Category Archives: Books

Review of Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective by Mark Cortez

Cortez, Mark. Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016, pp. 272, $27.99, paperback.

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Marc Cortez is currently associate professor of theology at Wheaton College. His prior works include Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2010) and Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies: An Exercise in Christological Anthropology and Its Significance for the Mind/Body Debate (T&T Clark, 2008). As the title of these previous monographs indicate, Cortez has an interest in theological anthropology. The recently published Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology represents his third full length contribution to this field.

What makes us human? This is a question upon which much ink has been spilled. Most studies attempting to answer this question have tended focus on one of several topics: 1) human origins, 2) ethics, and 3) the imago dei. What Cortez brings to this already oversaturated field is a rethinking of the methodology upon which so many of these studies are founded. Cortez’s approach to theological anthropology is strictly Christological.

You can read the rest of the review at the Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies.

Same-Sex Attraction and the Church

Its actually a plausibility problem…

What the bible teaches about same sex relationships sounds implausible to most people 51mnsxoryhl-_sx331_bo1204203200_nowadays. It sounds totally implausible to ask people to turn their backs on same sex relationships and live a lonely life as a perpetually single person.  Not only does it sound implausible, it sounds unhealthy. Listen to what Melinda Selmys, a Roman Catholic who experiences same sex attraction says:

“Though shall not,” has consistently failed to persuade the postmodern world because it is madness.

She’s right, it in our world the idea that someone should say yes to the single life is absolute madness. And this is exactly where the problem lies, the church has unintentionally perpetuated the implausibility of a same-sex, single, celibate Christian life through a number of misteps. Ed Shaw, a pastor and the author of Same-Sex Attraction and the Church, seeks to address this plausibility problem by making what the Bible clearly commands seem plausible again.

Shaw’s thesis is that,

The reason that the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality sounds so unreasonable is because of a whole number of misteps that the church ahs taken over the years; a whole host of ways in which evangelicals have become too shaped by the world around us. (22)

What Shaw does throughout the book is highlight 9 misteps that the church has made, unwittingly making the same sex celibate life implausible. He begins the book with a very personal chapter, describing what life has been like pursuing a life of sexual holiness as a pastor who has same sex attractions. This is an important chapter because the plausibility problem is a deeply personal and emotional issue for him, not only as a pastor but as a same-sex attracted Christian. This chapter really sets the context.

So what are the missteps? Here are the 9 incorrect beliefs that the church has adopted, thus perpetuating the implausibility of a single-celibate same-sex life:

  1. Your identity is your sexuality
  2. A family is Mom, Dad and 2.4 children
  3. If you’re born gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay
  4. If it makes you happy, it must be right
  5. Sex is where true intimacy is found
  6. Men and women are equal and interchangeable
  7. Godliness is heterosexuality
  8. Celibacy is bad for you
  9. Suffering is to be avoided

Although these 9 topics have certainly influenced how the church processes issues of same sex attraction in the church, they have wide ranging implications. Personally, I have an ax to grind against belief 4 and 9. Even apart from issues of sexuality, the beliefs that “if it makes you happy, it must be right” and “suffering is to be avoided” have done so much to harm the mission of the church. Because the church has imbibed these values (especially the American church) people are slow to sacrifice for the sake of God’s mission. And perhaps even worse, students tend to abandon their faith in college precisely because they have bought into “happiness” as the goal of life, and hence their faith as well. I’ve seen it time and time again, people following Jesus because of the “happiness” and “blessings”

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Ed Shaw is Pastor of Emmanuel City Centre in Bristol, England.

he has to offer them instead of simply following him because he is the Messiah. It’s a consumeristic view of faith. All this to say, the issues Shaw addresses have major implications even beyond the topic of same-sex attraction.

