[Milton-L] De Doctrina Christiana

Kim Maxwell kmaxwell at stanford.edu
Tue Jan 13 01:04:52 EST 2009

Prof. Fallon

Thank you for your kind words.

On the free will defense: it is easy to forget (I do so all
the time anyway) that the poem means prelapsarian free will, not free will
dogged by depravity and the absence, if it is absent, of right reason following
the fall.  There are theological issues
here to be sure (man’s contingency upon God and so on), but I don’t find them
in the poem.  Rather, the poem seems to
me to assume prelapsarian free will, rather than argue it or attempt to explain
it.  (Calvin did the same.)  The purpose is to exculpate God.  If God is exculpated, and we are interested
in “man’s first disobedience . . . and all our woe,” that is, the nature of
original sin and with it the nature of contemporaneous sin, we do not need any
answers to the poem’s many theological interests in postlapsarian man to
proceed.  The Godhead, Christology, Creation
from what, terms of redemption, faith and grace, faith and works have no
bearing on Adam’s first decision and its inherited consequences if we assume as
I think the poem does that God was not instrumental in its development.  That of course leaves open the poem’s second
claimed theater of interest, God’s ways to man.  As I have tried to say in various inept ways, I think the poem is very
confused on this second interest.  My
weakest claim is that it just that, confused.   My
stronger claim, the one I am presently pursuing, is that the confusion serves a
purpose, or perhaps purposes.  One is a
kind of Fish reading without the determinate outcome, that the poem creates
confusion in us that we can then begin to understand the confusion of Adam, or
at least the prelapsarian limitations on Adam’s understanding that figure in
the fall.  An interesting question, to me
at least, is what Adam really understands after God has given him sudden
apprehension after naming the animals a second time.  If Adam is confused, as he seems to be about
Eve (and quite a few other things), he cannot tell us.  But we can try to piece it together by how
the poem represents understanding and its objects in other ways as they might
relate to Adam’s behavior.  How we fail
to understand God becomes a component of such an analysis.
On the difficulties of narration:  I am not sure I see the difficulty.  God is narrated in many works, some only as
an allegorical figure.  That he appears
in time only matters if the narration suggests that such appearance renders his
efforts at transhistorical statements ironic.  This may happen in PL, but I don’t see it is a necessary outcome  of the fact of representation, or poetic form
for that matter.  Indeed, at the risk of
another distinction, those who want the poem to be doctrinal take God’s words
at what they see as face value, and those who see it otherwise decide that God’s
general character as mean or tyrannical requires an ironic treatment, so that
God’s self-testaments to his own nature and mercy can be acquitted of
truth.  What I am trying to argue,
however, has something to do with God’s words, but not as inflected by his
character.  God says the following
things: “To me owe all his deliverance, and to none but me” (3.181-2); “Some I
have chosen of peculiar grace / Elect above the rest: so is my will” (3.183-4);
the rest shall hear me call . . . (3.185 ff).  I find problems here.  Does “me”
include the son, who after all actually performs the judgment?  Does “none but me” imply that only God has any
influence on the outcome, the most obvious reading, which is unlimited
election.  “Some I have chosen of
peculiar grace, elect above the rest”  This is another form of unlimited election.  Why does he do this, and then proceed to what
I think is called limited election, that God can elect but man can refuse (the
Arminian position as I understand it, that is, God’s atonement is unlimited,
but perseverance is not)?  But then God
installs his umpire conscience in those not elected, suggesting that if they
work hard, “light after light well used they shall attain, and to the end
persisting, safe arrive.”  This has the
smell of Pelagius, of no election at all.  God of course knows who does and who doesn’t,
but his stand on predestination, a clear one I think, means that he causes none
of it.  It seems to me that Milton did
not need to have God say these things if he wanted the poem to be capable of
producing on its own terms a coherent doctrine.  These are the core problems between Calvinists and Arminians as decided
in favor of Calvin by the Synod of Dort—they are not dark secrets or unexplored
territory.  I cannot think of any
theologian who argued that God elects some unconditionally and then requires of
the rest persistent trial, with those who succeed being admitted to
heaven.  Yet the poem seems very clear—“some”
and “the rest.”  This seems to be me to
more that just having Calvinist leanings; it seems perversely inconsistent.

Kim Maxwell
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