20 – Discovering the Character of God

Published in 1989 by Bethany House Publishers as the Preface and Introduction to a Collection from George MacDonald’s Non-Fiction, Fiction, and Poetry



             Nineteenth-century Scotsman George MacDonald, principally known for his fantasy and fiction, was also a theologian of considerable repute in Victorian Britain. Raised in a strict Calvinist setting, his later writing and preaching attempted to present a more complete and biblically rounded view of God’s character than he had known in his youth. His discoveries were unsettling in certain ecclesiastical circles in his own day and often challenged concepts long taken for granted even in this present age.

            This compilation of selections, primarily from MacDonald’s sermons but also drawing from his poetry and fictional writings, brings into focus his convictions about God’s character. Unlike MacDonald’s stories, these nonfictional selections may prove occasionally difficult to grasp, even for the serious devotee of MacDonald. The reader will find he must pause and ponder every few lines, rereading here and there, in order to lay hold of the author’s progression of thought and the bold new concepts he is attempting to convey. Though the material has been edited–sermons of over fifty pages broken into more manageable portions; five-page paragraphs divided; sentences of up to 200 words and multiple semi-colons, colons, and dashes restructured–MacDonald’s Victorian expression and syntax can still sound a somewhat unfamiliar note to our modern ears. His original audience was accustomed to a different style than we are today. A second or third reading, possibly with a dictionary in hand and perhaps aloud, can help to clarify troublesome passages. MacDonald was a thinker, and neither his logic nor his ideas can be considered light reading to be quickly skimmed and assimilated. This is certainly no book to master in one sitting!

            The persistent reader, however–whether housewife, pastor, businessperson, student, missionary, laborer, or professional–will discover much to suscitate, enrich, and deepen an understanding of the character of God and His relation to the men and women He has made. Even at those points where a reader may take exception to MacDonald, the stimulation of thought is invigorating and valuable. For he never sought total harmony of viewpoint. He hoped to encourage Christians to think and reason, rather than allowing themselves to be spoonfed spiritual teaching without due consideration for themselves.

            It was because of such depth and variety and even the disconcerting nature of some of his thought that several noted Christians of the twentieth century point to MacDonald’s writings as among the profound influences in their lives–Oswald Chambers, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Madeleine L’Engle. And this is the reason many others were known to read him avidly–J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Spurgeon, Phillips Brooks, Mark Twain, Queen Victoria, Lewis Carroll, Lucy Montgomery, Elizabeth Yates, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Whittier, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Florence Nightingale.

            It is our sincere prayer that serious seekers after truth will be challenged by MacDonald into deeper regions of faith in their own walks with God. After all the underlining, note-taking, discussion with others, rereading, agreeing and disagreeing and arguing mentally with MacDonald, hopefully you will come away having inwardly digested these truths, and thus be stronger of mind and more intimately related in heart with God the Father, to whom MacDonald would ever have us go in our quest for truth.


            In a life of eighty years and a literary career spanning nearly five decades, Scotsman George MacDonald (1824-1905) produced some fifty-three books of tremendous diversity. These may roughly be categorized as novels, short stories, fantasies, poems, sermons, and essays.

            Out of this vast literary productivity, it is principally as a writer of fiction that George MacDonald has been recognized. Though he was said to have considered himself a poet first, a preacher second, and a novelist third, almost three-quarters of his published work was fiction. In the nineteenth century his reputation was based on Victorian novels similar to those of his contemporary, Charles Dickens. In the twentieth it has been founded primarily on fantasies and children’s stories. Thus, though he studied for the pulpit and lost few opportunities to preach throughout his long life, it remains as a spinner of yarns that MacDonald is most widely known.

            An unfortunate result of this reputation, however, is that MacDonald’s contribution to nineteenth and twentieth-century religious thought is often overlooked. George MacDonald himself would have found the term “theologian” odious if applied to him. I cannot, therefore, use it with clear conscience except by attempting to throw light sideways onto the image of the man as I think we ought to view him.

            Whether or not he was a theologian in the strict sense of the term I leave to others to determine. The fact is, George MacDonald was certainly a spiritual philosopher, a seeker after truth, and a communicator of that truth as he perceived he had discovered it–a profound and original thinker whose driving vision was to share his quest with others. Discovery and growth were the very foundation stones of George MacDonald’s being. Of neither could he ever have enough.

