Milton and Arianism Reconsidered

Byung-Eun Lee

    Certain views of the Arian heresy pointed out in Paradise Lost and De Doctrina Christiana by scholars moved C. A. Patrides to do a thorough study of Arian and Miltonic orthodoxy with the intention of proving Milton virgin of any form of Arian influence. A re-examination of a few key verses in Paradise Lost and portions of De Doctrina Christiana along with an evaluation of the many collected views of scholars will, I believe, demonstrate a development that goes one step further than Patrides's study and shows a logical quasi-Arian position; and, simultaneously, strengthens his general hypothesis that Milton is not correctly termed an Arian.

    Without access to Milton's theological treatise De Doctrina Christiana, we should probably have agreed with Bishop Thomas Newton (1749) that Paradise Lost is entirely orthodox (Oras 227), and we might have been tempted to accept even Charles Symmons's verdict (1806) that the poem is "orthodox and consistent with the creed of the Church of England" (McLachlan 17). The discovery of 1823 of De Doctrina Christiana in 1823, however, caused drastic and agonizing changes of opinions. Henry Todd and many others retracted previous approbations of Milton's orthodoxy and charged him with numerous heresies. By 1855 Thomas Keightly summed up the considered view of scholars when he observed that Paradise Lost expounds the Arian heresy in a "plain and unequivocal manner" (McLachlan 25).

    The controversy concerning Milton and Arianism has prompted an exhaustive theological study of Milton and Arius with no apparent breakthrough delineating a clear cut position.  With William B. Hunter, Jr.'s insistence that "we may assert positively that Milton was not an Arian" (4), and Maurice Kelly's equally dogmatic claim that De Doctrina Christiana and Paradise Lost must be recognized as "written by an Arian and containing Arian views" (196), a dilemma has apparently been reached.  The deadlock is more apparent than real to John Clair in his article "A Note on Milton's 'Arianism.'" Clair states that Hunter's assertion that Milton was not an Arian but a rigid exponent of Christian orthodoxy is based upon two limited tenets: (1) Athanasius's restrictive description of Arian belief ― the substances of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are separate in nature and estranged and disconnected, and alien, and without participation of each other ― and, (2) the fact that the Council of Nicaea declared heresy only the question involving the divinity of the Logos ― that is the Son had been created ex nihilo (44-48).

    Kelly, on the other hand, states that "the term Arian may be applied generally to theologians of the past four centuries who do not accept orthodox dogmas concerning the Trinity, and that within this usage the term denotes more specifically those who stress the divinity, as opposed to the mere humanity of Jesus Christ" (199).  Kelly makes it clear, extending Arian terminology to include such tenets as the voluntary generation of the Son by the Father and the subordination of the Son to the Father, that De Doctrina Christiana parallels in many ways with Arian views. But he is not nearly so successful in exhibiting the Arian heresy in Paradise Lost, for, as Kelly admits, "in his epic most of Milton's statements concerning the Son either quote or echo scripture, and anyone arguing for the Arianists faces the difficulty that confronted the orthodox bishops at Nicaea" (200).  J. H. Adamson sides with Hunter on the issue then approaches it from a yet fresher angle. He considers it commonplace when one is examining any poet's thought to consider carefully the imagery in which that thought is embodied; for a poet, in contradistinction to a metaphysician, consistently employs symbol rather than abstraction as a vehicle for the expression of his meaning. Adamson considers the symbols significant, in Milton's situation, because it was by his metaphors that his position became most clearly revealed. Patrides, though, delineates most effectively the contrasting Arian and Miltonic tenets.  By simple cross-examination of the two positions on concurrent issues, he proves Milton not to be correctly termed "Arian." Yet by inculcating over-simplification of terms and generalization of issues in an attempt to make his stand concrete, Patrides fails to recognize the obvious parallels, however isolated they may be, in Miltonic and Arian orthodoxy which permits one to rightly term Milton quasi-Arian.

