The Father and Son in Book III (II)
Bill Long 11/25/09
Each Speaks, Son First (lines 144-216)
The Son's first words of PL begin at III.144. If I could capture these 23 lines (144-166) in a word or two, I would say that the Son is the Father's "yes man." All he does is repeat the Father's thoughts or commend God for what He has said. "Gracious was that word which clos'd/ Thy sovran sentence," (144-145), he begins. His points aren't really that stunning or exceptional. He says it would be "far from thee" "should Man finally be lost." Indeed, if Satan successfully won over man, God's goodness and greatness would be "question'd and blasphem'd without defense," (166). There is that word again--defense, and we know that Milton is extremely sensitive in Book III to a proper defense of God.
Why is the Son so unimpressive in his PL debut? I think Milton is wrestling with a considerable theological problem here, a problem that theologians had the luxury of ignoring but that he, as a poet of the Christian epic, ironically, couldn't avoid. It is the issue of what the Son was doing before the Incarnation, before he actually was born. Milton had already bought into the poem the notion of the Father's omniscience ("Wherein past, present, future he beholds"--III.78), but the great power of that affirmation has its shadow or down side. The "shadow side" is that if the Father knows everything, what is left for the Son to know or do before he is actually needed on earth? It is as if we have two brothers in the same family. The first is so multi-talented that he, as it were, leaves "nothing" for the second child to do. That is the problem that Milton faces here.
It is a problem intimately wrapped up with Milton's doctrine of the Trinity, which also is quite unorthodox. The orthodox expression of that doctrine posited three "persons" (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) in one divine "essence." The interdependence of the three didn't preclude each person in the Godhead's having His unique function, but the function of the Son and Spirit was especially important at various times of history. The Spirit was important at the beginning of time, where God breathed the world; the Spirit also was important in various OT passages where divine inspiration or empowerment was in view; finally, the Spirit is essential in the life of the Church or the individual believer. The Son, also, has his importance, and he assumes "center stage" during the 30+ years of earthly existence as Jesus Christ. Before and after his Incarnation he is in heaven, warring with the rebel angels, interceding with the Father for the saints, helping out in the work of creation, possibly appearing to the Old Testament saints in various forms, though we don't really get a good idea from the Scripture of how he spends all his time now or how well he used his time in pre-incarnation days. Perhaps he had too much time on his hands. We don't know.
Theologians don't spend much time wrestling with the issue of what Christ was doing before the Incarnation and after the Ascension. But the poet had to. After all, he is positing a vast drama that existed in Heaven and Hell before the Incarnation. Since Christ was there from eternity, or near eternity, he had to "be around" as a central figure in the heavenly panoply. But, what is he doing? Since God has all knowledge, what can the Son really know but what the Father already knows? Since the Father is the planner, the one who has been attacked by the Rebel angels, and has defeated them by throwing them over the crystal battlements of Heaven through the vast realms of Chaos until they come to rest in Hell what can the Son do? Even though he had a role in the war against the angels, Christ is a sort of "lady in waiting," just hanging out and being God's "yes man" in the heavenly realm until it is time for him to spring into action. Hm. A hermaphroditic Christ? We have that image for the Spirit in I.21-22....
And, when you think of it, why do the Son and the Father need to engage in conversation at all in Heaven? Since the Father already knows everything, He must know what is going on in the Son's mind at all times. Thus, if the Son began a conversation, the Father would most likely say, "I already knew that!" When we are involved with people who already know what we are about to say before we say it, it can get quite exasperating. Sooner or later, we just stop speaking. There is no point.
Thus, I contend that Milton is facing a theological dilemma when he first introduces Christ. He has no conception, no supple understanding, of how to articulate what Christ was doing in his pre-Incarnation existence. Thus, he just commends God for saying what God has said, and he points out the obvious to God--that unless there were some plan for salvation, Satan would emerge victorious. I can just see God rolling his eyes, figuratively speaking. Milton's poor poetry here directly flows from a weak or unexamined theology.
God's Speech (167-216)
But Milton can't have God roll his eyes at the Son's words, because he has to show intimacy between the Father and Son. But his doing so in God's opening words in this speech makes Milton's God/Father sound uncharacteristically stilted. It is like a parent and child who really don't get along that well hugging stiffly at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Listen to the way God addresses the Son (168-170):
"O Son, in whom my Soul hath chief delight,
Son of my bosom, Son who are alone
My word, my wisdom, and effectual might..."
Even if we grant Milton the liberty of epic overstatement and grandeur, this language is a little over the top. Or, alternatively said, it is just too formal. All he is doing in lines 168-170 is making reference to various Scriptural virtues of the Son. The Son is the Father's delight in Matt. 3:17. He is in the bosom of the Father in John 1:18. The Son is the word of God in Rev. 19:13. He is the wisdom and effectual might of God in I Cor. 1:24. But Milton is forced into this type of language because he hasn't been given, by the Christian tradition, a good expression of how the Father and Son relate to each other in Heaven. Does one have priority (Milton certainly felt that the Father did)? What is the Son doing up there? If God knows everything, why does He even have to talk with the Son? And since one major function of human conversation is to learn things about the other and life, how can conversation between these two have any meaning, since all things are known by the Father? Because of these theological conundrums, which Milton hasn't adequately addressed, he is left with awkward words here.
Indeed, let's end this essay with some awkward words, even as we haven't at all finished considering God's speech. After addressing the Son with these biblical designations, God says,
"All has thou spok'n as my thoughts are, all
As my eternal purpose hath decreed:" 171-172.
We have to chuckle. All God is saying is, "Yep, I already knew it!" Well, how else can they relate to one another?