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Milton's Scriptural Reasoning: Narrative and Protestant Toleration.

Milton's Scriptural Reasoning: Narrative and Protestant Toleration. By Phillip J. Donnelly. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-521-50973-2. Pp. x + 267. $90.00.

Reason and scripture have a historically complex relationship. Moments of crisis in religious history are often marked by a redefining of faith in terms of its opposition to reason. During the heated debates of the Protestant Reformation, for example, Luther claimed in his dispute with Erasmus that it gives "the greatest possible offense to common sense or natural reason that God by his own sheer will should abandon, harden, and damn men" (Free Will and Salvation, ed. Rupp and Watson; Philadelphia, 1979, p. 244). This attitude toward reason shaped the debates of Milton and his contemporaries in the midst of another religiously oriented historical crisis, the English civil war. Early in this crisis, Milton held a similar view of reason as antagonistic to scripture and faith, and wrote in a tract supporting the Presbyterian cause: "we shall tell them of Scripture [until] the mighty weaknes of the Gospel throw down the weak mightines of mans reasoning" (Reason of Church Government [1642], p. 44). This passage, which opposes the two terms of the title under review, places Milton and his party on the side of "Scripture," and his adversaries on the weak and unhallowed ground of "reasoning." But as Milton matured, he became a surprisingly strong advocate of "reason," endorsing it frequently by itself and as it applied to biblical hermeneutics.

Phillip J. Donnelly's Milton's Scriptural Reasoning takes on the challenge of understanding Milton's religiously informed use of "reason," mostly as it relates to his late masterpieces, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. Donnelly's interest is in closely recovering the biblical intertextuality of the poetry; he begins with the astute claim that "theologically oriented studies of Milton" have tended not to focus on "the biblical intertextuality whose weave makes up his poetic matter and form" (1). This interpretive focus promises to illustrate an overarching thesis that Milton employs and enjoins a very different kind of rational thought from the emerging "modern" conception of reason. Donnelly argues that critics have generally understood Milton in a distorting and anachronistic fashion, and that "Milton did not participate in modern assumptions regarding the function and purpose of human reason" (4). He associates the modern "account of reason" with such writers as "Machiavelli, Descartes, or Hobbes" and sees Milton's prose and poetry as indicating a "consistent rejection of such a view" (4).

The term "modern" is used intensively and with great frequency in this study, so much that one wishes for more reflection on just what is at stake in either a modern or an un-modern Milton. Since a great deal hinges on the controversial point that Milton's use of "reason" is vastly different from the modern view of figures like Machiavelli, Descartes, or Hobbes, the book would have made its argument still more convincingly by suggesting how these figures--who were all actually older than Milton by 20 to 139 years--possess a common vocabulary. It might easily be argued that these three, from quite different contexts and nationalities, themselves offer very different views of "reason" and sometimes not very modern ones at all. The most usefully compared contemporary here is Hobbes, who, as Milton's last wife commented after his death, held "diametrically opposed tenets" Donnelly nicely illustrates the different ways that the two defined reason, although Hobbes' mechanistic description of "reason" as "nothing but Reckoning" (11) and Milton's opposite Aristotelian definition--"reason is but choosing" (31)--are not necessarily to be set on a modern/un-modern continuum; Milton's views here are, as I have argued elsewhere, close to Locke's similarly tolerationist view of human understanding. Yet even where there are differences in these early modern writers, "reason" has an established philosophical sense that sustains a complicated relationship with faith and scripture, acknowledged by Milton in such vital passages as that in Reason of Church Government, which deserved attention here.

Still, Donnelly's view of Milton's hermeneutics is often well considered, and it responds valuably to various views of Milton: the "Whig Milton" of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the authoritative and doctrinally certain Milton, put forward in different ways by C. S. Lewis and Stanley Fish, and the poet described by the New Milton Critics, who reject the authoritative Milton, and offer a more epistemically unstable author. Donnelly's position is that Milton criticism has set up a set of false binaries, in which the doctrinal certitude posited by Fish and Lewis is overturned by critics who, in rejecting certitude, also seem to reject the theological strength of Milton's inquiry, "missing the difference between a skepticism that is the rejection of faith and a questioning uncertainty that is actually the occasion for any genuine faith" (7).

The book follows the structure of many studies of Milton's corpus, in which an initial analysis of the prose serves to develop an interpretive paradigm with which to analyze the poetic masterpieces. The prose section is here divided into two chapters, the first of which studies the treatment of reason in Areopagitica (1644), Of Education (1644 and 1673), and Milton's textbook on logic, the Artis Logicae Plenior Institutio (1672). This last work, begun in the late 1640s and revised over many years, is one of the most neglected in Milton's corpus, and Donnelly's treatment of it in relation to the other two texts is particularly interesting and fruitful. He demonstrates, for example, that the same Aristotelian definition of reason in Areopagitica is articulated in Of Education (30-31), showing that Milton's argument within the tolerationist tract was at the same time part of his pedagogical philosophy. Linking this use of "reason" to the more technical use of it in the Ramist textbook on logic proves more complicated, and here Donnelly insists that "Milton's text resists those specific aspects of Ramism that are most deeply associated with the rise of modern rationalism" (44). Yet Milton is not averse to ratiocination; indeed, as Donnelly points out, in the very opening of the treatise, Milton states that "Logic is the art of reasoning well" an assertion that significantly alters the Ramist source text from "disserendi [discoursing]" to "ratiocinandi [reasoning]" (41).

