Notes on Milton's Theological
Milton's Doctrine of Sin and Justification
On the question of Sin, Milton is fairly orthodox:
De Doctrina Christiana, I.11:
- Sin is distinguished into that which is common to all men, and the
personal sin of each individual.
- The sin common to all men is that which our first parents, and in
them all their posterity committed, when, casting off their obedience to God, they tasted
the fruit of the forbidden tree.
- The personal sin of each individual is that which each in his own
person has committed, independently of the sin which is common to all.
- Both kinds of sin . . . consist of the two following parts . . .
the desire of sinning, and the act of sin itself.
- Every act is in itself good; it is only its irregularity, or
deviation from the line of right, which properly speaking is evil. This seems to combine
an almost Thomistic sense of each being and/or act being judged in terms of its overall
progression towards its proper end--God--with a sense of "sin" as any and all
(witting and unwitting) failures to meet a perfect divine standard. (Most Hebrew Scripture
appearances of the word Sin, from hhat-ta'th' /chat-ta'th', can be
translated as miss, missing the mark, offending by missing the mark. See Judges 20:16 for
an example of the use of chha-ta' to describe Benjamites who "could sling a
stone at a hair, and not miss." These words are also used in the symbolic sense of
failing to reach moral and spiritual goals. Proverbs 8: 35, 36 says "whoever finds me
finds life and obtains favor with the LORD; but those who miss [hha-ta'] me injure
themselves." Most Greek Scripture appearances of Sin are translations of hamartia
or hamartano, which also means, at the root sense, to miss the mark.)
On the question of whether justification is by "faith
alone," as was proclaimed by Luther, then Calvin, Milton says this:
De Doctrina Christiana, I. 22:
- An important question here arises . . . whether faith alone
- Our divines answer in the affirmative; adding, that works are the
effects of faith, not the cause of justification.
- Others contend that justification is not by faith alone, on the
authority of James 2:4, "by works a man is justified, and not by faith only."
- The advocates of the former (the by faith alone position) . . .
allege that the apostle (James) is speaking of justification in the sight of men, not in
the sight of God.
- But whoever reads attentively from the fourteenth verse to the end
of the chapter, will see that the apostle is expressly treating of justification in the
sight of God.
- The apostles . . . nowhere . . . use words implying that a man is
justified by faith alone, but generally conclude as follows, that "a man is justified
by faith without the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28).
- Faith has its own works, which may be different from the works of
- We are justified therefore by faith, but by a living, not a dead
faith; and that faith alone which acts is living.
- We are justified by faith without the works of the law, but not
without the works of faith.
- This interpretation, however, affords no countenance to the
doctrine of human merit, inasmuch as both faith itself and its works are the works of the
Spirit, not our own (Ephesians 2:8).
Milton's major doctrinal idiosyncrasy (aside from his positions
on the Trinity, soul-death, the allowance for polygamy and divorce for reasons other than
strictly interpreted adultery) is arguably his "Arminianism."
- 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.
- The Eastern church of the 5th century had a relatively
sanguine view: man possess free will, is responsible for his actions, and maywith
the help of Gods gracerecover 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.
- 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 Gods grace.
- Pelagius was shocked at the immorality and vice of Roman society
in the 5th century. He attributed these conditions to the
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
- All of this outraged Augustine. He thought that this doctrine left
no room at all for the influence of gods grace, the sacrifice of Christ, or the
authority of the church. Augustine responded to Pelagius by promoting the following ideas:
Adams 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; Mens 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 Gods grace; God determines, in a
choice made from all eternity, who shall receive his grace (Augustine referred to this as
the "predestination of saints."
- Augustine won the official battle; Pelagianism was condemned by
the Council of Carthage in 418 A.D.
- The views of the Eastern church remained much the same as they
- 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.
- 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.
- Aquinas developed the idea that all created things tend toward
their inherent endthe 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 Gods
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 (see
Arminius at #17).
- 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 somequite undeservedlyare given the gift of Gods
- 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). Mans "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).
- Calvins theology is called Supralapsarianism.
SupralapsarianismIn order to glorify himself by
manifesting both his mercy and his justice, God decreed that some rational creatures would
be saved and some would be condemned; these creatures, however, did not yet exist as
anything other than possibilities in Gods mind. God decreed the creation of these
rational creatures, and then decreed permission for their fall. Out of this now-fallen
mankind, God ordained the justification of some to be saved, and the reprobation, or
damnation, of others to be condemned. Calvin expresses the supralapsarian position this
way: "The decree, I admit, is, dreadful; and yet it is impossible to deny that God
foreknow what the end of man was to be before he made him, and foreknew, because he had so
ordained by his decree. Should any one here inveigh against the prescience of God, he does
it rashly and unadvisedly. For why, pray, should it be made a charge against the heavenly
Judge, that he was not ignorant of what was to happen? Thus, if there is any just or
plausible complaint, it must be directed against predestination. Nor ought it to seem
absurd when I say, that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the
ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it. For as it belongs to his
wisdom to foreknow all future events, so it belongs to his power to rule and govern them
by his hand" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.xxiii.7)
- Arminianism developed in response to Calvins theology. Dutch
divines who subscribed to a position known as Sublapsarianism charged that
Calvins doctrines made God the author of sin. The sublapsarian view held that God
foreknew, but did not decree, the fall of man.
SublapsarianismGod created man in order to manifest
his own goodness. Man was created in a blessed state and was endowed with free will. God
foresaw in what direction free will would lead mankind, but God did not interfere, and
thus permitted the fall. After the fall, God decreed the predestination of some to
salvation and others to damnation.
- Arminius became the defender of an even more radical position,
rejecting both Supra- and Sublapsarianism as unbiblical. 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 Calvins deputy
and eventual successor, Beza). Arminius ended up being convinced by the work of Cornelisz
and Donteclock, and defended what is now known as an Arminian position for the rest of his
- 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.
- Human will cooperates with divine grace to attain and earned,
rather than an ordained, reward of eternal life (traces of Aquinas here--see #10).
- Human nature is not completely depraved. Man forfeited his
original righteousness with the fall.
- 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
- With Gods grace, man can think, will, and do the good.
- 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.
- Gods 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.
- 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.
Milton rejects Calvinist double predestination (whether of the
Supra- or Sublapsarian varieties). His view is as follows:
De Doctrina Christiana, I. 3:
- God decreed nothing absolutely, which he left in the power of free
agents--a doctrine which is shown by the whole canon of Scripture.
- For we might argue thus--if God have at all events decreed my
salvation, however I may act, I shall not perish. But God has also decreed as the means of
salvation that you should act rightly.
- The liberty of man must be considered entirely independent of
necessity . . . If there be any necessity at all . . . if it constrain [men] against their
will . . . God [becomes] the cause of sins.
- Those who contend that the liberty of actions is subject to an
absolute decree, erroneously conclude that the decree of God is the cause of his
- Shall we say that this foresight or foreknowledge on the part of
God imposed on them the necessity of acting in any definite way? No more than if the
future event had been foreseen by any human being.
De Doctrina Christiana, I. 4:
- It has been the practice of the schools to use the word
predestination, not only in the sense of election, but also of reprobation. This is not
consistent with the caution necessary on so momentous a subject, since wherever it is
mentioned in Scripture, election alone is uniformly intended.
- Mention is frequently made of those who are written among the
living, and of the book of life, but never of the book of death.
- Predestination, therefore, must always be referred to election.
De Doctrina Christiana, I. 17:
- God invites the whole of mankind, in various ways, but all of them
sufficient for the purpose, to the knowledge of the true Deity.
The Atheist Milton
(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
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
(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