Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension

The church is no stranger to theologies of ascent. Julie Canlis, lecturer at Regent College, suggests that Calvin’s voice ought to join the chorus of such theologies. In Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension, Canlis argues that Calvin’s voice isn’t drowned out in this chorus but that it sticks out for various reasons, the primary reason being that his theology of ascent is grounded in the concept of participation in Christ.

Canlis suggests that Calvin’s understanding of Christian piety ought to be understood through the concept of Trinitarian koinonia. This koinonia begins with Christ. Christ makes 51nsdxz0m4l-_sy344_bo1204203200_a double movement, that of descent and ascent. In Christ God has come as man to humanity to stand in our place and as man Christ leads us back to the Father. According to Canlis, “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)  Whether one is talking about desire for God, prayer, obedience, vocation, or worship, or ascent, all has been accomplished for humanity vicariously through Christ. Canlis devotes six chapters to unpacking Calvin’s understanding of this vicarious ascent in Christ.

She begins with a survey of various theologies of ascent, including the works of Plato, Plotinus, Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas. These thinkers all tell the story of humanity’s self-empowered (though sometimes assisted by grace) journey towards the divine, in which the individual is the primary agent of ascent. Calvin breaks the mold, making Christ the primary agent of ascent:  ascent is not something that fallen humanity does, rather it is something that humans participate in.

She expands upon the theme of participation by beginning with creation. creation’s existence is infused with relationality. In fact, “Communion is the groundwork of creation, the purpose of anthropology, and the telos toward which all creation strains.” (54) However, humanity has exchanged communion for independence. This is the essence of sin. The solution to the problem of sin would be to reestablish humanity’s existence in communion with God.

Following the chapter on creation, Canlis devotes a chapter to exploring how Christ’s double movement of descent and ascent addresses the problems of fallen humanity. The Son descends fully into humanity, in order that humanity may participate in him. He then ascends, taking humanity up into participation in God’s own life. How is this participation applied to humans? Her fourth chapter is devoted to showing that the appropriation of Christ’s ascent happens through union with Christ, which is enacted by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit not only makes that union objectively true, but the Spirit’s actions in the Lord’s Supper is also the means of grounding and reconstituting that union. (171) The Lord’s Supper is the concretization of the relationship of union and ascent between Christ and Christians.

The fifth chapter is devoted to putting Calvin in conversation with Irenaeus. She argues that neither Calvin nor Irenaeus presents a picture of participation in Christ as something in which humans become less than fully human; rather, through participation in the divine life, humans experience a more deeply human reality. She doesn’t argue for Irenaeus’ direct influence upon Calvin, but notes that there are many important similarities.

Canlis’ final chapter is dedicated to unpacking the implications of the idea that for Calvin “ascent was not ascent of the individual soul but humanity’s participation in the triune communion” which is opened up by Jesus’ ascent. (230) She suggests that Calvin’s theology might have much to contribute to ecumenical dialogue, that it might provide a robust pneumatology that has normally been lacking in Reformed theology, and it might serve as an antidote to the individualistic and reductionistic spirituality so prevalent in our day.

There is much to appreciate in this book. Canlis does a fine job of showing that the concept of mystical ascent into the life of God need not be foreign to Reformed Christianity. Simultaneously, she shows that Calvin’s theology makes a unique contribution to this strand of Christian spirituality. She has also done a fine job in showing how important participation in Christ is to the rest of Calvin’s theology. Calvin’s doctrines of creation, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist, the Trinity, and Eschatology cannot be understood apart from the concept of participation.

To say that Canlis has succeeded in these areas is not to say the book does not have its shortcomings. First, one might wonder whether her understanding of the Christian life is too individualistic. Yes, the Christian life might be grounded in participation in Christ, but her interpretation of Calvin on this point does not require that a Christian be in communion with other Christians. The topic of communion with other Christians is surprisingly absent in her discussion of the Lord’s Supper. Second, we may wonder why Canlis doesn’t do more to address her indebtedness to Torranceian theology. Her understanding of the descent/ascent, vicarious humanity of Christ, and grace are explicitly Torranceian. Torrance’s reading of these concepts in Calvin are rather controversial (to say the least), yet she does not address this controversy at any point.

