Jason A. Kerr – Shifting Perspectives on Law in De Doctrina Christiana: A Response to Filippo Falcone

Shifting Perspectives on Law in De Doctrina Christiana: A Response to Filippo Falcone

Jason A. Kerr

Published in Connotations Vol. 28 (2019)


In his reply to Filippo Falcone’s article on questions concerning Milton’s authorship of De Doctrina Christiana, Jason A. Kerr approaches the argument from a historical perspective: “is the manuscript Miltonic in its material provenance?”

In the wake of Milton and the Manuscript of De Doctrina Christiana (2007), skepticism about the treatise’s authorship has mostly gone underground, in the sense that few published articles take up the position. Book reviews by Ernest W. Sullivan (on Milton and the Manuscript) and John Mulryan (on the 2012 Oxford edition of De Doctrina Christiana) articulate doubts: Sullivan on the basis of watermarks in the manuscript and Mulryan primarily on the basis of Latinity. The dearth of published articles owes no doubt in part to the deaths of William B. Hunter, Jr., who reignited the authorship controversy in 1991, and of Paul R. Sellin, who published a series of articles questioning the treatise’s Miltonic authorship around the turn of the new millennium. Since 2007, though, such questioning has primarily occurred in conference presentations that do not then find their way into print. In this spirit, Filippo Falcone is to be commended for committing his ideas to publication in a peer-reviewed venue—and one that is open-access and built around facilitating debate, to boot.1) It is, in brief, the Miltonic thing to have done.

Before proceeding, I should lay my own cards on the table concerning the matter of authorship. In my view, the question is primarily historical: is the manuscript Miltonic in its material provenance? Such questions, at a distance of centuries, invariably leave some room for doubt. Falcone’s argument is not to do with material evidence, however, but with perceived theological discontinuities between, on [→ page 130] the one hand, the undisputed Miltonic corpus running from the antiprelatical tracts (1641-42) through Of True Religion (1673), and De Doctrina Christiana on the other. This disconnect between Falcone’s methodological approach to authorship and my own helps to explain some of the remaining tension around this issue. Falcone is participating in the oldest vein of authorship skepticism, holding as Bishop Burgess did in 1829 that, “if the religious principles of the Work be wholly at variance with the principles professed and maintained by Milton in his youth, his middle age, and his old age, [...] the probability will be, that the Work De Doctrina Christiana was not written by Milton” (7-8). Indeed, the question of theology provoked the question of provenance, given the manuscript’s association with Milton: William B. Hunter posited some Continental source, while Paul R. Sellin probed the treatise’s possible connections to the school of Saumur or even Milton’s nemesis Alexander Morus.2) These alternative hypotheses rest, however, solely on internal grounds. No challenge to the account of provenance in Milton and the Manuscript has appeared in print, and neither has any determinative material evidence subsequently surfaced.3) Hence the authorship question, to the extent that it remains a question, turns on theology.

In responding to Falcone, then, I am ultimately responding to Burgess’s methodological assumption that, theologically speaking, the question rests on the treatise’s continuity with Milton’s undisputed works. Burgess assumes, in other words, that the treatise is a relatively static repository of its author’s theological views. The trouble as I see it is that De Doctrina Christiana refuses to play this role, irrespective of its propositional content. In the rush to find heresy (or orthodoxy) in the treatise, the text itself, as a literary artifact, has too often gone by the wayside. In this sense, Burgess has led all of us astray, even and perhaps especially if we disagreed with his conclusions. The assumption of a continuity passing through the treatise en route to some other destination can hardly survive a sustained encounter with the text itself—certainly not in manuscript, but neither in the Oxford edition, which Falcone tellingly does not cite—for the simple reason [→ page 131] that the manuscript’s myriad revisions evince changes of mind.4) The primary engine behind these changes of mind is, as the epistle declares, scripture.5) Indeed, the epistle explicitly (and famously) disavows reliance on earlier works, preferring the evidence of scripture instead. As the revisions show, De Doctrina Christiana can itself fall into the category of one of these earlier works, to be superseded on the basis of a better scriptural witness. It disrupts its own continuity, let alone any other continuity that one might wish to draw through it: if the treatise evinces changes of mind, I see no reason to hold Paradise Lost firmly to its theological standard, as the epic might simply represent a further change of mind.6) In the face of the material evidence linking the treatise to Milton, we can either accept this complexity or ignore it. The relative paucity of scholarship in the last decade suggests that Miltonists have generally opted for the latter; I am trying to make a case that the treatise has a life of its own independent of Paradise Lost.

