The Typology of Sacrifice in George Herbert's The Temple

By Kelley S. Kent
2013, Vol. 5 No. 07 | pg. 2/4 |

Although there is no concrete proof that Herbert named his work The Temple,22 the title is apt for the unity of the work, especially in the typology of sacrifice. The Old Testament temple was used for sacrifices, each with different spiritual meanings. On the Day of Atonement, in the Jewish calendar, the high priest sacrificed a lamb on the temple altar for the sins of the people, but he had to do this every year; this sacrifice could not cleanse the Jewish people's sinful hearts. This propitiatory sacrifice was a "type" that foreshadowed the perfect sacrifice of Christ, the "antitype," on the cross, a sacrifice that redeems the sins of humanity and never has to be repeated.23 The New Testament meanings of "temple" are rich and varied, but all are intimately entwined with the typology of sacrifice. In the gospels, Christ repeatedly calls Himself (His body) the "temple,"24 which He offers as a propitiatory sacrifice for sin. Believers who accept Christ's redemptive sacrifice for sin, through confession, must symbolically offer their bodies, or "temple[s] of the Holy Ghost" (1 Cor. 6:19, KJV), as "living sacrifice[s]" (Romans 12:1, KJV).25 This is their sacrifice of dedication in which they symbolically imitate Christ. These believers are also called the body of Christ, or the church: it is a living "temple," with Christ as the chief cornerstone.26 The Eucharist is celebrated in this new "temple," where believers offer a eucharistic sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise for Christ's redeeming sacrifice. Therefore, the metaphor of the "temple" and the typology of "sacrifice" are entwined in the symbol of the Eucharist, the theme of Herbert's The Temple.

It is in "The Altar" that these three kinds of sacrifice (dedicatory, eucharistic, propitiatory), perfectly entwined in the Eucharist, first appear. This poem appropriately commences "The Church," for, as Ann Pasternak Slater, the most recent editor of Herbert's English works, notes, "the altar" is the first thing one sees as he or she enters "the church" (xiv). Herbert's emphasis in "The Altar" is on the speaker's dedicatory sacrifice, which, as earlier explained, is both the symbolic sacrifice of self, when a person believes in Christ for salvation, and the sacrifice of life to God. As his sacrifice of dedication, the speaker offers his heart on an altar: "A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,/Made of a heart, and cemented with tears" (ll. 1-2). As Barbara Lewalski notes in her full-length study of Renaissance Protestant poetry, the heart as a synecdoche of the body was "a primary trope" in devotional poetry of this period (101). In his poem "Reasonable Sacrifice" (Lucus), Herbert himself states, "Through Christ's compacts . . . man becomes the living altar of God" (qtd. in Malcolmson, George Herbert, 61). The speaker must offer his heart, (his body), on the altar in order to symbolically dedicate his life to God, just as Paul commands believers to "present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God" (Romans 12:1, KJV).

What makes such a sacrifice "acceptable" is the speaker's complete offering of himself on "a broken ALTAR . . . cemented with tears" (ll. 1-2). It is "acceptable" to God, therefore, only because the speaker is contrite, just as David the psalmist states, "The sacrifices of God are . . . a broken and a contrite heart" (Psalm 51:17, KJV). As Barbara Lewalski explains, in this poem the speaker displays "the need for his Old Testament stony altar-heart to be hewn by God's power and wholly transformed into its New Testament antitype, a heart of flesh" (312). In allowing his "hard heart" (l. 10) to be transformed by God, the speaker becomes a "neotype," for he acknowledges that his sacrifice is imperfect: his altar is "broken" (l. 1). However, it is Christ who has "cemented" (l. 2) and "frame[d]" (ll. 3, 11) it into a complete, and therefore perfect, altar, "whose parts are as thy hand did frame" (l. 3). The speaker here offers in return only what has been given him by Christ.27 In "rear[ing]" his "broken ALTAR" (l. 1), the speaker's sacrifice becomes an imperfect, and therefore acceptable, imitation of Christ, the perfect pattern the speaker is commanded to follow.

Just as the speaker's offering of himself on "the altar" becomes a sacrifice of dedication, so also "rear[ing]" (l. 1) such an altar becomes a eucharistic sacrifice. As earlier explained, eucharistic sacrifices offer praise and thanksgiving to God. As such, it is the speaker's "hard heart" (l. 10) that "meets in this frame/To praise thy name" (ll. 11-12). The speaker cannot adequately praise God until he has symbolically sacrificed himself on "this frame" (l. 11), the altar. It is his imperfect sacrifice, his imitation of Christ, that prompts the speaker to praise God; it is also such a sacrifice of himself that makes the speaker's eucharistic sacrifice acceptable to God. This is why the speaker proclaims, "[I]f I chance to hold my peace,/These stones to praise thee may not cease" (ll. 13-14).28 It is the "stones" (l. 14) of the speaker's "hard heart" (l. 10), transformed into an altar, that can adequately and unceasingly "praise" (l. 14) God.

The speaker's dedicatory and eucharistic sacrifices, on his "broken ALTAR" (l. 1), are made complete and acceptable, however, only because of Christ's perfect, redeeming sacrifice of propitiation. The speaker desires to "let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine" (l. 15), an explicit reference to Christ's Passion, which is revealed in "The Sacrifice," the poem soon to follow. In desiring to imitate and claim Christ's perfect sacrifice for himself, the speaker equates himself with Christ. What appears to be a "idolatrous" desire on the speaker's part (Malcolmson, George Herbert, 61),29 and argued as such by some critics,30 is, however, a just and reasonable desire. I agree with Terry Sherwood that "the request to embody Christ's sacrifice in praise is itself implicitly a sacrifice of praise" (16-17), but I would go further, for the speaker's desire to imitate Christ embodies both dedicatory and eucharistic kinds of sacrifices, not just the latter.

