On Sunday I had the chance to preach at the ministry I served at for years. Here’s my message on Luke 19:1-10.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
We have all been designed by God to make an impact – both on our community and the world around us. He has given each one of us specific gifts and life experiences that are unique to us. Nobody else has those same combinations of gifts that you do. Nobody else has ever had, nor will ever have, the same life experiences that you have had. Your design and your life story are unique. However, the truth is that we don’t often take time to reflect upon how God has uniquely designed us and orchestrated our life story. Sometimes its helpful to step back and prayerfully think through the things that have shaped us to become who we are today. In the following video we are going to see a Christian Rapper – Propaganda – reflect upon different circumstances in his life that have shaped him to be who he is, and have prepared him for the type of ministry that God has called him to.
I am Second® – Propaganda
In the video, the rapper Propaganda shared some of the experiences that shaped his life. He shared about what it was like growing up as the only African-American kid in a Mexican culture, what it was like feeling alone at church, as well as what it was like to be a male in his particular culture with artistic passions and desires. As he reflected upon these things he noticed that “all this was on purpose – everything you are – your whole goulash of experiences and gifts – all the scars, every hurt every failure…. Its on purpose, you are fearfully and wonderfully made, you are exactly who I want you to be.”
Exercise – Writing Your Spiritual Biography
Take 20 minutes to prayerfully reflect on how God has shaped you over the years through various means such as:
- Life experiences – Think about the various phases of your life: childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Which experiences during those years have shaped you the most to be who you are today?
- Spiritual experiences – i.e. experiences of God’s presence and guidance through Scripture, church, mission trips, camps, nature, or some spiritual experience. List out at least 3 experiences that have significantly shaped you.
- Spiritual mentors including historical figures.
- Your context—i.e. cultural, family, ethnic, socio-economic, geographical & historical factors.
After you have done this, take some time to craft a “spiritual biography” (using Propaganda’s testimony as an example) around these four categories. How might God want to use your experiences to make an impact for his Kingdom on this world?
Right now I have several books that I am making my way through right now. As is usually the case some are a bit more academic, some are more devotional, and others are more ministry oriented. I find it helpful to mix things up in that way. (Also I am in the process of working through Church Dogmatics, but that might take me the rest of my life…)
As surprising as it may sound, this is the first book of this type that I have ever read. I usually don’t delve much into sociology, and this book relies heavily upon the social sciences, but I am finding this book absolutely fascinating. Although I already knew much of what their research has found (from anecdotal and personal experience) I have found it very helpful in understanding what the major issues are that the college students I work with are facing. Also, since I am an “emerging” adult I am learning quite a bit about my own beliefs. I honestly didn’t realize how well I fit the mold of an “emerging adult.”
Here is the Amazon Blurb: Here two authors–both veteran teachers who are experienced in young adult and campus ministry–address this new and urgent field of study, offering a Christian perspective on what it means to be spiritually formed into adulthood. They provide a practical theology for emerging adult ministry and offer insight into the key developmental issues of this stage of life, including identity, intimacy and sexuality, morality, church involvement, spiritual formation, vocation, and mentoring. The book bridges the gap between academic and popular literature on emerging adulthood and offers concrete ways to facilitate spiritual formation among emerging adults.
I just received a copy of this book from Baker Academic, so a review will be coming out shortly. I have always thought that Jesus conflict with the religious leaders revolved around the Temple – namely Jesus’ critique of the temple institution and Jesus claims to supplant it. I am really interested to see what Kieth sees as the core of the conflict between these two parties.
Here is the Amazon Blurb: How did the controversy between Jesus and the scribal elite begin? We know that it ended on a cross, but what put Jesus on the radar of established religious and political leaders in the first place? Chris Keith argues that, in addition to concerns over what Jesus taught and perhaps even how he taught, a crucial aspect of the rising conflict concerned his very status as a teacher.
