Saturday Book Review: Suzanne McDonald

Saturday Book Review: Suzanne McDonald March 3, 2012

This review is by Lee Wyatt, a review of Suzanne McDonald, Re-imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others & Others to God.

What do you get if you mix in a bowl the egg whites of John Owen’s doctrine of election with the yolk of Karl Barth’s doctrine of the same, add some biblical reflection on the “image of God” from contemporary Old and New Testament theologians (particularly N.T. Wright), and sprinkle with a bit of “perichoretic personhood” from Stan Grenz and Miroslav Volf?  A thesis and three guiding principles leading to a fresh and stimulating restatement of the biblical doctrine of election by Suzanne McDonald, assistant professor of systematic and historical theology at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

McDonald’s thesis is that we need to speak of a “two-fold ontology” of election in which the calling of the elect community is to “represent God to others and others to God” (xvi).  She refines this thesis with the corollary that part of the church’s calling in representing others to God is “to hold the alienated and apparently rejected ‘other’ before God and so within the sphere of God’s promised covenant blessings” (xvi).  The Holy Spirit, as the one who communicates and completes God’s work in election and history, is the central focus of this study.

Does this entail universalism (that all will finally be saved)?  McDonald retains the subjunctive mood here.  All we can say, she claims, is “that blessing may come even to the apparently rejected” (193).  We cannot, however, “maintain that election in Christ is a universal given of theological anthropology” (193).  She admits her view inclines toward universal salvation and sides with Barth in claiming that the central mystery of election is not why some are saved at all (traditional reformed view) but whether there can be any that are ultimately excluded!

From the great 16th century reformed theologian John Owen, McDonald appreciates his emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the member of the trinity who completes and connects God’s work in history and humanity along with his development of the “image of God” in terms of “representing” God in creation (ch.1).  From Barth she takes his massive emphasis on the cosmic and universal dimensions of God’s election in Christ (ch.2).  She will rework both utilizing Owen’s emphasis on the Spirit to counterbalance the one-sidedness of Barth’s loading everything about election in Christology.  And McDonald will appropriate Barth’s stress on the universal scope of God’s election to steer clear of the idea of limited or particular atonement that Owen promoted.

It is one of the strengths of this study that, coming from the side of systematic theology, it engages some of the best of contemporary biblical studies – something done too infrequently these days!  McDonald draws on the work of Christopher Seitz, Walter Brueggemann, and N. T. Wright among others to fill out and amplify her view of election as both realized by the Spirit in the faithful and yet of universal reach and import.

McDonald derives “three guiding principles” from this biblical work.  Here’s her summary from pp.113-114:

-“God sets apart an elect people as the means by which the purpose of blessing will be fulfilled in the face of human sinfulness.”

-“representation is a significant category (in both testaments) through which to understand the nature and purpose of election.”

-“the believing community and the believing community alone can be described as elect in Christ.”

Each of these principles are intertwined and mutually reinforce one another.

We are made for relationships as human beings.  We are who we are in and through each other.  This is what McDonald, building on the work of Stan Grenz and Mirosalv Volf, calls “perichoretic personhood.”  This is true of all human beings.  For the believing community, however, such personhood, distorted and damaged in the fall, becomes operative through the work of the Holy Spirit in the community of faith.  We now live out the life God designed and intended for us in ways both provisional and proleptic.  McDonald extends their work to include reflection on how this work of the Spirit in actualizing “perichoretic personhood” enables us to participate in the true humanity of Christ, that is, “the likeness of his human relational personhood” (125), which is the image of God par excellence.  Christ’s human relational personhood is characterized by directing itself to the other and focusing its energies and activities outward.

It is this human relational personhood of Christ that establishes space for humanity “within the eternal triune embrace” (128).  And that in turn, enables human beings to turn to one another, even “enemy” others and invite them to enjoy that same divine embrace.

For McDonald, Christ is the image of God because “he represents who God is to us” by “representing us to God” (129).  This double-sided view of representation will turn out to be the linchpin of MacDonald’s reconstruction of the doctrine of election.

