Milton’s View of Education: A Mirror of Reformed Educational Philosophy

By Jeremy Larson
September 02, 2010

The seventeenth century was a time of massive expansion, not only geographically with the New World settlements such as Jamestown (1607), Plymouth (1620), and Massachusetts Bay (c. 1630), but also religiously with the rise of Puritan power and the drafting of monumental confessions of faith (e.g., the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith in 1647 and The London Baptist Confession of Faith in 1677). On the literature scene, Shakespeare’s First Folio was published in 1623, and England’s bragging rights expanded even further with the addition of an epic poem on the fall of mankind, written in 1674 by the blind Puritan-poet John Milton (1608–1674). In the prologue of Paradise Lost, Milton asks the Heavenly Muse to sing of the loss of man’s original state. Yet Milton acknowledges that one day, a greater Man will come and make all things new.

Of Man’s First Disobedience,
and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree,
whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World,
and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse …1

Unfortunately, as seems to be the case with many good ideas, this expansion of religiously based power lasted only briefly. The “city on a hill” did not turn into the New Jerusalem, the Puritans quickly fell from power, and with the loss of that political paradise, Milton was forced to finish his life and writing at a much more muted capacity. But the heritage generated from that fruitful epoch has lasted for centuries. In fact, many of the contemporary books on Christianity and culture stem directly from the Puritans’ high view of work, and even from earlier sources, such as John Calvin’sInstitutes of the Christian Religion, in which the Kingship of Christ gives the impetus for hard work in every legitimate occupation.

However, having people who understand what it means to truly serve God in their fields of work requires that they be educated on how to make God central in life. Milton—whose 400th birthday was celebrated by the literati in 2008—wrote about such an education, and if Cornelius Van Til’s statement that “only upon a Reformed basis can God really be made central in education” is accurate,2 then Milton’s views on education were closer to a Reformed view than many people today realize.

Van Til continues: “We must refer to the original supernatural revelation that was given to Adam. Through it man was actually told about his future task. He was to increase in the self-conscious manipulation of the facts of the universe to the glory of God. He was thus to build the kingdom of God.”3 Milton’s educational views could not be described better. In a day when claiming to be a Puritan meant something, Milton promoted his beliefs aggressively and unashamedly. And though he never labeled his beliefs as being “Reformed,” his convictions concerning education and cultural engagement, as put forth in his “Of Education,” Areopagitica, and other works, closely mirror a Reformed educational philosophy.

Milton’s views can be organized by two main points: Christians need a theoretical understanding that all knowledge is God’s knowledge (Ps. 24:1), and they need a practical understanding that they are commanded to work for the transformation of culture, through the power of God, into a redeemed society that blesses the Creator and worships Jesus as Lord (Ps. 8:6).

Epistemological Sovereignty

Christians can develop an understanding of Christ’s epistemological sovereignty by recognizing that sin has corrupted every part of them, including their intellect. In Paradise Lost, Satan declares that God, being stronger, may have won the physical battle, but Satan has retained his reasoning abilities:

“[W]ho overcomes / By force, hath overcome but half his foe.”4 Earlier, Satan had admitted that “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”5 Satan is the worst being, since he was one of the most knowledgeable beings before he fell—thus, corruptio optimi pessima.6 Of course, the effects of the fall of a non-redeemable angel does not necessarily apply to the fate of humans. But when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3), all human knowledge was plunged into a dark bondage as well. In Book IX ofParadise Lost, Adam eats the fruit—his knowledge of God’s command being overcome by his submissive fondness for Eve. This acknowledgement by Milton perfectly coincides with Reformed teaching on the state of man’s mind, for as Calvin writes in Institutes,

[T]he mind of man has been so completely estranged from God’s righteousness that it conceives, desires, and undertakes, only that which is impious, perverted, foul, impure, and infamous. The heart is so steeped in the poison of sin, that it can breathe out nothing but a loathsome stench. But if some men occasionally make a show of good, their minds nevertheless ever remain enveloped in hypocrisy and deceitful craft, and their hearts bound by inner perversity.7

Milton further shows his understanding of the effects of sin on the mind through his portrayal of Samson in “Samson Agonistes” as a mighty man whose fatal flaw (hamartia) was a mind polluted with the sin of pride.

