Early Church Fathers and the Foundations of Dispensationalism
Part 3: Dispensational Concepts in the Apostolic Fathers: The Didache, The Epistle to Barnabas, and Hermas’ The Shepherd
Conservative Theological Journal [CTJ 02:6 (Sep 98) pp. 247-270]
Larry V. Crutchfield
Prof. Early Christian History and Culture
Columbia Evangelical Seminary, Longview, WA
In the previous article we evaluated the writings of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Papias of Hierapolis for elementary features of dispensational theology. Due to the nature and extent of their writings, we found the data to be limited, and in many instances inconclusive. For example, while the attitude of expectancy is strong in Clement and Ignatius, there is little by which to gage the views of Polycarp and Papias on this subject. And while the millenarianism of Papias is unquestioned, and strongly implied in Polycarp, who was the Apostle John’s disciple and Irenaeus’s mentor, it can only be inferred for Clement and Ignatius on the basis of certain references and apostolic associations. In no case can the eschatological outlines be given in any detail.
With the additional data presented in the The Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, and The Shepherd, however, new strokes are added to the canvas of early eschatological views. The painting is still sketchy to be sure. But the Epistle of Barnabas provides important information on the chronological divisions of human history (in terms of the year-day tradition), and on the distinctions that exist among saints of different ages. In The Didache and The Shepherd, significant new details are added to our understanding of early patristic views on end-time events, especially concerning the concept of imminency.
The Didache (before end of first century A.D.)
As the name suggests, The Didache or The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles through the Twelve Apostles, was an instructional handbook for Gentiles which dealt with matters of morality, liturgy, and church life.
Discovered in 1873, this oldest extant handbook of church order and conduct prompted a torrent of scholarly debate and discussion. But down the years to the present, the author (or compiler) remains unknown and the setting (Syria, Palestine, or Egypt) can be given with no real confidence. As to the date of composition, reasonable estimates range from a.d. 60 to 90. It is possible that this work is the oldest extant non-canonical literature. It could well have been penned while the Apostle John was still living.
There is a close similarity between parts of The Didache (chaps. 1–6) and the Epistle of Barnabas (chaps. 18–20). Whether this indicates that Barnabas borrowed from The Didache or that both used a common source cannot be determined with certainty. In either case, we are furnished with evidence that certain beliefs were held in common among early Christians and taught in the post-apostolic church.
Although the Didachist purported to pen the teachings of the apostles themselves, just what his relationship to them was, is not known. But he seems to suggest that certain “apostles” were his contemporaries. Whether the designation “apostle” is used in the particular sense of the Twelve, or in a more general way cannot be determined. In any case it is fair to assume that the Didachist was close to, if not in fact directly associated with, at least one or more of the apostles.
In The Didache, we encounter the same type of interpretive approach to Scripture found in Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp. An attempt is made to present the basic precepts and practices of the Christian faith to the uninitiated without exaggerated or fanciful notions. As noted above, while there are obvious points of contact between this work and the Epistle of Barnabas, and even The Shepherd, the prominent allegorism of the latter two works is conspicuously absent in The Didache.
Of greatest interest for the present study is the final chapter in The Didache. Here we find one of the best early examples of extra-biblical teaching on the second coming of Christ and attendant events. One of the chief eschatological concepts in this work is a belief in the imminent return of the Lord. A good example of this is the conclusion to a Eucharistic prayer that reads: “Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God (Son) of David! If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen.”
In the final chapter of the work, the Didachist warned his readers, “Watch for your life’s sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ye ready, for ye know not the hour in which our Lord cometh.” In light of the imminence of the Lord’s return, the Didachist urged frequent fellowship among the saints for the purpose of mutual upbuilding which will lead to perfection in “the last time.” This course of action is expedient, the reader is told, because of the proliferation of “false prophets and corrupters” who have appeared “in the last days.”
In The Didache, we have the first significant patristic outline of things to come. The Didachist stated that after the appearance of the many false prophets and corrupters, the “world-deceiver” will come to bring fiery trial upon all mankind so that “many shall be made to stumble and shall perish; but they that endure in their faith shall be saved from under the curse itself.” The meaning of the term “the curse” is not clear. Perhaps it is a reference to the tribulation under Antichrist.
According to the Didachist, the time of Antichrist will be followed by the revelation of three “signs of the truth.” The first of these signs is “an outspreading [opening, e??peta´se?] in heaven.” The second sign is the “sound of the trumpet.” And the third sign will be the “resurrection of the dead; yet not of all, but as it is said: The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him.” Finally, the whole world will witness the coming of the Lord “upon the clouds of heaven.”
On such sequences of events in the fathers and their relation to imminency, George Eldon Ladd writes:
"The expectation of the coming of Christ included the events which would attend and precede His coming. The early fathers who emphasized an attitude of expectancy believed that this entire complex of events—Antichrist, tribulation, return of Christ—would soon occur. This is not the same as an any-moment coming of Christ."
As stated in part one of this series, the position of these fathers has been described by some as a type of imminent posttribulationism. We prefer the designation “imminent intratribulationism” both because it is more descriptive of the fathers’ views on this subject, and because it is less likely to be confused with modern posttribulationism. To deny the fathers a true belief in imminency is not in harmony with the facts. While we freely acknowledge that these early church leaders were not pretribulationists in the contemporary sense, neither is it true as Gundry suggests, that “Irenaeus…was as forthright a posttribulationist as could be found in the present day.”
In the case of the Didachist, it cannot be denied that he taught watchfulness on the basis of the any-moment coming of Christ in keeping with Matthew 24:42. Why is it, then, that he also warned of an increase in false prophets and corrupters, the appearance of the “world-deceiver,” and the “fire of trial”—all to come in the last days—if Christ is to return first? How can the apparent contradiction be explained?
