The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert and Milton: a brief review

Crossway are publishing Devo poetryChristian Guides to the Classics, a series of compendia to classic literature by Leland Ryken, who served as professor of English at Wheaton College and is known in biblical studies and Christian thought for books like Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (co-ed.) and Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were. A number of famous works, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Homer’s The Odyssey, have been treated in the series, and this volume breaks the mold by focusing on three different authors and some of their various lyric poems. As someone who is now ever immersed in analyzing the details of scholastic theology (which can indeed be edifying if done properly!), I find this sort of work a welcome change of pace, a helpful way to counterbalance some of the other reading that occupies my time.

Ryken begins by sketching some fundamental traits of lyric poems, particularly their subjectivity: ‘Lyric poets speak directly instead of projecting their thoughts and feelings onto characters in a story.’ As to their form, the poems considered here are sonnets in which there is a ‘statement of the controlling theme’, a ‘development of the controlling theme’ and a ‘resolution or rounding off the poem with a note of finality and closure’ (p. 8). What makes the character of these short works to be ‘devotional’ is that they have ‘Christian experience and doctrine as [their] subject matter’. The effect of devotional poetry is thus ‘to increase one’s commitment to God and the godly life’, but with a greater density of content and a higher artistry than our typical devotional reading (p. 13).

As Ryken proceeds through the different sections, he gives a one-page biography of each poet. John Donne was Roman Catholic and converted to Anglicanism, preaching, in Ryken’s words, ‘ostentatious, highly literary sermons to the intellectual elite of London society’ (p. 15). By contrast, George Herbert was an Anglican minister in a small village. He ‘polished his lone collection of poems privately, and on his deathbed he handed the volume over to his friend Nicholas Ferrar’ (p. 47). Different still was John Milton, a Puritan spokesman and political figure who in his poetry ‘cultivated what is called the high style’. While Donne and Herbert ‘wrote in a middle style…Milton wanted the grand effect’ (p. 75).

For each of these authors’ poems, Ryken provides a short introduction, a lightly annotated text, a commentary and finally a few questions for further discussion. Ryken’s stated goal is not to ‘[tear] the poem apart’ but rather to ‘explicate’ it in such a way that readers ‘are putting the poem together in approximately the same way that the poet followed when composing the poem’ (p. 9). In other words, one should still be able to derive aesthetic enjoyment and spiritual benefit from these small works in the midst of the analysis. The examination of each poem is brief and doesn’t take the reader into painstaking detail, which certainly helps to keep the problem of ‘tearing apart the poem’ at bay. Because of this, the book can serve to educate readers on literary dynamics of some classic works and also still function as a spiritual resource. In a perfect world, there might have been a way to give the text of each poem its own distinct page so that a reader could more easily contemplate the poem itself without their eyes being drawn up to the introduction or down to the commentary. However, that’s a relatively small issue in the end. On the whole, this is a sharp little book written in a helpfully straightforward style and attentive to both the literary and spiritual dimensions of devotional poetry.

Since we’ve just celebrated Easter, here is one sample from Donne:

Death, Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee doth go,

Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well,

And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

New creation and ‘Gnosticism’: à Brakel once more

a brakelAside from frustrations experienced when someone advocates a pretribulational rapture, I would consider myself someone who doesn’t get riled up about eschatology very easily. Christ will return, and the dead shall rise (1 Thess. 4:13-18). Christ will judge all, and God will bring creation out of its bondage to decay so that all those whose names are written in the book of life will dwell there with God forever (Rev. 20:11-15; 21-22). These are central to our Christian hope. Yet, there are still interesting questions to be discussed in the ambit of the main concerns.

In reading through à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service, I came across his discussion of the nature of the new creation and paused for some reflection. Will this heaven and earth be purged of sin and death and restored by God, or will God annihilate the current creation and start over completely? According to à Brakel, respectable folk can disagree on this one, but he provides some compelling reasons to hold that the ‘structural edifice’ or ‘substance’ of the current heavens and the earth will remain and simply be purged and restored to a right condition.

