Was George MacDonald an Open Theist?

Was George MacDonald an Open Theist? May 4, 2017

George MacDonald

I’ve been reading through the works of George MacDonald this year, and I’m amazed by how ahead of his time this nineteenth-century preacher was. The majority of what he wrote would not sound out of place if it came from a fairly progressive Christian today. It’s little wonder that G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, and so many others have pointed to him as a major influence on their own lives and writing.

That said, his progressive views have garnered no shortage of controversy. Conservative pastor Tim Keller has gone so far as to say that he’s not sure whether George MacDonald was even a Christian. However, despite all the accusations brought against him, I’ve never heard anyone call George MacDonald an open theist. Of course that would technically be anachronistic, as the term open theism didn’t come into use until the late twentieth century, but my point is that I’ve not heard his beliefs compared to what open theists believe about God and the settledness of the future.

In brief, open theists believe that that the future has not been determined. The free-will choices we make truly do do affect the course of the future. While open theists affirm that God is omniscient—knowing all that can be known, including all possible choices that could be made—God logically cannot know what has not yet been decided. And so, while God is also immutable—never changing in nature or essence—God does change and adapt his plans in relation with human decisions.

With that in mind, check out the following statements I found in George MacDonald’s sermon, “Man’s Difficulty Concerning Prayer” from his Unspoken Sermons (bold formatting added for emphasis):

How will the child go on to pray if he knows the Father cannot answer him? Will not may be for love, but how with a self-imposed cannot? How could he be Father, who creating, would not make provision, would not keep room for the babbled prayers of his children? Is his perfection a mechanical one? Has he himself no room for choice—therefore can give none? There must be a Godlike region of choice as there is a human, however little we may be able to conceive it. …

What stupidity of perfection would that be which left no margin about God’s work, no room for change of plan upon change of fact—yea, even the mighty change that, behold now at length, his child is praying! See the freedom of God in his sunsets—never a second like one of the foregone!—in his moons and skies—in the ever-changing solid earth!—all moving by no dead law, but in the harmony of the vital law of liberty, God’s creative perfection—all ordered from within. A divine perfection that were indeed, where was no liberty! Where there could be but one way of a thing! I may move my arm as I please: shall God be unable so to move his? If but for himself, God might well desire no change, but he is God for the sake of his growing creatures; all his making and doing is for them, and change is the necessity of their very existence. They need a mighty law of liberty, into which shall never intrude one atom of chance. Is the one idea of creation the begetting of a free, grand, divine will in us? And shall that will, praying with the will of the Father, find itself cramped, fettered, manacled by foregone laws? Will it not rather be a new-born law itself, working new things? No man is so tied by divine law that he can nowise modify his work: shall God not modify his? …

If you say There can be but one perfect way, I answer, Yet the perfect way to bring a thing so far, to a certain crisis, can ill be the perfect way to carry it on after that crisis: the plan will have to change then. And as this crisis depends on a will, all cannot be in exact, though in live preparation for it. …

That God cannot interfere to modify his plans, interfere without the change of a single law of his world, is to me absurd. If we can change, God can change, else is he less free than we—his plans, I say, not principles, not ends: God himself forbid!—change them after divine fashion, above our fashions as the heavens are higher than the earth.

What do you think? Does this sound like open theism to you? Are you aware of anything else George MacDonald has written to either confirm this view or cast doubt on it? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • charlesburchfield

    I will love this quote from George MacDonald!!

    / / If we can change, God can change, else is he less free than we—his plans, I say, not principles, not ends: God himself forbid!—change them after divine fashion, above our fashions as the heavens are higher than the earth./ /
    Regarding your question about changing one’s mind
    Have you read Paul Faber surgeon by George MacDonald? What do you think about the syrophoenician woman that Jesus encountered? She had a mouth on her!! She took him down quite righteously don’t you think?

    “We must begin by frankly admitting that the first place in which to go looking for the world is not outside us but in ourselves. We are the world. In the deepest ground of our being we remain in metaphysical contact with the whole of that creation in which we are only small parts. Through our senses and our minds, our loves, needs, and desires, we are implicated, without possibility of evasion, in this world of matter and of men, of things and of persons, which not only affect us and change our lives but are also affected and changed by us…The question, then, is not to speculate about how we are to contact the world – as if we were somehow in outer space – but how to validate our relationship, give it a fully honest and human significance, and make it truly productive and worthwhile for our world.“ – From Love and Living
    -Thomas Merton

    • I have not yet read that one. Will have to make sure I get to it soon. Thanks!

  • Iain Lovejoy

    It seems to me that the article is either unclear what open theism actually is, or is under the impression that the only other theological viewpoint is determinism. Open theism is the belief that God is a being within and subject to time and who cannot therefore have foreknowledge of the future, since it as yet undetermined. Determinism starts with the same concept of God being within time, but goes the opposite way and holds that since God is omniscient he must know the future and the future is therefore fixed.
    The contrary, classic view of God is that God created time (and indeed existence itself) and is not therefore a being among beings inside time and subject to it, but rather outside time and atemporal. This view retains both God’s knowledge of the future and human free will because God knows the past, present and future by direct and immediate observation, not by knowing what we are going to do before we do it in advance, so his foreknowledge doesn’t make our actions predetermined (at least so the theory goes). Classical theism doesn’t see any lack of compatibility between God being outside time and God being able to respond and react to those within it (though in my limited understanding does seem to tie itself in knots to do so)
    Believing in free will doesn’t necessarily or even probably make George MacDonald an open theist, particularly as he pre-dates open theism by a century.

