15 – The Minister’s Restoration

Published in 1988 as Introduction to The Minister’s Restoration, the Bethany House edition of George MacDonald’s Salted With Fire

            The year was 1896. George MacDonald–Scottish novelist, poet, preacher, essayist, and lecturer–was reaching the end of a long and highly successful literary career. At 71 years of age, he had authored 51 books of a singularly diverse nature that had sold in the many millions of copies. He was held in the highest esteem as a scholar, a man of letters, and a gifted writer, as well as a spiritual sage. Some would have ventured to call him a prophet. Others spoke of his imaginative powers as genius.

            Only a year previously his eerie Lilith had been released–that book which would come to be viewed by the critics as the crowning achievement to cap his distinguished life, that chilling fictional fantasy of death which various commentators have in retrospect viewed as a prelude to his own.

            But now, a year later, the force of his imagination and concentration was gradually diminishing. He was able to travel but little. His days of teaching, lecturing, and writing were largely past. Many of the ailments which had stalked him throughout life were at last taking their toll. Three years later he would suffer the stroke that would effectively signal an end to his active life.

            What then was left for this man, who had already done so much, to give to the world–a world that would in a very short time be able to remember him only through his books?

            The answer to that question lies in the pages you are about to read. In that period between Lilith and the stroke which came at age 74, during the year 1896, George MacDonald sat down to write one last novel, which he called Salted With Fire.

            A simple story, neither so long nor complex of plot and description as most of his earlier and lengthier novels, Salted With Fire somehow provides a fitting climax to MacDonald’s historic and controversial career. Its essential themes echo in concise and straightforward manner those elements of fundamental spirituality that MacDonald had been conveying through his books, his characters, his poems, his sermons, and his very life for over forty years.

            Many aspects of the faith MacDonald so cherished found their way onto these pages, and from a whole variety of perspectives, Salted With Fire typifies the fiction of George MacDonald. Here again we encounter a minister (like Wingfold, Drake, Bevis, Cowie) wrestling with the truth and claims of the gospel as he must evaluate the foundations of his own relationship with God. As he does so, other familiar themes come to bear upon his troubled but searching heart–what is the nature of repentance, how exhaustive is God’s forgiveness, what is the path to restoration with God and man, and what is the nature of the Love which will spare no pain to break through into an individual heart?

            Here too we encounter the dialect of the best of MacDonald’s Scottish novels. With delight we meet another memorable, aging humble saint (reminding us particularly of Donal Grant’s cobbler friend Andrew, as well as David Elginbrod, Alexander Graham, and Joseph Polwarth) who acts as spiritual mentor to those in need. There is the hearkening back to MacDonald’s personal roots in Scotland; only six or seven miles southwest of MacDonald’s hometown of Huntly is a tiny village called Tillathrowie which is quite possibly the setting for this story. The people and themes are agrarian, and we are strongly reminded of the intrinsic link in MacDonald’s personal faith between his love for his homeland and his love for the Lord. And the final chapters of Salted With Fire provide a grand and victorious statement of the essence of faith, as MacDonald, now at the end of his life, viewed it–practical, living, growing, honest, and humble–rooted in the love of God that man must learn to choose as the best, indeed the only pathway into life.

            The title of the book, perhaps as much as the contents themselves, gives us a window into George MacDonald’s mind at the time he penned his tale. From the earliest stages of his career, George MacDonald found himself in theological difficulty with the fundamental Calvinist wing of Christendom because of his view of God’s character. To the Calvinists, a sinner was lost, both in this life and in the life to come. To MacDonald, however, God’s love was infinite, and extended itself toward all of creation, even potentially onto the other side of death if necessary, using whatever extremes of discipline and purposeful suffering as will open the eyes of repentance and cause His love to break through.

            The very phrase “salted with fire” in so many ways capsulizes and provides a final and powerful statement of MacDonald’s view of God’s purifying and inescapable repentance-producing fire, which comes to bear in this story on young Blatherwick. Salt has long been both a practical and a spiritual symbol for and expression of purification. Thus, the very title of this book captures the theme of the whole, as does the quote from chapter fourteen: “There was no way around the purifying fire! He could not escape it; he must pass through it!”

