In a time when the Puritans of the Church of England were actually the majority, there was particular emphasis placed on the centrality of scripture—preaching it, studying it, meditating on it—and the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone. The latter meant that anything that gave the aroma of being “added” the gospel was snuffed out and discarded. Thus, the dislike for wearing vestments or allowing images, their emphasis on maintaining proper, minimalist treatment of the sacraments, and even the discouragement of reverence for any ‘substance’ of the church—save for the invisible Christ—was of high priority.
There was, however, some remnant of Anglo-Catholics unhappy with these changes. Still, by and large, the progressions of the late sixteenth century made for a hierarchy of clergy and a country of parishioners who plodded along away from their Catholic roots. But, did they throw the baby out with the bathwater? Under the Stuart dynasty there were opportunities for Anglo-Catholics to rise up and curb what was a uniform pendulum swing in the systematic manner of expression faith and doctrine, demonstrating their leadership, creativity, and devotion in ways that have had great impact on the history and development of the Anglican Church.
John Donne, for example, is a pastor-poet categorized among the Caroline Divines (a title given due to their flourishing during the reign of Charles the 1st – Carolus Primus). The Caroline Divines were not an exclusive group who gathered for private meetings to discuss how Catholic piety might seize back its authority within the Church of England. Instead, they were thoughtful individuals who each brought their own unique set of skills and passion to the Church, influencing one another by the particular roles they took. Lancelot Andrewes, William Laud, and George Herbert would also be counted among them. Donne did away with overly simplistic expression of doctrine and would use a clever and at times complex relationship with rhetoric as he ministered to his congregations. John Donne was certainly a committed follower of Jesus. The concern of some, however, was whether his rhetoric muddied the gospel rather than clarifying it. This is an age-old question with a myriad of ramifications: Does attention to anything ‘of the world,’ be that language or music or image, detract from the ministry and worship of the church?
John Donne was a master of metaphor. For instance, in a sermon he preached at Lincolns Inn he focused on the trajectory and violence of an arrow, directly relating it to human sin. He first remarked that the temptation of sin is like an arrow shot toward us, and that once pierced, we sometimes pull an arrow, or a sin, out of our sides, but leave the broken-off head buried causing interminable guilt. Yet, Donne’s listeners are reminded that it is the wounded whom God invites into his presence, “God did not refuse Israel for her wounds.” In the end, he reveals that though all sinners are pierced with innumerable arrows, it is Christ who takes upon himself this violence. Jesus, riddled with arrows for the sake of those he loves, dies because of these wounds made by sin but in his great power he overcomes death for himself and for all.
His sermons might have been filled with imagery, but his poetry exhibits the height of his rhetorical talent. Its poignancy and power can be read in one of his Holy Sonnets, number XIV.
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend,
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d , and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely I love you, and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.
Clearly, Donne’s work is a far cry from William Perkin’s logically mapped-out theology as presented in the “Golden Chain.” Donne’s purpose is not to be exhaustive or even necessarily orderly. He speaks and writes to uncover Truth layer by layer using rhetoric and skill to move the heart and mind to grasp realities deeper than facts.
Likely, there were some Puritans who found his words to be another form of an image hanging over the altar—something to be torn down for its peripheral and perhaps idolatrous nature, a distraction from the core truth of faith. However, to suggest that John Donne should have reigned in his ability for the sake of simplicity is ludicrous. There are many parts of the body, and they each have their function. John Donne was never meant to be a William Perkins.
Christians need good systematic theology, but they also need good poetry. The value of language in the Church’s life and practice is something with the force to bring someone into the fold of the faithful, or inadvertently turn them away; to draw a body together, or to splice them into a warring mass. The way a preacher speaks (colloquial? highbrow?), the way music is selected and sung (simple, clear, easy to learn and remember? poetic, with layered meaning, theologically profound?) define the manner of belief and therefore create the epistemological container in which one’s understanding of faith is held. The volatile nature of this issue cannot be underestimated. It has both incredible power for both good and evil within the historical Church as well as today’s.
John Donne helped strengthen an important muscle of the church with his use of rhetoric. Language is a gift from the Creator, and Donne’s skill with it was put to good use. Accessibility and expressed mastery of craft in the church do not need to be mutually exclusive. Though admittedly, there will continue to be pendulum swings for some time. When the body of Christ is truly united to its groom humanity will know how to speak with the most beautiful and excellent rhetoric imaginable, without fear of confusion or distraction, to describe the character and quality of our God.