Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life, A Book Review and Highlight of Suzanne MacDonald’s Doctrine of Election

sanctifiedbygrace2Sanctified By Grace: A Theology Of The Christian Life (London/New Delhi/New York/Sydney: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2014) ISBN 978-0-567-63217-3 (hardcover) – ISBN 978-0-567-38343-3 (paperback) 264 pp. Price $39.95 (paperback)

By: Kent Eilers and Kyle C. Strobel

To begin with I would like to say thank you to Nicholas Stewart (of Bloomsbury/T&T Clark) for sending me this review copy, and also to Kyle Strobel for thinking to include me in the blog tour of this book; thank you both!

Introduction

Sanctified By Grace is an edited volume by Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel. Eilers is an Associate Professor of Theology at Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana; he has a PhD in Systematic Theology from the University of Aberdeen. Strobel is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Spiritual Formation at Biola University in La Mirada, CA; he has a PhD in Theology, also from the University of Aberdeen.

I am participating in a blog tour (sponsored by Bloomsbury/T&T Clark) of this book, Sanctified By Grace, as I alluded to earlier. My post will be one of many blog posts of this book over the next couple of weeks (here is the link to the blog tour page at the T&T Clark Blog: click here). As such this will not be a formal review, per se, but a blog post that will seek to underscore the value of this book (and it is valuable!) by highlighting, at least in my approach, one of the chapters offered in this volume. That said, I will give you all a synopsis and index of the various authors and chapter titles offered in the book.

Synopsis

The volume is broken into four parts, with an introduction by Eilers and Strobel as we enter the book.

Part One is entitled, The Gracious One. Here are each of the chapter titles and authors who make up this section: 1) The triune God by Fred Sanders; 2) The electing God by Suzanned McDonald; 3) The creating and providential God by Katherine Sonderegger; 4) The saving God by Ian A. MacFarland; 5) The perfecting God by Christopher R.J. Holmes. Part Two is entitled, The graces of the Christian Life. Here are the titles and authors that make up this section: 6) Reconciliation and Justification by John P. Burgess; 7) Redemption and victory by Christian Mostert; 8) Communion with Christ: Mortification and vivification by John Webster. Part Three is entitled, The means of grace. Here are the chapter titles and authors who comprise this section: 9) Scripture by Donald Wood; 10) Church and sacraments by Tom Greggs. And the final part, Part Four entitled, The practices of grace. Here are the titles and authors who comprise this part: 11) Discipleship by Philip Ziegler; 12) Prayer by Ashley Cocksworth; 13) Theology by Ellen T. Charry (a former prof of mine); 14) Preaching by William Willimon; 15) Forgiveness and Reconciliation. The volume closes with a bibliography and index.

As you can see by the material being covered in this volume it is a worthy topic for any and all serious Christians to consider and give considerable amount of time to in regard to contemplation and practice. As you can also see Eilers and Strobel did an excellent job in finding top-notch theologians and Christian thinkers and communicators as contributors for this volume.

The book, as envisioned by Eilers and Strobel, is intended to function, for one of its uses, as a volume used in college and seminary classroom teaching; i.e. as a textbook for a Christian theology class, or maybe even for a rigorous Sunday school class at church involved in Christian Education, etc. I would say, beyond a doubt, this volume achieves that mark and more! In fact I would go so far as to say that any thoughtful Christian ought to take this book up and read (tolle lege)!

To give you more of a sense of what the volume is intending at a theological level let me share what its editors, Eilers and Strobel, have written as far as the book’s aim goes:

Coordinating the doctrine of the Christian life to God’s economy of salvation and the practices which are fitting to redeemed existence is not one option among many. Rather, we suggest, this coordination between doctrine and life, belief and practices is integral to life within the movement of God’s Spirit. Within the dynamism of the Spirit’s formation, doctrine and life are pulled together in the broader picture of grace. In this sense, grace names the self-giving nature of God and his movement in the Spirit to draw believers into fellowship and sanctification. Thus, the theology of the Christian life developed here attempts to mirror the broad movement of God’s saving action – the fellowship of the triune God turned outward in self-giving in Son and Spirit and the calling of his people to fellowship and mission. (p. 7)

As you might recall from earlier Strobel is a Professor in the Institute of Spiritual Formation, and I know personally that Eilers’ heart is in the same place; the aims of this book flow naturally from both of these editor’s hearts. I.e. To take what sometimes might seem like abstract theological teaching and press it into the concrete lived realities of Christian people who are making contact with this world, inside the walls of the church and out, on a daily basis. The book is intending to inculcate an understanding of the gigantic and wondrous grace of God for us in Jesus Christ, and to do so in a way that comes with understanding and prudence. From this reader’s view the volume exceeds its aims.