Despite these shortcomings,  Canlis ought to be commended for writing a book that makes an important contribution to mystical spirituality from a distinctly reformed position.

Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension by Julie Canlis (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010), xii + 286 pp.

John Calvin and the Poor

If God gives a man wealth, it is to put his charity to the test. We are to give an account of what God has placed in our hands. But if our neighbors endure hardship because of our detail-of-john-calvin-by-oliver-crisp-cover-of-his-deviant-calvinismlack of mercy, it is certain that it will not go unpunished. . . . We see how our Lord banishes from his kingdom all those who don’t share their goods liberally when seeing their neighbors need and offer no aid or assistance. If we do not show our gratitude for his benefits when faced with those who are destitute of this world’s goods, our action is not against a mortal being, but against the Son of God. . . . We have a general rule laid down for us by Paul, who not only shows us what the apostles did but also what all Christians must do if they want Jesus Christ to rule and have order in the church. The poor must be cared for.

-John Calvin (Sermon on Acts 6:1-3)

A Little Handbook for Preachers: Ten Practical Ways to a Better Sermon by Sunday

Preaching books are a dime a dozen. Its really hard to find a preaching book that either says something unique or says something important in a unique way. So I don’t have much confidence in preaching books – especially books that give you X number of ways to be a better preacher or books that promise to make you a better preacher. Such books are often filled with superficial pieces of advice or don’t really work. So when I saw Mary Hulst’s 841288book: A Little Handbook for Preachers: Ten Practical Ways to a Better Sermon by Sunday I couldn’t help but be super skeptical. Nevertheless, I picked it up, thinking, what the heck, if I get one helpful idea from this book it will be worth reading it. In all honesty – I didn’t get one helpful idea from this book – I got so much more. In fact, as I’ve said before on my twitter account, this is officially one of my new favorite books about preaching.

Why am I so enamored with this book? It probably has to do with the fact that its not like your typical 10 Ways to do X or 7 Simple Steps to Y or 4.8 Habits of people Who Z. This book is filled with substance, it is at the same time theologically informed and practical. You know its not like your typical X number of ways to do Q kind of preaching books when the author says the best way to make your preaching better is to make it biblical! So many of the “simple ways” books are so consumeristic and seeker-pleasing, but this book begins by saying the most compelling thing our preaching can do is to be Biblical! What a surprise!

The second thing Hulst says we can do to make our preaching better is to stop telling people what do to – and to start telling them what God has already done, i.e. make your preaching full of grace. Don’t say stuff like:

  • If your relationship with God really is important to you, you will make a commitment to talk to him every day.
  • If you want to take discipleship to the next level, you will join a service team.
  • Isn’t it time you start investing your money into eternity?

Instead your preaching ought to change from “this is what you need to do” to “this is what we get to do” language. Our callings are a grace given to us, “so preach grace. Preach it often and preach it well, and watch how God gets to work.” (65)

One of the most helpful practical chapter is her chapter on “Compelling Preaching.” In this chapter she addresses the preachers problems of having too much information and lacking a well defined (oral) structure in our sermon. She suggests (reminding me of Andy Stanley) that we should be able to articulate our entire sermon in one sentence. Or as I like to say – the main idea of your sermon should be tweetable. To do that we need to get clear on what the bid idea of our sermon is. Once we do that the points in the sermon should illimuate the one big idea. She suggest that “to give our sermons clarity we need to do that hard work of picking one idea and letting the rest, for now, stay in our study.” Easier said than done! Nevertheless this is crucial to good preaching.

Here’s a sermon I preached right after reading this book. You can hear it here or on iTunes (Soma Sunday Nights)

There is plenty of other great things which I could say about this book, but I don’t want to rob you of the opportunity of discovering these things on your own. So I will just stop here….Let me just say one more thing.

I rarely tell people – you need to go out and buy this book. However, this is one of those books that I feel like all preachers need to buy. I haven’t really found a preaching book that is so practical and at the same time so theologically informed. Because it is theological and practical, A Little Handbook for Preachers is my new go to book for handing to new preachers.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.