The answer to the above question is twofold. First of all, the fathers of the early church lived their lives in the shadow of persecution. Beginning with Nero in a.d. 64 and continuing in various degrees of intensity until just two years short of the Council of Nicea in a.d. 325, persecution was a reality of life for believers. As early as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Roman Empire itself—the fourth beast of Daniel 7:7–8—was identified as the Antichrist. And while Victorinus of Petau framed the discussion of Antichrist within the context of the Roman emperors, Commodian believed, as did others according to Lactantius, that a revived Nero would appear as the evil one of the last days.
In the above reference found in the Epistle of Barnabas, which appears to be a quotation from The Didache, there is an exhortation to watchfulness lest in the end one’s faith profits nothing. But the exhortation is for “these last days,” not “the last days.” For Barnabas, the last days were already at the door. Justin Martyr later spoke of the “man of apostasy” and the persecutions inflicted upon the saints by him as if they were simply a continuation of persecutions already suffered by believers.
This seems to be the picture as seen by the early fathers: False teachers in abundance were already threatening the church as Ignatius suggested. The Antichrist, whether the Roman Empire generally, the present emperor, or a revived Nero in particular, may already be here or perhaps soon will be. The church is even now being persecuted by this evil government. “Watch,” therefore, “for your life’s sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ye ready, for ye know not the hour in which our Lord cometh.” Our conclusion is stated well by Walvoord, who writes:
"The fact is,…in the early church fathers there was no clear agreement that a specific seven-year period as is indicated in Daniel 9:27 had to occur before the Lord could return. Generally speaking, the early church fathers, as well as the Protestant Reformers, tended to identify contemporary events with the events of the Great Tribulation and because of this could look for the imminent return of Christ."
The second response to the seeming contradiction in The Didache between imminency and events yet to take place before Christ’s return, concerns the unsophisticated, unreflective manner in which eschatology (and most other doctrines) was treated in this fledgling phase of doctrinal expression. Even something as basic as the identification of participants in various end-time events is generally unclear and unspecified. Note, for example, that the whole earth was supposed to be delivered into the hands of the “world-deceiver” and that all “the creation of men” were to undergo the p?´??s?” (“fiery trial”). It is clear that the Didachist was concerned about the issue of maintaining faith during the end times. But to whom exactly were his concerns addressed?
The Didachist maintained that, “the whole time of your faith will not profit you, if ye be not made perfect in the last time.” The parallel passage in the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles says, “Watch therefore, and pray, that ye do not sleep unto death. For your former good deeds will not profit you, if at the last part of your life you go astray from the true faith.” The reason for the warning was the proliferation of false teachers in the last days. That the faithful, whoever they might be, were admonished to stand firm against false teachings is evident, but their identity is not explicitly stated. The identification of the faithful in chapter XVI, 5, poses no smaller problem.
There the reader is told that of all mankind who undergo the “fire of trial,” “many shall be made to stumble and shall perish; but they that endure in their faith [Matt. 10:22] shall be saved from under the curse [“tribulation”?] itself.” Is this the church or others who become believers during the tribulation? The church is not expressly mentioned by name here at all. The reference rather, is to mankind in general, out of which mass some shall endure in faithfulness.
After giving the “signs of the truth” which are to appear after the fiery trial, the Didachist stated that “The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him [Zech. 14:5].” That this number includes saints who have died is certain enough from the reference to the third sign “the resurrection of the dead; yet not of all …” But this company of “all His saints,” also seems to include living believers as well, the resurrection and rapture both having already taken place.
The bulk of the material from the last chapter of The Didache recalls the language of Matthew 24, the Olivet Discourse. The text makes no direct statement that the church is in view here. Rather, as was the practice of the early fathers, the writer simply repeated the language of the inspired text with little amplification or interpretation. Thus we cannot say with conviction as Ladd does, that, “The many who are to be offended and to be lost are professing Christians who do not stand true; for only those who endure in their faith shall be saved.” Nor can we say that “The purpose of the Didachist in writing this exhortation was to prepare the church for the Great Tribulation and the sufferings to be inflicted by the Antichrist …”
Gundry stands on even shakier ground in his interpretation of these passages. He cites the Didachist’s references to the “church” in the Eucharistic prayers—which he requests be gathered from the “ends of the earth,” “from the four winds” into the kingdom—as substitutions for “the elect” of Matthew 24:31, who are to be gathered together “from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other” (NASB). Gundry’s inference is that the church (equated with the elect on the basis of Matt. 24), must be the subject of the apocalyptic chapter at the conclusion of The Didache (also based on Matt. 24).
To begin with, the Didachist’s references to the church in chapters IX and X, are not direct quotations from the Matthew 24 passage. Furthermore, as the editors of the Ancient Christian Writers series point out, such expressions were common among the early fathers to emphasize the “universality of Christ’s kingdom or the Church…” In essence, Gundry has made a quantum leap from two separate passages in The Didache (chapters IX and X) to a third (chapter XVI), as if they were not only sequential in thought, but textually sequential as well.
It is useless, however, to pretend that these earliest of the fathers were such precise thinkers. It is impossible to know for sure if Didachist had Matthew 24 in mind when he referred to the gathering “from the four winds.” And even if he did, it cannot be proved that he intended to equate the elect and the church on that basis.
The third of the three “signs of the truth” mentioned by the Didachist, is an intriguing reference to “the resurrection of the dead; yet not of all [??? pa´?t?? de´]…” While a number of the early fathers spoke only in general terms of the fact of the resurrection of all mankind from the dead, there are references such as this one which suggest an understanding of the multistaged nature of the resurrection program. Ryrie is correct in saying that, “Although this quotation obviously does not prove premillennialism, it does show that the early Church did not teach a general resurrection as amillennialism does today.”
One may wonder why there is no direct reference to the millennium here. The whole tone of this eschatological chapter in The Didache seems to require a statement about the millennial kingdom, a teaching commonly held in the early church. The reason for its omission is well-expressed in a footnote in The Ante-Nicene Fathers series. With reference to the statement on the resurrection, it says:
"As here used, it seems to point to the first resurrection. Comp. I Thess. iv. 17; I Cor. XV. 23; Rev. XX. 5. Probably it is based upon the Pauline eschatology rather than upon that of the Apocalypse. At all events, there is no allusion to the millennial statement of the latter. Since there was in the early Church, in connection with the expectation of the speedy coming of Christ, a marked tendency to Chiliasm, the silence respecting the millennium may indicate that the writer was not acquainted with the Apocalypse. This inference is allowable, however, only on the assumption of the early date of the Teaching."