The final line of the poem holds the key to the enigma: "And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine" (ll. 16). It is Christ's sacrifice alone that renders the speaker's dedicatory and eucharistic sacrifices acceptable to God. It is, therefore, Christ's sacrifice alone that can "sanctify" (l. 16) the speaker's "broken ALTAR" (l. 1). Victorian theologian William Smith says, "The sacrifice of Christ is set forth to us as the completion of that perfect obedience to [God's] will . . . which is the natural duty of sinless man" (579, italics mine). This "representative rather than vicarious" atonement represents the speaker's sacrifice of himself to God (579). The speaker is duty-bound to obey God by offering himself on the altar. However, it is only by Christ's redeeming sacrifice of Himself that the speaker's imperfect sacrifice of himself is rendered both possible and acceptable. As Thomas Stroup states, "As through His death and passion Christ offered His sacrifice for man, so Christian man . . . offers a life of sacrifice to Christ" (157). It is only by his imitation of Christ's sacrifice (l. 15) that Christ can "sanctify this," the speaker's, "ALTAR" (l. 16), which is by extension himself. Sanctification is the means by which the speaker becomes like and imitates Christ.31

"[T]hy blessed SACRIFICE" (l. 15) acts as a unifying connector between "The Altar" and "The Sacrifice," and prepares us for a presentation of Christ's perfect, redeeming, never-to-be-repeated sacrifice of Himself. "The Sacrifice," therefore, is a reenactment of Christ's Passion, with Christ, the antitype, as the speaker. Numerology in this poem illuminates the uniqueness of Christ's propitiatory sacrifice. As Sibyl Lutz Severance explains, "The Sacrifice" is the second poem in "The Church," just as Christ is the second person of the Trinity, which emphasizes His divinity, since He is the only perfect sacrifice for humanity's sins (236). The poem's four-line stanzaic structure consists of three lines of ten syllables each for a sum total of thirty-three syllables, which is traditionally Christ's age when he died. Three also symbolizes the Trinity, while ten is the number of Christ (241). Herbert here specifically points to Christ's sacrifice as the antitype of Old Testament sacrifices. The one rhyme of each stanza points to "God, the perfect, the three-in-one" (232). The six-syllable fourth line "establishes the persona as Christ, the perfect man"; four is the number of man, while six, the first perfect number, symbolizes perfection (232). Sibyl Lutz Severance also notes that the sixty-three stanzas of "The Sacrifice" represent both "physical and spiritual transformation" (231) and "the movement from the mortal to the eternal" (233). Christ's perfect sacrifice in the poem therefore makes possible believers' "spiritual transformation" (231), which cannot come to fruition until the end of the poem's sixty-third stanza, the moment of Christ's death. Such transformation is also our "movement from the mortal," a spiritual second death, "to the eternal," a spiritual new life in Christ, made possible only by Christ's death (233).32

Herbert uses paradoxes in "The Sacrifice" to illustrate the propitiatory nature of Christ's sacrifice. Paradoxically, Christ can redeem humanity only because of His divinity, as the second person of the Trinity, since only God can remove sin from the heart; however, Christ can also redeem humanity only by becoming human, and dying a human death. Christ speaks of his drops of blood as a balm "for both the Hemispheres:/Curing all wounds but mine" (ll. 26-27). It is Christ's blood alone that saves His people from their sins, "curing" their spiritual death-"wounds," but paradoxically, Christ's "wounds" cannot not be cured, which means that He must die for such salvation to take place (l. 27). Christ, the perfect sacrifice for sin, must also "suffer binding," His death, in order to "loos[e]" humanity's "bands" and free them from the curse of sin and death (l. 47). Christ also calls Himself "the Temple," which "to the floor/In three days raz'd, and raised as before" (ll. 65-66), pointing forward in time to His resurrection.33 As earlier explained, the Old Testament temple was used for these three different kinds of sacrifice. Here, therefore, Christ's body is "the Temple" (l. 65), which, paradoxically, must be both literally (Christ's sacrificial death) and symbolically (Old Testament law) destroyed in order to be resurrected, with Christ as the new law written on human hearts, the eternal sacrifice for all. Paradoxically again, Christ's cross is "the tree of life to all, but only me" (l. 203), for it is only by Christ's death that He can offer eternal life to believers. As Christ hangs on the cross "betwixt two thieves," He paradoxically states, since He is not a thief, "Alas! what have I stolen from you? death" (ll. 229, 231). Christ's sacrificial death removes the threat of eternal death from believers, for His death brings them life. Christ's death is also His "woe, man's weal" (l. 250), for He must die to bring humanity saving grace.

In "The Sacrifice," Christ is also the antitype, the perfect and complete sacrifice for humanity, especially in His comparison of Himself with Adam. One possible reason for such a comparison is the inherent paradox in "The Sacrifice." Christ's propitiatory sacrifice is "once and for all," but it is eternally repeated each time someone believes in Christ for salvation. At the beginning, Christ has not yet died, since He is still speaking; therefore, the sins of humanity are not yet forgiven. They are still under the curse of Adam, as when Christ states, "So sits the earth's great curse in Adam's fall/Upon my head: so I remove it all/From th' earth unto my brows, and bear the thrall" (ll. 165-67). As Adam's sin brought spiritual death into the world, so Christ's death redeems humanity and brings spiritual life, saving them from the fruit of Adam's sin, eternal damnation.34

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