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De Doctrina Christiana


Background and Overview of Major Themes

(For a fuller discussion of the textual and theological history of De Doctrina Christiana, see vol. 6 of the Yale Complete Prose edition)

  1. Scripture
  1. Christian doctrine is to be derived solely from Scripture (those books of the Old and New Testaments considered canonical in Protestant editions of the Bible).
  2. Scripture is authoritative because it is divinely inspired.
  3. Belief in the inspiration of scripture rests not on the testimony of any church, but on the operation of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers.
  4. Scripture contains everything necessary for salvation.
  5. Scripture is clear and its meaning is self-evident.
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  1. Scripture is only to be interpreted in one sense, though in the case of the Old Testament, that sense may be a combination of the historical and the typical (reading Old Testament events and figures as "types" of New Testament events and figures).

  2. Sound interpretation of scripture requires attention to the original manuscripts, knowledge of the grammar and idioms of the original languages, and a knowledge of the historical contexts of the writings.

  3. Ultimately, each believer, aided by the Holy Spirit, must interpret scripture himself.

  4. Believers possess a two-fold scripture: the external scripture of written texts, and the internal scripture written by the Holy Spirit on the hearts of believers.

  5. The written word can suffer corruption, but the Spirit cannot; therefore, the internal scripture is a more trustworthy guide than either the external scripture or the traditions of political and ecclesiastical authorities.

  1. Antitrinitarianism

The Father and the Son

  1. The doctrine of the Trinity originated, according to Milton, from an imagined inconsistency between the Old and New Testaments: "Since, however, Christ not only bears the name of the only begotten Son of God, but is also several times called in Scripture God, notwithstanding the universal doctrine that there is but one God, it appeared to many, who had no mean opinion of their own acuteness, that there was an inconsistency in this; which gave rise to an hypothesis no less strange than repugnant to reason, namely, that the Son, although personally and numerically another, was yet essentially one with the Father, and that thus the unity of god was preserved" (I.v).
  2. The Trinity is derived primarily from one suspect text, 1 John 5:7: "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one." This text is lacking in Syriac, Arabic, and Ethiopic versions of the manuscript, as well as most Greek versions.
  3. Adherents to the Trinity doctrine have resorted to sophistry and subterfuge borrowed from the "schools" (Scholastics).
  4. The doctrine of the Trinity obscures the plain meaning of scripture.
  5. The Trinity finds no clear support in scripture.
  6. The Trinity is contrary to reason.
  7. The Bible nowhere establishes that the Son was generated from eternity.
  8. Interpretation of John 10:30, "I and my Father are one," differs: Trinitarians interpret "one" as "one in essence." Milton rejects this view: the Son and the Father are not "one in essence" because the Son says quite the opposite at John 10:29, "My Father . . . is greater than all," and at John 14:28, "my Father is greater than I."
  9. John 10:30 states that the Son and Father are one "in the same manner as we [Christians] are one with him [Christ],—that is, not in essence, but in love, in communion, in agreement, in character, in spirit, in glory" (I.v).
  10. Trinitarian doctrine contradicts reason—what it asserts regarding the oneness of essence conflicts with what it asserts regarding the number, causation, and equality of the three persons of the Trinity.
  11. Things differing in number must differ in essence.
  12. Things differing in causation must differ in essence.
  13. Equality can only exist between different essences. (Otherwise, what you have is not equality, but sameness.)
  14. The Father created the Son from his own substance (creation ex deo rather than ex nihilo)—not from necessity (which is implied by the Trinitarian doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son), but from free will.
  15. This generation is not from eternity (implying that the Son has always existed, just as the Father has always existed), but in time, because willing the creation of the Son must have preceded the actual creation of the Son.
  16. The Son is the first of all creation, through whom everything else is created by the Father.
  17. The Father gave the Son divine nature and attributes, but the Son, though called God, is not the One God, since his divinity is given rather than self-existent.

What about the Holy Spirit?

