- Spiritual Architecture and Paradise Regained: Milton's Literary Ecclesiology
While Paradise Regained is featured in each section of this book, Simpson focuses on ways in which the ecclesiology implicit in Milton's late poem is an elaboration on views on the church in Milton's earlier prose works and notes ways in which Milton modifies the range of views on the church articulated by his contemporaries. In explaining these elaborations and modifications, Simpson devotes separate chapters of his study to the question of authority, views of the ministry, concerns about the liturgy, and perspectives on the visibility of the church.
Central to Simpson's articulation of the ecclesiology implicit in Paradise Regained are Areopagitica and De Doctrina Christiana. (Simpson finds the recent questioning of Milton's authorship of this latter work to be "unconvincing" ). Areopagitica, "the closest Milton ever came to systematic ecclesiology in his early prose," presents his vision of the nation inhabited by prophets "reading, trying all things, [and] assenting to the force of reason and convincement," and depicts "Christian liberty as a textual activity in which 'considerat builders' construct the 'spiritual architecture' of the church in 'free writing and free speaking'" (17–19). Reformation of the church is portrayed as "an ongoing process of discourse made possible by the freedom of the inner Word promised in the New Testament." Not only are individuals saved by the Word; "the Word is the central rite of a continually reforming church," thus making "particular manifestations" of "Truth's many shapes throughout history. . . less important than charity and liberty" (24–25).
In Milton's transformation of the orthodox formulation of the Trinity, in De Doctrina, the Son "must always be temporally and essentially subordinate to the Father," the "author/creator whose decrees/intentions are embodied in forms of the Word, the proper reading of which is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit." This formulation is consistent with Milton's modification of traditional ecclesiastical ideas and informs his presentation of the Son in Paradise Regained. In this poem [End Page 1052] both Jesus and Satan use Scripture "to discover and understand their courses of action," but Milton "goes out of his way to emphasize that not Scripture alone but the nonverbal scripture —the silent inner scripture of the Spirit written on the heart —is the final authority to Christians." Central to this poem is "a process of remembering and imagining that eventually leads to a state of patient waiting upon God and the movement of the Spirit." The Son's "dependence on both silence and the Word, the internal and external scriptures" is "the nature of Jesus himself as the incarnate Word, the ultimate reference of the scriptural Word" (25–26).
Simpson is both thorough and convincing in articulating ways in which these views inform Milton's understanding of the visible church and its ministry. Rejecting any reading of Paradise Regained as evidence of Milton's disinterest in the visible church, or as Michael Fixler put it, a turning inward to a "church of one," Simpson both asserts that the poem "continues to explore [Milton's] interest in the renewal of worship that began in the 1640s," and agrees with those who have recently argued that Paradise Regained addresses the political issues surrounding Nonconformity and persecution in the 1660s (137). The importance of the Spirit aligns Milton with the free church tradition, one in which "prescribed liturgies, ordained ministers, and sacred times and places of worship are unnecessary" and where the central role of sacraments are taken over by the Word, which, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is a "vehicle of grace" uniting "believers in a ritual of presence by returning readers to Christ in imagination." Simpson draws attention to Milton's use of repetition "to recreate the conditions of ritual" and points out that "repetition of the Word as part of a ritual of presence can be seen in some of the smallest details of Paradise Regained" (125, 132–33). The...