Reading the Bible with the Caroline Divines: 4 Homiletical Takeaways


In the shadows cast by the early English reformers (such as Cramner and Hooker) on the one side, and the giants of Anglican theology since the 18th century on the other, sits the rich trove of Anglican theologians and devotional writers known collectively as the Caroline Divines.

Caroline” (derived from the Latin version of the name “Charles”) is the term given to the theology that flourished under the rules of Charles I and Charles II, including the interregnum between their reigns (during which time the Commonwealth was under parliamentary and military rule).


Collectively, and amidst their sundry differences, they represent a very robust vision for a kind of Anglican theology that is biblically faithful, academically serious, liturgically rich, and culturally compelling. Their works, taken as a loose collection, suggest that there may be ways to be robustly reformed while remaining deeply committed to the best parts of ancient and medieval devotional and liturgical life.

To be clear: this is not a hagiography. It is merely to suggest that for anyone who has read Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars with a kind of awe over medieval devotional life and grief for its loss, and yet who still very much loves John Jewel’s Apology of the Church of England and embraces the deeply reformational roots of our tradition, reading the Caroline authors can feel very much like a “homecoming” of sorts.

Among a vast array of theological works (ranging from political theology to devotional commonplaces to Izaak Walton’s wildly popular guide for anglers) the Carolines are perhaps most helpful to contemporary Anglican pastors for the manner in which they read and preached the Scriptures.

First Takeaway: The Lord’s Table as the Telos of Preaching

While they differed greatly in terms of rhetorical style, and in some places even debated matters of style, the common unity in the homiletics of the Caroline Divines lies in the central role of the Sacraments. For them, the sermon was always in service of Font and Table. Bread, Wine, and Water were the telos of homiletical action.

Take, for instance, the sermon Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626) delivered before King James on Christmas 1618. The passage comes from Luke 2:12–14: “And this shall be a sign unto you…”

Here as Andrewes draws the homily to a close, he explains, “[t]he Angels began here; the shepherds they follow and praise God, for that they had heard and seen. We to come in at our turn, and to do the like.” In Andrewes’ mind, Holy Scripture now puts us in the story whereby we too become partakers in the mystery of the Nativity.

How does he instruct his hearers thus to respond? “[T]he best part of it is ours,” he explains. The church, gathered in White Hall that Christmas got to receive not merely the sign of the Child nor merely the word of the angels, as did the Shepherds, but were to receive Christ Himself in the Sacrament. For, Andrewes explains, “Christ in the Sacrament is not altogether unlike Christ in the cratch [sic]”—the gift of God’s own Life in “weak and poor elements.” His preaching directs his audience to the Sacraments whereby the meaning of the passage becomes not merely legible but participatory.

Much could be gleaned by those who hold pulpits in our tradition from this practice of sacramentally-focused preaching and writing. William Beveridge (1637–1708) likewise understands the sermon in light of the Table, calling it “…the highest pitch of Devotion that we can arrive at in this world” (as quoted in The Beauty of Holiness, 129). Inundated as we are, in contemporary preaching circles, by a homiletical tradition that seeks to end each sermon with a “practical application,” the Caroline preachers remind us that the eucharistic invitation, afforded by the grace of God and fenced by the body of the Deacon, has always been the proper “practical” application of the sermon.

Andrewes and Beveridge would have us put the “altar” back in “altar call.”

Second Takeaway: The Bible Is Both Plain and Plenary

Inasmuch as the Sacraments provide a telos for our preaching, so also do they provide an interpretive scheme by which a faithful reading of Holy Scripture can be simultaneously plain and plenary. For in the Sacraments the reality of the “sign” is not abrogated by the presence of the “signified.” The faithful preacher and exegete need not dispense with the plain historical and (genre-specific) literal sense of the text for the sake of approaching the fullness of its literary beauty.