So far, we have the Spirit as the one who guarantees and completes election (Owen) mixed with the universal thrust and intention of the purpose of God (Barth), mixed with a view of elect community as a representative community (Seitz, Brueggemann, Wright) of “perichoretic personhood” (Grenz, Volf) in the image of Christ whose mandate is to represent God to humanity and humanity to God.  What all of this might mean?

God’s intentions in election are not merely made known through the church, the elect community, but by the church.  It’s life and ministry as the representative elect community is constituted by bearing the news of God’s divine embrace of humanity and bearing even the the unbelieving other before God.  This is what McDonald calls the “ontology of election.”

If election intrinsically entails being for the other and sharing in, indeed, enacting God’s universal purposes, this means that the elect cannot be equivalent to all whom God intends to save.  Rather the elect community is that community through whom the rest of humanity are sustained in the sphere of God’s promised blessing.

This is the Spirit’s work – guaranteeing and completing God’s election by enabling the church to live to and for the rest of humanity.  McDonald claims:  “The very heart of what it means for the elect to be ‘in Christ by the Spirit’ is precisely that in the elect, by the same Spirit, those who themselves remain apart from Christ are nevertheless provisionally held in Christ” (167).  Thus we ought not consider those who do not yet believe in Christ as “anonymous Christians” (Rahner) or as “elect in Christ” (Barth).  “Nevertheless, through the work of the Spirit in the dynamic of election to representation, those outside the covenant community are held, in their continuing alienation, where otherwise of themselves they could not possibly be: within the sphere of God’s covenant promises of blessing in Christ” (168).

The outworking of all this is eschatological.  Thus, the church cannot know just how and when God is working to hold the unbelieving world in the sphere of his blessing through us.  We can only do what we are commissioned to do and seek to bring all to relationship to Christ as best we can.  What God does over and above that we can only trust him to do.  This adds an even deeper pathos and scope to our practice of intercessory prayer.  And it means that we cannot presume of be dogmatic about the final extent of God’s salvation of the world.  McDonald’s view “simply affirms that the elect in Christ, united to him by the Spirit through faith, are set apart as those through whom God’s purpose in election – that blessing may come even to the apparently rejected – shall be accomplished” (193).  Given this, McDonald feels the balance is tilted toward the ultimate blessing of all, even though such remains a hope until the eschaton.

Suzanne McDonald’s reworking of the reformed doctrine of evangelism is essentially a tweaking and refining of Barth’s massive reworking of the doctrine in Church Dogmatics 2.2.  Her focus on the Spirit’s role in guaranteeing and completing God’s election keeps the scope of the “the elect” focused in the covenant community, the church.  She refines Barth’s understanding of the universal thrust of God’s work by understanding God’s people as chosen to mediate that universal blessing to the world, even that part of the world that remains opposed to and apart from God.  Herein lies the mystery of election.

As the Spirit conforms us to the image of Christ (Rom.8:29), “the” image of God,” we share in his representational humanity (“perichoretic personhood”), standing on God’s behalf to the world and on the world’s behalf to God.  In fulfilling the latter, we hold even the “reprobate” within the orbit of God’s blessing.  To be God’s elect, then, is to be outwardly-focused and other-directed, immersed in the world in relation to people in all their worldliness, bringing those to Christ we can and yet holding even those who continue to resist in Christ.

This is a powerful statement of election.  If she is moving in the right direction, as I believe she is, McDonald opens up multiple areas for fresh reflection and pastoral insight.  Some of these she explores in the book but there remains much work for the rest of us to do in the wake of her work.  I mention just two matters here briefly.  First, McDonald’s view of election moves us past the sterile debate between a traditional view of election, which entails in some fashion a double predestinarian dynamic (some are chosen for salvation, others are not) and universalism which without further ado identifies everyone as elect and saved.  And second, her explication of an “ontology of election,” our constitution by the Spirit to a  “perichoretic,” representational humanity gives a needed depth to the frequent calls we hear today for an “incarnational” focus for life and ministry.

There is much more here than I have outlined above.  I pray this review function as did the child’s cry Augustine heard in the garden, “Take up and read.”  This is an important statement of a biblical truth that even though it emerges out of the reformed tradition has the potential to instruct all of us and, perhaps, lay the groundwork for overcoming some of our traditional divides.  So, “Tolle lege”!


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