Milton and Arianism Reconsidered

Milton and Arianism Reconsidered

Lee, Byung-Eun

Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, vol. 12 (2004) No. 1


Certain views of the Arian heresy pointed out in Paradise Lost and De Doctrina Christiana by scholars moved C. A. Patrides to do a thorough study of Arian and Miltonic orthodoxy with the intention of proving Milton virgin of any form of Arian influence. A re-examination of a few key verses in Paradise Lost and portions of De Doctrina Christiana along with an evaluation of the many collected views of scholars will, I believe, demonstrate a development that goes one step further than Patrides’s study and shows a logical quasi-Arian position; and, simultaneously, strengthens his general hypothesis that Milton is not correctly termed an Arian.

Without access to Milton’s theological treatise De Doctrina Christiana, we should probably have agreed with Bishop Thomas Newton (1749) that Paradise Lost is entirely orthodox (Oras 227), and we might have been tempted to accept even Charles Symmons’s verdict (1806) that the poem is “orthodox and consistent with the creed of the Church of England” (McLachlan 17). The discovery of 1823 of De Doctrina Christiana in 1823, however, caused drastic and agonizing changes of opinions. Henry Todd and many others retracted previous approbations of Milton’s orthodoxy and charged him with numerous heresies. By 1855 Thomas Keightly summed up the considered view of scholars when he observed that Paradise Lost expounds the Arian heresy in a “plain and unequivocal manner” (McLachlan 25).

The controversy concerning Milton and Arianism has prompted an exhaustive theological study of Milton and Arius with no apparent breakthrough delineating a clear cut position. With William B. Hunter, Jr.’s insistence that “we may assert positively that Milton was not an Arian” (4), and Maurice Kelly’s equally dogmatic claim that De Doctrina Christiana and Paradise Lost must be recognized as “written by an Arian and containing Arian views” (196), a dilemma has apparently been reached. The deadlock is more apparent than real to John Clair in his article “A Note on Milton’s ‘Arianism.'” Clair states that Hunter’s assertion that Milton was not an Arian but a rigid exponent of Christian orthodoxy is based upon two limited tenets: (1) Athanasius’s restrictive description of Arian belief ― the substances of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are separate in nature and estranged and disconnected, and alien, and without participation of each other ― and, (2) the fact that the Council of Nicaea declared heresy only the question involving the divinity of the Logos ― that is the Son had been created ex nihilo (44-48).

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