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  • Unfinished Exegesis:Scriptural Authority and Psalm 2 in the Miltonic Canon

This article traces Milton's late career readings of Psalm 2 to argue that the most vexed moments in his scriptural exegesis become the most poetically productive. De Doctrina Christiana was both more committed to scriptural authority than other systematic theologies of the day and questioned the integrity of the biblical text more radically. Milton's readings of Psalm 2 in De Doctrina Christiana, in his 1653 translation, and in Paradise Lost demonstrate not only a growing sense of hermeneutic liberty but also the exegetical limits beyond which interpretive ambition must not go.


De Doctrina Christiana, psalms, Paradise Lost, exegesis, Dante

As Paradise Lost draws to a close, Michael relates to Adam the legacy of the Apostles:

Their doctrine and their story written left,They die, but in their room, as they forewarn,Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous wolves,Who all the sacred mysteries of HeavenTo their own vile advantages shall turnOf lucre and ambition, and the truthWith superstitions and traditions taint,Left only in those written records pure,Though not but by the spirit understood.

(12.506–14)1 [End Page 48]

This passage epitomizes Milton's career-long struggle with the Reformation doctrine sola scriptura, not only because it presents the standard Protestant position on the topic—that the teachings of the early church have been corrupted by Catholic tradition, which is in turn to be overcome by reversion to the biblical text—but also because it rewrites a scriptural passage into a qualification of scriptural authority. In Acts 20:29 Paul warns the Ephesians of "grievous wolves" who will enter the flock after his departure, yet he commends them "to God, and to the word of his grace," that is, to the divine power of Scripture.2 For Milton, by contrast, these wolves are able to pervert even "the sacred mysterious of heaven," to "taint" even truth itself. Milton leaves his reader to puzzle over whether doctrine "written left" dies with its writers, whether purity adheres to "written records" or only the truth they preserve, and what relation, if any, the understanding of the "spirit" bears to the writings it interprets.

This strategy of at once asserting and qualifying sola scriptura emerged forcefully in De Doctrina Christiana, Milton's more than 700-page systematic theology.3 Left unfinished around 1660, seven years prior to the publication of Paradise Lost, Milton's theological treatise makes exhaustive use of scriptural proof-texts.4 Almost every page of the manuscript cites dozens of passages, typically reproduced in full. The sum amounts to a quantity of text at least equal to that Milton devotes to his own voice. Yet the authority that the treatise invests in these proof-texts frays through the course of its doctrinal twists and turns. Milton and the Bible mutually authorize while competing for authority. Moreover, the treatise's hermeneutic theory—according to which the spirit has the last word in interpretation of a text irretrievably corrupt—undercuts its method.5 Milton proposes a doctrine "taken out of the word of God itself alone, and with complete fidelity too" but delivers an admission of dependence on extratextual resources (OM 8:7).6

Forging a path from system to epic has long guided critical assessment of De Doctrina. Maurice Kelley's classic account This Great Argument looks to the treatise as a "gloss" on Paradise Lost, a system of dogma not wholly consistent with the epic's imaginative flights but nonetheless possessing unparalleled explanatory power.7 C. A. Patrides contrasts the abortive failure of the "closed" system of De Doctrina with what he sees as the successful theological whole achieved by the epic's balance of dogma and poetry.8 While both of these readings oppose the rigidity of system to the expansiveness of Milton's poetics, more recent accounts—following the dispersal of any lingering doubts about De Doctrina's Miltonic provenance—have become sensitive to the tensions internal to De Doctrina.9 Michael Lieb casts De [End Page 49] Doctrina as context rather than gloss for Paradise Lost, even identifying the treatise as its own kind of "poetic theology."10 John Creaser (following Patrides) treats "closedness" and "openness" as poles of Miltonic thought but aligns them with Milton's controversial prose and late poetry, respectively, positioning De Doctrina between the two.11 With increased recognition of De Doctrina's similarity to Milton's poetry, not only in doctrine but in method, it is valuable to reassess the role of scriptural authority as it develops across Milton's late career.

No singular proof-text has been more important for comparison of treatise and epic than the second psalm. In De Doctrina Psalm 2 functions as the chief scriptural stay for Milton's antitrinitarianism. It is the proof-text at the center of a rather thorny argument that the Son is identical with the Father in substance, distinct in essence, and that the Father "generated" the Son in time. In Paradise Lost Milton imports a paraphrase of the psalm's sixth and seventh verses into book 5 to relate the begetting of the Son, the moment that occasions Satan's rebellion and is usually taken as the epic's chronological beginning.12 While critics have long debated the consistency between these two uses, Milton's other late-career visit to Psalm 2 garners far less attention: his translation of the psalm into artistic verse in 1653.13 The few critics who have addressed the 1653 translation observe its similarities to Paradise Lost, even its status as a kind of miniature epic.14 The present article, by contrast, approaches the 1653 translation from the opposite direction, as a vital clue to how Milton thought about the second psalm as poetry at approximately the same time he made such crucial use of it in De Doctrina. Attending to these three texts in concert can better show how the hermeneutic theory of the treatise contributes to Milton's theological poetics.15

My contention is that Milton's late-career engagements with Psalm 2 demonstrate how his least satisfying exegetical work provides the imaginative backbone of his late poetry. Milton's inability in the treatise to reach a "closed" interpretation of the second psalm stirs up his poetic process and also appears in his poetry's doctrine. From treatise to translation to epic, Milton's hermeneutic liberty expands as the negative spaces of his treatise form into the outlines of his theological poetics. De Doctrina is not a place to find answers to the problems of Paradise Lost. It is not a gloss. Instead, Paradise Lost addresses problems, or rather embraces opportunities, identified through De Doctrina's readings of Scripture.

To suggest this model of development, I examine both what Milton says about his hermeneutics and what he does with them. I trace Milton's [End Page 50] divergences from his theological predecessors on the subject of scriptural authority and the conflict between De Doctrina's theory and practice. I then turn specifically to De Doctrina's reading of Psalm 2 as a moment where the tensions of Miltonic hermeneutics are pitched highest. This reading, I argue, becomes a structural foundation of Milton's late poetry precisely because of the demands it makes on Milton to abandon sola scriptura and acknowledge a unique, twofold sense in the biblical text. Milton's hermeneutic liberty becomes even more apparent in his 1653 translation of the psalm, where poetic form—borrowed from Milton's great predecessor, Dante—mirrors his treatise's theological convictions. Paradise Lost then embellishes the translation's reading of the psalm, lending it a liminal role within the unfolding of Milton's otherwise boundless hermeneutic ambition. In this way, I suggest that the most unstable moments in Milton's exegesis become the most poetically productive.

systematic authority

De Doctrina at once amplifies the sola scriptura claims ubiquitous among Reformed exegetes and insists on the corruption of written Scripture and the supremacy of the spirit. The result is a tension that remains consistent across Miltonic hermeneutics in both poetry and prose. De Doctrina's introductory epistle repeats the genre-defining gambit of all Reformed systematic theologies with little novelty:

I neither urge nor impose anything by any authority of my own; but on the contrary I urge everyone, and particularly set an example of this, that on whatever points [readers] do not feel fully satisfied, they should withhold assent until the evidence of the scriptures prevails and induces their reason to assent and belief.

(OM 8:7)

A similar rhetorical gesture appears in Melanchthon's Loci Communes of 1521, arguably the first Protestant system. Melanchthon insists that his headings are set forth "not to call students away from the Scriptures to obscure and complicated arguments but, rather, to summon them to the Scriptures." The text ought to "perish," he writes, if it fails to do so.16 Calvin likewise positions the 1559 edition of his Institutes as "a key to open a way . . . into a good and right understanding of Holy Scripture," and he urges his reader "to have recourse to Scripture in order to weigh the testimonies that I adduce from it."17 Both Melanchthon and Calvin (the forerunners of [End Page 51] Lutheran and Calvinist systematic theology, respectively) include some scriptural quotation among their opinions, along with parenthetical citations, but they view their headings primarily as incitements to turn away from their texts to a Bible presumably somewhere nearby. De Doctrina's more direct models, Johannes Wolleb's Compendium Theologiae Christianae (1626) and William Ames's Medulla Theologica (1627), both based on the dichotomous method of French Calvinist Petrus Ramus, also insist on the ultimate authority of Scripture. They, too, include some quotations within the body of the text, but far more frequently cite chapter and verse, again assuming a nearby Bible. The Reformed systematic theology prevalent in the seventeenth century is generically defined as a scriptural companion piece, only one layer of synthesis above a commentary. It is identifiable by self-reported subordination.

