Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Witch Wood by John Buchan

Apart from his Richard Hannay novels, Witch Wood must be Buchan's most famous work and is widely considered to be one of if not his all-time best. Greatly admired by CS Lewis, it is both a tale of political intrigue in Scotland during the Montrose Rebellion and a thoughtful discussion of Calvinist Christianity.

In the world of Witch Wood, there is no moral neutrality, but the lines of battle are hard to see. Christians may be hypocrites; the village atheist may find it hard to break free of faith. The main character is an idealistic young Presbyterian minister, David, who travels to a tiny valley in an overlooked corner of Scotland where his new congregation awaits him. At first, the village seems idyllic, but a dark Wood broods over it and bit by bit, David uncovers a terrible secret. A witch's coven meets at Beltane in the Wood, and it is entirely comprised of most of his congregation.

Horrified, David sets out to wage spiritual war against the Satanists, but each Sunday his impassioned words fall on meek faces and deaf ears and the orgies go on. Meanwhile, the Monmouth Rebellion fails, and the King's men persecute the rebels and camp-followers far and wide. David is caught in the middle, trying to do his best for the congregation and the fugitives, and the Kirk Assembly neither believes in his tale of a coven nor approves of his aid to the enemy.

Meanwhile a young noblewoman named Katrine Yester lives far removed from the suffocating blackness hanging over the village, on the other side of the Wood, in a castle on a hill. By day she haunts the Wood, a symbol of goodness and source of inspiration to counteract the evil of the coven.

As you can imagine, this is a gloomy, brooding, powerful book which sincerely raises some questions about the nature of Calvinism. Most of the protagonists are Calvinists themselves, but so are all the people who practice witchcraft in the Wood. They are led by a man who truly believes that he is elect, justified, predestined, and on his way to Heaven—and as such, no evil he does may damn him. This, says Buchan, is the problem with Calvinism: that a man might find in it a cast-iron assurance of salvation.

Well, yes and no. If the Devil can quote Scripture for his purpose, then surely the doctrines of grace may also be perverted by evil man. As it happens, shortly after reading Witch Wood I went to re-read RC Sproul's Chosen by God and it addressed just this problem, of assurance of salvation. Sproul quotes a theologian who drew up this table:

True assurance of salvation:
begets unfeigned humility
leads to diligence in holiness
leads to honest self-examination
leads to desire for more intimate fellowship with God

False assurance of salvation:
begets spiritual pride
leads to slothful indulgence
avoids accurate evaluation
is cold towards fellowship with God

One by one, David manifests the first list of attributes. One by one, the hypocritical warlock manifests the second list. Both are Calvinists, yet one is saved and one is not. Is this confusion over assurance of salvation a critical fault with Calvinism? Buchan hints that it is, but like his author David remains a Calvinist and a Christian.

I'm not sure whether Buchan resolved his questions about Calvinism, or to what conclusion he eventually came. But Witch Wood remains a great work and a sincere warning against false assurance.

Arthur's Classic Novels etext


Anonymous said...

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