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55. Rethinking Predestination, First Essay
God's Speech in Paradise Lost III.80-134
Onely begotten Son, seest thou what rage [ 80 ]
Transports our adversarie, whom no bounds
Prescrib'd, no barrs of Hell, nor all the chains
Heapt on him there, nor yet the main Abyss
Wide interrupt can hold; so bent he seems
On desparate reveng, that shall redound [ 85 ]
Upon his own rebellious head. And now
Through all restraint broke loose he wings his way
Not farr off Heav'n, in the Precincts of light,
Directly towards the new created World,
And Man there plac't, with purpose to assay [ 90 ]
If him by force he can destroy, or worse,
By some false guile pervert; and shall pervert
For man will heark'n to his glozing lyes,
And easily transgress the sole Command,
Sole pledge of his obedience: So will fall, [ 95 ]
Hee and his faithless Progenie: whose fault?
Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of mee
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.
Such I created all th' Ethereal Powers [ 100 ]
And Spirits, both them who stood and them who faild;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
Not free, what proof could they have givn sincere
Of true allegiance, constant Faith or Love,
Where onely what they needs must do, appeard, [ 105 ]
Not what they would? what praise could they receive?
What pleasure I from such obedience paid,
When Will and Reason (Reason also is choice)
Useless and vain, of freedom both despoild,
Made passive both, had servd necessitie, [ 110 ]
Not mee. They therefore as to right belongd,
So were created, nor can justly accuse
Thir maker, or thir making, or thir Fate,
As if predestination over-rul'd
Thir will, dispos'd by absolute Decree [ 115 ]
Or high foreknowledge; they themselves decreed
Thir own revolt, not I: if I foreknew,
Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,
Which had no less prov'd certain unforeknown.
So without least impulse or shadow of Fate, [ 120 ]
Or aught by me immutablie foreseen,
They trespass, Authors to themselves in all
Both what they judge and what they choose; for so
I formd them free, and free they must remain,
Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change [ 125 ]
Thir nature, and revoke the high Decree
Unchangeable, Eternal, which ordain'd
Thir freedom, they themselves ordain'd thir fall.
The first sort by thir own suggestion fell,
Self-tempted, self-deprav'd: Man falls deceiv'd [ 130 ]
By the other first: Man therefore shall find grace,
The other none: in Mercy and Justice both,
Through Heav'n and Earth, so shall my glorie excel,
But Mercy first and last shall brightest shine.
Prof. John Rogers, in his video lectures on PL, rightly stresses that Milton's God in PL needs not simply "justification" for His creation and management of the world, as that word is used in I. 26 (i.e., that God is "just" or "right"), but also vindication (i.e., that God needs what we might call a defense attorney, to clear him completely from all blame in allowing mankind to fall into sin). Milton's life before PL was taken up with the notion of defending causes, either his own as a late-publishing poet, or the Puritans as they opposed the Royalists, or as a regicide after the execution of Charles I in 1649. Thus, when he got to the final great work of his life, PL, he was perfectly in the frame of mind to "clear God" from any imputation that He could be implicated or blamed by the fall of mankind. Merely stating the point, however, courts the danger of ignoring a huge and growing debate in the Protestant religious world of the mid-17th century about the nature of the decrees of God, the election and damnation of humans and angels, the freedom of humans to choose their salvation, and the relation of divine grace to human free will. This and the next essay will lay out the basic nature of the debate. I will use the rubric of "Predestination" or "Divine Election" or the "Divine Decrees" to cover the broad scope of issues discussed.
The Background for Milton's Concern in Book III.80-134
My ultimate purpose is to show how these lines in Book III function to clear God from blame for mankind's fall into sin. What is interesting is that God's apologia or defense is placed in God's mouth. When you combine this with the idea accepted by Milton and all Puritan divines at the time that God was omniscient or, in the more wonderful poetic words of Milton, "Wherein past, present and future he beholds" (III.78), we see a most diligent attempt to lay to rest the issue of blaming God for sin.
