1999-5-14 The Ascension and Time

Eric Paul Lemonholm

May 14, 1999

Dr. Robert W. Jenson

An Ecumenical Theology

The Ascension in the Light of a Biblical Metaphysic

Every Sunday, in churches all over the world, Christians confess that Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”  What do we mean when we confess that?  On one level, the answer is quite simple: we mean what we say.  Ascension and session are part of the logic of the theological narrative of Jesus Christ—in terms of incarnation, life and ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and session. 

With a pre-Copernican understanding of reality, this narrative logic could be understood in spatial as well as metaphysical terms.  For example, in the incarnation, Christ “empties himself” and descends, so to speak, into the womb—and descends further into “death on a cross;” in the resurrection and ascension, Christ is “highly exalted” by God and given “the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:6-11).  Taken literally, this perspective entails a distance between heaven and earth.  If God is spatially located somewhere ‘up there’ in heaven, then the question of God’s absence ‘down here’ is raised.

We live, however, in a post-Copernican world.  In our popular representations of heaven and hell, such as comic strips and Woody Allen movies, we still all too often portray them as physical places in a three-tiered universe, with heaven in the clouds and hell deep underground.  With a moment’s reflection, however, one realizes that however deep one drilled underground, one would never reach hell; and, however far one “ascended” in a space shuttle, one would never reach heaven.  No one believes in the three-tiered model of the universe.  The move from the portrayal of heaven and hell in terms of this mythical model to disbelief in heaven and hell, therefore, is a short trip indeed.  Two years ago, I heard a sermon where the pastor kept going on about how Jesus was “up there,” while we were “down here in the dirt”; he kept pointing up and down dramatically.  It is not just that the pastor missed the incarnation, and the real presence of Christ in the church, in the Eucharist, and in the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned (Matt. 25).  He also looked like a fool, as if he had never realized the shift in thought necessitated by modern astronomy (since the 16th century!).  What, then, do we mean when we say that Jesus descended into hell, or that Jesus ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father?  If we are not to understand these confessional statements spatially, how else can we understand them?

Thankfully, we have many resources to turn to, in both Scripture and the continuing Christian tradition.  In fact, although the idea of the three-tiered universe was presupposed by many partners in the Christian conversation throughout history, it is neither necessary nor central to the Christian message.  We shall find that, when we say that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, we mean that Jesus is wherever God is, for wherever God is, is heaven.  Precisely because Jesus ascended, Jesus is able to be present to, with, and for us and all creation, through the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ.  Furthermore, we shall find that when we say that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, we mean that Jesus shares in the power and saving activity of God.  Jesus is our mediator, because Jesus is with God in a unique “position”—Jesus of Nazareth is the human being who fully participates in the triune life with his Father and their Spirit.

I shall explore Robert W. Jenson’s Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Triune God with one eye open for illumination on the Ascension and Session of Jesus Christ.  Jenson’s systematic theology is a sustained attempt to do Christian theology fully conscious of our inheritance of pagan Mediterranean, Greek theology.  Pagan theology is not natural knowledge or universal philosophy, but an “historically particular… theology that Greek religious thinkers, pondering the revelations claimed for Homer and Parmenides, had provided for the cults of Mediterranean antiquity as it became religiously homogeneous.”[1]  Jenson is consistently clear about the distinction between our dual inheritances of biblical and Greek thought.  As a young pastor-in-training, I have found Jenson’s perspective extremely helpful in thinking theologically today, including thinking about the Ascension and Session of Jesus.  I shall explore the first three chapter of Jenson’s work, the “Prolegomena,” in some detail.

Jenson does not completely reject Mediterranean theology, which formed part of the original cultural context of Christianity as it spread in the Roman Empire.  He states: “Conversation with the antecedent theology of each encountered religious culture is intrinsic to the gospel’s mission, and this mission is never merely polemic.”[2]  The gospel must be communicated in such a way that it engages the needs, concerns, and intellectual foundations of a given culture.  What Jenson does reject is “the Enlightenment’s elevation of the Greek element of our thinking to be unilateral judge of the whole.”[3]  Along with most of the Christian tradition throughout history, the Enlightenment’s use of pagan thought was not critical enough.  Pagan theology is not more “natural” or “rational” than biblical theology; “Plato or Aristotle” ought not to be placed above “Isaiah or Paul.”[4]  Dr. Jenson is by no means a despiser of the Greek philosophical/ theological tradition.  Rather, he consciously and critically engages in dialogue with Greek theology, without naively accepting its premises.

