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  • Peculiar and Personal:Milton's De Doctrina Christiana
  • John K. Hale

Milton called De doctrina Christiana "this my best and most precious possession,"1 in words of commitment and affection that suggest two constitutive qualities—peculiarity, in two senses; and personality, for better and worse. I began thinking them out during years of working on the question of its authorship,2 then transcribing and editing its manuscript before translating and annotating the whole work. These readings required a suspension of opinion and response, although response was what Milton himself sought. Engagement and suspension together prompt a delayed response. Few since the first reviewers have taken up his invitation, or challenge: "Use, or indeed unless fully persuaded, do not use these thoughts of mine" (MS 5, OM 8:11, translation emended). I do this because Milton pervades De doctrina, treading on toes, getting under your skin. I would not "use his thoughts" because they are too personal and peculiar, not to say perverse and erratic; but that is what interests me.

First, my enquiry elicits some of the work's assumptions. Then it examines how these assumptions affect particular topics: do they limit his exploration of Scripture? Where and why does he bend [End Page 3] his own rules? Then, because he boasts of relying on the actual words of Scripture, and of subordinating his exegesis to that, I grapple with local peculiarities of exegesis. Although nothing is to be believed but what is in Scripture, what things matter more than others, and how does he know? Has he bound himself to formulate beliefs on everything that Scripture contains, or only on the topics his scheme has included? Thereby we can see how the peculiarities of De doctrina make it not simply a backwater or a personal aberration but peculiarly Milton's, personal and impassioned and revealing. It is peculiar in both the word's senses; strange, and his very own.

Unstated Assumptions

One unexamined assumption is that a personal faith can be itemized according to a Ramist, bifurcating arrangement, laid down at the outset and unchanged as the work proceeds. What if the findings turned out to require a different sequence? Why does Milton organize his subjects into 50 chapters, proportioned 33:17 between the two books? Why does a theology based on Scripture discuss Scripture in the thirtieth chapter, not the first?

To the first question I would answer that he arranged De doctrina for his personal convenience. Milton saw little need to alter his first arrangement of topics, since for a long time the work remained a commonplace book, arranged by topics, and for his own personal use. He moved familiarly around within it. Though some topics proved more important than others, and very often the citations ceased, despite the boast in the Epistle (MS 4i, OM 8:9) to dominate in bulk as he began defending and arguing his points—to the degree that chapter 5 De filio became a separate essay with a preface of its own, and hence clearly meant for publication as well as for his original personal purposes—he saw no need to rearrange for print.3 It remained his personal credo: "the safest and wisest thing" for his hope of salvation (Epistle, MS 2m, OM 8:5).

On the second question, about the work's arbitrary arithmetic, I suspect personal convenience or habit. He did much the same in [End Page 4] his Art of Logic: two books, 50 chapters, its chapter 30 being (thanks to a little rearrangement) his chapter on definition.4 Moreover, this apparently minor question leads to a major one: why Scripture as a whole is not explained until chapter 30. It is reasonable to wonder why a work based solely in Scripture so delays exposition of its originating witness, and why Scripture is not first to be established as the word of God, and in what sense, and degree, and so forth.

What did other such systems do about the problem? Was Milton in enlightening company? Wollebius, whose arrangement Milton mostly follows, was among the "numerous Renaissance theologians [who] discuss this subject at the beginning of their works. Gomarus … explains this practice by comparing the theologian to...


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