    Rather than accept the anti-Arian tenets in the whole, that prove Milton to be of non-Arian orthodoxy, with their logical but limited viewpoints, I think a more realistic procedure is accepting concurrences in structure and thought and rejecting obvious disagreements which would not only accomplish removal of all doubt that he is not of Arian orthodoxy but would also strengthen Milton's own unique theological dogma. That Milton's theological dogma is termed quasi-Arian in no way suggests that he studied, admired, or agreed with Arian dogma; only that concrete parallels in isolated cases can be recognized throughout Paradise Lost and De Doctrina Christiana which substantiate this position. These tenets comprise a thematic statement, a statement "with words cloth'd in reason's garb," as perhaps Milton would comment.

    Outbreak of Arian debate initially occurred around 318, when Arius was presiding as priest over the church of Baucalis (J. Kelly 231-34).  The broad lines of his system are not in any doubt with its keystone in the conviction of the absolute transcendence and perfection of the Godhead.  This idea directs us to the first Milton-Arius issue. God, referring to God the Father, was absolutely one according to Arius: there could be no other God in the proper sense of the word beside Him. This monotheism is best summed up in Arius's conception of God as "alone unbegotten, alone eternal. Alone without beginning, alone true, alone possessing immortality, alone wise, alone good, alone ruler" (J. Kelly 233) and affirms that God is utterly incommunicable and absolutely isolated from His entire creation ― in short all is created ex nihilo. Milton, on the other hand, asserted God's direct involvement in both the origin and the history of the created order. The universe Milton maintained, according to Patrides, was produced not ex nihilo but ex Deo, which in turn argues that God's omniscience was propagated, diffused, extended throughout his circumscribed creation.  Milton affirms this conviction in Paradise Lost when God's "putting forth" of Himself during the act of creation ― anathema to Arius ― is equally explicit:

        Boundless the Deep, because I am who fill

        Infinitude, nor vacuous the space.

        Though I uncircumscrib'd myself retire,

        And put not forth my goodness, which is free

        To act or not . . . (7.168-72)1)

    A second conflict, equally as simple, and equally efficient for proving Milton anti-Arian in nature is the Arian position that the Son was liable to change and sin. Arius seems to have declared that the Word was immutable, but he more than once let it out that it was by His own steadfast act of will that He retained His moral perfection. Patrides and others agree that Milton vehemently denied that He may be regarded as in any way liable to change. Denis Saurat clarifies this issue concerning the Son in his Milton: Man and Thinker by competently explaining the relationship between the Father and the Son (134). Saurat states that God is Unmanifest Absolute, the Son is the Real, the Relative, the First Creature, the Creator of the World. The Son is the spirit of God Manifested in the Cosmos. He has created all things but by drawing them from himself; matter is "of him."  So He is not only the Creator but also the Creation: all that is, is a part of Him, vivified by his divine force, a free fragment of the Total Being, remaining Him by its quality and its destiny. It follows from this explanation that if on no other count, the divine force transmuted from God the Father to the Son would be ample proof that the Son is not liable to change or sin.

    A third and more controversial argument arises from the Son's purpose as an agent or instrument in the creation. Arius believed that when God desired to create the world, he employed an agent. This was necessary because, as one of the exponents of Arian theology, Asterius the Sophist put it, the created order could not bear the weight of the direct action of the increate and eternal God (J. Kelly 234). Hence, God brought into existence His word. But, first of all, the Word was a creature, as the Arians were for ever reiterating, Whom the Father had brought into existence by decree. He was a perfect creature by His own merit, but He was still to be in category of derived and dependent beings.  And, as again emphasized, he was created out of nothing.  Patrides is the first to disagree and does so for Milton on three counts (425). First, as mentioned earlier, he rejects the idea of the world's creation ex nihilo; secondly, he asserted time's existence in eternity prior to the creation of the world; and finally, he did not hold that the Son was "begotten" specifically with a view to the creation of the world.  Patrides's first two assumptions are correct, the third, simply incomplete, for a Miltonic and Arian orthodoxy parallel is obvious.  Milton states precisely in Paradise Lost:

        And thou my Word, begotten Son, by thee

        This I perform, speak thou, and be it done:  (7.163-64)

And in Chapter 5 of De Doctrina Christiana, Milton quotes from the Bible speaking of Christ

        . . . the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, . . . And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.  (Colossians 1:15-17)2)

The Son was "begotten" for the specified purpose of creating "all things."  But he was created for other purposes also which illustrates that the difference is in degree, certainly not in kind.  In this case and the cases to come the difference in degree is of fundamental importance for revealing the basic tenets that decide Milton's quasi-Arian position.

