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New Scholarship on Religion and Literature, 2000-2012 (November 2013): Milton

By Miriam Elizabeth Burstein


Much recent scholarship in this field is devoted to restoring a historical awareness of Milton’s faith and what it means for his poetic and polemical practice.  David Ainsworth’s Milton and the Spiritual Reader: Reading and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England counters the ahistorical reader-response theory of Stanley Fish, among others, to argue that Milton simultaneously argues that readers must engage in an “active,” divinely aided reading practice that struggles to decode the language of a fallen world, and that Milton’s own work models such acts of reading.  Similarly, Phillip J. Donnelly’s Milton’s Scriptural Reasoning: Narrative and Protestant Toleration argues that much contemporary scholarship on Milton ahistorically insists that his reason is “instrumentalist” and “coercive,” forcibly rendering chaos into something comprehensible.  But, Donnelly argues, Milton in fact thinks of reason in terms of God’s “gift,” as something that enables human beings to participate in an essentially good created order.  Joad Raymond’s Milton’s Angels: The Early-Modern Imagination argues that far from being summarily ejected from theology after the Reformation, angels continued to play an important role in Protestant theology and popular discourse.  All the way through, Raymond insists that we cannot split a “secular” Milton (poetic, artistic) away from a theological one.

Russell M. Hillier’s Milton’s Messiah: The Son of God in the Works of John Milton targets two significant trends in Milton scholarship: its focus on Milton’s “Arianism” and its habit of figuring Milton’s God in vengeful, even “evil” terms.  Instead, Hillier draws on the Christology of Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana (acknowledging the debates over that book’s provenance in the process) to highlight the absolute centrality of redemption to Milton’s theological poetics, working primarily with Paradise Lost.  This emphasis on De Doctrina Christiana recurs in Michael Lieb’s Theological Milton: Deity, Discourse, and Heresy in the Miltonic Canon, which argues that the God of De Doctrina Christiana is a deus absconditus, the “hidden” God unknowable to human reason important to both Luther and Calvin.  In the second half of the book, Lieb shows how the theological treatise’s God resonates with the God of Samson Agonistes and Paradise Lost, where God’s unknowability heightens his “fearsome” nature, and warns against oversimplifying Milton’s investment in Socinian and Arian theologies (suggesting, in the process, how Milton’s theology has been produced for modern scholars by centuries of reception history).