The Father Speaks (PL III.167-216)
Bill Long 11/26/09
And Gets Himself Into Trouble...
The first 300 lines of Book III contain the most intense theological reflections in all of PL. Already we have seen a dramatic reconceptualization of the Puritan doctrine of divine election or predestination in God's first speech of the book. We have also seen Milton's theological struggle with the question of the activities/knowledge of the pre-incarnate Christ. Now, in this second speech of God we will see the clash between doctrines of divine election/predestination and the atonement. Christian theologians, aware of the tension inherent in the two doctrines, usually separate them, like hostile fighters, with hundreds of pages in between, when writing systematic theology. Milton, on the other hand, puts the two together within this one speech of God, thus creating a situation where even the most "pro-Milton" commentator is led to say: "It is a great pity that our author should have thus debased the dignity of the Deity by putting in his mouth this horrid doctrine.." (Thomas Newton, Paradise Lost: A Poem in Twelve Books, 1750, vol. 1, p. 201). Well, let's see what he means--in this and the next essay.
The Flow of the Speech
We understand this speech best if we see it consisting of two parts: (1) The good news of God's offer, and human acceptance and rejection, of salvation to eternal life (lines 173-202); (2) The bad news of humanity's headlong rush towards condemnation (lines 203-216). The two don't hang together very well, but they do prepare the ground for the need for Christ and for Christ's noble effort to volunteer to be the savior in lines 227ff.
(1) God divides the world into three categories of people according to how they receive the message of salvation: (a) some that are "elect above the rest" (183-184); (b) the "rest" who hear the call of God (185-197); and (c) those who don't respond favorably to that call (198-202). Yet, lest we think that he harbors Pelagian rather than simply Arminian theological tendencies,* he precedes a discussion of these categories by stressing that however people respond to God's offer of salvation, they owe their life to God and not to their own effort.
"By me upheld, that he (man) may know how frail
His fall'n condition is, and to me owe
All his deliverance, and to none but me," 180-182.
[*All three categories: Puritan/Arminian/Pelagian believe in the reality of divine grace and its necessity for salvation, but the first emphasizes that salvation is completely a matter of divine choice or election, without God's having foreseen human faith; the second stresses that salvation comes from divine election, a sort of conditional election, but that it is a cooperative process between the offer of grace and active human choice, and the third emphasizes the priority of human ability in responding to the divine offer of salvation.]
Now that he sets the record straight on human dependence on the grace of God alone, Milton divides the world into three categories of people. I take time to delineate each, because even some scholarly literature seems to confuse categories.
(a) The first are those whom Milton says were possessors of "peculiar grace" who were "called above the rest." We might call the "heroes" of faith; Milton doesn't tell us who they are, but probably the list of the faithful in Hebrews 11 approximates those in this category. I don't know why Milton chooses such a category; most Puritan theologians wouldn't differentiate layers or levels of priority among the elect.
(b) He spends most time describing those who hear the call and respond positively to the message of grace (185-197). If we remember what he has just told us (that humans owe their life to God alone), the lines become crystal clear, and even eloquent. Using the rich and movingly evocative language of Scripture, Milton describes how God will "clear their senses dark" and "soften stony hearts." The latter words, for example, are reminiscent of Ezekiel 36:26: "I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh." Lest we think, however, that Milton is returning to the safe confines of the Puritan doctrine of election, he says twice, in identical words, that this will make humans so affected "pray, repent, and bring obedience due." Divine grace is cooperating with human initiative.
The good news continues. Having removed their stony hearts, God now adds more. He gives them "My umpire conscience," which is to be equated with the "Reason" of line 108. The 17th century saw a veritable explosion in England in reflection on the human conscience. Shakespeare, of course, gave us the familiar line from Hamlet, "Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all," III.1.83. Jeremy Taylor, the Anglican contemporary of Milton said, in language almost identical to Milton: 'God rules in us by his substitute, our conscience." What is fascinating, however, is the "politicization of conscience" beginning around the time of PL. Thomas Hobbes, the great political philosopher, used the term in Leviathan synonymously with a person's judgment (Ch. 29). John Locke, writing at the end of the century, spoke of conscience as "nothing else but our own Opinion or Judgment of the moral Rectitude or Pravity of our own Actions," Human Understanding I.iii.8. Milton's focus is on the term as a inner regulator specially given to humans. Well, God has gifted humans with a conscience, and if humans give heed to this conscience, they will have "light after light," and, if they well use that light, and persist to the end (cf. Matt. 10:22), they shall "safe arrive" (197). Milton is enough of a Puritan to mention that salvation consists in what Puritans and other Calvinists called the "perseverance of the saints."
(c) But we still have to say a word about the third category of people. These are people who, rather than responding with "prayer, repentance, and obedience" (191), are those who "neglect and scorn." Instead of having their stony hearts replaced with something more soft and pliable, they sink into hardness and blindness (200). The words
"But hard be harden'd, blind be blinded more"
are reminiscent of Exodus' description of Pharoah's heart and Jesus words condemning those who "look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand," Mark 4:12. The biblical cadences continue. Such people may "stumble" and "deeper fall." Only these does God say that He will exclude from mercy (202).
Our three categories of humans, based on how they respond to the grace of God, have now been spelled out. Milton's doctrine of election is fully exposited. It is a cooperative process between humans and God, even if humans realize that they owe all their deliverance to God and only to God.
Phew! Now that Milton has laid that bogey to rest and has not only exculpated God but has patiently articulated his new doctrine of grace, you would think that he could leave the matter alone. But he can't. And he can't because he hasn't given us any reason to believe at this point that there is a need for Christ. Since God is so powerful and omnisicent, He certainly can devise a means by the simple call to repentance and the replacement of the stony heart with one of flesh in order to effect salvation. But what about the Son? He is just sitting there in Heaven and, as we have seen, not doing too much other than echoing the thoughts of God. There needs to be a way to use him. That glorious thought gets Milton (and Milton's God) into trouble, as the next essay argues.