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Archive Ecclesiastical Polity Sacred Doctrine Steven Wedgeworth The Two Kingdoms

John Donne and the Two Kingdoms

Treated nearly exclusively from the literary point of view these days, John Donne was actually a capable theologian and clergyman of the Church of England under James I, and his sermons reveal his theological skill as much as his rhetorical prowess. His sermon on Psalm 63, preached at St. Paul’s in 1625, is a great example. Alongside textual exegesis, early church history, philosophical explanations, pastoral injunction, and moving prose, we are also provided with an exposition of the doctrine of the two kingdoms, or two realms, termed by Donne as “two hemispheres.”

First he gives something of a traditional explanation of the distinction between body and soul, the temporal and spiritual conditions:

All our life is a continual burden, yet we must not groan; A continual squeezing, yet we must not pant; And as in the tenderness of our childhood, we suffer, and yet are whipped if we cry, so we are complained of, if we complain, and made delinquents if we call the times ill. And that which adds weight to weight, and multiplies the sadness of this consideration, is this, That still the best men have had most lad upon them. As soon as I hear God say, that he hath found an upright man, that fears God, and eschews evil, in the next lines I find a Commission to Satan, to bring in Sabeans and Chaldeans upon his cattle, and servants, and fire and tempest upon his children, and loathsome diseases upon himself. As soon as I hear God say, That he hath found a man according to his own heart, I see his sons ravish his daughters, and then murder one another, and then rebel against the Father, and put him into straights for his life. As soon as I hear God testify of Christ at his Baptism, This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased, I find that Son of his led up by the Spirit, to be tempted of the Devil. And after I hear God ratify the same testimony again, at his Transfiguration, (This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased) I find that beloved Son of his, deserted, abandoned, and given over to Scribes, and Pharisees, and Publicans, and Herodians, and Priests, and Soldiers, and people, and Judges, and witnesses, and executioners, and he that was called the beloved Son of God, and made partaker of the glory of heaven, in this world, in his Transfiguration, is made now the Sewer of all the corruption, of all the sins of this world, as no Son of God, but a mere man, as no man, but a contemptible worm. As though the greatest weakness in his world, were man, and the greatest fault in man were to be good, man is more miserable than other creatures, and good men more miserable than any other men.

But then there is Pondes Gloriae, An exceeding weight of eternal glory, and that turns the scale; for as it makes all worldly prosperity as dung, so it makes all worldly adversity as feathers. And so it had need; for in the scale against it, there are not only put temporal afflictions, but spiritual too; And to these two kinds, we may accommodate those words, He that falls upon this stone, (upon temporal afflictions) may be bruised, broken, But he upon whom that stone falls, (spiritual affliction) is in danger to be ground to powder. And then, the great, and yet ordinary danger is, That these spiritual afflictions grow out of temporal; Murmuring, and diffidence in God, and obduration, out of worldly calamities; And so against nature, the fruit is greater and heavier than the Tree, spiritual heavier than temporal afflictions… (The Sermons of John Donne Vol. VII, ed. Evelyn Simpson and George Potter, University of California Press, 1962, 54-55)

In explaining this paradox of why good men seem to suffer most, Donne states that their spiritual condition is the true seat of their reward. The spiritual is greater than the temporal, and thus, it is the more reliable guide to one’s happiness:

