In recent years a number of scholars have increasingly pointed out the relationship between participating in Christ’s death and changing sinners’ status before God. Two passages that are especially relevant to this conversation are Galatians 2:15-21 and Romans 6-7. What’s unique about both of these passages is their use of the term, “systauroo” or “co-crucify.” Gorman explains, “the restoration to right covenant relations is therefore an experience of death and resurrection, or resurrection via death.” (Inhabiting, 63) According to Gorman we are co-crucified and co-resurrected with Christ. In Romans 6, one gets “into Christ” by baptism. Justification requires death to the law, there is co-crucifixion, and resurrection to new life. All of this is participatory. And it results in our justification.
Cranfield makes a similar point. In writing of Romans 6:1-14, He argues that there are four different senses in which we may speak of dying with Christ and being raised with him. These four senses are: juridicial, baptismal, moral, eschatological. Regarding the first point Cranfield says that “God willed to see them as having died in Christ’s death and having been raised in his resurrection.” Constantine Campbell explains,
By speaking of dying and rising with Christ, Paul appears to be delving into the mechanics of how the gift of God in Jesus Christ has overturned the juridical implications of sin and death. The logic appears as follows. The consequence of sin is death, judgement, and condemnation. By dying a representative death for sinful humanity, Christ fulfilled the legal requirement for sin. Once this legal requirement had been satisfied by death, the new life of Chris is no longer bound by sin or the juridical consequences it entail. The way in which the benefits of Christ’s representative death are apprehended is by identification with him in his death. This is where participation and representation come together: Believers spiritually partake in the death and resurrection of Christ, who has represented them in these acts…. The reason that believes have been set free from the condemnation of the law and death is that the righteous requirements of the law have been met through their dying and rising with Christ. (Campbell, 337)
Tannehill, however, makes a stronger point. He says that the death and resurrection of Christ are events in which the believer herself participates. New life “is based upon personal participation in these saving events.” (Tannehill, 1) The person is actually included in Christ. This is no mere legal representation. Believers somehow actually die with Christ and are raised with Christ.
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.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that the Christ hymn in Philippians 2 is the pattern for Christian life. Obviously Michael Gorman has much to say about this, but I came cross Morna Hooker’s analysis of this poem, and I was struck by how programatic it is for Paul.
The pattern of Christ’s self-humiliation is the basis of the Christian’s life and his dealings with his fellow men. This is not simply a question of following a good example: he must think and behave like this, because the behavior of Christ is the ground of his redemption; if he denies the relevance of Christ’s actions to his own, then he is denying his very existence in Christ.
The “imitate this pattern because you are in Christ” paradigm came even more vividly alive for me when I read Philippians 3:17 this morning:
Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take not of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.
What is this pattern Paul gave us? its the Christy hymn pattern.
At least that’s what many evangelicals tend to believe. There is this thought that runs through much of evangelicalism that theology is either irrelevant because we should be focusing on practical things. There is also another line of thought that seems to believe that theology is dangerous because it is divisive, and has the potential to confuse people about God. Keith Johnson in Theology as Discipleship argues that neither of these are the case. In fact, theology is vitally relevant to our lives as Christians and it actually has the ability to help us grow in Christ. Or as he himself puts it:
The traditional goal of Christian theology is to develop a better understanding of God so that we can think and speak rightly about God within the context of a life governed by our faith in Christ and our discipleship to him in community with other Christians. (34)
Keith Johnson writes theology in a truly “gospel-centered” manner. By Gospel centered I don’t mean what people typically mean by “gospel centered,” I mean a fully rounded out gospel which places union with Christ at the center.
Johnson begins by explaining where theology went “wrong” (i.e. anti-intellectualized & over-academia-ized). He then explains what it means to do theology from the standpoint of our union with Christ. Part of theology’s purpose is to help us to know Christ and grow in our understanding of our union with Him. The way this happens is through the use of Scripture and the hearing of God’s word. As we listen to scripture and hear God speak our mind, our thoughts, and out theology becomes conformed to the mind of Christ.
This short book is super helpful and I would encourage anyone that is interested in studying theology to pick it up. I would especially encourage anyone who is going to bible college or seminary to read it before they dive into the study of theology. The fact that he includes explicit sections of exegesis in each chapter is a breath of fresh air, and it’s a great way of modeling how to do theology. His final chapter, “Theology in Christ” is another highlight of his book. In it he lays out 9 thesis for what it means to do theology as discipleship.
Overall this is a great little book which reorients theology around its true purpose, growing in Christ and serving the church.
Note: I received this book courtesy of IVP in exchange for an impartial review.
There was once a day when most theology books were written in order to elicit a worshipful response from the reader. This was especially true of books on Christology – these books were intended to make the reader see how awesome, powerful, gracious, kind and all out joy inducing Christ was. However, our theology books have slowly began to be written by specialists out of touch with the heart of the church – and thus these types of theology books have become the exception rather than the norm. Michael Reeves’ book Rejoicing in Christ seeks to take us back to the days when worshipful theology books were the norm. He seeks to present a through and rigorous Christology all the while presenting it in such a way that causes people to (this is not be being clever) rejoice in Christ.
