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The Reason of Church Government


The Reason of Church Government is another exercise in arguing the Presbyterian case against the episcopal organization of the Church of England. Milton argues that God established, in the scriptures, a presbyterial form of church governance.  He argues that this pattern of worship was given, along with the plans for the Temple, to David.  Oddly enough, having grounded his presbyterial argument in a reference to the Hebrew scriptures, Milton then proceeds to argue against his opponents' uses of the example of the Aaronic priesthood as a pattern and justification for the hierarchy of bishops in the episcopal organization of the Church of England. 

Milton further argues that monarchy in no way stands or falls with a particular form of priesthood, relying implicitly on the Luther/Calvin tradition of the "two kingdoms," temporal and spiritual, in which sacred and secular governments are both ordained by, and receive their support directly from, God.  In fact, Milton argues, monarchy can only benefit from being released from the yoke of an episcopal prelacy.

Milton goes on to argue for a "priesthood of all believers," another idea for which he owes a debt, not only to Luther, but to the anabaptist tradition as well: "the title of clergy St. Peter gave to all God's people."

Finally, Milton characterizes the episcopal prelates as a danger to "true" Christians and to England itself: they are the "greatest underminers and betrayers of the monarch."

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The Reason of Church Government

Summary and Condensation with Modernized Spelling and Punctuation


In the publishing of human laws, to set them barely forth to the people without reason or preface in the judgment of Plato was thought to be done neither generously nor wisely. His advice was, seeing that persuasion certainly is a more winning and more manlike way to keep men in obedience than fear, [that] there should be used as an induction some well-tempered discourse, showing how good, how gainful, how happy it must needs be to live according to honesty and justice.

Moses began from the book of Genesis, as a prologue to his laws, that the nation of the Jews, reading therein the universal goodness of God to all creatures in the creation, and his peculiar favor to them in his election of Abraham, their ancestor, from whom they could derive so many blessing upon themselves, might be moved to obey sincerely by knowing so good a reason of their obedience.

How much more ought the members of the church, under the gospel, seek to inform their understanding in the reason of that government which the church claims to have over them, because about the manner and order of this government, whether it ought to be presbyterial or prelatical, such endless question, or rather uproar, is arisen in this land.

I shall in the meanwhile not cease to hope, through the mercy and grace of Christ, that England shortly is to belong, neither to see patriarchal nor see prelatical, but to the faithful feeding and disciplining of that ministerial order which the blessed apostles constituted throughout the churches; and this, I shall essay to prove, can be no other than that of presbyters and deacons.

Chapter 1

The first and greatest reason of church government we find ordained and set out to us by the appointment of God in the scriptures; church discipline is platformed in the Bible. There is not that thing in the world of more grave and urgent importance throughout the whole life of man, than is discipline. Whatsoever power or sway in mortal things weaker men have attributed to fortune, I durst with more confidence ascribe either to the vigor or slackness of discipline. In those perfect armies of Cyrus in Xenophon, and Scipio in the Roman stories, the excellence of military skill was esteemed by the readiest submitting to the edicts of their commander. The angels themselves, in whom no disorder is feared, are distinguished and quarternioned into their celestial princedoms and satrapies. How much less can we believe that God would leave his frail and feeble, though not less beloved church here below, to the perpetual stumble of conjecture and disturbance in this our dark voyage, without the card and compass of discipline?

It is not for every learned or every wise man, though many of them consult in common, to invent or frame a discipline: it must be of such a one as is a true knower of himself, and himself in whom contemplation and practice, wit, prudence, fortitude, and eloquence must be rarely met, both to comprehend the hidden causes of things and span in his thoughts all the various effects that passion of complexion can work in man's nature; and hereto must his hand be at defiance with gain, and his heart in all virtues heroic. So far is it from the ken of these wretched projectors of ours that bescrawl their pamphlets every day with new forms of government for our church.

Observation will show us many deep counselors of state and judges to demean themselves incorruptly in the settled course of affairs, and many worthy preachers upright in their lives, powerful in their audience: but look upon either of these men where they are left to their own disciplining at home, and you shall soon perceive, for all their single knowledge and uprightness, how deficient they are in the regulating of their own family. If then it appear so hard and so little known, how to govern a house well, what wisdom, what parts can be sufficient to give laws and ordinances to the elect household of God?