However, Christians also demonstrate their theoretical understanding of epistemology by acknowledging that Christ’s redemption has reversed the curse of the fall. Milton recognizes this fact when, in Areopagitica,8 he references “Moses, Daniel, and Paul, who were skillful in all the learning of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Greeks, which could not probably be without reading their books of all sorts.”9 Furthermore, not only did Paul study Greek culture, he “thought it no defilement to insert into holy scripture the sentences of three Greek poets, and one of them a tragedian.”10 Likewise, Milton certainly did not refrain from using classical rhetorical techniques and Greek and Roman allusions in most of his works. So even pagan mythology and secular learning were not off limits as Milton looked to restore a correct view of the world. Within the last fifty lines of Paradise Lost, Eve recalls the protoevangelium when she says, “By mee the Promis’d Seed shall all restore.”11 Christ came specifically to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), and a perversion of knowledge is certainly a work of the devil. Christians can know the truth (John 8:32), and a right knowledge of things is possible through the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7).

Transforming Culture

The second part of Milton’s educational views is that Christians need a practical understanding that they are commanded to transform culture. This command is seen most clearly in Genesis 1:28, which articulates the cultural mandate: “[S]ubdue [the earth]: and have dominion.” The Puritans were men with a goal to reform all of English society. Michael Walzer writes, “In his own fashion … Cromwell was such a man; John Milton, who served him, was surely another. Not only the church, but the state, the household, the school, even the theater and the sports arena—religion, culture, family, and politics—all these the great Puritan poet would have made new.”12

Three things are necessary to accomplish this transformation. First, having come to understand that Christ’s Kingship extends over knowledge, Christians need to be knowledgeable themselves. Milton’s program in “Of Education,” which he did concede was a bit idealistic,13 proposes an intense analysis of grammar, language, mythology, agriculture, medicine, reason, politics, law, poetry, and even physical and dietary practices.14 One main purpose of writing this domestic pamphlet was to educate people to become good public rulers who would develop into “steadfast pillars of the state.”15Not only did Milton propose this program for others, but he also practiced what he preached. Frank Graves states that Milton “wrote upon the freedom of the press, the tenure of kings, religious toleration, and against the episcopacy … Also, he undertook as part of his reforms to contribute to educational theory and to the improvement of the schools themselves.”16 Samuel Johnson, in describing Milton’s genius, writes that “Milton was able to select from nature or from story, from ancient fable or from modern science, whatever could illustrate or adorn his thoughts. An accumulation of knowledge impregnated his mind, fermented by study and exalted by imagination.”17 Of course, Johnson continues, and quotes Addison, who said, “Our language … sunk under him [Milton]”—a polite way of saying that Milton’s genius was so great that Milton had a hard time communicating with the common man at times.18 But although his writing may be a little taxing for some readers, the fact remains that he was very knowledgeable, and it is in large part because of his brilliance in academics that he had such an impact on society.