This volume contains Athanasius’ The Life of St. Anthony, St. Jerome’s The Life of Paul the Hermit, and the collected sayings of many of the desert fathers. So far I am about half way through The Life of St. Anthony, lets just say this hagiography is a bit over the top. Nevertheless, I am finding myself strangely encouraged by reading this embellished biography. I am finding myself encouraged to spend more time in prayer and to focus more on spiritual discipline. I am finding myself encouraged to imitate some of Anthony’s characteristics, namely his devotion to prayer, his reliance upon Christ’s power, and his insistence on getting rid of sin in his life. I guess that is why Athanasius wrote the book though…. If you can get past the over the top elements of some of the material in the book you will certainly find yourself encouraged to grow in your relationship with Christ.
I’m not one of those guys. Yes I played sports in High School. Yes I loved sports. Yes I spent all of my free time at the gym….
I worked HARD at football b/c I didn’t have as much natural talent as some other guys. I worked HARD at soccer b/c I wasn’t as fast or accurate as some of the other guys. I worked my butt off to be good at sports. It didn’t come naturally by any means.
Here was my schedule – go to school – go to practice – Spend an hour after practice working out at the school gym – eat dinner – go work out at the gym – find time to get a 4.286 gpa. How the heck did I do that! As soon as I graduated high school I slowly found myself lacking the motivation to work out as much. Yes I would be able to go on crazy work out spurts. Call it being intense, call it binge working out, call it what you will, they never lasted more than 2-3 weeks before I fell back into laziness. Why?
I lacked motivation to maintain discipline!
Think about it. In High School I wanted to be the best, or at the very least competitive. I had a goal set before me. Even more importantly I wanted to help my team win the championship. (By the way we won league and made it to the CIF semi-finals in football.)
Tangible goals that I really believed in motivated me to stay disciplined!
I think the same holds true in Christianity. Why do so many of us struggle to spend time with God through scripture and prayer? Why do so many of us find it a chore to get up 30 minutes earlier to spend time with God but don’t have that same problem when it comes to working out?
At times I will enter my “workout binge” stage. Usually the goal is I want to lose a few pounds or I want to look really good. But those goals are shallow. Even I don’t believe in them enough to put all of my effort into fulfilling them. I think that happens with our time with God as well. We are told that its good to spend time with God, so we should make every effort to do it. We “binge devotion” i.e. read our bibles and pray for 2 weeks but then fall back into our old habits. That is partly b/c we are never given a tangible goal that we really believe in.
What is our tangible goal that we can really believe in? Whatever it is we have to believe that it is of utmost importance. In sports I believed that winning CIF was of utmost importance. Second we must believe that its something worth giving all of our time and energy towards. Third it must happen in community. If I didn’t have a team spurring me on I doubt that I would have been so disciplined in sports.
Is there something in our Christian faith that matches us with these three things? I certainly think there is. So what is that goal?
God’s glory among the nations is an “epic” enough goal to get our butts out of bed every morning to spend time with him.
What if each of us knew that without that time with him we wouldn’t accomplish our goal? What if we believed that those 30 minutes per day could change our lives and could change the world around us. What if we really believed that those 30 minutes could mean the difference between life and death for somebody in an unreached people group on the other side of the world.
God’s glory in the nations is a tangible goal that I can really believe in and give my life to. I don’t feel that way about “my own personal growth.”
Seeking transformation for the sake of transformation is a dead end. Seeking transformation for the sake of God’s glory among the nations is powerful motivation…
This quote was too good not to share, however it was too long for twitter…..
Here is what Sarah Coakley says about the task of theology:
Theology involves not merely the metaphysical task of adumbrating a vision of God, the world, and humanity, but simultaneously the epistemological task of cleansing, reordering, and redirecting the apparatuses of one’s own thinking, desiring, and seeing. (GSS 20)
In other words, theology’s task is not only to describe, its task is also to shape us. Theology is not simply information, theology is formation.