Chapter 2

God, to show how little he could endure that men should be tampering and contriving in his worship, gave to David for Solomon not only a pattern and model of the temple, but a direction for the courses of the priests and Levites and for all the work of their service. In the prophecy of Ezekiel, from the fortieth chapter onward, after the destruction of the temple, God, by his prophet, sets out before their eyes the stately fabric and constitution of his church, with all the ecclesiastical functions appertaining. God, whenever he meant to reform his church, never intended to leave the government thereof to be patched afterwards and varnished over with the devices and embellishings of man's imagination.

[Turn] to those epistles of St. Paul to Timothy and Titus, where the spiritual eye may discern more goodly and gracefully erected than all the magnificence of temple or tabernacle, such a heavenly structure of evangelic discipline that it cannot be wondered if that elegant and artful symmetry of the promised new temple in Ezekiel were made to signify the inward beauty and splendor of the Christian church thus governed. St. Paul, after his preface to the first of Timothy, enters upon the subject of his epistle, which is to establish the church government with a command: "This charge I commit to thee, son Timothy; according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare." More beneath in the fourteenth verse of the third chapter, when he hath delivered the duties of bishops or presbyters and deacons, not once naming any other order in the church, he thus adds: "These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly; but if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God."

In the fifth chapter, after some other church precepts concerning discipline, mark what a dreadful command follows (v. 21): "I charge thee before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels that thou observe these things." Thus we find here that the rules of church discipline are not only commanded but hedged about with such a terrible impalement of commands, as he that will break through willfully to violate the least of them, must hazard the wounding of his conscience even to death.

St. Peter, by what he writes in the fifth chapter of his first epistle, commits to the presbyters only full authority both of feeding the flock and episcopating; and commands that obedience be given to them as to the mighty hand of God, which is his mighty ordinance.

When Christ by these visions of St. John foreshows the reformation of his church, he bids him take his reed and mete it out again after the first pattern, for he prescribes him no other. What is there in the world can measure men but discipline? Doctrine must be such only as is commanded. That part of the temple which is not thus measured, so far is it from being in God's tuition or delight, that in the following verse he rejects it; however in show and visibility it may seem a part of his church, yet inasmuch as it lies thus unmeasured, he leaves it to be trampled by the Gentiles, that is to be polluted with idolatrous and Gentilish rites and ceremonies.

Chapter 3

Since church government is so strictly commanded in God's word, the first and greatest reason why we should submit thereto is because God hath so commanded. But whether of these two, prelaty or presbytery, can prove itself to be supported by this first and greatest reason, must be the next dispute. One of these two, and none other, is of God's ordaining; and if it be, that ordinance must be evident in the gospel. For the imperfect and obscure institution of the law cannot give rules to the complete and glorious ministration of the gospel, which looks on the law as on a child, not as on a tutor.

Lucifer, before Adam, was the first prelate angel, and both him as is commonly thought, and our forefather Adam, as we all know, for aspiring above their orders were miserably degraded. The primate in his discourse about the original of episcopacy is newly revised, begins thus: "The ground of episcopacy is fetched partly from the pattern prescribed by God in the Old Testament, and partly from the imitation thereof brought in by the apostles." How [can] the church government under the gospel be rightly called an imitation of that in the Old Testament; for that the gospel is the end and fulfilling of the law, our liberty also from the bondage of the law, I plainly read. How then the ripe age of the gospel should be put to school again and learn to govern herself from the infancy of the law, the stronger to imitate the weaker, the freeman to follow the captive, the learned to be lessoned by the rude, will be a hard undertaking to evince from any of those principles which either art or inspiration hath written.

The whole Judaic law is either political or moral. That which is thus moral, besides what we fetch from those unwritten laws and ideas which nature hath engraven in us, the gospel, as stands with her dignity most, lectures to us from her own authentic handwriting and command, not copies out from the borrowed manuscript of a subservient scroll, by way of imitating. All that was morally delivered from the law to the gospel in the office of the priests and Levites was that there should be a ministry set apart to teach and discipline the church, both which duties the apostles thought good to commit to the presbyters. And if any distinction of honor were to be made among them, they directed it should be to those not that only rule well, but especially to those that labor in the word and doctrine. If, therefore, the superiority of bishopship be grounded on the priesthood as a part of the moral law, it cannot be said to be an imitation; for it were ridiculous that morality should imitate morality, which ever was the same thing. This very word of patterning or imitating excludes episcopacy from the solid and grave ethical law, and betrays it to be a mere child of ceremony.

