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“Against the Law: Milton's (Anti?) nomianism in De Doctrina Christiana

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 December 2010

Christopher John Donato*
Lake Mary, Florida


This essay seeks to put to rest the notion that John Milton was an antinomian, by offering a concise summation of the relevant chapters of De doctrina Christiana that discuss his views on the covenants, the law and the gospel, and Christian liberty.1 Defining antinomian is a difficult task, as its manifestations throughout history have not been monolithic.2 During the seventeenth century in England, two kinds, broadly speaking, existed: 1) doctrinal antinomianism; and 2) licentious antinomianism.

Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 2010

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1 This author assumes Milton's authorial commitment to De doctrina, if for no other purpose than to dispense with the formality of disclaiming my position.

2 See Cooper's, TimFear and Polemic in Seventeenth-Century England: Richard Baxter and Antinomianism (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2001)Google Scholar for a good discussion on how hard the label is to pin down. See also the sweeping overviews of Bozeman's, T.D.The Precisianist Strain: Disciplinary Religion and Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003)Google Scholar and Como's, David R.Blown by the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil-War England (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004)Google Scholar. At this point, we must exercise caution to not equate the Lutheran debates of the 1500s over these issues with the later English Reformed debates. To be sure, there is overlap, but the correlations are not one-to-one.

3 The Westminster Confession—composed while Milton was Latin Secretary for Cromwell—clearly makes use of this method in ch. 19, “Of the Law of God.” See also Calvin's, JohnInstitutes of the Christian Religion (ed. McNeill, John T.; trans. Ford L. Battles; 2 vols.; Library of Christian Classics; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960) 2.Google Scholar7.12–13, for a good summation of this use.

4 Again, see WCF 19 and Inst. 2.7.6–11.

5 For representative works on this trajectory, see Crisp's Christ Alone Exalted (1643) in Complete Works of Tobias Crisp (ed. J. Gill; 7th ed.; London: John Beinett, 1832) and Chauncy's Neonomianism Unmask'd (1693). Mark W. Karlberg makes a good case that restraint ought to be practiced, especially in the case of Crisp. See his Covenant Theology in Reformed Perspective (Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf and Stock, 2000) 30–32, 83, on the impropriety of labeling Crisp an antinomian.

6 In 1650, the “Rump Parliament” took aim at the Ranters, passing the Adultery Act and the Blasphemy Act. Eventually, the most infamous Ranters were arrested and brought to trial. Jacob Bauthumley was bored (or burned) through the tongue as punishment for writing his book, The Light and Dark Sides of God (1650); Clarkson and Salmon recanted and were released after a brief stint in prison. By the late 1650s the fervor had faded, and many former Ranters turned to the Quakers after the Restoration.

7 Milton, however, nowhere argues that all law has been abrogated (like the Ranters did); indeed, according to Milton, it is the law of nature to which regenerate persons are being conformed. See more on this under the fourth point below.

8 In Jerald Brauer, “Types of Puritan Piety,” Church History 56 (March 1987) 39–59. Let us attempt to forget at this point everything about the word evangelical that we've come to know.

9 Norman Burns says as much when he writes that “Milton's antinomianism has nothing to do with that of John Eaton, Tobias Crisp, or John Saltmarsh.” See Burns, Norman, “Milton's Antinomianism, and Samson's,” Milton Studies 33 (1997) 2746Google Scholar, at 30. Feeling this tension, Barbara K. Lewalski labels Milton's views on this subject a “qualified” antinomianism (The Life of John Milton [Oxford: Blackwell, 2000] xiii, 430, 434–5, 476–7). Whatever can be said of Eaton, Crisp, or Saltmarsh, we will see that it is a categorical mistake to leave Milton in the antinomian camp—“qualified” or otherwise.

10 The following points come largely from Peter Toon's brief but helpful synopsis in Puritans and Calvinism (Seoul, Korea: Westminster Pub. House, 1972) 85–101, and from Louis Berkhof's various discussions on antinomianism in his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1937) 514–15, 517–26, 534, 543.

