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56. Rethinking Predestination, Second Essay
Milton's Treatise on Christian Doctrine; Paradise Lost III.80-134
The Westminster Confession of 1646 ("WC") speaks in Chapter III of two kinds of decrees of God, without actually giving names to each. It emphasizes what one might call God's "general" decree, to ordain whatever comes to pass, as well as a "specific" decree, to choose some angels and humans to everlasting life and, conversely, some to everlasting death. Though the language of "general and "special" decree, thus, doesn't appear in the WC or its corresponding catechisms (the Larger, for ministers, and the Shorter, for communicants), but that language quickly became part and parcel of Puritan discussions.
Milton wrote his Treatise on Christian Doctrine ("CD") parts of which formed the theological base for Book III of PL, in the 1650s but it was either confiscated or turned over to the authorities in the 1670s, after Milton's death. It wasn't actually published until 1825, after it had been found in a storage cabinet in Whitehall. On such vagaries does knowledge sometimes depend.
Like the Westminster Confession, Milton's chapter entitled "Of the Divine Decrees" is in chapter III of his CD. Note both his dependence on and slight variance from the WC in his definition (III, p 38):
" "The decrees of God are general or special. God's general decree is that whereby he has decreed from all eternity of his own most free and wise and holy purpose, whatever he willed, or whatever he was himself about to do"
A lot is left unstated in this sentence, though the Puritan tone is crystal clear. After quoting several biblical passages to support this understanding, principally from Acts, I Corinthians and Ephesians, Milton tips his hand regarding what he truly thinks, on the next page (p 39):
" "Thus it is to be understood that God decreed nothing absolutely, which he left in the power of free agents,--a doctrine which is shewn by the whole canon of the Scripture"
There follows a barrage of Scriptural passages to "prove" his point. The editor of the 1825 edition then gives us a footnote, precisely to our passage in Book III of PL. Thus, the key to understanding III.80-134 is in the sentence just quoted from Milton. His point should be clear. He is asserting, in explicit language, that individual agents are free to choose, that they have power of their own and that the decrees of God do not overwhelm or determine the choices of free agents. This stands foursquare in oppostion to the WC, where God's election of humans to salvation was determined irrespective of human choice and with no concern or awareness of how humans would choose. It is on this basic point that the entire speech of God in III.80-134 depends.
One Further Background Comment
While Prof. Rogers hangs Milton's argument on predestination on his interpretation of Romans 8:29, I emphasize the statement in Chapter III of the CD. But I am indebted to his sage comments on the political context in the mid-17th century to try to explain why Milton may have diverged from the doctrine as taught in the Westminster Confession.
The period was, as Prof. Merriman of Yale emphasizes also in his video lectures, the period of "absolutism." This means that the entire apparatus of the state was centralized in the will and decrees of the one sovereign. The rise of the modern state is inextricably connected with the rise of absolutism, in England, France, Prussia and Russia. Theology works "best" if it is in line with the dominant trend of thought of the age, even though some theologians often become blue in the face claiming how their methods and materials are "culturally neutral"--i.e., just derived from the Bible and theological sources. Any theology that sings will be that which sings the tune set by the dominant culture in which it finds itself. So, absolutism was the mother's milk on which the British Royalists, as well as the Puritans, were nurtured. It is not unexceptionable, then, that their theology would show influence of this absolutist strain of thinking. The God of the WC, in laying out his decrees, is very much like the 17th century monarch, except that God has made his decrees from before the foundation of the world, while mere human absolute rulers must wait at least until they are born to give orders.
The view of God captured in the WC, then, is of an absolute God. It helped that such a God was also the one portrayed in Calvin's Institutes and had such fine support in Scripture. This made it easier for the Puritans to make their case about the divine decrees. But Milton was a "proto Republican" or "proto Liberal" or some such designation. He was involved deeply in thinking of the way that reflection on a commonwealth had implications in the theological realm. That is, if you no longer have a king or, even worse, if you have just killed the king, chances are that you are less than sympathetic to a theology of divine absolute control of all things. The Puritans of the Westminster Assembly, however, were caught "in the middle," between a political philosophy they didn't adopt (the rule of the Stuart Kings) and a theology which they inherited (that assumed the goodness and propriety of absolute rule of kings). Thus, they hadn't really thought throught the theological implications of the political struggles they were undergoing. And, there is good reason to "forgive" them for not doing so. After all, the struggle going on between King and Parliament didn't suggest, in the mid-1640s, that the monarchy was illegitimate or that regicide was the right thing to do.
But by the 1650s and 1660s, when Milton was writing his culiminatory works, he was living in a new intellectual space, where the notion of absolute kings had been delivered a serious blow. Milton was, at least, bold enough to try to bring this insight into the theological realm--and have his God be one who respected the choices of His subjects, just like in a republican government of the future.
All of this, then, lay in the background as Milton penned the lines cited above in Book III of PL. We are now ready to read and truly to appreciate them--in the next essay.