An Interlude and Speech of the Son
Bill Long 11/27/09
After the Father has not done a very good job splicing the doctrines of election and the atonement, the Son will have his say. Starting with line 217 in Book III Milton is not only on firmer and clearer theological ground, but he moves with a literary deftness that makes this next section (217-415) flow with ease. This essay addresses the interludes in Book III and the Son's speech in response to the Father's plea for a redeemer.
An Interlude on Interludes
In order for Milton's narrative to flow, he has to be a master of transitional passages and beginnings of new speeches. He needs transitions not only to give the reader a "break" and to move the action, but to allow a proper "framing" of the action. Once we have a magnificent speech by the Father, or an incredibly important gesture by the Son, we need time to let the words or action settle. There are four of these interludes from III.80-415. If they are examined together we see a gradual growing in the intensity of heavenly reaction to the speeches of Father and Son. At first, there is an ambrosial fragrance that diffuses throughout heaven (135). Then, beginning with the passage for this essay, the Heavenly Choir "stood mute" and there is silence in Heaven (218). Third, when the Son has finished his gracious speech in line 266, admiration "seiz'd All Heaven" (271-72). Finally, after the complete plan of salvation is revealed, the angelic chorus really responds with gusto, "a shout/ Loud as from numbers without numbers" (346). So we go from an odor, to silence, to admiration (what we might call "engaged silence") to shouting. As the divine plan for salvation, which includes the final defeat of Satan, takes on words, the astonishment and approval of the heavenly forces grows. Thus, interludes function powerfully to lend a note of growing excitement and approval to the dramatic intention of the Father.
But something else is happening in our interlude (217-226) that ought to be noted. Here the silence of the heavenly beings is meant to mirror the silence of the beings in Hell in II.420 ("but all sat mute") after various opinions have been advanced there about how to strike back against Heaven. Satan will break the silence in Book II with his desire to leave Hell to corrupt humanity. Now, in Book III, the Son will break the silence with his desire to leave Heaven to save humanity. The Son and Satan mirror each other in action, with frail mankind as the goal of their mutually exclusive desires.
The Son's Speech (227-266)
The Father's surprising request for a redeemer in line 214 (surprising because the Father knows all) is met with stony and worried silence among the heavenly beings. What if no one responds? Then "all mankind/ Must have been lost" (222-23). Oh-oh. Problem. Milton is trying to build tension here, a sense of uncertainty about what to do in this vexing situation. Luckily, the Son quickly responds and decides to take on this most humiliating role. Why is it humiliating? Read on.
When the Father requested someone to redeem mankind, he doesn't really go through the details of the job description. All he says is that there must be "death for death" (212) because of the "rigid satisfaction." It is almost as if "satisfaction" is a category above God, to which the Father must align Himself, much like the scales of justice or even fate in Greek mythology. There appears to be an absolute rule in the universe that exists independent of God or, at least, only with the permission of God, that requires a death for the death of mankind that is contemplated. Man will sin; it will lead to his death; in order to cancel that death, another death is required. Who will die in his stead? That is the flow of the questioning.
So, Christ arises to meet the challenge. He begins in a way that is now familiar to us, by affirming the truth of the Father's words. "Father, thy word is past, man shall find grace" (227). God has said that grace will now be His modus operandi (131,174); the Son is just confirming this. The Son's response is richly theological, reflecting Milton's heterodox Calvinism (or Arminianism). Grace will come; some humans will be prepared for it, but humans can really never "seek" grace, dead as they are in their sins. Let's hear some of the words (228-233):
"And shall grace not find means, that finds her way,/ The speediest of thy winged messengers,
To visit all thy creatures, and to all
Comes unprevented, unimplor'd, unsought?
Happy for man, so coming; he her aid
Can never seek, once dead in sins and lost.."
Milton treads a fine theological line here; let's mark it. Grace comes, and grace finds means to do so. But how "prepared" is mankind for this grace? The key is in the words "unprevented, unimplor'd, unsought." As we have seen elsewhere, prevent, which comes from the Latin praevenire, means "to come before" or "precede." Something that is "unprevented" then means something that doesn't come before. The meaning of the question then, in a statement, is that grace does not come unprevented; grace is prevented or preceded by something. What is that something? Well, as line 190 tells us, it is prayer. Thus, human prayer prevents or goes before God's grace. This is Milton's position. Human hearts are prepared to receive the grace of God by prayer.
It is important to pause here and emphasize what is at stake in these innocent-looking words. The Puritans, deriving their theology ultimately from Calvin in Geneva, believed in prevenient grace--grace that comes down even before humans can prepare themselves to respond to God's grace in faith. Not only is the grace of God given in Christ a gift of God, but even the grace to be able to receive the grace of God in Christ is a gift. That is the Puritan/Reformed way of looking at grace. It is tied up neatly with a doctrine of election, reflected in Chapter III of the Westminster Confession. Grace completely swallows us up. Of course, this leads to a wonderful doctrine of divine sovereignty and control in the Puritan system, but it tends to do so at the expense of free choice of humans.
Milton, then, strikes the note of human choice. Even grace doesn't come unprevented--it is preceded by something in the human heart. Even before repentance there is prayer. Milton's Son has just struck an important blow for human freedom. But then, lest we think that Milton is abandoning his Puritan heritage, he emphasizes the happiness of Man for the coming of grace: "he her aid/ Can never seek, once dead in sins and lost" (232-33). Grace can be prevented by prayer, but it is still absolutely necessary because humans are dead in sins and lost. There is no creeping Pelangianism here.
So, Milton deftly treads the theological minefield of prevenient grace in these lines, affirming as he does the ability of humans to prepare themselves for the saving grace in Christ through prayer and repentance, even as humans realize that they never can "seek" this grace because they are lost. Human responsibility and respect is thus preserved. The Son preserves this dignity in his speech. In an ironic sort of way, both the Father and the Son emphasize human freedom; but the Father stresses this as means to take the blame off Himself for human sin; the Son emphasizes the initiative humans can take in salvation, even though they never can, properly, "seek" grace.
Now that these issues have been handled, the rest of the speech, and God's response, is rather straightforward, as the next essay will show.