This ministration of the law, consisting of carnal things, drew to it such a ministry as consisted of carnal respects, dignity, precedence, and the like. And such a ministry established in the gospel, as is founded upon the points and terms of superiority and nests itself in worldly honors, will draw to it, and we see it doth, such a religion as runs back again to the old pomp and glory of the flesh. If the religion be pure, spiritual, simple, and lowly, as the Gospel most truly is, such must the face of the ministry be. And in like manner if the form of the ministry be grounded in the worldly degrees of authority, honor, temporal jurisdiction, we see it with our eyes, it will turn the inward power an purity of the gospel into the outward carnality of the law, evaporating and exhaling the internal worship into empty conformity and gay shows.

Chapter 4

That which was promised next is to declare the impossibility of grounding evangelic government in the imitation of the Jewish priesthood. Aaron and his sons were the princes of their tribe before they were sanctified to the priesthood. The priests were not chosen out of the whole number of the Levites, as our bishops, but were born inheritors of the dignity. Therefore, unless we shall choose our prelates only out of the nobility and let them run in a blood, there can be no possible imitation of lording over their brethren in regard of their persons altogether unlike.

Wherein, or in what work, is the office of a prelate excellent above that of a pastor? In ordination, you’ll say; but flatly against scripture, for there we know Timothy received ordination by the hands of the presbytery, notwithstanding all the vain delusions that are used to evade that testimony and maintain an unwarrantable usurpation.

Every minister sustains the person of Christ in his highest work of communicating to us the mysteries of our salvation, and hath the power of binding and absolving; how should he need a higher dignity to represent or execute that which is an inferior work in Christ?

Neither the nature nor the example of ordination doth any way require an imparity between the ordainer and the ordained. For what more natural than every like to produce his like? In examples of highest opinion the ordainer is inferior to the ordained; for the pope is not made by the precedent pope, but by cardinals, who ordain and consecrate to a higher and greater office than their own.

Chapter 5

Bishop Andrewes [affirms] that to say, Christ being come in the flesh, his figure in the highpriest ceaseth, is the shift of an anabaptist; and stiffly argues that Christ being as well king as priest, was as well foreresembled by the kings then, as by the highpriest. So that if his coming take away the one type, it must also the other. Here we have the type of the king sewed to the tippet of the bishop, subtly to cast a jealousy upon the crown, as if the right of kings, like Meleager in the Metamorphosis, were no longer-lived than the firebrand of prelaty. But more likely the prelates fearing that their fair days cannot long hold, practice, by possessing the king with this most false doctrine, to engage his power for them as in his own quarrel, that when they fall they may fall in a general ruin.

The right of kings neither stands by any type nor falls. We acknowledge that the civil magistrate wears and authority of God’s giving, and ought to be obeyed as his vice-regent. But to make a king a type, we say is an abusive and unskillful speech, and of a moral solidity makes it seem a ceremonial shadow. By such arguments as these they were setting up the molten calf of their mass again, and of their great hierarch the pope.

Prelaty neither hath nor can have foundation in the law, nor yet in the gospel. Jerome, the learnedest of the fathers, hides not his opinion that custom only, which the proverb calls a tyrant, was the maker of prelaty; before his audacious workmanship the churches were ruled in common by the presbyters; and such a certain truth this was esteemed that it became a decree among the papal canons compiled by Gratian.

Custom was the creator of pelaty, being less ancient that the government of presbyters.

Chapter 6

Tradition they say hath taught them that, for the prevention of growing schism, the bishop was heaved above the presbyter. And must tradition then ever thus to the world’s end be the perpetual cankerworm to eat out God’s commandments? It was well known what a bold lurker schism was even in the household of Christ, and early in the Acts of the Apostles the noise of schism had almost drowned the proclaiming of the gospel; yet we read not in scripture that any thought was had of making prelates.

