- Theological Milton: Deity, Discourse and Heresy in the Miltonic Canon
Principally concerned with Milton's treatment of God in De Doctrina Christiana, Paradise Lost, and Samson Agonistes, Michael Lieb has written an enormously learned study of Milton's theological and poetic depiction of the Christian Godhead. In an effort to establish a "'discursive milieu' for approaching the treatment of God in De Doctrina Christiana" (24), Lieb first qualifies Milton's debts to systematic theologians so as to categorize him, instead, as something of a systematic fideist, for whom "the use of proof-texts to demonstrate that God is beyond knowledge is rendered problematical by a determination to explain it all as rationally and as logically as possible" (92).
In recent years, Miltonists have mulled over the authorial status of De Doctrina Christiana itself, with a small group of scholars dismissing the Miltonic provenance of the text. Early in Theological Milton, Lieb cites a previous article of his on the subject of the tract's authorship as a way of largely sidestepping this brouhaha, but in the article in question ("De Doctrina Christiana and the Question of Authorship," Milton Studies 41 ), Lieb's skepticism with regards to the textual provenance of De Doctrina is far more pronounced than it is here. Without the lurking presence of Milton in De Doctrina, Theological Milton would be half as long and one-tenth as interesting. Lieb claims that the dispute regarding the authorship of De Doctrina is anticipated by the treatise itself, since the God it proposes is rooted in conflict, with the very proof-texts forwarded to substantiate his being themselves requiring "a kind of archaeology of interpretation" (44), since different versions of the Bible make appearances via the hands of different amanuenses. Nonetheless, Milton as author-function ends up mirroring Lieb's analysis of the God of De Doctrina as a deus absconditus, or "hidden" deity (75): his presence both undeniable and impossible to fix. [End Page 1329]
However, Lieb's treatment of God in Paradise Lost only picks up the ramifications of the deus absconditus indirectly. In reading Milton's longest poem, and the character so many of its readers have — over the ages — wished was less visible, Lieb's analysis shifts to consider more directly the "'dark side' of God, the 'other' God, one who exhibits emotional fervor in a manner that can be construed as threatening and even unstable in the extreme" (128). Now in juxtaposition to recent historicist treatments of Milton, most notably Dennis Danielson's Milton's Good God, Lieb assesses Milton's investment in an emotive God of "passibility" (146), which he terms theopatheia in opposition to anthropopatheia (146): God feels, in other words, but he does so not in an imitatively human way, so that we can approximate an understanding of him, but rather because his "emotional life . . . is real and indeed holy" (153). How can a feeling God remain hidden? He cannot, exactly: Lieb suggests only that he is read in the poem through the Son, with this reading consequently acknowledged by angelic song.
There is some unstated tension, then, between the feeling and hidden God that Lieb's analysis skirts, but when he turns to God's capacity to hate, we uncover perhaps one of the more puissant and insightful responses to William Empson's devastating charge that Milton's God is too angry, too insidious, to be believed. Love and hate are, according to Lieb, intimately, ineffably connected in Milton's God — not just in the divine imago itself but in the tradition from which Milton draws: one in which Lactantius, William Perkins, and many others loom large. Although a fine assessment of the awfulness of Milton's God in Samson Agonistes follows, the most important claim in Lieb's book has, by this point, been established: Milton's God is less in need of defense or rebuttal than is his mindset in need of excavation. This is a mindset, finely probed by Lieb, in which emotive extremes are evidence...