Let me wither and wear out mine age in a discomfortable, in an unwholesome, in a penurious prison, and so pay my debts with my bones, and recompense the wastefulness of my youth, with the beggary of mine age; Let me wither in a spittle under sharp, and foul, and infamous diseases, and so recompense the wantonness of my youth, with that loathsomeness in my age; yet, if God withdraw not his spiritual blessings, his Grace, his Patience, If I can call my suffering his Doing, my passion his Action, All this that is temporal is but a caterpillar got into one corner of my garden, but a mildew fallen upon on acre of my Corn; The body of all, the substance of all is safe, as long as the soul is safe. But when I shall trust to that, which we call a good spirit, and God shall deject, and impoverish, and evacuate that spirit, when I shall rely upon a moral constancy and God shall shake, and enfeeble, and enervate, destroy, and demolish that constancy; when I shall think to refresh myself in the serenity and sweet air of a good conscience, and God shall call up the damps and vapors of hell itself, and spread a cloud of diffidence, and an impenetrable crust of desperation upon my conscience; when health shall fly from me, and I shall lay hold upon riches to succor me, and comfort me in my sickness, and riches shall fly from me, and I shall snatch after favor, and good opinion, to comfort me in my poverty; when even this good opinion shall leave me, and calumnies and misinformations shall prevail against me; when I shall need peace, because there is none but thou, O Lord, that should stand for me, and then shall find, that all the wounds that I have, come from thy hand, all the arrows that stick in me, from they quiver; when I shall see, that because I have given myself to my corrupt nature, thou has changed thine; and because I am all evil towards thee, therefore thou hast given over being good towards me; When it comes to this height, that the fever is not in the humors, but in the spirits, that mine enemy is not an imaginary enemy, fortune, nor a transitory enemy, malice, in great persons, but a real, and an irresistible, and an inexorable, and an everlasting enemy, The Lord of Hosts himself, The Almighty God himself, the Almighty God himself only knows the weight of this affliction, and except he put in that pondus gloriae, that exceeding weight of an eternal glory, with his own hand into the other scale, we are weighed down, we are swallowed up, irreparably, irrevocably, irrecoverably, irremediably. (56-57)

So far Donne has expressed a clear dualism, and he has prioritized “the conscience,” the immediate union between God and the human soul, but he goes on to add an eschatological character to salvation. He says that the believer can possess the final bliss of heaven and even the final verdict of his eternal justification in the present, spiritually. To explain this, Donne uses the language of “two hemispheres”:

If you look upon this world in a Map, you find two Hemispheres, two half worlds. If you crush heaven into a Map, you may find two Hemispheres too, two half heavens; Half will be Joy, and half will be Glory; for in these two, the joy of heaven, and the glory of heaven, is all heaven often represented unto us. And as of those two Hemispheres of the world, the first hath been known long before, but the other, (that of America, which is the richer in treasure) God reserved for later Discoveries; So though he reserve that Hemisphere of heaven, which is the Glory thereof, to the Resurrection, yet the other Hemisphere, the Joy of heaven, God opens to our Discovery, and delivers for our habitation even whilst we dwell in this world. As God hath cast upon the unrepentant sinner two deaths, a temporal, and a spiritual death, so hath he breathed into us two lives; for so, as the word for death is doubled, Morte morieris, Thou shalt die the death, so is the word for life expressed in the plural, Chaiim, vitarum, God breathed into his nostrils the breath of lives, of divers lives. Though our natural life were no life, but rather a continual dying, yet we have two lives besides that, an eternal life reserved for heaven, but yet a heavenly life too, a spiritual life, even in this world; And as God doth thus inflict two deaths, and infuse two lives, so doth he also pass two Judgments upon man, or rather repeats the same Judgment twice. For, that which Christ shall say to thy soul then at the last Judgment, Enter into thy Master’s joy, He says to thy conscience now, Enter into thy Masters joy. The everlastingness of the joy is the blessedness of the next life, but the entering, the inchoation is afforded here. For that which Christ shall say then to us, Venite benedicti, Come ye blessed, are words intended to persons that are coming, that are upon the way, though not at home; Here in this world he bids us Come, there in the next, he shall bid us Welcome. (69)

It is important to note that Donne is not only claiming a partial “foretaste” of future reward. He says that the verdict of the last judgment is enjoyed now through the forum of the conscience. This is the same foundation which Luther used to build his doctrine of justification by faith alone, the possession of eschatological righteousness in the present, in the conscience. Donne even gives this doctrine of the two hemispheres a practical ethical aspect:

