Robert Browning's "Johannes Agricola in Meditation"
One of the greatest English poets of the Victorian Era, Robert Browning (1812-1889) began experimenting early in a genre of poetry that has since become almost identified with his name, the dramatic monologue. His poem "Johannes Agricola in Meditation" (first published in 1836) is an oblique example of this genre, bordering upon dramatic soliloquy, and illustrates as well how the technique can be used for effects of humor and purposes of satire. In the speaker of the poem we encounter the poet's unsympathetic imagination of the kind of mentality he believed was fostered by the teachings of the tradition known as Protestant Antinomianism.
The antinomians maintained that, with the coming of Christ, God had revealed his true plan for salvation. This of course is a point agreed upon by all those who declare themselves Christian, following Paul, who claimed (Galatians 3:15-18) that God had instituted a "New Covenant" ("covenant" = Latin testamentum, Gk diatheke) to replace the "Old Covenant" of the Mosaic law. The details, however, about what this new covenant consists in are a major site of disagreement among the various Christian denominations.
Following the Augustinian tradition stressed by Luther and Calvin, the antinomians held that God chooses from eternity those whom he will save, and those who will be cast into everlasting damnation, and that those whom he saves -- the saints -- He saves by freely (i.e., arbitrarily) suspending the execution of His justice upon them. The antinomians maintained, further, that the saints are no longer subject to the law. (Hence the name "antinomian," from Greek anti- [against-] and nomos [law].) On this account, true believers (their faith being another product of divine grace, not an achievement of human effort) thus could in effect "do no wrong." As for everyone else, whatever they might attempt to do to earn God's approval could only have the effect of intensifying his wrath, no matter what their own sense of their own intentions. This is a special version, then, of the general Protestant tenet that salvation is by faith alone (and that works contribute nothing on their own to salvation).
Johannes Agricola (1494-1566) was a Protestant theologian and friend of Luther who fell into the latter's disfavor for developing a version of antinomianism. He saw insistence on the Law -- for example the Ten Commandments (aka the "Decalog") -- as a case of the Catholic emphasis on good works. "The Decalog belongs in the courthouse, not the pulpit.... To the gallows with Moses!" he once declared. Following Luther's treatise "Against the Antinomians" (1536), Agricola eventually recanted, but the position he gave up has repeatedly been taken up by minority voices. The view that the salvation of the saints will not be affected by their doing what, for others, would count as a damnable sin can be coupled or not, depending on the thinker in question, with the view that the civil power should abstain from punishing such acts, or some of them. Some antinomians have attempted to set up communities (restricted of course to the presumably redeemed) in which, for example, freedom of sexual congress was legally permissible. Others have held that ("Old Testament") prohibitions -- for example, against adultery or sodomy -- should be enforced in the civil (i.e., "temporal") realm, against everyone, saved and unsaved alike, insisting still that salvation (one's destiny in the eternal realm) cannot be lost by saints who indulge in such behavior, just as it cannot be gained by conformity to the Law on these points. How orthodox Calvinists understand their doctrine of "the perseverance of the saints" (according to which once one is saved, one cannot lose salvation) without affirmining antinomianism is a point that may interest some. Here are some places to look:
But on to the poem. As becomes immediately clear, we are listening to the speaker engaged in religious meditation, a pious exercise much practiced during the 16th Century (and before and later). But the assumptions, values and attitudes of the meditator will rather quickly start to give us pause. In your second reading, try to perform it aloud, with the pace and tone you think best expresses the personality of the speaker.
Johannes Agricola in Meditation
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This page last updated 11 October 2000.