The Typology of Sacrifice in George Herbert's The Temple

By Kelley S. Kent
2013, Vol. 5 No. 07 | pg. 1/4 |

George Herbert's (1593-1633) three-part work The Temple (1633) denotes the nature of his relationship with God. He conveys this unique relationship through the symbol of the Eucharist, which is both the celebration and memorialization of Christ's Passion: His redeeming sacrifice of Himself. Nearly every poem in The Temple alludes to or mentions the Eucharist, the book's unifying focus. From the beginning of Herbert's work, the Eucharist and "sacrifice" are intricately entwined. However, the first twelve poems that open "The Church,"1 the second and middle part of The Temple, explicitly focus on the original Eucharist and the fulfillment of Passover: Christ's redemptive sacrifice on Good Friday.2 These twelve poems that commence "The Church" can be analyzed as a microcosm of the typological nature of "sacrifice" in The Temple.

As is evident in "The Church," Herbert was preoccupied with Christ's Passion for many reasons. For example, his birthday, April 3, sometimes fell on Good Friday (Malcolmson 49). Both his Latin poems Passio Discerpta and Lucus (1623) also allude to Christ's Passion. Cristina Malcolmson, Herbert's most recent biographer, explains that "central to [Passio Discerpta] is the practice of meditation advocated by Catholics and Protestants on the life of Christ, specifically the events of the Passion" (George Herbert 48). Likewise, in the poem "Reasonable Sacrifice" (Lucus), Herbert speaks of man's heart sacrificed to God:

If one considers the rise of men and altars
Earth breathed upon was man, dead earth
An altar. These, which separated
From one another make for harm, through Christ's compacts
Were put together: so man becomes
The living altar of God. (qtd. in Malcolmson, George Herbert, 61)

Both poems were part of the earliest manuscripts of The Temple, with their themes of the Passion and the hard heart becoming an altar,3 but were eventually removed by Herbert in the 1633 manuscript (157n1). It is in "The Church" that Herbert's lifelong preoccupation with Christ's Passion as the perfect, propitiatory sacrifice for mankind finds its fulfillment. It is also in "The Church" that the speaker must learn how he can adequately respond to Christ's sacrificial love.

Many critics of Herbert's The Temple read the speaker's lesson, in these Passion week poems, as one of humility. According to these English Renaissance critics, the speaker's desire to imitate Christ's sacrifice "verges on an unreasonable sacrifice" (Malcolmson, George Herbert, 64, 66-68). Such a desire shows a "fallacy of works righteousness" (Heart-Work 91). In these poems, the speaker supposedly exhibits "plaintive selfishness" in his desire to pattern himself after Christ (Mulder 11-13). He also demonstrates his spiritual naivete in his "belief that God's gifts can be matched by man's endeavors" (Seelig 11). The speaker's search for an appropriate response to Christ's sacrifice is, therefore, "presumptuous . . . and negotiatory" (Wall 213). According to Diana Benet, "his zeal is commendable but ignorant and misdirected" (112). What the speaker supposedly learns from his "unreasonable," "failed" desire for imitation, however, depends on the critic. According to Michael Schoenfeldt, he learns that "the imitatio Christi is from a Reformed perspective an impossible and ultimately misguided form of devotion. . . .Imitating the words of God . . . entails the ultimate sacrifice -- that of the self and its language" ("That Spectacle" 575-77). The speaker's response must be either "submission" (Fish, Self-Consuming, 183), or a reflection upon Christ's saving grace (Benet 112). Herbert, in these Passion poems, "indicates the futility . . . of any human works in light of Christ's death" (Veith 67). His purpose in placing these poems at the beginning of "The Church" is to memorialize Christ's Passion, not re-create it (Rickey 15-16).4

What these critics miss in their readings of the Passion poems that open "The Church" is Herbert's understanding of the Biblical typology of sacrifice and use of it in The Temple, especially in these twelve poems. In Biblical typology, a method of re-reading the Old Testament through the lens of the New, a "'type' is a person or event . . . in the Old" that historically foreshadows that same "person or event . . . in the New" (Rivers 140). The "antitype … fulfills the type," thereby explaining its hidden meaning (141). According to Paul, and most later theologians, Old Testament sacrifices were "types," including the aborted sacrifice of Isaac,5 the first Passover,6 Moses' lifting up of the serpent in the desert in order to miraculously cure the Israelites of the plague,7 and the sacrifices in the Jewish tabernacle and temple. Therefore, these Old Testament "types" of sacrifice are a foreshadowing of the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the "antitype."8 Christian believers, or "neotypes," imperfectly imitate Christ, like the Old Testament "type," but such an imperfect imitation is made possible only through Christ, the "antitype."9 In the Old Testament, Mosaic law also delineates three distinct forms of sacrifice: self-dedicatory, or burnt offerings; eucharistic, or meat and peace offerings; and expiatory, or sin and trespass offerings (Smith 577). In the New Testament, the dedicatory sacrifice becomes our sacrifice of self in imitation of Christ, while the eucharistic sacrifice becomes our sacrifice of thanksgiving to God10; here, the believer appears as a "neotype." The expiatory sacrifice becomes the perfect, redemptive, propitiatory sacrifice of Christ the "antitype," never to be repeated or surpassed (577-79).

