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George MacDonald (2) Faith and Works

May 9, 2009

No one who knows George MacDonald should be surprised that his Christian thinking is expressed not only in his sermons but in everything he wrote. He hated piety of the type that set Sunday aside with ostentatious strictness and then saw the rest of the week as somehow less under the eye of God. He had a particular dislike of calling church worship “Divine Service”. For him the only divine service was love and care for one’s neighbour. He held that since it is impossible for a man to do anything immediately for God, God has placed him among his neighbours for whom he can do many things. As Jesus made clear, God regards what is done for the least of them as being done for him. It is from this basic principle that two of the ever-recurring themes of MacDonald’s stem: that man’s  only way of knowing God is to do his will; and that the good pagan will enter heaven more readily than the disobedient Christian.

Because of such teaching, MacDonald was often, as a young preacher, in hot water with his congregations who were on the whole composed of orthodox Calvinists. I am sure we have a personal reminiscence in this anecdote from his novel “What’s Mine’s Mine”:

“A certain young preacher in Scotland some years ago, accused by an old lady of preaching works, took refuge in the Lord’s sermon on the mount. “Ow aye!” answered the prtisan, “but he was a varra yoong man whan he preacht that sermon!”

The humour of this should not blind us to the fact that strict Calvinism, fleeing a counting-house view of merit and good works, had driven some of its followers into an equally false view of faith. and when MacDonald tried to oppose the exaggerated claims of a faith which often meant bare belief by, for example, quoting St Paul’s words: “Though I have all faith so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing,” he was often accused of preaching salvation by works and found himself excluded from the tabernacles of “the unco guid”.

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