Milton's system differs in striving to be the nearby Bible. Although De Doctrina borrows numerous citations from Wolleb and Ames, even down to their sequencing, it distinguishes itself by reproducing the passages to which these citations refer (sometimes in Milton's own idiosyncratic translations).18 The epistle goes on to outline this procedure:

And since the majority of those who have written at greatest length on these subjects have been accustomed to fill up almost the whole of their pages with explaining their own opinions, while thrusting into the margin (in marginem) the scriptural passages by which their teaching is most confirmed, with the numbers of the chapters and verses only summarily noted, I have preferred that my pages' space should overflow with scriptural authorities . . . and that as little room as possible be left for my own words, though they arise from the weaving together of the passages.

(OM 8:8–9)

Wolleb and Ames—Milton's "those who have written at greatest length"—generally offer nothing on the page for the reader to check their opinions against. The reader must follow the citation (invariably parenthetical rather than marginal, despite Milton's claim) outside the text. Since interpretive ambiguity—questions of translation, for example—might well overtake the reader in the process, the nearby Bible seems at best a satisfying fiction. The reader is actually expected to accept assertions on the system's authority. The result is a "hermetically sealed universe that delights in closure and control."19 The author can forge a coherent system without a real threat of alternative scriptural readings. By placing a premium on reproduction [End Page 52] of Scripture within his text, Milton gives up a great deal of this control but also earns nearly scriptural authority. He modifies the Reformed system's gambit into a kind of thought experiment: An ideal system, he implies, would be nothing but scriptural proof-texts, the compiler's voice reduced to silence. Instead of speaking, the compiler would gesture with the self-evidence of Scripture. Professions of subordination would at last be unnecessary, the nearby bible having become the text itself.

Yet the epistle is far from Milton's last word on scriptural authority. Milton dedicates an entire chapter to the subject toward the end of the first of De Doctrina's two books. This chapter, "On Holy Scripture," draws heavily from Wolleb and Ames. From Wolleb (specifically from his opening Praecognita), Milton borrows much of his chapter's organization and many of its scriptural references. From Ames, Milton borrows the specific placement of his chapter within the larger treatise (Ames addresses the topic in book 1, chapter 34; Milton addresses it in his book 1, chapter 30).20 A brief outline of the hermeneutics of Milton's predecessors will allow us to better observe his departures.

Wolleb's 22 prefatory propositions describe an uncorrupted Scripture whose authority proves self-evident in the individual experience of reading.21 Wolleb begins his system with the claim that all knowledge of theology is based on the Verbum Dei, the Word of God. He admits of an unwritten word but claims that since the time of Moses, there is "no other basis for theology than the written word of God," whose "divine origin and authority" Christians are not to question (30). The witness attesting to the divinity of Scripture is twofold (as is a great deal in any Ramist system): primarily the Holy Spirit and secondarily the Church. The Holy Spirit itself provides a twofold witness: "externally, in the Scripture itself, and internally, speaking in the heart and mind of a believing person whom [the Holy Spirit] has enlightened" (31). Because of the internal witness, a believer who reads the Bible "recognizes the voice of God's spirit, speaking in the Scriptures" (31). Wolleb admits the importance of translation and interpretation (Propositions 15–22) but believes the exegetical techniques he lists for finding out "the true meaning of Scripture"—such as "knowledge of languages" and "understanding of causes, circumstances and consequences"—sufficient to their task (De Doctrina reproduces Wolleb's list in full) (35).22 Scripture has been "miraculously preserved against the rage of the evil one and of tyrants," Wolleb claims (33). The question is not what is being interpreted but who gets to interpret, and the main polemical thrust of Wolleb's discussion is that his informed reading is superior to Catholic [End Page 53] dogma. Wolleb's mastery of his own criteria—his linguistic knowledge, logical aptitude, and facility of reference—establishes him as an able hermeneut. Far from posing problems for its own authority, Scripture provides a whetstone for Wolleb's readings.

Ames registers greater astonishment at the workings of providence in transmission and preservation of Scripture but ultimately also relies on scriptural integrity.23 Like Wolleb he highlights the importance of linguistic knowledge and logic over church authority, although he places more emphasis on the "singular light of the spirit" always active in Bible reading.24 That we retain the object of such reading belongs to God:

the providence of god in preserving the Fountaines [the Scriptures], hath beene alwayes famous, and to be adored, not onely that they did not wholy perish, but also that they should not be maimed by the losse of any booke, or deformed by any grievous fault, when in the meane while there is no one of the auncient versions that remaines whole.


Despite the disappearance of all ancient versions and the impossibility of their supplementation by human authority, God, by one means or another, preserves enough of the original sense of Scripture to ensure the possibility of salvation. What assures him that Scripture has been spared "grievous fault," Ames does not say. And unlike Wolleb, he insists that we must not "rest in anie version [of Scripture] that is received" but continually strive for the purest interpretation possible (172). Nonetheless, Ames, too, avoids the rock of textual corruption by viewing God, for all practical purposes, as guarantor of scriptural integrity. Doing so allows him to ward off any real threat Scripture might pose for closure of his system. Though both Ames and Wolleb acknowledge that Scripture must make its way across languages and through historical accident, though both acknowledge that the originals are the only authoritative versions and that these originals are irrecoverably lost, and though both concede miracle in the transmission of the essential points, for both the text remains whole, and correct interpretation—theirs—is always within reach.

Milton, while influenced in citation and structure, departs widely from Wolleb and Ames on the topic of scriptural integrity. His chapter "On Holy Scripture," like Wolleb's Praecognita, acknowledges a twofold Scripture: "the external scripture of the written word, and the internal one of the holy spirit, which he, as a result of God's promise, has etched on believers' [End Page 54] hearts" (OM 8:811). But unlike either of his predecessors, Milton sees the possibility for real corruption and loss of the external word. The problem emerges from two conjoined features of his treatment: his greater appreciation of the details of textual history and his Lutheran-like attention to the distinction between law and gospel. The Old Testament, Milton claims, has been preserved intact, at least in essentials, but the New Testament "has for many centuries had . . . diverse and diversely corrupt custodians" with the result that there are now real substantive disagreements about what constitutes the genuine text (OM 8:813). Milton offers a providential moral to the story:

I am totally ignorant as to why by God's providence it came about that the New Testament scripture was committed to such unsure and such slippery custodians, unless this very fact was meant to prove that the spirit, rather than scripture, has been offered to us as the surer guide whom we ought to follow.

(OM 8:813)

Textual corruption demonstrates that the Scripture is not a given, that it is in fact inferior to the light that guides its reading, the light of the spirit. From his observation of the transmission of the New Testament, Milton makes the general point. Both Wolleb and Ames establish derivative authority for their systems by asserting the miraculous preservation of the essential points of Scripture in currently received texts. Because much of Scripture is preserved, they assume the whole can be taken as intact. Milton generalizes in the opposite direction. Because part of the Scripture is corrupt, "all things are in the end to be referred to the spirit and the unwritten word" (OM 8:815).

But the lesson of the hermeneutic superiority of the spirit is built into Milton's system on a level more fundamental than simple assertion. Though we might have tried to flee the problem textual corruption poses for De Doctrina's proof-texts by noting the greater integrity Milton ascribes to the manuscript tradition of the Old Testament, Milton's own doctrine forecloses such escape.25 His chapter "The Gospel and Christian Freedom" insists that "With the introduction of the gospel through faith in Christ—the new covenant—the entire old covenant, that is, the whole Mosaic law, is abolished" (OM 8:699). Milton's view on the abolition of the law bears some affinity with the Lutheran position on the matter, as opposed to the Calvinist position taken up by Ames and Wolleb.26 Melanchthon, too, claims that the entire Mosaic law—ceremonial and judicial, along with the [End Page 55] Decalogue—has been abrogated by the gospel. But for Melanchthon, the Decalogue will necessarily be fulfilled through the spirit despite abrogation (though the ceremonial and judicial law will not), and gospel and law are interwoven throughout both Old and New Testaments.27 Abrogation therefore poses no threat to the practical authority of written Scripture. Spirit and written record will harmonize anyway. Milton, however, takes a more extreme position. For him, the abrogation of the law amounts to a categorical unseating of written records to be replaced by a hermeneutic of charity, the ruling principle of spiritual reading. Milton makes this clear with reference to Christ's fulfillment of the law:

The summation of the law, obviously the love of God and one's neighbor, must by no means be thought to be abolished, but—after only its written surface has, as it were, been changed—to be etched on the hearts of the faithful with the spirit as writer; in such a way, however, that in particular commandments the spirit sometimes seems to disagree with the letter, if by not maintaining the letter we shall more rightly show regard for love of God and our neighbor . . . the account taken of charity is preferred to all written law.

