Dr. Bernard Ramm has recently reminded the Protestant world of the importance of fusing scriptural faith with the liberal arts: “Christian education will be great only when it is a synthesis of biblicism and humanism. On the one hand, we must uphold the integrity of the liberal arts and demand that liberal arts courses in our Christian colleges be competently taught. On the other hand, we must maintain the dignity, the authority, and the depth of the revealed Word of God that we have in Sacred Scripture” (CHRISTIANITY TODAY, May 8, 1964).

The balance of Christian humanism is not easy to maintain, however, under even the best of conditions. Perhaps an examination of the dynamic synthesis achieved by a truly great Christian humanist will provide some guidance.

John Milton was incredibly learned: he knew Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, and the modern European languages and literatures. His most complete poetic handling of the relation between classical learning and the Bible comes in Paradise Regained; but fortunately Milton also left his readers a great deal of prose that helps to clarify his concepts.

In his tract Of Education, for instance, Milton describes what he considers to be an adequate curriculum for young Englishmen. At about the age of sixteen, having studied both “the story of scripture” and the simpler classics, Milton’s students are ready to be instructed “more amply in the knowledge of virtue and the hatred of vice.” This is to be accomplished, Milton suggests, through the study of the moral works of Plato, Xenophon, Cicero, Plutarch, and others. But Milton adds an important qualification: these pagan sources are “still to be reduced in their nightward studies wherewith they close the day’s work, under the determinate sentence of David or Solomon, or the evangelists and apostolic scriptures” (Frank A. Patterson, ed., The Student’s Milton, p. 729; italics mine). “Reduced” means “led back”; in other words, Milton is counseling that each night the student must relate his classical learning to scriptural principles. In case there should be any conflict, Milton states clearly that it is the Bible that must be accorded the ultimate authority, the “determinate sentence.”

In Areopagitica, Milton defends the right of the Christian to read widely by quoting First Thessalonians 5:21, Titus 1:15, and Acts 10:13. He interprets Peter’s vision of the sheet as symbolic of Christian liberty in reading; for “books are as meats and viands are; some of good, some of evil substance,” yet God leaves the choice “to each man’s discretion.” Milton’s basic principle here is an important one for those who fear the consequences of liberal education: “ ‘To the pure all things are pure’; not only meats and drinks, but all kinds of knowledge, whether of good or evil: the knowledge cannot defile, nor consequently the books, if the will and conscience be not defiled” (Patterson, p. 737). Milton is not implying that any human being is totally pure; rather, like the passage he quotes from Titus 1:15, he is emphasizing that it is not anything external that defiles a man but rather that which proceeds from his own heart.

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The Poet And Right Reason

Milton’s concept of right reason, a recurrent theme throughout his prose and poetry, helps to illuminate his synthesis of classics and Scripture. To Milton, the term reason did not have the secular meaning that various Restoration and eighteenth-century thinkers gave it, making it almost synonymous with logic or even common sense; rather, like most Christian humanists, Milton meant by right reason the powers of a mind wholly dedicated to the service of God. Thus reason, defined on a theological rather than a secular basis, was much closer to the meaning of conscience than it was to mere powers of logic; in fact, Milton considered reason to be the image of God in man, an image not totally obliterated by the Fall. In his book of systematic theology, written in Latin and not published until 1825, Milton asserts that “the existence of God is further proved by that feeling, whether we term it conscience, or right reason, which even in the worst of characters is not altogether extinguished.” But immediately he adds an important qualification: “No one … can have right thoughts of God, with nature or reason alone as his guide, independent of the word, or message of God” (Patterson, p. 923).

