The second vision that Hermas receives comes a year after his first. The old woman returns with another book (message) for him this time to copy down, which he does diligently, except it’s taken away from him the moment he finishes. So he prays and fasts for two weeks, and God then reveals to him what the writing was. His sons had been living unrighteous sinful lives and needed exhortation to repent. Similarly, his wife had an unrestrained tongue, committing sin through that. These weren’t words of flat-out condemnation, though, but of warning and assurance that repentance will be accepted. In fact, just hearing this message is predicted to be enough to turn their hearts back to God.
In the next breath, though, we read this teaching: “For the Lord has sworn by His glory, in regard to His elect, that if any one of them sin after a certain day which has been fixed, he shall not be saved. For the repentance of the righteous has limits.” This reflects (and was probably cited to support) a common idea in the early church that if a Christian sinned after being baptized, his salvation was in serious danger. The logical result of this doctrine was to get baptized very late in life, or even on one’s deathbed. Many people (such as Emperor Constantine) followed this pattern. But as time went on, and the canon of the New Testament was sorted out, this pattern declined and infant baptism became the norm instead. Anyway, this idea – of Christians losing their salvation if they return to sin – probably stems from bits of the epistle to the Hebrews. This opens up the big scary theological debate regarding “eternal security” – that is, whether or not a Christian can lose his salvation. I don’t have a firm answer, myself, but I tend to gravitate toward Calvin’s idea that those who are true believers will never turn away, and those who do turn away were never true believers to begin with. But that’s all I dare say on this subject right now. Suffice it to say here that Hermas makes a statement pushing a rather extreme point of view on the subject that most of Christian tradition has moved away from since, and I’m glad this isn’t in the Bible!
Perhaps more important than the above debate is the next sentence of chapter 2 of this second vision: “but to the heathen, repentance will be possible even to the last day.” Although Christians are held very accountable for their actions, this does not take away from God’s mercy! Even the eleventh hour convert will be welcomed into God’s kingdom. That, at least, is excellent news and very true to the Gospel message of the Church.
The rest of this vision gets more general in its direction of the message. The old woman tells Hermas to take the message to all the presbyters (elders/priests) in his church, as an encouragement to persevere in living righteous lives, both in order to be good examples to the flock and in order to protect their own faith. Although the Bible, too, contains similar exhortations, Hermas seems to be taking on a stronger tone of human effort that my Evangelical sensibilities would usually like to accept. Where’s the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, working within us to make us able to stand worthy before the throne of grace?
The second vision closes (in its fourth short chapter) with an interesting revelation: the old woman is the Church. Why is she old, Hermas asks? “Because she was created first of all. On this account is she old. And for her sake was the world made.” This is not a commonly-looked-at teaching for Evangelicals, who usually view the Church as a gathering of human believers, rather than God’s assembled people with whom He dwells. The Church, as the New Israel, is the extension of God’s family in this age, and is the incarnation of Christ. One of the major themes of the Biblical quest for salvation is God seeking to dwell among his people again, and the Church as it exists today is the final step in this process before God in Christ returns bodily to the earth to rule over and with us for ever. So the Church now is simultaneously something we’re part of and something apart from us. Anyway, to say that “the world was made” for the church is a reflection of this truth: creation and the Church were meant to be synonymous – one big Temple where God dwells alongside creation.
Finally, Hermas is instructed to pass on these words to various leaders in the church around him, who are to pass on the message to others in turn. There is also the promise of more writings, likely setting up the fact that there will be more visions (and commands and parables) to be compiled. And so there shall be…