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Milton and the Science of the Saints

Milton and the Science of the Saints

by Georgia B. Christopher

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In the most sweeping claim yet made for Milton's puritanism, Georgia B. Christopher holds that the great poet assimilated classical literature through Reformation categories, not humanist ones. Examining Milton's major works against the beliefs of Luther and Calvin, she shows how his poetry reflects their view of Scripture, the extra-literary properties they


In the most sweeping claim yet made for Milton's puritanism, Georgia B. Christopher holds that the great poet assimilated classical literature through Reformation categories, not humanist ones. Examining Milton's major works against the beliefs of Luther and Calvin, she shows how his poetry reflects their view of Scripture, the extra-literary properties they accorded God's speech, and the responses they expected of readers.

Originally published in 1982.

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Milton and the Science of the Saints

By Georgia B. Christopher


Copyright © 1982 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06508-3


Milton's "Literary" Theology


The studie of scripture is ... the only true theologie.

(CE 6.80)

The gospel loseth his whole authority, unless we know and be also fully persuaded that Christ being alive, speaketh to us from the heavens.

(Calvin, Commentary upon Acts, p. 36)

When Erasmus translated Logos ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) as sermo (speech) rather than as verbum (reason) in his 1516 edition of the New Testament, he prepared the way for Luther to cast aside the entire philosophical tradition in which the eternal Son was understood as the mind and instrument of God. Luther, who was working on his commentary on Romans at the time, immediately availed himself of Erasmus' scholarship and proceeded to work out an antiphilosophical theology that dealt in literary categories. He conceived of God, not as Actus Purus, but as a person who "speaks." Seizing upon the naive analogy that Father and Son are related as "speaker" and "speech" (IT, p. 181), Luther found Christ mystically present and speaking in each divine utterance in the Old Testament, especially in any promise for the future. When properly "opened," these promises spoke of redemption in Christ, and when heard, they connected man with God. Luther had not set out to abolish the Mass, but he nonetheless introduced an alternative means of grace that shifted the locus of religious experience from visual symbol and ritual action to verbal action.

The Bible, as the setting of "sacramental" action, took on supreme importance and a somewhat new shape. Luther, who knew the exegetical tradition mainly from Lyra and Carrensis, complained of the lack of commentary on the Old Testament (LW 3.26), for he was coming to see the Old Testament less as a thesaurus of types than as a history deserving close attention in itself. The issue of faith, he held, was the same for the patriarchs as for his contemporaries: man was confronted by God's oracle. Luther's relative deemphasis of typological symbolism in favor of a "realistic" reading seems to be part of a cultural trend also evident in the interpretation of epic, but its ultimate causes are beyond the scope of this book. Suffice it to say that Luther's "realistic" interpretation redefined the unity of the Scripture in a way that was to have far-reaching consequences for English poetry. Traditionally, Scripture was assumed to adhere to the analogy of faith; that is, it was assumed to be in accord with the classic creeds of the Church. With Luther, the analogy of faith became more specifically an analogy of the word — an analogy of the verbal promise of redemption, or what Milton was to call the "analogy of Evangelick doctrine" (YP 2.338).

Recent studies of Milton's poetry have tended to blur the hermeneutic break between the Reformation and Catholic tradition, just as earlier ones had tended to make the differences absolute. MacCallum and Madsen have demonstrated that the Reformers, for all their insistence upon the literal level, never completely abandoned typology. Lewalski has reminded us that Aquinas never disavowed the literal or historical level and considered the figures in the text to be part of the literal level. Despite these important qualifications, the Reformers' hermeneutic differed considerably from the classic system of typology outlined by Aquinas. We will have a better picture of the hermeneutic that Milton inherited if we ask not whether typology is present at all — MacCallum has shown that Milton was more conservative on this score than most Protestants — but how Old Testament history is valued, what the literal level is discovered to be, and how an interpretation is validated.