And, there is reason to believe that the inherited theology of seventeenth century Puritanism came perilously close to placing the responsibility for human sin at the feet of the divine throne. Of course, the Puritans would have denied it, but the logical implication of their doctrine of the Divine Decrees leads to this conclusion. Let me illustrate.
The deep background for considering the Puritan doctrine of Predestination would take us both to the New and Old Testaments (especially Romans 8 and 9, and the passages from Exodus referred to in Romans 9; indeed, several verses in Acts, Ephesians and other Pauline letters also can be used) as well as to Book III, chapter 21 of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (published and expanded several times between 1536 and 1559). But of more immediate moment to Milton was the publication of the Westminster Confession of Faith, along with the Shorter and Larger Catechisms, in the mid-late 1640s. These were, as it were, right before his blind eyes. He responded to these in his Treatise on Christian Doctrine, especially I.iii and I.iv. We can tell that Milton's Christian Doctrine is strongly influenced by the work of the Westminster Divines because the very structure of Milton's Treatise work imitates the structure of the Westminster Confession.
In the Westminster document, the decrees of God are considered in Chapter III. First, we have the basic proposition (III.1):
"God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass," III.1.
That is a what a depress is--where God "ordain(s) whatsoever comes to pass." While I will return to III.1 in a moment, I want to continue on ch. III to show the implications of this breathtaking statement. The Divines connected this general decree with a more specific goal (III.3):
"By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death"
But, God is not only in general control. He knows every single one who is so ordained (III.4):
"These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished"
Note especially the next paragraph, especially the italicized words (III.5):
"Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, hath chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto"
That is, God's election of some to everlasting life has nothing to do with God's foreseeing that the person would choose faith sometime in the future. God's choice is connected solely with His good pleasure, with his sovereign will, and "all to the praise of His glorious grace."
But since God so controls the system or, as a friend of mine says, God has "so rigged the system," and since humans have, in a real sense, no choice in the matter (since their election was determined by no act of faith), can't God be justly blamed for the fact that humans fell? If the system is all set up, and God has set up every intricate part of it, laying out not simply the rules but also the moves of every one of the pieces, how can we truly say that humans are "responsible" for the choices they make? Well, fearing the strength of that objection, the Westminster Divines added the following clause to III.1:
"yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established"
Phew! The Confession seems to want its cake and eat it too. That is, it wants to place sole responsibility for ordaining everything to God; it wants to say that God has foreordained and predestinated certain men/women and angels (a definite number) to life; it stresses that this all happened before the foundation of the world and with no foresight of human choice of faith or angelic agency. Thus, it appears that choice is removed or that anything approximating what we might commonly call free choice in choosing faith is eliminated. Yet, on the other hand, the Confession wants to say that no "violence" is offered to the will of the creatures.
Hmm. . . it sounds like someone or some group of someones, on the eve of what will be a terrible Civil War in the country, is trying to displace their fears by saying that somewhere someone (I.e., God) has everything in control. Could one therefore argue that this fundamental Puritan doctrine of divine election is simple the fearful reaction of a huddled group of divines before all hell, so to speak, breaks out?
Certainly the last-quoted statement functions similarly to a "provided that" clause in Congressional acts--the basic principle of the law is established, but a strong minority will only go along with the act if their pet language is inserted, which may very well be contradictory to the basic principle. What to do? Put the minority language as a "provided that " clause after the basic principle is stated and let the courts figure out how the law really should be interpreted! That is how laws are made. That is, no doubt, how we should read III.1 of the Westminster Confession. Just because you have the last clause of III.1 asserting human freedom does not mean that the basic structure of the chapter includes the notion, robust or otherwise, of human freedom. Assertion does not equate with logical sense.
Thus, the central document shaping Puritan theology at the time Milton wrote PL, the Westminster Confession of Faith, strongly asserted a doctrine of Predestination, though it wanted also to claim that freedom of humans wasn't thus implicated. It was this latter assertion that simply was too much for Milton to believe, and so he adapted his theological system to reflect the uncertainty he felt. This adaptation will make it into PL, but first we have to see it expressed in his Treatise on Christian Doctrine.