Saturday, June 10, 2017

Definite Love

I've been on a George MacDonald spree lately - audio book listening through Thomas Wingfold, Curate, The Wise Woman, and now The Day Boy and the Night Girl. Oh, how I love his stories! MacDonald's writing is exquisite, transporting and thought-provoking - all the loveliness of a fantasy escape sobered by wise meditations. With all that he understands and beautifully describes about the nature of God, people, and the world, MacDonald's theology has a great flaw - that is, he fails to grasp the God-centeredness of the love of the triune God.

Writing in the midst of a nation and church decayed in formal religion and starved for a glimpse of intimate, divine love, George MacDonald tried beautifully to give hungry souls what they lacked - pictures of a kind, compassionate Heavenly Father whose heart was open to true communion with those who would seek Him. But he forgot, or never really saw, that God's love begins and ends with God, and not with creatures. Over and over, MacDonald's portraits of divine love portray a brooding, yearning being whose chief desire is the transformation of the beloved creature, and a heart unwilling to leave any finally ruined. This is so close to being perfectly right, because God's love for His people is deep, passionate and transforming - but close is only close, and a tiny gap in one's view of God can lead to chasms of error. God's love for His people is aimed at His final glorification in them. (Eph. 1:4-6) A deity whose heart's passion is all for his creatures may look nice, but such a God could never condemn anyone to final, eternal punishment. From the innocent-appearing blossoms of man-focused love in MacDonald's stories, can grow (and has in some cases, grown) the dangerous fruit of universalism - the teaching that all creatures will finally be saved, even if they must pass through judgments (i.e. hell may be real, but not eternal), for they are God's beloved creations and He could not bear to see any finally lost.

This is one of the reasons I like to read multiple books at a time - blending fiction, history, practices, and theology reading throughout my days. Solid, straightforward theology writing sheds light on the more obscure philosophies one encounters in fiction and other reading. For instance, Jonathan Leeman's The Church and The Surprising Offense of God's Love is the perfect counterbalance to my recent fiction spree. Here's a quote that grasps so clearly what George MacDonald did not:

Insofar as God's affections uphold something as most precious, he will evaluate or judge all things by whether they, too, ascribe proper value and worth to that thing. He intends for us to call 'good' what he calls 'good' and to call 'evil' what he calls 'evil' (Mal. 2:17). If, therefore, God love his glory more than anything, upholding it as most precious, everything in the world that redounds to his glory would be called 'good'. Anything opposed to his glory would be called 'evil,' the law of God would be that which upholds the standards of his glory, and the judgment of God would be rendered according to these glory-promoting laws. On the other hand, if God loves us more than anything - if his greatest affections are bent toward our glory - God's law and judgments would be in precisely the same direction.
All God's judgments serve the God-centeredness of his love. His love evaluates and assesses in accordance with his God-centeredness. His love expects, it demands, and it enacts penalties in accordance with his God-centeredness.
A theological system that presents a God who loves his creatures more than anything is a system that will probably tend over time toward universalism...any doctrine of eternal judgment or damnation will dry up. Man-centered systems might inconsistently keep such a doctrine for a time because the doctrine can easily be found on the pages of Scripture, but the inevitable logic of the system will eventually determine that , if humanity is most precious and if God loves man more than himself, there is no higher law that constrains God to do anything other than grant all humanity eternal bliss." (Chapter 2, "The Nature of Love")

God's love for His people is mighty, sweet, transformative (MacDonald pictures this beautifully in some places) and it has nothing to do with us. It is as free and unconstrained as His freedom to not love us. He loves Himself, His Son, His glory first, because He is best and first. That is right and good. That would have made George MacDonald and many of his contemporaries uncomfortable. But that is what ultimately makes the intimate fatherliness of divine love even more breathtaking than the loveliest word picture a human author could paint. He didn't have to have us at all, but if we love Him, He first loved us - and the God that first loved us, loved God first, and calls us to love Him first. From Him and through Him and to Him are all things.

Illustration from MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin, Jessie Wilcox Smith, 1920

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