(OM 8:709–11)

The two great commands, as inscribed inwardly by the spirit, should mediate interpretation of all else; they are to determine when a particular passage from Scripture should or should not be in force. Milton is also clear that these commandments, now inscribed on the heart, are distinct from those of the Decalogue and that even Christ's own words ought to be placed subordinate to their hermeneutic (OM 8:711–13). This idea, as articulated in De Doctrina, evolved from the even balder pronouncement in Milton's 1643 tract The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce: "charity is the high governesse of our belief, and . . . wee cannot safely assent to any precept writt'n in the Bible, but as charity commends it to us" (YP 2:340).28 Yet the hermeneutic of charity sits uneasily alongside De Doctrina's heavy reliance on proof-texts. The reader is now at liberty to assess not only whether Milton's opinion agrees with Scripture but also whether both agree with charity.

Because of the method of De Doctrina, textual corruption and the hermeneutic of charity pose more of a problem for Milton's system than they would for Wolleb's or Ames's. Milton's qualification that only the internal Scripture is to be trusted leaves the reader wondering what to take away from the thousands of scriptural passages his treatise has reproduced in [End Page 56] full. What do we do with the nearby Bible once it has been subordinated to external criteria? If reproducing quotations was a means of attaining greater authority for his system, Milton now uses these quotations to exemplify their own lack of authority. By asserting methodical superiority in his epistle and then (following Ames's structure rather than Wolleb's) waiting 30 chapters to unveil the inherent contradiction of this assertion, Milton allows his readers to work though his most heterodox positions before unsettling the grounds upon which such positions stand.29 Critics have approached this maneuver as an exigency of persuasion, a means of using the external word to initiate the novice into the internal word. Jason A. Kerr exemplifies this strain of criticism: "Milton wants his readers not to believe as he believes but to do as he has done," namely, to enter into and struggle with the problem of textual corruption themselves.30 I argue, however, that we should retain the genuine conflict in Milton's thought. The treatise's readings of specific scriptural passages contain enough blatant self-contradiction to render ambiguity on the larger question of scriptural authority at best unsurprising.

psalm 2 in de doctrina christiana

Far from issuing an open invitation to scriptural inquiry, Milton's treatise regularly imposes strict hermeneutic limitations, though limitations his poetry will just as regularly transgress. This pattern of limitation and transgression is most apparent where Milton appends a no-more-can-be-known caveat to his reading of a particular passage.31 Such caveats, which join recognition of a lack of knowledge with prohibition of further inquiry, often occur in the treatise in relation to subject matter Milton's later poetry will take up at length. De Doctrina's discussion of the creation of angels, to give a glaring example, closes with the referential caveat, "They who have thought up more things about the nature of angels long since earned the Apostle's reproof, Col. 2:18: setting foot on those things which he has not seen, and senselessly puffed up by his own fleshly intelligence" (OM 8:301). While his epic's angelology agrees with that of his treatise in fundamentals, the Milton of Paradise Lost has certainly "thought up more things about the nature of angels." Their songs, their digestion, their sex lives—none of these appear in the pages of his system. For the remainder of this article, I focus on an instance of scriptural reading, complete with caveat, that proves even more productive in Milton's later poetic career: his reading of Psalm 2 as proof-text for his doctrine of the generation of the Son. I argue that Milton's [End Page 57] reading of Psalm 2 is especially difficult to synthesize into a coherent whole because in De Doctrina it remains unfinished, a problem Milton does not fully work out. In course of time, however, its partiality propels Milton's thought far beyond the genre of Reformed systematic theology.

The doctrine of the Son's generation is the signature departure of De Doctrina's highly idiosyncratic Christology. In a rare break with Ramist method, the opening of the chapter "On the Son of God" divides God's external efficiency by decree into a triad: generation, creation, and governance. The first term applies solely to the Son and accounts for how the Son can be identical in substance with God while remaining distinct in essence, the central point of what critics generally take as Milton's antitrinitarianism.32 The seventh verse of the second psalm is here the master proof-text: decretum enarraturus sum: Iehova dixit mihi, Filius meus es, ego hodiè genui te, "I am going to describe a decree: Jehovah said to me, You are my Son; I today have begotten you" (OM 8:130–31). Milton claims this passage describes the role of the Son "most obviously" (appertisime) (OM 8:224–25), and he uses it to dictate the terms of his recursive, at times self-contradictory, demonstration of the distinction between God and Son, creation and generation, external and internal efficacy. His entire theory of generation emerges as a reading of its crucial verb genui, "I have begotten." A dizzying collation of this verb's scriptural occurrences structures the course of his argument.

Yet Milton's reading—especially of this crucial verb—is complicated by a foregoing qualification. "[T]he Father," claims Milton, "is in the sacred writings said to have begotten the Son in a twofold sense (duplici sensu), one literal, the other figurative (uno proprio, altero metaphorico)—namely, either by procreation or by exaltation" (OM 8:128–29). Milton's hermeneutic division between sensus proprius and sensus metaphoricus directly contradicts his later pronouncement, imported from Wolleb, that "The sense of each scriptural passage is single (unicus); in the Old Testament, though, it is often a compound of the historical and typological (compositus ex historia et typo)" (OM 8:802–3). Scripture, in chapter 30, possesses sensus unicus, a single sense, even if compounded; in chapter 5 it possesses sensus duplex, a doubled or divided sense. Nor do proprius and metaphoricus map cleanly onto history and type. Strictly speaking, the historical sense of Psalm 2 would refer to David's utterance of the psalm, a context Milton, unlike most other Reformed commentators, completely ignores, and without history there can be no type. Further, "literal sense," the phrase by which Milton's sensus proprius is usually translated, would have been sensus literalis in standard Reformation idiom.33 Milton's choice of a phrase without [End Page 58] a well-established meaning in his Protestant context—and the fact that, among all his treatise's many distinctions, he only uses this formulation here—implies a special significance distinct from that belonging to all other places in Scripture. Readers of Psalm 2 encounter not a sensus unicus but a sense uniquely divided.

The sensus proprius's exclusivity accords with Milton's method of interpreting it. Instead of stating the sensus proprius of Psalm 2's genui outright, Milton works through a process of elimination, cordoning off figurative interpretations. The first time Milton quotes Psalm 2's seventh verse his purpose is to point out that when Paul does the same (in Hebrews 1 and elsewhere), he understands "only figurative generation," generation as a stand-in for resurrection, exaltation, or priesthood, not generation sensu proprio, the generation before the creation of the world. When Milton quotes Psalm 2:7 for a second time (on the same manuscript page), now in conjunction with the preceding verse, he draws a puzzling equation:

Moreover, from the second Psalm God will be understood to have begotten (genuisse), that is, created (creasse) the Son king: vv. 6–7: I, anointing my king, have set him over Sion, the mountain of my holiness, then in the following verse, after he had anointed his king, resulting also in his being called "Christ": I, he says, today have begotten you.

(OM 8:130–31)

This reading makes its point by confounding the very distinction it is Milton's purpose to establish, the distinction between generation and creation. When the second psalm applies genuisse to God, it means creasse, specifically the creating of Christ as king. If any context is supplied (and "examination of causes, circumstances, preceding and following events" is on the list of exegetical mandates Milton imports from Wolleb) the sensus proprius of Psalm 2:7 slips away, replaced by figurative meanings. The psalm, in this reading, has little to say about the Son's actual generation before the creation of the world, the doctrine Milton summons it to defend. Milton instead displays its potential to encompass in figure almost every aspect of the Son's accomplishment except his generation. Milton's exegesis, at this stage, performs a kind of dance around Psalm 2's sensus proprius, as if unsure it has one at all.

Milton's most ambitious charge at the sensus proprius succeeds only in demonstrating that this sense is unique to the Father-Son relation, like the "generation" he uses it to defend. This push arrives in a theologically thorny [End Page 59] paragraph in which Milton belabors a conclusion from the frayed strands of his preceding arguments:

From all the previously cited passages, when they have been compared—especially with the whole second Psalm—and most carefully appraised, it is readily apparent that it is not by a necessity of nature, as is customarily claimed, but by the Father's decree and will (decreto et volontate) that the Son had been in whatever way begotten (quocunque modo genitum), just as much as he had been appointed high priest and king, and raised from the dead. Nor indeed does this prevent his being called either (in whatever way) begotten (quovis modo genitus), or God's "own Son" (proprius Dei Filius), Rom. 8:32. For he was called God's Son for no other reason than that he had no other Father except the one God; and so, too, he himself called God "his own Father," (proprium Patrem) John 5:18.

