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John Donne

Donne's writings are good once his perspective is understood. The first half of his life was consumed with debauchery - he then had a spiritual awakening and became a priest. He suffered serious health problems the latter part of his life resulting in most of his focus being centered on death. But that view of death was scriptural and edifying to many facing similar circumstances.

Latimer Hall Home Becoming The Thirty Nine Articles John Donne

John Donne [A.D. 1572 A.D. 1631]

By: Reverend Lewis H. How

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…one short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more, death thou shalt die.”

John Donne’s entry into Holy Orders in A.D. 1614 marked the beginning of a creative and passionate preaching ministry. Earlier on in his education however Donne had moved progressively towards a career at the Bar. After attending Oxford and possibly Cambridge he entered first into Thavies Inn then Lincoln’s Inn to study Law: Divinity eventually became his principal interest however as he moved away from Roman Catholicism, the Church of his nativity, and into The Church of England. Yet, despite encouragement to do so, he did not at first seek ordination.

In the course of time, after secular employment eluded him due to a falling out with the Establishment over his marriage, penury brought him to reconsider the possibility of this course and he was ordained in A.D. 1615.

His first appointment was the very suitable cure of Rector to Lincoln’s Inn Fields in A.D. 1616, where he distinguished himself through his preaching. In A.D. 1621 he became Dean of Saint Paul’s where public appreciation for his homiletic powers was sealed.

While his sermons were certainly doctrinally orthodox they were not topically systematic of the tenets but stressed the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Atonement and the Resurrection. Within this framework he purposed himself to preach man’s need for humility and repentance in the light of God’s glory and redemptive mercy. His masterful sermons, delivered with arresting oratory, equally before the Sovereign, the barristers at the Temple Church and the folk of London at Paul’s cross nobly aspired to this double end. For this reason we may view his aim to have been evangelical and pastoral.

Although his writings include some theological controversy, he was it would appear, as witnessed to in his sermons and Divine poetry [as Evelyn M. Simpson concluded] “happiest when he could escape from the mists of theological dispute into the clearer air of faith and devotion.”

Donne spoke frequently of death because all must die, necessitating the preaching of the Gospel, which reveals death to be both the fruit of man’s Fall from Grace and the last enemy defeated by Jesus on the Cross for man’s reclamation and atonement with God.

Sin and its cure are opposites, which by necessity share common ground: the break must be mended at the site of fracture. “We that Paradise and Calvary, Christ’s Cross, And Adam’s tree, stood in one place; Look Lord, and find both Adams met in me; As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face, May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.” [Hymn to God my God, in my sickness: Donne]

And where else is this Good News to be heard save in the Church? Wherein God’s boundless store of Grace allows, through its empowered members, an infinite variety of talent for proclaiming Divine Redemption and Atonement through Jesus Christ! If it is true that for any receipt, “the proof be in the pudding,” then the success of Donne’s sermons realized in the edification of his many listeners, who would stand riveted for long periods in the open air at Paul’s Cross in order to hear him; must surely justify his uniquely creative style characterized by passionate wit, simile and allegory.

Donne’s pastoral evangelism is principally evidenced in his sermons, Divine poems and devotions. These represent his mature works following earlier periods of development including his decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church and seek Holy orders in the Church of England.

His Essays in Divinity reflect this latter process while the works Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius His Conclave express in part his theological differences with Rome. Donne so regretted his early secular poetry that he attempted to destroy all extant copies in his lifetime in order to prevent their being published posthumously. His mature Christian character was, by self-admission, a process of Grace and repentance. It was through his own experience of conversion that Donne derived a burden for his fellow sinners. “The English Church” his biographer Isaac Walton wrote; “had gained a second St. Austine,” [Augustine] “for, I think, none was so like him before his Conversion: none so like St. Ambrose after it: and if his youth had the infirmities of the one, his age had the excellencies of the other, the learning and holiness of both.” After his ordination, Walton noted; “all his studies were concentrated on Divinity…he had a new calling, new thoughts, and a new employment for his wit and eloquence…all the faculties of his own soul were engaged in the Conversion of others: In preaching the glad tidings of Remission to repenting Sinners; and peace to each troubled soul.”

