The Father Concludes
Bill Long 11/26/09
By line 203 in Book II, we have three neat categories of people: those who receive special grace; those who receive the grace of God and respond in prayer, repentance and obedience; and those who receive the grace of God but who, nevertheless, neglect and scorn. But what Milton does in the rest of the speech (through line 216) is often overlooked or confused by readers of PL. In a word, because the Father is now talking with the Son, and Milton will directly move to the Son's role in salvation, he is overcome by the requirements of the doctrines of soteriology (salvation) and atonement (i.e., how God and humans are put "at one" through the death of Christ), and chooses to deal with them, quickly, now. In fact, the demands of his narrative require him to deal with those doctrines. Those doctrines necessitate a finding that all people, regardless of how they respond to grace, are sinners worthy of condemnation to Hell.
Thus, in the next several lines, he will finds the need to condemn all people to death and separation from God so that the need for Christ's atoning work can be clear. In short, by laying out his doctrine of election so clearly and neatly in the first half of the speech, he has almost lulled us (and himself!) into a position where we might say, "Well, why have any need for Christ after all, if God can just arrange all these things by his own power?" But Milton, as a Christian, has to argue not just for the importance of Christ, but for the absolute necessity of Christ. Therefore, in the words of the Apostle Paul, he has to "consign all to disobedience" (Rom. 11:32), for it is only if we realize our abject need for Christ and his redemption can we make our election sure.
Thus, God has to bash Mankind again. He first did it about 100 lines previously, where the blame for sin was deftly placed completely on human laps. Now, he emphasizes that point again, but in such a way to show us our abject sinfulness and absolute need for a redeemer.
The Argument of III.203-216
The argument takes a chilling turn for the worse with the words: "But yet all is not done" in line 203. After declaring that those who had responded in prayer, repentance and obedience were "safe," if they persisted in faith, Milton is saying "Not so fast!" It is as if you have received a giant raise in pay, assuring your financial security for the rest of your life, but then, just before you deposit the check, you are told to wait until the company has sufficient funds to cover the check--wait....
The language in the next 10 or so lines is vicious and seems to be derived from a combination of reflection on the first few chapters of Paul's Epistle to the Romans, where all are declared sinners in need of grace, as well as the atonement theology of 17th century Puritanism. The cornerstone of his argument is that humans, despite God's division of the world into three categories for His purposes, invariably pursue the way of death. This stands in some tension to the mollifying, soft, inviting words of lines 190-197, but it is necessary for Milton to show in order that the need for a redeemer is demonstrated. He argues that humans, rather than responding to God's grace, which really was the point of a good chunk of the preceding section, "Disloyal breaks his fealty" (204). Well, things go from bad to worse very quickly, and in a few lines we have concepts of treason, destruction and the inheritance of Adam's sin by posterity taking over the narrative. They jar us immensely as readers, for we really had no preparation for this. We go from great possibilities of a human infused with conscience to the most abject destruction "sacred and devote" in a few lines. So, the Pauline line follows with thundering immediacy: "He with his whole posterity must die" (209).
In Paul's language, God has consigned all to destruction so that He might have mercy on all. So here, Milton has made sure that humans are all consigned to destruction, so that mercy can be extended. But now, in a Pauline frame of mind, he is in the right place to bring in Christ. Either humans or justice dies:
"Unless for him
Some other able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death" (210-212).
Wow! Milton, the proto liberal, the one who argues for human freedom, the one who explores the edges of new theological doctrines that fit into the new political, social and economic reality of the 17th century, now plunges himself deep into the ancient and medieval world of expiatory sacrifice and of propiatiation of divine wrath (note line 237, where the Son says to God, "on me let thine anger fall"). Milton is terribly "conservative" here, principally because he doesn't have a more supple theory of the atonement readily at hand to meet his beautifully "liberal" mind. The rigidity of the "death for death" model of the atonement, which owes itself to what is called the "penal satisfaction" view of the atonement of Anselm, had been questioned already in the Middle Ages by the early 12th century thinker Peter Abelard, but Abelard's "moral theory" of the atonement wasn't really picked up until the French Enlightenment.
An earlier contemporary of Milton, the Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotious, also weighed in with a different theory of atonement by arguing that there needn't be an exact correspondence between sin and punishment, but that God, as moral governor of the universe, could accept Christ's sacrifice for sin without it being a "death for death" proposition. This approach would have given Milton a way of softening the rigid doctrine of penal substitution, but he wasn't "up" on his categories of international law, in which field Grotius was the expert. Milton had met and conversed with Grotius during his European grand tour in 1638-39; but I don't know if anyone knows whether they talked about the atonement in that meeting.
As we have seen, Both Abelard and Grotius wanted to "soften" the apparent harshness and even barbarity of the penal satisfaction view of the atonement reflected here in Milton. But Milton tenaciously held to a "rigid satisfaction, death for death." Thus, we need someone to die so that humans can become free, can have the power to embrace their election. Why didn't he show an inclination to adopt one or the other of these more "liberal" theories of the atonement?
The tone of the narrative is thus quite harsh at this point. Which makes the final few lines in God's speech, where an appeal is made to love, even harder to understand.
"Say heav'nly Pow'rs, where shall we find such love?/ Which of ye will be mortal to redeem
Man's mortal crime, and just th' unjust to save?
Dwells in all Heaven charity so dear?" (213-216)
The lines discussed in this essay are among the least effective in PL. They try to cover too much ground too quickly, and even Milton's famous compressed verses can't cover the yawning intellectual crevasses revealed through his lines. Most of his problem stems not from poetic, but from theological problems. Theology itself has trouble holding together both election and atonement; now Milton has tried to marry a modernist-leaning doctrine of election with an ancient/medieval doctrine of salvation/atonement. It is like wearing a leisure suit in 2010--even worse. It simply doesn't "work."
Yet the result of all of this is that we finally have a reason for the Son's existence. He will respond to the call laid out by lines 213-216. Whereas Milton will use the story in Isaiah 6 to describe himself and his prophetic and bardic call, the Son in the next lines responds also with Isaiah 6-type language to the question of God. "Who will go for us?" "Here am I; send me."