(OM 8:132–33)

Milton's conclusion here is that the begetting of the Son is not by nature but by "decree and will." The language of "Father" and "Son" that one might think descriptive of natural relations does not, when the Father and Son in question are God and Christ, imply any natural necessity. The importance of Psalm 2 to Milton's argument, the reason he calls on the reader to funnel all preceding passages through it, consists in its term decretum, now split into decreto et volantate. This term is the sole description of the generation in Scripture.

Milton makes no attempt to elaborate on this description. His reluctance appears in the modifier quocunque modo, "in whatever way," offered as a placeholder for a nonfigurative sense he remains unable to describe. Yet Milton knows the begetting is not only figurative because of the special language Paul and Jesus reserve for the Father-Son relation: The Son is proprius Dei Filius, the Father his proprius Pater. Both the Yale and Oxford translations downplay the connection between this passage and the doubled sense Milton reserves only for his discussion of the begetting by translating the proprius of the proprius-metaphoricus distinction as "literal" but the proprius of proprius Filius and proprius Pater as "own" (YP 6:208–9; OM 8:132–33). Nevertheless, it is, I think, apparent that the scriptural terms from Romans 8:32 and John 5:18 are intended as the source of Milton's otherwise unaccountable hermeneutic distinction. By highlighting the link between the sense that constitutes the object of his exegesis, the sensus proprius, and the Father-Son relation, Milton implies a textual significance "proper," in [End Page 60] the sense of unique, to this relation. Once this sense is defined, Milton can apply logic to it, as he indeed goes on to do, showing that Father and Son are neither coeval nor of the same essence because not the same person (OM 8:133).34 But he cannot describe the historical event, not even whether it can be called "history." The sensus proprius applies to God and the Son, and Milton uses it nowhere else in his treatise because it covers no other content. It stands in for an unknown "before" alluded to in the text but only as a limit to understanding.

Following this passage, Milton twice states directly that the sensus proprius does not appear in Scripture. The first of these two instances offers a puzzling close to a paragraph that begins with a seemingly "literal" reading of Psalm 2:7: Milton asserts that the generation must be in time because of the term hodiè, the "today" of "today I have begotten" (OM 8:132–33). Nevertheless, by the end of the paragraph Milton claims that "the Son is nowhere (nusquam) in the sacred books called begotten (genitus) except in a figurative sense, as above" (OM 8:134–35). If this is so, Milton's entire preceding discussion, including of the Son's generation in time, has based itself only on figurative usages of genitus (past participle form of genui). The nusquam would seem to exclude a sensus proprius for any of the passages Milton has considered thus far, including Psalm 2.

This disclaimer's modified repetition, however, shows clearly that Milton's work on the proprius-metaphoricus distinction, and with it his exegesis of the second psalm, remains incomplete. He offers a variation on several themes already broached:

And so far generation has been mainly figurative (fere metiphorica); but since, properly (proprie), he who from himself begets another, not as yet existing, brings him into being, and if God begets because of nature, necessarily, he can only beget a God equal to himself, nor can a God be begotten—the consequence of the first hypothesis being that there are two infinite Gods, from the second that the first cause becomes an effect, something that no sane man would allow—then one must ask in what sense or way God the Father begot the Son.

(OM 8:134–35)

Milton's fere metaphorica can mean either "entirely figurative," as John Carey translates it in the Yale edition (YP 6:211), or only "mainly figurative," as in the Oxford above. Either would be a near reiteration of his first disclaimer, and either would be amenable to the pattern of renounced literal readings [End Page 61] that precedes in the text. Fine distinctions aside, the key contrast here—the last time Milton draws it in his treatise—is between the metaphorica of Scripture and the proprie of logical analysis. The sensus proprius seems, in this portion of his discussion, to subsist in what Milton can reason about terms borrowed from Scripture, even if they remain figurative in their native context. Yet as Milton admits, this is unsatisfactory. Logic, while competent to argue down trinitarianism (as it does over and over again in this section), falls short of explaining the event, the historical begetting of the Son. One must still ask "in what sense or way":

That too sacred Scripture will readily explain. For when the Son is called first-begotten of everything created and, Rev. 3:14, the beginning of God's creation, what else can more plainly be understood than that God by his own will created (creavit)—that is, generated (generavit), or else brought forth (produxit)—the Son as the first of all things, endowed with divine nature, just as in the fullness of time he wondrously engendered a human nature from the virgin Mary?

(OM 8:134–35)

This passage reverts (and it really is a reversion) to Scripture, in particular to two passages Milton has referenced twice already, even in the same sequence: Colossians 3:15 (though Milton fails to give the reference) and Revelations 3:14. But now, according to Milton, these passages show plainly that creation, generation, and production all occur in the same way (Milton suggestively avoids the verb gignere, root of genui, using the alternative generare). Sensus proprius must be the same as sensus metaphoricus—God's miraculous begetting the same as Mary's. If bare logic is unsatisfying, this move is more so. Milton has rearranged the goalposts. That which we can know from figure is as much as we can know. Milton's reading of Psalm 2 terminates here by waffling between figure, logic, and proof-text. The reiteration of disclaimer and proof-texts in a recursive attempt to describe the indescribable suggests Milton knew there was more to say on the matter.

It is then supremely ironic, almost comic, that Milton ends the search with a well-turned no-more-can-be-known caveat. The section on the Son and the Holy Spirit (chapters 5 and 6) is the only portion of De Doctrina to receive its own preface. There Milton asserts, as in the epistle, that he adheres to "the word of God alone as [the] yardstick of faith," adding that since his exegetical opponents are merely human they, too, in all fairness, must tolerate his participation in the "diligent research and free discussion" [End Page 62] of the doctrine contained in Scripture, even on points as touchy as the Trinity (OM 8:127).35 By the end of his treatment of the Son's generation, however, Milton's taste for toleration has soured. His work, he claims, has been exhaustive: "These are the facts that are handed down by divine agency about the generation of God's Son. A person who wants deeper wisdom is actually not wise but, carried away by empty philosophy, or rather sophistry, forthwith entangles himself and envelops himself in darkness" (OM 8:137). Milton has arrayed all relevant proof-texts on the matter and applied the only correct process of reasoning. No sensible hermeneut could conclude otherwise. The wording of Milton's anxious prohibition here is suggestive of the equally anxious twitches of Paradise Lost: its demonic reasoners "in wandering mazes lost," its poet "In darkness, and with dangers compassed round," its muse perhaps "an empty dream" (3.380; 7.27, 39). Milton's hermeneutics begin to trace a pattern of exegetical sally, accompanied by anxious deference to scriptural authority, though an authority whose exact manifestation in the text remains limited. One senses that Milton has placed his prohibition here because he has more to say but has for the moment achieved not exegetical but personal exhaustion.

psalm 2 in translation

At approximately the same time Milton engaged in such belabored interpretation of Psalm 2 he also translated the psalm into artistic verse.36 The translation is one of a series of eight psalms, the first eight, printed with dates from early August 1653. In contrast to Milton's previous series, Psalms 80–88, which he rendered into common meter in 1648, the 1653 psalms are notable for metrical experimentation. Milton executed each in a unique verse form.37 Psalm 2 is the only one to bear a label for its form, Terzetti (Italian for "trios") to indicate its use of terza rima, the form Dante invented for his Commedia. Milton was hardly the first poet to import terza rima into English. Original verse appeared in terza rima as early as Chaucer, and both Wyatt and Sidney employed the form in psalm translation.38 Yet Milton's interest in Dante was such that even if aware of these prior applications, he would have had terza rima's innovator firmly in mind when making use of it himself.39 My argument is that Milton's formal imitation of Dante in his translation of Psalm 2 marks a major stage in the development of his own theological poetics, a stage characterized by a loosening of strictures in poetic handling of Scripture.40 [End Page 63]

