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                            61. The Father Speaks (PL III.167-216)

                                          And Gets Himself Into Trouble. . .

To whom the great Creatour thus reply'd.
O Son, in whom my Soul hath chief delight,
Son of my bosom, Son who art alone
My word, my wisdom, and effectual might, [ 170 ]
All hast thou spok'n as my thoughts are, all
As my Eternal purpose hath decreed:
Man shall not quite be lost, but sav'd who will,
Yet not of will in him, but grace in me
Freely voutsaft; once more I will renew [ 175 ]

His lapsed powers, though forfeit and enthrall'd
By sin to foul exorbitant desires;
Upheld by me, yet once more he shall stand
On even ground against his mortal foe,
By me upheld, that he may know how frail [ 180 ]
His fall'n condition is, and to me ow
All his deliv'rance, and to none but me.
Some I have chosen of peculiar grace
Elect above the rest; so is my will:
The rest shall hear me call, and oft be warnd [ 185 ]
Thir sinful state, and to appease betimes
Th' incensed Deitie while offerd grace
Invites; for I will cleer thir senses dark,
What may suffice, and soft'n stonie hearts
To pray, repent, and bring obedience due. [ 190 ]
To Prayer, repentance, and obedience due,
Though but endevord with sincere intent,
Mine ear shall not be slow, mine eye not shut.
And I will place within them as a guide
My Umpire Conscience, whom if they will hear, [ 195 ]
Light after light well us'd they shall attain,
And to the end persisting, safe arrive.
This my long sufferance and my day of grace
They who neglect and scorn, shall never taste;
But hard be hard'nd, blind be blinded more, [ 200 ]
That they may stumble on, and deeper fall;
And none but such from mercy I exclude.

But yet all is not don; Man disobeying,
Disloyal breaks his fealtie, and sinns
Against the high Supremacie of Heav'n, [ 205 ]
Affecting God-head, and so loosing all,
To expiate his Treason hath naught left,
But to destruction sacred and devote,
He with his whole posteritie must dye,
Dye hee or Justice must; unless for him [ 210 ]
Som other able, and as willing, pay
The rigid satisfaction, death for death.
Say Heav'nly Powers, where shall we find such love,
Which of ye will be mortal to redeem
Mans mortal crime, and just th' unjust to save, [ 215 ]
Dwels in all Heaven charitie so deare?

 

The first 300 lines of Book III contain the most intense theological reflections in all of PL. We have already seen a dramatic reconceptualization of the Puritan doctrine of divine election or predestination in God's first speech of the book. We have also seen Milton's theological struggle with the question of the activities/knowledge of the pre-incarnate Christ. Now, in this second speech of God we will see the clash between doctrines of divine election/predestination and the atonement. Christian theologians, aware of the tension inherent in the two doctrines, usually separate them, like hostile fighters, with hundreds of pages in between, when writing systematic theology. Milton, on the other hand, puts the two together within this one speech of God, thus creating a situation where even the most "pro-Milton" commentator is led to say: "It is a great pity that our author should have thus debased the dignity of the Deity by putting in his mouth this horrid doctrine.." (Thomas Newton, Paradise Lost: A Poem in Twelve Books, 1750, vol. 1, p. 201). Well, let's see what he means--in this and the next essay. 

                                                   The Flow of the Speech

We understand this speech best if we see it consisting of two parts: (1) The good news of God's offer, and humanity's acceptance of salvation to eternal life or rejection of that offer (lines 173-202); (2) The bad news of humanity's headlong rush towards condemnation (lines 203-216). The two don't hang together very well, but they do prepare the ground for the need for Christ and for Christ's noble effort to volunteer to be the savior in lines 227ff.

God divides the world into three categories of people according to how they receive the message of salvation:

 

(a) some that are "elect above the rest" (183-184);

(b) the "rest" who hear the call of God (185-197); and

(c) those who don't respond favorably to that call (198-202).