I turn, therefore, to Falcone’s claim about how the treatise handles the abrogation of the law, for the pages where this claim unfolds show just such a scripturally-driven change of mind at work. By demonstrating how this change of mind unfolds, I hope to model a way of reading the treatise by the lights of its own professed concerns rather than the extrinsic ones that have dominated scholarship thus far. As it happens, the relevant doctrinal shift makes an appearance on the manuscript’s most famous page, 307a/308, the only page to exist both in Picard’s version and Skinner’s copy—the copy rendered necessary by the messy state of the original.7) There, a heading appears: “For the Israelites alone [Israelitis duntaxat].” This heading, however, reads thus only as the result of revision to the original “For the Israelites especially [Israelitis potissimum]” (OCW 8: 678-79). Perhaps due to Falcone’s reliance on the Yale edition of the treatise, this and a series of related revisions escape his notice.8)

Even more likely to escape his notice, though, is their cause, rooted in the discovery of a scripture confuting the earlier version of the heading. The revision in question is by Amanuensis ‘M,’ who also [→ page 132] adds, via the left-hand margin, a scriptural passage to the succeeding block of citations. This text is Psalm 147:19-20: “[God declares] his words to Jacob, etc., his statutes and judgements to Israel. He has not [done] so for any [other] nation, etc.”9) (Reading Yale, this text simply appears in the body alongside everything else, unless one thinks to check the textual notes; CPW 6: 517.) The marginal addition continues with two prose sentences and a sequence of scriptural texts:

This wall of partition, namely, that between gentiles and Israelites, was at length torn asunder and destroyed by Christ’s death, Eph. 2: 14. Before its destruction gentiles were alienated from the whole covenant, [ch. 2.] v. 12: [remember ... that you were ...] alienated from the commonwealth of Israel. (OCW 8: 678-79)10)

This insertion, along with the related change from potissimum to duntaxat, captures a shift in the treatise’s theology of the law, from a stance in which the law imposed some obligation on Gentiles, even though it was given to Israel especially, to one in which the law never imposed any obligation on Gentiles whatsoever, because it was given to Israel alone.

This change comes as a result of scripture, but it also happens in concert with what Jeffrey Alan Miller has identified as Milton’s “belated reading” of Girolamo Zanchi’s commentary on Ephesians—and Ephesians 2:12-15 in particular.11) Two instances of this belated reading appear in the section of I.27 on the abrogation of the law that Falcone takes up in his article. This section, which appears under the heading Throughout all nations [Per omnes gentes], bears the marks of revision in several stages.12) MS 315 has an extensive marginal citation, and the next leaf, comprising MSS 316-17, has a deleted passage spanning the page turn. The next leaves, though, have been added later: MSS 318-19 as one sheet, and MSS 320-35 as its own section, suggesting a process of expansion upon the earlier state of the treatise, as well as an opportunity to incorporate marginal or other revisions into the main text (cf. Miller 208). The first reference to Zanchius, on MSS 320-21, addresses the point that Falcone raises [→ page 133] about subdivisions of the law, as Milton disagrees openly with the Italian theologian:

Now not only the ceremonial code but the whole positive law of Moses was [one] of commandments, and set in decrees. And not just in the ceremonial code—as Zanchius on this passage [i.e., Ephesians 2:14-15] claims—but in the whole Mosaic law, Jews were separated from Gentiles, who of course were “alienated from the citizenship of Israel, and outsiders as regards the promise of the covenants,” v. 12; and the promise was made for the works of the whole law, not just for ceremonies; nor were [ceremonies] alone the cause of the enmity between God and ourselves, v. 16. (OCW 8: 700-03)13)

This passage bears a clear relation to those on MSS 307-307a, just discussed: the same section of Ephesians 2 is at issue, as is the pivotal point of Gentile “alienation” from the covenant. This passage also introduces the idea, central to Falcone’s argument, that the dividing wall of the law cannot be reduced to ceremonies alone.

