McDonald Expands Election Doctrine

McDonald_review_03182016Suzanne McDonald. 2010. Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others & Others to God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Working as a chaplain in an Alzheimer’s unit, I once met an older man, James, who used to wander up and down the halls all day muttering to himself—he spoke nothing but gibberish. When one day I invited James to hear a jazz saxophonist play, he was delighted. While the nurses resisted my taking him, when the music started he stood up, began dancing to the music, and invited several women to join him. More importantly, he began speaking in complete sentences and engaged in real conversation: the music helped him center and he remained cogent for several weeks. For me, the story of James is both a resurrection story and a metaphor for our election—in Christ we are reminded (awakened) of the person who God created us to be.

Demented are Us

In her book, Re-Imaging Election, Suzanne McDonald expands on a story similar to James’ story to illustrate how our identity is, in part, relationally held (159). She writes:

“…the parable of dementia has raised three fundamental concepts that pertain to the election to representation: 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 is beyond us may be held.” (164)


McDonald launches into her exploration of election with a question: “Why propose yet another way of thinking about election, and why do so from a Reformed point of view?”  The answer follows shortly thereafter: because the “Reformed approach to election [is] fundamentally correct” (xiii). Her exploration builds on the issues and questions posed by John Owen (1616–1683) and Karl Barth (1886–1968) and pays special attention to the role of the Holy Spirit (195).

McDonald views Owen as a “representative of the historic Reformed orthodoxy in the Dordt Tradition” (xviii)[1] and sums up his concept of election in the phrase: “in Christ by the Spirit” (11). She explains:

“The image [divine image or imago dei] having been separated from human nature [in the fall] in all save Christ, it is therefore for the very purpose of revealing and restoring the lost image of God that the eternal Son and essential image of the Father takes our nature as the Mediator of the outworking of the covenant of redemption in the covenant of Grade for those elect in him.” (20)

For Owen, the Holy Spirit plays an instrumental role by renewing in us the divine image (14).

McDonald views Barth likewise holding a high view of the Holy Spirit’s role in election. She writes:

“…in Christ we see the whole predestination of God, such that Jesus Christ alone is the [whole and universal] election of God. Election is ‘in Christ’ because there is for Barth only the one predestining act: God’s self-election to be God-for-us in the person of Jesus Christ.” (60)

Blessed to be a Blessing


“As those, ‘without the Spirit,’ the rejected continue to live in futile rebellion against their election.” (61)

At this point, McDonald pivots. A key verse in her doctrine of election is:

“I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3 ESV)

In other words, we are blessed to be elected to bless others. What is this blessing? The blessing takes the form of the imago dei—the divine image—which the community of faith partakes of and represents to the non-elect (97). Here she offers 3 scriptural principles of election:

  1. “…election entails the setting apart of one clearly delineated community in a unique relationship to God and the world, and it is the Spirit who creates, sets apart, and shapes the new covenantal community in Christ.”
  2. “…the spirit constitutes and shapes the unique perichoretic personhood of the elect that binds together the elect community and the rest of humanity.”
  3. “…election is the expression of—and the chosen means to further—the triune God’s purpose of blessing.” (190-191)

In so many words, the instrumentality of the divine image reflected in the community of faith accordingly allows participation in God’s work without impinging on God’s sovereignty.


Suzanne McDonald[2] is currently a professor of historical and systematic theology at Western Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church. Her doctorate is from University of Saint Andrews in Scotland and she is a native of Australia. Re-Imaging Election summarizes her dissertation and is the first of her two books. Her other book is: John Knox for Armchair Theologians (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).


McDonald writes Re-Imaging Election in 7 chapters proceeded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue, as follows:


Posing a Pneumatological Problem.

  1. Election, the Image, and the Spirit: John Owen.
  2. Election, the Image, and the Spirit: Karl Barth.
  3. Election ‘in Christ’ in Barth: Some Pneumatological Queries.

 Re-Presenting the Image; Re-Imaging Election.

  1. Sketching Some Scriptural Contours.
  2. Election, the Spirit, and the Ecclesial Imago Dei.

 Election to Representation in Dialogue.

  1. Some Problems, a Parable, and the Parousia.
  2. Owen and Barth: Beyond the Impasse.

Epilogue: Glancing Backward, Looking Forward


Index of Names and Subjects


Suzanne McDonald’s Re-Imaging Election is a captivating read. The doctrine of election is a logical necessity in developing a systematic presentation of the Gospel which makes election interesting to anyone who eschews incoherence. Pastors, seminary students, and armchair theologians in the reformed tradition will accordingly benefit from this book.


[1] Reformed orthodoxy was laid by the Canons of Dordt (1618-19) in five points summarized in the mnemonic “TULIP”: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and persistence of the saints.


McDonald Expands Election Doctrine

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