A Preface on George MacDonald’s Theology

A Preface on George MacDonald’s Theology
by Dale Nelson

Timothy Larsen, George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles: Incarnation, Doubt, and Enchantment. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2018. 143 pages. $16. ISBN 978-0-8308-5373-1.

GMThe three lectures published here do a very readable job of unpacking MacDonald’s doctrine. The first lecture sees two religious phases in 19th-century England. The century’s first half is the “Age of Atonement,” the second half the “Age of the Incarnation.” The first emphasized “Christ’s work on the cross as a penal substitution” for mankind’s sins (cf. 1 Cor. 2:2 and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). MacDonald turned from this; instead he shared in the trend that followed, an “emphasis on themes such as the love of God and the fatherhood of God,” as in the preaching of MacDonald’s pastor and friend, Frederick Denison Maurice. Maurice saw not Easter but Christmas as “‘the great Christian Festival,’” and MacDonald likewise hailed Christmas as “‘this one day that blesses all the year.’” None of MacDonald’s poems has the Cross, ransom, sacrifice, blood, Calvary, or Easter, etc. in the title, while no fewer than fourteen of the poems in his two-volume Poetical Works have Christmas in the title. Christ came to show us complete childlike trust in the Father.

The Romantic character of MacDonald’s message pervades much of the second lecture. “Honest doubt” may precede spiritual growth, which might come through Wordsworthian contact with nature, reading poetry such as Shelley’s, and love between the sexes. C. S. Lewis told us that the heart may sing unexpectedly as one works one’s way through a tough bit of theology, but characters in MacDonald’s novels who read theology are not likely to be depicted as profiting by it. Larsen shows that MacDonald focused on a “canon within the canon” of the Bible: in the novels, an interest in the Old Testament is typical of judgmental Christians who are missing the boat, while the spiritual Christian must be grounded in the Gospels, and particularly in a selection of Christ’s words. Till then, in MacDonald’s view, it’s likely that the OT and even the Epistles will not meet someone’s needs. MacDonald gives obedience to God a romantic appeal.

Early in the third and final lecture, Larsen surprises readers by rejecting the “myth” that the young MacDonald lost his pastorate because his congregation was unspiritual. No; MacDonald’s pastorate failed because he was a haughty young minister who wanted to be a poet. Larsen assures us that MacDonald did learn humility. MacDonald believed that suffering was necessary for the sanctification of each sinner, so that all apparent evil was “the only and best shape,” as we read in Phantastes, “which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good.” (MacDonald’s doctrine – as Larsen puts it, “that all of the evil, trouble, and suffering we experience should be accepted as actively willed by Almighty God” – contrasts with the Biblical modified dualism in, for example, Lewis’s Problem of Pain and Gregory Boyd’s God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict.)

The book includes scholars’ responses to each lecture, and subject, author, and Scripture indexes. A few errors should be amended: Grenville for Greville (p. 21), waivers for wavers (p. 44), Surgeon for Spurgeon (p. 52), devise for device (p. 112), etc.

This is a lightly edited reprint of a review by Dale Nelson first published in CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society 50:1 (Jan.-Feb. 2019.

Dale Nelson is associate professor of English emeritus from Mayville (North Dakota) State University. He is a regular contributor to Beyond Bree, the monthly Tolkien newsletter; CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society; and Portable Storage, William Breiding’s general interest fanzine. His work has appeared in Tolkien Studies, Mythlore, Touchstone, and other periodicals, and in the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia edited by Michael Drout. His collection Lady Stanhope’s Manuscript and Other Stories was published by Nodens Books. He is a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Article – Copyright 2022 by Dale Nelson. All rights reserved.

More by Dale Nelson – Russell Kirk: An Inkling Without the Inklings

One thought on “A Preface on George MacDonald’s Theology

  1. Good to know about this! I wonder how generally true Larsen’s analysis is that “in the novels, an interest in the Old Testament is typical of judgmental Christians who are missing the boat”? I don’t immediately remember that, or have that sense, from the (realistic/historical) novels of his I’ve read. By contrast, I have a vivid memory of ‘The Voice of Job’ from Unspoken Sermons, Series Two, and of MacDonald’s writing about Moses in ‘The Consuming Fire’ in the First Series and in ‘The Mirrors of the Lord’ in Series Three. Happily, there are so many – all? – of MacDonald’s books scanned or transcribed online, to try reading, or sampling – or ‘word-searching’ (the Project Gutenberg Unspoken Sermons found 35 instances of Moses for me…). And Lewis’s George MacDonald: An Anthology (1947) is a worthwhile investment and a good place to start – whether reading one a day, or taking advantage of the internet to search for the context of his selections.


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