Reformational Christianity and the various related theological tributaries which connect into it in various ways have a rich poetic tradition.
Even totally ignoring continental Europe, there’s a lot to work with. If you look at 17th and 18th and early 19th century England and America, you find many significant poets, and poet-theologians. For instance, consider: George Herbert, John Milton, Michael Wigglesworth, Edward Taylor, Anne Bradstreet, Anne Steele, John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, Andrew Fuller, John Dryden, Ralph Erksine, etc to name a few.
However, there was more to it than just a list of people who wrote poetry. If you read the treatises and sermons from that era, the work of pastors and theologians such as John Flavel, Jeremiah Burroughs, or Anthony Burgess, you will find peppered in them a significant amount of citations from various Greek and Roman poets, such as Virgil and Homer. And, beyond that, there is even a sense in which the sermons and letters of the tradition could be considered “poetry”. For instance, in one edition of the letters of Samuel Rutherford, the editor said that Rutherford “had so much of poetry and sublime enthusiasm in his soul, that any poet could sympathise with him to the full. Many of his letters…are really strains of true poetry.”
If we fast-forward over to late 19th and early 20th century American Christianity, we see many examples of appreciation for poetry. J. Gresham Machen, who is well know for his defense of Biblical Christianity against liberal theology, is also said by Henry W. Coray to have been a “lover…of poetry”. And any familiarity with Machen’s work that extends beyond a surface level will reveal this. Machen, in his lectures, sermons, and writings, was often referring to poetry and poetic form. Another example, would be Geerhardus Vos, who is probably better known for being a pioneer in “Biblical Theology”. Did you know, however, that he was also a very accomplished poet, producing eight volumes of poetry and some several hundred miscellaneous poems? (see The Poetry of Geerhardus Vos by George Harnick)
Is this great tradition continuing? It’s debatable.
On the one hand, clearly the “torch” is being continued. A popular example of this would be John Piper, who consistently writes poetry. Michael Haykin writes some great poetry. And Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Jim Hamilton has tried his hand at poetry recently and I’ve enjoyed reading what he wrote. And certainly there are many others.
On the other hand, though, it seems clear that on the whole, there is a strong reason to doubt whether poetry holds the same level of esteem in the broadly Reformed movement nowadays as it the years past. In fact, sometimes it almost seems it is being intentionally downplayed in some areas.
Back in 2008, Michael Haykin said: “It is noteworthy that when Andrew Fuller was deeply moved, he would recite out loud lines of poetry that expressed the deep emotions he was feeling. Poetry, though, has largely fallen out of favour with many Christian thinkers and theologians since then. This is a real shame. There are some things that poetry can better express than theological discourse”.
And in an issue of Credenda Agenda, Peter Leithart said: “We are devotees of the Word, people of the book. Yet we can’t write stories or poetry. This is a scandal”.
I hope for many years to come, those of us who could be called “Reformed”, in some way–depending on our gifts, continue to kindle this wonderful gift of poetry, whether through reading or wriing. That’s all I have to say for now, but I think I may pick up this thread in the future.