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Notes on Milton's Theological Anthropology

Milton's Doctrine of Sin and Justification

On the question of Sin, Milton is fairly orthodox:

De Doctrina Christiana, I.11:

  1. Sin is distinguished into that which is common to all men, and the personal sin of each individual.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Both kinds of sin . . . consist of the two following parts . . . the desire of sinning, and the act of sin itself.
  5. 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:

  1. An important question here arises . . . whether faith alone justifies?
  2. Our divines answer in the affirmative; adding, that works are the effects of faith, not the cause of justification.
  3. 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."
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. Faith has its own works, which may be different from the works of the law.
  8. We are justified therefore by faith, but by a living, not a dead faith; and that faith alone which acts is living.
  9. We are justified by faith without the works of the law, but not without the works of faith.
  10. 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."


  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 deterministic 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 (see Arminius at #17).
  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.

Supralapsarianism—In 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 God’s 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)

  1. Arminianism developed in response to Calvin’s theology. Dutch divines who subscribed to a position known as Sublapsarianism charged that Calvin’s doctrines made God the author of sin. The sublapsarian view held that God foreknew, but did not decree, the fall of man.

Sublapsarianism—God 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.

  1. 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 Calvin’s 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 life.
  2. 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.
  3. Human will cooperates with divine grace to attain and earned, rather than an ordained, reward of eternal life (traces of Aquinas here--see #10).
  4. Human nature is not completely depraved. Man forfeited his original righteousness with the fall.
  5. 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.
  6. With God’s grace, man can think, will, and do the good.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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:

  1. God decreed nothing absolutely, which he left in the power of free agents--a doctrine which is shown by the whole canon of Scripture.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 foreknowledge.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Predestination, therefore, must always be referred to election.

De Doctrina Christiana, I. 17:

  1. 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

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