Figural christology in Paradise Lost

In the last two books of Paradise Lost, the angel Michael instructs Adam about what is to come. Together it amounts to a poetic summary of the whole biblical narrative, focusing especially on the bookends: the first 11 chapters of Genesis (the immediately subsequent history of Adam and Eve's progeny) and the antitype of Adam, Christ the Son of God incarnate, in whose life and work Adam finally finds consolation for the misery his and Eve's sin will unleash on so many generations of their children.

One of the most striking features of Milton's biblical precis is his depiction of figures from the "primeval history" of Genesis, those chapters between Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden and the calling of Abram. Specifically, his language about Enoch and Noah evokes Christ, not least through its anonymous description: by not naming the person in question, Milton leaves ambiguous just who is in view. The overall literary and theological effect is a brilliant, compelling figural christology, using words apt for the Gospels' protagonist to redescribe the initial descendants of Adam, planting verbal seeds in the mind of the reader as she is led, eventually, to the figure's fulfillment in the flesh.

Here is how Milton describes Enoch:

...till at last
Of middle age one rising, eminent
In wise deport, spake much of right and wrong,
And judgment from above: him old and young
Exploded, and had seized with violent hands,
Had not a cloud descending snatched him thence,
Unseen amid the throng. (XI.664–671)

Enoch, like Christ, proclaims judgment and righteousness; escapes the violent mob by walking through their midst; and departs from the earth by ascending to God's side on a cloud. When Adam asks Michael, "But who was that just man, whom had not Heaven/Rescued, had in his righteousness been lost?" (681–682) the angel replies:

But he, the seventh from thee, whom thou beheld'st
The only righteous in a world perverse,
And therefore hated, therefore so beset
With foes, for daring single to be just,
And utter odious truth, that God would come
To judge them with his Saints—him the Most High,
Rapt in a balmy cloud, with winged steeds,
Did, as thou saw'st, receive, to walk with God
High in salvation and the climes of bliss,
Exempt from death, to show thee what reward
Awaits the good, the rest what punishment . . . . (700–710)

Again: Like Christ, Enoch is the one righteous man in a fallen world, generating hatred to the point of violence, and calling down God's judgment upon all unrighteousness. For his pains, Enoch is raised to life eternal with God and freed forever from death, at once the divine exemplar and the divine pedagogy for all humankind.

Adam next foresees Noah, and here is how Milton depicts him:

At length a reverend sire among them came,
And of their doings great dislike declared,
And testified against their ways. He oft
Frequented their assemblies, whereso met,
Triumphs or festivals, and to them preached
Conversion and repentance, as to souls
In a prison, under judgments imminent;
But all in vain. (719–726)

Noah here figures the ministry of Christ, joining his neighbors as he finds them but not condoning their behavior, instead bearing witness to another way. Not only does he meet them with the proclamation of a message of repentance, like Christ at the outset of his ministry, but he did so "as to souls/In a prison," almost word for word a transposition of 1 Peter 3:19's account of the crucified Christ preaching to the spirits in prison—traditionally interpreted as the descent into hell. Noah typifies the Son of God in both his earthly and his spiritual missions to the lost.

Michael elaborates the sense for Adam:

So all shall turn degenerate, all depraved,
Justice and temperance, truth and faith, forgot;
One man except, the only son of light
In a dark age, against example good,
Against allurement, custom, and a world
Offended. Fearless of reproach and scorn,
Or violence, he of their wicked ways
Shall them admonish, and before them set
The paths of righteousness, how much more safe
And full of peace, denouncing wrath to come
On their impenitence, and shall return
Of them derided, but of God observed
The one just man alive: by his command
Shall build a wonderous ark, as thou beheld'st,
To save himself and household from amidst
A world devote to universal wrack. . . . (806–821)

To which Adam responds in delight:

Far less I now lament for one whole world
Of wicked sons destroyed, than I rejoice
For one man found so perfect, and so just,
That God vouchsafes to raise another world
From him, and all his anger to forget.
But say, what mean those coloured streaks in Heaven,
Distended as the brow of God appeased? (874–880)

Finally, of the "peace from God, and covenant new" (867) that Adam spies, the angel replies and thereby concludes their discourse as well as Book XI:

Day and night,
Seed-time and harvest, heat and hoary frost,
Shall hold their course, till fire purge all things new,
Both Heaven and Earth, wherein the just shall dwell. (898–901)

Milton lays his cards on the table by explicitly referencing 2 Peter 3:1–13, inviting the reader to make the connection that the biblical author has already drawn: Noah and the ark are to the flood as Christ and the church are to the purifying fire of the End, which like the deluge is a consummating sign of both new covenant and new creation. Christ, as the Second Adam, is in fact the Second of all Adam's children, and thus a Second Enoch and a Second Noah, the one just and perfect man come to rescue God's good but fallen creatures from their own violence and, consequently, from God's righteous judgment. So when, on "The second time returning" (859), in the bill of the Spirit-dove is found "An olive-leaf . . . pacific sign" (860), then "from his ark/The ancient sire descends, with all his train" (861–862): all, that is, of Adam's faithful sons and daughters, delivered from death and kept safe in the fleshy ark of his true Seed's body, the church. For the church is a mother to Christ's new sisters and brothers, who, along with their first parents, are now spotless children of God the Father.


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