I highly recommend this book to those in ministry. I wish all my pastor friends would take the time to read it simply because I know that some of them unknowingly are perpetuating these harmful beliefs in their churches (2 and 5 seem to be especially common in the circles I find myself in.) This would also be a helpful book for all sorts of leaders in Christian ministry to read. We would really benefit from being more careful about how we address issues of family life and relationships, as elevating certain topics in sermons or bible studies can unwittingly alienate a large segment of our Christian brothers and sisters.

Even though you may not agree with the details of Shaw’s proposal, this is an invaluable resource for those seeking to disciple their flock in the areas of sexuality and beyond.

NOTE: I received this book from IVP in exchange for an impartial review.

Books Read in 2016

At the end of each the year I put out the list of books I have read that year. Usually they consist of a lot of theology books, followed up by a good chunk of philosophy books, and a few fiction books thrown in. In 2013 I read 106 books. In 2014 I read 87 books. In 2015 I read  88 books. This year, my numbers went down drastically. However, that was mainly because I was in school again, reading lots of journals and book chapters, and writing a whole bunch. The numbers also dropped because I stopped reading at the gym. My workouts sort of changed (became more intense) so I no longer read while doing cardio. Anyway, this year’s total is 52 book. That’s one per week!

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Books Read in 2016 = 52!

January

  1. Systematic Theology Volume 1 – Wolfhart Pannenberg
  2. Experiences in Theology – Jurgen Moltmann
  3. The Nature of Doctrine – George Lindbeck
  4. The Nature of Confession – Phillips & Okholm

February

  1. Beyond Foundationalism – Grenz & Francke
  2. The Drama of Doctrine – Kevin Vanhoozer
  3. Black Theology of Liberation – James Cone
  4. Models of God – Sally McFague
  5. Introducing Radical Orthodoxy – James K.A. Smith

March

  1. Analytic Theology – Crisp & Rae
  2. An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology – Thomas McCall
  3. Four Views on Hell – Preston Sprinkle
  4. Strong and Weak – Andy Crouch
  5. The Problem of Hell – Jonathan Kvanvig
  6. Hell: The Logic of Damnation – Jerry Walls

April

  1. Gaining by Losing – J.D. Greear
  2. The Unfolding Mystery – Edmund Clowney
  3. Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians – Oliver Crisp
  4. Sacrifice and Atonement – Stephen Finlan

May

  1. Knowledge and Christian Belief – Alvin Plantinga
  2. Living on the Devil’s Doorstep – Floyd McClung
  3. How I Changed My Mind About Evolution – Stump and Applegate
  4. The Trinity Among the Nations: The Doctrine of God in the Majority World – Gene Green, Stephen Pardue, K.K. Yeo

June

  1. Prodigal God – Tim Keller
  2. The Father Heart of God – Floyd McClung
  3. Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous – W. Jay Wood
  4. The Pastor Theologian – Gerald Heistand & Todd Wilson
  5. Reading Romans in Context – Ben Blackwell, John Goodrich, and Jason Matson
  6. You are What You Love – James K.A. Smith

July

  1. The Claim of Humanity in Christ – Alexandra Radcliff
  2. The Lost Letters of Pergamum – Bruce Longenecker

Lost Track of Dates

  1. Writings on Pastoral Piety – John Calvin (ed. McKee)
  2. Calvin and the Consolidation of the Genevan Reformation – William Naphy
  3. Infant Baptism in Reformation Genega – Karen Spierling
  4. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension – Julie Canlis
  5. America at the Crossroads – George Barna
  6. The Uncontrolling Love of God – Thomas Oord
  7. Pentecostal Outpourings – ed. Robert Smart, Michael Haykin, and Ian Clary
  8. Crossing Cultures in Scripture – Marvin Newell
  9. Rational Faith – Stephen Evans
  10. What is Reformed Theology – R.C. Sproul
  11. Judaism Before Jesus – Anthony Tomasino
  12. Reordering the Trinity – Rodrick Durst
  13. Delighting in the Trinity – Michael Reeves

November

  1. A Little Handbook for Preachers – Mary Hulst
  2. Love Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life – Henri Nouwen
  3. Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective – Marc Cortez

December

  1. The Vulnerable Pastor – Mandy Smith
  2. Serving a Movement – Timothy Keller
  3. Saving Calvinism – Oliver Crisp
  4. Paul’s New Perspective – Garwood Anderson
  5. Soul Keeping – John Ortberg

Paul’s New Perspective

Paul’s New Perspective is Paul’s old perspective.

