Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others & Others to God
240 pp., $26.00
Putting the finishing touches on the second volume of his Church Dogmatics, the volume in which he took up the doctrine of God and with it the doctrine of election, the great 20th-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote: "To think of the contents of this volume gives me much pleasure, but even greater anxiety." Apart from his desire to hew closely to God's own self-testimony in Scripture, Barth feared the repercussions of doctrinal revisionism. In this volume, more than in the previous one, he confessed, "I have had to leave the framework of theological tradition." Candidly, he went on, "I would have preferred to follow Calvin's doctrine of predestination much more closely, instead of departing from it so radically. But I could not and cannot do so. As I let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters, as I meditated on what I seemed to hear, I was driven irresistibly to reconstruction."
These words of Barth came to mind again recently as I read a treatment of the same themes in a revised doctoral dissertation, Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others and Others to God by Suzanne McDonald, now an assistant professor of systematic and historical theology at Calvin College. Like Barth, McDonald does her theological work from within the Reformed wing of the Christian faith. Also like Barth, she employs fresh readings of biblical texts in an effort to reform the classic Reformed doctrine of divine election. And her thesis, like Barth's reconstruction, is elegantly simple: God chooses a portion of humanity for a twofold purpose—first, to be God's representatives to the rest of humanity, and second, to hold those same people, the "rest," within the sphere of God's promised blessing, thus representing them to God.
Her book starts off with a fine exposition of the 17th-century divine John Owen's doctrine of election. Tapping into the current revival of interest in Owen's work, McDonald presents him as a champion of rigorous Calvinism, including what she terms the doctrine of "individual double predestination" (the belief that God unconditionally, without regard to foreseen merit or demerit, selects some of humanity as the objects of mercy and consigns the rest to eternal punishment). But, for McDonald, the chief virtue of Owen's account of this strand of the Reformed tradition is its robustly Trinitarian shape. Affirming the pactum salutis—the determination between the Father and Son to accomplish the work of redemption—Owen draws on a theology of the Holy Spirit as the vinculum amoris, the love binding Father and Son together, in order to explicate how the elect come to participate in the salvation Father and Son have achieved for them. Since God's triune being and his act "outside of himself," ad extra, for us, are united, Owen argues that it is impossible to apportion God's action of election to the Father or Son only. The Spirit, too, plays a part as the one who enables persons to become the beneficiaries in time of God's eternal choice that they should be those beneficiaries.
This affirmation leads McDonald—seamlessly—into an engagement with Barth's doctrine of election. (I'm not aware of any clearer summary of Barth's position on the matter, and that by itself ensures McDonald's book a place on my shelf within easy reach.) Unsatisfied with "individual double predestination" (Barth thought its whimsical nature undercut the one thing it was trying to do—give us the assurance that we have to do with a God who loves), Barth retooled the doctrine of election, with a recognizably Reformed touch, as articulating God's choice of God to be the one who is with us in Jesus Christ. The "terrible decree" of damnation? God appointed that for himself, suffering and exhausting its horror in Christ. The choice of some for salvation? No longer should the object of that choice be thought of as a finite number of humans plucked from the mass of the damned. Rather, again, God chose God—or, more precisely, God determined himself in the person of the God-man, Jesus Christ—to be the elect one, for the sake of all humanity. Jesus embodies God's decision to turn toward us, with our salvation and not our destruction in mind.
McDonald rightly plies this reworking of the Reformed teaching on election with several probing questions. In the first place, she wonders where the biblical evidence lies for seeing all of humanity as elect in Christ. Isn't election something particular, albeit with wider—even universal—effects? Furthermore, she gauges accurately the way in which Owen's emphasis on the Spirit as the agent of election's actualization has largely dropped off the radar in Barth's account. By focusing so much on Jesus Christ as God's self-determination to be God-with-us and God-for-us, Barth leaves little left for the Spirit to do. Divine election, apparently, doesn't need the Spirit, given how all-encompassing Christ's work has become in Barth's doctrine.
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.
But her book suggests, equally strongly, that our job of understanding election doesn't end with our mind's rest. Only when our assurance of our own election prompts us to turn toward those "outside"—interceding for them, blessing them, holding their pain and joy before God, bearing their lives into his presence—has election achieved its true aim. Election is for something—for the spreading of hope and peace, healing and grace. For love.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. His next book, Paul and the Triune Identity, is forthcoming from Eerdmans.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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