The most profound hermeneutic changes of the Reformation occurred on the literal level. Where one discovered the figures in Scripture made all the difference. Foxe's Book of Martyrs contains numerous stories of dissenting mechanicals who argued with Marian bishops about whether "is" should be a metaphor or a true designation in Jesus' words "This is my body" (Matthew 26:26). Typically, Luther discovered figures in a text in order to include a promissory allusion to the Son or in order to preserve narrative consistency. When Moses seemed to nod, Luther found simile, allegory, irony, hypallage, metonymy, or synecdoche to be present, so that Deuteronomic history appeared trustworthy, as in the following passage:

Note, however, that in this passage the people are described by Moses as godless, when he says that they do what seems right to them, not to God. ... Does this agree with the statement in Num. 24:6-9, where this nation is called blessed and is so magnificently praised by Balaam? It will agree in this way, that in both cases the matter is understood to be stated by synecdoche; that the larger part was godless and the lesser part pious. However, the whole nation is praised on account of the Word of God, which was in the Godly ones among them just as in Rom. 3. 1-2 Paul praises circumcision, that is, the whole people, because the oracles of God were entrusted to them, although many did not believe.

(LW 9.125-126, author's italics)

Discovering tropes was a method that could be employed for special pleading, and indeed often was. Milton himself was to argue that "fornication" was a mere synecdoche of the many wifely lapses that Scripture allowed as grounds for divorce (CD, p. 378). That Scripture so often was used to justify a course of action like divorce or regicide is less remarkable than the way in which "the analogy of the word" remained in force regarding the central question of salvation throughout the century of Puritan Revolution. Luther himself admitted that Scripture could be an infinitely malleable "wax nose," but held, especially in his writings prior to the Peasants' Revolt, that the analogy of the word and the prompting of the Holy Spirit would prevent grievous error.

For Luther, and even more so for Protestants after him, the Holy Spirit provided the experiential authentication for a reading of Scripture. This was the most radical aspect of his hermeneutic, for Aquinas had discussed the whole topic of revelation without mentioning the Holy Spirit. According to Luther, the discovery of clarity in Scripture waited upon an epiphany of the Holy Spirit. Discovering clarity usually involved a shift of referent — regarding the speaker, the object of address, or a word that made an entire passage metaphorical. The Holy Spirit's work, formally considered, was that of rhetorical expertise. In a very important sense, faith became a "poetic" activity — a passionate reading of a divine text (in which the figures were identified and read aright) followed by a reading of experience through this text. With the Reformation, religious experience, to an overwhelming degree, became "literary" experience. In sum, Luther's revisionist reading of the Scripture proceeded on two principles: one essentially mystical (the Holy Spirit's epiphany) and the other rational (the analogy of the word). The latter he observed very strictly, even to the point of rejecting the Book of James because it does not mention the promise of Christ. Haller virtually ignored this "objective" principle and assumed that the Reformation made what in Catholic practice had been visual and corporate into something impalpable and inward. To be sure, the Reformation does emphasize the action of grace upon individual consciousness, but the innovation of the Reformation cannot adequately be described as a referential shift inward. It would be more accurate to describe it as a shift of the sacramental medium from things to words, which demonstrably can be both intimate and communal. Because physical symbols do not transliterate into verbal ones in any easy point-by-point fashion, and because the laws of their deployment are stubbornly incommensurate, any attempt to describe Reformation piety in terms of Catholic images and the philosophical assumptions attached to them will be misleading. Luther's exegesis makes a radical shift from physical to verbal, not simply from physical to mental, reference. In nearly every case, the referral of images to verbal matters calls in question the power of visual images to describe the motions of faith.

For example, in Reformation commentary, "sacrifice" becomes a verbal action, though not entirely an inward one: sacrifice becomes "praise." There is no simple and obvious point of comparison between Protestant praise and Old Testament sacrifice (or that of the Mass), except in the very broad sense that they are acts of worship. When Luther rings changes on Hosea 14:2 ("We will render the calves of our lips") and exhorts us to offer up to God "the fruit of lips" (LW 29.176), the metaphor sheds no particular light upon the nature of verbal sacrifice; he has to explain that uttering words alone becomes a sacrifice only if the words are offered "in the midst of sufferings," or "when a man in the midst of bitterness of heart and in the agony of death even sings to God, saying (Ps. 119:137): 'Righteous art Thou, Oh Lord ...'" (LW 29.176). Praise, in Luther's view, is giving God credit for being God and finding evidence for his goodness even in the face of counter-evidence. Accordingly, the dominant protocol for praise is simply that of "telling His wonderful works" (LW 16.167) — in creation, history, or personal experience; hence, praise takes a variety of literary forms — a catalog of the natural world, an historical narrative, a doctrinal summary, or an autobiography. All such "sacrifices" Milton will offer in the course of Paradise Lost, the most moving of which will be the narrator's sacrificial song in his "shady covert hid."