That’s the Garwood Anderson’s thesis in Paul’s New Perspective. In this long (+400 page) but very readable book Anderson argues against those advocates of The New Perspective on Paul and those of the Traditional Protestant Perspective (sometimes called the Lutheran view) showing that neither camp really gets Paul right. Paul cannot be understood simply from the NPP nor can he be understood simply from the TPP, rather what we see in Paul is development. Paul begins with the concerns brought up by NPP advocates and by the end of his career ends with concerns of the TPP.41c7cyia4ll-_sx331_bo1204203200_

Summary

Paul’s developing soteriology is supposedly seen in his development from concentration on “works of the law” to works more generally. Anderson argues that Romans, is a sort of transitional letter marking the shift between Paul’s old perspective and Paul’s new perspective.  In Romans we see the transition between “the largely horizontal crisis of Gentile covenant membership independent of the law to a more vertically oriented reconciliation to God gained by faith apart from works, works of any kind.” (13)

Never disparaging either the NPP or the TPP, Anderson argues that both positions get a lot about Paul right, and that both sides have helped the church understand something important about its relation to God and the world. Some figures, like Wright, get it more right than others. For instance Wright in PFG rightly describes Paul’s logic as going vertical to horizontal, however the emphasis in Wright’s work is horizontal to vertical. Similarly, Dunn has helped reveal the horizontal problems Paul was dealing with when it came to the law’s role in acting as a dividing role between Jews and Gentiles.

In order to establish the case that Paul’s “new perspective” is actually his “old perspective” and that the traditional perspective is actually Paul’s “new perspective” Anderson has to establish this chronologically from his letters. Anderson notes that this is a bit problematic, as the position he argues for is not the majority view of critical scholarship (its not idiosyncratic either).

  • Galatians is the Earliest Letter, dated around 49AD
  • Romans is dated around 56-58AD
  • The Thessalonian and Corinthian Correspondence fall between Galatians and Romans
  • Philippians was composed in Rome
  • Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon are authentic and written from Rome
  • Paul survived his Roman imprisonment, turned his attention east and wrote the Pastoral Letters.

Having established the provenance of these letters Anderson turns his attention to two topics Works/Grace and Justification/Salvation in light of his reestablished order of letters. From this new order he shows that with regards to works, his early topic of “works of the law” shifts to “works” (full stop) with Romans acting as a transition between these two positions. Grace also follows this pattern. Beginning with Romans, grace is opposed to and excludes works. Concerning justification/salvation, in his later letters Paul recedes from the language of justification and prefers to use language of salvation and reconciliation. These two sections are made up of indepth exegetical and lexical work.

Assessment
So how convincing is Anderson’s argument that the New Perspective is Paul’s is actually Paul’s old perspective? I guess that comes down to one important factor, how convincing do you think Anderson’s assessment of Paul’s literary itinerary is? Do you find it plausible that Galatians is Paul’s first letter? If you think Galatians & Romans are fairly closely dated that his argument doesn’t really work. Do you buy a Roman (as opposed to Ephesian) provenance of the Prison letters? If you don’t then that throws a wrench in his entire reading of Pauline development as well. The problem with Anderson’s propsal is that you have to hold to a lot of minority positions regarding the composition of these letters. Neither the NPP or the TPP hangs upon one’s acceptance of a particular dating andersonof Paul’s letters, but Andersons’ thesis certainly does. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Anderson’s explanation is wrong. In fact, I would argue that it has a lot going for it! It breaks down some of the false dichotomies of the NPP/TPP debate, allows the church to incorporate the best of both perspectives, and has a lot of explanatory power. (His thesis even helps explain some of the concerns brought up by Apocalyptic readings of Paul!) But the fact that his whole argument is built upon the foundation of dates makes his foundation rather feeble. If one can decisively show his dating of Paul’s letters are wrong, his argument (in my opinion) falls apart.