Terza rima's contributions to Dante's Commedia are both chronological and theological. By virtue of its construction—rhyming the middle line of each terzina with the first and last of the next—terza rima offers a verse that draws on the past even as it looks to the future. By virtue of the construction of Dante's larger poem, this tripartite chronology mirrors both the spiritual development of the pilgrim and the typological unfolding of sacred time.41 But terza rima, like Dante's Christian cosmos at large, also has unmistakable trinitarian implications. The Commedia is organized by threes. It has three cantiche of 33 cantos each. Because Dante's verse is hendecasyllabic, each terzina is made up of 33 syllables. And each rhyme word—except a canto's first and last—appears three times, woven into three-line stanzas. There are also overt thematic treatments of the Trinity, such as Virgil's description of its incomprehensibility in Purgatorio or the pilgrim's geometric vision at Paradiso's close, when he sees "the Great Light shine into three circles / in three clear colors bound in one same space."42 Though no evidence suggests Dante bore special association with the Trinity in seventeenth-century England, Milton could hardly have found these trinitarian implications any less "obvious" than they appear today.43

It can be no mistake, therefore, that Milton employs Dante's trinitarian form for his antitrinitarian proof-text. I argue that he does so both to borrow and revise: to appropriate the scope of Dante's poem—a major step towards his epic—while overturning the form's theological specificity. The result is a lyric that treats scriptural paraphrase as the arena for theological poetics (scriptural verse numbers are added in the following quotation):

[1]Why do the Gentiles tumult, and the Nations    muse a vain thing, [2] the Kings of th'earth upstand    With power, and Princes in their CongregationsLay deep their plots together through each Land,    Against the Lord and his Messiah dear[?]    [3] Let us break off, say they, by strength of handTheir bonds, and cast from us, no more to wear,    Their twisted cords: [4] he who in Heaven doth dwell    Shall laugh, the Lord shall scoff them, [5] then severeSpeak to them in his wrath, and in his fell    And fierce ire trouble them; [6] but I saith hee,    Anointed have my King (though ye rebel)On Sion my holi' hill. [7] A firm decree [End Page 64]     I will declare; the Lord to me hath say'd,    Thou art my Son I have begotten theeThis day; [8] ask of me, and the grant is made;    As thy possession I on thee bestow    Th' Heathen, and as thy conquest to be sway'dEarths utmost bounds: [9] them shalt thou bring full low    With Iron Scepter bruis'd, and them disperse    Like to a potters vessel shiver'd so.[10] And now be wise at length, ye Kings averse,    Be taught ye Judges of the earth; [11] with fear    Jehovah serve, and let your joy converseWith trembling; [12] kiss the Son least he appear    In anger and ye perish in the way,    If once his wrath take fire like fuel sere.Happy all those who have in him their stay.44

In Milton's Christological handling, Psalm 2 encompasses the whole arc of Christian history. In broad description it sounds quite similar to Paradise Lost: a rebellious host, a colloquy between Father and Son, a not altogether benevolent reminder to obedience. It previews Paradise Lost's strategy of chronological nesting: Milton's translation delivers a sort of anagogical whiplash, a quick jerk from rebellion to pre-creation to eschaton. Milton even heightens the psalm's native temporal compression. By pushing the end of the all-important seventh scriptural verse into the same line as the eighth, for instance, Milton uses the caesura between "Thou art my Son I have begotten thee / This day" and "ask of me and the grant is made" to transport the reader from the Son's generation to his mediation. In the next line the Son's kingship on earth is established, and two lines later final judgment arrives. Every moment in the translation, even every word, speaks to its place within the overarching Christian pattern.

Milton's rhymes borrow Dante's trick of tracing out this pattern formally. At the center of the poem stands the triad "hee" / "decree" / "thee," articulating the process of generation that Milton outlines in De Doctrina. "[H]ee," God, expands into "thee," the Son by way of "decree," each element of the rhyme being made of the same substance: the "ee" sound. Yet interwoven with this central triad is another, "dwell" / "fell" / "rebel," the last term of which arrives in a parenthetical "though ye rebel," which is entirely unprecedented in the Hebrew original.45 While the central triad moves toward the happiness of the promise at the psalm's end, this unholy [End Page 65] triad departs heavenly dwelling with an adjectival "fell" that puns on the Fall. By setting De Doctrina's interpretation of the Son's generation against a competing narrative of rebellion, Miltonic terza rima begins to sketch the entanglement of promise and fall so characteristic of Paradise Lost. This brief lyric becomes a training ground for epic, an outline of Milton's ambition to compound all divine history into finite poetic form

Milton imitates Dante's form with a difference, however. Important as they are, the rhymes stand in transformed relation to the poem's syntax. Dante's terza rima has unmistakable syntactic tendencies: Its lines are end stopped, sense breaks generally coincide with line endings, and major syntactic divisions (like periods) almost always occur at the end of a terzina.46 By cementing syntax to rhyme, a single thought to a three-line stanza, Dante builds the theological pattern of three-within-one into his most basic formal unit. Miltonic terza rima, by contrast, entirely unhinges syntax and rhyme. In the opening sentence of Milton's translation—

Why do the Gentiles tumult, and the Nations    muse a vain thing, the Kings of th'earth upstand    With power, and Princes in their CongregationsLay deep their plots together through each Land,    Against the Lord and his Messiah dear[?]

—four enjambments occur in five lines. Three of the four significant sense breaks occur at caesurae, and the positioning of the caesurae changes from line to line. Moreover, the first terzina terminates without pause, the reader hurtling over the line break from subject to verb. The sentence only ends at the close of the second line of the second terzina. Whereas sentence and terzina endings fail to coincide in one sentence of 30 in Dante, such is the case in Milton's first. Later in the poem, the sentence break between the all-important sixth and seventh scriptural verses ("On Sion my holi' hill. A firm decree") lands in the middle of the first line of a terzina, a termination occurring only 19 times in the entire Commedia.47 In final count, seven of Psalm 2's nine terzinas are enjambed, as are all but seven of its 28 lines, each exceptional terzina having plainly eschatological rationale for its end stop. Dante's rhymes are present but obscure, rendered almost inaudible.

Milton's form also facilitates a new freedom in paraphrase of Scripture. The heavily enjambed terza rima of Milton's Psalm 2 buries all but two of the scriptural verse breaks amid its variably placed caesurae (the exceptions are those preceding verses 3 and 10). Such manipulation of the fabric of the [End Page 66] biblical text, its rhythms and interruptions, reveals a compositional authority Milton denied himself in his 1648 psalm translations, where scriptural verse breaks always coincide with Milton's line breaks and are numbered in the margins. Milton also omits the use of italics to indicate addition of words not in the original, a feature of the 1648 translations borrowed from the King James Bible.48 "With Power," "in their Congregations," "by strength of hand," "though ye rebel," "averse," and "like fuel sere," to list only the most striking additions, would all deserve italics under Milton's 1648 regime. That these terms appear in the text without indication of a distinct level of authority shows the influence of Milton's theory of spiritual reading. In the spirit-led poetry to which Milton aspires, his interpretation may alter the very letter of Scripture without acknowledgment.

These heavily enjambed lines are altogether characteristic of Milton's late poetry. They are the same that long ago led William B. Hunter to suggest that Milton's translation of the first eight psalms marked the onset of his "mature prosody."49 Their "weighty and unorthodox" caesurae resemble those that provide the thundering energy of Milton's late-career blank verse.50 My argument is that Milton develops important features of this verse for reasons as theologically specific as those for which Dante developed his. Miltonic terza rima, when applied to Psalm 2, offers formal parallel for the psalm's use in De Doctrina. Milton deliberately breaks the tripartite unity Dante achieves by wedding rhyme and syntax—three in one—and he does so in order to sever terza rima's trinitarian association. He then takes the occasion to advance his project of spiritual reading by also enjambing scriptural verse breaks. From here, a short step achieves the complete elimination of rhyme words and a blank verse that embellishes Scripture at will.

Even in bud, however, Milton's ambition to compose a poem of Dantean scope is wracked with anxiety about poetic authority and position within divine hierarchy. Such anxiety is implicit in the first two lines of the Psalm 2 translation. Milton's phrasing "Why do the Nations / muse a vain thing"—with "muse" for the King James Bible's "imagine"—constitutes the singular instance in Milton's poetic career in which he uses "muse" as a present-tense verb, in contrast to some 14 uses to indicate personified inspiration.51 The uniqueness of this usage implies a worry that the "muse" is itself the "vain thing," that Milton's poetry is a fool's errand opposed to the express will of God. Milton demonstrates the conflicting impulses we have already observed in his system. He authorizes his individual interpretation with the harnessing of an ambitious form and free manipulation of scriptural language but also uses these forms and freedoms to express misgivings about his own authority. [End Page 67]

psalm 2 in paradise lost

In Paradise Lost Milton's hermeneutic liberty reaches its apex. The epic shapes interpretive possibilities that Milton had tentatively explored in his prior treatments of Psalm 2 into a vision of cosmic scope. God's recitation of the sixth and seventh verses of Psalm 2 during his address to the angelic assembly in book 5 shows just how far Milton has come from the sola scriptura deference of his treatise:

    Hear all ye angels, progeny of light,Thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues powers,Hear my decree, which unrevoked shall stand.This day I have begot whom I declareMy only Son, and on this holy hillHim have anointed, whom ye now beholdAt my right hand; your head I him appoint,And by myself have sworn to him shall bowAll knees in Heaven and shall confess him Lord.


