Few people who have ever learned something about English poet John Milton (1608-74 CE) doubt his incredible talent. Not only was Milton a world class poet (I won’t delve into speculation about “the best ever”), but he was also a talented writer, a Cambridge trained scholar, an apologist for the English Commonwealth, a defender of the right to divorce and freedom of the press, and an astute theologian. Of all of these qualities Milton’s personal center seemed to involve his theological musings, as one cannot help but notice the Biblical allusions and theological connections present everywhere within his work. A fascinating issue surrounding Milton involves his apparent Arianism, that is, the rejection of Jesus as being eternally divine. Alas, this is another topic that is best saved for another post. Today, we post a different question to Milton’s theology: How did Milton seek to understand the divine plan of God? To try an answer this query, we turn to several of Milton’s poems.
In 1629, Milton wrote a poem entitled On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. The obvious purpose of this poem is to narrate the birth of Christ, and for much of this poem Milton stays relatively close to the Gospel narratives, mentioning such things as the virgin birth ( line 3), the visit of the magi (l 23), the manger (l 31), the visit of the shepherds (l 85), and the annoncement of the angels “harping in loud and solemn quire” (l 115). Beginning in line 125 the chorus of angels proceeds to tell the nativity tale:
But wisest fate says no,
That must not yet be so,
The babe lies yet in smiling infancy,
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss;
So both himself and us to glorify
– On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, 151-154
Here we see Milton’s emphasis shift from narrative to theology. This is not a poem just about the birth of Christ, but rather an explanation of why this babe’s birth is so important. Lines 197 to 237 speak of the pagan deities sensing the coming of Christ and fleeing from his redemptive power. Whatever Milton may have thought about Jesus’ divinity, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity suggests that he viewed the Christ as central to the divine plan, the lynchpin in God’s designs for humanity. Without the offer of redemption for human sin through Christ, there seems to be no suitable purpose for Creation within the divine plan.
Milton’s sonnets, while not the lengthy narratives, pastorals, and epics that Milton conveys much of his theology in, are nevertheless important sources for understanding Milton’s theology. His Sonnet XII was allegedly written in response to criticism against The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and The Judgment of Martin Bucer (Carey, 296). In these treatises we see that Milton strongly believed human freedom was an integral aspect of God’s providence for humanity, and that men should accordingly take responsibility for themselves and use their liberty by doing good. In this sonnet, Milton writes “Licensce the mean when they cry liberty; /For who loves that, must first be wise and good” (XII, 11-12), a defense of freedom and liberty, though only insomuch as men who have liberty do ‘good’ with their freedom. For Milton, freedom plays an important role in the ability of humanity to interact with God, a quality that comes across even more strongly in Milton’s greatest epic, Paradise Lost.
Another important theme in Milton’s thinking about the divine plan involves human obedience. His Sonnet XVI espouses the idea of obedience to the will of God, regardless of the circumstances. Milton indicates quite clearly his depression due to blindness, a malady that hindered him in some respects, but did not stop him from completing Paradise Lost. Yet he concludes this sonnet by writing:
God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best, his state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean with rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.
-Sonnet XVI, 9-14
Milton reasons that God does not need man to serve him–He is God after all–but that God demands obedience to Him regardless of our circumstances. Speaking from experiences where things did not seem to make human sense, Milton nevertheless regarded total obedience to God as an integral aspect of human life. This further emphasizes the importance of freewill in Milton’s thinking. In his Sonnet XIX, Milton conveys a dream which he had of his late wife, expressing his longing “to have/ full sight of her in heaven without restraint” (XIX, 7-8). While he realizes this to be a dream, Milton understands and looks toward the joy of heaven, when he would be united to his wife. We thus see that the eventual righting of wrongs remains important to Milton; though things right now may not make sense, especially death, sickness, and the maladies of this world, in heaven God will make all things new.Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of our look at Milton’s conception of the Divine Plan.