I don’t think it’s any surprise that I’m no Calvinist. So the fact that I might disagree from time to time with some of the good, Godly guys over at The Gospel Coalition should come as no surprise either.
Normally this wouldn’t be blog-worthy (nothing new here!) but the good Mr.s Piper and Keller recently made some ludicrously unfair and ungracious comments about George MacDonald that I couldn’t let slide.
That Piper made a thoughtless comment that gets him into hot water is sort of ‘par-for-the-course‘ these days but, of the Neo-Calvinists out there today, I’ve probably had the highest respect for Tim Keller. That respect just dropped fair bit.
For whatever reason, Piper and Keller were having a little sit-down chat discussing the influence of C.S. Lewis on their lives. Cool. Fair enough. Who doesn’t love Lewis? Part of their conversation involves the sort of fun but largely inane question, “do you think you would have been friends with Lewis?”
After the typical sort of admiration and praise for Lewis they express their bafflement of Lewis’ own admiration for the one Lewis called his “master,” George MacDonald.
Their comments about MacDonald begin at 3:15 of the video below:
Surprisingly it is actually Piper who plays the (slightly) more gracious of the two and holds back from actually saying that MacDonald wasn’t a Christian. But, personally, it just irks me that, based on nothing other than the fact that MacDonald was no lover of Jonathan Edwards, Piper simply ceased reading him altogether.
In fact, Piper was right to say that it was 30 years ago that he read that quote. Over in an article you can read here (written in 1983), Piper says that he enjoyed reading 3 of MacDonald’s novels and had started reading a collection of MacDonald’s writings compiled by Lewis. Piper then says:
“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.”
So, let me get this straight. After reading 81 pages he stopped reading the book because MacDonald didn’t love Jonathan Edwards. That’s it? Not only that, but he hasn’t read any MacDonald since? There’s no comment of interacting and wrestling through the scriptures to compare them to MacDonald’s theology. Instead it is a complete write-off simply because he didn’t like Edwards’ Calvinistic portrayal of God.
How is it possible that any proper scholar or theologian could take that approach? As a Bible scholar you need to read the works of people you disagree with. To simply read only the things you agree with is a terrible practice!
Plus, John Wesley said worse things about Calvinism than that! I guess I should’t read any of his stuff either.
Anyway, at the very least Piper holds back from saying MacDonald wasn’t a Christian. Keller clearly didn’t have any problems going there. A pelagian? Really? I’m not claiming to agree with (or that anyone should completely agree with) everything MacDonald ever wrote, but Keller clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
It’s true, MacDonald, as a non-Calvinist in Victorian Scotland, was a bit of an anomaly. But he certainly wasn’t a heretic. He simply held to Christus Victor over penal substitution. He simply believed that the purpose of wrath was ultimately reconciliation. There’s nothing new or unorthodox to either of those things. Many of the Apostolic Fathers and Early Church Fathers held very similar views. In some ways maybe he was more of an anabaptist, a patrist, or a pietist stuck in Presbyterian/puritan-land.
This quote (from “Father of the Inklings“) says it well:
“Those who have attempted to categorize MacDonald through the years as a “liberal” (which he was to some) or a “conservative” (which he was to others) or a “universalist” (which he appeared to those who did not study his writings in sufficient depth), or a “heretic” (which he seemed to the staunch Calvinists of his day) have all largely missed the point in their attempts to pigeonhole him according to their pre-set standards. They overlook the intense hunger of his heart after God. They overlook the obedience and fruit of his life. For MacDonald, to this day, steadfastly resists all attempts to categorize him.”
In this respect he’s no different than others, like, perhaps, Richard Baxter, who found themselves falling through the cracks of their theological and ecclesiastical landscape.
Anyway, one of the more ironic points in all of this is that Piper and Keller don’t give Lewis the benefit of the doubt. Lewis knew all of MacDonald’s works intimately. And yet, after having praised Lewis for how well read he was, after having admired his razor sharp logic, they choose to take their own extremely limited view of MacDonald over Lewis’ extensive view of MacDonald.
Doesn’t make much sense to me. Guys who are well known and well respected within the Christian world should know better than this.
Perhaps we should give the final word to Mr. MacDonald himself:
From the sermon, A Child in the Midst:
“Nothing is required of man that is not first in God. It is because God is perfect that we are required to be perfect. And it is for the revelation of God to all the human souls, that they may be saved by knowing him…”
“… it is not obedience alone that our Lord will have, but obedience to the truth, that is, to the Light of the World, truth beheld and known.”
“What is the kingdom of Christ? A rule of love, of truth — a rule of service. The king is the chief servant in it… The great Workman is the great King, labouring for his own. So he that would be greatest among them, and come nearest to the King himself, must be the servant of all. It is like king like subject in the kingdom of heaven. No rule of force, as of one kind over another kind. It is the rule of kind, of nature, of deepest nature — of God.“
And from his sermon, The Consuming Fire:
“… for this, too, has the divine destruction [ie. God’s wrath judging and purging sin] been going forth; that his life might be our life, that in us, too, might dwell that same consuming fire which is essential love.”
“He is a consuming fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth eternal. It is the nature of God, so terribly pure that it destroys all that is not pure as fire, which demands like purity in our worship. He will have purity. It is not that the fire will burn us if we do not worship thus; but that the fire will burn us until we worship thus.”