In a similar way, other time-honored images of the Christian tradition are referred to verbal activity. The Kingdom of God "consisteth in the 'preaching' of the Gospel." The "secrets" of the Kingdom, grasped only by its members, turn out to be a very public arcana — Christian doctrine. The "gate to paradise" is God's promise when it is believed. Even when Luther's ex egesis seems most medieval, he finds that the purport of the allegory he is expounding concerns verbal matters: "You see, there is no doubt that the two cherubim before Moses and Isaiah indicate the ministry of the Word. ... [They] are winged because the Word flies; it runs swiftly. That is what poets, too, wanted to picture with their Mercury, the winged messenger of the gods, and that is how his name was chosen, why he should be called 'Hermes.' So also Vergil described rumor as winged ..." (LW 20.59-60).

The Reformation imagery that causes the most difficulty to latterday readers has to do with "vision" and "opened eyes." These terms do not treat direct perception of the Empyrean, nor that of a fresh visible world in the sands we tread underfoot. Routinely, the Reformers make the caveat that heavenly things like God's throne cannot be seen except by the "eyes of faith" (LW 13.7). To them, "seeing" is verbal understanding, a grasping and taking to heart of a divine locution. Indeed, "seeing" is believing some very definite divine words, for Luther maintained that in doctrine we see the face of God (LW 1.309, 22.157). On a number of occasions, he carefully distinguishes this "verbal vision" from an ineffable, mystical one. "It is the true contemplative life," he declared, "to hear and believe the spoken Word" (LW 3.276) — a contemplative life exemplified by the narrator in Book III of Paradise Lost. Nothing more clearly demonstrates how the Reformation forged new patterns, rather than merely psychologizing old ones, than this dissolving of the distinction between the contemplative and the active life. The viseo dei was understood to be readily available in this life and was to be sought in a "literary" account, as Calvin explained:

He appeareth to us daily by His gospel. Although He dwelleth in His heavenly glory, if we open the eyes of faith, we shall behold Him. We must learn not to separate what the Holy Ghost hath joined together.

One result was to give extraordinary authority to verbal experience and to inject into daily life a "minimal mysticism." Contemplation thus verbally defined became the hallmark of the active life. Though the absence of required "works" was a favorite theme for Luther and Calvin, their commentaries make a de facto requirement: "Christ desireth nothing more of us, then that wee speak of him ... [which is] the true service of God: hee loadeth no heavie burthens upon us, neither to cleav wood, nor to carrie stones; but will onely have that wee believ in him, and preach of him" (TT, p. 132). The works urged are "literary" ones — reading, studying, meditating upon God's word and then professing, confessing, or testifying about one's grasp thereof. "To read the word, to heare the word, and to teach the word," claimed Luther, are "heavenly works" assisted by the Holy Ghost.

Not surprisingly, in the commentary of Luther and Calvin, the ethical strictures of Holy Writ, via a referential shift, often turn into "literary" strictures. Pride, at its root, said Luther, "is Lying" (TT, p. 162). "The mind of the flesh" is not lasciviousness, but a certain hermeneutic stance, a wanton disregard of God's word. Accordingly, a staggering drunkard becomes an image for an ungodly teacher who "waver[s] hither and yon" (LW 16.242). The injunction to sobriety in I Peter 1:13 urges "not temperance only in eating and drinking, but rather spiritual sobriety, when all our thoughts and affections are so kept as not to be inebriated with the allurements of this world," but focused steadily upon God's word. "Sobriety" in these commentaries, as often as not, means walking in the word and not "swarving" from it. In a similar way, "Chastity" is regularly defined as fidelity to divine words. Luther comes close to making sodomy a literary offense when, in commenting upon the story of Lot, he claims that the main offense of the Sodomites was not "ordinary" debauchery (which he itemizes), but their unforgivable hermeneutic stance — their "contempt of the Word" (LW 3.233). Virtue similarly is defined in a "literary" way so that writing of or preaching the word becomes an activity of great merit. As Milton himself said, "it is a deed of highest charitie to help undeceive the people" (CE 6.45).


Excerpted from Milton and the Science of the Saints by Georgia B. Christopher. Copyright © 1982 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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