The Christ Hymn as a Pattern for Life

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that the Christ hymn in Philippians 2 is the pattern for Christian life. Obviously Michael Gorman has much to say about this, but I came cross Morna Hooker’s analysis of this poem, and I was struck by how programatic it is for Paul.

The pattern of Christ’s self-humiliation is the basis of the Christian’s life and his dealings with his fellow men. This is not simply a question of following a good example: he must think and behave like this, because the behavior of Christ is the ground of his redemption; if he denies the relevance of Christ’s actions to his own, then he is denying his very existence in Christ.

The “imitate this pattern because you are in Christ” paradigm came even more vividly alive for me when I read Philippians 3:17 this morning:

Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take not of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.

What is this pattern Paul gave us? its the Christy hymn pattern.

Just some stuff to ponder….

Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life

Over the years I’ve read a lot of Henri Nouwen books. The reading of nearly everyone of these books is associated, in my mind, with some really important even or series of events in my life. To say that Henri Nouwen was there for some of these life changing/ministry changing moments of my life is something of an understatement. However, most of what I have read from Nouwen hasn’t been especially personal. Yes I know he has several “journals” or “memoirs” of certain seasons in his life and ministry, but reallove-henrily, who is Henri Nouwen? And is he really like the person that we meet when we read his published books? Well, if you want the answer to that question, you are in luck because a collection of his letters to friends, disciples, and just generally interested people has been published by Gabrielle Earnshaw.

Earnshaw has provided those who are interested in the works of Nouwen a fine window into a previously unseen part of Nouwen’s interior life. In this collection, we see Nouwen, not pontificating and giving abstract advice, but rather we see him giving wisdom to ordinary people about how to live an authentic spiritual life.

Earnshaw notes that prior to his death Nouwen had received more than 16,000 letters. “He kept every postcard, piece of paper, fax and greeting card that arrived in his mail. And he responded to each of them. His response to these letters was an often overlooked part of his ministry. In these letters we see him dealing with such pastoral issues like:

  • Loss
  • Sickness
  • Injustice
  • Finding and losing Love
  • Discerning a career path
  • Handling conflict
  • Managing one’s emotions
  • Coping with self-doubt

If you can identify with any of these issues, this book might be for you.

Personally, I was encouraged by his insistence to “be very faithful to a regular prayer life” and his encouragement to “spend silent time in your prayer room… and allow yourself to taste already now the peace that comes from this [Christ’s] victory.” I was encouraged by his advice to those in ministry. For instance,

It is so important for the people around you to see that peace of Christ reflected in your eyes, your hands and your words. There is more power in that than in all your teaching and organizing. That is the truth we need to keep telling eachother. (88)

Your special task as superior is to keep Jesus, the crucified and rise Lord, in the heart of your people and in the center of your community. Keep speaking about him and keep his words calling you and your sisters to faithfulness. (151)

And another piece of advice to a young minister,

One thing I would like to ask you is to keep faithful to a life of prayer. Without prayer, confession, anger and frustrations may become unbearable for you, but when in prayer you connect them with the struggle of Jesus himself, I trust that your vocation will deeper…I would also like you to stay faithful to the church, even when you see its tendency to be self indulgent…In the long run, living in Christ without being connected with the church is impossible. I have seen this over and over again.

These pieces of advice stick out to me, given that I am working in ministry. However there is plenty throughout the book that will speak loudly to anyone who is pursuing a deeper relationship with Christ.

If you are looking for a seasoned, deeply spiritual, voice of wisdom to point you to Jesus, I would recommend that you find someone in your church and go through this book with them, because in Nouwen’s writings you will find the voice of someone who is seasoned, deeply spiritual, and will point you to Jesus.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.

Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary use words.

Supposedly Francis of Assisi said those famous words. Likely he didn’t, regardless, those word’s don’t mesh with Scripture’s understanding of BEING witnesses to the gospel. As Michael Gorman says: Witness-bearing calls for interpretation.