Epistle of Barnabas (c.70/117-138)
We know generally as much about the writer of this epistle as we know about the other apostolic fathers—which is to say, little. The highly allegorical nature of this letter, with the unmistakable imprint of Philo upon it, has led most scholars to believe that Barnabas was a Jew from Alexandria. Among contemporary scholars, the attractive notion that he should be identified with Paul’s companion of that name (Acts 14:14), has fallen upon hard times. “Modern research,” says Quasten, “has definitely established that the Apostle Barnabas was not the author of this Letter”
The epistle is divided into two parts. In the first seventeen chapters, the author sought to “Christianize” the Old Testament through an allegorical reinterpretation. His purpose was evidently to replace what he perceived to be the incorrect literal interpretation of the Jews with an interpretation which would bring a “full and firm grasp of…spiritual knowledge” to his readers. The remaining four chapters, like The Didache, set forth the “the two ways of doctrine and authority, the one of light, and the other of darkness.”
As already stated, the writer of this epistle relied heavily upon allegorical interpretation. A. Berkeley Mickelsen assesses the matter correctly when he observes that,
"Barnabas taught that there was only one covenant and that the Jews misunderstood that covenant from the very beginning. This premise made it impossible for him to interpret literally the plain assertions of the Old Testament. Barnabas illustrates well the effect that wrong assumptions have on an interpreter."
Barnabas did nevertheless express a belief in the literal fulfillment of prophecy and its potential for benefit in the believer’s life. He wrote:
"For the Lord hath made known to us by the prophets both the things which are past and present, giving us also the first-fruits of the knowledge of things to come, which things as we see accomplished, one by one, we ought with the greater richness of faith and elevation of spirit to draw near to Him with reverence."
Israel and the Church
In light of his position that the Old Testament belongs to Christians rather than Jews, it is not surprising that Barnabas held the church to be the true Israel of God and as such the inheritor of covenant promise. In this, Barnabas set a precedent for those who followed. It is the church, he said, “whom [the Lord] has led into the good land.” According to Barnabas, the stony-hearted Jews have been replaced by those within whom the Lord has “put hearts of flesh…” (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26). This assertion by Barnabas was based (faulty exegesis of the Ezekiel passages aside) upon an allegorical interpretation of Exodus 33:3. The meaning of the milk and honey, he explained, is “that as the infant is kept alive first by honey, and then by milk, so also we, being quickened and kept alive by the faith of the promise and by the word, shall live ruling over the earth.” While this ruling is not a present reality, observed Barnabas, it will become so “When we ourselves also have been made perfect [so as] to become heirs of the covenant of the Lord.”
Chapters 13 through 16 of the epistle are replete with examples of this type of allegorical interpretation and the attendant conclusions. Barnabas began chapter 13 with the words, “But let us see if this people [Christians] is the heir, or the former [Jews], and if the covenant belongs to us or to them.” He then expounded what would become a common theme in proof of the supplanting of Israel by the church, namely, the elevation of Jacob over the firstborn Esau (Gen. 25), and Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim over the firstborn Manasseh (Gen. 48:18–19). Thus it is, concluded Barnabas, “that this people [Christians] should be first, and heirs of the covenant.” And Abraham is shown to be the father of “those nations who believe in the Lord while in [a state of] uncircumcision” (Gen. 15:6; 17:5; Rom. 4:3).
Barnabas claimed further support for his position by suggesting that Israel, because of her idolatry and preference for the temple over God Himself, had given over her inheritance to this new people. Barnabas maintained that while on the one hand, “the city and the temple and the people of Israel were to be given up,” on the other, this new people of God in “the last days” has become His habitation and “spiritual temple.” And how do we know these things to be true? As the new people of God, the spiritual descendants of Abraham, suggested Barnabas, we have received circumcision of our ears and hearts. Furthermore, Christ Himself is the pledge of the coming fulfillment of covenant promise.
We remind the reader that, as explained in an earlier part of this series, even though the early fathers identified the church as the spiritual seed of Abraham and as such heirs to the covenant promises to him and to David, they nevertheless expected literal fulfillment of those promises in the earthly kingdom to come. Barnabas wrote, “For we ought to perceive that to govern implies authority, so that one should command and rule. If, therefore, this does not exist at present, yet still he has promised it to us. When? When we ourselves also have been made perfect [so as] to become heirs of the covenant of the Lord.” And when is this perfection to take place? Barnabas taught that it will occur at Christ’s second coming when the Sabbath rest begins.
Like those who followed, Barnabas seemed to make a distinction between church age believers who are the spiritual descendants of Abraham, and the pre-church age righteous. He spoke, for example, of the “testament which [the Lord] swore to the fathers that he would give to the people.” And he explained that because of their sins, the Israelite nation did not receive it. However, explained Barnabas, “Moses, as a servant, received it [see Heb. 3:5]; but the Lord himself, having suffered in our behalf, hath given it to us, that we should be the people of inheritance.”
In Barnabas’ view, what is the nature of the relationship of Abraham and Moses to the inheritance in the kingdom? Typical of the fathers who came after him, Barnabas gave almost complete attention to the saints of the church age with scarcely a mention of how the Old Testament righteous fit into the coming order. That there are distinctions among the saints of the different ages is implied, but the practical implications of such distinctions are not disclosed.