            As a boy growing up in northeast rural Scotland, from a very early age, George MacDonald began to pose questions to himself about the character of God. Raised in a family of strict Calvinist convictions, he found it difficult to accept within his own heart the “harsh taskmaster” view of the Almighty, which seemed the prevalent notion in the teaching he received. His search to discover what God was really like took him down many unexpected theological and doctrinal roads and often landed him squarely in the middle of controversy. But it was a search born out of an honest and humble desire to know God in intimate and personal friendship and to obey Him in every aspect of life. It was an inner pilgrimage of the heart, which lasted throughout every day of MacDonald’s life.

            At the end of that life, with the earthly portion of his quest to know God nearly done, MacDonald wrote–and these are among the last pieces of recorded letters left us before his death: “To be rid of self is to have the heart bare to God…. My God, art thou not as good as we are capable of imagining thee? Shall we dream a better goodness than thou has ever thought of? Be thyself, and all is well.”

            Even then, MacDonald was continuing to search to discover yet more of God’s nature, still asking God for deeper revelation concerning himself. Later MacDonald wrote a friend, “Would that my being were consciously filled with the gladness of his obedience! Nothing less can content me.”

            What began in boyhood continued until death–a hunger to know and obey the nature, personality, and essential character of God. What you will read in the pages which follow offer significant glimpses into the mind and heart of MacDonald as he progressed along his personal spiritual journey.

            George MacDonald’s ideas of religion, nature, and man’s relationship to the universe and its Creator were rooted in a portrait of God unique in his own day and perhaps still largely uncomprehended in our own. Many who study MacDonald’s works are convinced that the greater passage of time will reveal more and more that George MacDonald stands out in the annals of Christian thought as a humble sage casting a giant shadow spreading across the wide reaches of Christendom. (It is fruitless here to attempt a classification of MacDonald in the broad spectrum from liberal to conservative, from Calvinist to High Anglican, from fundamental to modern, because his views span the entire scope of religious ideas and doctrines. Christians of every persuasion will find much in MacDonald to embrace, and no doubt much to dispute as well. He is stubbornly unclassifiable.)

            Once his ideas have been more carefully examined, MacDonald may be read with the enthusiasm today associated with his protege C. S. Lewis and others who point reverently back to MacDonald as the foundation of much in their own spiritual development. Lewis himself credits MacDonald for beginning him on the road out of atheism toward being a Christian, and later expressed frustration that no one seemed to pay any attention to the high regard in which he held MacDonald. As his own fame grew, Lewis felt everyone ought to be showing more interest in MacDonald as the man most responsible for his own conversion and subsequent growth as a Christian. Finally Lewis went public, published an anthology of small quotes from MacDonald, and issued the following statement to get people to stand up and take notice of MacDonald: “In making this collection I was discharging a debt of justice. I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it.”

            Even though Lewis wrote those words almost fifty years ago, it has been only in the last ten or fifteen years that they have begun to be heeded. When MacDonald’s conception of the magnificently huge possibilities inherent in God’s wondrously loving character is truly seen for what it is, his work may be considered one of the great turning points in how we view God in his interaction with human beings. It will no doubt astound scholars of the twenty-first century to learn that MacDonald’s writings were nearly lost sight of for more than five decades after his death. They will find it incredible that thinkers and readers of the mid-twentieth century could have so utterly overlooked this man, especially in light of the comments on his profound influence upon their thought and spiritual journeys, and the esteem in which he was held by renowned twentieth-century writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien (“stories of power and beauty”), W. H. Auden (“one of the most remarkable writers of the nineteenth century”), G. K. Chesterton (“one of the three or four greatest men of the nineteenth century … made a difference to my whole existence”), and of course Lewis, who, after he read MacDonald’s Phantastes, said, “I knew that I had crossed a great frontier.”

            Why, then, did MacDonald’s reputation nearly vanish for such a long period of time?

            I think it is precisely because of his reputation as a storyteller. Most men and women have the inborn tendency to categorize and pigeonhole people they meet into prescribed slots. Because most of his writing was fictional and because George MacDonald made no attempt to systematize his ideas, he has become known as a storyteller who also “happened” to be a preacher, and a novelist who also wrote poetry.