“Walking little old ladies across the street” may be appropriate Christian behavior, but it does not lead to persecution. It only leads the persecution when one explains such behavior as a manifestation of true power, or when one excuses oneself from attending an event honoring the emperor, the empire, or other cultural deities – like youth soccer or professional football or a Fourth of July Parade – in order to walk those little old ladies across the street, or to worship as Lord the one who essentially did the same thing when he willingly became humanity’s slave. (Gorman, Becoming the Gospel, 129)

Would the church learn to heed this word in a day and age where it is “hated” for its “conservative” values. Would it espouse those values not because they are “conservative” but because it means bowing the knee to Christ and not to the gods of this world. Would the church not confuse self-serving “servant-hood” for real “put your life on the line”-servanthood.

John Calvin’s Goals as an Expositor of Scripture

For God there is nothing higher than preaching the gospel, because it is the means to lead people to salvation.[1]

            In his ministry John Calvin was in full agreement with Martin Luther’s saying that “the ears alone are the organ of a Christian”. (COP, 37) Calvin believed that the verbal proclamation of God’s word in Scripture, and by extension the hearing of God’s word proclaimed, was God’s primary instrument for Christian growth. For this reason, Calvin and the other pastors in Geneva were devoted to the primacy of preaching. However, Calvin’s ministry of the word extends beyond the verbal proclamation of Scripture in sermons, another important aspect of this ministry consisted of writing commentaries on Scripture. In this brief essay I will show that despite there being differences in style and emphasis, both types of exposition of Scripture serve the same ends for Calvin, namely the ends of bringing about the reformation of the church and the transformation of Christians.detail-of-john-calvin-by-oliver-crisp-cover-of-his-deviant-calvinism

Before we turn to comparing his sermons and commentaries we ought to say a few words about what good preaching to consist of for Calvin. We catch a glimpse of this when he lavishes praise upon Chrysostom’s homiletical method. First, Calvin lauds the fact that Chrysostom gave clear verse by verse expositions of Scripture. Second, Calvin praises Chrysostom for being supremely concerned with the simple sense of Scripture and not twisting the plain meaning of Scripture. Manetsch notes that Calvin believed that what “characterized Chrysostom’s preaching should be shared by all expositors of the Word: to proclaim the simple and natural sense of Scripture in a clear manner to instruct and edify the people of God.” (COP, 158)

Having noted what virtues Calvin believed preaching consists of we can now turn to comparing texts from both genres. The first feature which becomes apparent when putting these two genre’s side by side is his concern to treat the text verse by verse. In his commentaries this is a bit more explicit than in his sermons, however it is not hard to discern the places in his sermons where he begins to treat different verses. A second feature which is shared by these two genres are that they are both expository. In both his sermons and his commentaries Calvin aims to show what the authors of the text intended to communicate. This is often done by providing the literary background to the particular passage (i.e. setting the passage in context of the rest of the book) and explaining important features of the text. That both his commentaries and sermons are expository is seen in his treatment of Matthew 28:1-10. In both works he recounts what happened before and after the women meet Jesus and recounts the main contours of the story. In both works he goes into greater depth regarding important moments on which the narrative turns, i.e. the appearance of the angel and the fact that women are the first witnesses of the risen Christ. In noting these similarities, we see how in both types of writings Calvin displays his preference for verse by verse exposition and his conviction that Scripture ought to allow the text guide proclamation.