Like all true English Divines, John Donne was rooted and grounded in Holy Scripture. His method of proclaiming the Bible’s Gospel truth was a kind of hybrid between mediaevalism and an ageless universalism. The former was manifest in his use of allegory, a method that preachers of the mediaeval period inherited from Clement of Alexandria and the early Christian Platonists, but which was ultimately derived from the Bible itself. However, by Donne’s time this form of preaching was passing out of style. Allegory had been pressed to the point where the literal meaning was obscured, and it was being replaced by “plain historical exegesis”. [E.M. Simpson]

But Donne’s use of allegory was not abusive of the clear Biblical narrative: In his Essays on Divinity “he condemns the [‘curious refinings of the Allegorical fathers’]” arguing that the Bible must be appreciated for its literal, moral and allegorical revelations. Donne’s own insightful allegory has a timeless quality about it, being “the result, not of scientific investigation of dates and sources, but an insight into the heart of man, which is older than all philosophies, and yet renewed in every child. Thus the Fall of Man, which really concerns him, is the fall, not of Adam, but of John Donne and his hearers from the innocence of childhood to the depravity of manhood. The wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness are the wanderings of the Church of God through the desert of this world…He did not use allegory as a means of escaping from difficulties in the Biblical story. The symbolic meaning did not replace the literal one - rather … interpreted and enriched” it, allowing “fragments to become a glowing whole in the crucible of the preacher’s eloquence.” [E.M. Simpson]

Preaching in A.D.1618 at Whitehall, Donne defended his method. “The Gospel is founded and rooted in the Word; it cannot deserve all acceptation if it be not Gospel, and it is not Gospel if it be not rooted in the Word. Christ himself, as he has an eternal generation, himself is the Word of God; and as he has a human generation, he is the subject of the Word of God, of all the Scriptures, of all that was shadowed in the types and figured in the ceremonies, of all that was foretold by the prophets, of all that the soul of man rejoiced in and congratulated with the spirit of God in the Psalms and in the canticles and in the cheerful parts of spiritual joy and exultation which we have in the Scriptures. Christ is the foundation of all those Scriptures, Christ is the burden of all those songs; Christ was in the Word…So then there never was, there never must be, any other Gospel than is in the written Word of God in the Scriptures.”

Thus, in the freedom of this solidarity with the early Church, John Donne found his home in the reformed catholic position of the Anglican via media. “Let our speech to God” he preached at Lincoln’s Inn, “Be weighed, and measured in the weights of the Sanctuary, let us be content to preach, and to hear within the compass of our Articles, and content to pray in those forms which the Church has mediated for us, and recommend to us.”

John Donne was a great preacher because he applied his gift of wit and creative imagination to the blessed hope of Holy Scripture: and further, because of a love towards his fellow men; whom he knew, due to their sin, to be in eternal peril, except for the merciful loving kindness of the Saviour.

“He insisted upon raising his audience to his own level by the intensity of his spiritual passion…He would not be saved alone; but stretched out imploring hands to the men and women who were sinning as he had sinned, but who were also potential members of the communion of Saints.” [E.M. Simpson]

It has been suggested that his passionate nature was unusual, if not inappropriate for a Dean of Saint Paul’s. I believe just the opposite of the latter judgement to be true. John Donne was a pastor to be ranked with such the like as, Jewel, Hooker, Andrewes, Simeon, the Venn’s, Burgon, Keble and others both of preferment and obscurity.

