The Shepherd Of Hermas And The Shape Of Christian Allegory

Despite the tedious and somewhat repetitive nature of the Shepherd of Hermas, it did have a powerful role on the trajectory of Christian literature in large part due to its popularity.  That importance is serving as the initial Christian allegory, a form that would be taken up by a variety of authors [1].  In the Shepherd of Hermas, the allegory is that the church of God is pictured as a tower with various stones that are symbolic of different sorts of people who come into contact with God’s ways, with a variety of different qualities and fates.  To be sure, it should be noted that there had been plenty of symbolism in previous writings, particularly in biblical prophecy.  Other writers had previously or were then allegorizing the Bible, like Barnabas in his execrable epistle.  Yet with the Shepherd of Hermas we see for the first time an artificiality about the symbolism that makes the work a new genre of literature for Christian writings.  There are few volumes that can claim to be the first of anything, and so that alone makes the Shepherd of Hermas a striking and notable work worthy of reflection.

How was it that the Shepherd of Hermas would influence later writers?  The allegory, once its usefulness for writing became apparent, would be used by a variety of writers for a variety of purposes.  Bunyan, that giant of English nonconformism, wrote the classic Pilgrim’s Progress, which is a superior allegory that focuses on the path of an individual believer named Christian from an ordinary life into the kingdom of God after many trials, and later on a sequel was penned in which his wife and children likewise came to what was considered a ‘saving faith.’  Pilgrim’s Progress is perhaps the most notable Christian allegory of all time, it is certainly a classic piece of Christian literature that is worthy of the praise heaped on it and for its status as one of the most important books in the education of people at least through the middle of the 19th century.  Even to this day, Pilgrim’s Progress remains a book that is well worth knowing and reflecting upon given the false gospels that are so prevalent in our own time.  We may consider the Shepherd of Hermas to be a distant ancestor of the superior Pilgrim’s Progress, and that fact too must raise the Shepherd of Hermas in our stature, even if it is a collective allegory rather than an individual one.

There are certainly other allegorical treatments that the Shepherd of Hermas perhaps indirectly influenced, although most of these focus on the individual rather than collective aspects of Christian allegory.  For example, C.S. Lewis once memorably wrote an allegory (itself based on Pilgrim’s Progress, and therefore only indirectly from the Shepherd of Hermas) about his own return/regress to Christianity after a period of militant atheism.  Other professed Christians have sought to use the allegorical form of writing to legitimize the godliness of merchants as well as monks, pointing to the way in which people who are successful at business can serve God as ably in their own estimation as those who have a vocational call to serve God’s people.  Still others have taken the world of Christianity and viewed the church as a nation, and viewed the schisms of the church as civil wars and coup attempts and partisan uprisings in that nation, as did at least one writer who shall remain nameless with the recent history of the Church of God in a lengthy allegorical play.  Many others could be listed, but these happen to be the major ones I have come across myself, and they demonstrate that allegory remains a viable genre for Christian writers.

What did the Shepherd of Hermas do as literature to shape the future of this genre?  For one, from the beginning, the Shepherd of Hermas viewed the Christian life as being imbued with enough seriousness and enough importance to be viewed from another perspective.  The struggles that Christians face in being joined and fitted with other believers was worth seeing the Church as a massive tower being built by God, of which many stones were quarried and not all of the stones will be used.  Even among those stones which are eventually added to the tower, some of them will require drastic work in order to fit in with the other stones of the tower.  Likewise, when we see allegories like Pilgrim’s Progress or Pilgrim’s Regress, we see that writers viewed the individual path of someone into what they viewed as salvation as being worth extended effort at writing about, in the likelihood that other people reading it could identify with the struggles and epic journey of believers.  Likewise, still others writing about matters of personal dignity would see the allegory as a fitting way of taking contemporary political struggles and working them into a discussion about first principles and presuppositions that seldom takes place in the real world.  Still others view the problem of divisions and schisms within the body of believers to be serious enough to be treated as a story of civil anarchy and internal warfare in what should be a unified and harmonious and well-governed state.  And so it goes.

It must be admitted, though, that the allegory is clearly an artificial and literary genre.  The vast majority of early Christian writings were (thankfully) nonfiction writings, and this was true in the Old Testament.  To be sure, there were motives and purposes other than merely historical writing in the biblical writings, but factuality was still an aspect of the writing.  Even with poetry the writers sought to record writing in solemn ways that would be easier to remember or sought to convey the emotional truth of their experiences in musical form.  But with the Shepherd of Hermas we see the first work of Christian fiction, a work in which we cannot be sure that the personal details included in the work actually apply to the author.  We may assume, for example, that he was married and had children and had been a former slave, but was he really attracted to his former mistress?  Did he really have any of the dreams he wrote about or were they all merely figments of his admittedly fertile imagination?  We cannot say.  Nevertheless, in opening the door to accepted Christian fiction as a whole, the author set the stage for what would be a very large amount of Christian fiction, some of which (like the Acts of Paul and Thecla) would be passed off as nonfiction until they were discovered with serious consequences for those who attempted to portray fiction as nonfiction.

Likewise, with the Shepherd of Hermas we have the first question of the appropriateness of Christian fiction in the case of literature.  We have mentioned that the Acts of Paul and Thecla was written as fiction but was passed off for a while as nonfiction.  This is clearly illegitimate.  Other cases of Christian fiction are satire or, here, as allegory, where the fictional nature is obvious from the choice of genre.  A similar case would be present for Christian novels or plays, where the genre itself betrays some sort of fictionality, even if there is an attempt to convey something realistic in the portrayal of the biblical past or of contemporary reality, for example.  In these cases, the popularity of the Shepherd of Hermas in the past set the stage for Christian fiction to be considered as legitimate.  Whether or not that legitimacy is something that everyone respects or agrees with at present is a different matter, or whether every work that labels itself as Christian is worthwhile is a very different matter, but at least some historical and traditional legitimacy for Christian fictional literature is a clear result of the writing Shepherd of Hermas and the reception that work received.  For a modest work as it was, that is a great deal of literary influence indeed.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to The Shepherd Of Hermas And The Shape Of Christian Allegory

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The Apostolic Fathers Series | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Are We Different Stones In The Same Building? | Edge Induced Cohesion

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