Review: Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder

This book, Calvin's Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension, is published by Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2010, 286 pp.

Rev. Dr. Richard ToppingThe Rev. Dr. Richard Topping is the St. Andrew's Hall Professor of Reformed Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology, Vancouver BC.

This book comes out of Julie Canlis' doctoral work at St. Andrew's University, Scotland, where she worked under the direction of Professor Alan Torrance and for which she won the 2007 Templeton Award for Theological Promise. It is tightly argued, carefully expressed and, though focused on Calvin and Irenaeus, is a wide-ranging piece of "catholic" scholarship. I learned a great deal from reading it. Dr. Canlis' ability to situate participation/ascension within the overall context of the corpus of Calvin's work makes her argument quite powerful. Her ability to balance and relate — with theological subtlety — matters which are too often depicted in competitive/contentious terms or as zero sum games (divine and human life, Christocentricity and Trinitarian theology) was a delight to behold.

The burden of this superb piece of theological work is to demonstrate the centrality of the descent and ascent of Jesus Christ to Calvin's understanding of salvation as human participation in the life of God. In a precise statement of what she aims to demonstrate through the exposition of the works of Calvin, Canlis writes:

    Calvin brilliantly synthesized the two movements of ascent and descent into one primary activity: the ongoing story of God himself with us. God has come as man to stand in for us (descent), and yet as man he also leads us back to the Father (ascent). The entire Christian life is an outworking of this ascent — the appropriate response to God's descent to us — that has already taken place in Christ. Thus, for Calvin, the only appropriate human ascent is a matter of participating in Christ (3).

Calvin was not, of course, the first to deploy the language of ascent and participation to articulate an understanding of salvation or as a way of relating human and divine life. Plato deployed a similar vocabulary as did substantialist medieval spiritual theologies of soul ascent, which ascribed powers of ascent to "anthropological endowment" (49) rather than to God or the incarnate Son of God or to the work of the Spirit engrafting us into Christ. Calvin's deployment of the language of human participation (koinonia) in the life of God, however, renders the language of ascent and participation Christologically and with a view to the church; he speaks of the Head of the church bringing his members with him (see 48ff). His use of the categories of participation and ascent are thus not general philosophical principles or statements about human potential or achievement, but "flow directly from Christ's sharing in human life. Because God himself, in the person of Christ, shared fully in our humanity, human beings are able to "share," or participate in God" (4).

Canlis argues the case that participation, as both concept and praxis, is central to Christian faith, present in the Old Testament, central to the New — particularly in the Pauline corpus — and of great significance in patristic theology. Her depiction of the way in which the N.T. and the Fathers of the church borrowed language from philosophy and shaped it for Christian use, with varying degrees of success, is instructive for contemporary theological endeavour. Canlis is mindful that koinonia understood as a sharing-in-being, participation, indwelling or communion with God will need careful articulation in our society, shaped as it is by an extrinsic individualism. However, such language will be a gift to alienated and isolated people who sometimes relate to God and each other, in the words of George Hunsinger, "like ball bearings in a bucket" (7). Moreover the language of ascent and participation has ecumenical promise central as it is to Eastern spiritual theology which derives in part from Irenaeus. Canlis believes that by showing continuity in difference between Irene's and Calvin on the matter of a Trinitarian understanding of divine-human koinonia, she can deliver on this promise.

The irony in Canlis' ecumenical motivation is that she is also aware that in the family of churches that trace their theological heritage to Calvin, the language of participation is suspect. She cites some examples and notes that these are representative of a wide-ranging phenomenon in Reformed thought. The reason for suspicion regarding the language of human participation in God as expressive of the meaning of salvation is anxiety about platonic and scholastic metaphysical residue. The language of participation has the potential to blur distinctions between the transcendent God, who is other than us, and us. The line between Creator and created when participation language is predominant tends to get blurred; intimacy with God is featured at the expense of the distinction between God's being and human being.

