ISSN: 1086-6523


Honeygosky, Stephen R. Milton's House of God: The Invisible and Visible Church. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993. xi + 255 pp. $39.95. ISBN 0-8262-0876-2.

Reviewed by Ken Simpson
January 3, 1996

In Milton's House of God: The Invisible and Visible Church, Stephen Honeygosky challenges the assumption, widespread in Milton criticism, that Milton ignores the visible church in his ecclesiology. Arguing that Malcolm M. Ross (3-5) and others underestimate the importance of the visible, worshipping community in Milton's theology of the church, Honeygosky maintains that, although the mystical communion of saints through Christ is pre-eminent, the visible church still persists in Milton's "radical myth" of "the single reading believer as the most basic and adequate church" (208). This is to walk a fine line, for the "church of one" is precisely the kind of reduction of worship Ross and others see in Milton's work, but Milton, Honeygosky suggests, has it both ways: "the two major dimensions of church (the invisible and the visible) have an inextricable, ongoing, intersecting-though-not-equivalent relationship" (2). It is, finally, the interdependence of the invisible and visible church which characterizes the ecclesiology of Milton and the radical, nonconformist tradition. Because no one knows who is or will be united to the glorified Christ, charity, tolerance, and diversity in scripture-based gatherings are encouraged; at the same time, even though invisible church membership is unknown, it remains the only church worth belonging to, encouraging spiritual, individual communion through the Word and Spirit. By refusing to exclude either the invisible or visible dimension of the church from his analysis, Honeygosky is able to convey the subtlety, consistency, and coherence of Milton's ecclesiological thought.

As Georgia Christopher, Robert Entzminger, and William Shullenberger have argued, language and redemption are linked in Milton's theology by the analogy of words and the Word. Honeygosky continues this line of thought when he suggests that church reform is inseparable from verbal renovation: "Christ, 'the Word' of the Father, gives significance to his Church's words as the ongoing means of causing and sustaining its regenerate condition and ecclesial relationship to him" (231). The pattern of linguistic renewal is called "verbal kenosis," a process in which ecclesiological terms are emptied of traditional significance and given new life, new gospel-meaning, just as Christ "emptied himself" (hekenosein in Philippians 2:7) of divine glory, was crucified, died, and rose again to new life (238; 230). Not only is the rite of "verbal kenosis" repeated "throughout Milton's prose canon"(230) in words such as "church, worship, separation, schism, license, heresy, holiness, clergy, learning, trade, righteous works, sacrament, and scripture," (16) but the structure of each verbal transformation is identical:

	Without exception Milton takes each one [word]
	as received in its normal ecclesiastical or 
	spiritual usage.... Imitating God's rhetorical
	pattern of redemption (as recorded in 
	Philippians 2:7), Milton empties each linguistic
	term of its regular, supposedly supernatural 
	content, and allows that notion to die before
	he takes up the term again, resurrected with 
	new, "truly spiritual" meaning. Out of this
	kenosis and death--out of this emptying,
	eventual disintegration and seeming formlessness--
	proceed new words, terms, and concepts that 
	Milton and his church trusted would bear 
	much fruit (238).

If the individual reader, the dignified image of God, is the visible expression of the invisible church, then renewing the language in which the reader finds himself is the most pressing work of church building for the reforming prophet. This reformation formed the "center out of which Milton's literary works came into being and from which they operate" (16).

While in Part One the author outlines the Reformation context of Milton's ecclesiology, contending that radical nonconformists fulfilled what Luther anticipated, in Part Two and Part Three he describes the invisible and visible church respectively. "Separation," "schism," "license," and "heresy" are renovated in the image of spiritual "communion with the Father and with Christ" (Christian Doctrine, CPW 6.499) and become terms of praise in the renewed lexicon of the true church. In separate chapters in Part Three, Honeygosky affirms that "clergy," "learning," "reading," "sacrament," "works," "holiness," and "scripture" are all transformed by Milton to create a truly reformed "house of God" in the hearts of believers. For example, in the Christian Doctrine, the source of most of Honeygosky's citations, Milton empties "clergy" of its traditional authority by emphasizing its Latin root clerus, meaning "heritage," before reconstituting the clergy as gifted individuals called by the church and redefining the term to signify the whole church (176-77). Honeygosky excels in this section as he draws together quotations, analogies, and contextual parallels into an internally coherent, imaginative, and sympathetic reconstruction of Milton's visible church.

Yet, the strengths of Honeygosky's book will be seen by some Miltonists as shortcomings. Biblical metaphors (230) and references (221) are occasionally substituted for Milton's views as if there are no differences between them. "Verbal kenosis" is a useful and plausible way of explaining the reforming process, but a more detailed rationale for its use is needed since Milton nowhere uses the term in an ecclesiological context. In addition, the internal coherence of Milton's ecclesiology is achieved at the expense of the historical and often polemical contexts in which the views are stated. If, for example, the discussion of learning in "Hirelings" is part of Milton's ecclesiological system, then some explanation of the relationship between the system and the "learned ministry controversy" is in order since Milton, to my knowledge, did not intend to write systematic ecclesiology in this tract. Milton's own thought is also more internally divided than Honeygosky suggests. Milton may rescue "the common people" (179) in his "egalitarian" (185) church, but he also authorizes a new hierarchy of talent based on "spiritual gifts" (188), exegetical skill (199), and moral fitness (125). Granted, the author admits that this is not a "source study," nor is he concerned with "political, topical, or structural issues," but references to these sources and issues would reveal that Milton differs from as much as he agrees with his radical nonconformist contemporaries (13; 3).

These general reservations, however, should not detract from Honeygosky's achievement. This is a fine, ground-breaking study that Miltonists will return to for its explication of specific concepts and its unfolding of the overall unity of Milton's ecclesiology. My only hope is that in the future Honeygosky will turn to the ecclesiological and liturgical dimensions of the major poems to complement his work on the prose.

Ken Simpson
University College of the Cariboo
Kamloops, British Columbia

Library of Congress Information

Author:        Honeygosky, Stephen R., 1948-
Title:         Milton's house of God : the invisible and visible
                  church / Stephen R. Honeygosky.
Published:     Columbia : University of Missouri Press, c1993.
Description:   x, 255 p. ; 24 cm.
LC Call No.:   PR3592.R4 H66 1993
Dewey No.:     821/.4 20
ISBN:          0826208762 (alk. paper)
Notes:         Includes bibliographical references (p. 241-248) and
Subjects:      Milton, John, -- 1608-1674 -- Religion.
               Christianity and literature -- England -- History --
                  17th century.
               Christian poetry, English -- History and criticism.
               Church -- History of doctrines -- 17th century.
               Church in literature.
Control No.:   92038869