This post will cover pages nine through thirteen, 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
Now if, according to MacDonald, Jesus Christ is the very revelation of God to us, just what is the nature of the God he reveals? In a sermon entitled “The Creation in Christ,” MacDonald asked: “Now what is the deepest in God?”27 That is, what is the most basic attribute of divinity, the one that explains God‘s most basic reasons for acting? It could not be his power because having the power to do something could never, by itself, provide a reason to do it. Neither does having the power to do something exclude the possibility of doing it for a selfish or even for a demonic reason. So, because Jesus himself described God as our “Father in heaven,” because his entire message, as MacDonald understood it, was one of love and forgiveness, and because I John 4:8 & 16 declares twice that God not only loves but is love, MacDonald likewise wrote: “In one word, God is Love. Love is the deepest depth, the essence of his nature, at the root of all his being. . . . His perfection is his love. All his divine rights rest upon his love.”28 But if it is indeed God‘s nature to love, how then should we understand his holiness and justice? Are not these also attributes of God? People sometimes say, as if it were an illuminating remark, that God is not only loving and merciful, but also just; they then exhort us to take into account God‘s justice, as well as his love, and to avoid an overly sentimental understanding of his love. According to MacDonald, however, God‘s justice is itself an expression of his love and, beyond that, his justice and mercy are exactly the same attribute. Nor was MacDonald‘s understanding of God‘s perfecting love, which a sinner might sometimes experience as wrath, harsh judgment, or even a temporary hardening of a heart, even remotely sentimental.
“I believe that justice and mercy are simply one and the same thing; without justice to the full there can be no mercy, and without mercy to the full there can be no justice; that such is the mercy of God that he will hold his children in the consuming fire of his distance until they pay the uttermost farthing, until they drop the purse of selfishness with all the dross that is in it, and rush home to the Father and the Son, and the many brethren—rush inside the centre of the life-giving fire whose outer circles burn. I believe that no hell will be lacking which would help the just mercy of God to redeem his children.”29
So God is not, in other words, a split personality whose justice pushes him in one direction and whose mercy pushes him in another. In order to illustrate the point, MacDonald chose, as a text for his sermon entitled “Justice,” the King James translation of Psalm 62:12: “Also unto thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy; for thou renderest to every man according to his work.” He then pointed out that, given the prevailing Calvinist theology of his day, one would have expected this text to read very differently, something like: “Also unto thee, O Lord, belongs justice; for thou renders to everyone according to his or her work.” But if MacDonald was right about justice and mercy (and the Calvinists of his day were mistaken), then it matters not which term one might choose. For the two resulting statements are, if not synonymous, at least logically equivalent, and so both are true if either one is true.30 MacDonald might also have pointed to a text such as Isaiah 30:18, according to which God‘s mercy expresses his justice: “Therefore the Lord wants to be gracious to you; . . . he will rise up and show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice.” Or he might have pointed to the eleventh chapter of Romans, which explicitly teaches that God‘s severity towards the disobedient, his judgment of sin, and even his temporary hardening of a heart all express his boundless mercy. The point is that, according to explicit teachings in the Bible, God‘s justice and mercy both require exactly the same thing, namely, an absolute destruction of sin and the separation of every sinner from it.
