Atonement & Ascension – Notes on Michael Horton’s LATC15 Presentation

Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westmister California. He is author of The Christian Faith and editor of Modern Reformation magazine, and co-host of the White Horse Inn. At LATC 15 he presented a wonderful paper on Atonement and Ascension – with special attention being paid to Patristic and Reformation theology.


Atonement and Ascension

Michael Horton


Ascension is as constitutive as atonement for the redemption of humanity.

  • The Ascension highlights what he has saved us for.

A Tale of Two Ascensions

  • Origen’s or Irenaeus?
    • Origen’s Doctrine of Ascension
      • It is the ascent of mind rather than the body – this thesis is founded upon his cosmology which originates in 1st Principles
      • This world was created as a “school” to gain back our “wings”
      • Logos casts of his body – passes from physical to ethereal body
      • To Origin – all rational creatures will be saved and restored to their original goal of contemplation of God.
      • He has a tri-partite ontology: Body, Soul, Spirit
        • Applies this to Scripture as well
      • In Medieval Theology – the doctrine goes back and forth between internalization & marginalization
      • In Renaissance – Resurgence of Platonism & Origen – Resurgence of a split between Flesh & Spirit.
    • Irenaeus Doctrine of Ascension
      • The body of Christ did ascend to the height above – giving to the Father his human nature as the first fruits of the resurrection of humanity. – Christ carried our flesh into heaven.
      • The Reformation – critical of the Origenest trajectory. Contra the ascent of mind.
    • Von Balthasar: Protestants can’t follow Irenaeus when it comes to Ascension
      • Horton Disagrees

Recapitulation – the Two Adams

  • Protestant theology reflected the Irenean concern about the redemption of the whole of human nature.
  • Ireneaus – Recapitulation : Father sends son to be reunited in his workmanship…
    • First covenant with Adam & Gospel covenant
    • A consummation is never a return to a beginning but an entrance into a state of glory to which no human has ever known
      • This is not an allegory referring to something else
    • Calvin says – it is the Son’s union with us and our union with him
    • Takes Adam’s place in obeying the father
      • Calvin – How does Christ abolish sin? Incarnation & course of whole life lived
    • Sin Calvin says does not spring from a lower faculty (the impulses of the senses)
    • What Adam lost is communion with God.
    • Its not just in his divinity that Christ is life-giving – in his human nature too.
    • Origen concerned with ascent of mind – Ireneaus focuses on His descent to us and our ascent in Christ.
      • Calvin follows Ireneaus’ emphasis on the Humanity of Christ
      • The Reformed view – Christ is the mediator in accord with both natures. The exaltation is a state gained, or a reward, for his obedience.
      • Christ earns his exaltation through his obedience
        • B/c of this our humanity is exalted above its prior dignity.
      • This exaltation does not change the divine nature as such
    • Explaining away Christ’s ascension in bodily form diminishes the importance of Pentecost
      • For Zwingli – omnipresence of divinity
      • For Luther – omnipresence of flesh
      • For Calvin – H.S. – Spirit is not the replacement for Christ but the way to Christ

Deification & Ascension

  • Deification needs the Ascension
    • Deification – we keep the same nature
      • Renders us like unto Christ
    • Contra Origenist views of deification
  • Spirit lifts us up into the life of God
  • Glorification & Deification are interchangeable for the Reformers.
  • Glorification is our true humanization.
  • Like Ireneaus – Calvin fleshes out ascent and descent in thoroughly Trinitarian terms
    • Christ Descends to us
    • Calvin says that there is a manner of Descent by which Christ lifts us up into himself.
    • Spirit raises us up in Christ after Christ has accomplished what needed to be accomplished in our humanity
  • Calvin – If we are members of Christ we must be raised to heaven
  • To be made like God is not to be less human but more fully so.
    • Christ is son by nature, we are sons by adoption
  • The end of the gospel is to render us eventually conformable to God, and if we may speak this way to deify us.
    • Though this does not mean a change in our nature – not a loss of who we are as human beings.
    • Calvin is fond of the image of “ingrafting” to explain this
  • To be united with Christ is to be in communion with his body. (Church)
    • The mystical union is so real – Calvin can say that this is the highest honor of the church.
    • Not until we are together with him is he “complete.” (Totus Christus)
    • Day by day Christ grows into one body with us until he becomes one with us.
  • The identification of the ascension and resurrection of the dead (i.e. us) into one event.
    • This follows from the fleshly ascension of the resurrected Christ


  • Contra Von Balthasar – Protestant theology can indeed follow Irenaeus on ascension.
  • The ascension forces us to lay our metaphysical cards on the table.
  • With the asecntion it is not only God with us and God for us but us with God.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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