Despite these similarities we ought to point out some important differences between his sermons and commentaries. The first concerns the technical nature of these writings. For instance, Calvin’s commentaries tend to deal with issues of translation more than his sermons. For instance, in his commentary on Matthew 28:1 he devotes half a paragraph to how some translators have incorrectly rendered “the first day of the Sabbaths” as “one”, and explains their fault as being due to their ignorance of the Hebrew. In his commentary on Genesis 22 he finds fault with Jerome’s translation and interpretation of “the Land of Moriah” in verse 2, and again blames it on his ignorance of Hebrew. Discussions about ancient languages are mostly absent from his sermons. A second difference that is apparent is that Calvin treats historical backgrounds in greater depth in his commentaries than in his sermons. Two examples will suffice. The first concerns his treatment of the anointing of the dead by the “heathen nations” when commenting on the women going to anoint the body of Jesus. The second concerns a comparison between “poets” using the Deus ex Machina device in pagan literature and the nature of God’s intervention in providing a ram for Abraham. Discussions about these background features are absent in his sermons. Not only do we see differences in the technical nature of these texts, we also see a difference in how Calvin understands authorial intent. Though both sermons and commentaries focus on making clear the authorial intent, the particular author which is emphasized differs in both of these works. For example throughout his commentary on Genesis one would not be hard pressed to see the phrase “Moses intended” (or something like that) scattered throughout the text.[2] Thus we see that in his commentaries Calvin places a great emphasis on the human writer’s intent. However in his sermons Calvin tends to say phrases like “The Lord has wished to tell us…”, thus emphasizing the divine writer’s intent.[3] One final difference lies in the sort of practical applications Calvin draws out from his exposition of scripture. In his commentaries explicit practical applications are reserved to a sentence or two per section. Reading his commentaries, one gets the impression that Calvin can’t help himself but to make a comment about how to apply the text. It is almost as if he bursts out loud with application. For instance, in commenting on Genesis 22:12 Calvin adds a one-line application, “Now, since God enjoins upon us a continual warfare, we must take care that none desires his release before time.” (Genesis, 570) The fact that this is practical is signaled by the exhortatory nature of the comment and the use of “us.” Yet this theme is expounded upon in detail in his sermon on this chapter of Genesis. Calvin elaborates on what it means for us to be sent into “combat,” what sort of trials we face in combat, and how God equips us for combat. (McKee, 143).

It suffices to say that there are plenty of differences between Calvin’s commentaries and his sermons. His commentaries are far more technical and a lot less application heavy than his sermons. Given these observations we might wonder why Matthew Poole might come to the conclusion that as an interpreter Calvin is overly practical and not critical enough, thus justifying his exclusion from the 1669 Synopsis Criticorum.[4] Certainly his reputation as a “practical” exegete preceded him and led him to being left out. However, is this all there is to this story? I think not. Calvin’s belief that the exposition of Scripture serves the ends of bringing about the reformation of the church and the transformation of Christians is at the root of this undue reputation. This is why Calvin is more concerned with the authorial intent of the text than with what other interpreters are doing with the text. Critical commentators are often quite concerned with what others have to say about the grammar and features of the text, but Calvin is not concerned as much with these features unless they further an understanding of the authorial intent. Calvin also leaks application and theological comments throughout his sermon, thus making it seem as though he isn’t critical enough and too pastoral. However, coming to the conclusion that he is not critical enough because he provides application is a misunderstanding of his conception of scripture. Calvin is driven by an understanding that good exposition involves proclaiming the simple and natural sense of Scripture. Calvin believes that the simple and natural sense often simply is application. Application for Calvin isn’t always different from the authorial intent. This is why he often says things like ‘this is given to us as an example’ or ‘by those words we are taught’. The author intends this text to be applied, thus true exposition involves explaining the application. If Calvin is faulted for being too practical it is because Calvin believed that the text is inherently practical. To do something other than expositing the practical features of the text would be to fail to truly exposit the text.

In this brief essay we have seen how Calvin’s commentaries share some common features with his sermons and that they differ in some important ways. However, Matthew Poole’s comment has helped us to see that the difference between his commentaries and his sermons isn’t as large as some make it out to be. Calvin believed that the goal of preaching was to proclaim the simple and natural sense of Scripture in a clear manner to instruct and edify the people of God. This is also the goal of expositing the text of Scripture in technical works like commentaries precisely because it is the nature of Scripture itself, and the author’s intent, to have scripture be the primary means of “personal spiritual regeneration, the reformation of the church, and the transformation of society according to the righteousness of Christ.” (Manetsch, 146)

[1] John Calvin, in COP 148.

[2] See Genesis, pgs. 560, 567, 568, 570, and 573 for a few examples.

[3] See McKee pgs. 143, 144, and 150 for a few examples.

[4] In “Calvin’s Exegetical Legacy,” John Thompson has show that Calvin is technically not left out, although Poole does try to leave him out.