George MacDonald on Witnessing, Atonement

I’m reading George MacDonald’s The Baron’s Apprenticeship (or There and Back, which was its original title). George MacDonald was a nineteenth century Scottish author, poet, and minister. He had a profound influence on J.R.R. Tolkein, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis. Lewis moved towards Christianity after reading MacDonald’s Phantastes. He had such a high regard for the Scottish theologian that he called him his “master.” Lewis also compiled a book of George MacDonald quotes, for he believed that MacDonald was close to the heart of Christ.

Notwithstanding MacDonald’s fan base among Christian celebrities, he held doctrines that would strike many evangelicals as heretical. He leaned in the direction of universalism, in that he viewed hell as a place of correction rather than eternal punishment. And he had problems with the substitutionary atonement, the idea that Christ died in sinners’ place to pay the penalty for their sin. As far as MacDonald was concerned, Christ came to turn people from their sin, not to appease a wrathful deity.

There were quotes in one chapter of The Baron’s Apprenticeship that I really relished, even if I didn’t agree with them totally. They said what’s been on my mind for a long time, only I didn’t have the words to express my thoughts. So I’ll share them with my readers as well as comment on them.

A little background on the plot: Barbara, a Christian, has a friend named Richard. Richard is a book-binder and (unbenownst to him) a nobleman. He strives to be a good person, but he is not a Christian. He doesn’t feel that he needs God, and the existence of evil keeps him from believing that a beneficent deity rules the world. Barbara is talking with Thomas Wingfold, a Christian pastor of the community, whom we encounter in other George MacDonald books. Barbara wants advice on how to witness to her friend.

Here are some quotes:

Barbara had a “great desire to help Richard believe in God. It was not her desire to see him ‘converted’; indeed, the word would have little meaning to Barbara. Certain attempts at what is called conversion are but manifestations of greed for power over others; swellings of the ambition to propagate one’s own creed and proselytize victoriously; hungerings to see self reflected in another convinced. In such efforts lie dangers as vulgar as the minds that make them, and love the excitement of them. But genuine love is far beyond such groveling delights” (105).

Preach it, George! And how much pride, power, and manipulation goes on in evangelicalism today? I can say a LOT about this quote, but I’ll limit my comments to the evangelical concept of accountability, in which Christians enjoy telling other Christians how to live their lives. Does that really have anything to do with love? Or does it flow from a human desire to exercise power over someone else–to see a reflection of oneself in another person? I hate it when people tell me, “James, you’ve grown,” which is something I hear from all sorts of people–both evangelical Christians and also liberals. Usually what that means is that I’m behaving more according to the standards of the person who says it. In short, I’m growing to be more like them (or as they view themselves to be). It makes me a little sick, to tell you the truth!

“Fortunately, [Barbara’s] life had not been loaded to the ground with the degrading doctrines of a wrathful God whose so-called justice is perversely satisfied with the blood of the innocent for the punishment of the guilty” (105).

I had always heard that George MacDonald had problems with the substitutionary atonement, and I knew from his other books that he focused more on salvation from sin rather than the penalty of sin. But this was the first time that I read him explicitly criticize Anselm’s doctrine, and, to tell you the truth, it somewhat took me aback!

I never really had problems with Anselm’s atonement model. I think it reminds us that we are sinners in need of God’s grace, an idea that can make us humble in our Christian walks. In addition, Anselm is consistent with the New Testament, for Paul’s epistle to the Romans clearly states that the wrath of God is against sin, and that Jesus Christ’s blood serves as a propitiation that delivers believers from God’s wrath. You don’t know how many times I’ve heard people blow off the substitionary atonement with “that’s just Anselm.” No, it’s not just Anselm. It’s the New Testament.

And I don’t understand for the life of me how Anselm’s model contradicts a God of love. I’ll let Paul answer that claim: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:6-9 NRSV). Paul didn’t see anything unloving about deliverance from God’s wrath through the blood of Jesus Christ. So why should we?

At the same time, I think that evangelicalism focuses too much on deliverance from the penalty of sin, and not enough on freedom from sin itself. I’ll admit that this sweeping generalization isn’t accurate in a lot of cases, but, seriously, what are Christians told to emphasize when they share the Gospel with non-believers? “If you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?” “You’re not perfect, and God demands perfection for you to be in his presence, and you can only have that when Christ’s perfect life covers your sinful imperfection.” These popular models of evangelism focus overwhelmingly on salvation from the penalty of sin.

And, indeed, there’s a lot in the New Testament about forgiveness. But the New Testament also speaks a great deal about freedom from sin itself. Here are some passages:

Matthew 1:21: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

John 8:31-35: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’? Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

Acts 3:26: “When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.”

Romans 6:5-6: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”

Jesus did not just come to earth to pay the penalty for our sins. He came to show us a better way of life. And he did that throughout his experience on earth, which includes his ministry, his death, and his resurrection. Unfortunately, many of us are slaves to lifestyles that hurt us and other people, even as they hinder our relationship with the only one who can give us genuine satisfaction. And one of Jesus’ goals was to free us from all that junk.

In my next post, we’ll look at another George MacDonald quote on witnessing.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to George MacDonald on Witnessing, Atonement

  1. FT says:

    Again, bang on, James. I wish more Protestant Christians can follow the MacDonald approach. I think it go a looong way for them.

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  2. Gerlad Ware says:

    So much of evangelical emphasis is wrapped up in the penal substitution theory of atonement, and the fact such thinking is but theoretical is not mentioned often. And, so much is overlooked, such as: that God has set out to create men in His own image and that surely includes that man, like God, should know both good and evil but do only the good while refusing the evil. The popular atonement theory makes it sound like God long ago gave up on such a creation and could only settle for pretending men had been made in his image and that by imputing to them the righteousness of Christ rather than bringing them to such. The whole atonement picture of today is of a defeated God who has agreed to deceive himself and not look beneath the blood of Christ to see the sins of those who “accept Jesus” but continue in their sins. Sins don’t have to be repented of but paid for and Jesus took care of that, if, of course, we subscribe to whatever plan of salvation the well meaning evangelists is presenting to us.

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  3. James Pate says:

    I think it does come across that way, Gerlad. Luther said that we are snow-covered dung, but also that—-at the moment of justification—-God begins a process of transforming the believer. Often, though, what we hear about from preachers relates to where we will go after we die.

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