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  • Exegesis and Experience in Herbert and Calvin
  • Gary Kuchar
Daniel W. Doerksen, Picturing Religious Experience: George Herbert, Calvin, and the Scriptures. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2011. xiv + 242 pp. $75.00 cloth.

Daniel W. Doerksen's new book Picturing Religious Experience is a richly documented study of Herbert's representation of spiritual life in the context of John Calvin's exegetical writings, particularly the reformer's commentaries on the psalms and the Pauline epistles. Further arguing that Herbert was happily ensconced in the Calvinist consensus of the pre-Caroline Church, Doerksen claims that "the poet was not interested in the Reformer's disputes with the Roman church or with the Anabaptists, but in his biblical commentary" (pp. 1-2). According to this account, Herbert was strictly invested in spiritual experience rather than formal theology or controversy - deriving the motivations, structures, and themes of his poems on spiritual life more from Calvin's exegetical writings than from his polemics or even the methodically argued theology of the Institutes. Most important, for Doerksen, Herbert found his pattern of conflict and resolution in Calvin.

In making his case, Doerksen demonstrates a sensitive understanding of the spiritual dimensions of Calvin's and Herbert's work and he communicates them with helpful reference to Church historiography as well as a wide swath of Herbert scholarship. Implicitly challenging the view that Herbert's sequence shows no forward momentum, Doerksen sees the spiritual development traced in The Temple as neither strictly linear nor demonically cyclical but as a complex back-and-forth of insight and failure. To be sure, this is a mature and valuable assessment of how the regenerate life is depicted in The Temple. One wonders though, if Herbert really needed Calvin to discover what often amounts to widely repeated patterns of spiritual struggle. In any case, the generality of the Calvinist schema that Doerksen finds in Herbert is not the primary weakness here. [End Page 119]

Throughout the book, Doerksen presents his arguments through stark oppositions that tend to oversimplify The Temple's spiritual and exegetical contexts and consequentially Herbert's subtle response to them. Because some of Doerksen's major assumptions inform other studies of Herbert's relation to Calvin, they deserve greater scrutiny than a short review permits. There are, after all, alternative, and in my view, more satisfying, ways of understanding Herbert's response to Calvin's legacy than can be found in Picturing Religious Experience and the body of scholarship on which it builds.

Laudian Arminianism

One of the least subtle dimensions of Picturing Religious Experience is its account of Laudianism in chapters one and two. While Doerksen helpfully corrects misrepresentations of Calvin as a biblical literalist whose God was an unloving tyrant, he nevertheless finds it necessary to present Arminians, including even the pre-Laudian Lancelot Andrewes, as though they were little more than "custodians of order" (p. 4). Examining how Nicholas Ferrar, Izaak Walton, and Christopher Harvey read The Temple, Doerksen presents a picture in which Calvinist ministers are good because they are concerned with the souls of their parishioners, while Laudian prelates are bad because they are power-hungry hierarchs who obsess over aesthetics. So we learn, for example, that "Moderate Calvinist church leaders, both conformist and puritan, cared more about the inner spiritual life than about outward order in the church, but the Laudians, including proto-Laudians like Lancelot Andrewes, had a contrasting view of the church" (p. 31). The implication that Arminians were unconcerned with the spiritual side of religious life becomes explicit when Doerksen takes Christopher Harvey as a spokesman for the movement, citing Ilona Bell's assertion that "Herbert was most interested in his own inward, spiritual relationship with God, while Harvey cared most of all about the hierarchy, order, and authority of the church" (p. 36). This low-Protestant caricature recalls Milton's accusation that Bishop Hall was more interested in re-edifying Churches than souls.1 However poor a poet Harvey may have been, and however invested he was in matters of order, he wrote many lyrics dealing with inward spiritual [End Page 120] life, including "Invitation," "Comfort in Extremity," "Resolution and Assurance," "Vows Broken and Renewed," "Confusion," "The Loss...


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