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Reviewed by:
  • The Johannine Renaissance in Early Modern Literature and Theology by Paul Cefalu
  • James A. Knapp (bio)
Review of Paul Cefalu. The Johannine Renaissance in Early Modern Literature and Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017, 352 + xiii pages. $85.00.

In this important new book Paul Cefalu announces his revisionist agenda up front, and then makes his case by surveying a striking range of theological commentary and offering compelling new readings of familiar poems. Noting the enduring influence of John S. Coolidge's landmark study, The Pauline Renaissance, evident in recent work by literary scholars who often take for granted the centrality of St. Paul in post-Reformation literature and theology, Cefalu argues for a reassessment that would place John on par with Paul as the most important figure shaping English devotional writing in the period. Cefalu's argument for a "Johannine Renaissance" is organized around five chapters concentrating on themes prominent in the Fourth Gospel and the First Epistle of Saint John. These include the "bread of life" material related to the controversies over the Eucharist, the account of Mary Magdalene, and the meaning of noli me tangere, the Johannine account of the Holy Spirit as comforting Paraclete, God as love or agape, and the influence of a Johannine dualism on antinomianism and radical dissent in the seventeenth century. A final chapter looks more closely at the way the poetry of George Herbert and Henry Vaughan exhibits the influence of two key characteristics of the Johannine source material explored throughout the study: dramatic irony and discipleship misunderstanding.

The first chapter looks at the role St. John played in the tumultuous debates over the Eucharist. Noting the Johannine penchant for a "high Christological" account, which foregrounds the divinity of Christ over the human, corporeal Christ, Cefalu shows how the Fourth Gospel is used by reformers ranging from Calvin and Zwingli on the continent to Cranmer and Thomas [End Page 199] Bilson in England to strategically argue for both the ubiquity of Christ's body and the importance of understanding Christ's place in heaven at God's right hand. John's Christology allows for a defense of Christ's symbolic rather than corporeal presence in the elements of the Eucharist, while maintaining Christ's salvific power associated with his body as the "bread of life." A careful discussion of the distinction between spiritual and corporeal eating from Augustine through the Reformation sets up Cefalu's powerful readings of Eucharistic-themed poems by George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, and the American Puritan Edward Taylor. Particularly enlightening is Cefalu's argument that it is precisely in the most challenging and least definitive of John's statements about the bread of life that these poets find the space to argue for both its devotional power and its status as spiritual or symbolic.

In the following chapter Cefalu turns to John's depiction of Mary Magdalene, and specifically the noli me tangere and hortulanus episodes. While references to these events have been cited as evidence of the prioritizing of Christ's word over his body, or of the immaterial over the material, Cefalu shows how reformers and poets drawing on John's gospel emphasize Mary's failure to recognize Christ and her desire to touch him as pedagogically valuable for learning the important Johannine lesson that Christ's return to heaven is as important as his coming to Earth. Cefalu identifies Mary's failure as an example of what he calls productive discipleship misunderstanding, a key feature of the Johannine texts, and one that leads well into the following chapter on early modern representations of the Holy Sprit, characterized as a comforter or "Paraclete" in John's Gospel. Here Cefalu focuses on John Donne and John Milton, arguing that Donne's emphasis on the precarity of soteriological comfort was mitigated by his prioritizing of the Paraclete in Earthly experience, while Milton's controversial positions on the trinity can be seen to follow Johannine source material.

The following chapter on the Johannine conception of agape provides a context for reading devotional lyrics by Herbert, Vaughan, and Traherne. Cefalu's reading of Herbert's "Joy-Love" in particular demonstrates his argument that the influence...


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