Julie Canlis. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010. 336 pages. List price: $32.00 paperback/$17.60 Kindle. Visit http://tiny.cc/iso45 (Amazon) to help support TOJ.

There are plenty of reasons why it’s a bad idea to write a book about ascending spiritual heights. The first is because that book has been written—by Plato (Symposium), Plotinus (Enneads), Pseudo-Dionysius (Mystical Theology), Dante (Divine Comedy), Bonaventure (The Mind’s Journey into God), Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae). There are many more, and they are weirder.

It gets worse: that song has been written, too—by Joe Cocker (“Up Where We Belong”), George Gershwin (“Stairway to Paradise”), Huey Lewis (“Jacob’s Ladder”) and, of course, Led Zeppelin (“Stairway to Heaven”).

Still, maybe there’s a good reason. Maybe Plato, Zeppelin, and company have simply hit on a theme that works, one that taps deeply into human experience. That could be true, but—and here’s a second, more substantial reason to avoid writing this book—it could be that the experience evoked by the ascent motif is misguided. Just because we all seem to take the same road doesn’t in itself argue that the road is a good way to get where we’re going. Dante found himself, midway through his life’s journey, lost in a dark wood. His sin drove him down to hell, and it was only because he had gone so far off course that he had to ascend so dramatically.

Furthermore, and this is the Reformers’ point, the very idea of ascending heavenward finds us in spitting distance of Babel, that ill-fated tower marking a bluntly literal attempt to ascend to, and be like, God. Those babblers should’ve known better; it was just such a move that precipitated the first exile, as Adam and Eve were booted out of Eden for falling for the serpent’s line promising that they would be like God. Seeking to be like God without God is a bad idea—not because God is afraid of competitors, but because the only way for us to become like God is for the Father to make us so by using what Irenaeus calls his two hands, the Son and the Spirit. We cannot be like God without God. Helpful here is Jürgen Moltmann’s striking comment: “It is the hope of the Christian faith that the eritis sicut Deus [‘you will be like God’] of the serpent in the Garden of Eden will actually be fulfilled—but on God’s initiative.”[1]

Still, the standard Protestant move has been to insist that this is God’s business, not ours. Grace speaks to the way the Father lovingly extends himself to us in sending his Son and Spirit to save us from ourselves and to offer us fellowship with him and the world. Grace, then, is about God’s descent, not our ascent. And because he has descended, we needn’t worry ourselves with climbing to heaven. Instead, we can stoop to give ourselves to our needy neighbor.

So goes the Reformation. So goes the theology of its two leading lights, Martin Luther and John Calvin.

Enter Julie Canlis, who cheerfully, but confidently, begs to differ. For Calvin, Canlis argues, talk of God’s descent to us is incomplete without talk of our ascent to God. Furthermore, both movements must be understood with reference to Jesus. God descends to us when the Father sends the Son, and we ascend to God when the risen Christ takes his seat at the right hand of the Father. Ascent is not a generic description of a mystical experience; it is that movement in which we are caught up in Jesus’s return to his Father. In fact, “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” (3). In our lived ascent, we participate in Christ’s ascent. He has made the one perfect, obedient response to his Father, and we “respond in his response. Ascent, then, is neither a matter of the soul’s latent powers nor of conscientious Christian endeavor but of communion” (3). Christ is Jacob’s ladder, linking heaven and earth (91).

To set these claims in context, Canlis leads an expert tour through the tradition of ladders of ascent, from Greek originals, to Christian appropriations, to Calvin’s construal. Here we learn that this is not so much a story of “ascent to God by grace (Aquinas), or of the soul’s ascent (Augustine), but of Christ’s ascent” (43). After concluding the tour, Canlis focuses on the motif of participation in the doctrines of creation, salvation, and the Christian life. She wisely refuses to restrict participation to a category of salvation, instead beginning further back in the doctrine of creation. Christ is the mediator of creation as much as salvation, which is to say that there has never been a time when humanity could stand on its own two feet—without, that is, being supported by God’s two hands, the Son and Spirit. Canlis explains that for Calvin participation is “a way of living such that everything forces us to be in relationship. The flip side of this is that ‘our nature lacks everything that our Heavenly Father bestows’ (II.2.20).” But Canlis insists against those who would hear in this a sour pessimism: “The point is not the ‘lack,’ but the ‘bestows’” (76). Humanity was never made to be without God, but only ever with God. It is not, then, that a Protestant anthropology disdains humanity; it is more that it exalts the abundance and gratuity of God’s grace.

Turning to the doctrines of salvation and the Christian life, Canlis notes that Calvin begins “with our adopted (en Christo) status and only then [considers] its ‘ethical’ outworkings” (128). The key reality here, as in the New Testament as a whole, is adoption. As we hear the Word of God and come to faith, the Spirit of adoption unites us to Christ and we become sons (and daughters) in the Son. Canlis commends Calvin’s ability to hold together what are often regarded as competitors—the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner and the believer’s participation in Christ (144, 232). Adoption to sonship in the Son allows for three things: the preservation of the distinction between Creator and creature, a proper emphasis on the atonement, and a robust account of our participation in the life of God. For Calvin, the very goal of adoption is that we might become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4) (136), and yet it is not that in partaking of the divine nature we become something other than children of God. Calvin thus offers a “christologically disciplined” and focused construal of our participation in God (136), one in which the integrity of our humanity is honored as “the Spirit brings humans to participate ‘indirectly’ in the triune communion, in a fully human manner in the Son” (138). Participation is about the Holy Spirit through and through. He makes participation possible, uniting us to the Son, marking us with the seal of adoption, enlivening and empowering us to live as God’s children.

