When I came to Christ at the age of 51, after having been a self-satisfied atheist for as long as I can remember, the midwives of my rebirth from above were C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald. It was particularly from the latter I learned that I am saved from my sins—from my prideful, willful self—through a relationship with the Lord. The atonement was not a single act that Jesus performed that “saved” me, but at-one-ment, union between God and man; now it was up to me to work out my salvation, to die to my own ego and follow Him.
While MacDonald is regarded with considerable skepticism, if not downright disdain, by the leading Reformed theologians of our day, especially for his views on the atonement (unlike his greatest admirer, C.S. Lewis, who, despite his own profoundly un-Reformed ideas about the atonement is an icon to those same men), some of the best contemporary Christian writers outside of the Evangelical mainstream have been greatly influenced by the Scotsman. What Brad Jersak, Brian Zahn, Paul Young, and Baxter Kruger have most in common with MacDonald is an emphasis on Christian faith as a relationship with God, rather than a matter of accepting a set of doctrines, and an insistence that Father and Son share the exact same nature, that God is our perfect father who pursues us with relentless love.
These writers all place great emphasis on the Trinitarian nature of God: We can better understand the Apostle John’s assertion that God is love by contemplating the relationship of love that has always existed between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;
and we recognize that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is an invitation for us to join the joyous, loving relationship that defines the very nature of our Triune God.
John MacMurray is the founder of Open Table Conferences (which feature speakers such as Paul Young, Baxter Kruger, Brad Jersak, and Fr. Kenneth Tanner) and the Northwest School of Theology, and a prolific speaker and teacher. He is also the author of a new book which I enthusiastically recommend, A Spiritual Evolution: Rediscovering the Greatest Story Ever Told. MacMurray delivers on just what the title implies: describing the evolution of his understanding of the Gospel (indeed, of God Himself) from the mainstream Reformed perspective to what I would call the understanding of the Apostles and the early Christian community.
It’s a story with which many readers will identify.
One of MacMurray’s greatest strengths is his honesty and willingness to reveal his flaws. Consider, for example, some of his subheads, which are all preceded by the words “I Confess:”
As my knowledge of information grew, so did my arrogance.
There were times I would have rather been right than help my neighbor.
There was a disconnect between what I believed and the way I lived.
These statements, which appear early in the book, can be summed up by one of his most telling confessions: “I was a Pharisee.” For me, there is a strong Pharisaical streak in Reformed theology, and I think the author is acknowledging that this belief system can bring out or intensify the Pharisaical tendencies that lurk within all of us, fallen as we are.
While Reformed theology of course acknowledges the Trinity, much Reformed preaching and theological writing pays it scant attention. Hence MacMurray’s confession, “I had completely ignored the Trinity.” The more I’ve contemplated this matter, the more I conclude that ignoring the implications of the Triune nature of God lies at the heart of the problem with Reformed thinking.
So many of us have experienced a profound unease, or even fear, of the God pictured by Reformed icon Jonathan Edwards—an image that George MacDonald “turned from with loathing,” and which MacMurray calls “the monster under my bed.” But such a God is incompatible with the three-person God of Scripture! I’ll quote at length from an excellent passage in which MacMurray riffs on the chilling implications of ignoring the Trinitarian nature of God:
“[T]he deepest truth about the essence of God’s being is that he exists as a relationship of three persons. Consequently, this should be the starting point of how we think of God and the foundation for how we engage in any and all conversations about him…
“[I]f God’s essence is not relationship, then relationship is foreign to his nature. He only takes on a relational mode of existence when he creates other persons. Relationship becomes an add-on, something added to his deeper, truer self…
“Further, if there was a time when God was alone, then it follows logically that the deepest motive of God is to serve God’s self…For before he creates, there is no ‘other’ to love, care for, or relate to. So then, he is actually a God of self-centered love and self-glorification…
“If God was first and foremost a lover of himself, then how could I ever really trust him?”
Among MacMurray’s confessions is that he had “a twisted view of the cross:”
“I encouraged people to believe in what Jesus did as more important than who he is…Salvation was found in what people believed about his death on a cross, not in the person who hung on it…
“I do not say this to minimize the event of the cross, which is a significant part of our salvation, but rather to focus our attention on the Savior, by and with whom we are brought into relationship. That is, brought into his life, the eternal life he shares with the Father and the Spirit…
“As George MacDonald so beautifully inquired, ‘If the woman who touched the hem of his garment had trusted in the garment and not in him who wore it, would she have been healed?”
The quote above from MacDonald speaks is one among many references to the Scotsman. About midway through the book, MacMurray writes of a particularly tough time in his life, during which he repeatedly read two chapters from MacDonald’s epic three-volume work, Unspoken Sermons: “It Shall Not be Forgiven,” and “Justice.” I wholeheartedly concur with the author’s statement that “George MacDonald’s sermon on justice is the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject.”
A Spiritual Evolution is a superb series of reflections on MacMurray’s spiritual journey, and is only available for purchase online at https://www.aspiritualevolution.com/
I also note that the author is a professional photographer who has published several books of his nature photography, including By Chance? Landscapes from the Canvas of the Creator, which I could not resist ordering on Amazon just now…