[Milton-L] De Doctrina Christiana and diminishing returns

James Rovira jamesrovira at gmail.com
Mon Jan 19 11:49:39 EST 2009

Kim --

Many of these issues relating to the nature and judgment of God are
addressed among Puritan groups through teachings about the attributes of
God.  These are fairly common among puritan writers, although most of those
I'm familiar with are 19thC and later Americans.  If I were still near
Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando I could give you earlier titles and

The point, however, is that God's nature and character are perfect, eternal,
and unchanging, and God's will is in line with his nature and character at
all times.  So saying that God "cannot" and saying that God "does not want
to" is tautological: a distinction between the two is a misleading
anthropomorphism. That God "cannot" do something he "does not want to" does
not impinge upon his free will -- restraint is chosen self restraint, and
the choice is perfect, so unalterable. But even calling it a choice is a bit
of a misrepresentation, because it is an expression of an eternal,
unchanging character. There was never a "time" in which God "had to decide"
to be a good God or a bad God, or to "decide" what was good or bad to begin
with -- again, we would be imagining a time-bound God rather than an eternal
one.  That which is good is that which he thinks, and that which he thinks
is that which is good.  This is not arbitrary, however, but a part of the
very structure of God's existence, so by extension a part of the structure
of the very cosmos itself.

The problem is that we too often imagine a God who is too much like our
everyday selves, faced with conflicting desires and limitations on those
desires, a problem exacerbated by presenting God as a character in a drama
and subject to an apparent time line.  However, if you don't want to drink
coffee, and as a result don't drink coffee, is it a limitation on your
freedom that you choose not to do so?  This example may be more a propos
than is immediately apparent, because there are no external restraints on
your freedom to drink or not to drink coffee, as there are no external
restraints on God's freedom.  Is a self-imposed restraint ever a sign of a
lack of free will, or a sign of the exercise of free will?

Jim R

On Mon, Jan 19, 2009 at 5:18 AM, Kim Maxwell <kmaxwell at stanford.edu> wrote:

> 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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