Friday, October 14, 2005

Milton's "Prevenient Grace"

John Milton is always going on about something obscure . . . and so am I.

I'm currently puzzling my way through a passage from Book 11 of his Paradise Lost:

Thus they in lowliest plight repentant stood
Praying, for from the mercy-seat above
Prevenient grace descending had removed
The stony from their hearts, and made new flesh
Regenerate grow instead, that sighs now breathed
Unutterable, which the spirit of prayer
Inspired, and winged for heaven with speedier flight
Then loudest oratory: (11.1-8)

I'm quoting from Alastair Fowler's most recent, 1998 edition of Milton, but my query is most medieval.

Where does Milton draw his concept of prevenient grace? Methodists use the term to refer to that grace extended to all individuals that enables them to freely accept or decline God's offer of saving grace. In short it is a type of grace that prevenes (i.e., precedes) one's act of faith in accepting salvation. Its effect is to restore the free will in fallen humanity so as to enable individuals to choose freely.

I'm speaking generally and without checking sources on this point, so all you Methodists, feel free to correct me.

But John Wesley, the 18th-century founder of Methodism, used the term "preventing grace" -- by which he meant the same thing. The concept is borrowed, perhaps, from the 16th-century Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius, who would have used Latin -- or perhaps sometimes the Dutch expression voorkomende ghenade, literally "grace coming before." I located this on page 625, line 15 of Joost van den Vondel's Grotius Testament of Hooftpunten. I don't know much about this text and can only painfully pick my way through the Dutch by using a mix of my English and German skills.

Anyway, the scholarly note to that line uses the Latin expression gratia proeveniens, an expression also used by Charles Hodge in discussing the varieties of views of grace, and he attributes the concept to the 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, who is said to have held the view:

That a gratia preveniens, a divine influence which precedes any good effort on the part of the sinner is granted to men, by which they are excited, encouraged, and aided. If this influence be improved, it secures the merit of congruity, "Quia congruum est, ut dum homo bene utitur sua virtute, Deus secundum superexcellentem virtutem excellentius operetur." This divine influence is called "gratia prima," and "gratia gratis data."

I have this statement from Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (1871), Volume 2, Section 7, "History of the Doctrine of Grace," under the heading "Scholastic Period" (and Hodge is citing Aquinas, Summa, II. i. qu. cxiv. 6). Note that Aquinas used not gratia preveniens but gratia prima, which means "first grace", and gratia gratis data, which means . . . what, "grace before the gift of grace"? Somebody enlighten my Latin.

Much earlier, the 5th-century theologian Augustine used the similar expression (and concept) praecederet gratia, which means "preceding grace," in book 2, section 10.22 of his Contra duas Epistolas Pelagianorum libri quatuor.

At various times in Christian theology, then, one finds the concept of a grace that precedes saving grace and assists the individual in accepting the grace that saves. Milton's expression "prevenient grace" comes closest to the Latin expression gratia preveniens that Hodge uses, but where did Hodge get it?

The 16th-century Spanish theologian Luis de Molina uses this expression "gratia proeveniens," or at least, J. Pohle does in discussing Molina's views in a Catholic Encyclopedia article on Molinism. And Molina's use is later mirrored by Arminius and Wesley in their works.

Is Milton indebted to Molina here, as he also seems to be for his use of Middle Knowledge?

Middle Knowledge? Yes scientia media . . . but that's another obscure and abstruse story.


At 8:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is exactly what I'm writing my master's thesis on. Where did the term come from? Thanks for pointing it out in Milton. When I have some hard results, I'll try to post again with a link to my results.

At 2:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Tim, thanks for posting a comment. You might poke around in my Milton posts for more.

I've also written a paper that includes material on Milton's conception of prevenient grace. This has been published but is not yet online.

I think that the prevenient grace ties in with Molina's views on free will and God's Middle Knowledge, so you might want to look into that.

For more on some of these issues, see my "Free-Will Theodicy . . . in Paradise Lost (pdf)," listed under the category of Online Articles in my sidebar.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

An older reference than Molina can be found in the The Spiritual Espousals by John Ruusbroec (1360s). Check out pages 44-45 of john ruusbroec on

Hope this helps.

At 5:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, I don't believe that I've come across that reference before. We also find "prevenient grace" noted by Thomas Aquinas about 100 years earlier, which may be where John Ruusbroec obtained the concept.

Jeffery Hodges

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