Falcone brings up the tripartite division of the law in order to argue that the treatise stands for abrogating even the moral law. He makes the implications of this argument clear as he contrasts “freedom from the moral demands of the law” (a position he associates with De Doctrina Christiana) with freedom “from the rule of law,” restated as a contrast between “a passage from law to antinomianism” and one (in Paradise Lost) “from the ‘imposition of strict laws to free /Acceptance of large grace’” (“Irreconcilable” 82, citing PL XII.293-305). Falcone’s emphasis on “rule of law” owes, as a note alerts us, to his book, which has a section on “Freedom from the Slavery of Sin and thus from the Rule of the Law” (Milton’s Inward Liberty 13-21). He draws this phrase from Carey’s translation of the definition of Christian Liberty in I.27 (CPW 6: 537). Carey’s “rule of the law” has, however, misled Falcone into seeing the treatise as more antinomian than it is. The Latin in that place reads “legis hominúmque praescripto velut manumissi liberamur,” which Oxford renders as “from the prescript of the law and of human beings—like manumitted slaves” (OCW 8: 716-17). Being freed from the command or direction (OED, “prescript” n. 1.) of the law is a very different thing than being freed from the rule of law, which [→ page 134] denotes the degree to which a system of laws has practical purchase within its putative domain. Absent rule of law, anarchy prevails. Being freed from the command or prescript of the law, however, only removes the coercive element. In a chapter on Christian Liberty, this is unsurprising, but Falcone nevertheless worries (as many in the seventeenth century, including Milton, did) that such freedom includes freedom from the moral law.

In claiming that the treatise advocates freedom from the moral law, Falcone misconstrues its response to Polanus’ argument that the Gospel frees believers “from the curse and constraint of the law,” which Falcone glosses as “the domain of the law.” He infers from the treatise’s question, “what do believers gain from the gospel?,” that this gain does not include “exemption from the law’s curse and provocation to sin, namely the very capacities the author has been arguing to be sources of slavery.” Rather: “What they do gain from it is the extinction of the law as a whole” (“Irreconcilable” 79, quoting CPW 6: 535). Per Falcone, this lack of gain proves incompatible with Milton’s undisputed works, which hold “that the constraining power of the law, curse, and provocation to sin all vanish when the believer is clothed in Christ’s righteousness” (“Irreconcilable” 80). The finding is curious, given that the treatise, in express response to Polanus’ view that Christians “are no longer bound to absolutely perfect fulfillment in this life of God’s law,” reads:

Who does not see that the situation is far otherwise? For from Christians no less perfect a life is required—rather, indeed, a more perfect life—than from those who were under the law, as all Christ’s precepts shout out. This only is different: that Moses used to impose the letter or external law even on the unwilling, [whereas] Christ writes God’s internal law through his spirit on the hearts of the faithful, and leads those who are willing. (OCW 8: 714-15)14)

This position can hardly be construed as an antinomian rejection of the moral law. It is, rather, an insistence that the moral law continues, in strengthened form, under a new non-coercive regime.15)

[→ page 135] The author of the treatise is no Ranter; nor is he what the heresiographers took the “divorcer” Milton to be. The liberty claimed in the treatise is not license after all. Falcone does acknowledge the treatise’s position that the “substance” of the law—love of God and neighbor—“is not broken by this abolition,” but he does not sufficiently attend to how carefully the treatise keeps love from turning into license (“Irreconcilable” 80, citing CPW 6: 531). He notes the treatise’s identification of law with slavery (“Irreconcilable” 79), but he takes no notice of the “slavery” it puts in the law’s place, even though the definition of Christian liberty includes the paradoxical (but scriptural) idea of slavery to God. As one small example, under the ensuing heading “That we may be slaves to God,” the treatise quotes 1 John 5:3-5: “for this is the love of God, that we should observe his commandments; and his commandments are not irksome” (OCW 8: 716-19).16) Here, love proves compatible with a kind of commandment-keeping—indeed requires it. The difference is now that the commandments are kept freely out of love, not because of a coercive prescription.17) In this way, the moral law survives the transition to the gospel in a way that ceremonial law does not, as the treatise makes clear when it discusses “the prohibition of blood [sanguinis ... prohibitio]” (OCW 8: 720-21).

