"It is a law with us that no one shall sing a song
who cannot be the hero of his tale,
who cannot live the song he sings."

— from "Within and Without"

Convinced that her son's violin is a satanic snare, a stern Scottish matron casts his beloved instrument into the fire.

Accosted by a mob about to burn him in effigy for a false accusation, a gracious Scottish man wins over his accusers with humor and humility.

The former is George MacDonald's grandmother, whom he immortalized as the violin-burning grandmother in Robert Falconer. The latter is his father, with whom he had a relationship C. S. Lewis called "almost perfect." These two contrasting personalities represent the dominant forces that shaped MacDonald's theology: the Scottish Calvinism of his era and the Celtic influences of his heritage.

MacDonald wrestled deeply with their divergent perspectives of God. He came to believe that Truth is not to be found in a theological system but in a person, Jesus Christ, who calls people to follow him in all aspects of their lives. "Our business is … to live truly," he wrote. Only as we live truly "will there be a possibility of our thinking correctly." Faith is a song that must be lived as well as sung.

God of wrath, God of love

Federal Calvinism provided the early scaffolding of his faith. Rather than affirming God as the Father who loves all of humanity and who freely forgives all through Jesus Christ, Federal Calvinists believed that God's love and forgiveness had to be purchased by the payment of Christ's sufferings on the cross. God was sovereign over all things and had chosen to love only the elect. This development of Calvinist belief arose in the late 16th and 17th centuries and became a dominant expression of Christianity in Scotland.

Aspects of this tradition remained vital to MacDonald, while others felt like a cage from which he yearned to escape. The imprisoning aspects involved intense legalism and the belief that God had from all eternity chosen to damn some and elect others for salvation. Though Federal Calvinists understood salvation as a gift of unmerited grace, they believed that one gained assurance of election through evidences of good works. The need for signs of salvation weighed heavily on MacDonald when joining the church. "I consented but with fear and trembling," he wrote in a letter to his father. "My greatest difficulty always is—How do I know that my faith is of a lasting kind and such as will produce fruits."

Fear of God's wrath produced sobriety in religion that frowned on the arts (hence MacDonald's grandmother's distrust of the violin) and enforced strict Sabbath observances. Jesus was conveyed as the legal means by which the elect escape punishment, though not necessarily the revelation of God's character and nature. Thus the grandmother in Robert Falconer explains, "But laddie, he cam to saitisfee God's justice by sufferin' the punishment due to oor sins; to turn aside his wrath an' curse; to reconcile him to us. Sae he cudna be a'thegither like God."

MacDonald wondered how the Creator and Redeemer could be described by his church as less loving and just than his own father. He agonized to think of God as a potentate supremely concerned about His own glory and establishing a system of limited atonement. In Weighed and Wanting he describes feeling as a child that he didn't want God to love him unless God loved all people. Thus he began to associate God more with his father's noble and caring character than with the wrathful God of his catechesis.

MacDonald's father affirmed beliefs more closely associated with Celtic Christian traditions, which derived in part from the desert tradition of the ancient Coptic church and placed central emphasis on the triune God of love. MacDonald was influenced by his father's egalitarian and generous attitude towards all people and by his desire for unity within the church. George, Sr., rejected the extreme points of both Calvinism and Arminianism and hated to see the gospel mystery torn "to pieces by those who believe there is no mystery in the Scriptures and therefore attempt to explain away what is evidently for the hour of God to conceal." MacDonald wrote later that his father bred in him the sense that fatherhood was at the world's core.

A crisis of faith

The polarities of Calvinism and Celtic Christianity in his childhood left him with many questions when he went to university. They provoked a faith crisis that led him to intense study of the Bible and ultimately to the belief that Jesus Christ is the true revelation of God's nature. Jesus did not come to purchase but to express God's love for humanity. "There is more hid in Christ than we shall ever learn … The Son of God is the Teacher of men, giving them of his Spirit—that Spirit which manifests the deep things of God, being to a man the mind of Christ. The great heresy of the Church of the present day is unbelief in this Spirit."

Belief in the triune God of love was like a window opening through which God's lovingkindness could breathe on MacDonald a sense of joy in his faith and delight in all of creation. He acknowledged God as the source of all truth and life and embraced what C. S. Lewis called "converted Romanticism." Human depravity was no longer the defining reality of life and faith, for he saw Christ as the Alpha and Omega who created people in grace, defeated sin and death on the cross, and is at work to bring all people into God's redeeming and transforming love. In reading his Bible, he came to see that Christ, the source of all, could use all things to draw people to himself (Col. 1:15-20). "I love my Bible more," he wrote to his father. "I am always finding out something new in it—I seem to have had everything to learn over again from the beginning … I must get it all from the Bible again."

