I just started reading Julie Canlis’ (another contributor to our forthcoming book) new book, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension; and it starts off in smashing form. She introduces, briefly, the history of ‘ascent’ in folks like Plato and others; and then discusses how this kind of thematic genre is consonant with Pauline themes, that Calvin takes and develops within his own theological trajectory. Notice:
Plato offered one solution: ascent is “natural” to the human soul, a matter of “like being drawn to like.” The powerful engine driving this ascent is Plato’s concept of participation, such that things “participate” in the eternal for their very existence. Housing shards of the eternal, the material sphere has an innate, “natural” longing to return to its original divine home. The Christian must reject this pantheistic description of participation outright. At the same time, however, the Christian story itself is one of ascent. It begins and ends with the revelation of a personal, triune God who calls creation to “return” to communion with him. In the Garden of Eden, humans were called the imago Dei; the Spirit continues this ascending vocation by making those in the church “like God” or “like Christ” (I John 3:2; Rom. 8:29). What, then, is the engine that drives Christian ascent?
Calvin brilliantly synthesized the two movements of ascent and descent into one primary activity: the ongoing story of God himself with us. God has come as man to stand in for us (descent), and yet as man he also leads us back to the Father (ascent). The entire Christian life is an outworking of this ascent — the appropriate response to God’s descent to us — that has already taken place in Christ. Thus, for Calvin, the only appropriate human ascent is a matter of participating in Christ. Calvin’s theology of response, Christ as our response, having made the perfect response to God, vitalizes us to respond in his response. Ascent, then, is neither a matter of the soul’s latent powers nor of conscientious Christian endeavor but of communion: it is a participation in Christ’s own response to the Father, whether that be desire for God, prayer, obedience, vocation, or worship.
This hints at a different way of conceiving the divine-human relationship, such that two distinct beings are brought into a rich relationship in which their identities are not diminished but enhanced. Theological anthropology stands to be enriched precisely here,where Calvin’s insistence or participatio Christi has radical implications for our notions of what it means to be human, what it means to be a “self,” and what it means to be in relationship with God and others. Ascent functions as a concrete entry point into Calvin’s doctrine of participation, enabling us to focus more specifically on the core element of participation that makes the best sense of his theology. [Julie Canlis, “Calvin’s Ladder,” 3-4]
This is the stuff of “Evangelical Calvinism.” You will notice, as Canlis describes Calvin’s theology of ‘ascent’, that there are strong overtones that fit within the contours of T. F. Torrance’s idea of vicariousness. Torrance was, obviously, a student of Calvin’s theology as well; what Canlis describes of Calvin, is something that Torrance took over from Calvin and developed within his own theological constructive work.
But I would simply challenge anyone reading this to contemplate the implications of what Canlis is saying about Calvin; and what impact that has upon your own spirituality and daily walk with Christ! Good stuff . . .
*An old post, re-posted :-).