As the Caroline poet-priest George Herbert (1593–1633) celebrates in his poem The Holy Scriptures II: “Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine, / And the configurations of their glorie! / Seeing not onely how each verse doth shine, / But all the constellations of the storie. // This verse marks that, and both do make a motion / Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie: / Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion, / These three make up some Christians destinie.”

Herbert here is highlighting the Anglican exegetical method of reading Scripture in both its “plain sense” (i.e., the way in which the basic meaning of Scripture is understandable) as well as in what is called the “plenary sense” (i.e., the way in which the Bible as literature works on multiple levels of meaning; also known as the sensus plenior).

Richard Crashaw (c.1613–1649) demonstrates this perichoretic play of plain and plenary readings throughout his Book of Sacred Epigrams. Take his epigram “To St. Andrew the Fisherman” as one such example: “Surely able and good thou art / to catch and net the fishes! / How much hast thou learned here / of twisting tricks, O slippery one. // But mark this, fisherman: / Christ now casts his nets to catch, / o’er-turning tables of thy trade; / go then and learn what it means to be caught” (p. 9, translation from the Latin is mine).

Here, the plain reading of Mark 1:16 is apparent: St. Andrew was a fisherman whom Christ called to be an apostle. We can rest in that fact. It helps us make sense of the story. Good exegesis begins nowhere else save here. And yet, we don’t have to end there either. For, far from foreclosing any further “deeper readings,” the plain reading of scripture actually engenders further theological reflection. Andrew’s role as fisherman takes on new levels of theological insight even as it retains its straightforward meaning.

Amidst continued controversy among various denominations regarding interpretive frameworks, the Caroline Divines demonstrate for Anglicans how to read the Bible in a way that ensures the kind of orthodox “literalism” quintessentially defined by the evangelical theologian J. Julius Scott as “the plain meaning without exaggeration, distortion, or inaccuracy” (p. 644) while also following the method developed by the medieval exegetes who believed that this “plain reading” always “opened into a Christological allegory, which, because Christ is head of his body, opened out into tropological instruction and, because Christ is King of a kingdom here yet also coming, into anagogical hope” as Presbyterian theologian Peter Leithart suggests in Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (p. 207).

Third Takeaway: Faithful Interpretation and Preaching of Scripture Is a Matter of Will and Imagination, Not of Intellect

For all of the (patently false) attacks launched against them by their Puritan contemporaries for being dead and debauched ritualists, Caroline writing places an incredible emphasis on devotional and personal holiness, anticipating the teachings of Wesleyan movements by about 100 years.

Of key importance for our purposes here is the way in which this emphasis on devotional and personal sanctification plays a part in how they approach the task of interpreting Scripture. The consensus among them can be summarized in the instruction of Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667) who advises his readers: “Before reading Scripture, pray for willingness to learn. Ask God to write the words in your heart and help you portray them in your life” (according to Martin Hinten’s contemporary prose rendering, p. 78).

For Taylor and his contemporaries, what mattered most in terms of the human role in rightly handling the gift of God’s Word was a moral and imaginative conformity to the Person of Christ in the power of the Spirit. As Hill and Davidson point out, Taylor, as an exemplar among others, “saw life as a totality and morality as an issue of habitual character. The imitation of Jesus, for Taylor, was not simply the repetition of his acts, but an embodiment of the spirit that animated his life.” And this imitation was central to the role of reading and preaching the Bible as it shapes the imaginative and moral faculties which are central to the hermeneutical endeavor.

This priority on moral and imaginative conformation to Christ in the task of biblical interpretation, however, is not wholly novel to 17th-century Anglicanism—it follows the clear scriptural teaching on interpretation and teaching. From the discourses of Deuteronomy to the pastoral injunctions of St. Paul, the Bible consistently suggests that faithful interpretation is always precipitated by obedience to God, which is the work of the Spirit.

