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Wesley Hill


Elected Representatives

Rethinking the doctrine of election.

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With these figures and themes looming large in the background, McDonald turns next to the work of Christopher Seitz, Walter Brueggemann, and N. T. Wright (among other biblical interpreters) to develop the notion that God's election in Scripture is always oriented toward those who are not elect. Abraham, for instance, is selected by God to be the channel of blessings not simply to his own descendents but also to the nations beyond. The children of Israel, the corporate heirs of the Abrahamic promises, likewise were chosen by God to be a light to the nations. Their very existence as a people was intended to show the nations what God was like, and, in turn, to allow the nations a share in God's saving work. The ultimate Israelite—Jesus—was also elected as the one who would represent God fully to the world and, vice versa, the one who would hold the world before God, completing his saving mission for their sake, not just his own. "In his own faithfulness," as McDonald puts it, "Christ is the bearer of unfaithful Israel's sins in covenant judgment. It is because in its own election, Israel represents the whole of humanity, that Christ is also the bearer of the sins of the world."

Out of the nexus of these perspectives, McDonald offers her own proposal. With Owen, she affirms the Trinitarian shape of election: God chose us—those who are in Christ by the Spirit—to be his representatives. Against Owen, she demurs that the purpose of election could be simply its own realization, as if the point were that those who are chosen should come to actualize their chosenness without reference to those who aren't chosen. With Barth, she affirms that in Jesus Christ, we witness God's self-election to be God-for-us. But against Barth, she sees little warrant for thinking that the whole of humanity is elect in Christ for fellowship with God—were that the case, what would happen to the Spirit's task of uniting people to God in Christ?

God's people are chosen, McDonald says, for the sake of furthering God's purposes of blessing "beyond the elect community itself." In fellowship with our electing God through Christ and the Spirit, we exist as channels to extend God's blessing outwards. We bear the divine stamp, the imago dei, mirroring the divine activity of reconciliation to those who haven't yet grasped it. Reciprocally, as we represent God to others, we reflect their life back to God. In this way, the non-elect are "provisionally held in Christ by the Spirit awaiting the consummation of God's purposes in the person of Christ and the final outpouring of the Spirit." There may still be hope for them, McDonald tentatively suggests—a rumored hope that adherents of double predestination haven't yet heard of.

It is unlikely, I think, that McDonald's book will appeal to many today who wear the label "Reformed." The "new Calvinists"—the "young, restless, and Reformed" crowd, as they're popularly known—won't have much time, I suspect, for McDonald's reverent agnosticism on the question of who will finally be saved in the end and her insistence that "blessing may come even to the apparently rejected." And, indeed, her proposal skates lightly over what James Dunn has called "the dark side of the moon" of God's purpose of election—for example, Paul's affirmation in Romans 9 that God "hardens" whomever he wills. On the other hand, McDonald's proposal may go a long way toward invigorating the ongoing discussion of Barth's alleged neglect of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Here I would place Re-Imaging Election alongside the work of Robert Jenson and Eugene Rogers as a serious attempt to supplement, or even correct, Barth's doctrine of election—and doctrine of God—with a richer, more robust pneumatology.

Like any good theology, at the end of the day, McDonald's book invites the question, "How does this proposal help us to read Scripture more faithfully?" As Barth knew, any doctrine of election aiming to appeal to lively Christian communities must say, in the end, "I let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters"—and welcome measurement by that yardstick. For Barth, listening to Scripture drove him "irresistibly" to revise classic Reformed formulations. For McDonald, as well, Scripture points in a direction more than a few degrees away from Owen's course. Whatever one decides about her argument, this is her own suggested method for making a decision: pay attention to the text of the Bible, and see if it guides you in a similar direction.

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