            Purification (salt) of the spirit comes through pain, through godly discipline, through searing repentance, through spiritual fire. Jesus said, “Everyone will be salted with fire,” echoing the prophets Zechariah and Malachi, who said: “I will bring them into the fire: I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them” (Zech. 13:9) and, “But who can endure the day of his coming? … For he will be like a refiner’s fire…. He will sit as a refiner and purifer of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver” (Mal. 3:2-3).

            It was scriptures such as these that George MacDonald felt revealed the true extent of God’s love, harsh as they seemed on the surface, and the far-reaching purposefulness of His nature in all of life and even beyond death. Those who have attempted to categorize MacDonald through the years as a “liberal” (which he was to some) or a “conservative” (which he was to others) or a “universalist” (which he appeared to those who did not study his writings in sufficient depth), or a “heretic” (which he seemed to the staunch Calvinists of his day) have all largely missed the point in their attempts to pigeonhole him according to their pre-set standards. They overlook the intense hunger of his heart after God. They overlook the obedience and fruit of his life. For MacDonald, to this day, steadfastly resists all attempts to categorize him. His views do not fall neatly into any doctrinal “camp.” He forged new theological ground by proposing entirely new and bold interpretations of many aspects of God’s character, including: the purpose of the afterlife, of God’s redemptive plan, of the deeper meaning of God’s justice, of the limitlessness of the atonement, of the divine intent behind the purifying fire spoken of by the Old Testament prophets, and of the extent of God’s ultimate victory over sin.

            The title of this present book, therefore, as well as that of one of his well-known published sermons dealing with similar themes (“Our God Is a Consuming Fire”), in a sense pinpoints one of the key topics MacDonald felt keenly driven to communicate and which remained focal for him all his life. From his earliest days as a child, when he questioned God’s condemnation of sinners, young George MacDonald grappled to come to grips with God’s character and what His love entailed. As a youth he searched to integrate these questions into a consistent picture of God’s love in harmony with His anger and justice. Finally as an adult he presented to the world a fully matured vision of a God of infinite love who was prepared to go to any lengths (even through the use of the purifying fire of His love) to redeem a man, to bring about repentance in the utter depths of his heart, and ultimately to heal and restore him and bring him back into fellowship with Him. It was convictions such as these that gave MacDonald such a victorious and visionary outlook concerning God’s purposes, a vision communicated through his novels.

             On an altogether different level, Salted With Fire speaks to the twentieth-century church about a problem as contemporary as today’s newspapers and national events–sin, not only within the individual heart, but within the public ministry. Indeed, it is uncanny how prophetic MacDonald’s subject matter is, written almost one hundred years ago, with respect to events that have rocked evangelicalism in America in recent years. And through the characters of George MacDonald’s creation can be found properly scriptural solutions. Here we find no leveling of charges by fellow Christians and fellow ministers, no breakdown of unity within the body over issues that make the ministry a mockery in the eyes of a watching world, no attempts to hide and deceive and twist the truth, no plays for power, no motives rooted in money, no national scandal, no conditional repentance.

            One hundred years ago, George MacDonald offered a simple solution to sin according to the biblical standard that today’s church would do so well to heed. A definite order exists toward a total and godly resolution. Repentance for the wrong done must precede all else. Following repentance comes forgiveness, of a threefold nature–forgiveness by God, forgiveness on the part of others, and forgiveness of self. Once these two vital foundation stones have been laid, there can come healing, which is based in stepping down and humbly laying aside all claim to position, wealth, influence, and reputation. Then at last can come, in God’s time and God’s way, restoration. How greatly could today’s church learn how to apply these basic truths as taught in the nineteenth century by the author of Salted With Fire.