God's mercy has no limits

MacDonald retained some aspects of the Calvinist teaching from his youth, including his grandmother's involvement with the poor. He held fast to the sovereignty of God, whose grace is unconditional and who alone deserves human devotion. The belief that God is sovereign gave MacDonald the freedom to challenge any theological system that claimed to be absolute.

For MacDonald, God's sovereign power is the power of love. The "love of the Son to the Father" is what "unites the universe." He therefore rejected what he perceived to be a Calvinist dichotomy between God's love and wrath. He believed that God's wrath is an expression of the consuming fire of divine love that purifies from sin, "that his life might be our life, that in us, too, might dwell that same consuming fire which is essential love." Thus, punishment has a redemptive purpose to set people on the right way and to deter them from what is wrong.

Jesus' suffering to cleanse us from sin reveals God's eternal self-giving nature, who like the father of the prodigal runs to welcome and restore prodigals to their inheritance in Christ. Christ did not die on the cross so the guilty could go free, but that they might die with Christ and so become true sons and daughters of God. Salvation is the restoration of a broken relationship: "to know God is, and alone is, eternal life, and he only knows God who knows Jesus Christ."

MacDonald trusted in God to purify and bring home all of his children. Because God will be all in all and desires all to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), we are called to "hope for every man." The divine Father cannot be less merciful than the most loving human father, who would never punish forever. This is the essence of MacDonald's "universalism." However, MacDonald wasn't a universalist in the sense that there is no hell, no punishment for sin, no cost. He wrote, "If a man will not have God, he can never be rid of his weary and hateful self." Even so, as seen in C. S. Lewis' portrayal of him in The Great Divorce, MacDonald left open the possibility of post-mortem conversion and believed that the terrors of hell could awaken people to their need for God: "Perhaps that will make him repent." He drew a vivid picture of this in his adult fantasy Lilith. Defeated and dragged to the house of Sorrow, the wicked queen spends a terrifying night facing her own evil until she loathes herself enough to submit to being saved. MacDonald admitted the conjectural nature of his thoughts, however, and ultimately urged people to go to Jesus for understanding: "He will lead us into all truth."

The journey to holiness

Despite his emphasis on God's love and his hope that all would be saved, MacDonald left no room for cheap grace. He was fond of saying, "God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy." We are called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to become one with God, to will and love what God wills and loves. Freedom is not entitlement to choose one's own way, but the gift to walk with God in the way of self-giving love. "Obedience is the soul of knowledge," but disobedience is the way of destruction.

MacDonald believed that wisdom is gained through the willingness to relinquish possessions, security, and control and to follow Christ regardless of the cost. Central to much of his writing is the theme of pilgrimage, in which the protagonist moves from a materialistic worldview to a more sacramental embrace of life and creation. Like Celtic heroes, called peregrini, the wanderers in MacDonald's Celtic-like stories grow in their love and compassion to the point of being willing to die for the sake of others. He believed that through dying to oneself, one develops the character and strength to be a true witness (martyr) to the nature of love that is at the heart of the universe.

Whether Irene and Curdie in the Princess books, Anodos in Phantastes, Vane in Lilith, or Robert Falconer, MacDonald's protagonists come to perceive meaning and music in nature, the interrelatedness of all of creation, and beauty at the heart of all things. They experience a baptism of sorts, which cleanses, heals, and engenders joy. And through the pilgrimage of relinquishment, suffering, and "death," they experience an enlivening of imagination that leads to greater empathy, creativity and courage. Celtic Christian emphases such as both feminine and masculine characteristics of God, the value of beauty and the arts, the importance of the Trinity, the dignity and worth of the stranger, the importance of community, and a love for God's creation are evident throughout MacDonald's work.

Many of MacDonald's theological conclusions were out of step with his time, but he believed them to be grounded in Scripture, ancient tradition, his own heritage, and the revelation of Jesus Christ. Rejected by many for his alternate vision, he was heralded by others as a wise prophet. Because he held fast regardless of the cost, his life and theology were forged in the fires of both suffering and faith. Thus an early biographer, Joseph Johnson, said, "MacDonald's work is the best revelation of his character. He has lived the songs he sang. He is the best he wrote."

Kerry Dearborn is associate professor of theology at Seattle Pacific University.