 

Yet, lest we think that he harbors Pelagian rather than simply Arminian theological tendencies, he precedes a discussion of these categories by stressing that however people respond to God's offer of salvation, they owe their life to God and not to their own effort (180-82):

       "By me upheld, that he (man) may know how frail
     His fall'n condition is, and to me owe
     All his deliverance, and to none but me"

All three categories: Puritan/Arminian/Pelagian believe in the reality of divine grace and its necessity for salvation, but the first emphasizes that salvation is completely a matter of divine choice or election, without God's having foreseen human faith; the second stresses that salvation comes from divine election, a sort of conditional election, but that it is a cooperative process between the offer of grace and active human choice, and the third emphasizes the priority of human ability in responding to the divine offer of salvation.

Now that he sets the record straight on human dependence on the grace of God alone, Milton divides the world into three categories of people. I take time to delineate each, because even some scholarly literature seems to confuse categories. 

(a) The first are those whom Milton says were possessors of "peculiar grace" who were "called above the rest." We might call the "heroes" of faith; Milton doesn't tell us who they are, but probably the list of the faithful in Hebrews 11 approximates those in this category. I don't know why Milton chooses such a category; most Puritan theologians wouldn't differentiate layers or levels of priority among the elect. 

(b) He spends most time describing those who hear the call and respond positively to the message of grace (185-197). If we remember what he has just told us (that humans owe their life to God alone), the lines become crystal clear and even eloquent. Using the rich and movingly evocative language of Scripture, Milton describes how God will "clear their senses dark" and "soften stony hearts." The latter words, for example, are reminiscent of Ezekiel 36:26: "I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh." Lest we think, however, that Milton is returning to the safe confines of the Puritan doctrine of election, he says twice, in identical words, that this will make humans so affected "pray, repent, and bring obedience due." Divine grace is cooperating with human initiative. 

The good news continues. Having removed their stony hearts, God now adds more. He gives them "My umpire conscience," which is to be equated with the "Reason" of line 108. The seventeenth century saw a veritable explosion in England in reflection on the human conscience. Shakespeare, of course, gave us the familiar line from Hamlet, "Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all," III.1.83. Jeremy Taylor, the Anglican contemporary of Milton said, in language almost identical to Milton: 'God rules in us by his substitute, our conscience." What is fascinating, however, is what one might call the "politicization of conscience" beginning around the time of PL. Thomas Hobbes, the great political philosopher, used the term in Leviathan synonymously with a person's judgment (Chapter 29). John Locke, writing at the end of the century, spoke of conscience as "nothing else but our own Opinion or Judgment of the moral Rectitude or Pravity of our own Actions," Human Understanding I.iii.8. Milton's focus is on the term as a inner regulator specially given to humans. Well, God has gifted humans with a conscience, and if humans give heed to this conscience, they will have "light after light," and, if they well use that light, and persist to the end (cf. Matthew 10:22), they shall "safe arrive" (197). Milton is enough of a Puritan to mention that salvation consists in what Puritans and other Calvinists called the "perseverance of the saints."

(c) But we still have to say a word about the third category of people. These are people who, rather than responding with "prayer, repentance, and obedience" (191), are those who "neglect and scorn." Instead of having their stony hearts replaced with something more soft and pliable, they sink into hardness and blindness (200). The words

      "But hard be harden'd, blind be blinded more"

 

are reminiscent of Exodus' description of Pharoah's heart and Jesus words condemning those who "look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand," Mark 4:12. The biblical cadences continue. Such people may "stumble" and "deeper fall." Only these, according to God's word, will be excluded from mercy (202).

                                                                    Conclusion

Our three categories of humans, based on how they respond to the grace of God, have now been spelled out. Milton's doctrine of election is fully exposited. It is a cooperative process between humans and God, even if humans realize that they owe all their deliverance to God and only to God. 

Phew! Now that Milton has laid that bogey to rest and has not only exculpated God but has patiently articulated his new doctrine of grace, you would think that he could leave the matter alone. But he can't. And he can't because he hasn't given us any reason to believe at this point that there is a need for Christ. Since God is so powerful and omnisicent, He certainly can devise a means by the simple call to repentance and the replacement of the stony heart with one of flesh in order to effect salvation. But what about the Son? He is just sitting there in Heaven and, as we have seen, not doing too much other than echoing the thoughts of God. There needs to be a way to use him. That glorious thought gets Milton (and Milton's God) into trouble, as the next essay argues.

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