This book is based on the notion that at the center of Christianity is not an idea, rather its not even the “gospel” – the center of Christianity is Christ himself. Everything begins and ends with Christ. At one point he even says that “to be truly Trinitarian we must constantly be Christ centered.” (23) He is absolutely correct!
This little book has 5 short chapters. Chapter 1 covers Christ’s role in creation and his preexistence. Chapter 2 covers his humanity an life prior to the crucifixion. Chapter 3 covers his death and resurrection. Chapter 4 covers how our lives as Christians are grounded in our present union with him. Chapter 5 is concerned with eschatology.
You might summarize the book like this (119):
Past: Having died with him, we can look no further back into our past than him. Christ, not our failure, is our history.
Present: United to him, we now share his glad life and standing before the Father. Filled with his Spirit, we are made ever more like him.
Future: the judge of all the earth is our faithful Savior; when he appears we will be with him, we will be like him and we will be co-heirs with him.
What great news!
There are a couple of themes that weave themselves throughout this work – all themes that many evangelicals have sadly forgotten or just plain ignored. The first is a sort of Adam Christology – here Reeves does not simply cover the typical Romans 5 passage or simply discuss federal headship – rather Reeves consistently comes back to the notion that Christ fulfills Adam’s humanity in a sort recapitulation of Adam’s vocation. The second is an emphasis on union with Christ. This theme was certainly central to the reformers like Calvin and Luther, but has been ignored by many evangelicals up until recently. Both of these themes – which constantly pop up in every chapter of the book are grounded in Patristic themes. This sure makes sense – because a lot of Reeves theology has affinities with T.F. Torrance’s theology. It’s a sort of Reformed take on Patristic theology.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I think that you will enjoy it took. Rejoicing in Christ represents the perfect blend of head and heart. Rejoicing in Christ exemplifies what Christian theology ought to look like – its academically rigorous yet always reverent and worshipful. But that is not only the goal of Christian theology – it’s the goal of human beings as well… or as the WST puts it:
1. What is the chief end of man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
As you read this wonderful book I have no doubt that you will be led to glorify God because of it and find yourself rejoicing and enjoying Christ more than you did before you even cracked this book open.
This week I have been studying Paul’s letter to the Philippians. One thing that really jumps out at me is how often he uses the word rejoice. Commentator after commentator point out that joy or rejoicing is a major theme in this short letter. In fact one commentator was said:
Summa Epistolae; Gaudeo, Gaudete.
Which simply means “the content of the letter; I rejoice, now you rejoice!” That is an awesome summary of this letter and its supper fitting too – the word family for joy is more common in this letter than any other Pauline letter.
Ralph Martin in his little but powerful commentary on Philippians in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary Series says this about Paul’s letter:
The value of this fact [Paul’s injunction to rejoice] lies surely in its clear indication that Paul was enabled to rejoice in the most trying circumstances of his captivity. The example of a man whose life is filled with joy, and his exhortations to ‘rejoice in the Lord’ does not proceed from some ivory tower of peace and security. On the contrary, the writer is Paul the prisoner, who is awaiting news which may spell his death…”
Paul knows what it means to suffer, Paul knows what its like to live in despair, yet he can honestly tell this church to rejoice always. Why can he say this? Its simply because he knows his union with Christ is secure.
Today Christians all over the world celebrate an event that shook the entire course of humanity. This event is Resurrection or Easter Sunday. Because Christ has risen from the grave everything has changed. But first and foremost, Christ’s atonement for our sin has been made effective. This Easter Sunday take in and meditate on what T.F. Torrance has to say about resurrection and atonement.
Since Jesus Christ is himself the resurrection and the Life, he is himself as lot reconciliation and salvation of men. The risen Jesus Christ is the living Atonement, atonement in its glorious achievement not only in overcoming the separation of sin, guilt, and death, but in consummating union and communion with God in such a way that the divine life overflows freely through him into mankind. Of course, if Christ had not risen from the dead, that would have indicated that the atonement hand not been achieved, that he had not actually been able to sand in for us and take our place; and then his sacrifice on the Cross could have been seen only as a terrible act of final injustice…However, now that he has risen from the dead, the atonement is shown to have been carried through to its final end. (Space Time and Resurrection, 55)
In other words, while the crucifixion was God the Son’s “it is finished” – the resurrection is God the Father’s declaration – “It is finished!” Atonement has been accomplished and completed through the resurrection of our buried king. It is God’s “Yes, I accept” to Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf! Because it is God the Father’s “yes” we can rejoice in the fact that our sins are fully covered, that sin and Satan are defeated, and most importantly that we can forever experience union with