Milton’s Religious Beliefs

ENG 410/610: Milton (return to syllabus)


1. Milton was a Christian who read and believed in the Hebrew Scriptures.  So he believed in one supreme God,


Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is One Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. (Deuteronomy 6:5-6)


who had created everything and had given humans stewardship over the earth,


So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth on the earth. . . .  And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:27-8, 31)


who again and again supported the faithful poor over the powerful rich,


And the Lord spake unto Moses, Go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Let my people go. (Exodus, 8:1-2)


Jacob's Ladder

and who rewarded good and punished evil.


How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How are thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God…. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit. (Isaiah 14:12-15)


He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth. (Isaiah 25:8)


2. Milton was a Christian who read and believed the New Testament.  He knew and accepted the standard biblical account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  He believed Jesus was the Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, Word of God. 


Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name, That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth.  (Philippians 2:5-10)


Redemption: He believed that Jesus’ death redeemed humanity from the Adam’s sin of disobedience.


For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.  (I Corinthians 15:21-22)


From Hugo, Pia Desideria


Trinity: Milton was opposed to the Catholic Church in his own time, but he was deeply influenced by the broad Catholic tradition.  Thus he knew and accepted the orthodox formulation of the trinity: there was one God in three persons, Father, Son, Holy Spirit.


From Him who is the source of gifts, all things that share in this grace have obtained life.  When, then, we inquire whence this good gift [life] came to us, we find through the guidance of the Scriptures that it was through the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  But though we take it for granted that there are three Persons and names, we do not imagine that three different lives are granted us—one from each of them.  Rather is it the same life which is produced by the Father, prepared by the Son, and depends on the will of the Holy Spirit.  (St. Gregory of Nyssa)


Christ’s Two Natures: He believed that Jesus had two natures, human and divine.  That is, Jesus was neither simply a spirit (divine or angelic) or simply a man; he combined both natures in one being.


That which [Christ] has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.  If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but since the whole of [Adam’s] nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of [Christ] and so be saved as a whole. (St. Gregory of Nazianzus)


Thus the Son of God, descending from his seat in heaven, yet not departing from the glory of the Father, enters this lower world, born after a new order, by a new mode of birth. . . .  For the same being who is very God is also very Man: and there is no illusion in this union, while the lowliness of man and the loftiness of Godhead meet together. . . . As we must often say, he is one and the same, truly Son of God, and truly Son of Man. (St. Leo the Great)


Evil as Privation: Milton also accepted the standard account of evil (developed by St. Augustine in the 4th century): evil was not an entity in itself, but a privation and perversion of good.


[Evil] is not a matter of efficiency, but of deficiency; the evil will itself is not effective but defective.  For to defect from him who is the Supreme Existence, to something of less reality, this is to begin to have an evil will.  To try to discover the causes of such defection . . . is like trying to see darkness or to hear silence.  Yet we are familiar with darkness and silence, and we can only be aware of them by means of eyes and ears, but this is not by perception but by absence of perception. . . .


Greed, for example is not something wrong with gold; the fault is in one who perversely loves gold and for its sake abandons justice. . . . Lust is not something wrong in a beautiful and attractive body; the fault is in a soul which perversely delights in sensual pleasures. . . . Pride is not something wrong in the one who loves power, or in the power itself; the fault is in the soul which perversely loves its own power, and has no thought for the justice of the Omnipotent.  By the same token, anyone who perversely loves the goodness of any nature whatsoever, even if he obtains the enjoyment of it, becomes evil in the enjoyment of the good, and wretched in being deprived of a higher good.  (St. Augustine, The City of God, XII, 7-8)           


3. Milton was a Protestant Christian.  As such he accepted certain foundational ideas associated with Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism. 


Sola Fides: He believed that faith alone was necessary for salvation—this is the core doctrine of “justification by faith.”  (Roman Catholics at the time believed in the equal or greater importance of “works” [a general term meaning everything from charity to rituals of prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage].  Luther and the Protestants replied that the only truly good works had to come from an underlying faith.)


Before faith came, we were kept under the [Jewish] law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.  Wherefore, the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.  But after faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.  (Galatians 3:23-25)


Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. . . . Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.  (Hebrews 11:1, 3)


Faith is a divine work in us, which transforms us and begets us anew from God, which crucifies the old Adam, makes us in heart, temper, disposition, and in all our powers entirely different men, and brings with it the Holy Spirit.  O this faith is a living, busy, active, powerful thing!  It is impossible that it should not be ceaselessly doing that which is good.  It does not even ask whether good works should be done; but before the question can be asked, it has done them, and it is constantly engaged in doing them. . . .  Faith is a living, well-founded confidence in the grace of God, so perfectly certain that it would die a thousand times rather than surrender its conviction.  Such confidence and personal knowledge of divine grace makes its possessor joyful, bold, and full of warm affection toward God and all created things—all of which the Holy Spirit works in faith. . . . It is thus impossible to separate works from faith—yea, just as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire.  (Martin Luther, “Preface” to Romans)


Sola Scriptura: He believed that scripture alone held all the necessary instruction in faith that any believer needed—this is the idea of the “sufficiency of scripture.”  (Catholics believed that the Bible was important, but it could only be properly understood in the light of the Church’s interpretations, as presented by the Church’s theologians, councils, Popes, etc.)