    A fourth and progressively more complex issue credited to Arius is explained as such. Before the advent of time God "begat" ("beget" and "create" are actually identical in the original Greek, thus Milton and Arius both accepted them as interchangeable) (Hunter 15) the Son, of Whom it must be properly said that "there was once when he was not." Arius in his letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia stated, "He came into existence before the times and ages," simply because he was the creator of the times and ages and was therefore "begotten outside of time" (J. Kelly 233).  The Son was produced out of nothing, the two Persons, in fact, are utterly alien and dissimilar in substance or essence, and totally unequal in every respect, even glory.  It is noticeable at this time that Milton makes a few minimal concessions to the Arian orthodox while simultaneously keeping a respectable and unique position. In contrast to Patrides's statement that "Milton rejected this entire scheme" (425), Milton agreed with Arius that "there was once when the Son was not," and Milton repeatedly denied that the Father and the Son are of the same essence (De Doctrina Christiana 208, 210, etc),3) and his flat affirmations that "there is in reality but one true independent and supreme God" (De Doctrina Christiana 197), and, further, that "the essence of the Father cannot be communicated to another Person" (De Doctrina Christiana 223). Patrides should be given credit, though, for recognizing the "relative value" of these Miltonic conceptions.  Yet he fails to recognize the power that these "relative values" possess as parallel views, in part, of the Arian position.  Milton stated, just as categorically as above, that the Son participates in the Father's substance, that indeed "God imparted to the Son as much as he pleased of the divine nature, nay of the divine substance" (De Doctrina Christiana 225) ― in brief, that although the son is not the supreme God, He is none the less God. W. B. Hunter entertains this point thoroughly in his well-researched study of Milton's Arianism. After exhausting De Doctrina Christiana, Hunter summarizes "that for Milton the Son is different from the father, inferior to him, generated at the beginning of creation, but of the divine substance" (19). He concludes the issue with emphasis on the point that Milton never in any of his writings denies the divinity of the Son or even suggests such a denial. In Paradise Lost, according to Patrides Milton disagrees with the views stated in De Doctrina Christiana; for while the treatise consistently maintains that the Father and Son are not equal, in the poem we find the Father stating that the Son is

        . . . Thron'd in highest bliss

        Equal to God, and equally enjoying

        God-like fruition,  (3.305-7)

From this Patrides concludes the poem affirms equality between the Father and the Son and that De Doctrina Christiana contradicts this and is not parallel (426). This conclusion is indirectly refuted by John Clair in his aforementioned article. Clair states that an examination of several "scenes" between the Father and the Son indicates that the passage quoted above is but the culmination of the poet's dramatization of one of the most widely accepted Arian belief: that the Son "was raised through merit to Godhood and worshipped at the father's command" (44). J. H. Adamson also finds himself indirectly disagreeing with Patrides's conclusion. Adamson reflects that Milton accepted a common set of metaphors which expressed a particularly close relationship between the Father and the Son. These were the same metaphors accepted from the very beginning by nearly all of the Fathers of the Church. These metaphors were rejected by Arius and accepted by Athanasius and Milton (Adamson 273). Milton accepted the metaphors and they are the constant and unchanging symbols for the Godhead. His finest statement occurs in the Invocation to Light in Book 3 of Paradise Lost which begins with the Logos metaphor,

        Hail holy Light, offspring of Heav'n first-born,

        Or of th' Eternal Coeternal beam  (3.1-2)

From Adamson's information concerning the metaphors, it is difficult to agree with the absoluteness of Patrides's equality of the Son and the Father, for the very nature of the metaphors lessens the power of the Son to the Father.

