John Piper describes a “grievous experience I had when some of George MacDonald’s sermons were published in 1976 (Creation in Christ). I had relished three of MacDonald’s novels and the Anthology compiled by C.S. Lewis. Then I read this sentence, and the budding friendship collapsed: “From all copies of Jonathan Edwards’ portrait of God, however faded by time, however softened by the use of less glaring pigments, I turn with loathing” (Creation in Christ, P. 81). I was stunned. George MacDonald loathed my God! Over the last fifteen years since I graduated from college all my biblical studies in seminary and graduate school have led me to love and worship the God of Jonathan Edwards.” (How does a sovereign God love? ).
No, not this Jonathan Edwards, once a committed Christian but lost his faith when he retired in 2007 and is now an atheist,
but this one.
George MacDonald (1824 – 1905) was a Scottish author and Christian Congregational minister. He is best known for his fantasy novels such as Phantastes, The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind, and Lilith, and fairy tales such as “The Light Princess“, “The Golden Key“, and “The Wise Woman“. He influenced many writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. He was Lewis Carroll’s (the pen-name of Rev. Charles L. Dodgson) mentor.
What was it that made George MacDonald say he loathed the God of Jonathan Edwards? Piper doesn’t say. One of the reasons must surely be that MacDonald considered the idea of penal substitutionary atonement an affront to God’s justice. “Because he is just, says MacDonald, we are capable of knowing justice; it is because he is just, that we have the idea of justice so deeply imbedded in us.” One of MacDonald arguments is that because the one who commits an offence is totally responsible, he or she is the only one who can atone for his offence, his sin. He continues:
“Suppose my watch has been taken from my pocket; I lay hold of the thief; he is dragged before the magistrate, proved guilty, and sentenced to a just imprisonment: must I walk home satisfied with the result? Have I had justice done me? The thief may have had justice done him—but where is my watch? That is gone, and I remain a man wronged. Who has done me the wrong? The thief. Who can set right the wrong? The thief, and only the thief; nobody but the man that did the wrong. God may be able to move the man to right the wrong, but God himself cannot right it without the man. Suppose my watch found and restored, is the account settled between me and the thief? I may forgive him, but is the wrong removed? By no means. But suppose the thief to bethink himself, to repent. He has, we shall say, put it out of his power to return the watch, but he comes to me and says he is sorry he stole it and begs me to accept for the present what little he is able to bring, as a beginning of atonement: how should I then regard the matter? Should I not feel that he had gone far to make atonement—done more to make up for the injury he had inflicted upon me, than the mere restoration of the watch, even by himself, could reach to? Would there not lie, in the thief’s confession and submission and initial restoration, an appeal to the divinest in me—to the eternal brotherhood? Would it not indeed amount to a sufficing atonement as between man and man? If he offered to bear what I chose to lay upon him, should I feel it necessary, for the sake of justice, to inflict some certain suffering as demanded by righteousness? I should still have a claim upon him for my watch, but should I not be apt to forget it? He who commits the offence can make up for it—and he alone” George MacDonald, Sermon on Justice).
C. S. Lewis regarded MacDonald as his “master.” Lewis writes:
“I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it. And even if honesty did not, well, I am a don, and “source-hunting” is perhaps in my marrow. It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought-almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on that bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions – the Everyman edition of (Lewis’s Preface to George MacDonald. An Anthology, edited by C.S. Lewis). (See A critique of George MacDonald’s rejection of penal substitutionary atonement.
I wonder whether his “disciple’s” (C.S. Lewis) low view of the doctrine of Christ’s penal substitutionary sacrifice of Christ had something to do with MacDonald’s rejection of this doctrine (the shedding of Christ’s blood to reconcile sinners to God). Lewis doesn’t reject this doctrine but it seems he might as well have done so. Here is Lewis:
“You can say, says Lewis in his “Mere Christianity,” that Christ died for our sins. You may say that the Father has forgiven us because Christ has done for us what we ought to have done. You may say that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. You may say that Christ has defeated death. They are all true. If any of them do not appeal to you, leave it alone and get on with the formula that does. And, whatever you do, do not start quarrelling with other people because they use a different formula from yours.”
So if the formula of Christ shedding his blood for sins does not appeal to you, chuck it. (See Penal Substitution in C S Lewis.