Year-day or Sex-/Septa-millennial tradition
In his discussion of the Sabbath, Barnabas wrote:
"The Sabbath is mentioned at the beginning of the creation [thus]: “And God made in six days the works of His hands, and made an end on the seventh day, and rested on it, and sanctified it” [Gen. 2:2]. Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, “He finished in six days.” This implieth that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with Him a thousand years. And He Himself testifieth, saying, “Behold, to-day will be as a thousand years [see Ps. 90:4; II Pet. 3:8].” Therefore, my children, in six days, that is, in six thousand years, all things will be finished. “And he rested on the seventh day.” This meaneth: when His Son, coming [again], shall destroy the time of the wicked man, and judge the ungodly, and change the sun, and the moon, and the stars, then shall he truly rest on the seventh day."
Further on, Barnabas added:
"Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to Me, but that is which I have made, [namely this,] when, giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day [eternity], that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead."
Barnabas’s outline of human existence is as follows:
Barnabas’s teaching marked the beginning of the year-day tradition in the early church. Almost all millenarians after him expressed their position in terms of the creation week, representative of 7, 000 years. The tradition was even to find support—minus the seventh day, earthly millennial kingdom—among opponents of the millenarian doctrine.
Barnabas’ belief in the year-day tradition, born of a rather artificial exegesis, hardly qualifies as a dispensational system in the contemporary sense. It did nevertheless point the way to a somewhat more sophisticated understanding of the dealings of God with man in writers who followed. Barnabas himself, however, merely divided the history of the world into seven equal thousand-year ages. He discussed God’s special dealings with man only in the seventh age, the day of rest.
At one point, Barnabas referred to “the Ruler of the present era of lawlessness…” The note appended in the Ancient Christian Writers series says, “ ‘Era’: the Greek word so rendered generally means a limited portion of time—term, age, period, epoch.” While this gives the substance of Barnabas’s position on the reckoning of time, it should be noted that he also set the stage for a fuller expression of God’s successive dealings with man. He maintained for example that,
"…[God] hath revealed to us by all the prophets that he needs neither sacrifices, nor burnt-offerings, nor oblations … He has therefore abolished these things, that the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is without the yoke of necessity, might have a human oblation…We ought therefore, being possessed of understanding, to perceive the gracious intention of our Father; for he speaks to us, desirous that we, not going astray like them, should ask how we may approach Him."
From all that has gone before, it hardly needs to be said that Barnabas was a premillenarian. That he expected Christ to return prior to the seventh day—the thousand-year rest—is abundantly clear. Even though he saw the fulfillment of promises to Israel in the church, owing to his expectation of the literal fulfillment of the promises in a literal kingdom, any attempt to claim Barnabas for the amillennial camp is doomed to failure. It may be added that Barnabas nowhere confused the church with national Israel. As indicated previously, the fathers implied that some distinctions among saints of the Old and New Testaments existed. Only the nature of those distinctions is unclear.
Like his contemporaries, Barnabas employed the language of imminency when speaking of Christ’s return. After referring to the kingdom, resurrection, and retribution, Barnabas said, “For the day is at hand on which all things shall perish with the evil [one]. The Lord is near and His reward.” Elsewhere he warned his readers that, “It therefore behooves us, who inquire much concerning events at hand, to search diligently into those things which are able to save us.” He went on to say, “The final stumbling-block (or source of danger) approaches, concerning which it is written, as Enoch says, ‘For this end the Lord has cut short the times and the days, that His Beloved may hasten; and He will come to the inheritance.’” Finally, Barnabas urged the saints to “take earnest heed in these last days” to be steadfast in faith and the avoidance of evil in order that the “Black One may find no means of entrance…”
In our understanding of the matter, there is nothing in Barnabas’ epistle which would preclude the possibility of the any-moment return of Christ. Barnabas discussed “Antichrist” in cryptic terms (e.g., “Black One,” “wicked prince”), but he seemed to identify the fourth beast of Daniel 7:7–8—the Roman Empire—as the Antichrist of the last times. In his estimation, then, as patristic scholar J. N. D. Kelly points out, “‘Barnabas is satisfied that the scandal of the last days is actually upon us…” Again we encounter a type of imminent intratribulationism.
In spite of the evidence, Ladd, Gundry, and Erickson, all argue for a strictly posttribulational interpretation of Barnabas that excludes elements of imminency. At the outset, these men make two unwarranted assumptions: First, the conclusions they draw from Barnabas’s interpretation of Daniel 7:7–8 are arbitrary and theologically self-serving. Both Ladd and Erickson insist that Barnabas looked for a still future tenfold division of the Roman Empire to precede the return of Christ even though no such interpretation is presented in the epistle itself.
That Barnabas understood the fourth beast to be the Roman Empire—as the weight of later patristic literature affirms—is a safe assumption. But what Barnabas thought of the ten-three-one horn scenario we do not know. The single horn was generally associated with the Roman Empire, the evil one to come in the end. And perhaps Barnabas believed the other horns represented minor kingdoms already subdued by Rome. In any case, it is valid to say that because Barnabas believed the church was living in the last days and because he viewed Christ’s coming as imminent, he could not have been looking for a tenfold division of Rome.
A second erroneous assumption made by these prominent posttribulationists is that Barnabas looked forward to a time of tribulation distinct from that which the church was experiencing in his day. As we have shown, Barnabas spoke regularly of “these last days” and of “this wicked time.” Note that Barnabas did not even imply that things would get worse before the end. He suggested, rather, that things were already bad and thus it behooved his readers to be on their guard, for “the day is at hand on which all things shall perish with the evil [one]. The Lord is near, and His reward.” For some early fathers, it seems that the difference between the persecution they were then experiencing and the persecution which would precede the second advent, was not a difference in kind, and perhaps not even a difference in degree of severity.
Barnabas did not formulate a full outline of events to come in the end times. But what we find in his epistle is significant because it ties eschatological events to a time-period division of mankind’s existence on earth. Barnabas’s outline is as follows:
1. The world will endure for 6, 000 years.
2. At the end of that 6, 000 years and prior to the commencement of the thousand-year rest, Christ will return. He will:
a. Destroy the time of the wicked man.3. The millennium will begin (the seventh day of rest).
b. Judge the ungodly.
c. Renew the earth (change the sun, moon and stars).
a. Believers will receive the promise.4. The eternal state begins (the eighth day; “beginning of another world”).
b. Wickedness will have been eliminated (“all things having been made new”).
