Q&A on Milton’s Scriptural Theology

Why did Milton write De Doctrina Christiana?

He didn’t. He dictated it, being blind.

Then how do you know he composed it?

His name is on the MS, which survives. Views expressed, such as on Predestination or Divorce or Tithing, match Milton’s views expressed elsewhere. His prodigious skills in the biblical languages match those of his other prose works.

So all the more, why did he undertake this enormous task?

Irritation, he says, with the mistakes and bad logic of other theologians; for only the Bible can be trusted as evidence for safe belief, and he will now assemble what the Bible says on every single point.

What does he mean by safe belief? And unsafe?

Unsafe beliefs include ones based on tradition and church authority. Safe beliefs on the other hand may be lesser ones. He’s very thorough. Tiny texts preponderate as proofs in the manuscript’s earlier layers.

Give some examples.

Milton works his way through all details of belief, worship and conduct, systematically, and often with prosaic declarativeness.  But at the other extreme he demolishes the current explanations of Trinity, as three “persons” in one God, in a chapter of many thousand words. This orthodox understanding of godhead in scripture, he says, is not to be found in scripture. He forgoes his usual organization by commonplace book topics, to tackle orthodoxy head-on. What he attacks, however, is both the current explanation of personhood in terms of hypostasis, and any explanation whatever. He won’t have a bar of it.

Is he usually heterodox?

Quite often, but more eclectic.  On Predestination he opposes Calvinism and sides with Arminian orthodoxy. On Divorce he opposes all the mainstream churches. On Tithing he rails against established clergy, the English one especially. The common thread is free will, and individual choice.

Is that all?

No, the other aspect is personal fervour, do-it-yourself, and a Latin eloquence which can become positively incandescent. In these places, the work waxes most readable, at its most passionate.

Doesn’t he seek to persuade by reason?

By his version of reason, yes. But “reason” includes many axioms, and a way he has of limiting interpretation, to a bare minimum. Least is best—for no obvious reason, since theology has grown rather than shrunk in scope, developing as needed or challenged such applications as the Trinity. Trinitarian theology has begun stirring even in the Old Testament. How much more likely that the New will become more, not less, open to it. It is well visible in Matthew 28.19, or in Pauline invocations.

Milton grinds axes, then?

Yes. And his presuppositions blind him to the very perspectives from which historical scriptural theology began, in Leviathan and elsewhere.

Stern words! What do you mean?

Milton says the Old Testament’s textual authority outweighed that of the New. This assists his line of thought (pre-known from the English pamphlets) on Divorce. The patriarchs divorced, just as they upheld polygamy: ergo both were still permitted. Yet how could the O. T. have a more reliable text than the N. T. when it tells of Moses describing his own death? But Milton must disallow development in the New, just as marriage customs must not have changed.

Then would not De Doctrina be a backwater, even had it reached publication before the Restoration prevented it?

Yes and No. Hindsight does negate Milton’s timeless and nitpicking scholastic synthesis. But his onslaught on the Trinity makes it count, as part of the mid-century questioning of the traditional thought-forms. In all his enquiries alike he has an admirable driving eagerness, not to mention a power of expression which is ill-served by translation but is manifest in the original Latin.

How would you sum up his undertaking?

He himself summed it up as a treasure, gained like that of the householder in the parable, and readied to be given forth. Perhaps the true imperative was more personal. To change the parable, De Doctrina expresses “that one talent which is death to hide.”

What do you think your own study [link] of De Doctrina achieves?

It recovers the commitment and intensity of Milton’s undertaking, its energy and zeal. Though these qualities seem at times misguided, and somewhat unlikely to produce safe belief for anyone but Milton himself, my study shows how his mind works, in a systematic theology—kinks, curves, and presuppositions included. And in his other theology, the poems, his mind works differently, with an awakened imagination that is revealed by the contrast.

By John Hale