John Milton’s God

Note: The Fall semester officially starts for me as I report to campus tomorrow, in preparation for classes starting next week. So the re-publishing of essays from my graduate school days continues. I hope folks — or at least, some folks — like them!

For this essay: I studied John Milton A LOT in my doctoral studies, and his works have actually informed the theological system I’ve sketched out for my novels. Whether I agree with Milton’s understanding or not isn’t the point of this essay — the point is to find out what makes Milton TICK. This essay (modified to be blog-friendly) explains him — and his system — the best.

Milton’s Freely Obedient God as Model of Christian Liberty

 In Milton’s prose tracts and his two poetic works, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Milton speaks, among many issues, of the issue of Christian liberty. What is entailed in Christian liberty? How does Milton define it? Who exhibits Christian liberty in his poetic works?

Taking sola scriptura to heart and the Genesis account of man made in God’s image, Milton posits that God’s creation, including Man and angels, is in the image of God’s obedience.

It may seem strange to consider Milton’s God as an obedient God; but the common sense idea of God as the great sovereign is only valid if the sovereign is also master to himself. Says Jesus in Paradise Regained to Satan, “he who reigns within himself, and rules / Passions, Desires, and Fears, is more a King; which every wise and virtuous man attains” (Milton, Paradise Regained, II.466-468).

Milton’s God, the model of Kingship, creates laws (described later in this essay), and, once created, obeys them. God’s creation, especially Man and angels, mirror this divine obedience in their existence and also in their free will.

As God is a free being who chooses to obey, thus demonstrating his goodness, God’s creatures as freely created choose to obey God, thus demonstrating their Christian liberty. Disobedience in such a system held together with laws of obedience jeopardizes the very validity of God, who is Obedience Himself, and such an act of disobedience is the greatest sin in the eyes of God.

But before delving into Milton’s works themselves, first we must deal with the long critical shadow that is William Empson. In his book, Milton’s God,Empson indicts Milton’s God for being a tyrant and a bully, and that Satan is actually honorable and heroic:  “if some bully said he would burn me alive unless I pretended to believe he had created me, I hope I would have enough honour to tell hime that the evidence did not seem to me decisive.  I dare not despise Satan for making this answer” (Empson, Milton’s God, 89).

Moreover, he sees Milton’s God as toying with the fallen angels, playing cruel jokes (Empson, 96-97), and having the role of the stage-villain, hissing, “Die he or Justice must” after man’s fall (Empson, 120).

Empson is unrelenting in his characterization of Milton’s God as the arbitrary tyrant, and even compares him with “Uncle Joe Stalin” (Empson, 146), culminating with the epithet “the wickedest thing yet invented by the black heart of man” (Empson, 251). These are provocative words, which fuel the current controversy over the nature of Milton’s God, as stated by critic Christopher Ricks (Ricks, “Introduction,” Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained, xxi).

Even though critics like Roland Frye and Arthur Sewell stress the goodness of God with his salvation of Man through the Son (Frye, God, Man, and Satan, 70) and with his creation (Sewell, A Study in Milton’s Christian Doctrine, 158), such protests seem too weak in contrast to Empson’s indictment.

Critic Stanley Fish tries to move the onus of God’s nature to the reformation of the fallen reader in response to God’s didactic style, which is not supposed to be as eloquent as Satan (Fish, Surprised by Sin, 76), but this reader Empson refuses to be reformed by Milton’s God’s words. Empson’s charge still stands: God is a tyrant who only obeys his own whim and thus there can be no true liberty under such a tyrant.

But Empson’s charge does not stand when one reads Milton’s prose tracts in relation to his poetic works, that is, when one looks to Milton’s own views of God.

Critic Joan Bennett does look to Milton’s other works in addition to Paradise Lost, and she sees that Milton is consistent in his portrayal of God as a just and good ruler of Creation. Says Bennett, “Our standard for evaluating the justice of God’s rule of heaven should be the same ideal we took from Milton’s prose to judge his hell: a government that preserves liberty, for both the governor and the governed” (Bennett,  59).

In reading Milton’s other works, especially his prose tracts and his biblical scholarship, Bennett sees that God’s sovereignty is based in his power to create, and goodness follows out of this creativity, forming the first law of creation, i.e., creation is good: “It is the goodness, or justice, of the Creator’s rule in Paradise Lost, rather than his great strength, that renders him a monarch accountable to law and thus worthy in his subjects’ praise” (Bennett, 60).

Empson, in his visceral rejection of Milton’s God as too authoritative and harsh towards the Byronically heroic Satan, forgets that Milton’s God is also the God of Creation, who looks at his work, which is a sharing of himself, and declares it good. In seeing God as a cold, cruel Father, Empson has forgotten that a Father is also a forgiving bringer of life, and it is this Father, as Creator, to which God holds himself accountable in his actions towards his creation.