The terms of ‘the great conversation’ need not be set solely by Greek philosophy.  It is imperative for Christian theologians in the West to take part in the great conversation, but we do so with our own concerns and our own canon—and, indeed with our own distinctive conversation.  As an example: the “Great Conversation,” as defined by Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins, et al, in The Great Books of the Western World series, moves chronologically from Rabelais to Montaigne, effectively skipping the Reformation and such conversation partners as Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin.  From a Christian perspective, a Western conversation through time that does not include the early church fathers and the Reformers of the 16th century is too narrowly restricted.  For Christians to take part in such a conversation uncritically is to allow the great ideas and values of pagan theology too much authority in setting the terms, and thus shaping the outcome, of the debate.  This is not to denigrate any conversation partners, but merely to recognize that who is included in, and who is excluded from the conversation will affect its nature and results. 

Moreover, Christians need not apologize for giving epistemic priority to the Bible, rather than to Homer, Plato, and Aristotle.  Indeed, we Christians ought to consciously reverse the terms of the great conversation.  As conceived of by Adler and his associates, “the great conversation” of the “great books” is concerned with illuminating the “great ideas.”[5]  That is, one first determines what the great ideas are, and then one decides which books in history address the greatest number of the great ideas.  As Christians, we are free to take part in this conversation about the great ideas.  But we need not accept that this conversation is truly the great conversation for us.  The great conversation takes on a different shape if one starts from belief (faith) in the God of Abraham and Moses, the Father of Jesus.  One might say that the nature and content of the great ideas will be different if one begins with the self-revelation of the Triune God in Jesus Christ.[6]  Indeed, the ideas that are determined to be “great” may be different if one begins from a distinctive faith stance.  One may find that ideas are not ultimate, but rather a person, in relationship to whom our ideas have meaning.

We find a fundamental divide between biblical and pagan thought in the notion of impassibility.  Jenson notes that “Mediterranean antiquity defined deity by immunity to time, by ‘impassibility’; offensively to this definition, the gospel identifies its God by temporal events of Exodus and Resurrection.”[7]  Jenson elsewhere states:

It is the metaphysically fundamental fact of Israel’s and the church’s faith that its God is freely, but, just so, truly self-identified by, and so with, contingent created temporal events.[8]

It is truly foolishness to the Gentiles that God’s identity, like ours, is established by a contingent narrative history—a biography, if you will.  The question, “Who is God?” is not answered by spinning out metaphysical attributes, but by telling a particular set of narratives set in particular times and places in history. 

It is, in fact, a perennial temptation to understand the story of God in a pagan manner, to apply Plotinus’ words about pagan myths to the Christian narrative of God: “The myths distribute in time… what in reality is not separated.”[9]  It is not that the biblical narrative contains no mythological elements or stories; it plainly does.  What we must consciously resist is the notion that, while the biblical narrative establishes God’s identity in contingent temporal events and relations, God’s real identity lies behind the narrative mask.  God’s real identity is non-identity, non-relatedness, impassibility, a-temporality.  While the biblical stories describe God in anthropomorphic terms, so the argument goes, we know that God is beyond action, emotion, change, time, matter, incarnation.  In other words, God’s real identity is best described by John Hick’s concept of the Real an Sich, about which we can know and say nothing, and with which we can have nothing to do. 

In contrast to this way of thinking, Christians believe in the God who is identified by his relations with Israel and, uniquely, with an Israelite named Jesus of Nazareth.[10]  Jenson defines Christian theology as “the thinking internal to the task of speaking the gospel, whether to humankind as message or to God in praise and petition.”[11]  The gospel is the message of the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth; the church is the community that witnesses to this Resurrection.[12]  This is the scandal of particularity: God has definitively identified himself in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, so that “to attend theologically to the Resurrection of Jesus is to attend to the Triune God.”[13]  The Resurrection of Jesus is not just another great idea to consider while we sit in our armchairs, but an event in history that is also an event in the life of the Triune God.

