Review of Ascension & Ecclesia

Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology

By Douglas Farrow

Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999. 340 pp. $35.00.

Theology Today,  Jul 2001 by Malcolm, Lois

This book offers much more than a doctrine of the ascension. It argues that the church finds its identity not in “planning committees or strategic summits”-nor even in visions of the past (a la traditionalists) or the future (a la progressivists)-but in the eschatological paradox of Jesus’ bodily presence and absence at the eucharist. This tension, Douglas Farrow argues, defines not only the church’s identity but that of the entire cosmos. Discontinuity exists between Jesus’ history and ours: the “absence of this presence.” We are separated until the parousia not only by Jesus’ death and resurrection but also by his ascension; he now sits at the right hand of God with power to judge the living and the dead. Continuity exists in the eucharistic move from “absence to presence.” In the eucharist, Jesus’ Spirit unites us with him and the Father in a koinonia (communion) that has, following Paul, not only ecclesial but cosmological implications.

Farrow develops his argument from Daniel, Luke-Acts, Paul, Hebrews, and John, where Jesus’ ascension is linked with “ecclesial communion as real participation in Christ,” which, in turn, opens up “new horizons in cosmology.” Irenaeus is Farrow’s chief theological resource. Against gnostic descent-and-ascent schemes, Ireneaus’s doctrine of recapitulation places Jesus of Nazareth (crucified, raised, and ascended) at the center of the cosmos. The church occupies the “place of eucharistic stress carved out for it by Jesus”-versus either “withdrawal” or “worldliness”-to present to the world a redemption that does not pry apart creation “in order to liberate what is divine in it” but pries it open “to the Spirit of God[,] that it might be filled with divine glory.”

Irenaeus, however, is followed by “two steps backward.” Origen returns us to a saintly alienation from the world (versus continuity) and an institutional rapprochement with it (versus discontinuity). Augustine’s church, in turn, is a worldly reality within which exists “the hidden reality of the elect”; it, too, is open to compromise. The rest of church history follows suit (whether by way of Dionysius and Maximus Confessor in the east, or Radbertus’s defeat of Ratramnus in the west). Culminating in a full-blown shift of focus from Jesus to Mary, the church becomes the incarnate one, with Mary continuing the work of the absent Jesus-“still pregnant with his divinity.”

Calvin’s eucharistic theology refocuses attention on Jesus’ humanity. Against Luther, Calvin rejects the ubiquity of Christ, stressing the particularity of Jesus’ humanity and his ascension. Against Zwingli, he argues for a real presence made possible by the Holy Spirit, who brings us into communion with Jesus and the Father. Modern theology returns us to the ancient difficulties, now cast in post-Newtonian terms. Teilhard de Chardin is the chief example of the collapse of all distinctions among Christ, cosmos, and church, but Farrow discusses other positions as well (from Hans Martenson to Matthew Fox and Juan Luis Segundo). Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth return us to Jesus’ humanity and the distinction between Jesus and us, church and world. Barth, in particular, revitalizes a full-blown doctrine of ascension, though, following T. F. Torrance and others, Farrow argues that Barth could have placed an even stronger stress on Jesus’ humanity in the God-man’s descent and ascent.

Liberals of all stripes, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans will quibble with details in this Barthian-Reformed argument. But it clearly is a substantive work. My only suggestion is that Farrow explicate more fully the cosmological implications of his argument (that is, its doctrine of creation). That would underline its “world-affirming” character. Its polemic notwithstanding, this Irenaean ecclesiology is not sectarian. Rather, its “nonfoundationalist” argument for the ecclesial-and cosmological– centrality of Jesus’ presence and absence in the flesh at the eucharist corrects both the false ecclesial self-assertion of traditionalists and the self-negation of progressivists.

This argument for “ascension of the flesh”-over and against ancient or modern versions of the “ascension of the mind”-has important ecclesiological and cosmological consequences. It depicts a vision of a new creation in which “God is God and humanity is authentically human and the world a fruitful place.” Between the ascension and the parousia, the church’s identity and witness in the cosmos is rooted, not in a “Jesus-less” universalization of the incarnation, but in the eucharistic presence and absence of “this same Jesus” who “comes as he departed”: a particular person in whom the world is recreated by God. I hope this book receives the attention it deserves in the academy and the church.


Luther Seminary St. Paul, MN

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