece of patristic literature. It’s strength is not in its details, but in the broad ecclesiological vision it offers: the Church as a tower of living stones, each with its own proper place and shape, all fitted together to build an edifice for God. The various tangents the book explores on what happens to this or that stone if they repent or not, or do or do not manage to do sufficient penance are helpful in gauging the approach to discipline in the 2nd century Church. It is, ultimately, a book about the Church, and as such, should be of interest to any Catholic who truly believes that the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ.

[1] 1 Pet. 2:5
[2] The verse in question reads: “And I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery.” (Douay-Rheims)
[3] The Arians cited in support of this position the famous passage of Proverbs 8:22, “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made any thing from the beginning,” utilizing an interpretation of “possessed” that meant “created”, as many non-Catholic Bible do to this day.

Phillip Campbell, “Catholic Elements in the Shepherd of Hermas,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, July 17, 2013. Available online at: