God’s Transcendence as the Point of Communion and Compassion: Calvin’s Theology Per Canlis

I don’t have a lot of time to write anything, but I wanted to share this really good word from Julie Canlis (by the way, she is a contributor to our first volume Evangelical Calvinism book). Here she is writing on Calvin’s thinking on Divine transcendence. You will notice that she is taking aim at the late medieval potentia theology, most notably associated with Nominalism. You will also notice that as she parses this in Calvin’s theology, what comes through is his emphasis upon a relational/communal understanding of God’s transcendence in a God-world relation.

Calvin fights for God’s transcendence not due to some abstract Nominalist principle but for the purpose of communion. God’s transcendence is not God’s imprisonment over (and thus out of) the world, but rather his freedom to be present to the world. While God’s transcendence is often hailed as the most distinctive mark of Reformed theology, this transcendence — if it is to follow Calvin — must not mean external relationship to the world but the absolute freedom with which God stands in relationship to his creatures. It establishes the radical noncontinuity of grace and the world. It certainly does not establish that grace and the world have nothing to do with each other! Instead, he offered the possibility of a new way to ground the Creator-creature relationship. Although it does not look promising to begin with the ontological divide between Creator and creature, it is only when this is established that participation is possible. This is Calvin’s genius and what is most often misunderstood about his theo-logical program. For we must remember that Calvin believed that it is not the divine perspective but the sinful human one to regard this ontological divide as a fearful separation. From the human perspective, “we are nothing,” but from the divine perspective, “how magnified”! (III.2.25).[1]

I thought this was a good word on Calvin’s understanding of transcendence; particularly as that is contrasted with potentia theology. Here, from the outset, in Calvin, according to Canlis, we have an example of how transcendence could (and should!) be thought from relational and ultimately Christological vistas.

I still don’t think people are really appreciating how significant insights like this are. The way we think God determines everything else following. It determines whether or not we have compassion on a wayward soul at point of death or not; it determines how we view people in general. If our view of God is wrong it could well lead us into the trap of our ‘love growing cold.’ In Calvin’s theology, per Canlis, we are not thinking God in terms of abstract and dualistic powers; instead we are thinking him in terms of divine presence and communal warmth—even and precisely at the point that we are thinking of His transcendence.

 

[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent And Ascension (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 723, 728 loc.

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Jesus, God’s Saint for Us: Thinking Dialogical Theology from Canlis’s Calvin and His Doctrine of Creation and Communion

Still rereading Julie Canlis’s magisterial work Calvin’s Ladder. I wanted to share her introduction to her second chapter, which is entitled Creation: The Ground and Grammar of Ascent. Here she is going to develop Calvin’s doctrine of creation and communion, and the way that implicates a doctrine of ascent or koinonia and/or fellowship with God. I’ll share the quote, and then comment a bit further on the other side.

Because ascent has been misconstrued over the years — indeed, the metaphor has been used to devalue and escape creation for centuries — it is essential to begin with Calvin’s doctrine of creation. We begin with concept of the world as a place of communion, the “trysting place” between God and humanity. Creation is revealed to be a space overflowing with the fatherhood of God, the mediation of Christ, and the tending of the Spirit. It is only when this is established that a correct understanding of Christ’s ascent, our incorporation into him, and ascent in the Eucharist can be grasped properly.

Creation, as the sphere of koinōnia, is the ground and grammar of an ascent that is not away from materiality but a deepened experience of communion within it. This issues forth in a concept of creation that is anything but static and impersonal. Instead, Calvin’s theological vision is a dynamic interplay of God, creation, and humanity, where the creation-call on humanity and the delight and communication of God hold center stage. From the proleptic thrust of Calvin’s doctrine of creation, to his projective concept of the imago as “toward” (ad), to Adam’s dynamic koinōnia existence and then the forceful inversion of sin and the metaphor of falling (the Fall), Calvin is anything but amorphous. Communion is the groundwork of creation, the purpose of anthropology, and the telos toward which all creation strains.[1]

When Canlis concludes ‘Communion is the groundwork of creation, the purpose of anthropology, and the telos toward which all creation strains’ it becomes clear why she fits so well with us Evangelical Calvinists. As I’ve noted previously, dialogical theology, or what Barth terms dialectical theology (in his Göttingen Dogmatics), is a sort of touchstone for Evangelical Calvinism’s theological method (prolegomenon). While it seems to be a pre-dogmatic locus, in fact the method itself is given as the material gift of salvation in the concrete reality of Jesus Christ. It is here, and constantly consistently here where God has spoken (Deus dixit), and continues to speak; as such, this is where Evangelical Calvinists intentionally sit still and attempt to listen before we speak.

Of interest, also, is the idea that Canlis draws from Calvin’s theology; viz. the idea that ascent comes to have an aethereal reality and instead a palpable/material reality in the descent and ascent of the incarnated and ascended Christ. This is important in moving beyond an untethered metaphysics that attempts to discursively think God from effects to cause. Instead, as with Canlis’s Calvin, so for us Evangelical Calvinists, we necessarily affirm the goodness of recreation in Jesus Christ; as such our prayers and dialogues with the living God in the risen Christ do not flutter to the heavens on the wings of wistful butterflies, but instead in and through the flesh and blood and risen body of Jesus Christ. It is through the broken body of the lively Christ wherein the veil has been torn, and we come to have eyes to see and ears to hear the Shepherd’s voice. Dialogical theology is one bounded in koinonia, in the communion of the saints grounded in the Saint of God for us who is Jesus Christ. Here we hear God speak. This is the basis of any sound theology; one that listens through the new ears given for us in the recreated ears of Jesus Christ. As God has spoken and speaks in the humanity of Christ we hear God.

[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension(Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 582, 586, 591.

The Calvinian Turn to Jesus Christ Versus the Catholic Turn to the Vicar: A Rationale for the Evangelical Calvinist Via

John Calvin provided for a Protestantly Reformed turn towards a genuinely Christocentric theology of the Word, that prior (except in lineaments found in some Patristics and then in Martin Luther) was hard to find; particularly in the mediaeval context within which Calvin found himself, even if that was of the late variety. In the modern period when we read someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and then compare that with a reading of John Calvin, what stands out is the way that Barth/Torrance followed Calvin’s ‘turn,’ but only in even more radical or theo-logically conclusive ways. This is something I don’t think current Protestants who are attempting to retrieve the ‘classical’ past appreciate very much; viz. this turn that Calvin helped initiate (along with Luther), a radical turn to a genuine theology of the Word in Jesus Christ—a turn to a christocentric approach to theological endeavor versus the theocentric that reigned supreme in the Tridentine.

Julie Canlis—as we once again refer to her magisterial work, Calvin’s Ladder—helps us appreciate this Calvinian turn as she contrasts that with the Aquinasian approach (you’ll see her reference the structure of Thomas’s Summa Theologiae and how that materially illustrates her point). She writes:

A comparison of Aquinas and Calvin reveals that, while Calvin picks up on this scholastic scheme, he also fundamentally alters it. Pushing beyond Wyatt’s insight, we discover that it no longer is the story of humanity’s ascent to God by grace (Aquinas), or of the soul’s ascent (Augustine), but of Christ’s ascent. Calvin refuses to tack Christ as a tertia pars onto the Plotinian circle of creation’s procession from and return to God. Instead, Christ breaks open the circle and grafts it onto himself. For Calvin, the figure of Christ has shattered any scheme that begins with creation and allows creation to be considered apart from Christ, through whom it was made and to whom it is directed. In subtly shifting Aquinas’s exitus- reditus scheme from anthropology to Christ, Calvin challenges Aquinas’s attempt at theocentrism as not going far enough. It is not Christ who fits into the procrustean bed of anthropology but we who are fitted to Christ and his ascent. In him and by his Spirit, we ascend to the Father.[1]

She is certainly right to recognize that Calvin operated in the milieu of his own period; how could he not? But, as Canlis also helps us see, Calvin was a constructive and ingenious Christian thinker propelled by his newfound Protest-ant faith; a faith given direction and shape by a principled commitment to the Word rather than to the Church as his ultimate authority. Within this complex Calvin was ingressed into a new world that had the imaginary to think the church from Christ rather than Christ from the church; as such, he was able to make the turn that others prior couldn’t.

I would suggest that Barth and Torrance picked up on this turn in Calvin, and as I noted previously, radicalized it further; to its rightful conclusion even. Both Barth and Torrance, and us Evangelical Calvinists, are genuinely Calvinian in the sense that we operate not just in the spirit, but the letter of Calvin’s turn to Jesus Christ as the centraldogma of all that is viable in theological endeavor. I think our counterparts in other tributaries of the Reformed faith, in their zeal to recover the ‘catholic faith’ have unfortunately overlooked the sort of Christ conditioned notion of God that Calvin (and Luther) did not. As Evangelical Calvinists we attempt to move and breath in this Christ concentrated spirit, with the result that all our theologizing is principially and intensively Christ pressured. We think this is the right trajectory to be on since Jesus himself seemed to take this approach when engaging with Holy Scripture (cf. Jn 5.39; etc.).

[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension(Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 493, 498.

Origen Invented the Language of the ‘Fall’: And Other Miscellanies

The Fall. Not a biblical word, per se[1]; did you ever wonder where it came from? I am currently rereading one of my all time favorite books, Julie Canlis’s[2]: Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension. In one of her beginning sections she offers sketches of various early thinkers who helped contribute to a theology of ascent and ascension, respectively. In her coverage of Origen she identifies something interesting—at least to me—in regard to the taxonomy of the verbiage ‘fall.’ I’ve used this language ever since a wee one, being weaned in the church as I was. I have now been studying theology formally and informally for decades, and yet in all that time this reality escaped me; even the first time I read through Canlis’s book (it didn’t stand out to me like it is this time). Who would have ever thought that the heretic[3], Origen, was the originator of the language of fall. Indeed, Origen had a certain ideational context for the whence of his thinking on: fall. Here Canlis helps us understand what in fact that context was, and how it gave irruption to the notion of Fall; for Origen, as we will see, it is a very descriptive and ‘verbial’ conception. Canlis writes,

Origen’s cosmology is played out amidst the drama of fallen intellects who, in committing the first sin, “fell” into embodiment (De principiis 2.9). (Origen was the first to coin the word “fall” for original sin, because he regarded it as a literal fall from the higher spirit world to our lower world of materiality.) Having fallen, these intellects follow a threefold Platonic-style pedagogy to return to God: purification, illumination, and contemplative union. Given this cosmic tutorial, Origen’s soteriology follows suit and styles the person of Christ as the cosmic educator of these misplaced souls. (The Spirit is, not surprisingly, the Spirit of Wisdom.) In this scheme, the physicality of the Savior can be read as more or less a stage for the soul to pass by as it ascends to less and less mediated knowledge of the eternal Logos — for how could God’s limitation be his ultimate expression? In comparison to his near-contemporary Irenaeus, we see in this Alexandrian (and many after him) a subtle shift in accent away from the salvation of the flesh to the pedagogy of the soul.[4]

As an aside, look up Maximus the Confessor’s On The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ as an antidote to Origen’s exitus/reditus Platonic schema of salvation.

Without getting into the nitty gritty of all the intellectual antecedents present in Origen’s world, even as those are highly interesting and important to the task of understanding his motivation for using the language of Fall, I thought it was interesting to simply note the word’s genetic line. It does make me think more astutely about using the word ‘fall’ going forward. It’s not that the word has inherent meaning, but as with any symbol it gains meaning through its context of usage. It is possible to use the language of fall in reified form without affirming its original usage of meaning as that is provided for in Origen’s thought-universe. Anyway, interesting.

 

[1] At least in its technical theological sense.

[2] By the way, Julie is a contributor to our first Evangelical Calvinism book.

[3] Although in many ways it is anachronistic or after the fact to label Origen a heretic; he is being somewhat recouped, as it were, in regard to his valuable status for the church. Even if his insights weren’t colored as post-Nicenely as we’d all like.

[4] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 367, 371. On the latter clause of the Canlis quote we might think of David Bentley Hart as a contemporary proponent of an Origenist outlook on soteriology; see his piece: The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients.

 

Communio Sanctorum: Confronting Radical Analytical Theology with Radical Participationist-Dialogical Theology

I have been around theologians, theologians I would call analytical theologians who have questioned the merits of basing theological projects on and in dialogue with dead (or even living) theologians from the past. In other words, the concern these analytics seemingly have is that we end up relying too heavily upon the idiosyncrasy of this or that theologian’s turn, and thus lose the rigor of independent and critical thought. The supposition is that the analytic theologian has access to a body of ideational tools that allows a valence of objectivity unencumbered by the individual thought processes of others. In other words, these sorts of theologians seem to think philosophy has its own ontological force such that it can (and ought to) supply the theologian with the sorts of tools that would allow them to arrive at theological conclusions based upon ‘ideas’ themselves; as if ideas have some sort of ‘cut-off’ value to them that allows them to have reality apart from their location in the hearts and minds of embodied human agents. In other words, when I hear these types of theologians make these statements (about building on the ideas of other theologians from the past) it makes me think that they think that they have a super-powered ability to access the ‘pure-world’ of ideas (eternal forms) unencumbered by the messiness of what happens to ideas when we see those in the dynamic of the relationality inherent to what it means to be creaturely in relation to other creatures. When I hear these types of theologians think out-loud like this it makes me think they would make their father, Plato, very proud. Ironically, what I am describing is simply the best of what the modern turn to the subject offers up; i.e. the idea that individual (monadic) subjects have the capaciousness to objectively opine about meta-realities without being in dialogue with the grammars and ideational superstructures that others have developed in the history of theological ideas.

Maybe if you’re into analytical theology you’re not recognizing what I’m describing; you’re not picking up what I’m laying down. But I have been around certain philosophers of religion, who count themselves as theologians, who have pressed what I have described above to a T. In other words this is not something I have fabricated whole cloth. But this is exactly what I as an Evangelical Calvinist am opposed to; along with the great Tradition of the church. Christian theology, at its best, has always recognized that God has seen fit to supply his Church with teachers; in sundry times and places. Herein we have had one long Pentecostal dialogue taking place within the strictures of the Church, such that a body of ortho-dox teaching has been produced. It is within these confines, recognizing their eschatological (thus ectypal) nature, that further and faithful dialogue can transpire towards a ‘growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.’ This is why Evangelical Calvinists, along with Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth, are so adamant about ‘dialogical theology.’ We insist that the ground of the theological endeavor, or Church Dogmatics, takes place as we, the Church, are in constant dialogue (prayerful) with the living God in the risen Christ. Theology in this mode is first reliant upon the Christian’s fellowship and participation with Jesus Christ (participatio Christi); and then in this koinonial (fellowshipping) bond, as the Church, we have the capacity to grow in our knowledge of God as we fellowship one with another as we are graciously grounded in the center of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. Evangelical Calvinists believe that the communio sanctorum (communion of the saints), as that is understood from our groundedness together in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (where we are all seated in the heavenlies with him), is the location that proper theological developments find their greatest and most fiduciary (relative to the Evangel) gravitas. In order to press this point home, let me close with a nice development of this theme offered by Julie Canlis (who by the way is a contributor to our first EC book). Here Canlis is referring to her own work with Irenaeus and Calvin vis-à-vis their respective doctrines of participation.

I will conclude my “backward” look by bringing both theologians forward into the contemporary realm, looking at the implications of their doctrine of participation for the present day. . . . What makes a comparison of Calvin and this Gallic predecessor so interesting for today is the way in which they used participation to fight opposite battles. In Calvin’s time, the transcendence of God was threatened by the humanist exaltation of humanity. Irenaeus’s situation could not have been more contrary, with the Gnostics compromising the goodness of humanity and creation through twisted beliefs about divine transcendence. Yet both answered their opponents with a startling vision of human participation in Christ, all the while building these anthropologies from opposite ends of the spectrum. My intent is that Irenaeus’s vision would draw attention to the originality and continuity of Calvin’s own concept of participation, while also providing gentle correctives as needed.

It should be quite clear that I am neither attempting to repristinate a specific era of the past nor am I constructing a pedigree of Calvin’s supposed sources. For although Irenaeus is Calvin’s seventh most frequently cited church father, Calvin was primarily “reacting to the uses that Irenaeus was put to by his adversaries.” Rather, I am attempting to do theology on the model of the sanctorum communio — the belief that we are neither isolated Christians nor objective scientists but rather within a church and stream of tradition. Barth says,

The Church does not stand in a vacuum. Beginning from the beginning, however necessary, cannot be a matter of beginning off one’s own bat. We have to remember the communion of saints, bearing and being borne by each other, asking and being asked, having to take mutual responsibility for and among the sinners gathered tougher in Christ.

To be only a spectator of those who entered into this task of theology is to violate the nature of what they have undertaken, for theology is by nature personal — marked by the one who first reveals himself to us. Or to put it bluntly, there is a difference between Calvin as subject matter and Calvin’s subject matter. To give Calvin a voice is to respect not only the particularity of his time (and the particularity of revelation) with rigorous historical research, it is also to value the themes that he shares with us. It is to refuse, with Philip Butin, the false alternatives of either “confessional” or “historical” theology and engage both Calvin and Irenaeus as dialogue partners for a deepened understanding of participation. As Holmes quips, “The doctors are not dead and gone, but living and active.” If there is an attempt to “use” Calvin for this vital issue in contemporary theology, then so be it. I believe he just might have something to say.[1]

As Canlis details her own rational for her methodology what emerges is the importance that dialogical theology has in the theological process. What we see is how participation, itself a theological locus, serves as the basis for thinking with our brothers and sisters in the theological endeavor. The analytical theologian often falls prey to thinking about the way thinkers of the past thought (as a descriptive exercise); the analytical theologian often believes he or she has elevated to a point of intellectual development wherein, they believe, the critical task of being a theologian is to offer ‘original’ thought that out-paces what happened in the past (so there is a sort of chronological snobbery attending this as well). But the dialogical theologian, in contrast, recognizes the basis for theological talk; it is only after God has spoken, and only after he continues to speak that the theologian can indeed do theology. It is only after the would-be theologian is confronted with and contradicted by the voice of the living God, within a relational nexus of filial communion, wherein genuine theology obtains.

None of what I am pressing negates the importance of thinking critically and even ‘modally analytically,’ but what I am attempting to reinforce is the idea that the ground of theological practice must always already be founded upon and in the giver of life itself. And if the giver of life itself is the Triune God—who is necessarily relational and personal—then the character and method of theology, following, will first and foremost have a dialogical/participationist rather than an analytical frame (especially of the radical sort I have been using as my example in this post).

 

 

[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 273, 278, 283, 288 kindle.

Providing Some Historical Background for Evangelical Calvinism through Calvin

The never ending debate of continuity between Calvin and the Calvinists will probably endure until the Lord returns. Bruce Gordon, amongst most ‘Reformed’ scholars, holds to the thesis that in fact there is continuity between Calvin and those who bear his name today; he says:

. . . Calvin’s discursive, humanist style, which he shared with his contemporaries, was replaced by new forms of argumentation that could be used in the schools and academies. The theology itself was not changing, and Calvin’s thought remained crucial to Reformed tradition, but the means by which it was taught reflected new requirements. Moreover, as he had lived, in death Calvin did not stand alone. He was read, studied and interpreted in various contexts all within a wider stream of Reformed thought that included Bullinger, Vermigli and their successors. Just as he had wanted, he belonged to the community of churchmen. (Bruce Gordon, “Calvin,”339).

I think, reading between the lines, Gordon is saying that much of the post-Calvin development was really only a matter of genre; that pedagogy, and historical circumstances — facing “the Calvinists” — required various approaches and appropriations. I am sure this is true. But is it also sound to reduce Calvin’s thought, and the development of his thought to an issue of “style,” and not “material content,” as Gordon does? I am leery on this point.

