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The Origins and Development of Milton’s Theology in De doctrina Christiana, 1.17–18

From: Milton Studies
Volume 54, 2013
pp. 181-206 | 10.1353/mlt.2013.0010

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Many chapters of De doctrina Christiana start out from the formulations of Continental Reformed theologian Johannes Wollebius (1589–1629) in his Compendium theologiae Christianae. Thereby, Milton’s departures provide points of comparison and guides to intention. Maurice Kelley’s work, from his essay on Wollebius to his monograph on De doctrina to his Yale edition, has long shown readers how to work with this invaluable resource. All the same, whereas Kelley held that Milton used Wollebius more for book 2—“To the Compendium, the demonstrable debt of Book I … is not great” (157)—we propose that at least for chapters 17 and 18 of book 1, entitled, respectively, / de Renovatione, ubi et de Vocatione/ (“On Renewal, and also on Calling”) and /de Regeneratione/ (“On Regeneration”), comparison with Wollebius reveals very significant points of departure; a genesis for Milton’s drastic rethinking of Wollebius.

What is more, the 2012 publication of De doctrina as volume 8 of the Oxford Complete Works of John Milton helps the reader to follow the rethinking, by a fuller transcription of the manuscript, in such a way as to show the many scribal changes through which Milton attempts to work out his theology. He wrestles with expression and with thought alike. One passage in particular is much revised, then finally scrapped after all: at the words “hence it has no place here,” Milton goes back to the drawing board.

The two kinds of primary evidence taken together enable us to follow the stages of Milton’s thought on a topic that exercised better-known contemporary theologians such as Richard Baxter and John Owen: agency within conversion, whether human or divine, and in what proportions and interactions. Accordingly, our study has four sections: a study of Milton’s changes to Wollebius; a demonstration of the difficulties which the polemical environment brings to discussions of free will; a close examination of the changes within the manuscript; and, finally, an analysis of the delicate theological balancing toward which these changes aim. Thus, we attend to source, context, and process so as to reveal the direction of his persistent revisions and their significance. Examined by this method, the two chapters give a unique insight into Milton’s mind on an issue that (while not having attracted such attention in Milton studies as predestination or the Trinity) was a defining conundrum for this kind of theologian.

Wollebius and Milton

In his early and influential This Great Argument, Maurice Kelley summarizes Milton’s borrowings from Wollebius thus: “Throughout Book II of the De Doctrina, Milton borrows copiously from the Compendium; but in Book I only two passages permit an assumption of direct influence.” With respect to chapters 17 and 18 of book 1, the following statement seems decisive: “the Picard version of chapters xv–xxxiii apparently owes little to the Compendium” (38). Kelley is right in his observation that certainly the influence of Wollebius is nowhere near as apparent in chapters 17 and 18 as it is in book 2. It will be our contention, however, that Jeremie Picard’s fair copy of these chapters nevertheless displays the evident influence of Wollebius, the difference from book 2 being that here Picard’s fair copy proceeds on the assumption that Wollebius is wrong. To be sure, Kelley shows, with respect to the second half of book 2 in particular, that Milton’s beliefs required a significant rearrangement of Wollebius’s organization, but even so, considerable verbal parallels make Milton’s debt to Wollebius evident. The case is rather different in the section of book 1 here under consideration because Milton’s disagreement with Wollebius is much more profound. This disagreement notwithstanding, we will show that Wollebius served as an important interlocutor in the process through which Milton strove to work out his own views.

The present section restricts itself to assessing the textual relationship between Wollebius and Picard’s fair copy. Determining the chronology of work on the treatise is particularly thorny. We know that Picard was in Milton’s employ at any rate from around 1658–60, but we cannot place names or dates on any of the other hands. Nor do we know what, if anything, preceded the fair copy in...

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