If God afterward gave or permitted this insurrection of episcopacy, it is to be feared he did it in his wrath, as he gave the Israelites a king. So far was it from removing schism, that if schism parted the congregations before, now it rent and mangled, now it raged. It was not the prevention of schism, but it was schism itself, and the hateful thirst of lording in the church, that first bestowed a being upon prelaty.

The prelates, as they would have it thought, are only the mauls of schism. Forsooth if they be put down, a deluge of innumerable sects will follow; we shall all be Brownists, Familists, Anabaptists. And thus do they raise and evil report upon the expected reforming grace that God hath bid us hope for; like those faithless spies whose carcasses shall perish in the wilderness of their own confused ignorance and never taste the good of reformation.

Where are those schismatics with whom the prelates hold such hot skirmish? Those schismatics I doubt me will be found the most of them such as whose only schism was to have spoke the truth against your high abominations and cruelties in the church; this is the schism ye hate most, the removal of your criminous hierarchy. As for the rending of the church, we have many reasons to think it is not that which ye labor to prevent, so much as the rending of your pontifical sleeves: that schism would be the sorest schism to you; that would be Brownism and Anabaptism indeed.

Your predecessors were believed to assume this preeminence above their brethren only that they might appease dissension. Now God and the church calls upon you for the same reason to lay it down, as being to thousands of good men offensive, burdensome, intolerable.

Chapter 7

As for those many sects and divisions rumored abroad to be amongst us, it is not hard to perceive that they are partly the mere fictions and false alarms of the prelates.

The prelates which boast themselves the only bridlers of schism, God knows have been so cold and backward both there and with us to repress heresy and idolatry, that either through their carelessness or their craft, all this mischief is befallen. What can the Irish subject do less in God’s just displeasure against us than revenge upon English bodies the little care that our prelates have had of their souls?

Where then should we begin to extinguish a rebellion that hath his cause from the misgovernment of the church? Where but at the church’s reformation and the removal of that government which pursues and wars with all good Christians under the name of schismatics, but maintains and fosters all papists and idolaters as tolerable Christians?

I leave it as a declared truth that neither the fear of sects, no nor rebellion, can be a fit plea to stay reformation, but rather to push it forward with all possible diligence and speed.

Book 2

Preface--Biographical material

How happy it were for this frail and, as it may be truly called, mortal life of man, if knowledge yet which is the best and lightsomest possession of the mind, were, as the common saying is, no burden. Certain it is that he who hath obtained more than the scantest measure to know anything distinctly of God and of his true worship cannot but sustain a sorer burden of mind, and more pressing, than any supportable toil or weight which the body can labor under. Although divine inspiration must certainly have been sweet to those ancient prophets, yet the irksomeness of the truth which they brought was so unpleasant to them that everywhere they call it a burden. But when God commands to take the trumpet and blow a dolorous or a jarring blast, it lies not in man's will what he shall say or what he shall conceal. If he shall think to be silent, as Jeremiah did because of the reproach and derision he met with daily, he would be forced to confess as he confessed: "His word was in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones." Which might teach these times not suddenly to condemn all things that are sharply spoken or vehemently written as proceeding out of stomach, virulence, and ill nature; but to consider rather that if the prelates have leave to say the worst that can be said and do the worst that can be done, no man can be justly offended with him that shall endeavor to impart and bestow, without any gain to himself, those sharp but saving words which would be a terror and a torment in him to keep back.

Concerning therefore this wayward subject against prelaty, the touching whereof is so distasteful and disquietous to a number of men, as by what hath been said I may be deserve of charitable readers to be credited, that neither envy nor gall hath entered me upon this controversy, but the enforcement of conscience only and a preventative fear lest the omitting of this duty should be against me. So lest it should still be imputed to me, as I have found it hath been, that some self-pleasing humor of vainglory hath incited me to contest with men of high estimation, now while green years are upon my head; if I hunted after praise by the ostentation of wit and learning, I should not write thus out of mine own season when I have neither yet completed to my mind the full circle of my private studies. Next, if I were wise only to mine own ends, I would certainly take such a subject as of itself might catch applause, whereas this hath all the disadvantages on the contrary. Lastly, I should not choose this manner of writing, wherein knowing myself inferior to myself, led by the genial power of nature to another task, I have the use, as I may account it, but of my left hand.

