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Poets, Protestants, Romantics, and Reformers

11 March 2016

Andrew Davison continues his chronological survey of important theologians


Richard Hooker by Wenceslas Hollar

Richard Hooker by Wenceslas Hollar

OUR story picks up after the Reformation has begun to take hold across Europe. Among a generation born into a reformed Church of England, particular honour rightly goes to Richard Hooker (1554–1600). Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity is a work of enormous learning, and is often said to set the running for what an “Anglican approach” looks like.

It touches on a range of subjects far wider than its title might suggest: Hooker’s discussion of Christology, for instance, is particularly masterly. Honour is due also to Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), not least for his magnificent prose. His sermons are composed like someone rotating a theological jewel, so that it catches the light from a variety of angles.

Among the many masterly theological English poets who might be mentioned, George Herbert (1593-1633) is perhaps the most highly prized. A significant further Anglican tradition in the mid-17th century is found in the “Cambridge Platonists”. Among the Protestant writers who rejected the Anglican settlement, we might name Richard Baxter (1615-1691) as particularly appealing.

As the Reformation bedded in, theological discussions often centred on grace, freedom, predestination, and assurance. We see that, for instance, in Jakob Arminius (1560-1609), who took a position against emerging Calvinist orthodoxy. Among Roman Catholics, the Dutch bishop Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638) championed a reading of Augustine on these matters that was thought by many of his contemporaries (including two popes) to come too close to a hard-line Protestant interpretation.

Jansen was a significant influence on a religious community at Port-Royal, near Paris (the site is now well within the city). Important theologians and philosophers within its ambit included Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who is also known for his contributions to mathematics. Two hymn-writers of this period, of the greatest theological distinction, are the brothers Jean-Baptiste and Claude de Santeuil.

Other Roman Catholic writing from this period, for instance by Alphonsus Maria Liguori (1696-1787), will often strike the contemporary reader as largely devotional in character. Not all was smooth, however, in that Church. Antonio Rosmini (1797- 1855), who founded the Institute of Charity (also known today as the Rosminians), studied the work and calling of the Church in his Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church. It called for reform, and was placed on the index of prohibited books by the Vatican. Later, however, Rosmini himself was singled out for particular praise by John Paul II, and beatified by Benedict XVI.

The Reformation closed down the religious institutions that had given women a more prominent theological voice in the later Middle Ages. Only in the more radically “free” sections of Protestantism did women hold authority to teach and administer. We might think of the prophet Joanna Southcott (1750-1814), or Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791).

One figure whose writings are highly prized today, across traditions, is the Carmelite reformer Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), the first woman hailed as a Doctor of the Church by Rome, although she had to wait until 1970.

With the Reformed theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), we encounter the first American in our survey. He was one of the foremost revivalist preachers of the first “Great Awakening”, and his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is particularly well known. We might therefore be surprised to discover that he was a philosophical theologian of considerable distinction, who wrote on, for instance, beauty with great insight.

Among Edwards’s exact contemporaries in England was John Wesley (1703-1791). His brother Charles was born in 1707 (and died in 1788). They were at the centre of that collective revival of piety that would eventually separate from the Church of England as the Methodist Movement. John is particularly known for his warm but demanding writing on grace and holiness, and Charles for an astonishingly large corpus of deeply theological hymns.

On the Continent, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is often credited as being the “father of liberal Protestantism”. Schleiermacher presented the faith in terms deeply reliant on feeling (and, in particular, on the feeling of absolute dependence upon God); and was criticised for sitting freely to a number of Christian doctrines. His Christian Faith is an indisputable masterpiece, and today’s often conservative-leaning students are usually surprised at how well they take to it.

Schleiermacher represents a Romantic reaction to 18th-century rationalism. In England, on similar territory, we might note the poet, philosopher, and all-round literary figure Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). He stands out as continuing to exercise a strongly generative influence on theologians to the present day, not least in his writing on the imagination — despite his rather jumbled output (due, no doubt in part, to his opium use).

John Henry Newman (1801-1890), beatified by Benedict XVI in 2010, was first a leading figure in the Catholic revival in the Church of England (the Oxford Movement), and then became a Roman Catholic (where he joined the Oratorian order). His work on the development of doctrine, in particular, was to have an enormous influence on later Catholic thinking, and beyond.

Our final figure is the enigmatic Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), a Danish philosopher who loved paradox, wrote under various pseudonyms, and opposed all that was settled and comfortable in the state Lutheranism of his day. His theological vision consistently condemns generalities (such as those he found in the philosopher Hegel), throwing the reader upon the hard-edge choices to be made by each individual.


Suggested further reading

THERE is a modern edition of Hooker’s works from the Folger Library (1977 onwards). It is scholarly and very expensive. An older edition, edited by John Keble, is widely available in cheap versions, including Michael Russell’s “Create Space” paperbacks. Russell’s Hooker’s Blueprint summarises the whole of the Laws, section by section (Via Media Press, 2004). Wipf and Stock have reproduced Ninety-Six Sermons by Lancelot Andrewes in five volumes. Paulist Press have an anthology of Cambridge Platonist Spirituality, edited by Charles Taliaferro (2004).

Pascal’s Pensees (”Thoughts”) have been translated several times, for instance by A. Krailsheimer for Penguin (1995). Readers should note that the numbering of these assorted reflections is not consistent across two different schemes. Rosmini’s Five Wounds was published in English in 1883, in a translation by the Tractarian Henry Liddon.

Yale University Press have a Works of Jonathan Edwards series in 26 volumes, and a useful Jonathan Edwards Reader, edited by John Smith (2003). Earlier collections are available in cheap reprints. Schleiermacher’s Christian Faith is available in an English translation by H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (T&T Clark, 1999).

Newman wrote an intellectual autobiography, the Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Alongside several volumes of sermons, his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine lays out his perspective on that topic; his Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent and his On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine are both important. Each of these works has appeared in several editions.

Kierkegaard has been well served by anthologisers, including Howard and Edna Hong with The Essential Kierkegaard (Princeton University Press, 2000). George Pattison has translated a selection of his Upbuilding Discourses in Spiritual Writings (Harper, 2010).

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