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Reformational Poets of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

By Roger Salter
August 27, 2016

The age of the Reformation was obviously an era of enormous intellectual and doctrinal ferment and keen controversy. Confessional issues were hammered out with great mental power and precision on all sides - Roman, Lutheran, Anabaptist, and Reformed. Over a period of a century and a half statements of faith were honed and consolidated to demarcate the positions of various parties comprising Western Christendom. The fervent theological pursuit of orthodoxy and accuracy in belief and in articulation of the articles of faith was in the ascendancy and the Christian mind was severely taxed over many significant, and even more specifically fine matters of dispute, creed, and conduct considered to be apt in faithfulness towards Jesus Christ and his Church.

Titanic struggles between champions of differing causes ensued over decades and their tomes bequeathed to succeeding generations are eagerly perused by specialists and scholars to this day, although only rarely do their findings and discoveries overlap into the interest and concern of average church members. The general loss of historical perspective and the development of doctrine is a huge loss to the health and effectiveness of the organized people of God. Laity have a huge responsibility to hold experts to account for what is taught and current in debate in the academy. Explanation must be sought and the mystique of intellectuals thoroughly probed. The church must check out its educators in responsible and fair-minded ways. Professionals are not to be in search of notoriety or engage in profit and competition, but to feed the flock in sacrifice of personal ambitions. Lay theology is a duty and many can handle it with competence given the encouragement and opportunity. Intelligence and the influence of the Holy Spirit are more widely dispersed than supposed confinement to colleges and seminaries where pride and envy may prevail as much as in other departments of learning. The passions of professors contribute to theology almost as much as learned perception and theologues are sinners too, swayed by unsuspected influences. Rivalry in academia is a curse to the cause of truth and genuine learning.

Dogma, so-called, is derided as dull and dry, and the indifference to history means that mistaken notions and attitudes are recycled through lack of critical discernment. Congregations are stunned by sensationalism, deceit, and error among the elite thinkers of Christian institutions and the prevalence of heresy (the striving for originality and the exaltation of private opinions and preferences over the consensus of sound godly conviction). Our vast heritage of right religious thought is largely going to waste in a time when it is urgently needed. In many instances, highly capable minds in many other (secular) areas of valuable knowledge and vital expertise seem to be satisfied with trivia when it comes to Christian literature. The espousal of the faith in some cases (scanning church bookstalls and libraries) seems to be demoted to the level of a hobby or relaxed reading when our society needs informed and competent advocates of the teachings of Holy Scripture and the tenets of the Gospel. Centuries ago humble Scottish crofters were tackling theological volumes of the quality and complexity that our generation would only encounter in seminary or college. Church members knew how to expound the confessional stance of their denominations and recount the origin and history of their tradition. Days may be recalled when believers conversed amiably over Scripture and systematics at a pronouncedly able level. It was a privilege to sit among the elders.

Our amazing strides in technological achievement far exceed our maturity as Christian thinkers. The classic combination of theological principle and warm piety is rarely equalled in our time. Today's theological consumption is hollowed out and sugar coated.

John Ruskin distinguished between "the books of the hour and the books of all time". Books of the hour may be good and useful in their own way, "But", Ruskin opines, "we make the worst possible use if we allow them to usurp the place of true books: for strictly speaking, they are not books at all, but merely letters or newspapers in good print". Not everything bound up in a volume is of enduring worth, "however valuable for occasional reference". A book is written, "not with a view of mere communication, but of permanence . . . a book is written, not to multiply the voice merely (talk in print - something ephemeral), not to carry it merely, but to perpetuate it".

We publish books of the hour in profusion, and often from the motive of profit (Packer and Schuller from the same house, as it were) and we need to be more acquainted with, and more creative of, books for all time. Reading is by no means a virtue in itself. And it is a considerable effort.

Christian writing is not merely an intellectual (or entertaining) exercise. Its underlying motivation ought always to be pastoral. It is in the service of the people of God and those whom we yearn to see won to the people of God. As well as being informative it ought to be equally affecting, moving the soul as much as it stirs the brain. Much that is read is stored in the brain without transference to the heart. This why God inspires the poet in his prophets, and so much of the genre of poetry is of the essence of Holy Scripture. Theology is the queen of the sciences, so say, but it is also intended to stimulate the senses and feelings of the persons it influences (linguistically and with the aid of explanatory sacramental ministry).