Beyond this, and what is agreeable with what Gordon asserts, with qualification of course, is that Calvin was read “in various contexts all within a wider stream of Reformed thought.” What Gordon seems to be presuming, given his list of “Calvin’s readers” (i.e. Bullinger, Vermigli, et al.), is that this wider stream is what developed into what we now call “Orthodoxy” (i.e. corollary with the Westminster Divines, et al.). This is where “Evangelical Calvinism” wants to step in and say, “hello, wait a minute, what about the Scots and even some of the English?” Now certainly, if we assume that “Orthodoxy” is “Orthodoxy,” then the “stream of Reformed tradition” is delimited in ways that automatically preclude what we as “Evangelical Calvinists” want to say; and that is that there are readings of Calvin within the ‘Reformed tradition’ that do not fit into the “Orthodox” stream, per se (viz. depending upon what the standard of actual “Orthodoxy” is — is it sola scriptura, or self proclamation?).

Case in point, and on this I will close; Calvin had a very Trinitarian way of reading Union with Christ, it was ‘real’ and ‘ontological’ union — this is what Evangelical Calvinists believe as well. Do the Federal or Orthodox, predominately see it this way (I am generalizing here)? Julie Canlis, a Calvin scholar says:

My suspicion is that Calvin’s scuffle with Osiander is largely to blame for our Reformed emphasis on justification to the exclusion (or downgrading) of adoption as spiritual union. Although Alister McGrath notes, “Calvin is actually concerned not so much with justification, as with incorporation into Christ,” it seems as if Reformed theology traded this full-bodied trinitarianism for a narrower (though vital) christocentrism. Out of fear of Osiander’s (and others’) focus on union unaccompanied by an appropriate role for the cross, we have compensated by limiting union to the cross—the method by which we are saved. With this move, however, we are no longer asking the questions that Calvin was asking: we suddenly are left with questions about how we are saved, from what we are saved, and what we should do now that we have received this salvation. They tend to be the questions that quench rather than nourish spiritual formation because they are stunted. Calvin’s questions always centered around God (not ourselves, or even our salvation) and about the glory of God—questions that are not stunted because they open themselves up to a reality much larger than themselves and do not approach this reality with a (frankly consumerist) how can- I-get-salvation mentality or a (primarily functional) what-should-I-do-now mentality. Calvin’s questions took their cues from God in his trinitarian fullness and his inexplicable desire to bring us into this fullness. In distancing himself from Osiander, Calvin was not necessarily less radical than Osiander in his vision of union with God, he was just relentlessly trinitarian. Union, when explained as justification or friendship or even fellowship with God, doesn’t quite meet Calvin’s standards. “Not only,” Calvin says, “does Christ cleave to us by an indivisible bond of fellowship (societatis), but, with a wonderful communion (communione), day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us until he becomes completely one with us.” It seems that Calvin himself is arguing for something more than fellowship: “not only fellowship but communion, becoming one with us.” What does this mean? I believe it is Calvin’s desire to push us deeper, through the glory of being reconciled to God by justification, into a life of being spiritually formed by the Trinity itself (himself!). Adoption is Calvin’s answer to both Osiander’s non-trinitarian union and the sometimes-diluted “union” that we in the Reformed tradition have unconsciously embraced. (Julie Canlis, “Calvin’s Institutes: A Primer for Spiritual Formation,” Resurgence [2007])

There is alot in this one quote (Osiander was one of Calvin’s theological opponents, btw); suffice it to say, besides the rich points that Canlis is making (theologically), this illustrates the way that Calvin can and should be read on “Union.” If this is the case, shouldn’t this be one of the salient points that we judge whether or not the “Orthodox Calvinist” has indeed read Calvin the right way? I think it should be. If this was a key of Calvin’s theology, shouldn’t it be a keynote in the “Orthodox” Calvinist’s theology?

I could provide more comment, in fact I want to quote TFT in his book “Scottish Theology,” wherein we see ‘Evangelical Calvinists’ reading “Union” much the same way as Calvin. The point would be, if “Scottish Theology” reads Calvin the way he intended, and “Federal Theology” (Classic Calvinists) do not; wouldn’t this at least suggest that “Evangelical Calvinism” should be included in the discussion of the “wider Reformed tradition?” I think so, thus an impetus for this blog.

Canlis on Calvin: Ascent Salvation

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 :-).

Grace as Jesus, not Juice and Crackers

*Repost on John Calvin number eight.