            Working on Salted With Fire presented both unique challenges as well as unique rewards. I found this book more difficult in certain ways than perhaps any of the other MacDonald novels I have edited to date. Part of this may be due to MacDonald’s age at the time the book was written. Though I have no way of ascertaining this, some of his linguistic powers may have been fading. I seemed to detect more frequent rambling sentences, more organizational incongruities, less vivid descriptive passages. However, none of this in any way diminished the clarity of the truths that emerged.

            Adding to this challenge was the fact that I had before me two editions of the original, both first editions–one American, one British, both published in 1897, and yet different textually. This made it difficult to tell (something Bible translators always face) which was the “truest” mode of expression or turn of phrase according to MacDonald’s mind at the time of writing. By far the majority of the sentences in each of the two books were distinct. Sometimes one seemed more clear, sometimes the other, but generally I found the British edition to be preferable; it seemed slightly more lucid, and it is my guess that it was indeed the most recent draft of the book.

            Neither of MacDonald’s two bibliographers (John Malcolm Bulloch, Aberdeen, 1924; and Mary Nance Jordan, Wheaton, 1984), who have extensively catalogued all known published editions of MacDonald’s original works, mention this discrepancy. My own conjecture is that when the book first appeared for serialization in the Glasgow Weekly magazine during the latter months of 1896, it was taken exactly as it was for the American edition, which was published the following year by Dodd-Mead. However, in final preparation for the British edition which was to follow the magazine’s run, MacDonald no doubt did further editing of the manuscript. This would account for the Hurst and Blackett edition, also released in 1897, showing slightly more refinement.

            One of the particular rewards in being able to share this book with you is the simple fact that this is my wife Judy’s favorite of George MacDonald’s novels. She has read it over and over, every time coming away with her deep hunger after God rekindled, and thirsting anew to have that purifying fire of God’s love continue its surgical work in her heart.

            She was quicker than I to perceive the spiritual content in Salted With Fire. She had read it, tearfully, three times, describing to me its impact on her, and all the while I was stalled with it. The difficulties of the original obscured for me the fundamental truths MacDonald was attempting to convey. But at every step, when I listened to what she was saying, I discovered her instincts to be true. She has always had an ear keenly tuned to MacDonald’s essential themes. We all owe her our thanks for being an inspired encouragement to me, both with this book and many of the others.

            Thus, this is a project which has been a double-edged labor of love on my part, both toward MacDonald, and toward her. All along I have felt as though I have been fulfilling a debt of gratitude to Judy for at last bringing into the attention of the public this book she had loved for so many years.

            The novels containing Scottish dialect have been most meaningful to Judy. Somehow, the earthy and picturesque language, coming from the mouths of David Elginbrod, Andrew Comin, Janet Grant, or John MacLear, speaking in humble and simple terms about the things of God, has given the dialect itself a feel almost of holiness. To hear it in her mind’s ear was to be transported to a simpler time, among simple people, who loved God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength of their humble yet powerful lives.

            Because of this it seemed only fitting to retain a good deal of that dialect while editing Salted With Fire. My objectives here have been just as they were in The Laird’s Inheritance, in the Introduction to which I described the process of how and why I did what I did to the original Scots. For anyone interested I would refer you to that source, and I have here included a brief glossary for your added convenience. For those of you interested in the man MacDonald himself, there is now available a full-length biography, entitled George MacDonald: Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller, also published by Bethany House. It is out of the flow of the spiritual themes of his life that his books can best be understood, and it is this flow which I have tried to capture in the biography. Salted With Fire, especially, takes on a poignant reality in light of the later years of MacDonald’s life, knowing as you read that these are among the final words for which he will be remembered.

            Finally, I enjoy hearing from you. Many have written me, and both I and the publishers continue to welcome your responses. In addition to the biography, I have prepared a small pamphlet on MacDonald which I would be happy to send you upon request. I hope you will get the pamphlet, will read the biography, and will write to let us know how MacDonald has been used of the Lord in your life.

             God bless you all!

             Michael Phillips, One Way Book Shop

             1707 E Street, Eureka, CA 95501