In his preaching, Donne was able to bring folk of every station to a serious consideration of the Gospel. What greater dignity could crown the office of Dean? And for all his riveting verbosity, he was able to sum the Faith in a breath. Speaking at Saint Paul’s in A.D.1624 under the entitlement The Voice of God; Donne expressed the doctrines of The Fall, the Atonement and The Resurrection thus: “No man kills his enemy therefore, that his enemy might have a better life in heaven; that is not his end in killing him: It is God’s end; therefore he brings us to death, that by that gate he might lead us into life everlasting; And he hath not discovered, but made that Northern passage, to pass by the frozen sea of calamity, and tribulation, to Paradise, to the heavenly Jerusalem.”

Perhaps the most familiar example of John Donne’s sympathy for his fellow men is to be found amongst his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth meditations, Donne applies the use of Church bells in the departure of the faithful from this world, to speak of how the deaths of others relate to him directly. 

The passing bell reminds him that he too must die. The knell tells him that he partakes in the death of others. “Who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manner of thy friends, or of thine own were; Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

In this present age of perfidy which fits so well Paul’s prophecy to the Thessalonians concerning the “falling away” 2 Thessalonians 2:3; John Donne’s faithful witness to the Gospel deserves to experience a renaissance amongst Anglicans. In the preamble to the current Canadian Anglican burial liturgy, mourners are told, “the truth is that we do not know the condition of the dead.” [Page 567 B.A.S.] Yet, in Job’s great confession of the Resurrection, the prime root to know is used. And when Jesus began His ministry, He called for “repentance, and belief” in the Gospel. He desires our trust, not a forced acknowledgement. Furthermore, the word “belief” used by Jesus conveys, in the Greek, a religious conviction of truth. “Faith”, Paul said, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1 Doubt confessed as sin repented, is a step towards greater faith: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” Mark 9:24

Doubt exalted, is the sowing of tares amongst the wheat. “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matthew 18:6

This is our knowledge, even the assurance of our faith. “The knowledge which I have by Nature,” Donne wrote “shall have no Clouds; here it hath: That which I have by Grace, shall have no reluctation; here it hath: That which I have by Revelation, shall have no suspicion, no jealousy; here it hath:” [sermon XXV, knowledge in Heaven] “All knowledge that begins not, and ends not with his glory, is but a giddy, but a vertiginous circle, but an elaborate and exquisite ignorance.” [Sermon XVII: True Knowledge]. “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” John 20:25 “Blessed are they” Donne confessed, in imitation of our Lord, “that inanimate all their knowledge, to consummate all in Christ Jesus.” [Ibid]

Who, I ask, is the Christian? He who “ministers” to the mourner with non-Biblical doubt; or he who says, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.”

“I am the Resurrection, and the life:  he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” John 11:25-26

To believe in any thing less is to fall short of the religion of Jesus Christ. John Donne’s conviction never faltered, his witness did not fail. He served faith and truth. Wit was not the essence of his work, but a vehicle for his ministry in Christ. One comes to John Donne for a good confession aimed at the sinner’s reclamation and encouragement to the faithful. His was a mixture of that uncommon non-pejorative duplicity of character, which gave to the Church, what Isaac Walton called, a “naked thinking heart”. He was reason driven by sympathy, great both in mind and heart.

He taught us that the Church, as the Body of Christ, must be concerned with the eternal well being of every life. “The Church is Catholic, universal,” he wrote in the meditations; “so are all her Actions; all that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that Head which is my Head too, and engrafted into that body, whereof I am a member. And when she buries a Man, that action concerns me: All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one Man dies, one Chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by Age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation; and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that Library where every book shall lie open to one another.” [Seventeenth meditation] Perhaps one of the best ways to sum up John Donne’s pastoral message is through his symbolic treatment of sin, redemption and faith; Adam’s tree, Christ’s Cross, the Church’s anchor.

Jesus confronts sin at its source, placing the Cross in the midst of Adam’s tree, while our faith in this His redemptive act transforms Christ’s Cross-into an anchor of hope. This is the Gospel of Salvation, John Donne’s joy and calling! Together with his statue, in a niche of Saint Paul’s Cathedral; Donne’s self-composed epitaph closes: “and here, though set in dust, he beholdeth Him whose name is the Rising.”

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