    • What you’ve described as open theism is certainly one aspect thereof. But one of the major tenets of open theism is also that God changes his plans in accordance with human interaction. It this aspect of God changing, and not merely the idea of free will, that strikes me as being like open theism in George MacDonald’s words.

      • Iain Lovejoy

        You may be right. Having read a little George MacDonald he comes across as having very little patience for abstract theology, particularly anything that seeks to place any limit on what God can do by way of love, compassion, forgiveness, responsiveness to human wants, prayers and actions or indeed anything that suggests God can’t do whatever the heck he wants to.
        The quote’s principle thrust seems to be an objection to the notion that once God has embarked on a plan, his “immutable will” (or whatever) means there is nothing mere mortals can do or say to change his mind and indeed he is basically forbidden to subsequently switch from plan A to plan B because of theology. That is the problem certainly that open theism seeks to address, as I understand it. I think he might also equally have had a problem with open theism’s coordinate denial of divine foreknowledge, however, for similar reasons of its placing restrictions on God. I suspect though he may not have been particularly interested in resolving this conflict at all: that was not (from what I have read) in any way the focus of his writings.
        The idea of God changing his mind and switching from plan A to plan B is foreign to the classic idea of God as outside time, but for dissimilar reasons to determinism. As I understand it, in classical theism (unlike determinism) God can and does adopt a “plan B” in response to our needs, actions and prayers: the difference with open theism being that a classic theist would say that God’s foreknowledge of them would mean that if he did choose to respond to our prayers, wants, needs etc by adopting plan B, he would simply not adopt plan A at all in the first place. (I think open theism may be in part a response to the extreme difficulty in getting one’s head round how exactly this would work.)
        Edit: A summary might be that God does indeed form his plans in response to our prayers, but divine foreknowledge of what those prayers will be avoids the need for him to subsequently change them as a result.

  • Jon-Michael Ivey

    I have not read much MacDonald (except the novel Lilith) yet myself, but I’ve been meaning to. A dear friend of mine (my unrequited first love, who became a much closer platonic friend after rejecting me) has often recommended him, saying he has had a bigger influence on her worldview than any other author.

    • You should definitely take her advice. George MacDonald is fantastic!

    • charlesburchfield

      If you like Lilith you will probably like phantastes!

  • Tim

    I know George MacDonald was a Christian universalist, as was Madeline L’Engle. I don’t know about open theist. I suspect he wouldn’t have accepted the label.

    • No, I doubt highly that he would be willing to claim either label. But it’s still interesting to consider how some of his beliefs may have foreshadowed those that would become known as open theism.

  • Evelyn

    I think George MacDonald was making room for the Mind of God and the Will of God, and understanding of Which is not attainable by the human brain. He certainly knew Jesus and well. “For now we see as through a mirror darkly, but then we shall see face to face.”

  • Oscar Scott Oliver

    In this short reflection you have opened up many ancillary theological questions.
    While “Open Theism” is a modern term, it doesn’t mean that the wrestling of God’s sovereignty and human freedom is a modern enterprise. The problem with American (Evangelical/conservative) Christianity is that it has been dominated with a strong infusion of Calvinism. Yet modern Calvinism has jettisoned an essential theological understanding of John Calvin. While Calvin believed in the eternal salvation of the “elect,” he did not believe that anyone could know, including himself, that they were saved until the end of the ages when the Book of Life would be opened. It was his hand-picked successor, Theordore Beza, who changed that. While this may seem a minor point, the implications of it are far reaching and throws off the balance of Calvinism.
    If you were to research Christian thought through the ages, I believe you would find some and perhaps many in the Evangelical pantheon of “saints” who also came close or even the same as what is called today as Open Theism.
    In the early seventies I did an independent study on God and Evil using the free will defense. I didn’t feel that the Greek philosophical definition of omniscience did justice to human freedom nor to God’s sovereignty nor his omniscience. I redefined it to mean that God knew all possibilities of our free choices and incorporated it into his sovereign will no matter which path we might take. Perhaps that thought was seeded by J. B. Phillips book, “Your God Is Too Small.”
    The idea that Open Theism is a threat to God’s sovereignty is bogus. When we take the least desirable path, what that does is delay the sovereign will of God for humankind with a lot of suffering and destruction.
    The best analogy I can use is the contemporary understanding of quantum physics with Newtonian physics. Does the indeterminism of quantum physics overthrow the predictability of Newtonian physics?

  • Aaron Janessa MacDonald Driedg

    I think the real problem would be with questioning whether God “sees the future” in the way that a fortune teller might. I think the idea that God “knows the future” doesn’t take into account that a god powerful enough to create the universe as we know it would have to stand outside our constrained view of time. God said “I am”, as in “I am in every moment in time, present, past and future”. As such, my understanding at least, is that we worship a God to whom all of time is one, therefore foreknowledge would not really be the proper term, since all of time is open to Him. This kind of a God works with humanity’s decisions in the way that a master weaver might work together with a novice, allowing the novice room to make decisions but having the expertise to work with the novice and make even the novices missteps look lovely. This is the God that I see represented in MacDonald, Lewis and L’Engle; a being outside the 4th dimension who sees all of time like one long river, who is as much with us now as He was with David and Paul and will be with generations in the future.