As mentioned earlier, God creates the first law to which he must adhere by creating. This first law is that all of creation is good: “God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good” (Gen. 1:31). Similarly, Milton’s God looks at his creation and sees “how good, how fair / Answering his great Idea” (Milton,Paradise Lost, VII.556-557).

Creation is good because it “is the act by which God the Father produced everything that exists by his Word and Spirit, that is, by his will, in order to show the glory of  his power and goodness” (Milton, “On Christian Doctrine,” 1174). It is also good because the matter of creation comes of God Himself, and “this original matter was not an evil thing, nor to be thought of as worthless: it was good, and it contained the seeds of all subsequent good” (“OCD,” 1177).

Once created, his creation cannot be destroyed; “since all things come not only from God but out of God, no created thing can be utterly annihilated” (“OCD,” 1177-78). Milton stresses that God qua God must obey this law of creation because if He disobeys this law, he disobeys Himself, making creation, and thus Himself, evil:

It [nothingness] cannot be the end of God, because he is himself his own end; and it cannot be the end of any created thing, because the end of all created things is some kind of good, whereas nothing is neither good nor any kind of thing at all.  All entity is good: nonentity, not good.  It is not consistent, then, with the goodness and wisdom of God, to make out of entity, which is good, something which is not good, or nothing.  Moreover, God cannot annihilate anything, because by making nothing he would both make and not make at the same time, which involves a contradiction.  (“OCD,” 1178.)

Thus, creation cannot be destroyed because destruction nulls God, even if his creation turns against him.[1] For example, God, through the Son, approaches Satan and his legion; however, God “meant / Not to destroy, but root them out of Heav’n” (PL, VI.854-855). Therein lies God’s justice – rooting the fallen angels out of Heaven, and his mercy – not destroying them.

Subsequently, the law of creation translates into the laws of Justice and Mercy, to which God himself follows. Thus, the begetting of the Son as Logos is simply the actualization of God’s obedience to the laws that he makes for himself: “So God begot the Sone as a result of his own decree” (“OCD,” 1169).

But this begetting, as with creation, is a free act of obedience; God the Father begot the Son “not from any natural necessity but of his own free will…that God always acts with absolute freedom, working out his own purpose and volition” (“OCD,” 1169). The Logos of Creation is both God the Father and God the Son, for, as Milton states, “they are one in that they speak and act as one” (“OCD,” 1173); but in order to clarify this mystery, Milton separates Father and Son such that Father becomes the law-giver and Son becomes the obedient subject.

As mentioned earlier, however,  God can only reign once he can obey. Says Jesus to Satan, “best reign, who first / Well hath obey’d” (PR, IV.561). The laws of Justice and Mercy must be obeyed; even God himself cannot destroy them lest he destroy himself. So when God decrees that Death must come to Man if he eats from Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God cannot destroy the consequences of this decree; if he does, then “Justice must” die (PL, III.203-210), thereby destroying creation itself.

In order to satisfy the laws of Justice – calling for Man’s death — and Mercy – not destroying Man, it is only reasonable that the Son, in accordance to these laws of Justice and Mercy, volunteers to die in Man’s stead. “Behold mee then, mee for him, life for life / I offer, on mee let thine anger fall” (PL, III.236-237). This salvation of fallen man solves the seeming contradiction between the laws of justice and mercy and naturally flows from the law of creation, which is that creation is good for, as Milton states,

even after the fall, [salvation] should always be considered and defined not so much as the result of an actual decree but as arising from the immutable condition of a decree… that he desires the salvation of all and the death of none, that he hates nothing he has made, and has omitted nothing which might provide salvation for everyone. (“OCD,” 1165)

In freely choosing to obey this added variation to the law of creation, i.e., salvation of fallen man,  the Son “hast been found / By Merit more than Birthright Son of God” (PL, III.308-309) and “received the divine name and nature from God the Father, in accordance with the Father’s decree and will” (“OCD,” 1173). God, the Father and Son, is God not simply because his creation obeys him as God but because God obeys himself.

In contrast to the Obedient God, Satan is an abomination because of what he was before his fall. God, in accordance to the first law of creation, i.e., creation is good, “made [Satan] just and right, / Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (PL, III.98-99). This freedom of will and reason ensures that Satan demonstrates obedience not out of necessity (because God made him obedient) but because it is reasonable and good to obey.

What Satan does with these gifts of free will and reason is to pervert them, i.e., he chooses to disobey by reasoning that he is not God’s creation (PL, V.861) and thus not under God’s laws. Abdiel’s response to Satan in Heaven is similar to Jesus’ response to Satan in the desert: “Shalt thou give Law to God” (PL, V.821). Satan’s disobedience is against the law of creation, and in disobeying creation, he perverts the goodness of creation by creating Sin, which is the logical actualization of Satan’s foul disobedience: “The one seem’d Woman to the waist, and fair, / But ended foul in many a scaly fold / Voluminous and vast, a Serpent arm’d / With mortal sting” (PL, II.650-653).

Milton states that ‘[s]in, as defined by the apostle is … the breaking of the law” (“OCD,” 1189), and Satan is the first lawbreaker, the first sin-creator. Satan’s disobedience causes a change in his reason such that all good things, which is obedience, becomes perversion in his mind. Says Satan, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n” (PL, I.254-255).

But in deciding to choose perversion, Satan actually enslaves himself, even though he insists that he is free: “Here at least / We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built / Here for his envy, will not drive us hence/ …. Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n” (PL, I.258-263).

Since he cannot serve, however, Satan in reality cannot freely reign; he has enslaved himself in Hell and cannot escape: “The Hell within him, for within him Hell / He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell / One step no more than from himself can fly / By change of place” (PL, IV.20-23).

Even in Paradise Satan feels the punishment of Hell; but it is a Hell of Satan’s choosing.  Says God, “for so I form’d them free, and free they must remain, / Til they enthrall themselves; I else must change / Their nature, and revoke the high Decree/ Unchangeable, Eternal, which ordain’d / Their freedom, they themselves ordain’d their fall” (PL, III.123-128). As seen in Satan, the danger of free will is disobedience.

But even faced with the disobedience of Satan, God chooses to obey the law of creation and not “revoke” the law by forcing Satan to obey him. Instead, by obeying the law of creation, that his creation is good, God instead will use Satan “to bring forth / Infinite goodness, grace, and mercy shown / On Man by him seduc’t” (PL, I.217-818).

God will allow Satan and the other fallen angels “to wander all over the earth, the air, and even heaven, to carry out God’s judgments” (“OCD,” 1179). In becoming an instrument of the law of creation, Satan, whom God created, is still good, unwittingly serving God’s law of obedience by testing the free will and reason of Man to obey God.

God knows Good and Evil and yet chooses Good. Since Man is made in God’s Image, Man, in choosing between Good (obedience) and Evil (disobedience) should freely choose Good. Milton stresses Man’s freedom of choice in several of his prose tracts: “all men naturally were borne free, being the image and resemblance of God himself” (Milton, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, 58).

In order for God to make sure that Man is freely choosing Good instead of choosing Good out of necessity, God prohibits tasting of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as, says Adam, “The only sign of our obedience” (PL, IV.428). Says Milton, “[i]t was necessary that one thing at least should be either forbidden or commanded, and above all something which was in itself neither good nor evil, so that man’s obedience might in this way be made evident” (“OCD,” 1180).

Man knows what Evil is; it is disobedience to this law. Man exhibits Christian liberty if he can still choose obedience, even when tempted with disobedience. Says Milton, “He that can apprehend and consider vice will all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian” (Milton, Areopagitica,17).

Thus trial becomes important in demonstrating true Christian liberty.  In bearing suffering, one can be free, e.g. Milton and his blindness (Milton, Second Defense of the People of England, 338) and Adam and Raphael’s admonishment to “be lowly wise” (PL, VIII.173). “To be lowly wise” means to “learn to obey right reason, to be masters of yourselves…. Unless you do this to the utmost of your power, you will be thought neither by God nor man… to be fit persons in whose hands to leave liberty” (Second Defense, 412).

Man’s weakness is to reason beyond the lowly, i.e., the practical means to his adherence to God. God as Father and as Son chooses to obey without extraordinary reasoning, with trust in the rationality of obedience. Man, as seen in Raphael’s admonishment, wants to know why, and it is this reasoning beyond himself and towards the reasoning of others other than God that will lead Man to Satan: “For man will heark’n to his glozing lies / And easily transgress the sole Command / Sole pledge of his obedience” (PL, III.93-95).

Man’s sin is, essentially, Satan’s sin: disobedience. As mentioned earlier, disobedience in such a system held together with laws of obedience jeopardizes the very validity of God, who is Obedience Himself, and such an act of disobedience is the greatest sin in the eyes of God. Says God, “Man disobeying. Disloyal breaks his fealty, and sins / Against the high Supremacy of Heav’n, / Affecting Godhead, and so losing all / To expiate his Treason hath naught left, But to destruction sacred and devote, / He with his whole posterity must die, / Die hee or Justice must” (PL. III.203-210).

