[Milton-L] De Doctrina Christiana and diminishing returns

Kim Maxwell kmaxwell at stanford.edu
Mon Jan 19 05:18:43 EST 2009


I suppose we can leave to others if diminishing returns have
been reached.
 
It seems to me that Prof. Skulsky has his finger on why I
think two forms of grace seem odd.  He
suggests that we can still make sense of peculiar grace without resistance and
sufficient grace with resistance by an analogy with God, the Son, and the elect
at the end, who are free but incapable of evil.  This confuses the word “free” taken in its moral sense.  The Father is under substantial constraint,
as Milton lists them in DDC.  He cannot commit a contradiction.  He cannot duplicate himself or deny
himself.   He cannot commit evil.  He cannot change his eternal decree.  He is no more “absolutely” free than he is
“absolutely” omnipotent.  And, not
mentioned by Milton, he cannot
judge himself.  To judge himself would
imply the possibility of his evil, an impossible condition from his point of
view.  (This is the meaning of God saying
to the Son that he can put his scepter aside when God is all in all—no more
judgment, no more morality, and no more free will in the moral sense.)   If God cannot judge himself, the question of
God’s moral status relative to free will has no meaning.  (Whether he can be judged by us, what the poem
hopes for in some way, may be a different matter, but we only do so on the idea
that God could commit evil.  If we assume
otherwise, the judgment is analytic, and therefore on its face not analogous to
judgments of human behavior.)  This then
is not an argument that saves unconditional election without resistance and the
free will defense taken together.  Any
sliding into varieties of resistance or degrees of resistance may recuperate
free will, but it then compromises unconditional election.  We may do that, and the poem may not preclude
it, but the lines under discussion seem on the face of it quite clear: “some I
have chosen of peculiar grace elect above the rest; so is my will.”  End stop.  (The word “some” followed by the word “rest” seems to me to preclude a
previous distinction proposed on the list between general and specific.)  Can God’s will be resisted?  As Paul might say, God forbid.  It does seem to me quite odd that Milton
would suggest two modes of grace, one intimating redemption without the
necessity of faith, and two segments of mankind, some treated better than
others, without any suggestion of why or on what terms the privileged group is
privileged.  Where might we put Adam, for
example?
            For what
its worth, I still think a useful distinction can be made between pre- and
post-lapsarian free will.  Free will of
course implies the possibility of evil, but it also implies choice, and for the
poem choice is bound up with reason.  Reason operates over knowledge, the poem’s obsession in some ways.  Adam remains culpable because in the poem’s
terms he knows all he needs to know to obey.   Adam has no knowledge of God’s future intentions regarding
redemption.  He only knows two things
about his own potential evil, that it will produce death and the displeasure of
his creator.  His only example of evil,
the satanic kind, produced eternal life with eternal damnation.  However we construct the calculus of
redemption, it cannot be material to how Adam makes his choice, and hence how
we understand the fall.  I think the poem
argues for the fall to create a level of depravity, that is, free will relative
to salvation is compromised after the fall.  But the pre-lapsarian free will defense is really restricted to the
questions of theodicy—can an omnipotent wholly good God be just in any way and
permit conditions by which evil may materialize, particularly knowing that evil
will materialize.  We can accept God’s
own argument, that he must be freely served, without any examination of God’s
own distribution of postlapsarian justice and mercy, or how we are to
understand the difference.
            To
forestall an objection, I am not saying the poem is only about the fall.  It is clearly about much more, and the much
more engages theological issues of redemption.  I just think they can be put aside for how we see the poem explaining
the first evil act and the nature of free will therein subsumed.
 
            As I am
repeating myself, I guess we can say that I at least have reached diminishing
returns.

Kim Maxwell
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