picture of a silver cross

Job 33:3-5: My words come from an upright heart; my lips sincerely speak what I know. The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life. Answer me then, if you can; prepare yourself and confront me.

Romans 8:15-16: For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children.

Acts 17: 24-31: The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. "For in him we live and move and have our being." As some of your own poets have said, "We are his offspring." Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone--an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.

William Wordsworth, the great nineteenth-century English poet in his masterwork The Prelude, an epic poem that sets forth the condition of his poetic mind and its history, could declare that the poetic gift had something sacred about it:

To the open fields I told
A prophecy; poetic numbers came
Spontaneously, and clothed in priestly robe
My spirit, thus singled out, as it might seem,
For holy services. (1.59-63)


By doing so, Wordsworth spoke as a typical romantic writer, one who assigned to the artistic and subjective almost sacred powers.. Romanticism, like most complex literary, artistic, philosophical, theological, and political movements, cannot be easily distilled down to a few key ideas, though scholars often do so in order to give us all something to "hang our hats on." It would be a mistake, for instance, to too quickly gloss over the differences between Rousseau, Wordsworth, Keats, Emerson, and Whitman, to name only a few. Nonetheless, they do often have certain things in common that make them "Romantic," and some of these are of concern to a Christian worldview.

Romanticism tends to place the subjective self at the center of the creation and perception of truth. Truth is discovered, sometimes exclusively, through subjective imagination, perception, and reflection. As a group, romantics continued to hold that truth existed in other realms -- the larger world, Nature, human emotion, even (in some cases such as the later Wordsworth and Coleridge) in the metaphysical. But the way this truth was accessed was primarily individualistic and innate. The romantics held little place for community, tradition, or dogma. Looking back with two centuries of hindsight, scholars have pointed out that this subjective shift in Romanticism eventually led more and more to a "secularization of the spirit" and to a "natural supernaturalism." Namely, the powers assigned to the supernatural or metaphysical were increasingly assigned to the natural and psychological.

Thus, Romanticism's religious vision often had either an atheistic slant, with a complete denial of metaphysical elements, an explicit or implicit pantheism, with divine being transfused in nature or people, or a theism that nonetheless stressed Nature and the subjective experience at the expense of authority and scripture. In all cases, the language of Romanticism tended to be borrowed from Christianity, its historical predecessor. As J.R. Watson observed, "The Romantic poets saw their experience in parallel terms to those of evangelical patterns--involving dedication, commitment, inspiration, even holiness, what Keats called 'the holiness of the heart's affections'. But it remains their own experience, and starts from there" (198). Of course, the danger here is not so much the stress on truth having a subjective and natural component, for Christians agree that God has revealed truth in the world and through people, but rather the danger is in the neglect or rejection of the revelation of scripture and church tradition.

Because of its emphasis on the self as the center of truth and its distrust of tradition and dogma, Romanticism tended to "deify" inspiration, spirit, and art. Poets, for example, were understood as prophets of great truths. Because these elements were considered to offer a unique avenue to truth, they were given a kind of quasi-divine status. Thus, Wordsworth, for example, could see his poetic gift as having prophetic and priestly functions. How should Christians respond to such claims of inspiration? As the Apostle Paul reminded the crowd at Mars Hill, God has made all humanity and designed them that they might seek him. God by his prevenient grace has spread abroad in his creation signs of who he is and what truth is. In this sense, God has offered a natural revelation of important truths about himself in both the world of nature and in human hearts, including in cloudy, unfocused ways, human systems of philosophy, art, and belief. So it is, perhaps, not unfounded to think of human artists, poets, and philosophers, as well as the natural world and human feeling in general, as being sources of general inspiration. However, Christians would also stress that such human venues are clouded by human sin, for they need the specific revelation of God's scripture, as well as the mutual accountability of tradition and church.

Danger of Romanticism

The danger of Romanticism is to think that such limited means as imagination and perception are of the same caliber as special revelation, which is to treat such general truths as assumptive, formative, and directive. The Romantic language of inspiration and spirit is valuable when it reminds of something higher, something non-mundane, non-pragmatic, even non-material about human life, purpose, and culture, yet such language is also too fuzzy, too "loose" when it ignores the specifics of God's written revelation to us. The biblical language of spirit is more specific because it takes general "unfocused" truths of energy and inspiration and assigns them to the person of the Holy Spirit. 

In the Bible, God's Spirit, his rhuma, works to create, inform, direct, and raise up the creation, especially human beings. The work of the Spirit in the New Testament includes the mediation of God's words, in order to offer power to the Church, to perform deeds, and to interpret that scripture. In this sense, the spirit of believers responds to the acts of the Holy Spirit in our world and our lives. This response includes both those "natural" general acts of revelation in the broader human culture and those more specific and clearer, and therefore more corrective and binding, actions of the Spirit in the Bible and in Christ's Church. As the Church, we are called to call attention to the works of God's Holy Spirit wherever they take place. We are called to name that revelation rightly. It is the incompleteness of Romanticism that should concern us.

Summary chart of this reading

Central Insight: Romanticism's emphasis on spirit (inspiration, etc.) is valuable, for it stresses higher aspects of human endeavor, but it is incomplete when it ignores the Spirit's directive work through scripture, Church, and tradition.

Suggestions for Application: 1) Offer an example of an insight of value in a Romantic writer, then set this off against a more dangerous claim. 2) Note how the work of God's Spirit in scripture or Church completes an idea in a Romantic author.

Watson, J.R. "Romantic Poetry and the Wholly Spirit." The Discerning Reader: Christian Perspectives on Literature and Theory. Ed. David Barratt, Roger Pooley, and Leland Ryken. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995