  1. Less is said in the Scriptures concerning the Holy Spirit.
  2. The Bible nowhere mentions that the Spirit is divine in the sense that the Father and Son are said to be divine.
  3. The Spirit was not known or worshipped as God in Old Testament times.
  1. Arminianism
  1. Arminianism is a Reformation-era development which grows out of a conflict dating back to the 5th century: the conflict between Pelagius and Augustine over human nature and sin.
  2. The Eastern church of the 5th century had a relatively sanguine view: man possess free will, is responsible for his actions, and may—with the help of God’s grace—recover that which was lost in the fall. Origen, an early father of the Eastern church, promulgated a doctrine of universal salvation: everyone, even including Satan himself, would ultimately be redeemed by God.
  3. The Western church had a much darker view: though they believed both in the free will of man and the grace of God, the primary emphasis of the Western fathers was on sin and a concept of fallen man as incapable of willing anything good and as totally dependent on God’s grace.
  4. Pelagius was shocked at the immorality and vice of Roman society in the 5th century. He attributed these conditions to the deteministic theology of the Western church, a theology that discouraged any moral effort on the grounds that men are born sinful, only grace can overcome that sin, and no individual can will even the slightest good in and of himself. Pelagius denied the idea that men are born sinful, and affirmed free will and the responsibility of each individual. He even went to the extent of suggesting that humans could, theoretically, live absolutely sinless lives. Man suffered no hereditary consequences from the fall of Adam and Eve: "everything good and everything evil . . . is done by us, not born with us." Pelagius even anticipated the tabula rasa view of human nature which would later be promulgated by Locke: "we are begotten as well without virtue as without vice." Pelagius thought that God wished men to practice righteousness of their own free will, and he also believed that human action, whether for good or evil, always remained within the power of human will to decide.
  5. All of this outraged Augustine. He thought that this doctrine left no room at all for the influence of god’s grace, the sacrifice of Christ, or the authority of the church. Augustine responded to Pelagius by promoting the following ideas: Adam’s fall contaminated the entire human race; this fall not only deprived mankind of its original righteousness, but it left humans with an inclination to sin passed down to each generation of descendents; Men’s wills are so warped in the direction of sin that they can only will and do that which is evil; Sin is inescapable, and the only way to salvation is through the unearned receiving of God’s grace; God determines, in a choice made from all eternity, who shall receive his grace (Augustine referred to this as the "predestination of saints."
  6. Augustine won the official battle; Pelagianism was condemned by the Council of Carthage in 418 A.D.
  7. The views of the Eastern church remained much the same as they always had.
  8. In the West, a phenomenon known as Semi-Pelagianism developed in resistance to the Augustinian notion that the will was free only to choose evil.
  9. Semi-Pelagianism was officially condemned at the Synod of Orange in 529; however, its influence lived on, being clearly evident in the writings of the medieval scholastics, particularly in the works of Thomas Aquinas.
  10. Aquinas developed the idea that all created things tend toward their inherent end—the good. The will is free to choose good, because the good is the inherent end of the will. The will just needs a little help, and that is where God’s grace comes in. Grace operates to help the will beyond a certain critical point in its progress towards the good, a point beyond which it cannot progress on its own.
  11. The real descendents of Augustine were Luther and Calvin. Fallen man, in their view, was inherently worthy of damnation; all deserve the most severe and horrible judgment, but some—quite undeservedly—are given the gift of God’s grace.
  12. According to Calvin, "man is so enslaved by the yoke of sin, that he cannot of his own nature aim at good either in wish or actual pursuit" (Institutes, II.iv.1). Man’s "heart is so thoroughly envenomed by sin that it can breathe out nothing but corruption and rottenness" (II.v.19), and "Man has now been deprived of freedom of choice and bound over to miserable servitude" (II.ii.title). God ordains election and reprobation: "Those, therefore, whom God passes by he reprobates, and that for no other cause but because he is pleased to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines to his children" (III.xxiii.1).
  13. Calvin’s theology is called Supralapsarianism.
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  15. Arminianism developed in response to Calvin’s theology. Dutch divines who subscribed to a position known as Infralapsarianism charged that Calvin’s doctrines made God the author of sin. The infralapsarian view held that God foreknew, but did not decree, the fall of man.
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  17. Arminius became the defender of this position in this way: two ministers from Delft, Arnoldus Cornelisz and Reynier Donteclock, in 1589 published a document entitled Responsio ad Argumenta quaedam Bezae et Calvini ex Tractatu de Predestinatione in Cap. IX ad Romanos. A professor at Franeker, named Martin Lydius, was disturbed by this work and sent a copy of it to James Arminius, who was at the time a newly ordained Amsterdam minister. Lydius asked Arminius to defend the supralapsarian position of Calvin (and Calvin’s deputy and eventual successor, Beza). Arminius ended up being convinced by the work of Cornelisz and Donteclock, and defended an infralapsarian position for the rest of his life.
  18. Arminianism rejects both the totally autonomous man of Pelagianism who independently works out his own salvation, and the totally helpless man of Calvinism, who depends utterly on the arbitrary will of a predestining God.
  19. Human will cooperates with divine grace to attain and earned, rather than an ordained, reward of eternal life.
  20. Human nature is not completely depraved.
  21. Man forfeited his original righteousness with the fall.
  22. With his decree of predestination, God renewed in each man sufficient freedom to choose the good that will lead him to attain to salvation and eternal life.
  23. With God’s grace, man can think, will, and do the good.
  24. God does not arbitrarily select some for salvation, but calls all. Those who heed the call are rewarded; those who refuse the call are punished.
  25. God’s decree of predestination is not absolute (as in Augustine and Calvin), but conditional: if man believes and turns to God, he will be saved; if man does not believe and turns away from God, he will be damned.
  26. God foreknows the number of his elect; he does not know this, however, through arbitrary selection, but by his perfect foreknowledge of how each person will act according to free will.
  1. Creation
  1. Creation was not the joint work of a Trinity. The Bible does not establish the role of the Holy Spirit in creation.
  2. The Creation in six days does not mark the beginning of time: time began with the Creation of the Son.
  3. God created from pre-existing matter drawn from his own substance. God did not create out of nothing.
  1. Thnetopsychism
  1. Thnetopsychism ("Soul death") is a position holding that the soul dies with the body, and is resurrected with the body.
  2. This position is allied to Psychosomnolence ("Soul sleep"), a position holding that the soul ‘sleeps" after the death of the body. Luther, Tyndale, and the continental Anabaptists held this position, while Calvin and Zwingli opposed this idea (holding with the Roman Catholic position that the soul neither dies nor sleeps upon the death of the body).
  1. Polygamy and Divorce


