Tag Archives: Spirituality

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.

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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.

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.

Book Review – The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family by Kara Powell

Last year our church transitioned from having a “children’s ministry” department and a “student ministry” department to having a “family ministry” model. Instead of seeing these two stages of life as two-clear-distinct-separated stages we came to the realization that we can minister more holistically to parents and their children with the understanding that the development of a child’s faith is a process that really begins at birth and continues on even into the college years. In the process of transitioning into a “family ministry” model we have sought to discover ways that we can help parents cultivate environments and experiences that can help their children’s faith flourish – because the truth is parents can often feel overwhelmed by the idea of being their child’s primary source of spiritual care, its easier to outsource that to the kids ministry pastor, small group leader, or youth pastor.

Parents can often feel overwhelmed by the idea of being their child’s primary source of spiritual care.

As we have been trying to figure out how to practically help these parents we have been scouring all sorts of resources that we can use to create resources for parents – that is when I came across The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family by Kara Powell….

The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family is an easily readable, easily accessible, and entertaining collection of “Sticky Faith” research findings partnered alongside of “Sticky Ideas.” Youth pastors know that the Sticky Faith team is at the forefront of youth culture research, so you know that the findings you are reading in this book are very well researched and are the latest-greatest thing. Youth pastors also know that the Sticky Faith team isn’t simply a group of theoreticians, the Sticky Faith team is a team run by practitioners, so you know that the practical advice offered in this book is tested and tried.

Pro’s

  • The Sticky Ideas Seep Into Every Area of Life – Its easy to think of a child’s spiritual formation as simply something that happens on Sunday’s or Wednesday nights at church or possibly around the dinner table at home, but Powell does a good job pointing out that faith develops at home, on vacation, in community, in our mistakes, in our transitions, and even in our times of service. Basically if you are looking for “sticky faith ideas” to start applying to many areas of life, you will find them here.
  • It is Super Practical – The cover of the book states that there are “over 100 practical and tested ideas to build lasting faith in kids.” 100 ideas! Trying to implement 100 new practices in your family can seem overwhelming if not impossible. However Powell is pretty clear on the fact that parents can’t implement all 100 ideas, they probably can’t even implement 10 ideas really well! She recommends that you aim for 5, 3 or just even 1 idea before you start to implement new ideas.
  • The Chapter on Transitions – Transitions between elementary to jr. high to high school to college can be some of the most difficult seasons in a child’s life and even in a parent’s life. But one thing that is often underestimated is how difficult those transitions can be for youth pastors. As somebody who had the difficult task of helping high school students transition into our college ministry I certainly appreciate any help I can get. Powell provides plenty of practical advice for making that transition. She also provides (in the appendix) an overview of the College Transition Project – within this appendix she provides research criteria for “vibrant faith.” College ministers will definitely appreciate this criteria, not as a fool proof list of things to judge one’s student’s faith but as a helpful guide to evaluating where your students might be at.

I highly recommend this book – and that isn’t just me saying that – I actually liked this book so much that I gave it to our family ministry’s pastor as a possible resource for equipping parents to instill vibrant faith into their student’s lives.

(Note: I received this book courtesy of Zondervan in exchange for an impartial review.)

A Leadership Night with Alan Fadling

Yesterday night Rocky Peak had its end of the year Life Group leader gathering. It was a night filled with worship, testimonies as to what God had done in Life Group, and some encouraging words on “rest” from Alan Fadling.

In case you don’t know him Alan Fadling is author of An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest, which was honored with an “Award of Merit” by Christianity Today under the category “Spirituality.” The book has been getting rave reviews by some heavy hitting authors/pastors. I (who am not a heavy hitting author/pastor) liked it a whole lot as well! Also, on a more personal note, many many years ago Alan was the College Pastor at Rocky Peak! How crazy is that!

Anyway here are some highlights of what he talked about last night:

  • As leaders we often lead on empty… What if leadership was leading from overflow? What if it is just sharing what is overflowing from me? That doesn’t happen when you live life in a hurry.
  • Hurry is a disordered soul.
  • We want God to answer quickly, we want him to do things fast… but God has a bias towards relationship, and he knows that sometimes when he gives us what we want when we want it we are quick to run off.
  • Work is certainly a gift from God, but so is rest.
  • I am not what I do… that is not my identity. My identity is “beloved of God.” That identity is true of me whether I am at work or at rest.
  • In the Bible rest comes first, work flows out of that.
  • One thing that you need to understand is how much Jesus treasures your friendship.
  • The more I thank, the more I remember how graced my life is.

There were many more highlights from last night, but those are just a few. If you are interested in what he has to say, I recomend that you pick up his book An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest. Whether you are a pastor, college ministry leader, or don’t do “ministry” at all, there is much to draw from this book.