by Douglas Farrow
T&T Clark, 177 pages, $27.95
Simply put,” writes Douglas Farrow, “our choice is between a doctrine of the Ascension that truly affirms our humanity in Christ and one that secretly or openly denies it.” In this book, a sequel to his much acclaimed Ascension and Ecclesia, Farrow, a Catholic theologian who teaches Christian thought at McGill University, presents what he hopes is a “more accessible sketch” of the relevance of the doctrine of the Ascension. He tries to “reach out to the less-specialized reader, including the adventurous undergraduate”—though my hunch is that the undergraduate would have to be rather adventurous indeed. Farrow’s book is not an easy read, and some chapters require particularly careful scrutiny.
Farrow is a widely read and deep thinker, and the book evidences a deeply passionate commitment and engages, in an often feisty manner, the many issues at stake in modernity’s gnosticizing attacks on the gospel.
After presenting the theme of ascent and descent in the biblical narrative, Farrow takes his readers through the history of Christian thought. He begins with Origen, who focused on “ascension of the mind rather than of the body.” This sharp distinction set in motion the body-denying tendencies of much of the early Church. Though St. Augustine was sometimes a critic of Origen, he and many leading theologians through the Middle Ages failed to take seriously the particularity of the human being, Jesus of Nazareth. In discussions of Maximus the Confessor, Luther, and many modern thinkers—including Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, David F. Strauss, and Rudolf Bultmann—Farrow details this otherworldly, spiritualizing trajectory.
Farrow holds up St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies as the antidote to their gnosticizing tendencies, since Irenaeus “very definitely understood the ascension to be bodily ascension, ascension in the flesh.” He also redeems Augustine at this point, pointing out that he affirmed the Lord’s bodily ascension as well as gendered existence in the life of the world to come. However, the liberal tradition (Teilhard de Chardin, for example) has reduced the ascended Lord to the dynamics of history. In contrast to this optimistic faith in progress, Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer affirmed the particularity of Jesus as the God-man. Today’s challenge, as Farrow sees it, is to “recognize our age for what it is—a test—and reject the seductive vision of Origen’s modern heirs.”
Farrow is right to emphasize Irenaeus’ anti-Gnostic convictions. It is much less clear to me that this needs to be done by means of a sharp critique of the Platonically informed theologies of much of the Christian tradition. Farrow too easily dismisses large chunks of the tradition that he believes have fallen prey to Origen’s gnosticizing tendencies. At one point, while acknowledging Schleiermacher’s decisive break with the past, he states that “it is nonetheless true that it involves a genuine extension of the Origenist tradition as mediated by Augustine.” He draws back at points, asking: If the Fathers had no difficulty holding bodily and spiritual ascension together, “should we have any difficulty? Is the contrast between an Origenist and an Irenaean approach overdrawn, if not actually mistaken?”
I am convinced that the contrast is overdrawn. Henri de Lubac’s recently translated History and Spirit places Origen in a rather different light than does Farrow. I am also convinced that, in our materialist age, we could do with a good dose of Origenist (or Augustinian) otherworldliness.
I doubt that Farrow would entirely disagree. At one point, he presents a quite helpful elucidation of the Ascension as involving a “transformative relocation into a time and space and mode of life defined by full participation in the Trinitarian economy.” The eschatological “location” of heaven does not allow us to identify where Jesus “is going on any map of ours,” although this “location,” as Farrow explains, remains integrally related to the times and places of this-worldly existence. Clearly, for Farrow, this-worldly understanding of time and space is at best analogically suitable for speaking about that astounding reality for which we aim.
Farrow presents a strong plea to take the Ascension seriously in the doctrine of the Eucharist, arguing that the Eucharist is not only a celebration of the presence of Christ but a presence in absence, since we are still waiting for the return of the ascended Christ. While Christ is present, he is “present in a manner distinct from the parousia that is yet to come.” And so, although he rejects the Pelagianism inherent in memorialist views of the Eucharist, he finds himself wishing that “the western tradition had paid more attention to the eschatological features of the Eucharist.” As he explains, “The real presence effected in the Eucharist that is celebrated on the earthly altar is, as the liturgy indicates, a presence in and with Christ in heaven, where he stands before God as our great high priest.”
It’s a sentence that Calvin could have written, and in some ways Farrow is close to the Genevan reformer. The eschatological focus, the notion that the Eucharist takes us to the heavenly places, and the belief that the Eucharist “is not explicable in terms of the old creation” are all affirmations shared by many Protestants. Farrow even insists that the Eucharist cannot be understood within Aristotelian categories of substance and accident, since the “bread does not turn into the body by acquiring a new form in its matter.”
In view of this theological analysis of the implications that Christ’s ascension has for Eucharistic theology, I must admit that it is not clear to me why Farrow still insists on using the unhelpful language of transubstantiation for the Eucharist. Nor do I understand why he criticizes William Dix for the phrase “faith believes, nor questions how,” for Farrow himself insists that the coming of the Word in the consecration is not “explicable in terms of the old creation.” I cannot help but think that his discussion of the Eucharist displays a real tension in Farrow’s thinking. Perhaps if he were to follow through on the thought patterns of John Calvin and Herbert McCabe, he might more freely acknowledge that transubstantiation cannot do justice to the absence or—since I think the term absence is unfortunate—the provisional nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.
Farrow is at his most articulate and passionate when he speaks of “the politics of the Eucharist.” In the Eucharist we come together “to participate in the ultimate political reality, the kingdom of God, from which its authority derives.” This starting point allows him to relativize as provisional all forms of secular government. His theology—essentially a theology of martyrdom—takes on a distinctly apocalyptic tone when he reflects on the various embodiments of the “man of lawlessness,” which he describes as present in the German Christian movement at the time of the Third Reich, in John Stuart Mill’s prioritizing of liberty over truth, and in the state’s increasing appropriation of power, particularly in its arbitrary invention of marriage without sexual complementarity or procreative purpose. Farrow has particularly harsh words for King Henry VIII, who “exalted himself, Uzziah-like, before God” and who “attempted to rule over the souls of his subjects that he might rule also over their bodies.”
The final chapter presents a wonderful discussion of “ascension and atonement.” Farrow discusses Christ’s ascension and its implications from the viewpoint of the purification of the heavenly things (Hebrew 9:23–24). He rightly reminds us that Christ’s “cleansing of heaven produces trauma on earth.” At the same time, Christ causes us to ascend with him and so offers up the whole creation to be the kingdom of God. Again, Farrow reflects on the continuity and discontinuity between this world and the next. He articulates an eschatological realism in line with the broad Christian tradition. Our future involves incalculable transformations, “but a real man there will be, and a real garden too, though we know not what will grow there, or how.”
Despite his overdrawn fears of Origenism in much of the history of Christian thought, Farrow ends up aligning himself with the part of the tradition that puts the greatest emphasis on the transcendent difference that Christ makes. His affirmation of deification is unambiguous: “Since God has invested himself in man, man is no longer merely man, with his own creaturely interests and responsibilities under God. Man is now an internal communicant in the very life of God, for God has made himself internally communicant in the life of man.” Despite Farrow’s sometimes harsh judgments on the tradition, he does describe lucidly the world-transforming, rather than world-denying, logic of the Christian witness through the centuries.
Hans Boersma is J. I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College.