Sometimes a book sits on my “to read” list for a while, and, when I finally get around to reading it, I’m disappointed. Fortunately, this wasn’t one of those times. When I finally made time to dig into Julie Canlis’ Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension, I immediately wished I had done so earlier. Well-written and thoughtful, this is definitely a book worth reading.
According to Canlis, concepts like participation, fellowship, and communion, lie at the heart of the Christian faith. We are “in Christ,” “partakers of the divine nature,” and joined together in “one body.” These are key ideas, and how we understand them necessarily shapes how we view things like what it means to be human, how we approach spirituality, and what we think about God himself.
But we struggle to understand what this “participation” theme really means for at least two reasons. First, our modern, western culture is so individualized and atomized that we struggle to see ourselves as anything other than isolated selves. That makes it difficult for us to process the idea that the ground of our identity – indeed, our very being – may lie outside of us. And second, ”participation” has been understood by theologians in two very different ways. Some see our participation in God as an ontological reality – to be “in Christ” is to share in the divine nature itself. Others suspect this ontological approach of bordering on pantheism (i.e. we are part of God) and prefer to view participation as simply referring to the fact that believers share in the benefits of being God’s people.
So we take a concept that is already difficult for our modern minds to grasp and we make it even more challenging by having two diametrically opposed views of what it means. Canlis offers us a way of navigating these obstacles by looking at the theology of John Calvin. According to Canlis, Calvin has a theology of “participation,” which she frames around the concept of “ascent.” And she argues that Calvin’s approach manages to avoid the pantheistic implications feared by many while still offering a more robust view of participation than people often associate with the famous Genevan.
In the first main chapter, Canlis provides a brief history of spiritual ascent, showing how Calvin fits into a long tradition of viewing the Christian life in this way. According to Canlis, though, the tendency has been to view ascent as something that we do, albeit empowered by God’s grace. For Calvin, spiritual ascent is something that Christ did for us. So instead of wrestling with how the human person becomes capable of ascent (naturalization), Calvin focused on how we come to participate in Christ’s own ascent (communion).
For many, any emphasis on spiritual ascent necessarily means devaluing creation. Creation is what you’re trying to escape through spiritual ascent. But in the second chapter Canlis argues that the doctrine of creation is the “ground and grammar” of Calvin’s theology of ascent. For Calvin, creation has always been the place in which the Son mediates the presence of the Father in the Spirit. So, from the very beginning, creation has been about participating in God through the mediatorship of the Son. Only a proper understanding of creation, then, prepares us to understand what spiritual ascent is all about. It is the fulfillment of what we were created to be rather than an escape from the natural order.
The third and fourth chapters provide the real theological thrust of the book, focusing on Christ as “the ascending one” and the Spirit as “eucharistic ascent” respectively. With Christ, we often make the mistake of focusing exclusively on his “descent” (i.e. incarnation). Although the descent is critical, we need to remember also that he ascended to the Father, restoring the communion intended from the beginning. It’s the ascension that completes the story of Christ’s mediatorship. And it is through the work of the Spirit, especially in the sacraments, that we come to participate in Christ’s ascension and his relationship with the Father.
Finally, Canlis points out how similar all of his is to the theological vision cast by Irenaeus hundreds of years earlier. She rightly notes that it’s nearly impossible to demonstrate any direct dependence of Calvin on Irenaeus. So she focuses instead on identifying similarities and then using their common vision to suggest better ways of understanding Christian spirituality today.
Altogether, Canlis’ book is an outstanding resource that can be used for a variety of purposes: (1) learning more about Calvin’s theology; (2) developing a better understanding of concepts like “participation,” “ascent,” and “communion;” and (3) understanding how the doctrines of the Trinity and creation relate to Christian spirituality. All of this would be very helpful for anyone seeking to develop a better understanding of Christian spirituality today.