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.