An Introduction to the Poetry of George Herbert

Many will disagree with this statement but…. The Church of England is basically Reformed. Or at least it is rooted in Reformed theology. Take for instance the 39 Articles. Although they are trying to forge a via media between Catholicism and Puritan theology, they end up looking a lot like standard Reformed theology. For example article XVII which is on predestination and election, XIX which is on the Church sounds a lot like Calvin, and XXVII which is on the Lord’s Supper is plainly Calvinist repudiating both Anabaptist beliefs and Roman Catholic doctrines; and Lutheran doctrine isn’t even on the table (in case you don’t catch it, that’s a pun). However if you don’t believe me, there is another confession that “proves” my point. Many Reformed people use this confession and don’t even know where it comes from. It’s the ever so dear Westminster Confession of Faith. Written in 1646 it was created for use in the Anglican Church. The history goes back to 1643 when the English Parliament called upon “learned, godly and judicious Divines”, to meet at Westminster Abbey in order to provide advice on issues of worship, doctrine, government and discipline of the Church of England. (Side Note: The original confession contains some embarrassing stuff like calling the Pope the Anti-Christ!) What ended up happening was that this confession was eventually adopted by the Church of Scotland, many Presbyterian Churches, and it even formed the basis for the Second London Baptist Confession of faith. So my point is, Reformed theology has a special place in the history of the Church of England, even though it might not play a prominent role in it today.

Herbert is a sort of paradox, even by Anglican standards. If the Anglican church is a via media then Herbert walks another via media  within this via media this time between High Church Anglicanism and Low Church Anglicanism; between Laudian Anglicanism and Puritan Anglicanism. Herbert preferred ceremony over bareness, was quite often drawn in his poetry to Eucharistic though, and at times displayed a preference to a “catholic” image of Christ’s suffering. Yet Herbert also shows his hands as a Calvinist, this is especially prominent in his use of doctrines like election and his insistence on justification independent of human merit. However even within his Reformed orthodoxy he vacillates on Assurance, at times it seems as though he does indeed deny the doctrine yet ultimately it seems (at least to me) that it is simply an existential angst after all, all of us are susceptible to these sort of worries. In the end, despite worries, doubts, and anxieties regarding his own salvation he displays an deep certainty in an assurance of God’s faithfulness and love, and ultimately his forgiveness. This is all to say that George Herbert was an interesting character, worthy of some reflection in this blog.

Over the next few days, weeks (years!), I will be reflecting upon some of his poetry but for now I leave you with this (an-unreflected-upon) poem by George Herbert.

 

 The Dedication

Lord, my first fruits present themselves to thee;

Yet not mine neither: for from thee they came,

And must return. Accept of them and me,

And make us strive, who shall sing best they name.

      Turn their eyes hither, who shall make a gain:

      Theirs, who shall hurt themselves or me, refrain.

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