In the regular understanding of God’s grace and created nature; nature is often construed in ways that it is latent with capacity for a ‘perfecting grace’. The effect of this kind of thinking is to collapse grace (or ‘created grace’) into nature itself; thus absolutizing grace, through nature, in a way that makes it an abstract quality of nature and thus a de-personalized framing of “salvation” accrues when shaped by this kind of lens. In simple terms, grace
is collapsed into nature; so that it no longer is grounded in the ‘personal nature’ of our Triune God. Julie Canlis comments on how Calvin’s understanding re-introduces a Trinitarian and ‘personalising’ understanding that is contra-posed with the Tradition (e.g. that ‘collapses’ grace into nature — ‘de-personal’):

. . . If we remember our earlier discussion of Aquinas, his ordering of the Prima, Secunda, and Tertia Partes carried an implication about the inherent capacity of nature for grace, where created forms carried within them a natural yearning for God, a homing device of sorts. Motivated by his desire to take creation seriously as a realm of God’s grace and goodness, Aquinas formed an ontology that led him to invest created forms with “vestiges” of God. Over the years, these forms — the imago, humanity, the soul, the sacraments — became larger than life: instead of pointing people to the God in whom they participated (and upon whom the forms depended for their very essence), they began to segregate people from God. They became substitutes for his presence rather than what mediated is presence. Calvin realized that for all of high scholasticism’s attempts to make grace central, the result was a depersonalized grace, a grace that had no need of the person of Christ. That supreme miracle of God’s freedom and grace, the incarnation, deteriorated into the basis for a claim about nature’s capacity for grace. Not only was God’s freedom and sovereignty curtailed, but reality stopped being an event of communion. Each instance of grace was no longer God freely choosing again and again to give himself to humanity and the created order; rather, this became a “principle” inherent in the order itself. Thus we can see that, for Calvin, God’s freedom and transcendence is a necessary component of his larger relationship to the world characterized by communion. (Julie Canlis, “Calvin’s Ladder,” 69)

Layman’s Interpretation

When grace is made into something that you can physically drink (like grape juice or wine), and something physically eat (like bread); then it becomes something that you and I can shape and manipulate. We can pour more juice or less, we can break the bread into small pieces or bigger. The point being, by implication, grace becomes a thing that we can determine through our own sensibilities. Grace in this scenario is not a someOne, and thus it becomes an ‘it’ that is depersonalised; no longer grounded in the personal Triune God of life and the living.

In short, if we think of grace as something other than ‘who’ comes in Jesus Christ; we will fall prey to views of salvation that starts with us, and grace becomes a “grocery” by which “we” choose to “cooperate” with God, or not. If we operate with this conception of grace, then we will place ‘Law’ before grace; as the instrument through which we are able to cooperate with God (through grace). Worst of all, if we think of grace this way, then Jesus Himself — in the Incarnation — just becomes the ‘Instrument’ of God through whom God is able to procure or purchase salvation through meeting the demands set out by grace.

Okay, so the “layman’s interpretation” didn’t turn out so “layman;” sorry, I’m trying 😉 .

Book Review: Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent And Ascension

*Repost on John Calvin number seven. I have decided to selectively repost some of my John Calvin posts and not all of them. This book by Julie is awesome (and is on my re-read list). By the way, Julie Canlis also offers an excellent chapter in Myk’s and my book; her chapter therein is entitled: Living as God’s Children: Calvin’s Institutes as Primer for Spiritual Formation.

Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent And Ascension by Julie Canlis (2010)

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6449-9 (286 pages)

Julie Canlis has offered Calvin studies, in particular, and the Christian Church, in general, a classic before its time (given its relative “newness”). She masterfully seeks to introduce a theme, a doctrinal milieu for Calvin that simply is original; yet not novel. Her book, “Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent And Ascension,” depicts a Calvin who has his theology shaped, heavily, by a doctrine of participation and ascent. Her book is organized accordingly: She lays out the logistics of the body of the book in her Introduction, which involves (i) ‘partcipation and Christianity’, (ii) ‘participation as a valid Reformed category’, (iii) ‘participation and Irenaeus’, and (iv) Calvin and Irenaeus (pp. 1-21). She then begins to develop what she highlights in her introduction in Chapter 1, entitled — Ladders of Ascent: A Brief History; the breakdown of the chapter is as follows: (i) ‘Greek itineraries: Plato’s Ladder and Plotinus’s golden circle’, (ii) ‘Christian journeys: Origen, Augustine, Aquinas’, and (iii) ‘Calvin’s paradigm of ascent’ (pp. 25-42). Chapter 2, Creation: The Ground and Grammar of Ascent, is framed by two sections: (i) Eternal mediation of the Word’ and (ii)’The mediator and the garden’ (pp. 53-74). Moving into Chapter 3, Christ: The Ascending One, Canlis unveils the descent and ascent of Christ with the theatre having been set by ‘Creation’ in the previous chapter; this chapter progresses thusly: (i) ‘The bidirectional itinerary of God’, (ii) ‘The descent of Jesus: His earthly humanity’, and (iii) The ascent of Jesus: His continuing humanity (pp. 89-112). Prior to discussing Irenaeus as Calvin’s foil and discussion partner in chapter 5, Julie moves skillfully into Chapter 4, The Spirit: The Eucharistic Ascent where she discusses the centrality and natural place this takes through Calvin’s schema of ‘union with Christ’ and ‘participation’ as a central component of his theology; this chapter discusses: (i) ‘Discipleship’, (ii) ‘Adoption’, and (iii) ‘The eucharistic ascent’ (pp. 123-159). She changes gears as we enter into Chapter 5, The Ascending Vision of Irenaeus; who she has already noted, back in chapter 1, serves as a helpful voice when engaging Calvin’s ‘ascension theology’; since Irenaeus not only represents an ealry corollary and cooridinate voice to Calvin’s in this area, but as we will see in chapter 6 — somewhat of a corrective (by way of complement) to Calvin, in regards to Calvin’s sometimes binary and almost “Platonic” like dualistic language (esp. when it comes to the eucharist, but also relative to his “theological anthropology”). Chapter 5 unfolds: (i) ‘The ascending economy of Adam’, (ii) ‘The ascending economy of Christ’, and (iii) ‘The ascending economy of the Spirit’ (pp. 173-210). Finally (in a good and crescendo kind of way) we come to Chapter 6, Reforming Ascent: Irenaeus, Calvin, and Christian Spirituality; this was well worth the wait, herein, Canlis orchestrates in symphonic tempo the voices of both Calvin and Irenaeus. She presents Calvin as the star of the show, highlighting all of the previous points she had developed throughout the body of the book; but as the co-star, she uses Irenaeus tenor like voice to bring harmony to Calvin’s theology of ascent in ways that are both historically tuned, but more constructively balanced in way that both Calvin and Irenaeus are allowed to shine with their respective strengths and weaknesses given their proper air time. The chapter breaksdown: (i) ‘Backward and forward with descent and ascent’, (ii) ‘Recapitulating ascent in Calvin’, (iii) ‘Participation and its challenges, and (iv) ‘Ascent, Calvin, and contemporary spirituality’ (pp. 229-245). She closes out the work with a dense Bibliography (pp. 253-272) and helpful Index of Names, Subjects, and Calvin’s Works (273-283) — respectively.

