Samuel Daniel and edification

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Wntr, 2004 by Gregory Kneidel

If the institutio was, as Thomas Greene has suggested, the quintessentially Renaissance genre, by the 1590s in England the theology set out in John Calvin's Institutio Christianae religionis (1st edn. 1536) had gone a long way toward eroding the intellectual foundation of civic humanism laid out in Quintilian's Institutio oratoria (ca. AD 95). (1) Calvinist theology emphasized the depravity of human reason after the Fall, thereby fostering a fashionable preoccupation with the decay of the very intellectual, social, and moral order that Renaissance humanism strove to uphold. (2) This preoccupation found its expression in England in (among others) Fulke Greville's A Treatise of Humane Learning (1598), a long philosophical poem that posed anew the central question surrounding Christian humanism in early modern England: how can secular learning be used to reform the English church and nation? Greville's friend Samuel Daniel offered what I hope to show was a unique solution to this question, a solution that bolstered the humanist ideal of institution with a controversial scriptural ideal of edification. Thanks largely to Richard Helgerson's incisive criticism, we normally think of Daniel as a nationalist, but rarely as a religious poet. (3) Nevertheless, in this essay I will argue that Daniel defends humanism by melding a polemical Puritan interpretation of Paul's dictum. "Let all things be done unto edifying" (1 Cor. 14:26 [AV]), (4) with a conservative cultural medievalism. This paradoxical medieval Puritanism constitutes an important moment in, and Daniel's unacknowledged contribution to, the development of scriptural poetics in the English Renaissance. (5)

The foundation of Daniel's views on human learning and poetry is a potentially radical understanding of the ideal of edification that grew out of Puritan controversies in the 1570s and '80s. Critics of the English church derived this ideal from the epistles of St. Paul, who adapted a Hebraic notion of edification for his own apostolic ministry in Hellenistic communities. (6) In this Hebraic tradition, edifying or "building the house" of God, like the more organic activities of planting and gathering, ensured the transmission of the faith and its customs, just as continued building presumes the growth and viability of the individual patriarchal house. God's chosen household comes to embrace an entire community of believers as it gathers in new, "fit" members. This community becomes a product, "a living building," and "holiness the life by which it is 'built up' and flourishes" (p. 32). The construction metaphor developed so that eventually "the human members of the household [or Temple of God] become the materials of which the house itself is built" (p. 36). Paul's injunction to early church communities that they "build up" the church (cf. 1 Cor. 14, 2 Cor. 13, and Eph. 2 and 4) modifies this older Jewish notion of increasing and sustaining a chosen house by combining it with a Greek emphasis on order. But the "primary thing for Paul is not the social order ... but the life manifested by that order" (p. 37). This life is made manifest by the proper functioning of each member of the church according to his or her office and "proportion of faith" (Rom. 12:6). The process of edification is thus twofold: building up a visible, durable structure, and ordering its internal contents so as to allow it to grow and endure.

This ideal of a visible and living church, increased by and composed of its members in a world awash in sin and vice, was at the center of the Elizabethan controversy between conformists and Puritans over the use of "things indifferent" (aspects of church government and liturgical worship lacking a precise scriptural directive). For conformists, liberty consists in the knowledge that these practices "have no religious significance in themselves but are only to be complied with out of respect for conventional decency" (p. 25). If a practice or custom is not against scripture, it can be maintained for the sake of continuity and order. Conformist thought implies that order is imposed on the church by strict adherence to predetermined church policy; "edification [is] subsequent to order" (p. 49). English Puritans, though, thought "of order in the Church as coming into being by the process of edification" (ibid.). The mandated use of things indifferent threatens to sink "the communal body toward subjection to things without life, to idols" (p. 47), a threat all the more troubling for a country only a few decades removed from the thrall of papism. Thus, Puritans did not believe that every aspect of church life must be grounded in a precise scriptural directive. Although their opponents (and many modern historians) inevitably cast Puritan beliefs as such, Puritans themselves sought to adhere to more general rules of conduct and belief (these rules are drawn from four scriptural texts: 1 Cor. 10:32, 1 Cor. 14:26, 1 Cor. 14:40; and Rom. 14:6-7). Consequently, Puritans thought of "Christian liberty less as a permission than as a command"--a command to edify the godly church (p. 26). Coolidge notes that Puritans and their conformist opponents generally held that human learning, when used "in scorn of those who do not possess it ... does not 'build' but 'puffeth up'" (p. 41, quoting 1 Cor. 8:1). (7)


 

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