If thou desire revenge upon thine enemies, as they are God’s enemies, That God would be pleased to remove, and root out all such as oppose him, that Affection appertains to Glory; Let that alone til thou come to the Hemisphere of Glory; There join with those Martyrs under the Altar, Vsquequo Domine, How long O Lord, dost thou defer Judgment? And thou shalt have thine answer there for that. Whilst thou art here, here join with David, and the other Saints of God, in that holy increpation of a dangerous sadness, Why art thou cast down O my soul? why art thou disquieted in me? That soul that is dissected and anatomized to God, in a sincere confession, washed in the tears of true contrition, embalmed in the blood of reconciliation, the blood of Christ Jesus, can assign no reason, can give no just answer to that Interrogatory, Why art thou cast down O my soul? why art thou disquieted in me? No man is so little, as that he can be lost under these wings, no man so great, as that they cannot reach to him; Semper ille major est, quantumcumque creverimus, To what temporal, to what spiritual greatness so ever we grow, still pray we him to shadow us under his Wings; for the poor need those wings against oppression, and the rich against envy. The Holy Ghost, who is a Dove, shadowed the whole world under his wings; Incubabat aquis, He hovered over the waters, he sat upon the waters, and he hatched all that was produced, and all that was produced so, was good. Be thou a Mother where the Holy Ghost would be a Father; Conceive by him; and be content that he produce joy in thy heart here. First think, that as a man must have some land, or else he cannot be in wardship, so a man must have some of the love of God, or else he could not fall under God’s correction; God would not give him his physic, God would not study his cure, if he cared not for him. (69-70)

Further, this possession of eternity now is the invincible ground for assurance, peace, and calm repose:

And then think also, that if God afford thee the shadow of his wings, that is, Consolation, respiration, refreshing, though not a present, and plenary deliverance, in thy afflictions, not to thank God, is a murmuring, and not to rejoice in God’s ways, is an unthankfulness. Howling is the noise of hell, singing the voice of heaven; Sadness the damp of Hell, Rejoicing the serenity of Heaven. And he that hath not this joy here, lacks one of the best pieces of his evidence for the joys of heaven; and hath neglected or refused that Earnest, by which God uses to bind his bargain, that true joy in this world shall flow into the joy of Heaven, as a River flows into the Sea; This joy shall not be put out in death, and a new joy kindled in me in Heaven; But as my soul, as soon as it is out of my body, is in Heaven, and does not stay for the possession of Heaven, nor for the fruition of the sight of God, till it be ascended through air, and fire, and Moon, and Sun, and Planets, and Firmament, to that place which we conceive to be Heaven, but without the thousandth part of a minute’s stop, as soon as it issues, is in a glorious light, which is Heaven, (for all the way to Heaven is Heaven; And as those Angels, which came from Heaven hither, bring Heaven with them, and are in Heaven here, So that soul that goes to Heaven, meets Heaven here; and as those Angels do not divest Heaven by coming, so these souls invest Heaven, in their going.) As my soul shall not go towards Heaven, but go by Heaven to Heaven, to the Heaven of Heavens, So the true joy of a good soul in this world is the very joy of Heaven; and we go thither, not that being without joy, we might have joy infused into us, but that as Christ says, Our joy might be full, perfected, sealed with an everlastingness; for, as he promises, That no man shall take our joy from us, so neither shall Death itself take it away, nor so much as interrupt it, or discontinue it, But as in the face of Death, when he lays hold upon me, and in the face of the Devil, when he attempts me, I shall see the face of God, (for, everything shall be a glass, to reflect God upon me) so in the agonies of Death, in the anguish of that dissolution, in the sorrows of that valediction, in the irreversibleness of that transmigration, I shall have a joy, which shall no more evaporate, than my soul shall evaporate, A joy, that shall pass up, and put on a more glorious garment above, and be joy super-invested in glory. Amen.  (70-71)

This is why, as the psalmist would say, the soul is satisfied.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.