The third vision of Hermas is by far the longest – 13 chapters! Granted, in this book, a chapter is only about one long paragraph, but most sections are only a few chapters long, not thirteen. Anyway, I made sure to take notes along the way so I could sum it all up here.
The first two chapters describe the actual vision. A great tower is being built on water (or on an island surrounded by water), primarily by six strong young men. There are a host of other men helping, carrying stones from various places. All of the stones that get used are nice and square, fitting together perfectly. Some of them are white and polished, others are dug up from the depths of the earth, and others still are just ordinary, unpolished, cut stones. Some of the stones are discarded at various distances from the tower, sometimes near the water, sometimes into fire, and sometimes far away beyond the roads. There are also stones just lying around nearby which don’t seem to be useful – some polished white and round, some just normal.
Chapters 3-7 is where that old woman representing the Church (now looking much younger) explains to Hermas what all these things symbolize:
- the tower = the Church, and the stones = Christians (just like in I Peter)
- 6 young men doing the building = 6 angels
- other men carrying stones = lesser angels
- square polished white stones = apostles, bishops, teachers, & deacons
- stones from the depths = martyrs
- unpolished stones = God-approved faithful believers
- stones still being carried over = believers still young in their faith
- stones discarded near the tower = sinners who wish to repent
- stones thrown far from the tower = hardened unrepentant sinners
- stones just lying around = people who’ve been unfaithful so far
- round polished white stones = faithful but rich (needing to be cut down to size in order to fit!)
- stones thrown far beyond the roads = former believers who have gone after other religions/gods
- stones thrown into fire = those who’ve departed from God forever
- stones that fell near water (but not into water) = those who want to be baptized but don’t want to be chaste/faithful
This sounds like a decent imaginative elaboration of what Peter was describing in his first epistle when he said that we’re being “built together as living stones.” Of course, the way this explanation comes out is very revealing as to the author’s ecclesiology – what he believes about the Church. Once again he seems to have a strong emphasis on the idea that people can have saving faith and depart from it (something Catholics and Wesleyans affirm, and Calvinists reject). This can be rather unsettling for the Christian reader, but then again, the point of such an emphasis is to encourage Christians to persevere and not slack off in their faith. And along with this is a generous view of repentance – there is a lot of opportunity for people to turn to God, or return to God!
In fact, this generosity is so wide that, towards the end of chapter 7, when considering what happens when the tower’s construction is complete, it is stated:
Repentance 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.
So salvation (by faith!) is still possible even when the Church is fully built. What does this mean? At first I thought that it was inferring that people would have another chance to believe in God after they die, in a Purgatory-like place. But that’s not necessarily what the imagery suggests: completing the building of the Church probably has more to do with Christ’s return at the end of the age. I don’t have a very clear picture of what Hermas’ eschatology (end-times teaching) is like, but whatever it is, I’m pretty sure that the point being made here is that God does (and will continue to) offer salvation to those who repent as generously as possible.
Then, in chapter 8, another detail is added to the vision: there are seven women around the tower, supporting its building process. They are each the previous one’s daughter in this order: Faith, Self-restraint, Simplicity, Guilelessness, Chastity, Intelligence, and Love. It’s not surprising to see personification of virtues here; this seems like a pretty standard thing to do. Good character is what helps the Church grow. Although there is no mention of their divine origin, it is the same type of language that is employed in the book of Proverbs, where Lady Wisdom is portrayed as being around since the beginning of time. What’s interesting here is that these virtues are not quite the same list you’d see elsewhere in classic Christian literature. But let’s note the similarities to the traditional reckoning of four cardinal virtues + 3 theological virtues:
Faith, Self-restraint, Simplicity, Guilelessness, Chastity, Intelligence, Love (Hermas)
Faith, self-restraint, Love, prudence, Hope, justice, courage. (trad.)
So that’s four out of seven which are the same, if you allow for prudence to overlap with intelligence and/or chastity and/or simplicity. What’s particularly interesting with Hermas, too, is that this order matters. Faith leads to self-restraint (or temperance), which leads to simplicity, which leads to guilelessness (or innocence), and so on, culminating in Love. It’d be an interesting study to examine this process to see how it might be a useful systematization, but that’d be going a bit too deep for this cursory study. Suffice it to observe that the final culmination of virtue in this system is, in line with Paul’s teaching, love!
Chapter 9, then, moves on to a moral application of this vision, focusing primarily on the importance of sharing one’s wealth. Although the polished white, but round, stones didn’t receive extra attention in the vision and explanation, what they represent is now essentially reiterated: the pride that comes from wealth must be fought, which means those who have resources must share them. It goes so far that it seems to suggest that simply being rich is bad for your soul, though it never quite comes out and says it. Because of this, I’d judge that it’s perfectly in line with the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles – wealth can easily become a stumbling block, but is not bad in itself. Nevertheless, when God makes his people rich, it’s always for the purpose of enabling them to be more generous, so as wealth increases, so should generosity!
In chapter 10, Hermas asks yet another question – why has the old woman been changing her appearance? In the first vision she was old, in the second she looked younger but still had gray hair, and now in this third she looked completely young. Chapters 11-13 answer each of these questions in turn.
- The woman representing the Church was old in reflection of those whose spirits have grown weary. For, like elderly men who have no hope of renewing their strength, and expect nothing but their last sleep, so you, weakened by worldly occupations, have given yourselves up to sloth, and have not cast your cares upon the Lord.
- The woman in her semi-old state was a reflection of those whose spirits have been touched by revelation from God. When one becomes somewhat old, he despairs of himself on account of his weakness and poverty, and looks forward to nothing but the last day of his life. Then suddenly an inheritance is left him: and hearing of this, he rises up, and becoming exceeding joyful, he puts on strength.
- The woman in her younger condition symbolized those whose spirits are strengthened by the Gospel. For, just as when some good news comes suddenly to one who is sad, immediately he forgets his former sorrows, and looks for nothing else than the good news which he has heard, and for the future is made strong for good, and his spirit is renewed on account of the joy which he has received; so ye also have received the renewal of your spirits by seeing these good things.
This really puzzled me for the first couple days I was reading this, but now that I’ve finished it, the coherence has increased a bit. It would seem that the teaching here is that without God’s Word, we are old and weak – dying. This is a different metaphor than Paul uses a couple times, but it describes the same thing. What’s interesting here is that receiving the Gospel doesn’t instantly make one strong, but in comes in stages, suggesting growth in Christ, rather than a sudden full-blown spiritual strength.
These three stages of the woman’s appearance also seems to have some correlation with these three visions that Hermas has had so far. The first vision was the least spiritually revealing, if you will; mainly Hermas’ sins were being identified. The second vision pointed him towards seeing the Church in a new light, understanding Her antiquity. The third vision, then, gave the most clarity and the most personal connection between self and Church, matching that progression of growing younger/stronger in spirit, embodied by the woman.
Overall, this third vision has a major emphasis on growth. We, as living stones, are being built into one building, the Church. It’s not just that we’re in or we’re out, there’s a process of “becoming” (as cliche as that sounds, I can’t help it). As we become more mature, the Church grows larger and stronger (hence the stones being added to the tower), but we also become personally stronger (hence the woman getting less old).