  1. Polygamy must be true marriage or else Abraham and other patriarchs were nothing more than fornicators and adulterers.
  2. The children of the patriarchs would then be bastards, who according to Deuteronomy 23: 2—"A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD"—is excluded from God’s congregation.
  3. The texts used to condemn polygamy are few and misapplied, while numerous texts justify polygamy.


  1. Marriage is not an indissoluble union.
  2. The primary function of marriage is companionship and solace throughout life.
  3. If a marriage fails to meet these ends, it is no true marriage and may be ended by divorce.

The Atheist Milton

Michael Bryson
(Ashgate  Press, 2012)

Basing his contention on two different lines of argument, Michael Bryson posits that John Milton–possibly the most famous 'Christian' poet in English literary history–was, in fact, an atheist.

First, based on his association with Arian ideas (denial of the doctrine of the Trinity), his argument for the de Deo theory of creation (which puts him in line with the materialism of Spinoza and Hobbes), and his Mortalist argument that the human soul dies with the human body, Bryson argues that Milton was an atheist by the commonly used definitions of the period. And second, as the poet who takes a reader from the presence of an imperious, monarchical God in Paradise Lost, to the internal-almost Gnostic-conception of God in Paradise Regained, to the absence of any God whatsoever in Samson Agonistes, Milton moves from a theist (with God) to something much more recognizable as a modern atheist position (without God) in his poetry.

Among the author's goals in The Atheist Milton is to account for tensions over the idea of God which, in Bryson's view, go all the way back to Milton's earliest poetry. In this study, he argues such tensions are central to Milton's poetry–and to any attempt to understand that poetry on its own terms.


The Tyranny of Heaven
Milton's Rejection of God as King

Michael Bryson
(U. Delaware Press, 2004)

The Tyranny of Heaven argues for a new way of reading the figure of Milton's God, contending that Milton rejects kings on earth and in heaven. Though Milton portrays God as a king in Paradise Lost, he does this neither to endorse kingship nor to recommend a monarchical model of deity. Instead, he recommends the Son, who in Paradise Regained rejects external rule as the model of politics and theology for Milton's "fit audience though few." The portrait of God in Paradise Lost serves as a scathing critique of the English people and its slow but steady backsliding into the political habits of a nation long used to living under the yoke of kingship, a nation that maintained throughout its brief period of liberty the image of God as a heavenly king, and finally welcomed with open arms the return of a human king.

Review of Tyranny of Heaven