I began thus far to assent both to them and divers of my friends here at home, and not less to an inward prompting which now grew daily upon me, that by labor and intent study (which I take to be my portion in this life) joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die. To be an interpreter and relater of the best and sagest things, that [was] what the greatest and choicest wits of Athens, Rome, or modern Italy, and those Hebrews of old did for their country; I, in my proportion with this over and above of being a Christian, might do for mine.

These abilities, wheresoever they be found, are the inspired gift of God rarely bestowed, but yet to some in every nation; and are of power beside the office of a pulpit, to inbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue and public civility, to allay the perturbations of the mind and set the affections in right tune, to celebrate in glorious and lofty hymns the throne and equipage of God's almightiness.

Neither do I think it shame to covenant with any knowing reader, that for some years yet I may go on trust with him toward the payment of what I am now indebted, as being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth, or the vapors of wine, but by devout prayer to that eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge. To this must be added industrious and select reading, steady observation, insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs. I trust hereby to make it manifest with what small willingness I endure to interrupt the pursuit of no less hopes than these, and leave a calm and pleasing solitariness, fed with cheerful and confident thoughts, to embark in a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes, to come into the dim reflection of hollow antiquities sold by the seeming bulk. Now when all men offer their aid to help ease and lighten the difficult labors of the church, to whose service by the intentions of my parents and friends I was destined of a child, I thought it better to prefer a blameless silence before the sacred office of speaking; howsoever, thus church-outed by the prelates, hence may appear the right I have to meddle in these matters.

Chapter 1

This is the great mystery of the gospel made in good in Christ himself, who as he testifies, came not to be ministered to, but to minister. If to do the work of the gospel Christ our Lord took upon him the form of a servant, how can his servant in this ministry take upon him the form of a lord? Thus is the gospel frustrated by the lordly form of prelaty.

Chapter 2

That which nest declares the heavenly power and reveals the deep mystery of the gospel is the pure simplicity of its teaching. Wherein consists fleshly wisdom and pride? It consists in a bold presumption of ordering the worship and service of God after man's own will in traditions and ceremonies. Our prelates, instead of expressing the spiritual power of their ministry by warring against this chief bulwark and stronghold of the flesh, have entered into fast league with the principle enemy against whom they were sent, and turned the strength of fleshly pride and wisdom against the pure simplicity of saving truth. First, mistrusting to find the authority of their order in the immediate institution of Christ or his apostles by the clear evidence of scripture, they fly to the carnal support of tradition; when we appeal to the Bible, they to the unwieldy volumes of tradition. Let them chant while they will of prerogatives, we shall tell them of scripture; of custom, we of scripture; of acts and statutes, still of scripture; till the quick and piercing word enter to the dividing of their souls, and the might weakness of the gospel throw down the weak mightiness of man's reasoning.

Prelaty, sailing in opposition to the main end and power of the gospel, doth not join in that mysterious work of Christ, by lowliness to confound height, by simplicity of doctrine the wisdom of the world; but contrariwise hath made itself high in the world and the flesh to vanquish things by the world accounted low, and made itself wise in tradition and fleshly ceremony to confound the purity of doctrine which is the wisdom of God.

Chapter 3

Concerning the ecclesial jurisdiction I find still more controversy, who should administer it, than diligent inquiry mad to learn what it is; for had the pains been taken to search out that, it had been long ago enrolled to be nothing else but a pure tyrannical forgery of the prelates; and that jurisdictive power in the church there ought to be none at all.

Now if the Roman censor, a civil function, to that severe assize of surveying and controlling the privatest slyest manners of all men and all degrees had no jurisdiction, no court of plea or indictment, no punitive force annexed, in all these respects, with much more reason undoubtedly ought the censure of the church be quite divested and disentailed of all jurisdiction whatsoever. If the wisdom of the Romans feared to commit jurisdiction to an office of so high esteem and dread as was the censor's, we may see what a solecism in the art of policy it hath been all this while through Christendom to give jurisdiction to ecclesiastical censure. For that strength, joined with religion abused and pretended to ambitious ends, must of necessity breed the heaviest and most quelling tyranny, not only upon the necks, but even to the souls of men.