In the Hebrew original, as in Milton's 1653 translation, God's decree is recalled by the Son. In Paradise Lost, God speaks for himself. Rather than crowding out his intervention, Milton retools even God's voice, elevating the register of his scriptural paraphrase as high as it will go, from Son to Father. God's larger speech remains indirect, refracted through Raphael, who in a riff on the theory of accommodation, "By likening spiritual to corporal forms," renders divine history accessible to Adam's "human sense" (5.572–73). Yet Raphael also calls the process of his relation "Sad task and hard," phrasing that connects his discourse with Milton's own "Sad task" of describing the fall of man (5.564; 9.13). The elevation is thus twofold: While the Son's voice is subsumed into God's, Milton's is subsumed into Raphael's. Milton's "reading" of Psalm 2—though now indistinguishable from the writing of his epic—becomes angelic in the etymological sense: Milton as hermeneut functions as God's direct messenger. He achieves authority not through scriptural fidelity but through narrative framing.

Milton wields this authority to craft Psalm 2 into the interpretive threshold for his epic. Paradise Lost is a massive work of scriptural exegesis with Psalm 2 as the singular point beyond which Milton's hermeneutic ambition does not go. The embellishments Milton brought to his 1653 translation blossom in such a way as to lend the psalm this liminal function. The "firm decree" [End Page 68] that the translation's Son claims he "will declare" (already a strengthening of the King James Bible's "I will declare the decree") evolves into God's "my decree, which unrevoked shall stand." In its new context, its most salient feature is its arbitrariness.52 It reminds the reader of God's decree in book 3—chronologically subsequent, but prior within the structure of the poem—announcing that after the incarnation the Son will reign on his right hand as "Anointed universal king" (3.317). Both decrees deal in the same terminology (anointing, reigning, headship) and both paraphrase Philippians 2: 10: "That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth."53 But whereas the decree in book 3 cites the Son's "merit" in voluntarily facing death as its grounds (309–14), the decree in book 5 fails to offer any rationale whatsoever.54 John Rogers reads God's inscrutability as countering the necessitarian mechanics of the Calvinist Trinity by "introducing choice and contingency." God's decree stands outside of natural law, inaccessible to natural law's internal minion, right reason, and precisely because it engages no external criterion, obedience to it is uncoerced, a perfectly free act.55 If Rogers is correct, the inscrutability of the decree functions as a kind of transparency. God's decree in book 5, unlike that in book 3, requires no conceptual arbitration, no preceding standard of "merit." God commands his audience simply to accede to the arbitrary workings of his will. His decree is not to be interpreted, only obeyed.

Yet interpretation is just what book 5's decree provokes. In his 1653 translation Milton had already sketched the narrative function of Psalm 2 as the occasion for Satan's rebellion with his unprecedented "though ye rebel." Now he elaborates "though ye rebel" into God's warning and Satan's immediate transgression. God concludes his speech to the angels,

"Under [the Son's] great viceregent reign abideUnited as one individual soulForever happy; him who disobeysMe disobeys, breaks union, and that day,Cast out from God and blessèd vision, fallsInto utter darkness, deep engulfed, his placeOrdained without redemption, without end."    So spake the omnipotent and with his wordsAll seemed well pleased; all seemed, but were not all.


No sooner has God outlined the consequences of failure to adhere to the Son's kingship than Satan realizes such failure. The reader almost believes [End Page 69] (though is surely to eschew the thought) that God's "him who disobeys" actively summons Satan's disobedience. This disobedience takes the form of an etiology of "seeming." Satan, we are told, presents a false appearance: He "seems" well pleased though he is not, the first instance of such seeming in heaven. But he does so in response to what he believes to be the false appearance present in God's words. Whereas God's decree promises that the angelic body, now with the Son as head, will remain "Forever happy," Satan "thought himself impaired" (5.611, 665). Satan's sin here is interpretation. His "pride" finds hermeneutic expression. Rather than freely obeying God's arbitrary command, Satan searches out intention and implication.56 He does what Milton has been doing all along: He interprets God's genui. Satan's reading is that God's decree is "new" and hence changes the relation between God and his creatures: "New laws . . . new minds may raise," or so he tells Beelzebub in the whispered exchange that may itself be taken as the first rhetorical fruit of Satan's "seeming" (5.680). Events outside the mind proceed while reason and judgment go their own way. Since this removed state of mental reflection is also the reader's position, Satan forges the semiotic conditions of the fallen world out of the matter of God's decree. Psalm 2, under Satan's handling, becomes the first stage in the search for meaning underlying divine will.

The birth of interpretation is also the birth of narrative time. Milton preserves the emphatic placement of "This day" from his 1653 translation, though now in changed relation to the rest of the seventh verse, but in its new context the phrase takes on an important function: It sets the temporality of heaven against that of earth. When God sends Raphael to warn Adam of Satan, he tells him to allot "half this day" to the conversation, and Adam, too, acknowledges the "large day" needed for Raphael's relation (5.229, 558–60). Yet when Raphael begins, he speaks of a different kind of day, "such day / As heaven's great year brings forth" (5.582–83). He later specifies the contrast: "we have also our evening and our morn, / We ours for change delectable, not need" (5.628–29). Heaven's "great day" differs from the mechanical necessity of earthly time, measured by celestial motions. Heavenly time is unfettered from secondary considerations, free like obedience to God's command. It contrasts with the time necessary for earthly narrative. "Immediate are the acts of God," Raphael claims when he comes to narrate the creation, "more swift / Than time or motion, but to human ears / Cannot without process of speech be told, / So told as earthly notion can receive" (7.176–79). The decree's "This day" is not like the day on which Raphael relates it. Rather it functions as the limit at which heavenly time becomes accessible to earthly notion. From this point, time can find [End Page 70] representation as a series of succeeding events. The flow of narrative time and the removed mind necessary to interpret it come about together.

But the most palpable legacy of Milton's earlier grapplings—and a rare object of critical accord—is the fact that Paradise Lost's begetting remains figurative.57 The Son is not "begot" sensu proprio. God's decree is not, strictly speaking, even the first moment the poem relates. In his quarrel with Satan, Abdiel cites the angels' previous "experience" of God's goodness and the Son's role in their creation (5.826–38). According to Abdiel, the begetting of book 5 makes "more illustrious" the "Essential powers" the Son had already granted the angels (5.841–42). "I have begot" reiterates an established relation, providing a figure for the benevolence God has expressed through the Son since his generation. Satan responds by calling Abdiel's account "strange point and new!" (5.855), the same charge of newness that he brings against God's decree (5.679–81).58 For Satan the begetting of book 5 is a real moment of origin, the birth of "Monarchy" and "law" in heaven (5.794–99). That is, Satan reads figurative begetting literally, finding genuine novelty in "delectable" change. Yet because Abdiel falls short of describing the generation itself, the kernel of the Father-Son relation, Satan's interpretation offers the only opportunity for narrative coherence. If the reader follows Abdiel, all events are unsequenced reiteration of a primordial event beyond description. Narrative depends on a Satanic reading that builds causality through conflation of sensus proprius and sensus metaphoricus. For us something really has taken place.

