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Notes on Milton's Scriptural Hermeneutic

De Doctrina Christiana I. 30

  1. Every believer is entitled to interpret the scriptures; and by that I mean interpret them for himself. He has the spirit, who guides truth, and he has the mind of Christ. Indeed, no one else can usefully interpret them for him . . .
  2. No visible church, then, let alone any magistrate, has the right to impose its own interpretations upon the consciences of men as matters of legal obligation . . .
  3. We have, particularly under the gospel, a double scripture. There is the external scripture of the written word and the internal scripture of the Holy Spirit which he, according to God's promise, has engraved upon the hearts of believers . . .
  4. Nowadays, the external authority for our faith . . . the scriptures, is of very considerable importance . . . The pre-eminent and supreme authority, however, is the authority of the Spirit, which is internal, and the individual possession of each man.
  5. The Scriptures . . . partly by reason of their own simplicity, and partly through the divine illumination, are plain and perspicuous in all things necessary to salvation.
  6. The external Scripture . . . particularly of the New Testament . . . has been liable to frequent corruption . . . But the Spirit which leads to truth cannot be corrupted.
  7. Even on the authority of Scripture itself, everything is to be finally referred to the Spirit and the unwritten word.
  8. No passage of Scripture is to be interpreted in more than one sense; in the Old Testament, however, this sense is sometimes a compound of the historical and the typical.
  9. If there be any differences among professed believers as to the sense of Scripture, it is their duty to tolerate such difference in each other, until God shall have revealed the truth to all.
  10. The rule and canon of faith, therefore, is Scripture alone. Scripture is the sole judge of controversies; or rather, every man is to decide for himself through its aid, under the guidance of the Spirit of God.
  11. The requisites for the public interpretation of Scripture . . . consist in knowledge of languages; inspection of originals; examination of the context; care in distinguishing between literal and figurative expressions; consideration of cause and circumstance, of antecedents and consequences; mutual comparison of texts; and regard to the analogy of faith.

Examples of Milton's Scriptural Hermeneutic in Action: Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce

The Scriptural Texts at Work in Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce

Deuteronomy 24:1-4--When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance. (King James)

Malachi 2:15,16--This is an odd passage. The context here is a condemnation of Israel (specifically figured in chapter 2 as Judah) for its unfaithfulness to Yahweh. It is Yahweh who is portrayed as the "wife of [Judah's] youth," a fact that renders either of the translations below both promising and problematic.

. . . let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: fore one covereth violence with his garment, saith the Lord of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. (King James)

. . . despise not the wife of thy youth. When thou shalt hate her put her away, saith the Lord the God of Israel: but iniquity shall cover his garment, saith the Lord of hosts, keep your spirit, and despise not. (Douay Version--translated from the Latin Vulgate)

Matthew 5:31,32--It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: but I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. (King James)

Matthew 19:3-9--The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?  And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh.  What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.  They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?  He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.   And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

Note that Milton specifically avoids the use of Mark 10:2-12, perhaps because it lacks the "in case of fornication" clause that the Matthew account provides--And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him.  And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you?  And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away.  And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.  But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.  For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.  What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.  And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter.   And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.  And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.

1 Corinthians 7:8,9--I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let the marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. (King James)