On the question of the law, the treatise undertakes to reconcile what Falcone finds irreconcilable: the abrogation of the law and an insistence that obedience to commandments still matters. This reconciliation, moreover, occurs through the processes of revision and attendant changes of mind that Falcone’s methodology ignores. The treatise’s theology on this point has two interrelated components: Ephesians 2:12-15 and Zanchius’s (belatedly read) commentary on those verses. The treatise avers as much, in a passage that Miller identifies as belonging to a later stage of its composition:

When, having pooled the illumination of so many texts, I was thinking that I had affirmed this truth against the view of almost all the Theologians whom I had read—[people] who deny that the whole Mosaic law was abrogated—I happened to find that Zanchius, commenting copiously on Eph. Ch. 2, shared my view [...]. (OCW 8: 712-13; cf. Miller 203)18)

[→ page 136] As I have discussed above, Ephesians 2, with its talk of a “dividing wall,” prompts a series of revisions eliminating the possibility that the Gentiles were answerable to the Law of Moses. The references to Zanchius, though, pose a different question, that of the treatise’s relationship to the broader milieu of Protestant theology. The treatise’s relationship to Zanchius’s commentary is manifestly complex: in one place (quoted above), it disagrees with Zanchius’s view that only the ceremonial aspect of the law is abrogated, while in the passage just quoted it finds Zanchius in agreement with its own view that the whole law is abrogated.

Zanchius’s entrance into the treatise through a complex process of revision shows the inadequacy of Falcone’s reading De Doctrina Christiana as a straightforward account of Milton’s theological views. Here, again, the primacy of scripture avowed in the epistle asserts itself. Milton is quoting Zanchius in this second instance not to express agreement (or disagreement) with his theological conclusions, but simply to assert that working out the question of the law’s abrogation is central to understanding the gospel: “‘a very large part of Theology depends on the explanation of this question: and not even the scriptures can be understood, especially their teaching about justification and good works’—I would actually say, the whole gospel—‘unless this point, about the abrogation of the law, be understood’” (OCW 8: 712-13).19) The treatise shares with Zanchius a commitment to the importance of this question, an insistence that Ephesians 2 (and scripture generally) bears centrally on it, and even the use of a distinction between external and internal law in the resolution.20) The doctrinal inch (to borrow Marilynne Robinson’s phrase) that separates them on the point of whether the ceremonial or the whole law is done away in the gospel—a difference dispelled in any case by their overlapping usage of the distinction between external and internal law—is minute in comparison to their agreement concerning methodology and process writ large (see Robinson 31). Indeed, the manuscript revisions involving Ephesians 2, which may have been provoked by Zanchius himself, seem responsible for [→ page 137] cracking that doctrinal inch open in the first place. (Recall that 307a initially held that the law was only given especially [potissimum] to Israel, implying that the Gentiles always had access to its internal components.) The broader network of revisions, though, calling attention to the pivot point on MS 307a, privileges Ephesians over Zanchius, suggesting that Milton turned to Zanchius more to understand Paul’s epistle than to take stock of Zanchius’ position in particular. Zanchius, in other words, proves useful not because he share’s the treatise’s position, but because he shares its project, broadly construed.