    Fifth, it follows from the above argument that the Son could have no real knowledge of His Father. Being himself finite, He could not comprehend the infinite God; indeed He had no full comprehension of His own being. In Arius's own terms,

        The Father remains ineffable to the Son, and the Word can neither see nor know His Father perfectly and accurately . . . but what He knows and sees, he knows and sees in the same way and with the same measures as we know by our own powers.  (J. Kelly 233)

Patrides believes Milton took great pains to assert the extremely close communion between the two Persons. He states several instances in the New Testament that specifically maintain the Son "knows" the Father (Math. 11:27), that He is "in the bosom of the Father" (John 1:18), that He is "the brightness of His (Father's) glory, and the express image of His person" (Heb. 1:3). Arius elected to disregard this evidence while Milton, thinks Patrides, not only noticed the relevant verses, but on their basis concluded that the Son is the "effulgentia" of the Father (426). This effulgence appears in Paradise Lost twice. To the angels, the Son is

        Thee next they sang of all Creation first,

        Begotten Son, Divine Similitude,

        In whose conspicuous count'nance, without cloud

        Made visible, th' Almighty Father shines,

        Whom else no Creature can behold; on thee

        Impresst th' effulgence of his Glory abides,  (3.383-88)

Later the Father addresses the Son as the

        Effulgence of my Glory, Son belov'd,

        Son in whose face invisible is beheld

        Visibly, what by Deity I am, (6.680-82)

As depicted by Patrides above, Milton inculcates a close communion between the Son and the Godhead. While not attempting to prove that Patrides is in error, for he is not in toto, a less extreme stand between the Arian and the Trinitarian position would prove more accurate. In Book 3 of Paradise Lost we observe Christ speaking to the Godhead

        Behold mee then, mee for him, life for life

        I offer, on mee let thine anger fall;

        Account mee man; I for his sake will leave

        Thy bosom, and this glory next to thee

        Freely put off, and for him lastly die  (3.236-40)

A thorough and accurate interpretation of these verses reveals their Arian nature. It is inferred from these verses that Christ is not omniscient but merely wholly trusting in God the Father. He appears not to know what he is getting into when he volunteers to save mankind, thus exhibiting an incomplete line of communication between the Godhead and the Son and substantial evidence toward a quasi-Arian stand.

    Sixth and last, a discussion of the Holy Spirit is necessary for a complete evaluation of the Trinity. The Son has already suffered a subordination as described in speciously Origenistic language; a position of three Persons existed, but the three Persons were entirely different beings to Arius, and did not share in any way the same substance or essence as each other. Only the Father was "true God," the title being ascribed to the other two in almost figurative sense (J. Kelly 233). Milton asserted that the Third Person, though inferior to both the Father and the Son, was none the less "begotten" of the substance of God (ex substantia Dei). Patrides confidently handles this matter in his book Milton and the Christian Tradition when he says the Trinity as such is not rejected by Milton; in fact, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are proclaimed to be one in love, communion, spirit and glory. The Son and the Holy Spirit are composed of the Father's substance, continues Patrides, only, Milton rejects their equality in terms of the divine essence (16).  Saurat observes the issue from a different perspective; and, interestingly enough, even suggests the mood in which Milton probably handled the issue. Saurat uses a portion of Chapter 6 of De Doctrina Christiana as a source for his conclusions:

        Having concluded what relates to the Father and the Son, the next subject to be discussed in that of the Holy Spirit . . . With regard to the nature of the Spirit, in what manner it exists, or whence it arose, Scripture is silent; which is a caution to us not to be too hasty in our conclusions on the subject. (134)

Milton does not deny his existence but he has no precise place to give him; and, from this, Saurat simply deducts that Milton has no great belief in this hypothetical being since the Son is essentially the Spirit of Creation(134). This last argument best exemplifies the complicated nature of the entire Milton-Arian orthodoxy conflict.  For we see two extreme positions, neither of which could be proved incorrect.  But again the Miltonic shift from the exact orthodox position permits quasi-Arian to be the more accurate position than either of the extremes.