General Impressions

Julie Canlis’ book will rock your Calvin and Calvinistic world (if you have one). She offers a Calvin who is Pneumotologically shaped, and who really sounds less like the “Calvinism” that followed him; than ever before. The Calvin presented by Julie certainly fits the ‘Confessional Calvin’ that Charles Partee introduced us to in his (2008) ‘The Theology of John Calvin’ offering. She presses the ‘centrality’ that union with Christ & Participation with Christ played in shaping Calvin’s overall project; and she does this in a way that is not polemic, nor does it overtly engage the pictures of Calvin painted by folks like: Richard Muller, Carl Trueman, and David Steinmetz respectively; all of these scholars have sought to place Calvin in his “context” which does away with notions of Calvin that might portend a ‘centraldogma’. Interestingly, while Julie avoids this rather polemically charged venue of discourse; what she ends up doing is demonstrating that in fact Calvin does have a “core” (or center) that drives his overall theology, viz. his ‘theology of ascent’ (which is simply grounded in his “union with Christ” and “participation” with Christ theology).

Beyond all of this, what I found most refreshing was the koinonial-relational (Trinitarian) shape that Canlis develops relative to Calvin’s theology. She demonstrates, that while certain categories of Platonism (like ascent) were present (linguistically) in Calvin’s theology; that in the end, Calvin out-paces such things precisely because of his commitment to biblical and Trinitarian and Christian concepts that slight the metaphysics provided by Platonism. This is where Irenaeus becomes a very helpful interlocuter to Calvin; Canlis fruitfully notices and develops that one of the points of contact between both Calvin and Irenaeus is their overt and explicit Biblicism. This allows both men to escape the tendencies to slip back into the kind of Platonic metaphysicalism that folks like Osiander fell into in the attempt to talk about Christ’s divinity and humanity.

I would highly recommend this book, I give it 5 out of 5 stars; it will change your life (not an overstatement).

PS. This book is her PhD dissertation which she did under Alan Torrance at the University of St. Andrews (2005). While it is clearly a critical and academic work, the style is both pastoral and even devotional. I think any engaged Christian — layman, pastor, or scholar — will benefit immensely from this book!

Book Review: "Calvin's Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent And Ascension

Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent And Ascension by Julie Canlis (2010)

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6449-9 (286 pages)