All in all I would say that Paul’s New Perspective is a well written and well researched book, offering a via media in a rather creative way. Students of Pauline theology would do well to pick up this book, he does a fine job charging the various debates between NPP & TPP camps. His chapter on Post-NPP authors is fine as well. I can see myself assigning these chapters to students in a Pauline theology book, helping them get acquainted with contemporary debates in the Pauline literature. On top of all this, the summary of his position is rhetorically powerful,  much like EP Sanders’ was: “covenantal nomism,” “getting in vs. staying in,” “solution to plight,” and “in short, this is what Paul finds wrong in Judaism: it is not Christianity.” Anderson’s position is quite memorable as well: “Paul’s New Perspective is Paul’s old perspective.” This catchy statement alone ensures the ideas in this book will be remembered, regardless of their staying power.

While I’m still not sure that Anderson’s proposal is convincing, it certainly is thought provoking. For that reason, I recommend you pick up this book. Its an position that deserves more thought and attention.

(Note: I received this book from IVP in exchange for an impartial review)

The Vulnerable Pastor

Vulnerable. Not the first word that comes to mind when you think about strong leaders. Yet, this word, “Vulnerable,” is what Mandy Smith, lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, suggests should characterize strong Christian leaders.

In The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry Smith attempts to debunk current leadership wisdom as not only being harmful, but impossible. The image51s4het-oll-_sy344_bo1204203200_ of somebody who is always strong, always has their stuff together, is never wrong, never wavers, and is extremely self-confident is the exact opposite of what Smith suggest Christian leaders should be like. Instead a Christian leader should be marked by vulnerability. Specifically, this vulnerability should recognize and understand our human constraints. Recognizing these constraints makes our ministry more sustainable “and guards us against disillusionment and burnout.”

As the former director of a college ministry in a large church in the LA area I knew I could benefit from reading Smith’s book. I sort of live in the “mega-church” world, which is mostly characterized by the leadership images Smith decries. I constantly struggled, despite pressing on in ministry, with the notion that I didn’t fit the “pastor-mold.” I still struggle with it! Even though its never expressed, it is implicitly there. I’m just not one of those pastors. I’m shy, introverted, intellectual, liturgical. Again, not your typical mega-church type leader. Throughout the book Smith shares her struggles with not fitting the mold. Told mostly in story form, she expresses how difficult it was to be herself as leader, when the world (i.e. CHURCH WORLD) told her that wasn’t enough. It was only when she was bold enough to admit that she didn’t have what the world asked of her, and she didn’t need to have it, that she began to find joy in her ministry.

Here are some helpful quotes from her book:

When we’re at our desks preparing our sermons and something snags our hearts, can we set aside our work long enough to be worked upon? Can we trust that the teaching of our congregations is not primarily our work but God’s work, which he wants to being with us? (92)

What if we began with our human limitations and shaped a ministry from that? Like a child pouring pennies on a candy store counter, asking, “How much candy can I get with that?” we can look at the time, gifts, energy, and ideas we have and ask, “How much church can we get with that?” (105)

If it’s right for me to be here (and I beliee it its) and it’s alright for me to be limited (and I believe it its), I have to trust that there’s a way to do this job without it destroying me. If he gave the church to humans, he must have a way for humans to do church. (105) 

One way I equip my leaders is to remind them it’s their job to equip others. We’re not soloists; we’re choirmasters. Its not our job to do the work but to give the direction: to pick the note, choose when to start and wait for the community to shape the fullness of the song. (108)

All in all, I found this book quite helpful. There were so many positive messages in it that I needed to hear once again. Being a pastor, or any kind of Christian leader, is not about being enough…. Its about being willing to revel in our own weakness and in God’s strength.