Many critics acknowledge Herbert's use of Biblical typology in The Temple.11 However, their readings of the Passion poems appear hollow, for they fail to correctly apply typology to their critical analyses. Those critics are right who insist that Christ's sacrifice can never be imitated by man; they acknowledge His redeeming sacrifice for sin, but not the other two types. A few critics even acknowledge the speaker's eucharistic sacrifice of praise in these poems, but still not the third kind.12 John R. Mulder, for example, argues that the speaker tries "to offer the one and only sacrifice still possible after the Redemption, the sacrifice of praise" (3). Although Mulder identifies both Christ's redeeming sacrifice and our sacrifice of praise, he does not acknowledge another "sacrifice still possible after the Redemption" (3), the crucial third kind: our sacrifice of self through our imitation of Christ. Terry Sherwood also acknowledges two kinds of sacrifice: the "propitiatory blood sacrifice offered by Christ" and the "dutiful sacrifice offered by the believer . . . as prayer and praise" (16). However, although Sherwood is right to state that "in imitation the believer must offer himself" (17), according to him, the nature of such imitation is prayer, for "to pray is to imitate that loving Sacrifice" (23). Sherwood's argument goes far in acknowledging the believer's acceptable imitation of Christ. However, the nature of that imitation is not prayer, but the believer's sacrifice of dedication, which takes two forms: first, the symbolic sacrifice of self when a person believes in Christ for salvation, and second, the sacrifice of life to God, as Jesus commands, "Take up [your] cross and follow me" (Mark 10:21, KJV). The Eucharist, through the typology of sacrifice, commemorates these three kinds in one; they cannot be separated. All three kinds of sacrifice are important for an accurate theological understanding of the Passion poems that open "The Church."

Therefore, as the Eucharist celebrates the believer's communion with God, so a typological understanding of "sacrifice" must inform an accurate reading of the Passion poems that open "The Church." How the speaker responds to Christ's redemptive sacrifice hinges on these kinds of "sacrifice." The speaker's desire to imitate Christ is an appropriate desire, not "presumptuous,"13 "unreasonable,"14 or "misdirected."15 Such a desire stems from the dedicatory type of sacrifice, or the sacrifice of self that symbolically imitates the perfect example of Christ. The speaker discovers, in the opening section of "The Church," that he can imitate Christ's sacrifice, not by dying in propitiation for the sins of humanity, but rather by offering himself as a sacrifice of dedication to God. He also realizes that it is only by Christ's sacrifice that he is able to sacrifice his own life to Christ. A thorough analysis of "The Sacrifice," "The Altar," and "Easter," therefore, will illustrate these three kinds of sacrifice (propitiation, dedication, eucharist) perfectly intertwined, interpreting and reinforcing one another in elucidating the nature of the speaker's relationship with God. Such an analysis will also shed light on how to accurately read the speaker's desire to imitate Christ in "The Thanksgiving" and "The Reprisal."

Before commencing our analysis, we must analyze another reason why critics have misinterpreted these poems. Another problem with most critics' inaccurate theological readings of the Passion poems is conflating George Herbert with the speaker in The Temple. The two voices, however, are not the same. Those critics who argue for Herbert's Protestantism16 interpret the speaker's desire to imitate Christ as "blasphemy,"17 since the Reformation proclaimed that imitating Christ's perfect sacrifice was a fallacy. Those who insist on Herbert's Anglo-Catholicism either argue that the speaker's imitation is still a fallacy, or fail to address the typological undercurrent of the poems at all.18 However, as a few critics have convincingly argued, the theological lines of demarcation were not clearly delineated in seventeenth-century England.19 Therefore, readers of The Temple must not mistakenly transpose Herbert's sometimes contradictory theological tendencies onto the speaker. Herbert does not necessarily equal the speaker; the two must be separated.20 However, readers must not make the equal, opposite mistake of studying The Temple non-theologically, as a few other critics have done.21 A critical awareness of seventeenth-century Reformation England, as well as Herbert's vocation in the church, are necessary for an accurate, theological reading of The Temple.

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