Milton’s conviction that a life of consistent right reason is possible only for the regenerate man governs his use of the Platonic ladder, that concept of gradual spiritualization by which a contemplative man might rise from the realm of matter to that of the divine Idea. Although certain critics have misinterpreted Milton’s use of Plato, claiming that Milton teaches a salvation by ethics, a careful reading of Milton reveals that he uses the Platonic scale of perfection in only two ways. In Paradise Lost, he uses Plato’s ladder (combined with the ladder of Genesis 28:12) to symbolize the state of man before the Fall and what would have happened to Adam had he remained sinless; and in Comus and Paradise Regained he uses Platonic imagery and the example of Christ’s right reason to illustrate the victorious life of the “true warfaring Christian”—the regenerate man.

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To interpret either Comus or Paradise Regained as applicable to unregenerate man, and therefore as teaching a salvation by human virtue, is to ignore the facts of the poems. At the end of Paradise Regained, for instance, the angels praise Christ for resisting Satan’s wilderness temptations, thus founding “a fairer Paradise … for Adam and his chosen Sons, whom thou/A Savior art come down to reinstall” (IV, 613–15; italics mine). And far from praising Christ for finishing his work by providing an example for man to follow in order to redeem or spiritualize himself, the angels conclude their song with these words: “Hail Son of the most High … on thy glorious work/Now enter, and begin to save mankind” (IV, 633–35; italics mine). The glorious work would be, of course, Christ’s ensuing death and resurrection.

Seventeenth-century Puritans generally placed their stress upon the Christian life as warfare with Satan, rather than upon conversion itself, as witness the emphasis in Pilgrim’s Progress; accordingly, although Milton did not write extensively about Calvary and although he emphasized the Christian warfare, he recognized repeatedly that it is Christ’s death, not his example, that provides man’s salvation:

… to the Cross he nails thy Enemies,

The Law that is against thee, and the sins

Of all mankind, with him there crucified,

Never to hurt them more who rightly trust

In this his satisfaction.…

Paradise Lost XII, 415–19

To review: Milton uses the Platonic scale of perfection to objectify the spiritual progress of pre-lapsarian and post-regenerative man, never to describe what an unregenerate man might do for himself. Similarly, he often uses mythology to lend imaginative substance to scriptural abstractions; in Paradise Lost, for instance, he describes the mythological fall of Mulciber (Vulcan) from heaven, gaining several poetically effective details before rejecting the story in favor of the biblical hint concerning Satan’s fall (Isa. 14:12–15). Mulciber, he speculates, was simply a pagan name for the demon Mammon, who was not actually thrown out of heaven “by angry Jove,” as Homer says, but was one of the angels who fell when Satan led a revolt against God (Paradise Lost I, 738–48). But before Milton turns from Homer to Scripture, the myth has provided him with an emotionally evocative passage and has aided in the characterization of Mammon.

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The classics again came to Milton’s aid when he was confronted with the difficult theological and poetic problem of depicting the origin of sin. He drew his basic allegory from James 1:15 (“When lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin”), but he needed a way to make the concept poetically concrete without violating theological principles. He found his answer in Hesiod’s Theogony, in the myth of Minerva’s birth. In Paradise Lost II, 749–58, Milton describes Sin as springing full-grown from the brain of Satan, just as Minerva sprang full-grown from the head of Zeus. Once again he relies on the classics for vivid details but clings to Scripture for significance.

Thus pagan literature provided the Christian humanist with illustrations and objectifications of abstract theological truths and helped to create experiences that make the reader more deeply aware of biblical meaning. For the classics-oriented reader, Milton’s prayers for poetic inspiration are rendered more vibrant, more full of connotative echoes, by his references to the Spirit of God as his Muse, his Urania.

Debate Of Christ And Satan

Paradise Regained, which narrates the story of the temptation in the wilderness, contains an extremely controversial passage in the debate between Christ and Satan concerning the relative merits of the Hebrew and Athenian cultures. Critics as respected as Basil Willey and W. B. C. Watkins have accused Milton of forsaking the classical learning that had made a poet of him and of taking the attitude that no books are worthwhile except the Bible. Yet Paradise Regained IV, 272–364, in no way denies or seriously modifies the position that Milton has held all along: the Christian humanist position. Rather, Milton gives this viewpoint a definitive treatment in an intensely dramatic situation; and the best way to get the position accurately in mind is to examine the passage closely.