Canonical Scripture, the Word of God, given by the Holy Spirit and set forth to the world by the Prophets and Apostles, the most perfect and ancient of all philosophies, alone contains perfectly all piety and the whole rule of life. (Huldreich Zwingli, “First Helvetic Confession”)


Although the light of nature and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God as to leave men inexcusable, yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of  God and of his will which is necessary unto salvation; therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh Holy Scripture to be most necessary.  (“Westminster Confession of Faith” I.1)


Priesthood of Believers: These two ideas, known in Latin as sola fides and sola scriptura are the basis of Luther’s famous doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.”


We are all consecrated as priests by baptism, as St. Peter says: “Ye are a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). . . . For, if we had not a higher consecration in us than pope or bishop can give, no priest could ever be made by the consecration of pope or bishop. . . .  The bishop’s consecration is just as if in the name of the whole congregation he took one person out of the community, each member of which has equal power, and commanded him to exercise this power for the rest. . . .  A cobbler, a smith, a peasant, every man, has the office and function of his calling, and yet all alike are consecrated priests and bishops, and every man should by his office or function be useful and beneficial to the rest, so that various kinds of work may all be united for the furtherance of body and soul, just as the members of the body all serve one another.  (Luther, Address to the Christian Nobility)


Other Views: Luther (and nearly all other Protestants) also accepted a number of other doctrines, among them the idea that there were two sacraments (not seven, as Catholics believed), that the Bible ought to be available in vernacular languages (where Catholics resisted translations other than Latin for a long time), and that the church service ought to be as scriptural as much as possible (where Catholics used the text of the Mass, much of which [e.g. the “Credo”] developed long after the scriptural period).


4. Milton was a Reformed Protestant.  This meant he was trained in the tradition of the later reformers, chiefly John Calvin. 

John Calvin

Supremacy of God: Calvin starts with the understanding of God as supreme over all creation. 


[God] is the fountain of all good. . . . not only because he sustains the universe, as he once made it by his infinite power, governs it by his wisdom, preserves it by his goodness, and especially reigns over the human race in righteousness and judgment, exercising a merciful forbearance, and defending them by his protection; but because there cannot be found the least particle of wisdom, light, righteousness, power, rectitude, or sincere truth which does not proceed from him, and claim him for its author:  we should therefore learn to expect and supplicate all these things from him, and thankfully to acknowledge what he gives us.  (John Calvin, Institutes, I, ii)


God’s Law over Man’s:  Since God is supreme over all creation, even kings and emperors are nothing next to Him.  They are subject to his rule.  Calvin implies, and his followers make clear, that ungodly rulers can be disobeyed, even overthrown (where Luther insisted his followers must always be obedient to worldly rulers).


But from obedience to superiors we must always except one thing: that it does not draw us away from obedience to [God]. . . .  The Lord, therefore, is the king of kings. . . . Only after that, we are subject to men who are constituted over us, but not otherwise than in him.  If men command us to do something against him, we must do nothing, nor keep any account of such an order.  (John Calvin)


The powers of this world can neither attack us, nor excuse us, for if God justifies who can condemn, and if God condemn, there is none who can justify.  (Roger Williams)


Predestination:  Since God is all-knowing, He must know the future, including the future salvation of every individual soul.  Since God is all-supreme, he must will that future.  Since individuals do not merit salvation by works, salvation must be the free gift of God. Thus, human free will (at least in matters of salvation) is an illusion—all humans are predestined either to salvation or damnation.  (This is Calvin’s famous and controversial idea of “double predestination.”)


[Foreknowledge and predestination are not the same thing, and are not dependent on one another, yet they both belong to God.] When we attribute foreknowledge to God, we mean that all things have ever been, and perpetually remain, before his eyes, so that to his knowledge nothing is future or past, but all things are present; and present in such a manner, that he does not merely conceive of them . . . but really beholds and sees them as if actually placed before him.  And this foreknowledge extends to the whole world, and to all the creatures.  Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which he has determined in himself, what he would have to become of every individual of mankind.  For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others. . . .