            Yet such an analysis misses the mark. For it is as a thinker, not a storyteller, as an elucidator of God’s truths, as an illuminator of God’s character, as a man upon whom God bestowed wisdom and insight that George MacDonald will be known to posterity. His stories, fairy tales, poems, fantasies, and symbolic myths were but the vehicles that enabled him to carry forward his unexpected and progressive view of true spirituality. As great a novelist and poet as many consider him, as acclaimed as his imaginative and allegorical works are, it is nevertheless not as a novelist, poet, mythmaker, or symbolic muse that his mark will most dynamically be felt in the decades ahead. For in themselves such literary accolades are empty praise in light of eternity. The greatest novelist, the best poet, the most imaginative spinner of fantasies will yet stand before God, as will all people, with nothing in their hands–no books, no poems, no praising reviews. We will each take with us through death nothing but our inner selves, our souls–the essential character that is the real me, the real you, which we have used the opportunities of this life to become.

            It is there–in the life of the soul, the essential inner heart and will, that core of spiritual being–toward which George MacDonald focused the light of his intellect and imagination. The forces of life on a deeper spiritual plane were the realities that drove MacDonald to communicate, through whatever medium presented itself–be it the Victorian novel, the poem, the fairytale, or the pulpit–his view of God’s being. I think he himself would be astonished (perhaps is astonished) at how assiduously his various works are discussed and analyzed on the intellectual and literary level, while all the time the critics and scholars miss the deepest import of what MacDonald himself intended–that his writings point toward the inner life of the journey of the soul toward eternity, that life hid with God in the human heart.

            In his own lifetime MacDonald’s first choice of career was as a preacher. God ultimately had other designs on his life, and MacDonald held only two brief pastorates. He did, however, continue to preach in guest pulpits throughout his life; his pulpit reputation was great, and he remained in high demand both in Britain and the United States. By his own admission, although he turned his hand to the penning of stories, his remained primarily a pulpit ministry rather than an artistic or literary one. His message weighed more heavily on his heart than the characters and fantasies and myths he employed to convey it. His imagination and the stories it spun out were but means to an end. The most clearly crystallized legacy George MacDonald has left the world is a spiritual vision of life with a knowledge of God’s character at its core. He was no mere storyteller, but a preacher who had been endowed with artistic sensibilities and authorial gifts and whose platform therefore took on literary forms.

            In recent years new generations of readers the world over are rediscovering the works of George MacDonald in new editions of his works in nearly all genres. There yet remains, however, a need for a concentrated presentation of the shining light of George MacDonald’s thought–his ideas, spiritual perspectives, beliefs, and–if you will–his theology, drawn from different sources.

            During his lifetime George MacDonald preached hundreds of spoken sermons which were never recorded or written down, and which are therefore lost to us. There remain, however, several volumes of published sermons, which, along with selections from some of his stories and other nonfiction material, provide the foundation for this present work. In speaking of MacDonald’s volumes of sermons, C. S. Lewis said, “My own debt to [them] is almost as great as one man can owe to another; and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced [them] acknowledge that [they have] given them great help.”

            In the chapters that follow, from MacDonald’s pen but newly arranged and in places edited for clarity, the perceptive reader will recognize, occasionally in strikingly parallel language, certain passages that ring a familiar note, and will find himself wondering if MacDonald gleaned some of his ideas from Lewis. In fact, just the opposite is the case. As you read, you will slowly discover just why throughout most of his adult life Lewis steadfastly referred to MacDonald as his master. When Lewis said he had probably never written anything in which he did not quote from him, he was alluding to MacDonald’s ideas.

            For MacDonald, all knowledge, all wisdom, all practicality of faith, indeed all relationship that can exist in the universe is rooted in the view one has of the character of God. Who is God? and What is God like? were to him the most vital questions of life. Only by coming to grips with who God truly is can one begin to know God intimately. These were the fundamental issues that plagued George MacDonald during the early years of his life. What is God’s nature, his personality? What are his designs upon his creatures? Do we have a clear picture of him from the theologies out of which we have been taught? Or is God’s character in truth something more, something greater?

            Such was the path of discovery upon which George MacDonald marked out his own footprints for others to follow. In an understanding of God’s character, the path toward true spirituality begins.

            The course of his own quest lies before you. Perhaps when you have read his words, and I confess that for myself they often take two or three times through, you will understand why Madeleine L’Engle called him “the grandfather of us all–all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through imagination.”

            Michael Phillips

            Eureka, California