A Fresh Synthesis

MAY 2012: REVIEW

by Todd V. Cioffi

Re-imaging Election: Divine Election in Representing God to Others and Others to God
Suzanne McDonald
Eerdmans, 2010
$26.00. 240 pages.

It is not often that a title does justice to the content of a book, but it does here. Professor McDonald seeks to reimagine the doctrine of election within the Reformed tradition by contending that a key category for election, and indeed an underdeveloped category, is “representation” or “election to representation.” While many Reformed theologians have long emphasized that election includes “the elect” as “representing” God to the world in some fashion (so the title phrase “representing God to others”), it has not been the case that many would claim that the elect represent “others” to God (so “representing others to God”), a role specifically reserved for the Son and the Spirit. McDonald’s is an ambitious project, to be sure, but at each step of the way she provides a learned, measured, and insightful reworking of the doctrine, making this book an important contribution to Reformed theology. Click to purchaseGiven the rich nature of McDonald’s work, this review will highlight only several aspects of the argument.

McDonald begins by taking up two major trajectories in Reformed theology on election, namely, Reformed orthodoxy, represented by the seventeenth-century British theologian John Owen, and twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth, who provided a major reworking of the doctrine of election within the Reformed tradition. The upshot is that Owen preserves a biblically and theologically satisfying relationship between the role of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in divine election. Given this, subsequent attempts to “revise” the doctrine of election must account for a robust emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s role in election. This emphasis is especially crucial for a proper understanding of the church as the realm in which the Spirit brings to fruition the elect status of God’s people, allowing the church to represent the electing God to the world by way of God’s blessing on the world. Unfortunately, such an emphasis, according to McDonald, is lacking in Barth. Indeed, Barth’s reworking of election suffers from a deficient pneumatology and instead is entirely Christ-focused and Christ-shaped. Consequently, because Jesus is for others, election has to do with God being for humanity, whether speaking of God’s people or not. As such, election has everything to do with God’s people representing the God-for-us to the world. It is here that Barth advances beyond Owen (who tended to overly emphasize the “double predestination” feature of election), in that Barth rightly understands election to identify God’s blessing on humanity and creation and thus he defines Christian vocation as giving witness to this blessing in and through Jesus Christ.

From here McDonald turns to the biblical depiction of election, providing an overview from Genesis to the Apostle Paul, from Israel to the church. For support she relies on the likes of Walter Brueggemann, Stanley Grenz, Christopher Seitz, and N.T. Wright. She concludes her overview with three scriptural guiding principles with which she will “rearticulate the doctrine [of election].” These principles are: (1) God elects people “as the means by which” God will bless the world; (2) representation is a dominant category in election, in that God’s elected people (e.g., Israel) represent God to the nations and, according to Paul, represent “the whole human situation to God”; and (3) only the believing community, and not simply individual persons, is in fact the elect in Christ. According to McDonald, the last point will more than likely be the controversial one.

The controversy comes in terms of McDonald’s contention that the people of God, or the church as the elect of God, is the means by which God blesses the world. In other words, the church plays a mediating role in God blessing the world. Such a claim is indeed controversial, as most Reformed theologians would want to reserve such a mediating role to Christ alone. McDonald writes, “From what may be known of the nature and dynamic of election in Israel, in Christ, and in the church, God’s intentions for humanity as a whole are not simply made manifest by but also enacted through his elect.” Of course, McDonald is well aware of the controversial nature of such a claim and adds that this should never be taken to mean that the church participates in or supplements the unique and once-for-all saving work of Jesus Christ.

In the end, McDonald provides a creative synthesis of Owen, Barth, key biblical material, and a creative emphasis on the mediating role of the church in election, resulting in a fresh contribution to Reformed discussions on the doctrine. With Owen she stresses that to be elected “in Christ” takes place by the Spirit and refers only to those who confess Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. With Barth she lays claim to the notion that election entails representing God in Jesus Christ to the world, and as such the church will always be for humanity as Jesus is God-for-us. Or as McDonald puts it, “[W]ith Barth and contra Reformed orthodoxy…the foundational purpose of election is blessing.” Yet leaving both Owen and Barth behind, McDonald builds on the witness of scripture to suggest that the church, as the elect community, “participates secondarily and derivatively in Christ’s election as the means by which the once-for-all work of Christ is worked out in the world.” Thus, the church both represents God to others and others to God.

While it is not clear that McDonald’s proposal (i.e., for the church being a significant means by which God is represented to others and others to God) will find wide acceptance among Reformed theologians, it is clear that McDonald has provided us with a bold and compelling re-imaging of election. This book should be read by all those interested in and concerned about the future of Reformed theology.

Todd V. Cioffi is assistant professor of Congregational and Ministry Studies at Calvin College and research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan.