Re-Imaging Election, by Suzanne McDonald

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May 9, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

chosenSuzanne McDonald. Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others and Others to God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010. 213pp. 

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To be elect therefore means to be set apart to be for the rest of humanity, as the elect one set apart for the sake of the alienated many. (p. 200)

I have owned this book for a couple of months now, but I didn’t get around to reading it until today. The title was really annoying me. Why isn’t it called “Re-imagining Election?”, I would think to myself when I would come across it on my desk. I should have realized that it was making a connection between the imago dei and election. Anyways, I think I deferred reading the book because surely, I thought, it will amount to nothing more than an exegesis of Karl Barth. (Pardon my cynicism.) It was refreshing to discover in this book a significant constructive endeavor. 

The book unfolds in three parts, and I’ll provide a summary of each part, attempting to accurately but briefly distill McDonald’s argument. After that I’ll offer my own thoughts.

Part 1 (chapters 1-3) poses the problem for us, a pneumatological problem at that. It does so by laying out the doctrines of election of John Owen and Barth, respectively. Owen takes his cue from the filioque clause and sees the Spirit as the one who brings the work of Christ to perfection in individuals. This means Owen upholds the Reformed tradition of individual double predestination, since those whom the Spirit brings to perfection are simply those elect in Christ. Owen sees Christ as the true image of God (the image is not a faculty of the human person but a certain orientation toward God’s purpose for humanity), and being “in Christ by the Spirit” is to participate in Christ’s imaging of God which itself occurs by the Spirit. To participate in Christ is to participate in the image of God, which is defined as representing God to others. 

In his earlier work (Göttingen Dogmatics and Church Dogmatics I.1 and I.2), for the most part Barth follows the Reformed tradition in speaking of individual double predestination. The only exception is that he maintains a strong divine actualism that he believes keeps election from becoming a fixed, mechanized system. It is rather the eternal decision that meets us in every “now”. God’s eternal decision is brought to perfection in our time by the Spirit’s work in us. This doctrine of election underlies Barth’s understanding of revelation and the Word of God in the first volume of the CD.

When Barth comes to CD II/2, that is where things really change. His thought becomes much more Christocentric. Now God’s only act of election and predestination is God’s self-determination to be for us in Christ. Predestination is double: Christ is the elected and the rejected. There are two groups of people that represent either aspect of Christ’s election: those who still bear the rejection that Christ has borne and done away with, and those who know that Christ has borne this and therefore rejoice in their partaking of Christ’s work. In any case, both are “in Christ”. For this later Barth, just as election is wholly concentrated on Jesus Christ, so too is Jesus the true image of God. However, in order to show how individuals partake of this reality, Barth will have to speak of the Spirit. This will cause some problems.

Barth’s Christological concentration has led to a diminishing of the Spirit; the Spirit’s role has been downgraded merely to bringing about the noetic awareness of what is ontologically true of all people. But since for Barth, to participate in one’s being in Christ requires this unconditional bestowal of the Spirit, he is essentially forced back toward what he has tried to avoid–individual double predestination. For election to be perfected–we have not only to be elected but to elect God in return. This requires the sovereign gift of the Spirit. 

To sum up: for Owen the Spirit’s work and the Son’s work are one, and this means that the Spirit’s work in the life of the human is decisive for both our ontological and noetic participation in Christ. For Barth, everything happens in Christ, and the Spirit is subordinate to this. In this way, Owen is more consistent to the logic of trinitarian theology. And he is more consistent to the Bible in maintaining a particularist election. To fix the problem with Barth’s view would be to bring him essentially to Owen’s position: away from universal election to that of individual double predestination. So we are at a “pneumatological impasse”.

Part 2 (chapters 4-5) is where McDonald goes into scripture first and then to some other theological resources in order to move beyond this impasse: to see if it is possible to construct a doctrine of election that does not devolve into individual double predestination. McDonald starts with the image of God and tries to show how the concept of “representation” lies close to the heart of what the image means. She then discusses the twofold nature of this representation: representing God to others and others to God. With this sketch in hand she reads Israel’s election in the Old Testament as primarily an election to image, or represent, God to others, but with a few hints that the other dynamic is also possible. The main purpose of election for Israel was to be the conduit of blessing to others. Israel has this possibility as it lives out its life with God. 