Canlis counters these anxieties by drawing attention to the conversion that the language of participation undergoes in Calvin's hands. Calvin redefines terms as he uses them such that participation is set free from platonic and neoplatonic associations and "is characterized by intimacy and differentiation, not consubstantiality" (13). In other words, participation, as both intimacy and difference, is oriented by the Trinity. What is more, Calvin also features the language of adoption when speaking of the reality of salvation in Christ. While the orientation of the Christian life is upwards (ascent) by the Spirit, in the Son, to the end of human life, which is communion with the Father, the nature (type) of this communion is specified by the term adoption, which is often paired with engrafting. While these terms affirm a spiritual theology of inclusion, and not just a change in status, they also give theological traction against absorption or pantheism. Describing the theological dividend that Calvin's understanding of adoption pays, Canlis writes, "Adoption . . . carries radical implications for participation in the divine life while also assuaging traditional reformed fears (i.e., loss of distinction between Creator/creature and neglect of atonement)" (136).

I offer the following comments as inquiries into the thesis of the book, the first two as ways in which more of the Calvin corpus might be brought into consideration in Canlis' argument and the third as a gentle questioning of the thesis itself.

The subtitle of the book — A spiritual theology of ascent and ascension — could be more expansive. What if Canlis included descent and incarnation/crucifixion? A spiritual theology which focuses on life in Christ as ascent by the Spirit to fuller participation/communion with and in the life of God ought, it seems to me, and I think certainly in Calvin, to include our death/descent "in and with Christ." Those who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death so that with Christ we rise to newness of life. This move would certainly assuage some of the reformed hesitance regarding the neglect of the atonement, which can bedevil articulations of participation in Christ.

Calvin, speaking of the benefits of baptism writes, "Baptism also brings another benefit, for it shows us our mortification in Christ, and new life in him . . . through baptism Christ makes us sharers in his death, that we may be engrafted in it . . . just as the twig draws substance and nourishment from the root to which it is engrafted, so those that receive baptism with right faith truly feel the effective working of Christ's death in the mortification of the flesh, together with the working of his resurrection in the vivification of the Spirit." (Romans 6:8) (Institutes IV.15.5)

While Canlis refers to Calvin's sacramental theology, she treats principally his theology of the Lord's Table: there is virtually no treatment of Calvin on baptism and our engrafting into Christ's death and resurrection by means of it. The one exception that I could find is in a footnote, p. 135, n. 36. Given the thesis of the book and the corresponding importance of en Christo, an account of Calvin's theology of baptism would seem almost necessary.

Calvin writes, "Baptism is the sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that engrafted in Christ, we may be reckoned among God's children" (Institutes, IV.15.1).

"[Our] faith receives from baptism the advantage of its sure testimony to us that we are not only engrafted into the death and life of Christ, but so united to Christ that we become sharers in all his blessings" (IV.15.6).

What follows the citation above is a discussion of baptism in which Calvin holds together in the very same sentences the language of adoption (children of God) and participation (union, fellowship). There is intimacy and distinction, distinction and intimacy.

This is only a brief passage to be sure, but it does raise a question central to the thesis of Canlis' work: does Calvin give such prominence to participation that adoption and engrafting ought to be understood in the light of it? or is the relationship between these descriptions mutual, oscillating, perichoretic? Calvin may mix his metaphors — "we are children from the fact that we put on Christ" (IV.15.6) because he wants to keep alive, and in dynamic tension, the full range of biblical language related to salvation. Intimacy and distinction seem to be preserved, at least here; not so much by specifying participation by means of adoption and engrafting but rather by keeping both "more than metaphors" in mutual interpreting play. The section on baptism in the Institutes may be particularly reliable in this regard since in his exposition of baptism Calvin is writing in a less polemically charged context.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. God give us more books of this quality and depth in Christian spiritual theology. I will recommend it to my students and include it in my courses on reformation theology.