Wednesday, March 14, 2012

C.S. Lewis & George MacDonald, "The Nature of Christian Faith" part II

This article was offered for free by author Thomas Talbott on his website. It is from the anthology "All Shall be Well; Explorations in Universal Salvation and Theology, From Origen to Moltmann," edited by Robin Parry (or Gregory MacDonald, as he was known).

This post will cover pages four through nine, and continue in the essay written by Thomas Talbott on my favorite deceased theologian, George MacDonald.

Universal Salvation in the Theology of George MacDonald (1824-1905) by Thomas Talbott

Although MacDonald was never shy about challenging the prevailing theological doctrines of his day, sometimes with a surprising degree of harshness, he also denied that the proper purpose of teaching was to persuade others to conform their thinking to the teacher‘s own thinking. Instead, the sole purpose should be to acquaint people with the living Christ of the New Testament. As MacDonald himself put it: "I believe that no teacher should strive to make men think as he thinks, but [should instead strive] to lead them to the living Truth, to the Master himself, of whom alone they can learn anything, who will make them in themselves know what is true by the very seeing of it. I believe that the inspiration of the Almighty alone gives understanding. I believe that to be the disciple of Christ is the end of being; that to persuade men to be his disciples is the end of teaching."(13)

These words also illustrate the extent to which MacDonald adopted a Christocentric approach to revelation. Like Karl Barth whom he anticipated in this regard, he seems to have distinguished sharply between the incarnate Word of God, which is the light (or the true revelation) that comes into the world and enlightens every person, and the words of any human witness, such as John the Baptist, who might testify to the light.(14) As the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ is the ultimate and final revelation from God, and everything else, including everything else in the Bible, must be interpreted in light of this ultimate and final revelation that, sooner or later, will enlighten every person. Faith is simply the obedient response to this revelation, and, as such, it can also be a reliable source of knowledge under the right conditions. In that one respect, at least, MacDonald‘s understanding of faith was similar to that of John Calvin, whose overall theology he passionately rejected. For even as Calvin held that "the only true faith is that which the Spirit of God seals in our hearts,"(15) so MacDonald held that "the inspiration of the Almighty alone gives understanding"; and even as Calvin held that certain convictions sealed in our hearts by the Spirit of God are "self-authenticating," so MacDonald held that "the Master" enables us to "know what is true by the very seeing of it."

By faith, for example, "we understand that the world was created by the word of God"(16) and we can know this, furthermore, without having to infer it from other propositions or from some body of evidence. Or, to express the point in a way familiar to contemporary philosophers, at least some of the truths known by faith are properly basic in Alvin Plantinga‘s sense.(17) In no way, however, did MacDonald identify saving faith with the possession of correct doctrine. Faith may be a source of knowledge, but it just is an obedient heart or a disposition to obey; and it "is the one terrible heresy of the church," MacDonald lamented, "that it has always been presenting something else than obedience as faith in Christ."(18) In particular, Christians too often confuse faith in Christ with an acceptance of certain theories or abstract doctrines about his nature and work, and they just as often confuse an absence of "correct" doctrine with an absence of faith. But like Kierkegaard, MacDonald held that an acceptance of correct doctrine is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition of saving faith.

It is not a sufficient condition, because accepting a particular theory carries no guarantee of obedience; and besides, "to hold a thing with the intellect," he insisted, "is not [even] to believe it [in the relevant sense]. A man‘s real belief is that which he lives by."(19) And neither is an acceptance of correct doctrine a necessary condition of saving faith, because one can have an obedient heart, a willingness to submit to the "true light, which enlightens everyone,"(20) without giving assent to any particular theory about the nature of Jesus Christ and his redemptive work. MacDonald even went so far as to suggest that an atheist might be closer to the Kingdom of God than a professing Christian: "It is better to be an atheist who does the will of God, than a so-called Christian who does not. . . . The doing of things from duty is but a stage on the road to the kingdom of truth and love."(21)Indeed, our theological opinions and theories, however correct they may be, might be the very thing that prevents us "from being Christians. For when you say that, to be saved, a man must hold this or that [theory], then are you leaving the living God and his will, and putting trust in some notion [such as a theory of atonement] about him or his will."(22) But our task, MacDonald contended, is simply to follow in obedience the one who died on our behalf and rose again in triumph; it is not to haggle over humanly devised theories about the way in which the death and resurrection of Christ successfully reconciles us to God.

