[Milton-L] De Doctrina Christiana

Stephen Fallon sfallon at nd.edu
Mon Jan 12 10:08:48 EST 2009


Kim,

Despite the fact that I've not been following the thread (or the  
listserv) in recent days, I'd like to jump in here to respond to your  
post, which is, like others of yours that I have read, thoughtful,  
strenuous, and worthwhile.

I'm not following when you say that the Father's free will defense in  
PL "isolates the question of how to explain man’s first disobedience  
from the question of how to explain God’s ways to men."  It seems  
that the free will defense is central to the explanation of God's  
ways to men.  For Milton, as is strongly implicit in the poem and  
explicit in the treatise, a God who punishes us for sins we could not  
avoid committing is not just, and his ways would be inexplicable and,  
beyond that, reprehensible.  But I may be missing what you mean by  
"isolates the question."

I'd like to press a bit on your next point, that if the free will  
defense isolates the question of how man fell, "then the poem has no  
reason to be unclear about God, unless among the poem's claims is  
that we can never be clear about God," which would entail that the  
poem "denies the possibility of a doctrine." I think that at this  
point it is good to remind oneself of the difficulties facing a poet  
who tries to embody God as a speaking character in a narrative—with  
its temporal imperatives and with the expectation that it generates  
that actions will be motivated.  As many have noted, Milton takes a  
risk here that Dante, for one, chose to avoid.  If Milton succeeds,  
then one can conclude that he has pulled off a virtuoso feat.  If he  
fails, well then, "fools rush in, etc."  However one judges the  
success or failure of this gambit, the appearance of God as a  
speaking character generates the problems of level of consistency.   
It is one thing to say that God is omniscient; it is another to  
present God at a moment in time reacting to an event and predicting  
its consequences, including consequences arising from the operation  
of free will.  In a doctrinal treatise, one can do things with God  
that one can't do as easily in a narrative. Does that mean a retreat  
from, or repudiation of, doctrine in the poem?  I'm not sure why.   
Unless you are making the weaker claim that Paradise Lost is a poem  
rather than a doctrinal treatise, as opposed to the stronger claim  
that the poem denies the possibility of a doctrine.

You suggest that if the poem doesn't "den[y] the possibility of a  
doctrine in any event, . . . then its representation of God should at  
least attempt the level of consistency to be found in DDC.  It rather  
transparently does not."  I think, as I suggest above, that the  
difference of genres makes differences in level of consistency  
inevitable.  As for the "attempt," though, I think that Maurice  
Kelley, Dennis Danielson, John Rumrich, and many others have  
established definitively that Milton made the attempt, whatever one  
concludes about the success of the attempt.  Sometimes I wonder if  
some readers of Milton take the truism that a poem is not a doctrinal  
treatise as warrant to ignore Kelley's painstakng demonstration in  
This Great Argument that Paradise Lost parallels DDC on doctrinal  
point after doctrinal point (I'm not suggesting, Kim, that you take  
this easy way out).  Take the Son's lacking of omnipresence and  
omniscience, the generally Arminian view of election in both treatise  
and poem, creation ex deo, etc.  The list is long.

I'll end by addressing your last point, that God's speech at 3.168  
ff. "makes no sense. that God seems to advocate at the same time  
unlimited election, limited election, and no election, when he could  
have restricted himself the limited election (what DCC claims)."  I'm  
not sure what you mean by "limited election," but the poem reflects  
the treatise's argument for general predestination to salvation of  
all who will freely choose to believe and persevere in belief.  There  
is at 3.183 an apparent nod toward Calvinist particular election,  
but, as I've argued in an essay in Milton and Heresy (which is  
adapted as ch. 7 of Milton's Peculiar Grace), Milton also apparently  
nods toward Calvinist election in DDC; in the treatise the gesture is  
reassimilated into an Arminian frame; ambiguity, however common in a  
poem, is unacceptable to a doctrinal treatise (especially in a  
doctrinal treatise by a theological thinker as hostile to mystery as  
is Milton, relative to others in the Christian tradition).  I don't  
mean here to claim that my argument is definitive or to assume that  
you have or haven't read it; I mean only to suggest that it is not  
necessarily "transparent" that Milton does not attempt consistency in  
his representation of God in the epic.