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

Reviews of Calvin’s Ladder

A varied cast of characters has taken interest in Julie Canlis’s Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension. This book has caught the attention, in the form of reviews, of church historians, philosophers, and pastors. Those writing from the perspective of these vocations have all noticed strengths and weaknesses in Canlis’s book which are unique to their perspective. In this brief “review of reviews” I would like to highlight some of the features which make up these reviews and provide some comments on the merits of these assessments.

The first set of reviews consists of reviews by church historians. I began by 51nsdxz0m4l-_sy344_bo1204203200_examining a booknote by Tony Lane, professor of Historical Theology at the London School, in a 2012 edition of Evangelical Quarterly (EQ 84.3, 280-1). He begins by noting that this book was birthed out of Canlis’ doctoral studies at St. Andrew’s and that it received the 2007 Templeton Award for Theological Promise. He lavishes praise upon the book when he says “it is easy to understand why” it won this award. His review of this book is relatively short. He notes that ascent of the soul is a concept generally greeted with suspicion in the Reformed tradition, but that Calvin has essentially “reformed” it from its Platonic and Neo-Platonic tendencies. He also mentions her comparison between Calvin’s doctrine and Irenaeus’s doctrine. He commends her for restraint in not citing direct influence, but wonders whether tracing out Irenaeus’s influence on Calvin would be an interesting topic for future study. In terms of critique, Lane rightly notes that “there is occasionally a tendency in her exposition of participation to swallow up other categories of Calvin’s thought.” This is a critique which appears in several other reviews as well. However, one might wonder, “If participation is the central theological theme of Calvin wouldn’t it make sense for all other categories to fall under this one category?” In order for this sort of defense to stick, however, one would have to prove that participation is Calvin’s central theme. The other review I examined was written by Sujin Pak, who is now the Assistant Research Professor of the History of Christianity at Duke Divinity school. Her review of Calvin’s Ladder can be found in Modern Theology (MT 27.4, 717-20). She begins by noting the trend in Calvin studies to focus on Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ and participation in Christ and says that Canlis now adds an important and eloquent contribution to this topic. Like Lane she notes how Canlis persuasively shows that Calvin reforms the traditional theologies of Ascent. Despite being persuaded regarding ascent, Pak displays some hesitancy regarding Canlis’s understanding of Calvin’s theology of participation. She notes that it might not be as important as Canlis has made it out to be. She cites the fact that Calvin does not clearly make the connection between participation and election as evidence that it may not be as central as Canlis makes it out to be. She also wonders whether Canlis overlooks the forensic nature of participation in Calvin. As a minor point of critique Pak points out that Canlis doesn’t address commentaries on key passages that evoke participator themes, for example Romans 8. Despite these shortcomings she sees Calvin’s Ladder as a generally persuasive and eloquent rereading of Calvin’s understanding of salvation and sanctification. Of these two critiques by church historians one would expect significant attention to be paid to the historical claims Canlis makes, however both of these reviews are lacking in this area. Lane’s review completely lacks this feature, though he might be excused given the length of his review. Pak’s critique from a historical perspective is limited to her suggestion that Canlis should have read other texts. Neither critique is historically significant. One would expect more from church historians.

The second type of review I examined was written by a professor who holds a position at Baylor as assistant professor of Religion and Philosophy. Charles Raith, whose review of Calvin’s Ladder appears in the International Journal of Systematic Theology (IJST 15.2, 233-5), has written various works on Calvin and participation, thus he seems to be an appropriate person to review this book. Like many others Raith notes the similarities to Billings’ work on participation. Raith focuses on Canlis’ account of Calvin’s relational ontology. For Canlis, the soul’s ascent is rooted firmly in a relational ontology, which is rather different from traditional accounts which are rooted in a substantialist ontology. Raith notes that she also makes a case for a relational ontology in the works of Irenaeus.

