Michael Lieb
Professor of English and Research Professor of Humanities
Department of English (m/c 162)
University of Illinois at Chicago
601 South Morgan Street
Chicago, Illinois 60607-7120


Milton's God: A Glance at the De doctrina christiana

Given the extent to which the provenance of the De Doctrina Christiana has been the subject of debate and uncertainty during the past decade or so, it might be considered an act of foolhardiness to embark on a study of Milton's God from the perspective of the treatise attributed to Milton's authorship. Even though the author of the prefatory epistle to the treatise refers proudly to work as his "dearest and best possession" (YP, VI, 121), there are those doubters who would seek to dispossess Milton of what one scholar calls "an abortive venture into theology." Those who have followed the lines of debate are well aware that the question of who authored the De Doctrina Christiana remains a lively site of contention in Milton studies.  It is the kind of contention aptly reflected in the title of one of the provocative discourses of that old renegade Thomas Burgess, Bishop of Salisbury, among the earliest of those determined to raise the question of authorship in response to the newly canonized treatise. The discourse titled Milton Contrasted with Milton says it all.  One of these "Miltons" is not like the other. Which one is the real thing? And would that real thing kindly step forward to declare that he is indeed the One True Author? For without that assurance, how are we to understand Milton's theology and in particular the nature of one we would like to call the "Author of the author"? All this leaves us very much in a quandary.
I would have it no other way: it is this very atmosphere of uncertainty and contention that governs my own "take" on the God of Milton's oeuvre. In the case of the theological treatise, that "take" is one not of attempting to resolve the matter of authorship. Rather, it is a matter of acknowledging and even embracing the uncertainties that surround the provenance of the De Doctrina Christiana in order to appreciate how profoundly rooted Milton's God is in the contentions that distinguish current debates about who authored the treatise. It is the spirit of these contentions, I shall argue, that energizes the delineation of God in Milton's poetry and prose. There, one encounters a God born of struggle, of uncertainty, and of controversy. An encounter with Milton's God never leaves one with a "calm of mind, all passion spent." Whether one considers the God of the poetry (especially Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes) or the God of Milton's prose works, one is left with a turbulence of mind that refuses to rest content in the knowledge that now at last one is able fully to understand Milton's God, to know what constitutes this figure of ultimacy, and to explain the nature of God's ways.
It is for this reason that the De Doctrina Christiana represents the ideal starting point for an encounter with a God, the delineation of which appears to be Miltonic but because of the questions regarding provenance challenges the reader at every point to question the identity of the true author. That is, in the delineation of the Author of the author, the reader is made to ask "Whose God is this, anyway?" On the one hand, the De Doctrina Christiana is a work that purports to "explain" God, to "systematize" God, to "theologize" God. On the other hand, it is a work that refuses at all points the luxury of "knowing," of penetrating to the heart of the mystery that underlies the deus absconditus at the center of its discourse. What results is a deus absconditus that arises as much because of the uncertainties that surround the text qua text as it does because of the nature of the discourse in which God of its theology is framed. At issue is the notion of deity conceived and executed in a text that is by its very nature problematical, if not at times inexplicable. Here, the state of the text as we know it becomes all important. As those who have worked with the manuscript of the De Doctrina Christiana will attest, this is a treatise that quite justifiably should be called  a "palimpsest," a medium upon which many layers of writing have been effaced and reinscribed by other layers. Inscription / effacement / reinscription: such is the text that lies before us. Emerging from that text are all the uncertainties that underscore the delineation of God. As much as one might hope to gain a foothold on that delineation, the problems associated with its provenance and by extension its production keep getting in the way. Addressing the way in which God is delineated in the De Doctrina Christiana should go far to illuminate the complexities and uncertainties surrounding the Miltonic deity.