“John Donne was an early seventeenth century Anglican to the core. If the Divine Comedy is a literary monument to Thomism, and The Pilgrim’s Progress the dramatic embodiment of Puritanism, then the Sermons of Donne are the most compelling presentation of that Summa of Anglicanism: Richard Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiatical Polity.” (p149)
A careful reading of Donne’s life and sermons reveals that he possessed a keen awareness of the genius of Anglicanism. In my estimation he fleshed out at least two essential elements that marked the English Church of the seventeenth century:
- Donne knew not only what to say but what not to say. The axiom, “There are some things better left unsaid,” most certainly applies to Donne.
- Donne possessed a pastoral flexibility that enabled him to skillfully accentuate what Anglicanism considered to be the essentials of the faith, while tactfully avoiding what she reasoned to be issues of needless controversy.
While considering these issues, it is helpful to remember that Donne lived out these principles in an effort to unify both a national Church and the Church Catholic. This ministry paradigm was labeled the via media, or the “middle way” between Rome on the one hand and the progeny of Geneva and Wittenberg on the other.
One of the greatest tributes that can be paid to Donne is that during his sixteen year ministry he maintained his theological equilibrium. This is especially noteworthy since he lived in an era when the Church was rocked by excitable circumstances that left her bruised and staggering.
Donne knew the necessity of and limits of reform. He possessed the diplomatic savvy to delicately navigate the English Church through the turbulent waters of change without running her aground on the rocks of schism.
In a sermon preached at St. Paul’s on Philippians 3:2, “Beware of the circumcision,” he writes, “[Circumcision] is an orderly, a useful, a medicinal, a beneficial pruning and pairing off, [of] that which is superfluous.” Concision (i.e. mutilation) on the other hand, “is a hasty and a rash plucking up, or cutting down, and an unprofitable tearing down, and rending into shreds and fragments . . . “ (X p112)
Donne considered the disease of Rome to be superfluity, or an excessive amount of extra-biblical baggage that hung like millstones around the necks of weary parishioners. On the other hand, the Separatists were plagued by deficiency, or an unbridled zeal to cast off the meaningful traditions of the Continental and English Church.
To continue with St. Paul’s and Donne’s illustration, it might be said that the Anglican Church was able to carefully circumcise its Roman foreskin while avoiding emasculation at the hands of the Separatists.
In a sermon preached at White-hall, April 30, 1620, Donne wrote, “Sects are not bodies but rotten boughes, gangrened limmes, fragmentary chips, blowne off by their owne spirit of of turbulency, fallen off by the waight of their own pride, hewn off by the excommunications and censures of the Church. Sects are no bodies, for there is nothing in common amongst them, nothing that goes through them all; all is singular, all is my spirit and thy spirit, my opinion and thy opinion, my God and thy God, no such aprehension, no such worship of God, as the whole Church hath been aquainted withall, and contented with."
According to Donne, true religion is not to be found “either in a painted Church, on the one side, or in a naked church, on the other; a church in dropsie, overflowne with ceremonies, or a church in a consumption, for want of such ceremonies, as the primitive church found usefull, and beneficiall for the advancing of the glory of God, and the devotion of the congregation.” (VI p284)
As one might expect, Donne asserted that the evenhanded, carefully measured, and levelheaded mean was to be found in the Church of England.
“. . . we stript not the Church into nakedness, nor into rags; we divested her not of her possessions, nor of her ceremonies, but received such a Reformation at home, by their hands whom God enlightened, as left her neither in a dropsie, nor in a consumption; neither in a superflous and cumbersome fatness, nor in an uncomely and faint leanness and attenuation.” (IV p106)
It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance which Donne places on the Church’s responsibility to distinguish between the fundamentals and the indifferent, collateral doctrines that qualify as the nonfundamentals of the faith. For Donne and the English Church, the essentials of the faith, or the sine qua non, were to be found in the Apostle’s Creed and the Thirty-Nine Articles.
Here, Donne states in explicit terms his greatest objection to the Roman Church, that is, its insistence upon making “indifferent things to be necessary.” In the aforementioned sermon, he is mostly likely reacting to the Council of Trent which met between 1545 to 1563 to redefine its doctrine and condemn the Reformation.
Donne diagnosed the diseased-ridden papacy as overestimating the authority of the Church and undervaluing the role of Scripture in establishing doctrine. Donne and the English Church of the seventeenth century affirmed that the Church does not make articles of faith but merely declares them.
In a sermon on Job 19:26, preached at Lincoln’s Inn, he writes, “In the Gospell, the way is, Fecit, & dicta sunt, God makes articles of faith, and the Church merely declares them, presents them.” (III pp94-95)
He tells King Charles and the congregation at Whitehall on April 1, 1627, “Take heed what you hear” (Mark 4:24) When Christ so addressed his apostles, he was urging them to ‘Preach all that, preach nothing but that which you have received from me.'” (VII p395)
Elsewhere he added, “. . . they deliver more than the Scriptures do, and make other rules and cannons equall to Scriptures.” (VII p402)
The result of this ecclesiastical amalgam of Scripture and tradition is that the Roman Church was as quick to damn those who denied collateral doctrines as those who denied the fundamental teachings of Christ.
Having made a sufficient stand against the frontal assault of Rome, Donne was careful to guard the flank of Anglicanism by deflecting the verbal blows of the Separatists. They “have gone away from us and vainly said that they have as good cause to separate from us, as we from Rome.” (X p174) If Rome had too many “essentials” for Canterbury, then Canterbury had too many for the Separatists.
Generally speaking, the Separatists believed that the English reformation had moved the Church in the right direction but it failed to move it far enough. Seventeenth-century Anglicanism, on the other hand, insisted that the Separatists were as rigid about nonessentials (vestments, kneeling at prayer, church music) as the papists.
“Call not ceremonial, and rituall things, essentiall parts of religion, and of the worship of God, otherwise then as they imply disobedience; for obedience to lawful authority is always an essential part of religion.” (VI p258)
The first part of the statement frees Anglicans from the collateral doctrines of Rome and would seem to liberate the Separatists from the demands of English ceremony. The second statement frees Anglicans because they didn’t recognize the authority of the pope. Yet, it hobbled the runaway sects, for they were lawful citizens of King Charles, who was head of both Church and state.
“Except there be error in fundamental points, such as make that Church no Church, let no man depart from that Church, and that religion, in which he delivered himself to the service of God at first.” (III p129)
For Donne, the Separatists were too contentious over indifferent matters, too willful and proud of their own opinions, and too disrespectful of God-ordained authority. They would rather desert the Church than tolerate its nonessentials.
“In matters that are not fundamental, it is better to be wrong than to be uncharitable, and the man who is uncharitably right may have less chance of entering heaven that the one who is charitably wrong, for in such cases, humility, and love of peace, may, in the sight of God excuse and recompense many errors, and mistakings.” (VII p97)