The second chapter on the prose, on "Monism and Protestant toleration," continues to press Donnelly's thesis that Milton's "arguments for Protestant toleration embody his alternative to the binaries of modern rationalism" (49). Focusing on Milton's major but unpublished theological treatise De Doctrina Christiana, and on A Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes (1659), Donnelly distinguishes two kinds of monism that inform his theory of toleration: ontological monism and anthropological monism. The definition of Milton's "Protestant toleration" is problematic here, as it posits an extremely limited view of Milton's sense of Protestantism: '"Protestant toleration' does not mean that Milton advocated simply the toleration of self-described 'Protestants.' ... Those who approve of state-sponsored religious conformity are not, in Milton's account, Protestants, in the sense that their explicit belief and practice implies salvation by works." This is far too sweeping: state-sponsored religious conformity was a norm for early modern England, which Milton would certainly not view as Catholic or non-Protestant; nor does the doctrine of works serve pivotally to define both a political practice and a religious orientation. Donnelly takes this surprising argument further: "On this basis, Milton applies the label, 'Popery,' not only to the ostensibly Protestant Episcopal establishment, but also to the Westminster Assembly" (59). Such a reductive revision of evangelical history would exclude the vast majority of English Protestants from Milton's policy of "toleration," leaving precious little space for the exercise of "the gift of peaceful difference" (66), the essential quality of Miltonic reason stressed throughout the book. But Milton does not apply the label "Popery" to either the members of the English Church or to the Presbyterians; true, in the sonnet "On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament," he suggests that the "New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ Large," but this hardly means that Presbyterians practice "Popery," and should thus be excluded from a program of toleration. This is a metaphoric passage that puns ironically on the etymological connection of "presbyter" and "priest"; it cannot by itself support such a major claim about Milton's categorical revision of religious history.

The next part of the book applies some of these arguments toward a reading of Paradise Lost. The first of these, on "Divine justice and divine filiation," argues that Milton's "poetic biblicism attempts to disclose how Divine Reason may justly mirror contingent creaturely violence back to itself without coercion being ontically necessary" (81). Again, amidst solid argumentation, there are assertions here that will take many readers aback, such as "the dominant critical tendency today is to view Milton's depiction of the Father as representing a form of moral evil that must be overcome by the reader" (96). Surely the critical world has not lost all common sense (God simply cannot represent moral evil); this is not a viable position against which to build a counter-argument.

The remaining chapters on Paradise Lost turn a bit more toward the problem of reason, using forms of biblical intertextual analysis promised at the outset. A chapter on "Divine kingship" offers "a critical treatment of Milton's poetic biblicism" (105) that complements the historical work on Milton's politics. In a chapter on "Rational battle," Donnelly turns to the representation of the war in heaven, and shows how "the narrative structure of Paradise Lost foregrounds the very appearance of divine coercion as the central problem for theodicy" (124). Finally, in a chapter on "Rational allegory and gender," Donnelly contends that "Milton weaves a typological disclosure of ontic charity that subverts the customary assumption that the arche in hierarchy is necessarily coercive" (143). As this sentence indicates, Donnelly invokes and even introduces a rich array of terms to explain Miltonic phenomena: "what I call Milton's 'scriptural reasoning"' (1); "what might be called 'Christo-poetic'" (2); "what might be called 'ethico-cognitive'" (49); "I call this 'anthropological monism'" (50); "what I call an 'ontic charity'" (142); "I use the term 'biblical metanarrative'" (171); "I use the term 'Biblicist Poetics'" (171); "Milton offers what I call a 'personal drama'" (203). Readers may wish at times for a more focused critical vocabulary, and one that stems more directly from Milton's early modern lexicon.

The final chapters move from Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. In discussing Milton's supposed anti-Trinitarianism, Donnelly offers a corrective to the now dominant critical understanding: "While Milton does not subscribe to extra-biblical formulations regarding relations internal to the being (or essence) of the Godhead--the 'immanent Trinity'--he clearly endorses biblical depictions of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit working in co-ordination to bring bout salvation history--the 'economic Trinity'" (177).

There is much to admire in this study. It pulls an extremely rich variety of texts together in new and occasionally instructive ways. But discussions of them often seem only tangentially related to each other, and they do not employ enough of Milton's own language to help support the most important arguments. Donnelly quite smartly tears down reductive binaries about Milton, only to erect similarly reductive binaries, between modern and non-modern, or Protestant and non-Protestant. This treatment of religious history in particular has the unfortunate result of blurring the formative complexities in the debates between Presbyterians (with whom Milton had initially sided), the Independents, and the English Church. This history, in which hermeneutics deeply structure the theological and ideological tensions of these warring parties, deserves to be treated more precisely. Because of this, Donnelly's promising arguments are unable to realize fully their potential.

Thomas Fulton

Rutgers University
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Author:Fulton, Thomas
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2011
Words:1930
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