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.

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)


“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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Rice Reclaims Reformed Spirituality

Howard Rice, Reformed Spirituality

Howard L. Rice.  1991.  Reformed Spirituality: Introduction for Believers. Louisville:  Westminster/ John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As a lifelong Calvinist and seminary graduate, Howard L. Rice’s Book, Reformed Spirituality: Introduction for Believers, came as a surprising find. The term, spirituality, has a New-Age ring to it. In reading about spiritual practices, I  accordingly assumed that I was straying from the reformed tradition. Thanks to Rice, I no longer feel that way.


Rice organizes his book into eight chapters, starting with an introduction and followed by seven topical chapters.  The topics addressed are informative:  The experience of God, problems and possibilities, prayer, study, consultation, the practice of discipleship, and discipline in the Christian life.  None of these topics come as a surprise.  The introduction starts with the Heidelberg Catechism: What is your only comfort in life and in death?  (7).  At the time of publication, Rice was chaplain of the Seminary and a professor of ministry at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Spirituality Defined

Rice defines spirituality as:  the pattern by which we shape our lives in response to our experience of God as a very real presence in and around us (45).  He notes that:  spirituality demands letting go of control, taking emotions seriously, and emphasizing being as of equal value with doing (49).

Rice highlights the Puritan experience in explaining the reformed tradition (12). For Puritans, the preferred term is piety, not spirituality, reflecting the reformed suspicion of private revelation and guarded attention to the more colorful spiritual gifts. In worship, Reformed spirituality focuses more on scripture and the sermon while, in individual practice, it focuses more on prayer and meditation.

Importance of Theology in Reformed Spirituality

Rice emphasizes the importance of theology in the reformed approach to spirituality. For example, Richard Baxtor (1615-1691; 37) sought renewal of his congregation through personal instruction in the catechisms.  While this terribly un-modern technique sounds dated, I know of at least one pastor who successfully used it to energize a youth group.  The catechisms help church members to appreciate the doctrines of the church and to relate them to life.  Theology is not the only lens that Rice employs.  He observes that we encounter God in experiences of conversion, ecstasy, visions and spoken words, intuition, transcendence, and incarnation (30-35).  These observations normally qualify one as a charismatic in reformed circles!

Rice clarifies the role of small groups and church committees in the reformed spiritual life.  Reformed theology is systemic, complex, and complete–small groups and committees help maintain spiritual balance.  For the Calvinist, the spiritual life requires walking with a community of faith.  Rice writes:  that is why corporate worship, hearing the word preached, and sharing in common administration of the sacraments are so central for any Reformed understanding of the spiritual life (53).


As a text on reformed spiritually, Rice’s book was unique in helping me understand my own faith practices.  Clearly, I might have benefited from Rice’s systemic presentation at a younger age.  Rice deserves to be studied more than once and is suitable for small group discussion.


Baxtor, Richard 2007. The Reformed Pastor.  Carlisle:  Banner of Truth Trust.

Rice Reclaims Reformed Spirituality

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Barnes Interprets Heidelberg; Offers Postmodern Reading

Barnes_10152013M. Craig Barnes.  2012.  Body & Soul:  Reclaiming the Heidelberg Catechism.  Co-published:  Grand Rapids:  Faith Alive and Louisville:  Congregational Ministries Publishing.

Reviewed by Stephen W. Hiemstra

November 15, 2013 is the 450th anniversary of the publishing of the Heidelberg Catechism (HC).  The HC famously begins with this question:  What is your only comfort in life and in death?  The answer is:  That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ (165).  The HC consists of a 129 questions with answers structured in much the same manner.

The HC is straightforward, yet a bit intimating.  Many protestant communicants continue to study it, yet the prospect of being tested on its contents is intimating—and not only for teens.  The appeal of a short book which talks about the theology and origins of the HC is obvious.

Author Craig Barnes (biography at: is an intriguing candidate to write an introduction to the HC.  Dr. Barnes has a doctor of philosophy in church history and began 2013 as the new president of Princeton Theological Seminary.  He was previously on the faculty of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and senior pastor of a church.  Perhaps most interesting is that he also serves as a professor of pastoral ministry.  Being a professor of pastoral ministry implies that his primary job is to teach aspiring pastors the art of pastoring.   It is interesting that this pastor to pastors has placed a high priority on communicating the details of the HC—I like his priorities.

Body and Soul is organized in six chapters around the structure of the HC itself.  Before the HC discussion is an introduction.  After the discussion is a reproduction of the HC itself and a brief set of notes on the history.  The HC reproduced is the new 1988 translation from the German and Latin complete with the scriptural references that were previously not readily available.  This translation represents collaboration between the Christian Reformed Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Reformed Church in America (163).

Chapter 1 is entitled:  The Only Comfort—question 1 (abstracted above).  The chapter starts with three vignettes of people lost in pain—a pastor coming home from a funeral; a firefighter having trouble making ends meet; and a new widower visiting his wife’s grave.  The chapter then proceeds through a number of contemporary problems.  The headings are descriptive:  contemporary anxiety; is religion the answer; an inheritance of faith; help from the sixteenth century; a holy conversation; my only comfort; I belong; to my faithful savior.  Barnes makes a compelling case that the HC is 450 years old but still very applicable to the problems we face today.

Body and Soul is a neat little book. Barnes is an artful story teller who is able to bring amazing historical and theological insights into his presentation of the HC.  Barnes’ stories make his written accessible to a wide audience, much like the Q&A format of the HC itself.

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