Paradise Lost's handling of Psalm 2 does succeed in violating the caveat from De Doctrina. There is no discussion in the theological treatise of the cause of Satan's rebellion.59 There is, however, explicit reference to the second psalm as figuring the exaltation of the Son above the other angels (already Paul's reading in Hebrews 1:6), which is coupled with an insistence that the begetting quocunque modo was the decree and will of God in time. Milton takes advantage of the lack of detail in the treatise to lend interpretive horizon and temporal coherence to the epic. He develops an ambiguity in his treatise into a plot device in his poem. Kelley claims that Milton's poetry allows for invention that his theology would not accommodate. In contrast, I argue that Milton takes the limitations of the letter, just where they are most apparent, as the occasion for spiritual elaboration, but elaboration to which he stands theologically committed.60 Even if he never obtains the treatise's goal of the sensus proprius, Milton deploys his greater sense of hermeneutic liberty—evolving from treatise to translation to epic—to offer an origin story for all such liberty. Satan's rebellion becomes the story of interpretation no sooner possible than gone astray. [End Page 71]

Yet Paradise Lost's failure to "close" its reading of Psalm 2 sets Miltonic interpretation apart from Satanic. There remains that final atom Milton refuses to split: the Son's begetting sensu proprio, the moment of God's initial decision to bring forth two out of one. The second psalm is the singular spot of humility in Milton's otherwise boundless hermeneutic ambition. His epic rewrites the Bible from first to last, yet it stops there. Because Milton leaves off, sure of a further layer underneath the figure but never attempting interpretation, never holding his own mind up as measure for the mind of God, Milton rises above the fallen origins of his hermeneutic project and preserves, in a heavily qualified way, scriptural authority. The most Milton can represent is "that day" upon which it becomes possible to "break union," a "day" imported directly from a proof-text. He adds—project of dizzying scope—its consequences. Paradise Lost unfolds from the second psalm as a vast figure for God's decision to go about begetting the Son. Yet the begetting itself remains hidden in an indefinite before. " To justify the ways of God to men" becomes to interpret the whole arc of Christian history but also to acknowledge one fast hermeneutic limitation (1.26).

Milton's career-long elaboration of the Son's begetting is always accompanied by hesitation and self-doubt. The doubt grows in proportion to the embellishment of the description. In De Doctrina it is an irate and preemptive claim to completion. In his translation, it is an unusual "muse" questioning the value of poetic invention. In Paradise Lost, it is Milton's vast apparatus of qualification: Michael's questioning of written Scripture and Raphael's distinction between heaven and earth, both hedged round by Milton's fears that he has fallen from scriptural authority, "Erroneous there to wander" (7.20). Nonetheless, a consistent desire to interpret Psalm 2, and even the seventh verse of Psalm 2, drives the development of Milton's thinking in all three works. This procedure, the channeling of scriptural authority into a poetic career, virtually requires that the ideal interpretation remain inaccessible. Exegesis must remain unfinished. The partiality Milton associates with the scriptural text assures him of the opportunity to contribute toward its understanding. [End Page 72]

Jeremy Specland
Rutgers University


. For their careful readings and suggestions, I am grateful to Thomas Fulton, Tobias Gregory, Ann Coiro, and the members of the Rutgers Medieval-Renaissance Colloquium. I would also like to thank Carolyn Williams and the participants in her Fall 18 seminar and the editor and anonymous reader at Milton Studies.

1. All quotations of Paradise Lost are taken from John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. David Scott Kastan (Indianapolis, 2005).

2. Biblical citations refer to the King James Version.

3. "Systematic theology" provides a useful, if approximate, label for the attempts of theologians such as Origen, Aquinas, and Calvin to offer comprehensive and coherent articulation of Christian doctrine. See John Webster, introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (Oxford, 2009), 2–6. By Milton's time of writing, a variety of Calvinist systematic theology making use of Ramist logic had taken concrete generic shape. On the parameters of this genre, see Gordon Campbell et al., Milton and the Manuscript of "De Doctrina Christiana" (Oxford, 2007), 92–98.

4. Campbell et al. supply the date 1660: Milton and the Manuscript, 157–58.

5. Regina Schwartz describes this Foucauldian competition and the paradox of Milton's citational method: "Citation, Authority, and De Doctrina Christiana," in Politics, Poetics, and Hermeneutics in Milton's Prose, ed. David Lowenstein and James Grantham Turner (Cambridge, 1990), 227–40.

6. The Complete Works of John Milton, vol. 8, De Doctrina Christiana, ed. John K. Hale and J. Donald Cullington (Oxford, 2012). References to this edition are cited parenthetically with the abbreviation OM.

7. Maurice Kelley, This Great Argument: A Study of Milton's "De Doctrina Christiana" as a Gloss upon "Paradise Lost" (Princeton, 1941).

8. C. A. Patrides, "Paradise Lost and the Language of Theology," in Language and Style in Milton: A Symposium in Honor of the Tercentenary of "Paradise Lost," ed. Ronald David Emma and John T. Shawcross (New York, 1967), 102–19.

9. In an incident prefaced to virtually all discussions of the treatise since, William B. Hunter questioned Milton's authorship of De Doctrina at the Fourth International Milton Symposium held in Vancouver in 1991. Hunter later formulated his convictions into a book: Visitation Unimplor'd: Milton and the Authorship of "De Doctrina Christiana" (Pittsburgh, 1998). The many rebuttals from the international Milton community—culminating in Milton and the Manuscript by Campbell et al. and the new facing page Latin-English version of De Doctrina edited by Hale and Cullington—have now demonstrated Miltonic authorship beyond reasonable doubt.

10. Michael Lieb, Theological Milton: Deity, Discourse and Heresy in the Miltonic Canon (Pittsburgh, 2006), 115.

11. John Creaser, "'Fear of Change': Closed Minds and Open Forms in Milton," Milton Quarterly 42, no. 3 (2008): 161–82.

12. David Mikics calls the second psalm the "other root" of Paradise Lost, as important to the poem's construction as the account of the Fall from Genesis: "The Begetting of the Son: Curiosity, Politics, and Trial in Paradise Lost," Literary Imagination 10, no. 3 (2008): 274–91 (275).

13. Kelley sees the epic's begetting as a "theological fiction" that the strict doctrine of the treatise would not sustain. See Kelley, This Great Argument, 103. In contrast, Hunter argues that Milton is theologically serious in both treatise and epic, though the epic's begetting is figurative. See Hunter, "Milton on the Exaltation of the Son: The War in Heaven in Paradise Lost," ELH 36, no. 1 (1969): 215–31 (218).

14. Hannibal Hamlin, Psalm Culture and Early Modern English Literature (Cambridge, 2001), 141–43; and Phillip J. Donnelly, Milton's Scriptural Reasoning: Narrative and Protestant Toleration (Cambridge, 2009), 113–16.

15. I borrow the term "theological poetics" from Mark Francke, Secular Scriptures: Modern Theological Poetics in the Wake of Dante (Columbus, 2016), 103–19.

16. Philip Melanchthon, Loci Communes Theologici, trans. Lowell J. Satre and Wilhelm Pauck, The Library of Christian Classics 19 (Philadelphia, 1969), 19–20.

17. John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (Garden City, N.Y., 1975), 319.

18. Milton usually follows the Junius-Tremellius Bible but occasionally deviates for literalness or to suit his views: J. Donald Cullington, "Interpreting Milton's Deviations from the Junius-Tremellius Old Testament in De Doctrina Christiana," Reformation 19, no. 1 (2014): 58–68. See also Harris Francis Fletcher, The Use of the Bible in Milton's Prose (New York, 1970), 50–90.

19. Lieb, Theological Milton, 31.

20. Kelley notes this pattern of influence in his introduction to Christian Doctrine, trans. John Carey, in vol. 6 of The Complete Prose Works of John Milton (New Haven, 1973), 44. References to this edition are cited parenthetically with the abbreviation YP.

21. Johannes Wolleb, Compendium Theologiae Christianae, in Reformed Dogmatics, trans. John W. Beardslee (New York, 1965), 30–35. Parenthetical citations refer to this edition.

22. Milton's full imported list reads, "expertise in languages; consideration of sources; attention to [overall] purpose; distinction between literal and figurative language; examination of causes, circumstances, preceding and following events; comparison of texts with other texts; also the 'analogia fidei' [overarching sense of scripture]" (OM 8:803).

23. Ames even relies chiefly on the same proof-text as Wolleb, 2 Timothy 3:16, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness," as does Milton.

24. William Ames, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity (London, 1642), 171. Parenthetical citations refer to this edition.

25. For a contrasting argument asserting Milton's commitment to letter over spirit despite textual corruption, see James Dougal Fleming, Milton's Secrecy and Philosophical Hermeneutics (Burlington, Vt., 2009), 165–68.

26. Whereas Luther emphasizes abrogation, Calvin emphasizes the law's continued importance in the life of the individual believer. See Edward A. Dowey, "The Law in Luther and Calvin," Theology Today 41, no. 2 (1984): 146–53.