I would highly recommend this book to all serious Christian thinkers! Further, for any faculty at Bible Colleges or Seminaries, and any Pastors who are involved in Christian Education and discipleship (i.e. spiritual formation) at your local churches, I would commend this volume to you with the highest amount of commendation.

Highlighting a Chapter

As I noted earlier my approach was going to be to highlight one particular chapter in this volume, and I have indeed decided on one; but this was very difficult. As I finished each chapter I thought to myself, “okay, that’s the chapter I am going to highlight!” Each chapter in this volume is that good; a page turner, and for a volume on theology that is rare to find.

The chapter I am highlighting is chapter two the electing God by Suzanne MacDonald. McDonald has her PhD in Systematic Theology from the University of St. Andrews, she currently is Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. She is also author of the book (her published PhD dissertation) Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others and Others to God (2010).

MacDonald’s particular chapter, the one we are considering here, is a compression of her thicker and more developed account articulated in her aforementioned book. Don’t get me wrong, as far as material significance, her chapter here is chalked full with deep insight relative to a Christian dogmatic doctrine of election, and how that gets cashed out within the trajectory of this volume; i.e. how election can have a ministerial role in understanding and living out the logic of God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ. MacDonald writes:

Election takes us to the heart of God’s intentions for the whole of creation. It is the setting apart of a particular people for a unique relationship with God, and to be the instruments of his promises and purposes in the world. It entails nothing less than the eternal Son taking flesh as a member of his own covenant people. It is the key to mission, serving to remind us that a central element in the calling of God’s people is to be the bearers of God’s blessing to those beyond the elect community itself. (p. 33)

We can see how MacDonald, strightaway, is going to take a route that is much less traveled than the typical way of slogging through this oft debated issue (i.e. between classical Calvinists and Arminians). Her central thesis is that our doctrine of election tells us a great deal about God, and his purposes for his people and for creation in general. She seeks to reorient the priorities that we bring to election, moving from the usual focus on individual eschatological salvation, and instead focusing on the biblical and theological contours that emerge from a doctrine of election as we, indeed, have a properly tuned perspective. (p. 33).

MacDonald’s chapter has three sections with an introduction (p. 33) that give her essay shape: 1) Broad scriptural contours (pp. 34-7); 2) Election and the Individual (pp. 37-41); 3) Election and the Triune Being of God: A contemporary controversy within Barth Studies (pp. 41-44); and a conclusion (pp. 44-5). She lays out the exegetical basis for her case in her first section by working through Old Testament themes, particularly God’s covenant faithfulness and purposiveness with his Covenant people Israel which she sees culminating in the gracious Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ for all. She then, in section two, engages with the classic debate that inheres between the classical Calvinist and Arminian in regard to election and reprobation. And in her third section she engages with an in-house debate which has been called the “Barth Wars” and/or the “Companion Controversy” between two of the foremost Barth scholars of today, both professors at Princeton Theological Seminary: Bruce McCormack and George Hunsinger. She offers compelling analysis within each of her sections, and weeds through some of the more technical issues presented by the doctrine of election in very accessible ways (for the thoughtful reader).

After her body of work she concludes that election must be focused primarily on God and his Covenant purposes in a lost and dire creation; a creation that needs her Lord! MacDonald writes this in conclusion:

… While the representative controversies about election have helped to remind us that we cannot always expect Scripture to give us straightforward answers to our pressing questions on election, neither can we afford to allow those pressing questions and debated issues to take us away from what the sweep of the scriptural narrative does indicate to us about the nature and purpose of election, and the character of the God who elects. Whatever positions we come to in any of the issues raised by the doctrine of election, the resulting picture of God – and of God’s people – must be consonant with the priorities that emerge from election as God’s chosen means to bring about the fulfillment of his promises and purposes for the whole of creation. (pp. 44-5)

MacDonald’s priority is to let the priority of God’s life impinge and condition how we think of this usually contentious doctrine. As she develops her case what emerges is a picture of an electing God who is personal, Triune, incarnational, and thus gracious. If you are looking for ammunition to forward the typical debate around election/reprobation and double predestination, then look elsewhere; MacDonald admirably elevates this doctrine into the wondrous councils of the ineffable God who indeed is full of grace.

 

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4 thoughts on “Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life, A Book Review and Highlight of Suzanne MacDonald’s Doctrine of Election

  1. Pingback: Blog Tour, first stops – Theology Forum

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  3. Kent,

    Thank you for including me in the blog tour, you and Kyle! Your guys’ book is an absolutely refreshing read; I will be returning to it in the days to come, just to re-read and ingest all of the great stuff in there. You guys did a great job framing your volume, and then organizing it in an organic and edifying way!

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