Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Milton's Theology of the Cross: Substitution and Satisfaction in Christ's Atonement

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Milton's Theology of the Cross: Substitution and Satisfaction in Christ's Atonement

Article excerpt

Abstract: Recent scholarship on John Milton argues that Milton rejected the popular Reformation understanding of Christ's atonement, the penal-substitutionary theory of atonement, and that Milton was uncomfortable with the Crucifixion of Jesus as God's means of human salvation. A close reading of Milton's Paradise Lost and De Doctrina Christiana clearly shows, however, that Milton did in fact embrace the penal-substitutionary theory of atonement, and he believed that Jesus' death on the cross effected this atonement. Milton's decision not to dwell on the cross or the details of the crucifixion in his poetry does not manifest a rejection of the cross as God's means of effecting atonement.

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A surging tide of recent Milton criticism advances a Milton who has become our contemporary, a poet-theologian who shares our moral discomfort with Christ's crucifixion as a divinely-ordained sacrifice that atones for the sins of humanity, where Christ substitutes his own bloody death for a guilty and justly condemned humanity in order to satisfy the wrath of God. As a Christian who rejects the penal-substitutionary theory of atonement, with its implications for an unethical God who requires the crucifixion of his Son, I would be most gratified if Milton were indeed our contemporary on this score. (1) Recent critical efforts to distance Milton from penal-substitutionary atonement parallel the critical situation concerning Milton's Samson and his relation to Milton's Son in Paradise Regained. In his illuminating description and assessment of this trend, David Loewenstein remarks that "there has been a notable tendency among recent critics to argue that ultimately Milton wants his readers to sympathize with the pacifism, quietism, and patience of Jesus in Paradise Regain'd and to reject the Old Testament violence and militarism of Samson in its companion piece, Samson Agonistes" (276). Loewenstein shrewdly suggests that this tendency is motivated by our commitment to rendering Milton more like ourselves, shaping him to fit "our own (more acceptable) image of the radical visionary poet who, unlike the Samson of his dramatic poem, could never or who could no longer, after the Restoration, condone an act of holy violence and vehement rage as a devastating yet creative and heroic political act" (278). I suspect that recent criticism on Milton and the crucifixion and/ or the atonement may be similarly motivated by the desire to render Milton more like ourselves.

In his reading of "On the Circumcision," John Rogers claims that Milton's apparent "neglect of the Crucifixion" reflects his "provisional faith in man's ability to effect his own salvation, without the help of a sacrificial redeemer" (190), arguing that Milton rejected the dominant seventeenth-century theory of atonement--the Reformers' revision of Anselm's "satisfaction" theory, what C. A. Patrides calls a "penal-substitutionary atonement" (136)--in favor of the early Church's "recapitulation" theory of atonement (193). (2) In doing so, Rogers asserts that Milton exposes "the savage logic of revenge and the plight of human helplessness at the emotional core of the Christian Crucifixion" (210), presenting the "virtuous human action" of circumcision as "a rational correction to the act of substitutive sacrifice which lay at the heart of Christianity" (213). More recently, Gregory Chaplin has argued for a Milton who resolves his "vexed relation to the Crucifixion" by rejecting Anselmian theories of atoning "satisfaction" and embracing instead an Arian Son whose sacrifice becomes "an ethical decision" rooted in "the classical friendship tradition" (356). (3) While Chaplin reasonably identifies a relative resistance to the "spectacle" (367) of crucifixion on Milton's part, he mistakenly assumes that this entails a rejection of penal-substitutionary atonement as well, and that this rejection is evident in, and supported by, Milton's Arianism. A more radical expression of this growing consensus comes from Gordon Teskey, who claims that "Milton as a poet was largely unmoved by the two definitive images of Christian worship: the baby in its mother's arms and the man on the cross" (485). …

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