The language we use in our relationship with the Lord may range and alternate from the ordinary to the majestic in the speech of those who adore him according to either their natural characteristic of plain communication in everyday circum-stances, or the cultivated language of studied and creative art. Both methods of speaking of or to God have their place, if reverent, trustful, affectionate and humble. We come before God, by his grace, in our ordinariness (just as I am), or, Magi-like, with the attitudinal adornments of untarnished gold, aromatic frankin-cense and the ointment of myrrh i.e., the newly conferred worth of his adopted and royal children, aromatic with the perfume of priestly holiness, and possessing the privileged donation of divine anointing. The poets, psalmists and prophets of Israel wax lyrical and emphatic on special occasions of perception and description of the splendor of the Lord in his personal attributes and perfections and the effi-cacious power of his doings.
All creation, all life should copiously praise the Lord. The mind of man should de-tect his wondrous deeds in the universe, in our world, and in our souls; and there-fore along with Calvin we must first gain acquaintance with God and ourselves simultaneously. Real religious poetry is the record of our investigation through revelation into the nature of our Lord and the nature, needs, and the ways of the self (or our species).
The penetration of poetry plumbs the inexhaustible depths of the Holy One and reaches into the unreachable mystery and complexity of the condition of man. We face the ongoing predicament of the Fall that befell us in the disobedience of our first parents, and then we wrestle to grasp the astonishing gospel proposal of Redemption.
Many Christian poets over the generations until now, hymn the wonders of the Lord and the misfortunes and miseries of sinful man, upon whom God may sover-eignly bestow his signal and saving favor. From Ambrose of Milan, bishop Niceta of Remesiana, originator of the Te Deum, to the hymns of Watts, Gerhardt, Wes-ley, Toplady, Newton, Montgomery, Havergal, and Timothy Dudley Smith, the worship of the Church has been enriched by compositions of great testimony of faith and pastoral comfort that fortify the quality of believers’ resilience and joy in God. Indeed, there were devout poets of the Reformational and early Post-Reformational era whose verse chimed with the theological convictions of our English Reformers.
George Herbert, through his poetry, has endeared himself across the spectrum of Anglicanism in all its versions, and his approval and fame has overspilled into broader Christendom and the literary world, to tasteful readers and talented crit-ics. Many are attracted to his winsome and candid piety; its bitterness over sin and its beauty of holiness.
In his sacred verse Herbert is the pilgrim heart’s companion in joy and perplexity. To those who peruse his poetry, Herbert is a delight, exuding a spirituality in Christ that is shared by Anglo-Catholic and Protestant depending on the assumptions each may bring to his work. But to most of his admirers his doctrinal stance is an enigma. Thus Herbert’s fundamental theology is variously interpreted by High Church, Arminian, and Reformed parties within the comprehensive spread of the Anglican Communion.
Many assert that he was of the same mind as the Carolinian clergy as represented by Lancelot Andrewes and Jeremy Taylor, but in an exchange of views with An-drewes, Herbert demonstrated that he differed strongly with the Arminian bish-op. His spirituality and love of order and ceremony is congenial to to adherents of Anglo- Catholicism. Some experts in literature and divinity rate him as giving room to Arminian notions and a free will interpretation to the method of grace, but lat-terly the academic consensus is tilting to the perception that Herbert’s theological convictions, gently expressed as they happen to be, are entirely consistent with the doctrines of of the Reformation, not heavily dogmatic, but in his own unique variety of Calvinism according to his deft pastoral tones as addressed to sensitive souls.
Jesus Christ is the embodiment and potency of special saving grace, and it is in his sketches and cameos of the Saviour in which the equivalent of the doctrines of Augustine and the Reformers find grateful embracement. There is a pastoral im-mediacy in Herbert’s thought that is not so much in the nature of bare proposi-tion, but couched rather in the manner of personal introduction to and acquaint-ance with our near and kindly Redeemer, in his nature, companionship, and ac-complishments on our behalf.
Rapport with the Lord Jesus is his aim for his readers, whether in a sense of keen personal ruin and helplessness, or affectionate rapture of spirit, or any wavering state in between. He administers solace to all. Faith in and communion with Christ is his objective in fellow feeling with those who turn to him as seekers after a gra-cious God. Grace alone is his prescribed tonic (cordial) for the soul; grace the con-stant theme offered to the smitten sinner.
On this matter of the personal absorption of the wholesome nutrition of Scripture from the meditations of George Herbert, author Barbara Leah Harman expands, quoting at times Barbara Lewalski, “the Protestant poet’s relation to the Bible is not, moreover, limited to the use of it as a model of his own (literary) activity. The Reformation emphasis upon ‘the application of all Scripture to the self,’ and the corresponding ‘invitation to perceive the events and personages of Old and New Testament salvation history not merely as exemplary to them but as actually reca-pitulated in their lives’ meant that individuals personalized Scripture: they saw themselves as ‘the stage for the enactment of the typological’ drama . . . What Lewinski means by this is that the individual Christian mediator must think of him-self — of his own body — as the scene of action, as the location for the scriptural events upon which he meditates. And he must also understand that scriptural events and texts apply to him, mean him, and that he must therefore focus ‘upon his own response to them and upon their significance for his salvation’” (Harman, Costly Monuments, Harvard University Press, 1982, page 24). Herbert is typical of the Reformation-minded author of poetry.