11 De doctrina Christiana, ch. 4, p. 72 [CP 6:182]. All quotations from the treatise, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from Milton, John, A Treatise on Christian Doctrine, Compiled from the Holy Scriptures Alone (trans. Sumner, Charles R.; 2 vols.; Boston, 1825Google Scholar). I use this translation almost exclusively simply because it better captures the essence of important theological nuances and vocabulary than the standard critical edition—of which, see Complete Prose Works of John Milton (ed. Don M. Wolfe; 14 vols.; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973). However, I will cite the corresponding location from the Yale edition in brackets [CP].

12 See De doctrina, ch. 33, pp. 228–31 [CP 6:621–23], for his views about the punishment of the damned.

13 Toon, Puritans, 98. Cited from Isaac Chauncy's Neonomianism Unmask'd, third part, 42.

14 To be sure, neither would most of the orthodox Calvinists of his day, at least not in the manner Milton did.

15 This notion is not unfounded among the majority of divines in Milton's day. Thus, we must be certain of those with whom Milton was contending (not Calvinists but the increasingly explicit hyper-Calvinism of English Nonconformity) to correctly understand his proposed “corrections.”

16 De doctrina, 103 [CP 6:535]. Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf (1561–1610) was the leader of the “conservative” Calvinists in Basel. He also composed commentaries on the books of the Old Testament and produced a German translation of the New Testament.

17 And herein lies the fodder for much current debate in Reformed circles: Was the Mosaic law a kind of recapitulation of the covenant of works (as in, arguably, WCF 19.1–2, and the Larger Catechism 30, 92, 98)? Is it to be associated solely with the covenant of grace (e.g., again, this time clearly in the WCF 7.3, 5–6)? Is there another alternative? Milton thought so. See our discussion in section IV.2 below for more on this.

18 Even though Burns acknowledges this, he still sees Milton's liberty as express radicalism (see “Milton's Antinomianism,” 30–31).

19 “Licence they mean when they cry libertie,” accused Milton in his sonnet XII against the Ranters.

20 Joan S. Bennett, “Milton's Antinomianism and the Separation Scene in Paradise Lost, Book 9” PMLA 98.3 (1983) 388–404, at 390.

21 Bennett, “Milton's Antinomianism,” 396; De doctrina, ch. 26, p. 76 [CP 6:516]. But maybe I presume too much on her silence regarding this point. See Bennett, , Reviving Liberty: Radical Christian Humanism in Milton's Great Poems (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994) 97109Google Scholar, where she does argue that the “humanist antinomian” is one who apprehends the law of nature only by the “strenuous efforts of the regenerate moral reason” [emphasis mine].

22 In typical fashion, Bennett thinks Milton was Arminian.

23 In other words, she failed to provide a convincing argument that Christian humanism is latently antinomian.

24 De doctrina, 107 [CP 6:539].

25 “Reason,” that is, understood pejoratively—as Luther often used it; cp. Bennett, “Milton's Anti-nomianism,” 403, n. 14.

26 In Living Texts: Interpreting Milton (ed. Kristin A. Pruitt and Charles W. Durham; Sellinsgrove, Penn.: Susquehanna University Press, 2000) 237–63.

27 Milton's Good God: A Study in Literary Theodicy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982) 79 nn. 50–52. See also Sellin, “If Not Milton,” 25 n. 7.

28 Now, this is a sentiment with which I agree, but see Benjamin Myers, “Predestination and Freedom in Milton's Paradise Lost,” SJT 59.1 (2006) 64–80, for an attempt to elevate the poet's ingenuity and thus his place in the historical development of this particular doctrine along the lines of Schleiermacher and Barth.

29 In short, the theology produced by Cameron and his student Amyraut at the Saumur academy faced the ire of the orthodox party for flirting with what they deemed to be thinly veiled Arminianism. See the Helvetic Consensus (1675) for a point-by-point defense against this moderate form of Calvinism.

30 Those other sources primarily being William Ames (1576–1633) and Johannes Wollebius (1586–1629)—both of whom fell well within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy. See Sellin, “If Not Milton,” 253.

31 I am not suggesting I affirm this. Besides, the guardians of Milton's heterodoxy would have my head. See Sellin, “If Not Milton,” 237–38.