Satan has been trying to tempt Christ with the kingdoms of the world, and after offering Parthia, symbol of military prowess, and Rome, symbol of magnificent living, Satan attempts his last and most subtle lure, that of Athenian culture. After calling Socrates the “wisest of men,” in itself an insult to both Solomon and Christ, Satan implies that Christ needs the knowledge of Greek philosophy in order to become worthy of a throne.

In response, “our Savior” will not deign to tell Satan whether or not he is acquainted with Athenian knowledge; but his critique of each of the major schools of Greek philosophy soon reveals that indeed he is. Christ asserts instead that

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… he who receives

Light from above, from the fountain of light,

No other doctrine needs, though granted true.

But this is not the same thing as saying that a child of God needs no other learning but the Bible. One must remember that Christ is refuting Satan’s audacious suggestion that without a pagan education He is not worthy to rule; and one must put a proper emphasis on the word doctrine. For doctrine, Greek philosophy is not the source; for doctrine, one must look directly to God’s Word. This in no way denies the value of classical studies in their proper perspective but does deny their right to usurp the place of religion founded on biblical revelation.

In lines 309–21, Christ points out that because the Greeks were ignorant of their own true nature (in spite of the Socratic “Know thyself”), they were also ignorant of God; furthermore, they glorified themselves rather than God, and denied his personality by calling him such names as Fortune or Fate. Therefore to seek “true wisdom” in Greek philosophy is to seek in vain, or worse yet to become deluded with a false wisdom. And then comes the crucial passage:

… who reads

Incessantly, and to his reading brings not

A spirit and judgment equal or superior

(And what he brings, what needs he elsewhere seek)

Uncertain and unsettled still remains,

Deep versed in books and shallow in himself,

Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys,

And trifles for choice matters, worth a sponge;

As children gathering pebbles on the shore.

Is this, as A. J. A. Waldock charges, a “sweeping” and “petulantly worded” denial of all humanistic learning? Hardly; it is an attack on the collection of unrelated facts, on reading without a set of standards and without any coherent philosophy to make possible the act of valid critical judgment. In Milton’s terms, it is an attack on purely secular education, pursued without any “reducing” of humanistic knowledge to the “determinate sentence” of the Bible.

The Christ of Paradise Regained further implies that much Greek art is inspired by Satan, especially that which sings the vices of the Greek gods and harlots; but Milton is careful to provide the standard loophole of the Christian humanist. Greek poetry is unworthy to be compared with Hebrew poetry, “Unless where moral virtue is expressed/By light of Nature, not in all quite lost” (italics mine). Either by common grace or by some remnant of the image of God in fallen man, even the most pagan authors are sometimes able to express truth, especially in the realm of human morality.

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Milton’s few heterodox viewpoints have sometimes been overemphasized to the point of obscuring his devotion to scriptural authority. Although he was Arian in insisting upon the Son’s inferiority to the Father, he does not deny Christ’s divinity: he believes that such passages as John 17:24 teach that “the nature of the Son is indeed divine, but distinct from and clearly inferior to the nature of the Father” (Patterson, p. 965). It seems only fair to evaluate this and less important Miltonic heterodoxies in the spirit of Milton’s introduction to The Christian Doctrine: “Judge of my present undertaking according to the admonishing of the Spirit of God—and neither adopt my sentiments nor reject them, unless every doubt has been removed from your belief by the clear testimony of revelation. Finally, live in the faith of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (Patterson, p. 922).

The marriage of Hebraism and Hellenism at their finest was a reality in the mind of John Milton. With his creative balance of humanistic scholarship and zealous adherence to the Bible, he provides a model for Christian students, educators, and artists in the twentieth century.

T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.

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