Second, Christians need a Biblical basis for transforming culture. Neither Milton nor the Reformers adhered to educational views that presupposed a Christian minority position in culture. Reformers took Christ’s command (through the metaphor of a landowner) to “occupy until I come” (Luke 19:13) to mean that Christ’s Kingship was presently over all nations. Christians therefore have a responsibility to use God’s talents to further His Kingdom on earth. Iain Murray notes that proof of the Reformers’ high regard for excellent education, largely a result of their postmillennial views, is found in “all of the Confessional statements of the Reformed Churches four hundred years ago.”19 In He Shall Have Dominion, Ken Gentry provides a list of postmillennialists who supported the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom through cultural and political involvement: St. Augustine, Greg Bahnsen, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Matthew Henry, A. A. Hodge, Charles Hodge, J. Gresham Machen, Iain Murray, John Owen, R. J. Rushdoony, B. B. Warfield, the Westminster Divines, and many other Puritans.20 Milton is not listed in this group of Reformed men, but H. Richard Niebuhr, in his book Christ and Culture, numbers Milton among men who refused to separate the value of the church and state (though they retained the concept of sphere sovereignty), but rather believed that Christ was the transformer of culture: “Political, scientific, literary, and military examples of loyalty to Christ in conflict and adjustment to cultural duties … [include] Constantine, Charlemagne, Thomas More, Oliver Cromwell … Pascal, Kepler, Newton, Dante, Milton, Blake and Dostoevsky … [and] Robert E. Lee.”21 Proving conclusively that Milton had specifically postmillennial eschatological views might be difficult—especially since his views on soteriology and even the divinity of Christ were unclear at times—but his position on education and his outspoken attempts to shape public policy put him in the camp of Reformed men whose postmillennialism directly shaped their views on education and political involvement. In an article published in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Greg Bahnsen comes to the same conclusion regarding Milton and postmillennialism: “In addition to its stimulus to missions, the postmillennial hope was influential on men of letters (e.g., John Milton), scientists (e.g., Sir Robert Boyle), and politicians (e.g., Oliver Cromwell).”22 Moreover, in Book III ofParadise Lost, Milton says (somewhat anachronistically) that Christ conquered Death, the last enemy, and then ascended;23 not a hundred lines later, God the Father speaks of Christ’s total power and present Kingship over earthly “Thrones, Princedoms, Power, [and] Dominions.”24 Can such a view be anything but the sure hope of the success of the gospel in this age—the optimism of postmillennialism?

Third, Christians must be engaged in culture if they are to transform it. Milton’s Puritan work ethic, his abundance of published materials, especially his pamphlets, and his governmental position as Latin Secretary demonstrate his deep involvement with culture. Leland Ryken states that Milton was a “worldly saint” who believed in “the sanctity of all legitimate types of work.”25 As William Tyndale says, “[T]here is difference betwixt washing of dishes and preaching of the word of God; but as touching to please God, none at all.”26 Milton’s dedicated efforts in the literary arts are abundantly evident, and his views of government had a capital effect in 1649. Milton’s defense of regicide (“Tenure of Kings and Magistrates”) especially coincides with John Knox’s27 and John Calvin’s28 repudiations of the theory of the divine right of kings (cf. Jeremiah 22:1–10). Clearly, cultural engagement was a non-negotiable for Milton.

Issues in Cultural Engagement

Two issues that concern themselves with cultural engagement are censorship and popular culture. Avenues of learning through which God communicates truth should not be indiscriminately censored. Milton’s Areopagitica lacerates Parliament for thinking it could regulate morality to the hundredth degree. Milton did not play word games—he did not promote pornography or blasphemy; neither did he endorse the free expression of lewd or random art. But he was rather claiming that a governing body should refrain from telling people how to use their own judgment.29 Christians should be “vigilant”30 when they read, and authors of corrupt books ought to be punished.31 But banning books—and by extension, other areas of culture—hyperbolically “kills reason itself.”32 Christians cannot afford to be “cultural anorexics” (to use a term by Brian Godawa33) and censor everything if they are to be effective as salt and light (Matt. 5:13–14). If people bury their heads in the sand and eschew cultural interaction, how can they know, much less affect, their world? Milton believed that separation and censorship had their places, but he could not “praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”34 To Milton, the purposes and proportions of actions and habits were more important than their associations.

Regarding popular culture, many Christians say there is not much good material on television or in movies. But as Milton writes in “Smectymnuus,”35 people cannot speak intelligently on a location unless they have been there,36 and people who abstain from such venues know far too little to criticize them intelligently. This is not to say universally that experience is necessary to understand a concept or subject, but only that simply reading a review of something is not always good enough to obtain the right to criticize it. Hearsay is not sufficient for dissertational work; neither should hearsay be sufficient for assertions against popular culture. Popular culture has many forms of media through which thinkers can proclaim messages, and Milton probably would have availed himself of as many of them as he could. Just as Greek plays were the means by which philosophers promoted their ideas, so now television and movies spread today’s philosophies. A thoughtful man himself, Milton desired for all Christians to be intellectual heavyweights as well. And censoring everything is better suited to develop anemic thinkers, not to develop Christian thinkers who have brought every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:4–5).