Julie Canlis has offered Calvin studies, in particular, and the Christian Church, in general; a classic before its time (given its relative “newness”). She masterfully seeks to introduce a theme, a doctrinal milieu for Calvin that simply is original; yet not novel. Her book, “Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent And Ascension,” depicts a Calvin who has his theology shaped, heavily, by a doctrine of participation and ascent. Her book is organized accordingly: She lays out the logistics of the body of the book in her Introduction, which involves (i) ‘partcipation and Christianity’, (ii) ‘participation as a valid Reformed category’, (iii) ‘participation and Irenaeus’, and (iv) Calvin and Irenaeus (pp. 1-21). She then begins to develop what she highlights in her introduction in Chapter 1, entitled — Ladders of Ascent: A Brief History; the breakdown of the chapter is as follows: (i) ‘Greek itineraries: Plato’s Ladder and Plotinus’s golden circle’, (ii) ‘Christian journeys: Origen, Augustine, Aquinas’, and (iii) ‘Calvin’s paradigm of ascent’ (pp. 25-42). Chapter 2, Creation: The Ground and Grammar of Ascent, is framed by two sections: (i) Eternal mediation of the Word’ and (ii)’The mediator and the garden’ (pp. 53-74). Moving into Chapter 3, Christ: The Ascending One, Canlis unveils the descent and ascent of Christ with the theatre having been set by ‘Creation’ in the previous chapter; this chapter progresses thusly: (i) ‘The bidirectional itinerary of God’, (ii) ‘The descent of Jesus: His earthly humanity’, and (iii) The ascent of Jesus: His continuing humanity (pp. 89-112). Prior to discussing Irenaeus as Calvin’s foil and discussion partner in chapter 5, Julie moves skillfully into Chapter 4, The Spirit: The Eucharistic Ascent where she discusses the centrality and natural place this takes through Calvin’s schema of ‘union with Christ’ and ‘participation’ as a central component of his theology; this chapter discusses: (i) ‘Discipleship’, (ii) ‘Adoption’, and (iii) ‘The eucharistic ascent’ (pp. 123-159). She changes gears as we enter into Chapter 5, The Ascending Vision of Irenaeus; who she has already noted, back in chapter 1, serves as a helpful voice when engaging Calvin’s ‘ascension theology’; since Irenaeus not only represents an ealry corollary and cooridinate voice to Calvin’s in this area, but as we will see in chapter 6 — somewhat of a corrective (by way of complement) to Calvin, in regards to Calvin’s sometimes binary and almost “Platonic” like dualistic language (esp. when it comes to the eucharist, but also relative to his “theological anthropology”). Chapter 5 unfolds: (i) ‘The ascending economy of Adam’, (ii) ‘The ascending economy of Christ’, and (iii) ‘The ascending economy of the Spirit’ (pp. 173-210). Finally (in a good and crescendo kind of way) we come to Chapter 6, Reforming Ascent: Irenaeus, Calvin, and Christian Spirituality; this was well worth the wait, herein, Canlis orchestrates in symphonic tempo the voices of both Calvin and Irenaeus. She presents Calvin as the star of the show, highlighting all of the previous points she had developed throughout the body of the book; but as the co-star, she uses Irenaeus tenor like voice to bring harmony to Calvin’s theology of ascent in ways that are both historically tuned, but more constructively balanced in way that both Calvin and Irenaeus are allowed to shine with their respective strengths and weaknesses given their proper air time. The chapter breaksdown: (i) ‘Backward and forward with descent and ascent’, (ii) ‘Recapitulating ascent in Calvin’, (iii) ‘Participation and its challenges, and (iv) ‘Ascent, Calvin, and contemporary spirituality’ (pp. 229-245). She closes out the work with a dense Bibliography (pp. 253-272) and helpful Index of Names, Subjects, and Calvin’s Works (273-283) — respectively.

General Impressions

Julie Canlis’ book will rock your Calvin and Calvinistic world (if you have one). She offers a Calvin who is Pneumotologically shaped, and who really sounds less like the “Calvinism” that followed him; than ever before. The Calvin presented by Julie certainly fits the ‘Confessional Calvin’ that Charles Partee introduced us to in his (2008) ‘The Theology of John Calvin’ offering. She presses the ‘centrality’ that union with Christ & Participation with Christ played in shaping Calvin’s overall project; and she does this in a way that is not polemic, nor does it overtly engage the pictures of Calvin painted by folks like: Richard Muller, Carl Trueman, and David Steinmetz respectively; all of these scholars have sought to place Calvin in his “context” which does away with notions of Calvin that might portend a ‘centraldogma’. Interestingly, while Julie avoids this rather polemically charged venue of discourse; what she ends up doing is demonstrating that in fact Calvin does have a “core” (or center) that drives his overall theology, viz. his ‘theology of ascent’ (which is simply grounded in his “union with Christ” and “participation” with Christ theology).

Beyond all of this, what I found most refreshing was the koinonial-relational (Trinitarian) shape that Canlis develops relative to Calvin’s theology. She demonstrates, that while certain categories of Platonism (like ascent) were present (linguistically) in Calvin’s theology; that in the end, Calvin out-paces such things precisely because of his commitment to biblical and Trinitarian and Christian concepts that slight the metaphysics provided by Platonism. This is where Irenaeus becomes a very helpful interlocuter to Calvin; Canlis fruitfully notices and develops that one of the points of contact between both Calvin and Irenaeus is their overt and explicit Biblicism. This allows both men to escape the tendencies to slip back into the kind of Platonic metaphysicalism that folks like Osiander fell into in the attempt to talk about Christ’s divinity and humanity.

I would highly recommend this book, I give it 5 out of 5 stars; it will change your life (not an overstatement).

PS. This book is her PhD dissertation which she did under Alan Torrance at the University of St. Andrews (2005). While it is clearly a critical and academic work, the style is both pastoral and even devotional. I think any engaged Christian — layman, pastor, or scholar — will benefit immensely from this book!