Hermas’ The Shepherd (in two parts, c.96/140-150)
The work known as The Shepherd is an apocalyptic Christian allegory, which sets forth a system of morality intended to revitalize and prepare a corrupt, lethargic church for the quickly approaching day of reckoning. The author himself divides the work into three parts, consisting of five visions, twelve commandments, and ten similitudes. All in all, this oldest of Christian allegories is a rather curious composition, holding a unique place among the writings of the apostolic fathers.
The right of The Shepherd to be included in the works of the apostolic fathers rests on a foundation which has undergone considerable erosion in modern times. In the early church, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome all believed the author to be the friend of the Apostle Paul mentioned in Romans 16:14 (around A.D. 58). And while Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria quoted The Shepherd as Scripture, only Tertullian’s voice was raised in dissent as he labeled the work apocryphal. On the basis of internal evidence, some have concluded that the work was composed in stages by two different men. According to this view, the first part of The Shepherd was completed by a contemporary of Clement of Rome (a.d. 98), and the second by the brother of Pius I (a.d. 140-150). If the validity of this position is assumed, then it is at least possible that “Hermas number one” could have been a young man at the time of his association with the Apostle Paul, and then later in his life wrote the first part of The Shepherd. In the absence of conclusive proof of a dual authorship for The Shepherd, a single writer is assumed here for the sake of convenience.
What we know about this composite Hermas, we learn only from The Shepherd itself. He was a slave, perhaps Jewish, who was later freed at Rome. He became a prosperous farmer who lost his land and witnessed the apostasy of his sons in the heat of persecution. He indicated that his marriage and home life were filled with discontent. But the overall tone of this information, as Quasten points out, “prompts us to conclude that we are dealing here with an earnest, pious and conscientious man, one who had proven himself steadfast in time of persecution.”
The Shepherd, as stated previously, is an extended allegory. While Hermas alluded to New Testament passages, there are no direct quotations from either Testament. The author’s intent was to instruct the church in Christian morals to the end that she might excel in purity as the day of judgment draws near. Hermas made no pretense of engaging in exposition of Scripture. Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, he endeavored simply to parade certain biblical truths before his readers in allegorical dress.
We find no mention of the year-day tradition in The Shepherd, nor any direct reference to the millennium. With fixed gaze, Hermas seemed to see only impending trial and tribulation. Nevertheless, he is counted by most hands to be premillennial. Perhaps one of the best expressions of Hermas’s premillennialism is the following passage:
"…for this life is a winter to the righteous, and they do not manifest themselves, because they dwell with sinners…He showed me again many trees, some budding, and others withered. And he said to me, “Do you see these trees?” “I see, sir,” I replied, “some putting forth buds, and others withered.” “Those,” he said, “which are budding are the righteous who are to live in the world to come; for the coming world is the summer of the righteous, but the winter of sinners."
Elsewhere, Hermas spoke of escaping from “this world” to “the age that is to come, in which the elect of God will dwell…”
These citations are inconclusive, but they do point in the direction of premillennialism. Furthermore, it must be said that opponents of premillennialism have furnished no evidence to the contrary. One thing is certain, Hermas looked for nothing in this world like the peace and rest pictured in the golden millennial period. In this world, according to Hermas, we face only the hardships of winter. The rest and repose of summer must await the age to come.
For our purposes, the greatest interest generated by Hermas is his teaching on imminency and “the great tribulation that is coming.” There is an intriguing dialogue in The Shepherd, the interpretation of which has produced no little controversy. Do we have here a distinctly pretribulational reference as Thiessen suggests? Or as Ladd believes, does it present the church with a clearly posttribulational expectation?
Like the apostolic fathers examined previously, Hermas constantly employed the language of expectancy with respect to the Lord’s coming. An example of this is found in the ninth similitude’s parable of the tower. The tower pictures the church under construction in preparation for the Lord’s return. When Hermas asks the Shepherd why the building has not been completed, he is told that the tower “cannot be finished just yet, until the Lord of it come and examine the building.” Further on, the Shepherd says to Hermas,
“Let us go, and after two days let us come and clean these stones, and cast them into the building; for all things around the tower must be cleaned, lest the Master come suddenly [see Mk. 13:36; Mt. 24:46–51], and find the places about the tower dirty, and be displeased, and these stones be not returned for the building of the tower, and I also shall seem to be neglectful towards the Master.”
Hermas’s exhortation to those who intend to repent is to “do so quickly, before the tower is completed.”
The identity of all the players in this parable is never completely clear. For example, there is a party of men who come to the tower and in their midst is “one man of so remarkable a size as to overtop the tower.” Whether this man, “the lord of the whole tower” who performs what appears to be some type of preliminary inspection, is Christ or not is uncertain. In any event, the whole parable is permeated by an air of urgency in light of an any-moment return of the “Master.” An important question here concerns the relationship of the tribulation to the tower (the church) which Hermas was assured “will soon be finished.”
Hermas’s thoughts on this matter are contained chiefly in the fourth vision. He tells the reader that he was traveling down a country road when he asked for the final installment of revelations he had been given “through [the Lord’s] holy Church,” that he himself might be strengthened, that the wayward might repent, and that the Lord might be glorified. As he continued down the road, Hermas saw dust rising more and more as “a mighty beast like a whale” with fiery locusts coming out of its mouth as it approached. At the sight of this hundred-foot high beast with an urn-shaped head, Hermas began to weep and called upon the Lord for deliverance. He then recalled the things he had been taught, and the admonition to those clothed with faith in the Lord not to doubt, and he stood firm in preparation for the beast’s fury. But Hermas said that when he drew near to the beast, it “stretched itself out on the ground, and showed nothing but its tongue, and did not stir at all until I had passed by it.” As he passed, Hermas observed that there were four colors on its head, “black, then fiery and bloody, then golden, and lastly white.”