32 Paul Sellin, email message to author, 19 March, 2003.

33 Sellin, “If Not Milton,” 253.

34 Diodati (1576–1649), a Calvinist scholar and theologian, of a family of Italian Protestant refugees, succeeded Theodore Beza in 1609 as professor of theology in Geneva. In 1618 he served as a deputy to the Synod of Dort and was chosen to assist in compiling the canons. He was chiefly known for his translation of the Bible into Italian (1603), and Milton mentions Diodati as a Bible translator of “best note” in Tetrachordon (CP 3:615).

35 He may have met him earlier in 1619 and 1627, when Giovanni visited London. See Dorian, Donald C., The English Diodatis (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1950) 396Google Scholar, esp. 21.

36 Armstrong, , Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy: Protestant Scholasticism and Humanism in Seventeenth-Century France (Madison, Wis.: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1969) 47.Google Scholar Armstrong also refers to two letters from Cameron to Diodati that have been printed in the Bulletin of the Society and History of Protestantism in France 50 (1901) 159–63, at 47, n. 134.

37 See Wolfe, CP, 3:647, 656, 660, 684, 687.

38 Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy, 61. This also highlights what I think is a mistake in Jerald Brauer's categorization of Milton as principally a rationalist (like Biddle or Locke). There is no doubt that Milton displayed rationalistic tendencies, but his piety—that is, his practice when doing theology—was thoroughly evangelical.

39 Milton's disclaimer at the beginning of ch. 5 of De doctrina, “Of the Son of God,” is an example of this: “I enrol myself among the number of those who acknowledge the word of God alone as the rule of faith, and freely advance what appears to me much more clearly deducible from the Holy Scriptures than the commonly received opinion” (p. 104 [CP 6:203]).

40 Note that all of Cameron's works were published after his death in 1625.

41 Or, for that matter, many of the doctrines that Milton is accused of holding. These days, it seems the more radical one can make him, the better. See Milton and Heresy (ed. Stephen B. Dobranski and John P. Rumrich; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) for a good example of this tendency.

42 In this, his desires are not unlike the doctrinal antinomians, but it is how they flesh it out and to what end, so to speak, that greatly differentiates them.

43 Note again the title of this chapter: the law of God—in each of its manifestations—is included under the rubric “covenant of grace.” All page numbers in the text, unless otherwise indicated, are found in this chapter.

44 Throughout the remainder of this essay I will attempt to distinguish between Torah and the “law” (as a general theological category)—from which portions of Torah are derived (according to the classical Christian perspective). This is a very important feature of Milton's argument—one often overlooked by critics discussing this very subject.

45 Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy, 49–50.

46 The reader will note the preliminary sound of symmetry so common in Reformed theology (but not, as we have seen, a common refrain among doctrinal antinomians): grace existed under the old covenant and continues under the gospel.

47 See Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy, 53, where Cameron is quoted as writing that knowledge of the covenant of nature “was not completely obliterated from the mind of fallen man, since it was made by God to restrain man from sin and lead him to Christ.” Note for Milton that it is not clearly described in terms of a “works-covenant” in the traditional puritan sense, for it is not separate from the covenant of grace. Is this nothing more than the lex naturae espoused by the early Reformers? Calvin's sensus divinitatus? The way it is used here suggests the affirmative. The law of nature is divinely summed up in the Decalogue and recapitulated by the Christ. As a moral law universally imposed by God within all persons, it either blesses or curses the individual, depending, of course, upon his or her regeneration “by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Since it dwells in everyone, it is the basis for both natural law and natural theology.

48 That is, if the apostle Paul is speaking of Gentile Christians in 2:15, then he is quite clearly saying that they are justified on that final day by fulfilling the law that has been written upon their hearts.

49 He clearly speaks of such a future vindication in ch. 22 on justification: The Messiah passes judgment on the final day not with respect to faith, “which is the internal cause of justification, but to the effects and signs of that faith, namely, the works done in faith, that he may thereby make the equity of his judgment manifest to all mankind” (p. 47 [CP 6:493]). As an aside, “internal” cause for Milton means little more than an “instrumental, proximate” cause (i.e., as one of its subsets). Compare with Calvin's Institutes 2.17.2. This also may exhibit a Ramean influence. see Bangs, Carl, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (second edition; Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985) 5663Google Scholar; and Howard, Leon, “In Justifying the Ways of God to Man: The Invention of Milton's Great Argument,” in Essays on Puritans and Puritanism (ed. Barbour, James and Quirk, Thomas; Albuquerque. N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1986) 173203Google Scholar.