How are we, then, to understand the Ascension of Jesus?  Jenson conceives of the Ascension as the completion of the Resurrection:

The “Ascension, within its own account, is presented as a concluding [Resurrection] appearance, and so shows where the story’s tradents supposed Jesus to be when he was not appearing: in heaven, as envisioned by the seers.”[14]

Without the Ascension, one might say, Jesus’ Resurrection would be incomplete or partial.  Without the life and ministry, the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, however, the Ascension would not be identifiably different from Elijah’s or Enoch’s “ascensions.”  Jenson overcomes the pre-Copernican view of the Ascension by drawing on both the work of Johannes Brenz, who wrote shortly after Copernicus’ cosmological revolution, and St. Paul.  Heaven is not a place “spatially related to other parts of the created universe,”[15] as if Jesus’ Ascension was a spatial movement from earth “up” into heaven.  Brenz and his followers held that “Christ has risen to be in God’s place.  God, however, is in no place but is his own place; and over against God, the created universe is therefore just one other single place.”  They strongly argued against dividing Christ’s humanity and divinity:

The Incarnation given, what we call the humanity of Christ and the deity of Christ are only actual as one sole person, so that where the deity of the Son is, there must be Jesus’ humanity, unabridged as soul and body.[16]

The problem with Brenz’s position, as Jenson notes, is the difficulty of conceiving of a ubiquitous body as a body in any normal sense of the term.  What Brenz and friends contributed is a sense that “Christ’s body… needs no spatial heaven as is not restricted in its presence by created spatial distances.”[17]  Given that, Jenson asks, “Where is Christ’s body?”  He finds his answer, in part, in St. Paul, for whom the body of Christ is “the Eucharist’s loaf and cup and the church assembled around them”:

…the entity rightly called the body of Christ is whatever object it is that is Christ’s availability to us as subjects; by the promise of Christ, this object is the bread and cup and the gathering of the church around them.  This is where creatures can locate him, to respond to his word to them.[18]

The only body of Jesus Christ with which we have to do is the body that is available to us, in the Eucharist, the congregation, and, let me add (again echoing Matthew 25), our brothers and sisters in need.  We encounter Christ bodily as we gather around the table, and as we are sent out into the world in service to our neighbors.[19]  We need not speculate further about spiritual bodies in heaven.

Jenson writes of the Resurrection:

Whatever else a ‘resurrection’ may be… it is at very least the overcoming of death, that is, of what relegates a life to the past.  ‘Resurrection’ is at a minimum of its meaning the location of the risen one’s life in the future, and in a future that, because death is past, for it must be unlimited.  But only God’s future is unlimited; eschatological life can only be entry into God.  In that Christ’s Sonship comes ‘from’ his Resurrection, it comes from God’s future into which he is raised.[20]

The Ascension and Session are the fulfillment of the Resurrection.  As Jesus Christ is raised into God’s future—the Holy Spirit is God’s future—so Christ ascends and is seated ‘into’ God’s future.  The Ascension and Session are not static events, or the end of Jesus’ activity.  Rather, they are just the beginning.  Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, but God raised him from the dead.  However one understands the Ascension and Session—and surely we all misunderstand it to some degree—together they complete the Resurrection.  In believing this part of the creed, we affirm that Jesus was not raised merely to continue his life on earth; rather, Jesus is raised as the firstfruits of the final Resurrection of all people.  Jesus’ Resurrection—and Ascension and Session—reveal to us that the Rabbi from Nazareth participates in God’s Triune life, and confirms Jesus’ message of the inbreaking Kingdom of God.  Thus, the Triune life is not static, but incredibly dynamic.  When Christ ascends to God’s place, the result is not God’s absence from creation, but rather God’s intimate presence in the world in the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ.  Christ ascends in order to be fully present in the church and the world.

The Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, and his promised eschatological return—indeed God’s Triune life itself—call into question our deeply ingrained cultural assumption of the impassibility of God.  God has not only acted at definite points in history; God is present and active in the world—in Christ, physically!—today, and God has a future, in which, by grace, we shall share.

[1]Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Triune God, Oxford: Oxford, 1997,  p. 7

[2] Ibid., p. 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Adler’s account of the criteria for inclusion in the Great Books set is found at the web site: http://books.mirror.org/gb.sel1990.html.

[6] Again, this is not to be anti-intellectual or fideistic.  One need not denigrate any classic or contemporary thinker to insist on the distinctiveness of the Christian witness.

[7] Ibid., p. 16.

[8] Ibid., pp. 47-8.

[9] Quoted in Jenson, p. 48, fn. 48.

[10] Ibid., p 42ff.

[11] Ibid., p. 5.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 13.

[14] Ibid., p. 197.

[15] Jenson, p. 203.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., p. 204.

[18] Ibid., p. 205.  Jenson notes that the full establishment of his position here must await the publication of Volume II of his work.

[19] In this sentence, I echo themes of Gordon Lathrop.

[20] Jenson, p. 143.

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