The treatise, then, is not what Falcone (or Burgess before him) supposes it to be. It is not a record of Milton’s theological views—or, if not Milton’s, someone else’s. It is, rather, what it claims to be: an attempt to articulate Christian doctrine on the basis of scripture. This task is much more difficult than readers of the treatise generally seem to have assumed. The point is not simply to say what one thinks and then to muster scriptures in support, but quite the reverse. Indeed, the manuscript revisions show that the treatise is highly responsive to scripture—very willing to revise a position in light of a passage suggesting the need. To be sure, the treatise does not always bend in the face of perceived scriptural opposition. The process at work is much more complex and dialectical than that, such that Falcone’s model of continuities and discontinuities proves unsatisfactory as a way of gauging the treatise’s Miltonic provenance. A more sophisticated way of reading must be brought to bear, one that attends to the changes of mind on evidence in the manuscript. Recent scholarship by a new generation of Miltonists has begun to work in this vein, but much yet remains to be done. Perhaps Falcone, as another young scholar publishing on the treatise, might join the labor.

Brigham Young University
Provo, UT

Works Cited

Burgess, Thomas. Milton Not the Author. London, 1829.

Campbell, Gordon. “De Doctrina Christiana: Its Structural Principles and Its Unfinished State.” Milton Studies 9 (1976): 243-60.

Campbell, Gordon, Thomas N. Corns, John K. Hale, and Fiona J. Tweedie. Milton and the Manuscript of De Doctrina Christiana. Oxford: OUP, 2007.

Falcone, Filippo. Milton’s Inward Liberty: A Reading of Christian Liberty from the Prose to Paradise Lost. Cambridge: James Clark, 2014.

Falcone, Filippo. “More Challenges to Milton’s Authorship of De Doctrina Christiana.ACME 63 (2010): 231-50.

Hunter, William B. Visitation Unimplor’d: Milton and the Authorship of De Doctrina Christiana. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1998.

Kerr, Jason A. “De Doctrina Christiana and Milton’s Theology of Liberation.” Studies in Philology 111.2 (2014): 346-74.

Kerr, Jason A. “Milton and the Anonymous Authority of De Doctrina Christiana.Milton Quarterly 49.1 (2015): 23-43.

Kerr, Jason A., and John K. Hale. “The Origins and Development of Milton’s Theology in De Doctrina Christiana, I.17-18.” Milton Studies 54.1 (2013): 181-206.

Lieb, Michael. Theological Milton: Deity, Discourse, and Heresy in the Miltonic Canon. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 2006.

Miller, Jeffrey Alan. “Milton, Zanchius, and the Rhetoric of Belated Reading.” Milton Quarterly 47.4 (2013): 199-219.

Milton, John. De Doctrina Christiana. National Archives (Public Record Office), Kew. SP 9/61. [cited as MS/MSS]

Milton, John. De Doctrina Christiana. Ed. John K. Hale and J. Donald Cullington. Vol. 8 of The Complete Works of John Milton. Oxford: OUP, 2012. [cited as OCW 8]

Milton, John. De Doctrina Christiana. Ed. Maurice Kelley. Trans. by John Carey. Vol. 6 of The Complete Prose Works of John Milton. New Haven: Yale UP, 1973. [cited as CPW 6]

Milton, John. A Treatise of Civil Power. London, 1659. Wing M2185.

Mulryan, John. Rev. of De Doctrina Christiana, ed. John K. Hale and J. Donald Cullington. Seventeenth-Century News 71.3-4 (2013): 81-84.

Robinson, Marilynne. The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. New York: Picador, 1998.

Sellin, Paul R. “If Not Milton, Who Did Write the DDC?: The Amyraldian Connection.” Living Texts: Interpreting Milton. Ed. Kristin A. Pruitt and Charles W. Durham. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 2001. 237-63.

Sellin, Paul R. “Some Musings on Alexander Morus and the Authorship of De Doctrina Christiana.Milton Quarterly 35.2 (2001): 63-71.

Sullivan, Ernest W. Rev. of Milton and the Manuscript of De Doctrina Christiana, ed. G. Campbell, T. N. Corns, J. K. Hale, and F. J. Tweedie. Review of English Studies 60.243 (2009): 153-54.

Zanchi, Girolamo. Operum Theologicorum. 3 vols. Geneva, 1619.