Milton's Argument for Divorce Based on Scripture

  1. Even if we could be free from outside harm we would create miseries out of our own hearts -- "for they art evil" -- even out of things God meant for us as a good.
  2. Misinterpretation of scripture (directed against abusers Deuteronomy 24: 1) has changed marriage from a blessing into "a familiar and co-inhabiting mischief," a "drooping and disconsolate household captivity, without refuge or redemption."
  3. Main purpose of marriage -- "the apt and cheerful conversation of man with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evil of solitary life."
  4. For many ages marriage was thought a work of the flesh by the church fathers. Afterwards, it was made a sacrament.
  5. There are two levels of law -- "a law not only written by Moses, but charactered in us by nature."
  6. Current interpretation of Christ's words at Matthew 5:31, 32 -- "a strong rigor inconsistent both with his doctrine and his office."
  7. "Those words of Christ that his yoke is easy and his burden light, were not spoken in vain."
  8. Incompatibility is the greatest reason for divorce, because it may A) lead to adultery, or B) lead to despairing of God.
  9. Marriage serves as the prevention of loneliness.
  10. In an incompatible marriage loneliness is made worse than it is in a single life.
  11. Feeling of being in a bad marriage -- "a daily trouble and pain of loss, in some degree like that which reprobates feel."
  12. A marriage that is not companionate, is no marriage.
  13. "Wisdom and charity . . . would think . . . a sad spirit wedded to loneliness should deserve to be freed."
  14. Canon law allows annulment for impotence/barrenness and divorce or adultery -- but radical incompatibility must be tolerated -- "What is this but secretly to instruct us that nothing indeed is thought worthy of regard therein but the prescribed satisfaction of an irrational heat?" Canon law implicitly values marriage only as a carnal institution.
  15. Modesty may lead to a greater chance of mistaken choice of a marriage mate than would loose living.
  16. Current divorce laws render the law and gospel liable to contradiction. Milton condemned the idea that God gave a law to the Israelites that was unjust (leading to "sanctioned" adultery) only to give—through Christ—a just law to the Christians.
  17. Milton re-interprets Paul at 1 Corinthians 7:9. "Burning" is "the desire and longing to put off an unkindly solitariness by uniting another body, not without a fit soul to his, in the cheerful society of wedlock."
  18. Fellowship is a "pure and more inbred desire of joining to itself in conjugal fellowship a fit conversing soul."
  19. Milton describes one stuck in a bad marriage: "such a one forbidden to divorce is in effect forbidden to marry, and compelled to greater difficulties than in a single life."
  20. There is a greater honoring of marriage in leaving a bad union than in staying put.
  21. Milton argues a crucial point based on a disputed translation of Malachi 2: 16. The Vulgate translates this verse as "if he hate her, put her way." The King James version translates this verse as "the Lord saith that he hateth putting away."
  22. Unhappiness caused by a bad marriage may interfere with service and worship of God.
  23. Children of a second, happy union are more holy than those of a first, unhappy union.
  24. Forbidding divorce sets marriage above both God and charity.
  25. Milton addresses the question of whether an unbelieving spouse must be divorced by saying that it is up to the conscience of the believer; divorce is allowed—perhaps even recommended—but not required.
  26. The three chief ends of marriage are godly society, civil society, and the marriage bed.
  27. Idolatry is a greater breach of marriage than adultery, because it violates a higher end of marriage.
  28. The prohibition of divorce is against human nature—therefore it is a prohibition not from God. (This will be developed into the primary and secondary laws of nature argument in Tetrachordon.)
  29. Canon law allows for divorce in case of an attempt on a spouse's life—divorce should therefore be allowed for incompatibility, because the resulting grief and strife puts life in peril.
  30. Milton provides another argument for overriding marriage vows based on the ability of husbands—at Numbers 30:6-15—to override the vows of wives.
  31. The marriage of minds is human. The marriage only of bodies is animal.
  32. God authored the covenant of marriage for his own glory and for the benefit of the married parties.
  33. An incompatible marriage is not of God's doing.

The Major Scriptural Argument

  1. Christ meant his words in Matthew as a check on the over-licentiousness of the Pharisees.
  2. If Christ is to be taken as condemning all divorce (except for cases of adultery) and re-marriage as adultery, then not only has the earlier law been contradicted, but it has been convicted of allowing adultery, and God is inconsistent and unjust.
  3. The gospel is more understanding of human weakness than is the human law. (This is another anticipation of Milton's later arguments based on a division between primary and secondary natural laws.)
  4. Moses wrote the law allowing divorce—some "hard hearted" men abused the law, but it (abuse) was tolerated for the good of the many who did not abuse the law. Christ's response to the Pharisees is to be taken as a rebuke to such as would abuse the freedom of law.
  5. The command to be "one flesh" is not absolute, but is in service of a larger purpose—companionship.
  6. A wife that is not a true "help-meet" is not truly a wife.
  7. Here is another anticipation of the primary and secondary natural laws argument: "to take a law out of Paradise given in a time of original perfection" and to hold a fallen mankind to that law is unjust. Moses adapted the law to "a fallen condition of man."
  8. A marriage that is not compatible was not " yoked together" by God. It may, therefore, be split apart.
  9. God's laws are consistent; therefore, there is no possibility of contradiction between Moses and Christ on divorce.
  10. Christ's words against divorce are no more to be taken literally than are his "take, eat; this is my body."
  11. A bad marriage is like the union of two corpses.
  12. Only those whose marriages are true matches of disposition and mind may be said to be joined by God.
  13. Milton attempts to expand the definition of "fornication" to include rebellious behavior. He uses the example of Judges 19:2 -- the story of the Levite's concubine.
  14. The Greek word translated as "fornication" at Matthew 5:32 (porneia-- adultery, fornication, incest; from porneuo-- indulgence of lust, practice of idolatry)
  15. Divorce was originally at the discretion of the husband. The Roman Catholic Church usurped this authority and it should be returned to private hands.
  16. Divorce should not be forbidden by law; law should ensure only that the conditions of the divorce are not injurious.
  17. "His commandments he hath left all under the feet of charity."

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