After this harrowing experience, Hermas was met by a virgin whom he recognized from former visions to be the church. When questioned about his experience, Hermas explained that he was met by a beast “but through the power of the Lord and His great mercy I escaped from it.” The virgin then replied:
"You have escaped from great tribulation on account of your faith, and because you did not doubt in the presence of such a beast. Go, therefore, and tell the elect of the Lord His mighty deeds, and say to them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation that is coming. If then ye prepare yourselves, and repent with all your heart, and turn to the Lord, it will be possible for you to escape it, if your heart be pure and spotless, and ye spend the rest of the days of your life in serving the Lord blamelessly."
Hermas subsequently asked for an explanation of the four colors on the beast’s head. The virgin explained that,
"…the black is the world in which we dwell: but the fiery and bloody points out that the world must perish through blood and fire: but the golden part are you who have escaped from this world. For as gold is tested by fire, and thus becomes useful, so are you tested who dwell in it. Those, therefore, who continue stedfast, and are put through the fire, will be purified by means of it. For as gold casts away its dross, so also will ye cast away all sadness and straitness, and will be made pure so as to fit into the building of the tower. But the white part is the age that is to come, in which the elect of God will dwell, since those elected by God to eternal life will be spotless and pure. Wherefore cease not speaking these things unto the ears of the saints. This then is the type of the great tribulation that is to come."
How are we to understand the position here presented by Hermas? Thiessen maintains that, “This surely shows that there was teaching to the effect that the Church would escape the great Tribulation, and that this is not a doctrine that was unknown, as has been charged, until it was popularized by the Plymouth Brethren.” Ladd, on the other hand, asserts that “when one reads the entire passage, he finds that the exact opposite is taught, for the author is referring to preservation in and through tribulation.”
Three things are beyond dispute: 1. The beast represents the coming great tribulation, and the imagery of blood and fire certainly evokes the language of the book of Revelation (see Rev. 6:12; 8:7–8; 9:17–18; 11:5–6; 14:18–20; 16:3–8; 20:9); 2. Hermas escaped the tribulation completely unscathed, and was informed that it is possible for any to escape “if [their] heart be pure and spotless, and [they] spend the rest of the days of [their lives] serving the Lord blamelessly” ; 3. The virgin and the tower both represent the church—Hermas does not. Hermas represented only an individual, “a saint under construction” (a stone), being made fit through trial and testing for inclusion into the tower.
Thiessen’s contention that this passage teaches that the church will be “taken away before that period of judgment begins,” is difficult to defend. Hermas is definitely pictured in the presence of the beast, though fully protected. We read elsewhere in The Shepherd, “Happy ye who endure the great tribulation that is coming on, and happy they who shall not deny their own life. For the Lord hath sworn by His Son, that those who denied their Lord have abandoned their life in despair, for even now these are to deny Him in the days that are coming.” Here too, the implication is that believers will be present during the tribulation to come. It must be said, however, that the pretribulational position represented by Thiessen captures the essence of Hermas’s position in its emphasis on the imminency of Christ’s return and the believer’s escape from the coming tribulation.
Clearly, the modern posttribulational position represented by Ladd is not supported by these passages in The Shepherd. The type of preservation that Ladd envisions for the church “in the presence of tribulation,” includes her purification by “the fiery trial of persecution.” He maintains that, “If the Church is prepared, it need not fear the sufferings to come; they will be as nothing to those whose faith is fixed in the Lord.” Ladd asserts that this “is proven by the interpretation of the four colors.”
The first of these colors, black, represents the world. The second color, fiery and bloody (red?), points to the destruction of the world by fire and blood. That this could represent God’s wrath on a Christ-rejecting world as revealed in the Apocalypse, we have already shown. But what of the “golden part” which typifies those “who have escaped from this world,” those who will be purified as gold—”tested by fire”? Three things must be said in response to Ladd’s insistence upon a modern posttribulational interpretation of Hermas at this point.
In the first place, note that in Hermas’s encounter with the beast, he came away from the experience totally unmolested. There is not the slightest hint of suffering or torment, with the exception of the initial dread. On the contrary, when approached by Hermas, the beast became as docile and unmenacing as a lap dog. The persecution envisioned by Hermas is portrayed as a time of wrath only upon those who lack faith in God.
In the second place, earlier in The Shepherd, Hermas was said to have already “endured great personal tribulations” on account of his own “wicked transactions” and “the transgressions of your house…” But this indictment was immediately followed by these words of encouragement:
"But you are saved, because you did not depart from the living God, and on account of your simplicity and great self-control. These have saved you, if you remain stedfast. And they will save all who act in the same manner, and walk in guilelessness and simplicity. Those who possess such virtues will wax strong against every form of wickedness, and will abide unto eternal life. Blessed are all they who practise righteousness, for they shall never be destroyed. Now you will tell Maximus: Lo! tribulation commeth on."
While The Shepherd mentions nothing about the Roman persecutions of the day, it nevertheless seems to view tribulation as a continuum, culminating in the great tribulation at the end of the age. Note that Hermas was pronounced saved and was told that he would yet be saved if he remained steadfast in the faith. Thus the trial and testing at the end was but a continuation of that which had gone before.
In the third place, Hermas presented more than one means of purification for the church. He is informed that the color white represents the “age that is to come, in which the elect of God will dwell, since those elected by God to eternal life will be spotless and pure.” The stones having been made ready, are fitted into the tower. The means of purification here is said to be the test by fire. In another place, however, it is cast simply in terms of the process of selection and rejection of the different types of stones available for the construction of the tower. There, the context is the personal practice of evil or the practice of good. It seems that in this case, purification is achieved without the instrumentality of fiery testing.
Is this a type of posttribulationism which excludes imminency? The evidence supports no such view. That Hermas presents tribulation as a continuum, we have already shown. Furthermore, he makes no reference to the chronology of Daniel 9, nor does he in any way posit an estimated duration for the great tribulation at the end. In fact, the whole encounter with the beast is depicted as rather brief and imminent. “There was a noise, however, and I turned round in alarm, thinking that that beast was coming.”