50 De doctrina, 76 [CP 6:516].

51 Again, see Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy, 53–54.

52 Ibid., 56.

53 This very important theme of universal design in the new covenant is integral to understanding Milton's covenant theology. It stems from his concern with the progressive nature of God's revelation, another important theme.

54 Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy, 56 n. 160.

55 Note that this is distinctively not Greek dualism, as many critics imagine. See Ridderbos's, HermanPaul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 120–26Google Scholar.

56 Compare this with Milton's own sentiment in his chapter on justification: “Hence we are justified by faith without the works of [Torah], but not without the works of faith” (p. 43 [CP 6:490]). Boasting is excluded by the law of faith (Rom 3:27–28); and “what is the law of faith, but the works of faith?” (p. 44 [CP 6:491]). See Dennis Berthold's “The Concept of Merit in Paradise Lost,” SEL 15.1 (1975) 153–67 for a good discussion of this topic in the poem.

57 See Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy, 54–55, 94–95.

58 Jerome Zanchius (1516–90), Italian Protestant clergyman and educator, was the pupil of the famed Peter Martyr Vermigli in the priory of San Frediano in Lucca, Italy. Milton was probably referring to Zanchius's Commentarius in epistolam Sancti Pauli ad Ephesios, last published in Bibliotheca Reformata, vols. 5 and 6 (ed. ed. A.H. de Hartog; Amstelodami: J. A. Wormser, 1888–1899).

59 See Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy, 55–56.

60 He cites Jesus' Sabbath practices (Mark 2) and the apostle's marriage injunctions (1 Cor 7) as examples. Also note the centrality Milton gives to “love” as the fulfillment of the old covenant law, its sum and essence, the very criterion by which the meaning and application of the Mosaic commandments (like the Sabbath command) are to be evaluated.

61 Ibid. According to Wolfe (CP, 6:534, n. 19), Milton is possibly referring to Cameron's Praelectionum in selectiora quaedam N. Test. loca (4 vols.; Salmurii, 1626–28; Bodleian Library). The only other information offered in Complete Prose we have already discussed—that of Cameron's inclusion in Tetrachordon.

62 Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy, 57. As for the Yale edition's translation, see Shawcross, , “Forum: Milton's Christian Doctrine,” SEL 32.1 (1992) 155–62Google Scholar, at 156.

63 Is he suggesting that the believer ought to, in Marcionite fashion, leave-off reading the Old Testament? No; remember that for Milton the gospel can be seen in both eras. Thus the writings of the old era may be employed and profited from, so long as they are understood in light of the gospel, in light of their fulfillment in the Christ. Moreover, the entire historical canon is employed throughout the treatise as its presupposed standard.

64 Might this be construed as a neonomian sentiment (i.e., that the gospel is an easier-to-follow “new law”)? If so, then it is not worded in the likeness of Richard Baxter or Daniel Williams. See their works, Aphorisms on Justification (1649) and A Defence of Gospel-Truth (1693), respectively.

65 See ch. 23 in De doctrina, “Of Adoption” [CP 6:495–97].

66 Milton cites Rom 8:2, 15; 1 Cor 7:23; Gal 4:7, 5:1; and Jas 1:25, 2:12 as proof.

67 Ibid. Milton put this sentiment to verse in his poem “On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament” (1646), wherein he wrote that the “New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ Large” (l. 20).

68 The next chapter (28) in De doctrina, “Of the External Sealing of the Covenant of Grace,” deals with the sacraments that seal the covenant. Under the law of Moses, they were circumcision and the Passover, but under the gospel, they are baptism and the Lord's Supper. At first glance, it seems Milton's view of the Lord's Supper takes the middle position between Calvin and Zwingli, remembered in the person of Bullinger (he goes on to reject infant baptism, however, pp. 114–126 [CP 6:544–50]).

69 Chauncy wrote about such views: “[He] Asserts the Old Law is abolished, and therein is a superlative Antinomian, but pleads for a New Law, and Justification by the Works of it, and therein is a Neonomian” (Neonomianism, “The Epistle Dedicatory,” A2 + 2 pages). See n. 49 above.

70 “On the New Forcers,” ll. 5–7, 9–10, 14.