Many examples of thrilling theology could be cited, but Ford Lewis Battles is right when he opines that the prose of John Calvin is poetic. Many orthodox theologians, classic and modern, follow in the same cavalcade of lyrical and captivating composition. Poetry is born of meditation, and excellent poetry fosters meditation and cultivates the imagination. A constellation of great British poets devoted themselves to the cause of the Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries, not simply as versifiers but also as men of action in other spheres.

Joseph Hall, formerly appointed as Bishop of the Diocese of Exeter (1627) and subsequently as Bishop of Norwich, who found early literary fame as a satirist, ultimately became one of the finest divines and devotional authors ever to represent the Reformed spirituality of Anglicanism. He was commissioned to represent the Church of England at the Synod of Dort, and although his contribution was curtailed by ill health he fully subscribed to the findings of that esteemed body and commended them warmly in his native country as being fully in accord with the position of his own church. Hall defended Augustinianism to the end of his life, lovingly retaining the gold medallion presented to him that marked the convening of the historic Synod.

James Hamilton, D.D. minister of the Scotch Church, Regent Square, London, in his Life of Joseph Hall (1860) wrote concerning this eminent worthy that his Work entitled Contemplations will be found by the reader to be "richly freighted with this 'holy feeling.' Its value does not consist alone or chiefly in the acute expositions of Scripture incidentally introduced - in the descriptive vivacity which paints the Bible scenes to the eye of fancy, or enacts its history anew . . . It presents in one view the Bible, and a mind rich in feeling and accomplishments, lovingly exploring and reverently interpreting the BIble; nay, as it were, fraternizing and amalgamating with it. [The Contemplations] closely resemble the Confessions of his favourite Augustin(e) , consisting of reflections and ejaculations, so mingled as to blend devotion with instruction." Would that all of us in our walk with the Lord could gain, by his grace, that close kinship with the speech of the Spirit in Scripture so as to fraternize and amalgamate with it.

Beloved Bishop of Armagh (All Ireland) James Ussher (1581-1656) displayed his firm Calvinistic conviction in the careful formulation of the Irish Articles, basis of the Westminster Confession, and his mild and poetic temperament was evident in his translation of the poems of the much persecuted German Augustinian theologian Gottschalk of Orbais (c805-869).

Francis Quarles (1592-1644) served for a time as secretary to Ussher, was of similar Reformed persuasion and piety: But, ah, our sins, our clouds benight the air;/Lord, drain the fens of this my boggy soul,/Whose grosser vapours make my day so foul;/The Son hath strength to chase away/ These rising fogs and make a glorious day:/Rise,and shine always clear; but, most of all/Let me behold thy glory, in my fall;/That being set, poor (my flesh being hurled/ From this) may meet thee, in another world.

Sir Philip Sidney (!554-1586), the favorite public figure of his age, was tutored by the Reformationally-minded Thomas Aston (or Ashton) and educated Christianly in Calvin's Catechism at Shrewsbury School. He died in the defense of Protestantism in the Low Countries, famously and feverishly, according to legend, when wounded on the battlefield, passing his much needed cup of water to a fellow warrior with the words, "Thy necessity is yet greater than mine". Sidney was the son-in-law of Sir Francis Walsingham the great defender of the Reformation under Elizabeth1 and the founder, himself, of an institution for the training of Calvinistic candidates for Anglican ministry. Like Walsingham, Sir Philip was a devoted friend and disciple of eminent Huguenot thinkers. Sidney wrought a highly personalized English translation of the Psalms expressive of his biblical belief and piety: How long, O Lord, shall I forgotten be?/What? Ever?/ How long wilt thou thy hidden face from me/Dissever? - No, no; I trust on thee, and joy in thy/ Great pity: Still therefore of thy graces shall be my/Song's ditty (Psalm 13 vv1&5).

Edmund Spenser whose reputation vies with that of Milton for the accolade of England's superior poet was ardently devoted to the maintenance of Anglican Protestantism, serving as secretary to John Young, Bishop of Rochester, and full of admiration for Calvin's English correspondent Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of Canterbury until sequestered by his sovereign Elizabeth for encouraging prophesyings for the clergy against her will - seasons of preaching and the discussion of the best ways to disseminate the word of God. Grindal is represented in The Shepheardes Calender as the admirable Algrind both in the month of Maye (But shepherds as -Algrind used to say,-/Might not live like, as men of lay), and also in July (Such one he was, - as I have heard/ old Algrind often say - That whilome (once) was the first shepherd,/and lived with little gain).

