John Donne

Evelyn Simpson, Helen Gardner, and T. S. Healy (eds), Selected Prose

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51. From a Sermon Preached at White-hall1

But in the other way of treading down grasse, (that is, the word of God) by the Additions and Traditions of men, the Italian Babylon Rome abounded, superabounded, overflowed, surrounded all. And this is much more dangerous than the other; for this mingling of humane additions, and traditions, upon equall necessity, and equall obligation as the word of God it selfe, is a kneading, an incorporating of grasse and earth together, so, as that it is impossible for the weake sheep, to avoid eating the meat of the Serpent, Dust shalt thou pg 311eate all the days of thy life. Now man upon his transgression, was not accursed, nor woman; The sheep were not accursed; But the earth was, and the Serpent was; and now this kneading, this incorporating of earth with grasse, traditions with the word, makes the sheep to eate the cursed meat of the cursed Serpent, Dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.

Now, in this treading down this grasse, this way, this suppressing it by traditions, be pleased to consider these two applications; some traditions doe destroy the word of God, extirpate it, annihilate it, as when a Hog doth root up the grass; In which case, not onely that turfe withers, and is presently useless, and unprofitable to the sheep, but if you dig never so low after, down to the Center of the earth, it is impossible ever to finde any more grass under it: so some traditions doe utterly oppose the word of God, without having under them, any mysterious signification, or any occasion or provocation of our devotion, which is the ordinary pretext of traditions, and Ceremoniali additions in their Church. And of this sort was that amongst the Jews, of which our blessed Saviour reproches them, that whereas by the law, children were to relieve decayed parents, they had brought in a tradition, of Commutation, of Compensation, that if those children gave a gift to the Priest, or compounded with the Priest, they were discharged of the former obligation. And of this sort are many traditions in the Roman Church; where, not onely the doctrines of men but the doctrine of Devllls, (as the Apostle calls the forbidding of Mariage, and of meats) did not onely tread down, but root up the true grass.

The other sort of Traditions, and Ceremonies, doe not as the Hog, root up the grass, but as a Mole, cast a slack, and thin earth upon the face of the grass. Now, if the shepheard, or husbandman be present to scatter this earth againe, the sheep receive no great harme, but may safely feed upon the wholesome grass, that is under; but if the sheep, who are not able to scatter this earth, nor to finde the grass that lies under, be left to their own weakness, they may as easily starve in this case, as in the other; The Mole may damnifie them as much as the Hog. And of this sort, are those traditions, which induce Ceremonies into the Church, in vestures, in postures of the body, in particular things, and words, and actions, in pg 312Baptisme or Mariage, or any other thing to be transacted in the Church. These ceremonies are not the institutions of God immediately, but they are a kind of light earth, that hath under it good and usefull significations, which when they be understood conduce much to the encrease and advancement of our devotion, and of the glory of God. And this is the iniquity that we complaine of in the Roman Church, that when we accuse them of multiplying impertinent, and insupportable ceremonies, they tell us, of some mysterious and pious signification, in the institution thereof at first; They tell us this, and it is sometimes true; But neither in Preaching nor practise, doe they scatter this earth to their own sheep, or shew them the grass that lies under, but suffer the people, to inhere, and arrest their thoughts, upon the ceremony it selfe, or that to which that ceremony mis-leads them; as in particular, (for the time will not admit many examples) when they kneel at the Sacrament, they are not told, that they kneel because they are then in the act of receiving an inestimable benefit at the hands of God, (which was the first reason of kneeling then) And because the Priest is then in the act of prayer in their behalfe, that that may preserve them, in body and soule, unto eternall life. But they are suffered to go on, in kneeling in adoration of that bread, which they take to be God. We deny not that there are Traditions, nor that there must be ceremonies, but that maters of faith should depend of these, or be made of these, that we deny; and that they should be made equall to Scriptures; for with that especially doth Tertullian reproch the Heretiques, that being pressed with Scriptures, they fled to Traditions, as things equall of superiour to the word of God. I am loth to depart from Tertullian, both because he is every where a Patheticall expresser of himselfe, and in this point above himselfe. Nobis curiositate opus non est, post Jesum Christum, nec Inquisitione, post Evangelium. Have we seen that face of Christ Jesus here upon earth, which Angels desired to see, and would we see a better face? Traditions perfecter than the word? Have we read the four Evangelists, and would we have a better Library? Traditions fuller than the word? Cum credimus, nihil desideramus ultra credere; when I beleeve God in Christ, dead, and risen againe according to the Scriptures, I have nothing else to beleeve; Hoc enim prius credimus, non esse quod ultra credere pg 313debeamus; This is the first Article of my Faith, that I am bound to beleeve nothing but articles of faith in an equall necessity to them. Will we be content to be well, and thank God, when we are well? Hilary tells us, when we are well; Bene habet quod iis, quæ scripta sunt, contentus sis; then thou art well, when thou satisfiest thy self with those things, which God hath vouchsafed to manifest in the Scriptures. Si aliquls allis verbis, quam quibus a Deo dictum est, demonstrare velit, if any man will speake a new language, otherwise than God hath spoken, and present new Scriptures, (as he does that makes traditions equall to them) Aut ipse non intelliglt, aut legentlbus non intelligendum relinquit, either he understands not himself, or I may very well be content not to understand him, if I understand God without him. The Fathers abound in this opposing of Traditions, when out of those traditions, our adversaries argue an insufficiency in the Scriptures. Solus Christus audiendus, says Saint Cyprian, we hearken to none but Christ; nec debemus attendere quid aliquis ante nos faciendum putarit, neither are we to consider what any man before us thought fit to be done, sed quid qui ante omnes est,fecerit; but what he, who is before all them, did; Christ Jesus and his Apostles, who were not onely the primitive but the pre-primitive Church, did and appointed to be done. In this treading down of our grasse then in the Roman Church, first by their supine Ignorance, and barbarisme, and then by traditions, of which, some are pestilently infectious and destroy good words, some cover it so, as that not being declared to the people in their signification, they are uselesse to them, no Babylon could exceed the Italian Babylon, Rome, in treading down their grasse.

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Editor’s Note
1 On the text: 'And as for my flock, they eat that, which ye have trodden with your feet, and they drink that which ye have fouled with your feet' (Ezek. xxxiv. 19).
See note to No. 49.
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