For early modern Christian theologians, the nature of god was more or less a settled question. There were, it is true, disputes along the margins. The synod of dort, convened in 1618 and 1619 to resolve debates between Calvinists and the arminian remonstrants, crystallized ongoing skirmishes over the proper understanding of divine foreknowledge and will. decades later, arminianism was just one of John Milton’s unorthodoxies, and one of his less eccentric ones; more unusual was his rejection, in his mature theology, of the doctrine of the Trinity.1 still, even at his most heretical, Milton could agree with nearly all reformed thinkers when it came to god’s essential attributes—immensity, infinity, eternality, immutability, omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, oneness—and his departures from orthodoxy generally begin from this common ground.2 but if the question “What is god?” had a sufficient answer in theory, thinking about god in more practical terms (How does he do things?) proved less satisfying. Perhaps it still does. Take immutability: what can it mean in practice to be unchanging? How, to pursue just one potential problem, does an immutable being act? We may decide that acting entails process, and that process implies change, and if we do so the answer begins to seem elusive. one can make certain claims about god, but transforming those claims into plausible accounts of how it all actually works turns out to be more difficult. Problems like this one weigh heavily on the preface to Joseph Fletcher’s 1628 religious narrative the Historie of the Perfect-CursedBlessed Man, which unfolds as a theological treatise in miniature, mounted to explain and defend the poetry that will follow. its fourteen pages cover a number of topics, with special attention going to the Fall and redemption, but their point of departure is a discussion of the infinite, eternal god and his relationship to our finite, temporal world: i know and beleeve that all things whatsoever that either have bin, are, or shall be, so far as they have reference unto God, the Primus Motor, originall author, and principall actor of them; of whom, through whom, and for whom, they have and receive their being and motion: ELH 79 (2012) 33–57 © 2012 by The Johns Hopkins University Press
(all secondary causes being contained within the sphere of their first cause; i believe, i say) that being thus considered in god, they have neither prius nor posterius; first nor last: because god is alpha and omega, both first and last: the first of Causes, the last of Ends, that is, all in all: they being in Him semel & simul, as one individuall substance, or continued motion.3
Fletcher’s god is both transcendent and immanent, utterly unlike his creation but nevertheless subsuming it, resolving finite into infinite substance and time into eternity in his “continued motion.” This motion must be continued (in the eternal present) because for it to begin or end would entail sequence—the submission of god to prius and posterius—and, as augustine’s profoundly influential interpretation held, divine eternality means existence beyond time.4 but the irony of the passage is its perhaps inevitable fixation on beginnings and ends: god is “both first and last,” the origin from which everything sprung and the end toward which everything turns. Fletcher would no doubt reply that this is simply a way of speaking, albeit one in which we are hopelessly trapped. Time, he claims, is in fact a form of accommodation “which ariseth from our owne weak capacities and apprehensions, and not from the things of god them-selves,” and to assume that god is in any way limited by it is “satanicall pride.”5 Fletcher’s resistance to giving god any sort of temporal punctuality explains why he wrote a theological poem without god in it—why, when it features a deliberation in heaven over man’s redemption, the scene takes the form of an allegorical debate between Justice and Mercy in which god himself...
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