These reasons include: (1) Peter expects restoration (apokatastasis) in Acts 3:21. (2) Paul’s reference to the ‘whole creation’ in Romans 8:18-25 is broader than the company of Christian believers, and the ‘whole creation’ is to be delivered, not annihilated. (3) The ‘folding up’ and ‘changing’ of creation in Psalm 102 and Hebrews 1 assumes that what is changed ‘continues to exist in essence’. (4) Peter (2 Pet. 3) likens the destruction of creation to the perishing of the old world in the flood of Noah, which was not an annihilation of all things (4:353-5). Because of Revelation 21:1, à Brakel is prepared to allow that the sea may be omitted from the new creation, but even here ‘[w]hether this refers to substance or characteristics, we shall leave unanswered’ (4:355). Indeed, there’s quite a lot that à Brakel is prepared to leave ‘unanswered’: Continue reading

Spiritual darkness and ‘keeping a low profile’

a brakelSpiritual darkness is something that affects – or at least can affect – all Christian believers. It may develop as a result of a particular affliction (Lord, why this?), or it may be difficult to link to any one issue in life. It comes in the form of seemingly inexplicable feelings of doubt, loss of joy, loss of clarity about spiritual matters and so on. It is likely running its course in the lives of quite a few in our own churches.

Thankfully, this is something addressed with specificity and pastoral insight by the Dutch Reformed minister Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) in his excellent work The Christian’s Reasonable Service (4 vols with Reformation Heritage Books). After serving churches for forty years, à Brakel published this gem that not only covers topics commonly found in systematic theologies but also addresses many of the Christian’s immediately practical concerns.

He defines ‘spiritual darkness’ in this way: it is a ‘spiritual disease of a person who has made some progress in the Christian life’ in which that person faces ‘the absence of the normal illuminating influences of the Holy Spirit’ and is ‘without joy, warmth, and direction’. Such a person ‘lives in fear and anxiety, causing him to wander about aimlessly, as in a desert’ (4:260). It’s difficult to provide more precision in defining this phenomenon, but I think, as they say, we’ll know it when we see it. According to à Brakel, spiritual darkness is manifested in sorrow, even in ‘fleeting atheistic thoughts’ and temptations to err in doctrine and practice. In another respect, it is like being cold: ‘During the winters and beneath the pole-caps everything becomes immobile due to the frost’ (4:261-2).

What are the causes for this darkness? Whether because he is dealing more narrowly with strictly spiritual darkness and/or because it simply wasn’t on his radar, à Brakel doesn’t deal here with depression influenced by bodily issues. Suffice it to say, for my part, I believe spiritual darkness, physiology and even what we often call ‘personality’ (or personality type) can be intertwined. In any event, à Brakel names several potential causes for spiritual darkness:

Continue reading

I’ve got (someone else’s) mail

(c) University of St Andrews; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI’ve just finished reading a volume of Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ letters collected by Iain Murray and have now taken up the letters of Samuel Rutherford in the Puritan Paperbacks series. Rutherford, if I may say so, didn’t come down on the right side when debate took place over whether (and in what sense) the substitutionary death of Christ was necessary for the forgiveness of our sins, but I feel some connection to him since his likeness looms large in a painting in College Hall at St Mary’s College, where doctoral seminars take place for St Andrews theology students. Indeed, I used to study in the Rutherford Room, and Rutherford’s gravestone (d. 1661) is still visible in the cemetery on the east end of town.

I’m not entirely sure why I am drawn to the genre of personal letters as a means of promoting my own spiritual growth, but, certainly with Rutherford’s letters, one of the benefits is seeing the grace of God at work in the midst of a saint’s trials. Rutherford was imprisoned for his ecclesiastical commitments and faced the prospect of exile in Aberdeen – how does this strike our Aberdeen friends? – and his endurance in hardship is a token of God’s faithfulness and mercy. Life was hard, and he was prepared to live it, trusting that God was and is good and that fellowship with the triune God is greater than all things.

