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John Milton’s Lost Treatise

John Milton’s Lost Treatise

 John Milton’s Lost Treatise

RARELY has a writer had so great an impact on the world around him as did John Milton, author of the English epic poem Paradise Lost. According to one biographer, Milton “was loved by many, hated by some, but ignored by few.” To this day, English literature and culture owe much to his works.

How did John Milton come to have such influence? What made his last work​—On Christian Doctrine—​so controversial that it remained unpublished for 150 years?

His Early Days

John Milton was born into a financially well-off London family in 1608. “My father destined me in early childhood for the study of literature, for which I had so keen an appetite that from my twelfth year scarcely ever did I leave my studies for my bed before the hour of midnight,” Milton recalled. He excelled scholastically and received a master’s degree at Cambridge in 1632. Thereafter, he continued to read history and classical literature.

Milton wanted to be a poet, but the England of his day was in the throes of revolution. Parliament, led primarily by Oliver Cromwell, appointed a court that had King Charles I executed in 1649. Using persuasive prose, Milton defended this action and became a spokesman for the Cromwell government. In fact, before attaining fame as a poet, John Milton was already well-known for his tracts on politics and morals.

After the monarchy was restored with the coronation of Charles II in 1660, Milton’s earlier alignment with Cromwell put his life in danger. Milton went into hiding, and only with the help of powerful friends did he escape death. Through it all, he retained a strong spiritual inclination.

“The Yardstick of the Bible”

Describing his early spiritual interests, Milton wrote: “I began by devoting myself when I was a boy to an earnest study of the Old and New Testaments in their original languages.” Milton came to regard the Holy Scriptures as the only sure guide in moral and spiritual matters. But his examination of the accepted theological works of the day left him thoroughly disappointed. “I considered that I could not properly entrust either my creed or my hope of salvation to such guides,” he later wrote. Determined to measure his beliefs strictly “against the yardstick of the Bible,” Milton began listing key scriptures under general headings and quoted Bible texts from these lists.

Today, John Milton is best remembered for composing Paradise Lost, a poetic retelling of the Biblical account of man’s fall from perfection. (Genesis, chapter 3) It is primarily this work, first published in 1667, that earned Milton literary fame, especially in the  English-speaking world. He later published a sequel entitled Paradise Regained. These poems present God’s original purpose for man​—to enjoy perfect life in an earthly paradise—​and point to God’s restoration of Paradise on earth through Christ. In Paradise Lost, for example, Michael the archangel foretells the time when Christ will “reward His faithful, and receive them into bliss, whether in heaven or earth, for then the earth shall all be paradise, far happier place than this of Eden, and far happier days.”

On Christian Doctrine

For years, Milton also wanted to produce a wide-ranging discussion of Christian life and doctrine. Despite having become totally blind by 1652, he labored on this project with the help of secretaries until his death in 1674. Milton entitled this final work A Treatise on Christian Doctrine Compiled From the Holy Scriptures Alone. In its preface, he wrote: “Most authors who have dealt with this subject . . . have relegated to the margin, with brief reference to chapter and verse, the scriptural texts upon which all that they teach is utterly dependent. I, on the other hand, have striven to cram my pages even to overflowing, with quotations drawn from all parts of the Bible.” True to Milton’s word, On Christian Doctrine alludes to or quotes the Scriptures over 9,000 times.

Although Milton had previously not hesitated to express his views, he held off publishing this treatise. Why? For one thing, he knew that its Scriptural explanations widely differed from accepted church teaching. Furthermore, with the restoration of the monarchy, he had fallen out of favor with the government. He may therefore have been waiting for quieter times. In any case, after Milton’s death, his secretary took the Latin manuscript to a publisher, who refused to print it. The English secretary of state then confiscated the manuscript and filed it away. A century and a half would pass before Milton’s treatise came to light.

In 1823, a clerk came across the wrapped manuscript of the noted poet. England’s then reigning King George IV ordered that the work be translated from Latin and made public. When it was published in English two years later, the manuscript excited intense controversy in theological and literary circles. One bishop immediately pronounced the manuscript fraudulent, refusing to believe that Milton​—regarded by many as England’s  greatest religion poet—​could have so firmly rejected cherished church doctrines. Foreseeing such a reaction and in confirmation of Milton’s authorship, the translator had furnished the edition with footnotes detailing 500 parallels between On Christian Doctrine and Paradise Lost. *

Milton’s Beliefs

By Milton’s time, England had embraced the Protestant Reformation and had broken with the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants generally believed that authority on matters of faith and morals came only from the Holy Scriptures and not from the pope. In On Christian Doctrine, though, Milton showed that many Protestant teachings and practices were also out of harmony with the Scriptures. On Biblical grounds, he rejected the Calvinist doctrine of predestination in favor of free will. He promoted respectful use of God’s name, Jehovah, using it freely in his writings.

Milton argued Scripturally that the human soul can die. Commenting on Genesis 2:7, he wrote: “When man had been created in this way, it is said, finally: thus man became a living soul. . . . He is not double or separable: not, as is commonly thought, produced from and composed of two different and distinct elements, soul and body. On the contrary, the whole man is the soul, and the soul the man.” Milton then posed the question: “Does the whole man die, or only the body?” After presenting an array of Bible texts showing that all of man dies, he added: “But the most convincing explanation I can adduce for the death of the soul is God’s own, Ezek[iel 18:]20: the soul which sins shall itself die.” Milton also cited such texts as Luke 20:37 and John 11:25 to show that dead mankind’s hope lies in a future resurrection from the sleep of death.

What triggered the strongest reaction to On Christian Doctrine? It was Milton’s simple but powerful Biblical proof that Christ, the Son of God, is subordinate to God, the Father. After quoting John 17:3 and John 20:17, Milton asks: “If the Father is Christ’s God and our God, and if there is only one God, who can be God except the Father?”

Further, Milton points out: “The Son himself and his apostles acknowledge in everything they say and write that the Father is greater than the Son in all things.” (John 14:28) “Indeed it is Christ who says, Matt. xxvi. 39: O my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will. . . . Why does he pray to the Father alone, rather than to himself, if he is himself really God? If he is himself both man and supreme God, why does he pray at all for something which is in his own power? . . . As the Son everywhere adores and venerates the Father alone, so he teaches us to do the same.”

Milton’s Limitations

John Milton sought the truth. He was still subject to human limitations, however, and some of his views may have been colored by bad experiences. For instance, soon after they married, his bride, the young daughter of a Royalist squire, abandoned him and returned to her family for about three years. During this time, Milton wrote tracts justifying divorce, not only on grounds of marital infidelity​—Jesus’ sole standard—​but also in cases of incompatibility. (Matthew 19:9) Milton promoted the same idea in On Christian Doctrine.

Despite Milton’s shortcomings, On Christian Doctrine forcefully presents the Bible’s viewpoint on a multitude of important teachings. To this day, his treatise obliges its readers to measure their own beliefs against the unerring yardstick of Holy Scripture.


^ par. 14 A new translation of On Christian Doctrine, published by Yale University in 1973, holds even more closely to Milton’s original Latin manuscript.

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Milton was a keen student of the Bible

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Courtesy of The Early Modern Web at Oxford

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The poem “Paradise Lost” brought Milton fame

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Courtesy of The Early Modern Web at Oxford

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Milton’s final work was lost for 150 years

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Image courtesy of Rare Books and Special Collections, Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina

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Image courtesy of Rare Books and Special Collections, Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina