December 12, 2010

Milton and protestant toleration

Currently, Of True Religion, John Milton's writing on toleration (trendy topic, don't you think?), is providing Miltonists with a good deal of critical energy and just as much cultural relevance. Hot on the heels of the so-called "Wars of Religion," Milton’s writing on toleration demonstrates how the Protestant emphasis on sola scriptura is fundamental to the early modern development of various heresies and sects, many of which claim to represent the true Christian religion. Indeed, by claiming that "Scripture is our only principle in religion," Milton must accommodate for the differences of interpretation that have resulted in a diversity of Christian sects. By privileging reading—that is, the honest pursuit of truth in God’s Word—over doctrine, Milton is able to draw a hard line between an active Protestant faith and what he configures as a passive, necessarily idolatrous Catholicism.

How, Milton asks, are we to combat popery, here in England? His answers are not surprising, but they are intriguing. First, “we must remove their idolatry, and all the furniture thereof, whether idols, or the mass wherein they adore their God under bread and wine: for the commandment forbids to adore, not only any graven image, but the likeness of any thing in heaven above, or in earth beneath, or in the water under the earth.” And if Catholics play the conscience card, “we have no warrant to regard conscience which is not grounded on Scripture.” In other words, conscience can only be legitimized by the reading of Scripture; that is, by the trial of interpretation. If tradition, or any other outside influence governs one’s conscience and orders one’s faith, Milton believes, one’s conscience is in error and one’s faith is idolatrous. Besides the removal of idols, Milton urges Protestants to combat popery by “duly and diligently” reading Scripture, by the “constant reading of Scripture” with others (“who agree in the main . . . though dissenting in some opinions”), and finally by “mending our lives.” 
As a recovering Anabaptist with Anglican inclinations, I can sympathize with certain moments of Milton’s iconoclasm and I can even endorse the sort of tolerance he briefly articulates by bringing up the disagreements that can arise from different communities of interpretation. However, I find Milton’s straw man of tradition not only troubling, but inexcusable, especially since he fails to acknowledge the fact that he himself is part of a tradition, albeit a rival one. How can Milton show such a deep love for the literary tradition, in which he reads and interprets literary texts—the classics, but also Chaucer, Spencer, etc.—and so easily dismiss the a tradition of orthodoxy that selected and produced the very Scriptures to which Protestant reformers believe they can simply and freely return? In the end, I suppose, I see Milton’s (and the Reformation’s) distinction between Scripture and Tradition as a false dichotomy.
It comes down to the way in which Milton defines heresy, and, indeed, Milton’s own heretical opinions seem to haunt this tract: “Heresy is the will and choice professedly against Scripture,” whereas “error is against the will, in misunderstanding the Scripture after all sincere endeavors to understand it rightly.” This distinction allows Milton to accommodate the fervent Protestants while at the same time distancing them from the inauthenticity of Catholic faith. Freedom and self-definition become the very fundamentals of faith, while the public and the social are denounced. Perhaps this turn inward is all that Milton can do to rescue what is left of Christianity from a process of secularization, at once tied to the Reformation, which appears to be at work in Enlightenment Europe. Milton admirably argues against truth as an institutional possession, but by closing it off from the Catholic tradition, Milton draws boundaries that appear to limit divine revelation. Purely internal notions of reading and interpretation that are irreconcilable with the tradition strike me as being vaguely satanic.


  1. Great post. A couple of comments/questions. You say,
    How can Milton show such a deep love for the literary tradition . . . and so easily dismiss the a tradition of orthodoxy that selected and produced the very Scriptures to which Protestant reformers believe they can simply and freely return.
    Are you speaking here of some constantinian stamp of approval on the biblical canon? My reading of canon formation has shown a much earlier and community orientated recognition then the type of canonical imposition that is popularly advocated. Just wanted to clarify the point.
    Does Milton embrace the sort of internal differential that seems to be inherent within the biblical canon itself? Does he take this to actually be part of the revelation which can overturn institutional orthodoxy; or is he simply elevating the individual over the institution; or something else?

  2. Thanks for these questions, David. I take your point re:canon formation. It's something I wish I knew more about.

    Milton writes very little about the early church, but is clearly against anything that looks vaguely Episcopal. At the same time, Milton doesn't celebrate the community aspect of the early church the way a lot of us do. Anything that impinges on individual freedom, or gets in the way of hermeneutic struggle, leads us into idolatry. I suppose what bothers me so much about this is that Milton never really recognizes his own place in a community of interpretation. He only turns to various traditions when it suits him.

    As for your second question, I really don't know. Hopefully, writing my thesis next year (which deals with the 1671 edition of Paradise Regained (a literary treatment of Christ's temptation in the desert) and Samson Agonistes (a classical tragedy based on Samson's last moments)) will give me a better understanding of Milton's approach to the internal variety of scripture. Milton recognized the prevalence of contradiction/tension within the biblical canon and prefaced his polemics on divorce (which engaged well-known passages from the OT and NT) by advocating for reading with the "key of charity." So, while I'm not sure that he "embraced" it, he certainly made use of it through many of his unconventional interpretations and the polemics they supported.