Reading Israel’s election afresh through the lens of the death and resurrection of Christ (a la NT Wright) allows us to see the other dynamic of election in full force: election as a representation of others to God. Israel, we now see, was chosen to bear before God the rejection of others. This is evident in the fact that Jesus Christ’s death is not contrary to Israel’s election, but its fulfillment.So the dynamics of election present in the OT come together in Christ. These same dynamics remain operative as the Spirit unites believers to Christ. Christians are elect for a purpose: to represent God to others, and others to God. Only those who stand in this particular set of relations can be called “the elect”, but they are the particular elect for the universal purpose of a “wider blessing” (McDonald uses this or a similar phrase a number of times). 

With this reformed doctrine of election in place, McDonald explores its meaning for ecclesiology. With heavy interaction with Volf and Grenz, she makes use of the concept of “perichoretic” personhood. She offers a correction to extensions of the idea that would lead to conceptions of election that focus too heavily on the inner-dynamics of the church community. Yes, the church’s inner-life should image God’s triune life ad intra, but since God is eternally the one who moves to the other, the emphasis of the church should be on its election to represent God to others. The church must image the dynamic of God: God’s life ad intra being expressed ad extra. It is of the very being of the elect community to exist for mission–to represent God to others. And its being is also to represent others to God through intercessory prayer. 

Part 3 (chapters 6-7) is concerned with answering objections that might arise to McDonald’s conception of election as “representing God to others and others to God”, and to tie off the book with a statement of where her conception of election stands in relation to Owen and Barth. Some might ask whether this conception of election does not attribute to the church a part in Christ’s work, whether Christ has not been supplanted by the church. Here McDonald is bold (for some): “the elect are set apart to act precisely as secondary and dependent acting subjects in the outworking of Christ’s saving purposes” (149). This does not obscure or diminish Christ, she says, precisely because what the church is elected to is participation in Christ’s work. Christ’s work always remains primary, the church always secondary and derivative. Our witness in missions is to Christ, and our prayers of intercession are done in the name of Christ. 

Some may wonder if McDonald’s siding with the Reformed tradition in saying that only those united to Christ by the Spirit are the elect is nothing more than “ecclesiological hubris”. To this, she reiterates (but states even more clearly) her insistence that describing the elect is not primarily a statement about who will or will not receive the “wider blessing”, but rather a picking-out of those whom God has chosen as vessels of the blessing. These particular people represent the whole of humanity. To illuminate how the church represents the whole of humanity, McDonald turns, curiously, to a “parable”–an analogy from dementia. This analogy shows “that the reality of our true personhood may be quite radically beyond our knowing; that it may be partially and provisionally held representatively for us by another in ways that have ontological significance; and that this does not compromise our personal particularity, but rather allows another person to become the space in which both who we presently are and the truth about who we are that is beyond us may be held” (164). 

Another question for McDonald’s attempt to reframe the doctrine of election is what difference it makes eschatologically. If I understand her aright, she says that, on her new account, this is not primarily what election is about. Election is about representation for the purpose of bringing about the wider blessing of God. This allows her to affirm, like Barth wants to do, a hope for all (not a statement that all will be saved). The improvement here by McDonald’s estimation is that Barth holds out this hope inconsistently (since his doctrine of election necessarily lapses back into individual double predestination), while she can hold this hope consistently. 

So with Owen, McDonald gives an account of election that is particular and holds together the work of the Spirit with our being “in Christ”. With Barth she takes it that election is Christocentric and is election for blessing. Against both she declares that election is not primarily a statement about who will or will not receive eschatological blessings, but rather a statement about being united to Christ by the Spirit for the purpose of representation, participation in the electing and elect Jesus Christ. 

Conclusion: I said I would give thoughts on this, and perhaps I will comment more extensively some other time. For now, this post is about twice as long as I’d like. I’ll just say that this is in one way a pretty brilliant book, but I can’t decide whether McDonald has not so radically shifted the meaning of “election” that she is not talking about something else altogether, and merely obscuring some of the key questions that a doctrine of election (before Barth, anyways) was trying to answer. Of course if this is what she’s doing, and the obscuring move brings her closer to scripture, then so be it. For now I’ll leave it to you to decide. 

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One thought on “Re-Imaging Election, by Suzanne McDonald

  1. […] Wilcoxen reviews Suzanne McDonald’s latest book, Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to […]

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