Regaining the Blissful Seat

Milton states in “Of Education” that “the end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by … be[ing] like [Christ].”37 Unfortunately, it is rare for Christians today to knowingly “repair” anything with a goal of cultural excellence and dominion. In many cases, it is common for many Christians to view their secular callings as jobs that pass the time so that they can do “real Kingdom work,” such as passing out tracts or supporting missionaries. These endeavors are well and good as far as they go, but God’s commands extend well beyond the pale of “cultic” activities. God has commanded that we develop even our “secular” gifts for His glory and to show His majesty to the unbeliever; and to ignore those callings for “more spiritual” endeavors is to shirk divinely mandated responsibilities.

Christianity is not provincial. Just as Abraham held the title deed for Canaan, Milton and the Reformers believed that Christians hold the title deed to the planet. In fact, the covenantal promise to Abraham is expanded in Romans 4:13 to include, not simply a strip of land in Palestine, but the entire world. Milton’s desire for Englishmen, and all Christians, to see days of glory is echoed in the Puritan John Owen’s statement: “That God in his appointed time will bring forth the kingdom of the Lord Christ unto more glory and power than in former days, I presume you are persuaded.”38 And because of this optimism, a Christian education and a rigorous pursuit of excellence in all fields are not futile activities. America may no longer be a “city on a hill” when it comes to religious orthodoxy, but faithful people here and elsewhere can work in service to Christ, the only one who can finally “regain the blissful seat.”

1. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, ll. 1–6.

2. Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), 78.

3. Ibid., 79–80.

4. Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, ll. 648–649.

5. Ibid., ll. 254–255.

6. “Corruption of the best produces the worst.”

7. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Ford Battles, trans., John McNeill, ed., (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1960), 340.

8. A polemical tract against censorship.

9. John Milton, John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003), 726.

10. Ibid., 726.

11. Milton, Paradise Lost, Book XII, l. 623.

12. Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), 11.

13. Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, 639.

14. Ibid., 633–639.

15. Ibid., 636.

16. Frank Graves, Great Educators of Three Centuries (New York: AMS Press, 1971), 1.

17. Samuel Johnson, Major Works, ed. Donald Greene (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 710.

18. Ibid., 714.

19. Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), xvii. Several of these include The Thirty-Nine Articles (1571), The Scottish Confession of Faith (1560), The Belgic Confession (1561), and The Heidelberg Catechism (1563).

20. Ken Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1992), 90–91.

21. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harpers, 1951), 231.

22. Greg Bahnsen, “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism,” The Journal of Christian Reconstruction 3:2 (Winter 1976–1977),

23. Milton, Paradise Lost, Book III, ll. 250–259.

24. Ibid., l. 320.

25. Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 24–26.

26. Quoted by Ryken, Worldly Saints, 25.

27. John Knox, On Rebellion, ed. Roger A. Mason (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 28–29.

28. Calvin, Institutes, 1491–1492.

29. Of course, Milton would differentiate between a nurturing school environment and adult society. But regarding the decisions of mature adults, Milton believed reasoning was better than censorship.

30. Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, 720.

31. Ibid., 720.

32. Ibid., 720.

33. Brian Godawa, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).

34. Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, 728.

35. An antiprelatical tract written to defend several Puritans from attacks by Bishop Joseph Hall.

36 Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, 692.

37. Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, 631.

38. Quoted by Murray, The Puritan Hope, 38.

Topics: Education, Philosophy, Reformed Thought, Biblical Law, Church, The, Culture , Dominion, American History, World History

Jeremy Larson

Jeremy was raised in a home by parents who were Christian educators. He received a B.A. in creative writing, and an M.A. in English, from Bob Jones University. He taught English at the high school and university levels for several years, and now teaches Bible at Palmetto Christian Academy in Mount Pleasant, SC.

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