Indeed, Herbert sums up his vocation as a poet-priest with accentuation on the fact of the effectual call of distinguishing grace (Affliction 1). Initially “his words suggest that he could have the service (of aligning with the Lord) or not have it, choose this position or some other. But we can also hear ‘entice’ as spoken by a man who knows that God has designs upon the heart which the heart, in its inno-cence does not see. This speaker also knows that the giving over of the heart is not, and never was, a matter of choice, that the service was neither brave nor not brave: it was simply inescapable (Harman, page 91).
See connected quotations – Affliction 1 When first thou didst entice to thee my heart, I thought the service brave: lines 1 & 2.
Cf The Collar But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word, Me thought I heard one calling,
Child And I reply’d, My Lord.
Biographer Izaak Walton reveals these personal convictions of Herbert, “And I be-seech that God, who hath honored me so much and to call me to serve him at his altar, that as by his special grace he hath put into my heart these good desires and resolutions; so he will, by his assisting grace give me ghostly strength to bring the same to good effect” (1670).
By his own admission George Herbert was in alignment with the strongest princi-ples of Reformation soteriology. Ann Pasternak Slater comments, “C.A. Patrides relates the solipsistic agonies of the speaker of ‘The Collar’ to Christ’s words in ‘The Sacrifice’, in an excellent section on prevenient Grace, as defined by T.S. El-liot: ‘The absolute paternal care/ that will not leave us, but prevents us every-where’” (East Coker, 11 160-61). As an Anglo-Catholic, Elliot may not have been a fully-subscribed Augustinian in the complete sense, but the point is clear that pre-venient grace in the full Reformed signification is to be attributed to the mild mannered, dedicated Calvinist George Herbert. This position is confidently upheld by theologian John Piper and various other literary critics such as Joseph Sum-mers and Gene E. Veith.
Marchette Chute in her fascinating portrait of Herbert observes:
“George Herbert had been brought up a Calvinist in matters of doctrine, as most Protestants were in his day. The dispute with the Puritans was over ritual, not doctrine, and when Herbert attacked Andrew Melville (staunch Scottish advocate of the doctrines of Geneva) on the subject of church services he assured his Puri-tan opponent that they nevertheless agreed wholly on the nature of God. On the point of divine election Herbert disagreed with Lancelot Andrewes just as He dis-approved of the bishop’s style of sermonizing.
To the average Protestant, whether Anglican or Puritan, God was infinite, omnip-otent 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 this iron doctrine of predestination and he and Her-bert once had a ‘debate on the subject, after which Herbert wrote him a 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,
“God 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.
The evidence for Herbert’s Reformational stance mounts:
George Herbert’s theology: Nearer Rome or Geneva. “The Collar is deeply Protestant; God must force salvation upon the speaker”. Page 126, Anne Judith Jenkins, Dissertation, UNC, 2009, “And In Another Make Me Understand”: Read-ing George Herbert in the Light of His Comtempoaries.
Herbert believed as strongly in predestination and the doctrine of grace as he be-lieved in the significance and beauty of the ritual George Herbert, Joseph Sum-mers, p58
Herbert could hold predestination and a version of the real presence (reception-ist) within his belief at the same moment (Louis Martz, George Herbert Review, page 80).
“Herbert not only has heart-occurrences, but as we have seen in “the Collar”, has the right kind to earn the approval a Calvinisically based enthusiasm. The all im-portant occurrence is, of course, the private revelation of God’s presence and all-sufficing love, as at the end of “The Collar, or in “The Glance,” where typically, God embraces man in his worst condition.
“When first thy sweet and gracious eye
Vouchsaf’d ev’n in the midst of youth and night
To look upon me, who before did lie
Weltering in sinne;
I felt a sugred strange delight,
Passing all cordials made by any art,
Bedew, embalme, and overrun my heart,
And take it in.
The Glance, The Poetry of Grace, William H. Halewood, page 103.
In a lyrical accomplishment George Herbert accompanies John Donne as a “hym-nographer” of the highest caliber in the glad acknowledgement and avowal of ef-ficacious grace.
You can read Part 1 here: https://virtueonline.org/anglican-evangelicalism-reclaiming-our-allies-part-one
ANGLICAN EVANGELICALISM: RECLAIMING OUR ALLIES: PART TWO
By the Rev. Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
January 2, 2022
The poet’s voice is necessary in the extolment of God and the preaching of the Gospel. Divine truth is far too sublime to be confined to the strictly literal tongue and matter-of fact grammar that should not be allowed to limit or monopolize the enunciation of the grandeur and glory of the Deity. The high percentage of poet-ry in the Word of God is overwhelming proof of this fact (e.g., Coverdale’s evoca-tive translation of the Psalms). The choirs of angels, and the biblical exhortations to exalted thought conveyed through enchanting song and speech encourage and compel the outpouring of elevated expression of beauteous religious sentiment towards the Monarch of heaven. Our celebration of the Lord should attain the very zenith of amazed description and praise in our ejaculations relating to the excellence of the Lord and his ways.
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