[Milton-L] De Doctrina Christiana

Hannibal Hamlin hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
Mon Jan 12 11:06:22 EST 2009

 This is either a late or an extremely late reply -- my apologies
(unexpectedly called out of town).

Many thanks to Kim for a very useful schematic of positions on PL and DDC,
as well as the theology/doctrine distinction.  Re. the latter, however,
though I see the purpose of such a distinction, it obviously breaks down at
some point, perhaps an early point.  Surely many people who have thought
about God also thought they were doing so -- or were attempting to do so --
in a logical and sytematic manner?  The term "doctrine" suggests not so much
all systematic or structured thinking on God but thinking that aims at some
sort of prescription from an institutional -- church, demonination, sect --
perspective.  Though I suppose an individual, especially one like Milton,
might develop a doctrine of his own (making him sort of a church of one).
Anyway, I'm not sure the distinction holds up very long, though it seems to
satisfy our desire for a distinction between individual, free thinking about
the divine, and thinking that is more externally/institutionally

Re. Jim's much earlier post, I think the Bible has extraordinarily little
theology in it.  The gospel writers seem largely indifferent to theology,
the Genesis writers even more so, and even Paul is more a pastoral problem
solver than a theologian, responding in his epistles to the needs of
particular, often troubled individual communities, rather than developing
any clearly definable "theology."  Kim will object that I am again confusing
"theology" and "doctrine," but I don't think so.  I think the term
"theology," as we normally use it, implies some system or structure of
thought about God, rather than just random thoughts about the divine.  (We
might compare our use of cognate terms like philology, geology, psychology
-- one might argue that the etymology suggests simply "speaking about" x or
y, but the use of *logos* in Christian thought implies something closer to
reason or logical structure, and modern usage often implies "science.")

I realize this thread has branched out in many other directions, but I hold
to my original point, which is that storytelling is a problematic way to
teach theology.  Of course, such practice has a long history, dating back to
Jesus's parables and beyond to Jewish midrash, but the history if anything
just reinforces my point.  Despite popular opinion to the contrary, Jesus's
parables are terrible teaching tools -- even the disciples don't understand
them, and most explanations of them fail to acknowledge how essentially
confusing most of them are, substituting canned doctrine for genuine
interpretation.  Midrash is a powerful tradition, but it's never-ending and
non-conclusive.  Stories never really or perfectly explain other stories, so
further stories are required -- and so on.

Now, from a literary perspective, the need for perpetual midrash is
delightful.  Turning back to Milton, it is similarly delightful (to me) that
PL is so endlessly and variously polysemous (this isn't to say it's an
interpretive free-for-all, just that no interpretation is ever going to be
definitive).  But isn't writing such a work a strange way of justifying the
ways of God to man?  Certainly, PL generates theological ideas and
speculation about them, but I'm not sure one can reasonably speak of the
"theology" of PL, at least in the OED's definition of "theology" as "the
study or science which treats of God."

This is the point I tried to make earlier -- that PL and DDC are in
fundamentally different literary modes which work in different ways.
Perhaps this is related to the old argument concerning the heresy of
paraphrase.  DDC is entirely paraphrasable; PL is not, even by DDC.

Re. Peter's more recent post and subsequent discussion -- "Christianity" is
by no means easy to define, and many evangelicals still do not consider
Catholics Christians.  My mother's family is Unitarian.  Some Unitarians
think of themselves as Christian, some don't.  Even among those who do,
"Christian" is used as more or less cognate with "Baconian" or Keynesian."
Probably most "Christians" would see this as inadequate, requiring some
belief in Christ as personal savior.  Unitarians also tend to claim the
Arian Milton as a precursor.  It does seem, then, that one can reasonably
argue Milton was not a Christian, if by "Christian" we mean someone who
believes that Christ is (a) the son of God (in the Trinitarian sense) and
(b) our personal savior.

All that said, perhaps we could call PL a "Christian" poem in a looser
sense, in that it is written within a broad Christian cultural context?  But
we should then call *The Faerie Queene* and *King Lear* Christian works too.


On 1/10/09, James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com> wrote:
> Much appreciation for the clarity of Kim's presentation of the difference
> between theological and doctrinal.  I attempted to make that distinction in
> a reply to Hannibal.
> Carrol -- PL can still be a Christian poem because those elements
> "repugnant to Christianity" have been Christianized, and because the
> "Christian" includes a recognition of Divine working through even "pagan"
> religions for many Christian thinkers.  If we reduce Christianity to
> Puritanism, then yes, its impossible to incorporate these elements into a
> Christian poem.  If we allow our definition of Christianity to include the
> 1500 years or so before the Reformation, then this is nothing new --  in
> this Christian tradition this is very old hat.  It's amazing to me I even
> feel the need to bring it up in this discussion.  The old gods are either
> angels or demons.  Socrates was as close to being a Christian as you can get
> without knowing Christ.  It's amazing how much those guys got right apart
> from Divine revelation.  Etc.
> Defining characteristics of a Christian poem do not include the absence or
> presence of pagan elements, but the context in which they are understood.
> Milton's ambition was for his poem to surpass Mts. Horeb, Sinai, and Helicon
> precisely because it is a Christian poem, one informed by the knowledge of
> Christ (and Christian theology), so that Jewish and other pre-Christian
> material are organized and contextualized within Christian thought.
> The trinitarian question is another matter, but this is purely a debate
> between Christians.  That trinitarians often claim one cannot be a Christian
> without being a trinitarian doesn't obscure the fact that they are still
> arguing with people who believe in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and take the
> NT as their primary religious text.
> Jim R
> On Sat, Jan 10, 2009 at 12:37 PM, Carrol Cox <cbcox at ilstu.edu> wrote:
>> What does it mean to be a Christian poem anyhow, if one can include so
>> many elements that are or could be so repugnant to so many versions of
>> Christianity?
>> Carrol
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Hannibal Hamlin
Associate Professor of English
The Ohio State University
Burkhardt Fellow,
The Folger Shakespeare Library
201 East Capitol Street SE
Washington, DC 20003
hamlin.22 at osu.edu/
hamlin.hannibal at gmail.com
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