Any attempt to gain a full understanding of this peculiar allegory and to reconcile it with Scripture is doomed to failure. We must concede that Hermas held to a type of condensed, imminent, posttribulationism (or “intratribulationism” unlike that previously encountered). He lived in constant expectation of the Master’s sudden return to the tower. But at the same time, he had the sound of the ponderous feet of the fiery, locust-breathed, urn-headed, whale-like beast ringing in his ears. Hermas, who represented only an individual saint in the making rather than the church as a whole, escaped the beast and this world. Then, for the purpose of purification, he had to either go through fiery trial or simply make morally correct choices.
Even though Hermas had some interesting things to say about coming tribulation, there is little in the way of a distinct calendar of end-time events. However, the following seems to be his basic eschatological outline:
 Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe, Ancient Christian Writers: The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistles and The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, The Fragments of Papias, The Epistle to Diognetus, trans. James A. Kleist (New York; Ramsey, NJ: Newman Press, 1946), pp. 5–6. The editors conclude here that “It should … be admitted that we have a thoroughly conservative, and altogether reliable, estimate in the statement of many leading scholars that the Didache was written ‘before the end of the first century’” (6).
 See The Didache XI, 3.
 The Didache X, 6. Compare with 1 Corinthians 16:22 and Revelation 22:20. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from and references to the fathers in this study are from: Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.).
 The Didache XVI, 1–2.
 Ibid., XVI, 2-3.
 Ibid., XVI, 3-5.
 This very rare expression is difficult to render (see Matt. 24:30). Some have suggested that it speaks of the hole in the heavens through which Christ will descend. Others “derive the word from pe´t?ľa?: ‘a being caught up, a flying up, to heaven’” (Quasten and Plumpe, Ancient Christian Writers: The Didache, etc., p. 166). Whatever the expression means, it will be a visible sign of some sort. If it does refer to the rapture of the saints, it is in keeping with the usual practice of the early fathers to associate that event with the second coming of the Lord in glory, with little or no intervening time between the two events.
 The Didache XVI, 6–8. The parallel passage in the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles (various dates from early third to mid-fourth century), the compiler of which seems to have used The Didache as a source, adds references at this point to the final judgment and the eternal state (Chap. XXXII).
 George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), p. 20.
 J. Barton Payne comes closer perhaps than any other modern writer to approximating the position of the early fathers on tribulationism. For a presentation of his views, see The Imminent Appearing of Christ (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962). For a valuable analysis of Payne’s concepts as they relate to the fathers, see John F. Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1976), 16–17, pp. 21–25.
 See Appendix A.
 Robert H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 175. Irenaeus’ position on the subject will be discussed in the fifth segment of this series.
 The Didache XVI, 1.
 Epistle of Barnabas, Chap. IV. Compare this portion of Barnabas with The Didache XVI, 1–3, where there is remarkable similarity. Cf. R. Ludwigson, A Survey of Bible Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1973), p. 25.
 Victorinus of Petau Commentary on the Apocalypse, on 17:10–11.
 Commodian Instructions of Commodianus XLI; Lactantius Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died II.
 Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho CX. In the early church there seemed to be a perpetuation of the Thessalonian error that the day of the Lord had already come (II Thess. 2:2). However, unlike the Thessalonian congregation, the fathers clearly understood that the “lawless one” must be revealed (II Thess. 2:8–9) before the coming of Christ. Barnabas seemed to believe that the “lawless one” was already on the scene, while the Didachist spoke in the future tense. But that does not necessarily contradict Barnabas’s position. The Didachist was merely recounting what Scripture says about the last days. He said nothing specifically about where the church would be in that outline of end-time events.
 See Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians IX; Epistle to the Trallians X-XI.
 The Didache XVI, 1.
 John F. Walvoord, The Rapture Question, rev. and enl. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1979), p. 51.
 The Didache XVI, 2.
 Constitutions of the Holy Apostles XXXI (Italics added).
 The Didache XVI, 5. Walvoord observes that the teaching on the fiery trial, sounding of the trumpet, and the resurrection, can all “be harmonized with pretribulationism as it is taught today” (The Rapture Question, p. 53). The point Walvoord makes is that while this is not explicit pretribulationism, neither is an explicit posttribulational position required by the passage.
 Ibid, Chap. XVI, 8.
 Ladd, p. 21.
 Gundry, 175 (of course Gundry assumes a posttribulational interpretation of Matt. 24:31); The Didache IX and X. Stated in mathematical equivalents, Gundry’s reasoning is that since the Didachist calls for the church (x) to be gathered from the “four winds” (z), and Matthew 24:31 calls for the “elect” (y) to be gathered from the “four winds” (z), then the church (x) = the elect (y). For if x = z and y = z, then x must equal y because each of two different things equal to the same thing must be equal to each other. The problem with Gundry’s argument is that the Didachist never introduces the value y, nor does he anywhere suggest that z is to be understood in the context of Matthew 24. Consequently, Gundry’s conclusion is based solely upon premises he—not the Didachist—has established.
 Quasten and Plumpe, Ancient Christian Writers: The Didache, etc., 160, note 60.
 The Didache, Chap. XVI, 6 (Italics added).
 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1953), p. 20.
 Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, 7:382, note 17.
 In Chapter XVI, Barnabas pictured a temple in ruins. Thus the date of the epistle is variously set between the destruction of the temple in a.d. 70 by Titus and the second destruction during the Bar Kocheba rebellion (ending a.d. 138). The fact that Barnabas seems to indicate that the temple was being rebuilt in his own day by those who destroyed it (in fulfillment of Isaiah 49:17 in the LXX), has led some scholars to look to the building of the temple of Jupiter in Jerusalem during Hadrian’s reign (117–138) as the most likely time frame for composition of his letter [see Johannes Quasten, Patrology, 3 vols. (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, Inc., 1983), 1:90–91]. Of the two primary texts for this epistle, the Codex Sinaiticus (fourth century) and the Codex Hierosolymitanus (1056), the former (and older manuscript) omits reference to the rebuilding of the temple in Barnabas’ day (see The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:147, note 13).
