On the Study of Theology

Why Doe Young Lay-Men So Much Studie Divinity?

Is it because others tending busily Churches preferment neglect studie? Or had the Church of Rome shut up all our wayes till the Lutherans broke down their uttermost stubborned dores, and the Calvinists picked their inwardest and subtlest lockes? Surely the Divell cannot bee such a Foole to hope that hee shall make this study contemptible, by making it common. Nor that as the Dwellers by the river Origus are said (by drawing infinite ditches to sprinckle their barren Countrey) to have exhausted and intercepted their maine channell, and so lost their more profitable course to the Sea; so wee, by providing every ones selfe, divinity enough for his owne use, should neglect our Teachers and Fathers. Hee cannot hope for better heresies than he hath had, nor was his Kingdome ever so much advanced by debating Religion (though with some aspersions of Error) as by a Dull and stupid security, in which many grosse things are swallowed. Possible out of such an Ambition as we have now, to speake plainely and fellow-like with Lords and Kings, wee thinke also to acquaint our selves with Gods secrets: Or perchance when wee study it by mingling humane respects, It is not Divinity.

John Donne
Probleme 5 from Juvenilia: Or Certaine Paradoxes, And Problemes, 1633

Some hopefully helpful notes:
preferment: appointment to a salaried position
stubborned: hard; difficult to move
…Origus…: Perhaps Oricus, a city in Greece? This is a cautionary tale of unknown origin (to me, at least, and Google doesn’t help), though it’s vaguely familiar: a city situated on a river with barren fields digs so many canals for irrigation (ostensibly to improve the agricultural yield and thereby the city’s economic situation) that the river downstream is no longer navigable and the city loses its more profitable sea trade.
divinity: theology

2 Replies to “On the Study of Theology”

  1. Had to read this one out loud to my wife to figure out what the antecedent to ‘hee’ was. I suppose that Donne had a bias to preserve the superiority of Lords and Kings. His words I take as from a source today – (poems and sermons) perhaps I have taken out of his assumptions to support my own Ambition. The Divell did not know his aspersions of Error could by some Dullard be turned to their own reversal so that the secrets of the Sea be known again even were the main channell exhausted.

  2. Hi Bob,
    I’m glad you like it. You got the antecedent right, it’s “the Divell” throughout.

    Though Donne finds the democratization of theology a good thing overall, he’s also ambivalent, thus his placement of this among his “Problemes.” While theology is good for dispelling the ignorant acceptance of errors, there is also the possibility of its being tainted by “humane respects,” which would render it not true theology at all.

    Also, as a snapshot of the situation early in the spread of Protestantism in England, it’s important to note in particular that there did come to be a distancing, or a least a dishonest selectivity in treatment of material, from those “Teachers and Fathers.” In that sense, they certainly did eventually lose “their more profitable course to the Sea,” that is, the riches of the Patristic past. Donne, after all, maintained his Catholicism through his studies, being thus denied degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, and only converted after the financial difficulties of such a decision of conscience grew too great, particularly with his large family to care for. Heaped with honor after conversion, but still the same brilliant man that he was before, his is a unique perspective for the time and place, being able to see and describe the benefits and faults of both Catholicism and Protestantism in his day.

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