Still, Calvin leaves us with an ambiguous legacy when it comes to the physicality of things. On the one hand, he is as adamant as any in the Christian tradition that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father bodily and that we must attend to his bodily integrity. His nerves about Roman Catholic and Lutheran understandings of the Lord’s Supper stem in large part from his sense that their way of construing Christ’s presence in the bread and wine threaten to disintegrate his physicality: a Christ present everywhere is, finally, a Christ present nowhere. It is in order to safeguard Christ’s humanity that Calvin speaks of the Spirit lifting us up to Christ more than Christ descending in the Supper. Still, Canlis points out, “a ladder leads one to another place. What is not clear from Calvin’s language is whether the physical truly participates in the spiritual, or whether the physical leads one away from itself and up to the spiritual” (167). The focus moves from feeding on Christ in the bread and wine to feeding on him in heaven. In his very effort to retain Christ’s physicality, could it be that Calvin trades away our physicality?

To resolve this ambiguity, Canlis devotes a long chapter to Irenaeus. Where Calvin fought rosy humanist anthropologies that exalted humanity at the expense of God (think Pico della Mirandola with his claim—no kidding—to know everything), Irenaeus took on gnostic degradations of the created order, and thus, he is able to say more clearly and decisively than Calvin that “flesh is not the antithesis of the Spirit but is his magnum opus” (211). We see this in that the Word became flesh, hallowing it, and that the Spirit works to “accustom” our flesh to the things of God (223). It is worth pointing out that neither Calvin nor Irenaeus envision a dissolution of humanity in God or an un-manning sort of deification in which the human being can only become godlike by becoming something other than human. No, both confess that the nearly unimaginable glory of humanity as it is brought into the divine life is a more deeply human reality.

One way of reading Canlis is as offering an extended meditation on Colossians 3:

Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God [. . . .] For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Col. 3:1–3)

Christ just is our life, according to Paul; where he is, we are. We simply cannot take this seriously enough. Paul is not offering a pious flourish, as if he were more interested in warming hearts than informing minds. He really believes that the shape and scope of Christ’s life is the shape and scope of the lives of those who he is not ashamed to call brothers and sisters (Heb. 2:11). A life well-lived is a life lived from the freedom and joy of being adopted children of God. Our ascent in the Son means that obedience needn’t be our way of convincing the Father to love us; no, obedience is gratitude, nothing less and nothing more.

There are limits to any book. In this case, it’s ecclesiology. Canlis holds together Christ’s mediation of creation and his mediation of salvation so that we always find our life in another. Even our ascent is not a solo climb but a participation in Jesus’s ascent to his Father. We are sons (and daughters) in the Son. Yet for all this relational richness, Canlis neglects to situate this ascent sufficiently in the company of God’s people. Although she discusses the Eucharist at length, as well as offering a brief section in the book’s conclusion on the church as locus of ascent, in her laudable eagerness to speak of our fellowship with the triune God, we hear too little about how others share in this fellowship. This is not because Canlis is unaware of the implications of her work, nor because she does theology in isolation from the church. On the contrary. Julie is a dear friend of mine, and my critique here would immediately dissolve were it tested against her life, a life of profoundly joyful communion in the church. But I’m afraid her book too seldom speaks to the ways in which our fellowship with the triune God happens in community.

Canlis has succeeded, however, and magnificently, in retrieving the tradition of mystical ascent and the doctrine of participation without trading away the sizable gains of the Reformers’ critiques. Moreover, she has done so from a concern to anchor Christian spirituality in our communion with the triune God. This is a spiritual theology, after all, as we can see in the book’s closing pages: if Calvin fought the demon of pantheism, Irenaeus fought the demon of alienation. Canlis shows how, together, these two guide the church in articulating how our participation in Christ both upholds the integrity of humanity as God’s good creation (against pantheism) and celebrates our life found in Christ as we are united to him by the Spirit (against alienation). As Karl Barth once wrote, “In the giving of his Son [. . .] God is indeed everything but only in order that man may not be nothing, in order that he may be his man, in order that as such he, too, may be everything, in his own place, on his own level and within his own limits.”[2] Or in Irenaeus’s perfect words, “The glory of God is a human fully alive” (250). It is Canlis’s gracious gift to lead us into the heart of the gospel through these words and to imagine with us the scope and shape of our participation in Christ, who is our life.

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[1] See Irenaeus, Against Heresies and Moltmann, Theology and Joy, trans. Reinhard Ulrich (London, UK: SCM Press, 1973), 62.

[2] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 89.

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