27. Melanchthon, Loci Communes, 75–77.

28. Sharon Achinstein, "De Doctrina Christiana: Milton's Last Divorce Tract," Milton Quarterly 51, no. 3 (2018): 153–62, claims that De Doctrina operates on the "whole law perspective" Milton developed in his divorce tracts.

29. Of the theological idiosyncrasies identified by Campbell et al.—antitrinitarianism, Christology, pneumatology, creation, soteriology, mortalism, and polygamy—only polygamy receives treatment outside the frame created by the epistle and the "On the Holy Scripture" chapter. See Milton and the Manuscript, 89–120.

30. Jason A. Kerr, "De Doctrina Christiana and Milton's Theology of Liberation," Studies in Philology 111, no. 2 (2014): 346–74 (374). See also Schwartz, "Citation, Authority, and De Doctrina Christiana," 237–38; and David Ainsworth, Milton and the Spiritual Reader: Reading and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (New York, 2008), 60–94.

31. These caveats form part of Milton's "habit of vituperative rebuttal," possibly an inheritance from Wolleb. See John K. Hale, "Points of Departure: Studies in Milton's Use of Wollebius," Reformation 19, no. 1 (2014): 69–82 (81).

32. Critics have viewed the doctrine of the Son's generation as grounds to label Milton an antitrinitarian since the discovery of De Doctrina in 1823. Although this label remains current, it has also been challenged as a misnomer for Milton's heterodox, but not necessarily oppositional, views on the Trinity. See John T. Shawcross, Rethinking Milton Studies (Newark, Del., 2005), 108.

33. Charles J. Scalise, "The 'Sensus Literalis': A Hermeneutical Key to Biblical Exegesis," Scottish Journal of Theology 42, no. 1 (1989): 45–65.

34. Gordon Campbell shows the importance of Milton's Ars Logicae to his discussion of the begetting: "The Son of God in De Doctrina Christiana and Paradise Lost," Modern Language Review 75, no. 3 (1980): 507–14.

35. The burning of Michael Servetus for his antitrinitarian views outside Geneva in 1553 would have stood as an indelible example of just how touchy this point could be among Protestants. On the importance of Castellio's defense of Servetus in seventeenth-century England, see Thomas Fulton, Historical Milton: Manuscript, Print, and Political Culture in Revolutionary England (Amherst, Mass., 2010), 28–29.

36. Since Milton's antitrinitarianism may have developed as early as the late 1640s, the drafting of the "On the Son" chapter could thus have coincided closely with the 1653 psalm translations. See Martin Dzelzainis, "Milton and Antitrinitarianism," in Milton and Toleration, ed. Sharon Achinstein and Elizabeth Sauer (Oxford, 2007), 171–85.

37. The division between "versification and poeticifation. . . according to whether the teaching or the poetry is paramount" has a long history in English metrical psalmody. See David Norton, The History of the English Bible as Literature (Cambridge, 2000), 115–21. Milton wrote versifications in 1648, poetifications in 1653.

38. Chaucer used terza rima for parts of his "Complaint to His Lady," Wyatt for his penitential psalms, and Sidney for Psalm 7 of the Sidney Psalter. The direct formal influence on Milton of the latter two is difficult to prove, though Hamlin asserts the probability that Milton knew the Sidney Psalter. See Hamlin, "The Influence of the Sidney Psalter," in The Ashgate Research Companion to the Sidneys, 1500–1700, ed. Margaret P. Hannay, Mary Ellen Lamb, and Michael G. Brennan, 2 vols. (New York, 2015), 2:311–29 (320–21).

39. Milton read Dante from an early age, openly professed admiration for the Italian poet, and cites him numerous times in his published works. For a full list of Milton's references, see Paget Toynbee, Dante in English Literature (New York, 1909), 1:119–28. See also Irene Samuel, Dante and Milton: "The Commedia" and "Paradise Lost" (Ithaca, N.Y., 1966), 31–45.

40. By contrast, F. T. Prince, The Italian Element in Milton's Verse (Oxford, 1954), 135–44, claims that Dante entered Milton's prosody through Della Casa and Tasso. Prince's focus, however, is on stress patterns rather than caesura or enjambment.

41. John Freccero, "The Significance of Terza Rima," in Dante, Petrarch Boccaccio: Studies in the Italian Trecento in Honor of Charles S. Singleton (Binghamton, N.Y., 1983), 3–17.

42. Purgatorio 3.34–36; Paradiso 33.115–17, trans. Mark Musa (New York, 1986).

43. Though Michael D. Hurley cautions against assuming that terza rima's trinitarianism is "obvious," even his own analysis strengthen the link. See Hurley, "Interpreting Dante's Terza Rima," Forum for Modern Language Studies 41, no. 3 (2005): 320–31 (321).

44. John Milton, Poems, &c. upon Several Occasions (London, 1673), 131–32.

45. Charles Dahlberg first noticed this addition: "Paradise Lost V 603 and Milton's Psalm II," Modern Language Notes 67 (1952): 23–24.

46. David Robey, "Terza Rima," in The Dante Encyclopedia (New York, 2000), 809.

47. Ibid., 809.

48. Jason Rosenblatt claims that the contrast between the 1648 and 1653 psalms demonstrates Milton's lessened anxiety over the authority of the King James translation. See Rosenblatt, "Milton, Anxiety, and the King James Bible," in The King James Bible after 400 Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences, ed. Hannibal Hamlin and Norman J. Jones (Cambridge, 2010), 181–201 (183–89).

49. William B. Hunter, "The Sources of Milton's Prosody," Philological Quarterly 28 (1949): 125–44 (143).

50. John Creaser, "'A Mind of Most Exceptional Energy': Verse Rhythm in Paradise Lost," in The Oxford Handbook of Milton, ed. Nicholas McDowell and Nigel Smith (Oxford, 2011), 462–79 (470).

51. Milton, however, uses the past tense "mus'd" twice: once to describe Eve's admiration of the fruit, and again to describe Mary's initial incomprehension of the Son's office (PL 9.744; PR 2.99). He also makes use of the noun form once to indicate thought rather than personified inspiration, namely, when Eve hears Raphael's story "with admiration and deep muse" (PL 7.52). In all of these cases, lack of comprehension is the primary sense.

52. Critics have long complained of the "arbitrary harshness" of God's command. See, for example, William Empson, Milton's God, rev. ed. (London, 1965), 102–3.

53. Philippians 2:10 itself echoes the language of Isaiah 45:23, making it a key proof-text knitting together Old and New Testaments.

54. Edmund Creeth objects to equation of the "kingship" of book 5 with the "exaltation" of book 3, on the grounds that the former cites Psalm 2 while the latter does not: "The 'Begetting' and the Exaltation of the Son," Modern Language Notes 76, no. 8 (1961): 696–700. Neil Forsyth points out that God later tells Abdiel that the Son's kingship is indeed by merit (PL 6.44), though his failure to do so in book 5 further justifies Satan's complaint: The Satanic Epic (Princeton, 2003), 177.

55. John Rogers, "The Political Theology of Milton's Heaven," in The New Milton Criticism, ed. Peter C. Herman (Cambridge, 2002), 68–84 (76).

56. Stanley Fish claims that Satan invents interpretation in his attempt to persuade Eve to transgress God's command not to eat the apple. "Milton and Interpretation," Milton Studies 56, ed. Laura K. Knoppers (2015): 3–16. Satan's arguments there, however, parallel the interpretive process by which he earlier came to spurn God's heavenly command himself.

57. Kelley, This Great Argument, 104, reads the begetting as the Son's exaltation, not his literal creation. Hunter, "Milton on the Exaltation of the Son: The War in Heaven in Paradise Lost," ELH 36, no. 1 (1969): 215–31, reads the begetting and subsequent war in heaven as a threefold temporal metaphor for the fall of the angels before creation, their fall again at the end of time, and the Son's exaltation at resurrection. Richard Ide reiterates Hunter's account with little alteration, while Russel Hillier adds a spatial dimension without changing it in fundamentals. See Ide, "On the Begetting of the Son in Paradise Lost," Studies in English Literature 24, no. 1 (1984): 141–55; and Hillier, Milton's Messiah: The Son of God in the Works of John Milton (Oxford, 2011), 89–123.

58. Like Satan's earlier critique, this claim about his creation may also be read as false rhetoric.

59. In De Doctrina, Milton only suggests that Satan's rebellion happened before the creation of the world (OM 8:299).

60. In recognizing the doctrinal seriousness of spiritual reading, my position is closer to Hunter's than Kelley's.

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