This, for me, is one of the draws for reading the letters of spiritual giants: reassurance that God is good and faithful when his people suffer. Another benefit of reading letters or biographies, I would suggest, is that we are given a window into the humanity of great thinkers and leaders. To know that Lloyd-Jones loved a good joke, to know that Spurgeon (for a while!) loved a good smoke*, reminds us that our Christian forebears were human and that, when we in the Christian life cannot escape the natural, mundane, enjoyable details of everyday life, this doesn’t mean we’re unfaithful or unfruitful Christians.


* Theology Forum does not promote the use of tobacco products. Actually, it just doesn’t discuss tobacco products at all.

‘Calvinism’ and its Discontents: a Plea for Understanding

John CalvinTalk of the ‘new Calvinists’ or ‘new Calvinism’ abounds online these days, and the movement has elicited critiques in print in Austin Fischer’s book Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed and in portions of Roger Olson’s Against Calvinism. Yet, one new blog post on Calvin’s Institutes – cast in the form of a break-up letter – is the most immediate occasion for the reflections offered here. Here are some loosely connected musings: one concerning the approach to the issues, one concerning theological issues themselves, one suggesting some practical ways forward for the curious. Continue reading

Two Logos Translations

PolanusFor many the name of Logos calls to mind strictly linguistic resources for studying the Bible, but its repertoire of theological helps is broader than that. In particular, there will be two translations available in the near future that are cause for excitement among Reformed theology enthusiasts and historical theology enthusiasts in general.

One is a translation of Amandus Polanus’ (1561-1610) Syntagma Theologiae Christianae (see here). The early Reformed orthodox author’s system of Christian doctrine is an excellent pathway into the intellectual and spiritual riches of this period of Protestant thought. Though all scholastic theology strives to be orderly, Polanus’ work is very useful for its concise definitions and explanations of the divine attributes, for example. As it happens, in recent research in Christology I benefited from his sketch of the doctrine of the person of Christ and found it to be a nice complement to a work like Turretin’s, which is already available in English.

Polanus appears as a dialogue partner in Barth’s Church Dogmatics but, with a number of other Protestant scholastic writers, is sadly misunderstood at certain points. Translations like this will help to reinstate theologians like Polanus as thinkers that must be taken seriously today and will help us to practice theology in an ad fontes posture.

Another translation is a new version of John Owen’s Theologoumena Pantodapa, which outlines the history of theology through different segments of redemptive history (see here). Continue reading

Puritan Prayers: The Trinity

Valley of VisionWith the PhD thesis officially submitted, I’m hoping to eek out a few blog posts now. My wife recently gave me a copy of The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers and devotional reflections. It has been a joy to read thus far for several different reasons.

Probably the most significant aspect of it for me is its way of reminding me of who God is and why it is such a blessing to have a place among the saints. Even when devoting oneself to the doctrine of God in systematics, one can never take in enough thoughtful pastoral statements about the goodness and wisdom of God. These nourish and stabilize our faith (certainly mine, at least).

The meaning of the name of the volume is glimpsed in the opening prayer:

You have brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see you in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold your glory….Let me learn by paradox…that the valley is the place of vision….Let me find thy light in my darkness…thy glory in my valley.

The book is excellent not only for personal reading but also as a resource for crafting pastoral prayers to be used in corporate worship. Here is a longer portion of the prayer entitled “The Trinity”:

O Father, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have given me to Jesus, to be his sheep, jewel, portion; O Jesus, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have accepted, espoused, bound me; O Holy Spirit, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have exhibited Jesus as my salvation, implanted faith within me, subdued my stubborn heart, made me one with him forever. O Father, you are enthroned to hear my prayers, O Jesus, your hand is outstreched to take my petitions, O Holy Spirit, you are willing to help my infirmities, to show me my need, to supply words, to pray within me, to strengthen me that I faint not in supplication. O Triune God, who commands the universe, you have commanded me to ask for those things that concern your kingdom and my soul. Let me live and pray as one baptized into the threefold Name.

The book of course isn’t designed for the lenten season, but it does include a series of morning and evening daily prayers as well.