But even though the sin is the same, the temptation to sin is different: Satan tempts himself to sin by reasoning that he is not created by God while Man is tempted by Satan to sin by reasoning that he needs to know good and evil to avoid evil. This difference in the disposition of the sinner (one rejects God, the other looks to God with his own gifts) mitigates Man’s punishment and allows the satisfaction of Justice and Mercy towards man with God the Son as Man’s substitute.

The punishment for Man, however, is still great, and God expels Man from Paradise. Milton warns of the price of disobedience: “let it profit thee to have learned / By terrible Example the reward / Of disobedience; firm they might have stood, /Yet fell; remember, and fear to transgress” (PL, VI.909-912).  Obedience is freedom; transgression is slavery.

Thus, the source of Christian liberty is God himself, a free being who creates freely and freely obeys the laws that he creates. All of his creation, especially Man and angels, are images of this free, obedient creation. In disobedience, one denies the goodness of creation and, therefore, the goodness of God himself. Says Milton, “God himself is truth; and the more closely one adheres to truth, in teaching it to mankind, the more nearly must he resemble God, the more acceptable must he be to him” (Second Defense, 339). Adherence, i.e., obedience, to God’s truth makes one free for “to be free is precisely the same thing as to be pious, wise, just, and temperate, in fine, magnanimous and brave” (Second Defense, 412).

The obedience to God’s truth is not an unbearable burden but a participation in the goodness of Creation, a participation in God’s own obedience to himself.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Milton, John. Areopagitica and Other Political Writings of John Milton. Ed. John Alvis. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1990.

———-. Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained. Ed. Christopher Ricks. New York: Signet, 1982.

———-. “On Christian Doctrine.” The Riverside Milton. Ed. Roy Flannagan. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. 1158-1201.

The New American Bible. New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1986.

 

Secondary Sources

Bennett, Joan S. “Milton’s God: Creativity and the Law.” Reviving Liberty: Radical Christian Humanism in Milton’s Great Poems. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989. 59-93.

In this insightful chapter, Bennett argues convincingly that Milton’s God, far from being the arbitrary tyrant, is the exemplar of Milton’s true king, a “monarch accountable to law and thus worthy in his subjects’ praise.”  Linking Milton’s prose tracts, his scholarly works, what was going on in English government at Milton’s time, and his poetic works, Bennett shows that Milton is consistent in showing God as truly good and just by obeying his role as Creator.

Empson, William. Milton’s God. New York: New Directions, 1961.

Empson opines that Milton’s God is an arbitrary, cruel, joking tyrant, obeying no law except his own whim.  I disagree with Empson’s assessment of Milton’s God, which seems to come out of a personal distaste of Christianity; but he gives a good account of why a reader may sympathize with Satan in the early books ofParadise Lost and why “justify[ing] the ways of God to men” is difficult, at best, considering what horrors have been done in the name of God.

Fish, Stanley. “The Milk of the Pure Word.” Surprised by Sin: the Reader in Paradise Lost. Berkeley: Univ. Of California Press, 1971. 57-91.

In this informative chapter, Fish states that the reader, faced with the rhetorical styles of Satan and God, with “carnal mind… and… divine mind” must choose to react positively to one style over the other.  In essence, Milton’s God is the didactic Father, and Paradise Lost is an interactive lesson for the reader to choose God, based on the power of rhetoric.  Fish gives a fresh stance towards Paradise Lost by analyzing the pilgrim reader in this worthwhile work.

Frye, Roland M. “God: The Plan of Salvation.” God, Man, and Satan: Patterns of Christian Thought and Life in Paradise Lost, Pilgrim’s Progress, and the Great Theologians. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1960. 70-91.

Frye describes the working out of salvation of fallen man through the mercy of God the Son, who frees fallen man from “his own self-centredness.”  Although a good introduction to Milton’s God as Eternal Providence, I wish Frye had dealt with some of the controversy of Milton’s God as presented by such critics as Empson.

Ricks, Christopher. “Introduction.”  Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Ed. Christopher Ricks. New York: Signet, 1982. vii-xxx.

Ricks states that clearly that Milton is a “controversial poet” and gives a brief but thorough outline of the literary and religious controversies surrounding Milton, especially the problem of Milton’s God in Paradise Lost and the seemingly “lesser” drama of the temptations of Christ in Paradise Regained.  This is a good introduction for any reader new to Milton and his works.


[1] But what of Noah and the Great Flood, one may ask.  Since Noah and his family were spared, the human race as a whole was not destroyed, and, therefore, the first law of creation remains valid.

© November 27, 1999 Rufel F. Ramos

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