Of The Faerie Queene, biographer Garry Waller comments as to how clearly "Spenser's didactic Christian epic, then, starts with holiness, in order to to emphasize the fundamental Protestant insistence on man's utter dependence on God's grace. The 'saint', or member of God's elect, does not have the power in himself to earn his her salvation; he has been chosen by God to be a saint, to quest for and exemplify holiness (Edmund Spenser, A Literary Life, Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 1994, page 110). Spenser addresses Redcrosse Knight, the Christian contender, in these words spoken by Una, Cant ix) "In heavenly mercies hast thou not a part?/Why shouldst thou then despair, that chosen art?/Where justice grows there grows also greater grace,/the which doth quench the blood of hellish smart. Cant X) Neither let the man ascribe it to his skill,/that through grace hath gained victory./If any strength we have, it is to ill,But all the good is God's, both power and also will. Spenser is distinctly Calvinistic and campaigning for the cause.

George Herbert is a favorite of all who reckon themselves Anglican and those of an Evangelical and Reformed persuasion possibly do not recognize him adequately as a strong ally. Donne's very worthy imitator was clearly in the Augustinian camp. He was ordained to the ministry in the parish of Bemerton by the the Bishop of Salisbury, John Davenant, another English churchman assigned to the Synod of Dort. Marchette Chute observes that, "George Herbert had been brought up a Calvinist in matters of doctrine, as most English Protestants were in his day. The dispute with the Puritans was over ritual, not doctrine, and when Herbert attacked Andrew Melville on the subject of church services, he assured his Puritan opponent that they nevertheless agreed wholly as to the nature of God. To the average Protestant, whether Anglican or Puritan, God was infinite, omnipotent Will, separating the saved from the damned by an absolute fiat from which there was no hope of appeal. A few members of the Church of England, such as Lancelot Andrewes, disliked the iron doctrine of predestination and he and Herbert once had a "debate" on the subject, after which Herbert wrote him along letter in Greek explaining his point of view. He had apparently not changed it since, for the God he describes in one of his poems is the God of the Calvinists,

Who gives to man, as he sees fit, {Salvation.{Damnation.

(Marchette Chute, Two Gentlemen, The Lives of George Herbert and Robert Herrick, E.P. Dutton & Co.,Inc, New York, 1959, page 119).

How clearly Herbert appreciated the vocation of redeemed man: Of all the creatures both in sea and land,/Only to man thou hast made known thy ways,/ And put the pen alone into his hand, /And made him secretary of thy praise.

John Donne himself shared the Puritan soteriology of Herbert. This is abundantly evident in his sermons as Dean of St. Paul's. Some succinct citations will suffice: * The whole lump of mankind is under the condemnation of Adam's sinne, and yet the good purpose of God severs some men from the condemnation. *As soon as shall God tear a leaf out of the Book of Life, and cast so many of the Elect into Hell fire, as leave the body of any of his Saints in corruption for ever.*Yet when thou thinkest thou art at the first, God hath done something for thee before all that:before that, he had elected thee, in that election which S Augustine speaks of. . . God hath elected certaine men, whom he intends to create, that he may elect them; that is, that he may declare his Election upon them. God had thee, before he made thee; he loved thee first, and then created thee. The surest way, and the nearest way to lay hold upon God, is the consideration of that which he had done already. * God did not elect me as a helper, nor creatye me, nor redeeme me, nor convert me, by way of helping me; for he alone did all, and he had no use at all of me. God infuses his first grace, the first way, merely as a Giver; entirely, all himselfe; but his subsequent graces, as a helper; therefore we call them Auxiliant graces. University lecturer, Neil Rhodes observes that Donne is careful in places not to subscribe to the doctrine of double predestination, but then adds elsewhere in his notes, "But his position is ambiguous, as he also believed in 'the first judgment, before all times'" (John Donne, Selected Prose, Introduction and Notes by Neil Rhodes, Penguin Classics, 1987).