The civil magistrate [has as] his general end the outward peace and welfare of the commonwealth, and civil happiness in this life. God to the intent of further healing man's depraved mind, to this power of the magistrate which contents itself with the restraint of evil-doing in the external man, added that which we call censure, to purge it and remove it clean out of the inmost soul. In the beginning this authority seems to have been placed in each father of family. Afterwards among the heathen, in the wise men and philosophers of the age. Among the Jews, the priests, Levites, prophets, and at last the scribes and Pharisees took charge of instructing and overseeing the lives of the people. But in the gospel, God hath committed this other office of preserving in healthful constitution the inner man to his spiritual deputy the minister of each congregation.

This all Christians ought to know, that the title of clergy St. Peter gave to all God's people, till pope Higinus and the succeeding prelates took it from them, appropriating that name to themselves and their priests only, as if they had meant to sew up that Jewish veil which Christ by his death on the cross rent in sunder.

It was thought of old in philosophy that shame, or to call it better, the reverence of our elders, our brethren, and friends, was the greatest incitement to virtuous deeds and the greatest dissuasion from unworthy attempts that might be. If anything may be done to inbreed in us this generous and Christianly reverence of one another, it cannot sooner be than by such a discipline in the church as may use us to have in awe the assemblies of the faithful, and to count it a thing most grievous, next to the grieving of God's Spirit, to offend those whom he hath put in authority as a healing superintendence over our lives and behaviors. And this will be accompanied with a religious dread of being outcast from the company of saints and from the fatherly protection of God in his church. But there is a yet more ingenuous and noble degree of honest shame, whereby men bear an inward reverence toward their own persons. He that holds himself in reverence and due esteem, both for the dignity of God's image upon him and for the price of his redemption [cannot] fear so much the offense and reproach of others, as he dreads and would blush at the reflection of his own severe and modest eye upon himself, if it should see him doing or imagining that which is sinful, though in the deepest secrecy.

The exclusion of Christ's people from the offices of holy discipline through the pride of a usurping clergy causes the rest to have an unworthy and abject opinion of themselves. For seeing a wide and terrible distance between religious things and themselves, and that in respect of a wooden table and the perimeter of holy ground about it the priest esteems their layships unhallowed and unclean, they fear religion with such a fear as loves not, and think the purity of the gospel too pure for them. But when every good Christian shall be restored to his right in the church, and not excluded from such place of spiritual government as his Christian abilities and his approved good life in the eye and testimony of the church shall prefer him to, this and nothing sooner will open his eyes to a wise and true valuation of himself. Then would the congregation of the Lord soon recover the true likeness and visage of what she is indeed, a holy generation, a royal priesthood, a saintly communion, the household and city of God.

I do not conclude that prelaty is antichristian, for what need I? The things themselves conclude it.


Prelaty is mere falsehood. For the property of truth is, where she is publicly taught, to unyoke and set free the minds and spirits of a nation first from the thralldom of sin and superstition, after which all honest and legal freedom of civil life cannot be long absent; but prelaty, whom the tyrant custom begot a natural tyrant in religion, and in state the agent and minister of tyranny, seems to have had this fatal gift in her nativity, like another Midas, that whatsoever she should touch or come near either in eccesial or political government should turn, not to gold, but to the dross and scum of slavery. The prelates are ready to fight and, if it lay in their power, to massacre all good Christians under names of horrible schismatics for only finding fault with their temporal dignities, their unconscionable wealth and revenues, their cruel authority over their brethren that labor in the word, while they snore in their luxurious excess.

Prelates, as they are to the subjects a calamity, so are they the greatest underminers and betrayers of the monarch, to whom they seem to be most favorable. I cannot better liken the state and person of a king than to the mighty Nazarite Samson. Laying down his head among the strumpet flatteries of prelates, while he sleeps and thinks no harm, they, wickedly shaving off all those bright and weighty tresses of his laws and just prerogatives, which were his ornament and strength, deliver him over to indirect and violent counsels, which, as those Philistines, put out the fair and far-sighted eyes of his natural discerning and make him grind in the prisonhouse of their sinister ends and practices upon him. This is the sum of their loyal service to kings; yet these are the men that still cry, "The king, the king, the Lord's anointed!"

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