[Milton-L] prevenient (was crucifixion)

Dennis Danielson danielso at mail.ubc.ca
Sun Apr 6 23:03:03 EDT 2014

Professor Fleming, nice to hear from you also. Thanks for this reply, as 
well as for the previous one. I'd like to respond to three things you 
say that I think are a bit skewed (or at least need clarifying), and 
then I'll resume my posture of quiet lurker.

[JDF] "I do not see, in this passage [beginning of Book 11], any 
indication that Adam and Eve are 'free to accept or reject' grace. Quite 
the contrary: a prevenient grace that performs a moral heart transplant, 
without so much as a by-your-leave, would appear to be as close as one 
can get to an evacuation of soteriological volition under the sign of 
the divine power."

[DD] I think you're technically correct but blur an important 
distinction. Yes, prevenient grace *is* irresistible, insofar it results 
from a blanket divine policy (see 3.188-202). It's not optional. But 
what is optional is what one does with it. Prevenient grace (I'm 
pedantically tempted to dive into etymology but won't) precedes the 
grace/light promised in Book 3. There's more grace on its way, so to 
speak, which is not irresistible (God's "day of grace" doesn't begin and 
end with sunrise).

I see prevenient grace a bit like life itself. I didn't ask to be born 
("without so much as a by-your-leave"), but much depends on what I do 
with that gift amid the odd, unstable amalgam of constraint and agency 
we call human freedom.

[JDF] "it really seems a fallacy of historicism to suppose that just 
because we can find period sources asserting that a given conundrum 
isn't one, it isn't a conundrum."

[DD] Again, technically true, and a useful caution. Neither am I a fan 
of saying "Here's an analogue from one of Milton's contemporaries, so 
this is what Milton must have meant." (I might replace "must" with 
"might.") But surely literary interpretation deals in plausibility. And 
surely if a writer in the 1650s talks about grace in terms of *not* 
resisting God's offer ("take heed that when God speaks, you stop not 
your eares; when God shines upon you, that you shut not your eyes") 
using vocabulary that likewise appears in PL, then that enhances the 
plausibility of the reading I indicated. It doesn't compel it. It 
doesn't prove it. It doesn't obviate a conundrum if the conundrum is 
real. It does seem to me, however, to offer a hermeneutic superior to 
the one (common enough in literary criticism, though I'm not accusing 
you of it) that merely alleges a conundrum with even less of an 
historical basis than your "historicist" critic offers in support of a 
positive possible reading. (I will leave unexamined for now your DDR 

[JDF] (from previous post) "I still do not understand how a teaching 
that is Calvinist can't be called Calvinist."

Again, I think you're correct technically. At the same time, it's not 
terribly *useful* to call a doctrine (the Virgin Birth, let's say) 
Calvinist if it's also Arminian, Jesuit, Dominican, Jansenist, etc. Alan 
Horn's point, as I understood it (referring to total depravity, if I've 
got my facts straight) -- "It is not distinctive to Calvinism" -- had to 
do with the interpretive helpfulness of the designation. Calvin is a 
name many moderns and perhaps postmoderns reflexively like to dislike, 
so to assert "Doctrine X is Calvinist" instantly bumps it down the 
league tables -- not a maneuver with a lot of intellectual integrity 
(again, I'm not accusing you). I'd add only that the more one reads in 
sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theological debates, the more 
subtleties and distinctions one discerns -- and so the more leery of 
labels one becomes. To cite only one germane example, I'd argue that 
Calvin's own doctrine of "total depravity" in The Institutes (basically, 
against the Scholastics: "there's no aspect of human life untouched by 
the effects of the Fall") differs greatly from what his so-called 
followers (Synod of Dort etc.) made of it (reading "total" not as 
comprehensive but as "utter"). But that's another conversation.

Please accept a pedant's "pax et bonum."

On 14-04-06 6:03 PM, JD Fleming wrote:
> Professor Danielson, nice to hear from you. I think my responses are
> pretty much in my previous post. The opening of 11 wd appear to provide
> the theory for everything we see in 10. Perhaps I will simply add that
> it really seems a fallacy of historicism to suppose that just because we
> can find period sources asserting that a given conundrum isn't one, it
> isn't a conundrum. If we looked back at the history of the DDR, for
> example, I'm sure we would find many quite impressive authorities
> asserting that even though East German citizens who wished to travel
> internationally had to apply for exit visas and passports that would
> almost certainly be denied, that didn't mean they weren't free to
> travel. Similarly, etc. JD Fleming
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> *From: *"Dennis Danielson" <danielso at mail.ubc.ca>
> *To: *"John Milton Discussion List" <milton-l at lists.richmond.edu>
> *Sent: *Sunday, 6 April, 2014 15:13:49
> *Subject: *[Milton-L] prevenient (was crucifixion)
> When I was a theological pedant almost exactly half a lifetime ago
> (though perhaps I'm still one of those), I argued a reading of the
> beginning of Book 11 by analogy with a Q&A from Robert Harris's 1563
> catechism, which imagines a student wondering, given that all
> “spirituall goodnesse” is accomplished by grace, what room there is for
> his or her own agency:
> "Quest. What can we do toward [the softening of our hearts]? it is not
> in our power to soften our selves.
> Answ. True: but yet it is in our power to harden our selves ...: Here
> therefore, take heed that when God speaks, you stop not your eares; when
> God shines upon you, that you shut not your eyes ...; do not receive the
> grace of God in vain; do not future your repentance, nor make delaies,
> ... but when the Word findes you out in your sins, take Gods part
> against yourselves, stablishing your hearts in the assured truth of all
> the promises of God."
> Similarly, in Paradise Lost (I argued), Adam and Eve recall both the
> promise concerning the bruising of the serpent’s head and the evidence
> they already have of God’s pity (l0.1028 ff., 1056 ff). Having refrained
> from hardening themselves, from stopping their ears, from shutting their
> eyes, they also avoid any “futuring” of their repentance: To the place
> of judgment they repair “forthwith” (10.1098). Moreover, when Adam
> counsels against suicide on the grounds that it “cuts us off from hope,
> and savours only / Rancour and pride, impatience and despite, /
> Reluctance against God and his just yoke” (10.1043 5), there is no
> reason for thinking him mistaken in assuming this possibility of
> “reluctance against God” to be real, even though we are subsequently
> told that the decision not to be reluctant was effected through God’s grace.
> In short, this (Arminian) reading of prevenient grace does not (pace JD
> Fleming) prevent us from imagining that A and E are saved because they
> repent.

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