 Quasten, Patrology, I:89.
 Ibid. So also LeRoy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, 4 vols. (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1950), 1:210.
 Whether this work requires an epistolary designation or not is open to question. It is addressed to no particular group or person and contains no personal instructions. And it neither begins nor ends in the usual fashion of an epistle (compare with any of the epistles of Ignatius). Perhaps the epistolary format was employed only because it was an accepted literary device of the day.
 Epistle of Barnabas X.
 Ibid., Chap. XVIII; compare The Didache I-VI with Barnabas 18-20.
 A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1963), p. 31. See also Bernard Ramm’s useful comments on this practice in his Protestant Biblical Interpretation, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), pp. 28–9.
 Epistle of Barnabas I. This same belief in the literal fulfillment of prophecy and the spur it provides for holy living in the end times is expressed in the beginning of chapter IV. Further on in the same chapter, Barnabas warned believers “in these last days,” “to hate the works of the way of wickedness” and to stand firm in the faith “That the Black One may find no means of entrance. .”
 Ibid, Chap. VI.
 Ibid, Chap. XIII.
 Ibid, Chaps. XIV and XVI.
 Ibid, Chaps. IX and X (last sentence).
 Ibid, Chap. XVI.
 Ibid, Chap. VI.
 Ibid, Chap. XV.
 Ibid, Chap. XIV.
 Ibid, Chap. XV. It should be noted that Barnabas’s millenarian concepts were based upon his understanding of Psalm 90:4 and II Peter 3:8, and Jewish tradition (including the year-day theory). Why he made no use of the Apocalypse is difficult to say.
 Epistle of Barnabas XV.
 Barnabas was by no means the first to hold this view. For the history of the year-day tradition in pagan, Jewish, then Christian circles, see Arnold D. Ehlert, A Bibliographic History of Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965), 8–22. Refer to Appendix B for a summary of the early fathers who held to the year-day concept.
 As for example Clement of Alexandria The Stromata IV, XXV; and Augustine On the Psalms VI, 1.
 Epistle of Barnabas XVIII, as translated in Quasten and Plumpe, Ancient Christian Writers: The Didache, etc., p. 62.
 Quasten and Plumpe, Ancient Christian Writers: The Didache, etc., p. 81.
 Epistle of Barnabas II.
 For an able rebuttal of this claim, as held primarily by D. H. Kromminga, see John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), pp. 39–42.
 Epistle of Barnabas XXI.
 Ibid, Chap. IV. See the discussion of imminency in the The Didache for further analysis of the portion of this chapter which parallels that work. For the phrase “The final stumbling-block … approaches,” The Ancient Christian Writers series has, “The final stumbling block has appeared” (Quasten and Plumpe, Ancient Christian Writers: The Didache, etc., p. 40).
 J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (New York: Harper and Row. Publishers, 1978), p. 462.
 See Ladd, p. 22; Gundry, pp. 173–4; and Millard J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), p. 149.
 Epistle of Barnabas IV (Italics added).
 Ibid, Chap. XXI.
 Ibid, Chap. XV.
 See Epistle of Barnabas V and XXI for references to resurrection and judgment. In chapter IV, Barnabas stated that the world will be judged, both righteous and wicked, each receiving the appropriate reward.
 See Origen Commentary on Romans XVI:14; Eusebius Church History III, III, 6; Jerome Lives of Illustrious Men X.
 See Irenaeus Against Heresies IV, XX, 2; Clement of Alexandria Stromata II, I; II, IX; II, XII; Tertullian On Modesty X and XX.
 For this view expounded, see Quasten, Patrology, I:92–93.
 Quasten, Patrology, I:93.
 This position is held by Peters, I:495, Walvoord, Millennial Kingdom, p. 119, and Ryrie, Basis of the Premillennial Faith, p. 20 [Ryrie even quotes the amillenarian, Louis Berkhof as being in agreement on this point (see Berkhof’s Reformed Dogmatics, p. 270)]. On the other hand, C. A. Briggs, [“Origin and History of Premillenarianism,” Lutheran Quarterly 9 (April 1879): 214-15], and Jean Danielou [The Development of Christian Doctrine Before the Council of Nicaea, vol. 1: The Theology of Jewish Christianity (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1964), I:386], see no millenarianism at all in The Shepherd.
 The Shepherd, Third and Fourth Similitudes.
 Ibid., Fourth Vision, III.
 Ibid., II and III.
 Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1949), p. 476.
 Ladd, pp. 23–4. Cf. Gundry, pp. 174–5, and Erickson, p. 129.
 The Shepherd, Ninth Similitude, XIII; cf. Third Vision, III.
 Ibid, Ninth Similitude, V.
 Ibid, VII.
 Ibid, XXVI.
 Ibid, VI.
 Ibid, VII.
 Ibid, Third Vision, VIII.
 This paragraph is the substance of The Shepherd, Fourth Vision, I.
 The Shepherd, Fourth Vision, II.
 Ibid, Chap. III (bold face and underlining added).
 Thiessen, p. 476. Cf. Henry C. Thiessen, “Will the Church Pass Through the Tribulation?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 92 (April 1935):196.
 Ladd, p. 23.
 The Shepherd, Fourth Vision, II.
 Thiessen, “Will the Church Pass Through the Tribulation?,” p. 196.
 The Shepherd, Second Vision, II.
 Ladd, pp. 23–24.
 The Shepherd, Second Vision, III.
 Ibid, Fourth Vision, III. The concept of purification through persecution is one which will be encountered in later writers.
 Ibid, Ninth Similitude, XVIII.
 Ibid, Fourth Vision, III.
 Ibid, Second Vision, II.
 Ibid, Chap. III; and Fourth Vision, III.
 The Shepherd, Fourth Vision, III; and Fourth Similitude, respectively.