Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

The Theology of John Donne

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

The Theology of John Donne

Article excerpt

Jeffrey Johnson, The Theology of John Donne, D. S. Brewer, Studies in Renaissance Literature, vol. 1, Cambridge, 1999, pp xiii + 162, £40 ($75), ISBN 0859915441

Jeffrey Johnson's carefully structured book summarizes, in five chapters, five focal points in the preaching of Donne: his doctrines on the Holy Trinity, on prayer, on religious imagery, on repentance, and on grace. Each chapter supplies dozens of references to dozens of sermons; a useful index to these references informs the reader of the pages on which Johnson cites particular sermons from each of the ten volumes of the standard edition. Broad general statements do not in this book depend on singular or inaccessible evidence.

Moreover, beyond drawing amply on the complete range of Donne's Sermons, each of the five chapters explicates several sermons with extended discussion of their various contexts in particular circumstances and congregations. Unlike some critics, Johnson does not merely search out sentences or phrases from various sermons as if these could conclusively confirm general theories. Opening sections of the five chapters deal briefly with specifics of the occasions and background for five particular sermons, and all five of the chapters include extended, contextual discussions of other sermons as well. Using representative biographical and historical scholarship, as well as key primary sources, Johnson brings to bear on interpreting all these sermons a fair amount about concurrent biography, royal and ecclesiastical politics, and relevant doctrinal controversies.

The opening chapter (following David Nicholls and others) outlines, as the fundamental doctrine of Donne's theology, his conception of the Holy Trinity. Key texts here are two Court sermons (Potter and Simpson IX: 1 and 2), the second not clearly dated but probably preached near the first in April 1629. At a time when King Charles's struggle with Parliament had come to a crisis, Johnson argues, Donne's preaching discreetly observed and was sensitive in handling details of the political crisis. …

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