The Puritan Epic Poetess: Why Christians Should Read Lucy Hutchinson’s ‘Order and Disorder’

2. Demonstrating How to Interpret Scripture Theologically.

Order and Disorder is also valuable for its demonstration of a practise known as ‘theological interpretation of scripture’. This aims to consider the texts of scripture, theology and theological traditions in light of each other. It also explore the way this has been done, in the past, particularly before the rise of critical biblical studies. Hutchinson’s poem is a demonstration of this practice. She shows the reader Genesis 1-3 being understood in light of her convictions on topics such as God, creation, providence, humanity, sin and salvation.

2a. In the Beginning (the Triune) God Created…

In I.83-120 we see the event of creation considered in light of the triune nature of God. Each individual Member of the Trinity plays a different role in the acts of the Triune God:

       Herein is the Father the Principal,

       Whose sacred counsels are the’ Original

       Of every Act; produced by the Son,

       By’ the Spirit wrought up to perfection. (I.107-10)

In this arrangement, the Father decrees, the Son enacts and the Spirit ‘perfects’ or completes. Such a schema can be seen in NT theology of redemption,[8] and is here applied to creation. The creation is said to be “by’ the Fathers wise decree” (I.111), made by the “Eternal Word . . . Not as the instrument, but joynt actor, who / Joy’d to fulfill the counsels which he knew” (I.114-16), while the Spirit is credited with the role of arranging all parts “In such harmonious and wise order set, / As universal Beauty did compleat” (I.119-20). This demonstrates an understanding of the straightforward idea that “God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) that is explicitly Christian. Such a presentation draws out the role of the Son and the Spirit that can be pieced together from texts such as those Hutchinson herself gives in the margins here,[9] and is in keeping with historic Trinitarian doctrine. Order and Disorder shows us how we can understand creation in terms of trinitarian thought.

2b. On Being Human

Another example of this theological interpretation of Scripture considers the matter of what it means to be human. In III.1-134, Hutchinson works from Gen. 1:26-27 to develop a portrait of the creation of the first man.[10] Like her elaboration of creation in light of Trinitarian doctrine, the development of the making of man is guided by other scriptures and her theological heritage, as well as by certain features of the Genesis text and her observations of the nature of human beings, in both their physical features and non-physical faculties.

In this extended section, the poem frequently pauses to simply admire humanity. Examples of this include III.77-8, where the eyes “…as days radiant Star, / In the clear heaven of a bright face are”, and III.112-14, “A thick set grove of soft and shining hair / Adorns the head, and shews like crowning rays, / While th’airs soft breath among the loose curls plays.”

But further than this we can see contours of Hutchinson’s anthropology. Doctrine is extracted from the details of the high picture of humanity that we see developed within Genesis 1, and is supplemented by what can be gathered from elsewhere in the Bible and from theological traditions about humanity. This section begins with a stately pause of deliberation as God announces his next creation and its role as divine image bearers and rulers of the world (III.1-12), which can be taken from cues given within Genesis 1 itself as well from Eph. 4:24 and Psalm 8, which are supplied within the margins. Following this the reader finds two chief reasons describing what makes humanity higher than the animals. The first is our possession of a soul, endowing us with an extra-sensory element to our existence (III.13-24).[11] The second is found in the desirous nature of human beings, since we are earthly creatures yet made with a distinctive connection to God:

       Whose life is but a progress of desire,

       Which still enjoy’d, doth something else require,

       Unsatisfied with all it hath pursued

       Until it rest in God, the Soveraign Good. (III.33-36, cf. I.179-90)

Humanity was made for God, and unlike the animals it cannot be both true to itself and fully satisfied in earthly things. Hutchinson takes other cues for this from physical aspects of the human person: we have heads designed to look up rather than primarily at the ground like animals, we alone walk upright on two legs, and we alone have the use of hands by which we can (metaphorically?) receive God’s blessings (III.45-6, 49-52).[12]

Hutchinson’s  stately doctrine of humanity is interrupted by warnings in several places. We are informed that eyes and ears are the portals by which temptations enter (III.81-85), that our two rows of teeth are set to guard the tongue (III.99-102), and that pride must be avoided by looking to our feet and considering the ground from which our eponymous archetype Adam came,[13] and to which we must all return  (III.124-134).

Hutchinson’s treatment of Genesis 1:27-28 develops this verse out into a theological presentation of what it means to be human. Humanity holds a noble but delicate position of high honour. Order and Disorder III.1-134 presents an anthropology that builds on the elevated picture already given in Genesis 1 but also warns against self destruction, before it arrives at the prohibition of Genesis 2:16-17.

Some may take issue with points of Hutchinson’s theology – such as the particularities of her Trinitarian dogma, or the immortality or distinctness of the human soul, but this is beside the point here. The point is that her manner of theological interpretation is guarded and guided by the great Christian minds of the past in the form of the heritage of Christian thought which is a trusted and treasured inheritance. It is also guided by other scriptures, as the margin references testify. Thus she demonstrates how Scripture can be interpreted and expounded theologically, and not only in light of grammatical-historical considerations.