Donne is often regarded as the English Augustine. He fought with the Puritans over their separation from the National Church and their seeming arrogance both over ecclesiastical purity and their doctrinal exactitude exceeding that of remaining churchmen, yet William H. Halewood notes that his doctrine of grace is identical. While he disallows the expression "irresistible grace" he substitutes it with the term "infallible grace": "The infallibility, and dispatch of the grace of God upon them, whom his gracious purpose hath ordained to salvation: how powerfully he works; how instantly they obey" [Sermons, 1:254]. Donne expands upon the theme happy theme. "Without such Grace and such succession of Grace, our will is so far unable to pre-dispose itself to any good . . . we have no interest in ourselves, no power to do anything of, or with ourselves, but to our destruction. Miserable man! . . . we are so far from being able to begin without Grace, as then when we have the first Grace, we cannot proceed to the use of that without more [Sermons, 1:293] The Poetry of Grace, Yale University Press, 1972, page 62.

Donne's grasp of effective grace was in agreement with the Articles of his Church (number seventeen on divine election). He keenly followed the proceedings of the Synod of Dort. He waxed poetic on the theme of electing love. And his tendency and tone was pastoral. Writing to a friend of great distinction, he imparted the following benediction: Our blessed Savyour establish in you, and multiply to you, the seals of eternall election, and testify his gracious purpose toward you in the next world for ever, by a continuall succession of his outward blessings here, and sweeten your age, by a rectified conscience of having spent your transmigration by a modest but yet infallible assurance of a present union with him. Amen.

In similar vein to John Donne, Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke, declared in meditation before God that he was too impotent and spiritually helpless to even start to make a start towards God in repentance and faith. So bound did he feel his will to be. Earnest friend of Sir Philip Sidney his poetry demands close concentration. It is, at times, heavy, dense, grandiose, decorative, and not easily absorbed on first reading. He is the least accessible of the poets afore mentioned. But his theology is deep, convicting, and generously rewarding. He knows the wretchedness of the human condition and gratefully welcomes the predestinating, prevenient grace of God in human experience without which he senses gloom and doom.

Wrapt up, O Lord, in man's degeneration,
The glories of thy truth, thy joys eternal,
Reflect upon my soul dark desolation,
And ugly prospects o'er the sprites infernal.
Lord, I have sinned, and mine iniquity
Deserves this hell; yet Lord deliver me.

Down in the depth of my iniquity,
That ugly centre of infernal spirits
Where each sin feels her own deformity
In these peculiar torments she inherits,
Deprived of human graces and divine,
Even there appears this saving God of mine.

And in this fatal mirror of transgression
Shows man, as fruit of his degeneration
The error's ugly infinite impression,
Which bears the the faithless down to desperation;
Deprived of human graces and divine,
Even there appears this saving God of mine.

In power and truth, almighty and eternal,
Which on the sin reflects strange desolation,
With glory scourging all the sprites infernal,
And uncreated hell with unprivation;
Deprived of human graces, not divine,
Even there appears this saving God of mine.

For on this spiritual cross condemned lying,
To pains infernal by eternal doom,
I see my Saviour for the same sins dying,
And from that hell I feared, to free me, come;
Deprived of human graces, not divine,
Thus hath his death raised up this soul of mine.

Richard Baxter is more than worthy to be included in the company of the Reformational poets as is proven by his contribution to the universal Christian hymnal: Christ who knows all his sheep/Will all in safety keep:/He will not lose his blood,/Nor intercession:/Nor we the purchased good/Of his dear passion. Henry Wotton, close friend of Donne, and conversationalist with Theodore Beza, made his contribution to the canon of Calvinistic poetry, as did John Bunyan. Interestingly, Wotton, when English ambassador to Venice, befriended Catholic statesman and eventual cardinal Paolo Sarpi, who notoriously approved of the Canons of Dort in preference to the decisions of the Council of Trent.

The poetry of Holy Scripture plunges the human spirit to the desperate depths of our terrible plight and then it elevates us to the heavenly heights of rapturous joy in the mercy and pity of God. The lyricist is the Spirit of God. The poetry of the Reformation is the rhapsodic response of the rescued sinner to the Spirit-revealed "deep things of God". In poetry Saviour and saint harmonize in mutual chorus at the outpouring of grace. The Donor delights to give. The recipient rejoices in praise (cf 1 Corinthians 2: 6 -16).

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church.

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