Coleridge, Christology, and the Language of Redemption

Article excerpt

The Anglican poet and philosophical theologian Samuel Taylor Coleridge privately wrote notebooks that develop vital aspects of his mature public theology, especially his understanding of the doctrine of redemption. While Aids to Reflection (1825) is Coleridge's central public explanation of the doctrine of redemption, the late notebooks reveal the careful exegetical work that grounds his theological system. Through a close analysis of Paul and John, Coleridge questions traditional theological assumptions about the meaning of redemption. Coleridge's analysis of theological language, sacramental imagery, and the role of symbols allows him to distinguish between the work of Christ and the consequences of its effects in individual Christians. Coleridge's mature theology influenced the mid-nineteenth-century Broad Church Movement as well as a variety of North American theologies.

One of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's (1772-1834) most significant contributions to nineteenth-century Anglican theology was his critical study of the Bible. Even as a young Unitarian preacher speaking throughout the Bristol region, Scripture formed Coleridge's burgeoning philosophical theology. As Coleridge explained in the Biographia Literaria, his earliest religious difficulties came in the attempt to reconcile personality with infinity: but though his "head" was with Spinoza, the biblical wisdom of Paul and John ruled his "heart."1 Late in life, Coleridge penned thousands of private notebook entries on the Bible that he intended to contribute to his long-planned magnum opus - -a philosophical and encyclopedic defense of religion. Coleridge hoped, according to one lengthy outline of the opus in May 1828, to devote a whole volume of his work to a study of die Bible: "It will be, I trust, a complete Substitute for the German Introductions to the Old & New Testaments ... a real History of the Bible - not a flat newwording of the Bible History - the great object to restore the Bible to its [sic] due place in the Love & Veneration of Christians by at once establishing its Homopneumaty yet asserting it's [sic] Humanities."2 Though these critical notebook commentaries remained unpublished during his lifetime, they are pivotal for a fuller recovery of Coleridge's theology.

I argue that Coleridge's late notebooks, especially bis commentaries on Scripture, enhance our understanding of his mature theological system by providing the exegetical groundwork of bis adherence to the Christian doctrine of redemption· Redemption ranks high among the central themes of Coleridgean theology. In Aids to Reflection (1825)- - widely regarded as the "central statement" of the doctrine in his writings - Coleridge goes so far as to claim that "Christianity and Redemption are equivalent terms."3 Placing the idea of redemption in Aids to Reflection wthin the fuller context of the notebook commentaries reveals Coleridge's unique place as "Theologian of the Word." His full account of redemption is far more than a corrective to early nineteenth-century Protestant theology, as it appears in Aids to Reflection. Rather, Coleridge's theology provides a thoroughgoing, constructive analysis of the person of Christ that relies heavüy on a critical exegesis of Paul and John. The notebooks, in my view, should be regarded as an essential part of the Coleridgean corpus: rather than the scattered, fragmentary remains of unfinished labor, the notebooks actually strengthen die case that Coleridge developed a broadly unified system of theology.4 Attending to the full scheme of redemption in these works also sheds further fight on several prominent themes in Coleridge's thought, including his understanding of theological language, use of sacramental imagery, and the role of symbols in his system - themes that were later taken up by Broad Church Anglican theologians such as Julius Hare and Charles Kingsley.

The Language of Redemption

The chief object of Coleridge's Aids to Reflection - a volume devoted to "the formation of a manly character on the several grounds of prudence, morality, and religion" - is "the value of the Science of Words, their use and abuse" (AR, 6-7). …