    This further interpretation of Miltonic-Arian orthodoxy, if accepted, can only reinforce the general theory first offered by Patrides. Besides validly rejecting Milton as a full-blown Arian, as I believe, my formulation serves to place Milton's theological dogma in a much more acceptable category, that is as quasi-Arian. Perhaps, though, a great Miltonic irony is embedded in these lines written in 1640 by Francis Quarles, "Be not over curious in prying into Mysteries, lest, by seeking things which are needlesse, thou omittest things which are necessary" (Patrides, Christian 7).  Yet neither his exhaustive interest in theology nor his readiness to express himself on theological issues necessarily qualifies Milton as a theologian in the traditional sense. Perhaps a fairer appraisal may be drawn from his own remarks in his introduction to Chapter 5 of De Doctrina Christiana: he is merely a Puritan rationalist attempting to reconcile the mysteries of the Godhead with individual right reason.  In so attempting he uses several isolated Arian tenets, some of which are explicitly stated in the prose treatise, and perhaps a few intentionally exhibited in Paradise Lost.

(Hansung University)

주요어: 밀턴, 아리우스, 신학, ꡔ실낙원ꡕ, ꡔ교회치리론ꡕ, 성경, 유사아리우스학파

Works Cited

Adamson, J. H. "Milton's Arianism." Harvard Theological Review 53 (1960): 269-76.

Clair, John. "A Note on Milton's 'Arianism." in Essays and Studies in Language and Literature.  Gen. Ed. Herbert H. Petit. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1964, pp. 41-51.

Hughes, Merritt Y., ed. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose.  Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.

Hunter, William B. Jr. "Milton's Arianism Again Considered." Harvard Theological Review 52 (1959): 9-35.

Kelly, John N. D. Early Christian Creeds. New York: Longman, 1960.

Kelly, Maurice. "Milton's Arianism Again Considered." Harvard Theological Review 56 (1961): 195-205.

    , ed. Complete Prose Works of John Milton. Vol 6. Trans. John Carey. New Haven: Yale UP, 1973.

McLachlan, Herbert. The Religious Opinions of Milton, Locke and Newton.  Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.

Oras, Ant. Milton's Editors and Commentators from Patrick Hume to Henry John Todd, 1695-1801: A Study in Critical Views and Methods.  New York: Haskell House, 1967.

Patrides, C. A. "Milton and Arianism," Journal of the History of Ideas. 25 (1964): 423-429.

       , Milton and the Christian Tradition.  Oxford: Clarendon P, 1966.

Saurat, Denis. Milton: Man and Thinker.  New York: Dial P, 1925.


Milton and Arianism Reconsidered

Byung-Eun Lee

    A re-examination of a few key verses in Paradise Lost and portions of De Doctrina Christiana along with an evaluation of the many collected views of scholars will, this paper believes, demonstrate a development that shows a logical quasi-Arian position and simultaneously strengthens Milton's own unique theological dogma. First, to Arius God the Father is utterly incommunicable and all is created ex nihilo; Milton, however, asserts God's direct involvement in both the origin and the history of the created order, and the universe Milton maintained was produced ex Deo. Second, Arius believes that the Son is liable to change and sin; to Milton He is the spirit of God Manifested in the Cosmos. Third, the Word to Arius is a creature Whom the Father had brought into existence by decree; He to Milton only differs from the Father in degree certainly not in kind. Fourth, Arius thinks that the Son and the Father are utterly alien and dissimilar in substance or essence; Milton agrees with Arius in De Doctrina Christiana but in Paradise Lost he affirms equality between the Father and the Son. Fifth, Arius says that the Son knows the Father in the same way and with the same measures as we know by our own powers; to Milton the Son is the "effulgentia" of the Father, but He is not omniscient. Sixth, to Arius the Father is only true God and the Holy Spirit does not share the same substance with the Father; Milton does not deny the Holy Spirit's existence but he has no great belief in the Holy Spirit, exhibiting a quasi-Arian stand.

Key Words: Milton, Arius, Theology, Paradise Lost, De Doctrina Christiana, Bible, Quasi-Arianism

1) All quotations of Paradise Lost are from Merritt Y. Hughes's Milton edition.

2) All Bible references are from the Authorized Version.

3) All lines of De Doctrina Christiana are from the Yale edition, ed. Maurice Kelley.