Taylor, concerned as he is that we be not merely hearers of the words, but imitators of the Word, offers a prayer for use before reading scripture of which the following is but a demonstrative excerpt: “Let thy most Holy Spirit be present with me and rest upon me in the reading, or hearing, thy sacred word; then I may do it humbly, reverently, without prejudice, with a mind ready and desirous to learn and to obey…” (p. 284). You see, to the Carolines at least, obedience to the Word cannot be separated from the study of it.

Fourth Takeaway: Effective Preaching Targets the Affections

Contemporary pulpits in America are pervaded by a deep sense of irony and parody; everything is said in half-joking tones, we often feel we must make excuses for the liturgy, and nothing preaches better than soft ridicule. We are very self-aware, especially while preaching, of all of the many-layered ironies at work in our culture. Here a display of emotion is always met with the double awareness described by novelist Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being as “kitsch.” This kind of kitsch, suggests Kundera, “causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: ‘How nice to see children running on the grass!’ The second tear says: ‘How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!’” (p. 251).

Preaching in contemporary America means preaching in a culture that is swamped by all manner of emotionalism and sentimentalism, and yet simultaneously manages to maintain a detached kind of critical distance from these experiences. We deeply want the experience of emotion—that feeling of being awake and alive—and yet also crave that sense of self-mastery which comes when we laugh at ourselves reproachfully for crying to the soundtrack of Les Misérables.

The Caroline Divines provide us guidance in this quandary. They chart a course through the morass of base sentimentalism while also avoiding the breakers of heady intellectualism which threaten to turn every homily into an academic lecture.

Contemporary scholar John Wesley (not be confused with the 18th-century minister) explains the way in which Caroline preaching drew upon the renaissance emphasis on actio; that is, the idea that the task of preaching, in both its verbal and physical aspect, was concerned with producing in the hearers the affections and feelings that incite vibrant faith. Sermons from Anglican pulpits were to follow the example of Christ who arouses holy emotions, and give their hearers “argument[s] inducing us to mercifulness,” in the words of Isaac Barrow (1630–1677) (as quoted in The Beauty of Holiness, p. 178).

God, Lancelot Andrewes proclaims, “would have us affectionate when we are about this worke, and not so cold and so calme as we used to be” (quoted in Wesley’s Article, p. 680). Effective preaching, therefore, takes place when the pastor incarnates what Thomas Traherne (1636–1674) calls the “Great Pleasures he [God] prepares for us” (as quoted in The Beauty of Holiness, p. 175). When through the preacher God “communicates his Felicity to every one,” Traherne says, the church is quickened with proper affection towards God, and “the more is our goodness therein delighted” (ibid.).

Once again, the Caroline Divines were not being inventive or wholly novel in these convictions. They were, rather, drawing upon the rich stream of classical and Christian rhetorical theory from Augustine to 16th-century theological rhetoricians such as Valiero and de Valades who followed “the Aristotelian notion that emotion is not an irrational perturbation but the offspring of belief,” as Debora Shuger summarizes (p. 44).

In response to the problems posed by kitsch, the Caroline Divines illustrate the right place of emotion in interpretation and preaching: to participate with the Word and Spirit of God in the formation of godly affections. For Anglican pastors in the Americas, we can find encouragement that we need not choose between rigorous scholarship and heartfelt preaching.

For those who question such a possibility, we need look no further than The Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes, a book composed of the Bishop’s personal prayers, forms, and devotions, and composed almost entirely in Latin and Greek (with small smatterings of English). This book, while being a demonstrative example of Andrewes’ great erudition, betrays the depth of his emotion for, as its 1648 editor recalls, the original manuscript was deeply weathered and stained from the bishop’s daily habitual use: “the glorious deformitie thereof, being flubber’d with His pious hands, and water’d with His penitential tears” (as quoted in Wesley’s Article, p. 693).

I cherish the hope that my own sermons, devotions, and journal entries, along with those of all the clergy in our province, would grow to be likewise “water’d.”

Published on

June 29, 2020


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