All the best,
Steve



  It seems to me that the free will defense so defensively espoused  
by God in the poem (he says it fifteen times) isolates the question  
of how to explain man’s first disobedience from the question of how  
to explain God’s ways to men (although some famous readers have  
denied God’s argument and insisted that he really did cause it). If  
so, then the poem has no reason to be unclear about God unless among  
the poem’s claims is that we can never be clear about God, and this  
epistemic opacity figures into the fall itself in some important  
way.  If the latter, that we can never be clear about God, then the  
distinction between theology and doctrine holds, and the poem is not  
only not doctrinal, it denies the possibility of a doctrine in any  
event.  (For what its worth, this is my reading of the poem.)  If  
this is not the poem’s claim, then its representation of God should  
at least attempt the level of consistency to be found in DCC.  It  
rather transparently does not.   To call attention to a passage not  
involved in heterodoxy, it seems to me that God’s recitation at 3.168  
on the terms of redemption makes no sense. that God seems to advocate  
at the same time unlimited election, limited election, and no  
election, when he could have restricted himself the limited election  
(what DCC claims).  The poem did not need to do this if doctrine was  
its aim.


On Jan 10, 2009, at 11:42 AM, Kim Maxwell wrote:

>
>
> It may help this conversation to make a distinction pressed upon me  
> recently by Regina Schwartz between “theological” and “doctrinal,”  
> the former meaning only that the poem is about God is some way or  
> other, the latter requiring of the poem a coherent or plausibly  
> consistent doctrinal position summoned from the terms of the poem  
> alone.  As I attempted to suggest in an earlier post, I think the  
> poem is theological but not doctrinal.  Some evidence for this  
> claim is the variety of doctrinal positions found in the poem by  
> good readers over the last three centuries, which can be divided  
> into several categories: (1) the poem is orthodox, the common view  
> before 1825, and one still held by some; (2) the poem is heterodox  
> and aligns exactly with DCC (Kelly); (3) the poem is heterodox but  
> does not align with DCC (say, Michael Lieb, but many others now);  
> (4) the poem is theologically ironic in some way, particularly in  
> its relative representations of God and Satan (Blake, Shelley,  
> Empson, Nuttall, and Bryson); (5) the poem’s specifically doctrinal  
> content is irrelevant because religious doctrine has become  
> irrelevant (Raleigh and his claim of dead ideas may be the first  
> famous one, but many books have been written about the poem as if  
> it were secular, or at least amenable to entirely secular concerns).
>
>
>
> One might conclude from this variety of readings that the poem is  
> simply unclear  (or that it was obliged by historical circumstances  
> to hide its heterodoxy under a veneer of orthodoxy).   However,  
> what I was attempting to say earlier was that when we compare DCC  
> to PL (the original question of this thread), we can see in the  
> former very detailed consideration of the logical implications of  
> the central heterodoxies, suggesting that Milton understood what a  
> coherent doctrine would look like (whether he achieved one is  
> another matter).  It seems to me that the free will defense so  
> defensively espoused by God in the poem (he says it fifteen times)  
> isolates the question of how to explain man’s first disobedience  
> from the question of how to explain God’s ways to men (although  
> some famous readers have denied God’s argument and insisted that he  
> really did cause it).  If so, then the poem has no reason to be  
> unclear about God unless among the poem’s claims is that we can  
> never be clear about God, and this epistemic opacity figures into  
> the fall itself in some important way.  If the latter, that we can  
> never be clear about God, then the distinction between theology and  
> doctrine holds, and the poem is not only not doctrinal, it denies  
> the possibility of a doctrine in any event.  (For what its worth,  
> this is my reading of the poem.)  If this is not the poem’s claim,  
> then its representation of God should at least attempt the level of  
> consistency to be found in DCC.  It rather transparently does  
> not.   To call attention to a passage not involved in heterodoxy,  
> it seems to me that God’s recitation at 3.168 on the terms of  
> redemption makes no sense. that God seems to advocate at the same  
> time unlimited election, limited election, and no election, when he  
> could have restricted himself the limited election (what DCC  
> claims).  The poem did not need to do this if doctrine was its aim.
>
>
>
> Kim Maxwell
>
> <ATT00001.txt>

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