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Julie Canlis, author of Calvin’s Ladder, is currently a lecturer at Regent College.

Although Raith appreciates Canlis’s work in showing that God desires to draw humanity to himself, Raith questions Canlis’ understanding of Calvin’s teaching on participation. He believes that Canlis has squeezed Calvin into the contemporary ideas within social Trinitarianism of “personhood” and “relational ontology.” He says that one gets the feeling Canlis has “left the sixteenth century building and entered into contemporary debates about person.” In doing so, Canlis has promoted “a major ontological shift in the name of Calvin.” He concludes his review by saying, “Canlis’s imposition of current trends in relational ontology and personhood onto Calvin’s thought, and the claims that result, raise some concerns.” This seems to be an understatement given the rest of his critique of Canlis’ book. It should be said that Raith’s critique has some merit, Canlis certainly uses relational language which may not be as prominent in Calvin’s own work, however Canlis is certainly not squeezing Calvin into social Trinitarian ideas of personhood and relational ontology. The reasons I say this is that Canlis’ account of participation in Christ and union with the divine life of the Trinity is heavily influenced by the theology of T.F Torrance (though she is not very explicit about this.) Torrance is by no means a social Trinitarian. Torrance also never proposes that the ontological category personhood is grounded in relationship (as Zizioulas and other social Trinitarians do). Read in light of Torrancian theology one can make sense of her statements regarding the Trinity and ontology without accusing her of falling into contemporary categories put forth by social Trinitarians.

The third type of review I examined was a review written by pastor Jamin Coggin in the Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care (4.2, 316-8). Jamin currently serves as the pastor of spiritual formation and retreats at Saddleback Church. He begins by noting Canlis’ vision for the book which is “concerned with a story line that has always been at the heart of Christian mystical theology and spiritual praxis: the ascent of the soul.” He believes that Canlis has done a fine job of articulating a clear theology of participation in the Triune life of God from a distinctly Reformed perspective. She does a fine job of showing how Calvin avoided the ever prevalent Hellenistic schemas of ascent and has placed Christ at the center of the believer’s ascent into the life of God. Taking the perspective of a pastor, Coggin notes that her book offers fodder for reshaping spiritual formation in a more theologically robust way. He commends the book for avoiding the tendency of books on spiritual formation to be overly practice oriented and not sufficiently grounded in theology. He critiques the book for not engaging with Bonaventure’s theology of ascent and not devoting sufficient attention to the topics of prayer and spirituality.  Throughout his critique of Calvin’s Ladder, one can see his pastoral colors emerge. Coggin is concerned about spiritual formation and Christian practices. He reads Canlis’ book in light of how helpful it will be for the work of pastors. He concludes that it will in fact be a very helpful resource for accomplishing the pastoral task.

Having briefly looked at three types of reviews, those written by historians, a philosophical theologian, and a pastor, several common themes emerge. The first is that Canlis has done a service to the church by adequately showing that Calvin’s spirituality can be understood as being rooted in participation in Christ. Historians, theologians, and pastors commend her for showing that a theology of ascent is actually a part of the Reformed Tradition. A common critique of her work is that she failed to address the reviewer’s field of expertise, i.e. she should have engaged x or y work. This is not a substantial criticism. However more substantial than this criticism is the critique that Canlis has molded Calvin in her own image, i.e. a 21st century theologian working in a highly relational/social Trinitarian context. The way Lane articulates this critique is quite tempered, whereas Raith’s articulation of this critique is more forceful. However, I have shown that Raith’s critique may be a bit too strong.

When reviewing a book like Canlis’s, which toes the line between history/theology/praxis, it is helpful to have a multitude of voices and disciplines weigh in. Hopefully this review of reviews has helped to highlight the multifaceted contributions that Calvin’s Ladder can make to various fields of study.

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.