In conformity, therefore, to the clear doctrine of the Scripture, we assert, that by an eternal and immutable counsel, God has once for all determined, both whom he would admit to salvation, and whom he would condemn to destruction.  We affirm that this counsel, as far as concerns the elect, is founded on his gratuitous mercy, totally irrespective of human merit; but that to those whom he devotes to condemnation, the gate of life is closed by a just and irreprehensible, but incomprehensible, judgment.  In the elect, we consider calling as an evidence of election, and justification as another token of its manifestation, till they arrive in glory, which constitutes its completion.  As God seals his elect by vocation and justification, so by excluding the reprobate from the knowledge of his name and the sanctification of his Spirit, he affords an indication of the judgment that awaits them. (Calvin, Institutes, III, 21)


Prohibition of Idolatry; Purification of Worship:  Since God is supreme above all, worship of any lesser being or object is a diminishment or betrayal of God; it is “idolatry” (worship of idols).  Thus strict Calvinists (called “Puritans” in England and the New World) forbade the use of any pictures, images, objects, colors, and secular music or musical instruments in worship service:  no stained glass windows, no cross on the wall, no altar, no robed priests, no incense, no church organ—only the “pure” worship of God through scripture, sermon, sacrament, psalm singing, and prayer.


5. Milton was an Independent (at least after 1643; before 1643 he agreed with the Presbyterians on most issues).  Most literally, this meant he was a Congregationalist.  But Milton (being Milton) carried along a large set of very “independent” notions about scripture, faith, and life. 


Separation of Church and State:  Milton opposed the very idea of a state-supported “national church”; instead, he believed that the church should “disestablish,” that is, should cut all ties to the government.  The minister and church should be supported by voluntary contributions from the congregation, not subsidy from the government.  Laws requiring church attendance, common in Milton’s day, should be dropped.  Milton was particularly passionate about this issue, almost more than any other, from his earliest prose writings in the 1640s to his last political tracts in 1659-60.


Local Congregational Discipline:  He also disliked the centralized one-size-fits-all model of large churches like the Anglican and Presbyterian churches.  He wanted individual congregations to have full say in how they were structured, how people would worship, etc. 


Toleration of Sectarians:  Like many Independents (including Cromwell and Roger Williams) he supported toleration for a broad range of Protestant groups, including the radical sects that flourished during the revolutionary period.  In later life he remained friendly with Quakers, whom most self-respecting English Protestants shunned or made fun of. 


Eccentric Views and “Heresies”: Finally, Milton developed certain rather individual interpretations of his own which departed from Calvinist and Christian orthodoxy in important respects:


Divorce: Milton believed individuals had a right to divorce.  Since marriage was no longer a sacrament (for Protestants), annulment of marriage ought to be a simple civil matter, allowable on grounds of incompatibility.  Once divorced, people ought to be allowed to remarry.  (See Milton’s various Divorce Tracts—these ideas struck contemporary Presbyterians as wild and dangerous heresies, and Milton split with his Presbyterian allies over them in 1643.)


Free Will:  Milton, like many others, could not accept the strict doctrine of “double predestination.”  Milton accepted the central Protestant ideas that God had perfect foreknowledge, and that God offered his grace to all, and that salvation was gained by faith, but he insisted that individuals had the freedom to accept or reject God’s offered grace.  There is free will.  Some refer to this idea as “Arminianism,” although it is questionable whether Milton was influenced by the Dutch theologian Arminius; there were many proponents of free will among the radical Protestant sects with whom Milton sympathized.  (See PL, Book III.)


Milton the Heretic:  Secretly, Milton seems to have held some other ideas which would have been thought heretical in his time.  He toyed with the notion that “polygamy” was allowable (having more than one wife or husband).  He believed the soul died with the body, until both were raised at the last judgment (the “mortalist” heresy).  Most important, he questioned the doctrine of the trinity to the extent that he believed that the Son, though part of the “godhead,” was nevertheless an inferior creature, created at a specific time by the Father.  Orthodox Trinitarian thought insists that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist simultaneously for all time.  In orthodox thought, the Father “begets” the Son in an atemporal sense, where for Milton the “begetting” must have taken place at a particular time.  Milton’s view is often identified with the “Arian” heresy or “Arianism,” since it was espoused by the third-century bishop Arius.  More generally, however, it is known as “antitrinitarianism,” and was another idea being circulated among some of the radical Protestant sects during Milton’s time.  (See Milton’s Christian Doctrine, a work he never published, discovered only in the 1800s.)


Whether Milton was a heretic is a live issue these days.  A long-time defender of Milton’s orthodoxy, William B. Hunter, Jr., questioned in a 1993 article whether Milton actually wrote Christian Doctrine, or whether it might have been the work of another that happened to be in Milton’s possession when he died.  Hunter is an extremely influential Miltonist, and a panel of Miltonists that looked at this question (led by Hunter) was very much swayed by his views.  However, a number of the best Miltonists disagree, and so do I.  The book Milton and Heresy, ed. Rumrich and Dobranski (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998) makes a strong argument against Hunter’s assumptions. 


Milton is still with us, and we are still arguing over him, because of his power as a writer and thinker.

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