Book Review

"Calvin's Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension" by Julie Canlis

Michael Allen
Julie Canlis
Tuesday, January 3rd 2012
Jan/Feb 2012

Participation is one of the hottest buzzwords in theology today. Theologians from virtually every church tradition have begun speaking of human participation in the divine life or divine nature, and they have employed this kind of language by drawing frequently from patristic and Eastern resources. While the legal and forensic language so often employed in Western theology is believed to imply a cold and distant relation between the redeemed and the Redeemer, the imagery of participation or union is seen as promising a warmer and more inviting portrait of God's relation to his people.

John Calvin has not been a major player in this conversation, that is until now. But that's not surprising. He was a Protestant leader and, worse yet, a former lawyer. Perhaps we could be forgiven for expecting very little from him by way of warm and intimate language about salvation; we might think he would stray only rarely from the terminology of "debt," "payment," "crediting," and the like. Furthermore, Calvinists are frequently viewed as being focused on the objective work of Christ to the exclusion of the Spirit's life-giving mission. But Julie Canlis reminds us what we should have known all along in her remarkable book, Calvin's Ladder: John Calvin did affirm the importance of the legal and forensic, but he only affirmed such theological reflection within the context of God's covenantal relationship with his people. Indeed, as her subtitle says, Calvin did offer "A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension." Further, she highlights that this is a spiritual theology, because the Holy Spirit has a fully operative role in Calvin's theology of both Christ's ascension and our ascent in him.

Whether or not one is predisposed to the Reformed approach of Calvin, Calvin's Ladder is a helpful book. It puts the lie to so many theological myths about the Protestant tradition fueled by Calvin. Specifically, it shows that Calvin's theology accents the divine without negating the human. As Canlis says, "What is rarely seen is that Calvin's genius is not in his separation of divine and human but in the way he distinguishes them in order to relate them properly. Their classification is for communion" (62). Of course, Canlis is not the first to point this out. Indeed, there have been those who have held on to this truth within the Reformed and Protestant world throughout the centuries’the Westminster Confession of Faith's treatment of our "adoption" in Christ being one example’and Canlis joins a host of scholars today trying to highlight these moves within the tradition.

The structure of Calvin's Ladder is straightforward. Canlis begins by offering historical background focused on ladders of ascent to God in Platonism and in Christian engagements by Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas. Then she turns to Calvin, considering his teaching on creation, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. She compares Irenaeus to Calvin, covering much of the same terrain. Finally, she concludes with a historical summary and constructive proposal. The outline is well constructed, the arguments largely successful, and the spiritual vision compelling.

Her analysis of Calvin moves in three stages, each aligned to the stanzas of the creedal tradition: creation, Christ, and Spirit. Indeed, the very fact that she addresses creation as the "ground and grammar of ascent" is especially helpful, rather than trying to jump precipitously into Christology and pneumatology. Perhaps most fruitful is the way she highlights Calvin's emphasis that the descent of the Son’incarnation, life, suffering, death, and descent’must be matched by his ascent. Christ's work on Calvary, as well as the redemption he worked throughout his life, was for the sake of taking redeemed humanity to the Father's throne. There is a twofold grace in Calvin's theology: the justifying work accomplished in the descent, as well as the sanctifying work applied by the Ascended One. The human ascent up the ladder then "is thus characterized not so much by privatized obedience; rather, it is our participation in Jesus' 'return' to the Father. Calvin's greatest contribution here is his insistence that the Christian life (ascent) is not merely a response to Christ's descent. Grace includes our response" (252).

Her analysis of Irenaeus begins with his doctrine of creation, fashioned in battle with the Gnostics. Irenaeus’like the Reformed tradition’maintains a distinction between Creator and creature (184, 188). Irenaeus focuses on the work of Christ in fulfilling the creation mandate to "be fruitful and multiply" by bringing many sons and daughters to the glory of God's presence (202). Jesus ascends to heaven and brings his redeemed with him; indeed, he brings embodied beings with him, so that the ascension of Jesus "was not the ultimate rejection of the material world but its validation as the reinstated home of the Spirit" (203). For Irenaeus, God descends to us, and then God takes us up in ascent to him.

The historical synopsis is well stated in that Irenaeus and Calvin are placed together in a broader tradition of thinkers who employ participation language to express the relation between the believer and the historical Son of God (18), albeit it with different nuances and emphases. Historically, Calvin and Irenaeus affirm the idea of ascent with different polemical concerns in mind: Irenaeus against the Gnostic denial of humanity's dignity as such, and Calvin against the humanists and their exaltation of the creature.

Her constructive argument follows suit and is clearly stated: "Participation in God thus functions as a threat neither to our creatureliness nor to the Creator's divinity, but it is the very means by which the creation becomes itself" (228). She employs Calvin and Irenaeus as resources in this argument, even while noting some key differences in how they construe our communion with God (241). Canlis concludes by listing a number of lingering problems in Reformed spirituality that might be aided by reflection on participation in the vein of Irenaeus and Calvin, such as perspectives on the arts, social justice, individualism, the sacraments, and other issues.

Some concerns do arise about Canlis's proposal, however, and a number of historical and theological quibbles could be mentioned: on predestination (235, footnote 15), regarding the relationship of Calvin to substance metaphysics (14), whether "endowment metaphysics" can really be contrasted straightforwardly with "a metaphysics of relationship" (72), on the validity of the Finnish school interpretation of Luther (73, footnote 84, and elsewhere), the absence of focus upon the Word alongside the Eucharist (note its absence in chapter 4), whether adequate attention is given to the order and relationship of justification and adoption (133), and other such issues.

But one question in particular is worth highlighting: Why participation and not fellowship or communion? Has Canlis really provided a helpful analysis of how best to translate the New Testament term koinonia as well as the variety of "in Christ" language employed by Paul? She readily admits that there are terribly problematic notions of participation constantly being battled and critiqued by Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin (she also suggests that Calvin occasionally sounds more Platonic than Pauline; see 102). One is left with the prudential question: Why not opt for a low-level term such as "fellowship" (not so frequently identified with other popular philosophical and ontological schemes), and then fill it out with meaning shaped by the gospel? Why fight so hard for a term, "participation," that's not even explicitly in the Bible or in the creedal tradition? Furthermore, the term "participation" seems to be used vaguely and stands in for a number of wide-ranging ideas. It is unfair to say that Canlis undercuts the Creator/creature distinction, but I do wonder if her approach is strategically unwise. To really show how (and not just that) the Creator/creature distinction is being maintained, I think much greater clarification regarding the precise meaning of participation is required. But I would suggest that Canlis might consider jettisoning that term and seek to unpack her better insights by means of other language, such as union, fellowship, and covenant. No doubt, these terms can be misinterpreted in ways foreign or even be repugnant to the gospel, but I do not see any of them being quite as loaded as "participation."

One of the great challenges of theological reflection is appreciating the order, connections, and proportions of various topics in the Bible and in the Christian tradition. In our many (necessary) battles regarding the juridical aspects of Christ's work, we can easily forget the telos of such work, namely, that we are forgiven for fellowship and justified for adoption. Indeed, the very ascension of Jesus Christ to the Father's right hand is our life and our hope, for that is where God is and where we shall be in him. Julie Canlis reminds us of this truth so central to the gospel. As John Calvin said in his comments on 1 John 2:5, the "end of the gospel [is] to hold communion with God."

Tuesday, January 3rd 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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