This single move, that of affirming an identity between divine justice and divine mercy, strikes at the very heart of Calvinism as a system of theology. Many Christians who might reject MacDonald‘s universalism—Arminians, Roman Catholics, and other freewill theists—can nonetheless accept such an identity, but a Calvinist cannot. You cannot consistently affirm a doctrine of limited election (much less that of limited atonement) unless you suppose that God deals “justly” with some people—namely, the non-elect—without being merciful to them. In defense of limited atonement, therefore, the Calvinist philosopher Paul Helm has argued that mercy differs from justice in just this respect: By its very nature mercy must be supererogatory, an expression of undeserved love, and hence cannot rest upon a moral necessity of any kind. “What is essential to such [undeserved] love is it could, consistently with all else that God is, be withheld by him. If God cannot but exercise mercy as he cannot but exercise justice then its character as mercy vanishes. If God has to exercise mercy as he has to exercise justice then such ‘mercy‘ would not be mercy [i.e. would not be undeserved love]. . . . A justice that could be unilaterally waved would not be justice, and a mercy which could not be unilaterally waved would not be mercy.”31
Now the first thing to observe about such an argument is that it is not a biblical argument at all; that is, it does not rest upon the interpretation of some biblical text or combination of texts. It is instead a quasi-philosophical argument of a kind that MacDonald encountered repeatedly and always rejected on the ground that it rests upon an utterly pagan understanding of justice and mercy.32 The easiest response would be to make Helm a present of the word “mercy” and then simply to replace it with any one of the following: “beneficence,” “kindness,” “compassion,” or even “pity.” One could then note the absurdity of the following claim: “If, given his essential attributes, God cannot but exercise beneficence [kindness, compassion, or pity] as he cannot but exercise justice, then its character as beneficence vanishes.” And, finally, one could point out that Romans 11 culminates in the statement: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful [or beneficent] to all.”33 As I have suggested elsewhere, the basic Pauline concept here, typically “translated in our English Bibles with the word ‘mercy,‘ is not that of undeserved love at all. It is instead that of beneficence, kindness, compassion, or pity. It has in view not the setting aside of a just punishment, as Helm supposes, but the relief of misery or distress.”34 In fact, MacDonald himself rejected as absurd the whole idea of God withholding a deserved punishment from someone. For if divine justice and mercy are the very same attribute, then God withholds a deserved punishment only if he withholds his mercy as well.
Behind the widespread idea that God‘s mercy is supererogatory lies the more general absurdity that, even as our Creator, God owes us nothing in our so-called fallen state; in particular, he has no obligation (no responsibility grounded in necessity) to save sinners. But MacDonald rejected that view as patently absurd. For just as the decision to have children entails an obligation to care and to provide for them, however disobedient they may become, so God‘s decision to create us entailed a freely accepted obligation to meet our true spiritual needs. MacDonald thus exclaimed:
Away with the thought that God could have been a perfect, an adorable creator, doing anything less than he has done for his children! . . . The idea that God would be God all the same, as glorious as he needed to be, had he not taken upon himself the divine toil of bringing home his wandered children, had he done nothing to seek and save the lost, is false as hell. Lying for God could go no farther. As if the idea of God admitted of his being less than he is, less than perfect, less than all-inall, less than Jesus Christ! less than Love absolute, less than entire unselfishness! . . . It will be answered that we have fallen, and God is thereby freed from any obligation, if any ever were. It is but another lie. No amount of wrongdoing in a child can ever free a parent from the divine necessity of doing all he can to deliver his child.35
So here, once again, we see how MacDonald‘s vision of God‘s all-pervasive love so inflamed his imagination that he found much of the Western theological tradition, insofar as it departs from a consistent expression of it, deeply offensive.
27 “The Creation in Christ.” In Unspoken Sermons, 420.
28 Ibid., 421.
29 “Justice.” In Unspoken Sermons , 535.
30 Two statements need not be synonymous in order to be logically equivalent. For example, “The triangle on the board is equilateral” and “The triangle on the board is equiangular” are not synonymous statements. But they are logically equivalent. It is necessarily true that both are true if either one is true.
31 Helm, “The Logic of Limited Atonement,” 50.
32 There are in fact powerful exegetical arguments in support of MacDonald‘ s contention here. For an exceptionally careful study of how the translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Septuagint and the subsequent translation of the Septuagint into the Latin Vulgate distorted the Hebrew understanding of justice and drove an unwarranted wedge between justice and mercy, see McGrath, “Justice and Justification”; for a discussion that non-specialists might find somewhat more accessible, see Brinsmead, “The Scandal of God‘s Justice: Part 1”; and for an exhaustive review of the biblical evidence, see Marshall, Beyond Retribution, chapter 2: “The Justice of God in Paul and Jesus.”
33 Rom 11:32.
34 See Talbott, “Grace, Character Formation,and Predestination unto Glory,” 22.
35 “The Voice of Job.” In Unspoken Sermons , 340, 342– 43.