Accordingly, a set of incorrect theological opinions, honestly and humbly held, could no more condemn someone than a set of correct opinions, held apart from a transformed heart, could successfully save someone. But if that is true, then in what sense, exactly, is faith also a source of knowledge? MacDonald‘s rather nuanced answer includes an appeal to Philippians 3:15–16, wherein Paul wrote: "Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything [my emphasis] this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained." Commenting on this text, MacDonald wrote: "Observe what widest conceivable scope is given by the apostle to honest opinion, even in things of grandest import!—the one only essential point with him is, that whereto we have attained, what we have seen to be true, we walk by that."(23) So faith (or an obedient heart) is indeed, MacDonald contended, the principle instrument through which God imparts spiritual understanding and a knowledge of himself. But whatever light now dawns in our understanding, whatever ultimate truths we now discern (however faintly), and whatever obligations we now acknowledge, we must allow that to penetrate our hearts and to transform us. We must, in other words, own up to whatever light we have. When we follow that light in obedience and thereby submit to it, the Spirit will inevitably enable us to see farther and wider.

We thus approach what I (and many others) have found to be the single most refreshing aspect of MacDonald‘s approach to religion. He recognized that we must all proceed from where we now are in our respective spiritual journeys, and he saw no virtue in trying to suppress honest doubt or in ignoring moral qualms concerning, say, a widely accepted interpretation of the Bible. Such bad faith, as he saw it, is the very antithesis of a genuine faith in Christ. "Do not try to believe anything," he thus exhorted, "that affects you as darkness. Even if you mistake and refuse something true thereby, you will do less wrong to Christ by such a refusal than you would by accepting as his what you can see only as darkness."(24) Granted, what a given person sees as darkness at a particular time may depend on a host of cultural and individual factors, perhaps even on a confusion of one kind or another. Even MacDonald‘s own teachings, he would have acknowledged, may affect some as darkness. But with respect to any genuine revelation from God, it "is impossible," he believed, that "you are seeing a true, a real thing—seeing it as it is, I mean—if it looks to you darkness."(25)

Imagine yourself, by way of illustration, a simple peasant with no knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, little knowledge of the Bible‘s historical background, and no access to scholarly works on the Bible. Imagine further that, even though you believe in your heart that racism and slavery are terrible evils, you should find yourself utterly unable to refute, exegetically, your pastor‘s racist interpretation of the curse of Ham or his appeal to Paul in support of institutional slavery. And imagine, finally, that your pastor should then play his trump card: an appeal to original sin in an effort to knock you off your moral convictions, as if sin would more likely corrupt your deeply rooted moral convictions than it would his interpretation of Scripture. How should you then respond in the face of your pastor‘s seemingly superior knowledge of the Scriptures and his injunction to bow humbly before them (as he interprets them, of course)? MacDonald‘s counsel on such matters was clear: Hold on to your moral convictions, treat them as part of the light that the Word of God has brought into the world, and do not "let your cowardly conscience receive any word as light because another calls it light, while it looks to you dark. Say either the thing is not what it seems, or God never said or did it. But, of all evils, to misinterpret what God does, and then say the thing as interpreted must be right because God does it, is of the devil."(26)

To be continued.

--Nick


Footnotes:
12 "The Child in the Midst." In Unspoken Sermons, 15. Unspoken Sermons was originally published in three series in 1867, 1885, and 1889 in London by Longmans, Green & Co.
13 MacDonald, "Justice." In Unspoken Sermons , 536.
14 See John 1:1– 9. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from the Bible will be from the New Revised Standard Version copyrighted in 1989 by the National Council of Churches in the United States of America.
15 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion , Bk. 1, Ch. viii, Sec. 5.
16 Heb 11:3.
17 See Plantinga, "Warranted Christian Belief", ch. 8. According to Plantinga, ―gospel truths resemble self "evident propositions" in the same respect that "perceptual and memory beliefs" resemble them. That is, "They are evident, but don‘t get their evidence from other propositions; they have their evidence in themselves (and not by way of inference from other propositions" (Ibid., 262). 
18 "The Truth in Jesus." In Unspoken Sermons , 393.
19 Ibid., 390.
20 John 1:9.
21 MacDonald, Paul Faber, Surgeon , 25.
22 "The Truth in Jesus." In Unspoken Sermons , 390– 91.
23 Ibid., 410.
24 From Rolland Hein‘s edited version of "Light" in George MacDonald: Creation in Christ, 42. I choose this edited version because MacDonald‘s use of "thee," "thou," "thy," and some older linguistic forms in the paragraph from which the quotation is lifted could be distracting to some readers.
25 Ibid.
26 Ibid.

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