Erskine and MacDonald

Thomas Erskine (1788-1870) and George MacDonald (1823-1905) were two Scottish theologians whose forgotten legacy is one of the tragedies of Western Christianity. Erskine was a Scottish lord and lay theologian. MacDonald was a Scottish Protestant minister and fantasy novelist. Erskine influenced MacDonald, and MacDonald influenced C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien of “Lord of the Rings” fame. 

Both Erskine and MacDonald rejected the rigid Calvinism so prevalent in Scotland, and both men were denounced and condemned for their focus on the unconditional and universal love of God for all creation and all people. Erskine’s understanding of the essence of Christianity can be found in his newly published book entitled The Unconditional Freeness of the Gospel which contains three essays. MacDonald’s theology can be found in a volume entitled Unspoken Sermons. These writings are meant to be savored, meditated upon, and absorbed. 

In this Lenten Season, I want to focus on three quotes, two from Erskine and one from MacDonald. 

“Did God create us and put us on probation to see what we would do and be and then have a final reckoning, or did he create us to educate us to become sons and daughters?” (Erskine)

Both Erskine and MacDonald rejected a widespread assumption about God, salvation, and human destiny. They denounced the theological concept of double predestination. Rooted in the Calvinist tradition, this doctrine maintained that from eternity God predestines some people for salvation and some people for damnation. He (and the god of this cruel and insane idea was always a “he”) did so simply to demonstrate his sovereignty and freedom to do as he pleased. This form of Calvinism chose sovereignty over love as the primary characteristic of God. (How else could they explain the condemnation of the vast majority of people to the fires of hell if they assumed that salvation could come only through Christ?) Only the smallest percentage of humans would experience salvation and the eternal blessings of heaven after death. All others would be consigned to the torments of hell—a consignment over which God rejoiced with this demonstration of his absolute sovereignty and freedom. 

However, both Scottish theologians also rejected a softer version of such condemnation. Many Christians and theologians assumed we were put on earth “on probation”—a trial period to see if we can “pass the final exam” at the Last Judgment. Probation-based religion produces fear and anxiety and is not conducive to the experience and practice of authentic and unconditional love. As I John 4 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” 

Fear-based religion is self-centered and has no ability or energy to trust, embrace, and practice self-giving love. Jesus said, “Those who seek to save their lives will lose them. But those who lose their lives for the sake of the good news (of God’s unconditional love) will find life.”  I am baffled as to why so many Christians who are focused so much on their own salvation and going to heaven do not realize that they are “seeking to save their lives” out of self-centered fear. 

Erskine suggested that God does not create us for probation. God creates us for the joy and fulfilment of becoming God’s free, creative, and loving children. Such “becoming” is our salvation, healing, and wholeness. We are “educated” and learn how to live within a healing community of love with God as our common Parent. 

“In the New Testament, religion is grace, and ethics is gratitude. (Erskine) Once we abide in the shalom of God’s unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, nonviolent, and everlasting love, we live our lives out of a joyful gratitude. We love because we are loved and want to join in the grand story of God’s healing and emancipating love. Grace is God’s free gift, and a life of sacred and committed compassion is the way we express our thanksgiving for being included in the family of God. Christian ethics is not a matter of “do’s and don’ts” or a way of earning God’s love and acceptance. We are loved from all eternity, and nothing can ever separate us from God’s undying love—not death and not even our own sin and foolishness.

“Our Father doesn’t do abandonment.” (MacDonald) The God revealed in Jesus Christ does not abandon Her children. The love between a parent and a child is perhaps the closest we will ever come to understanding the deep love God has for every single one of Her children. We all come from Her womb, and we are all destined for the joy of eternal communion with our Creator. We may give up on ourselves or on others, however, God will never forget or abandon those to whom She has given life. Often, we realize that the comment from the comic strip character Pogo is so true: “We have met the enemy and he is us!” We can be our worst enemy. But as Paul reminds us, “Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God.” We are a part of creation which means that neither in this life nor in eternity can we be separated from God’s love. God will pursue until God finds us, and both Erskine and MacDonald argued that that pursuit will continue beyond death. And, like the shepherd who searched for the single lost sheep, God will not rest until we are all found.  Why? Because our Father/Mother doesn’t do abandonment. 

I would suggest that a focus on this good news during Lent is a much more productive and transforming way to prepare for Easter. Love, not fear or condemnation, will free us to become what we were created to be. The fear of judgment and condemnation can only stifle our growth in the likeness of Jesus. Only love can heal, emancipate, and allow for the unimaginable expansion we are destined to experience as children of God. During this Lenten Season, may we hear and internalize the wisdom of these 19th century Scottish theologians who knew the heart of God. 

Tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.