“Christ is everywhere really means Jesus of Nazareth nowhere.”

December 26, 2014

Farrow-Ascension

I am reading Douglas Farrow’s much-acclaimed study on the doctrine of the Ascension. It is slim pickings when it comes to books on the Ascension. They are few and far between. Since I haven’t finished, I cannot properly give my overall impression, but so far it is a stimulating work. In order to give you a taste, here is an excerpt from early in the book:

The notion of Christ’s universal presence is an exceedingly common one, as we shall see. …What is sacrificed for the sake of this Christus praesens, as Calvin noticed long ago, is his specificity as a particular man. Christ is everywhere really means Jesus of Nazareth nowhere. In the ascension he becomes ἄτοπος [“out of place”] in the most literal sense: he is unnatural, absurd, for he has no place of his own. (Vague talk among modern theologians about ‘a change of state, not of place’ hardly alleviates that difficulty, however effective it may be in turning aside impolite inquiries as to Jesus’ actual whereabouts.) For that reason, and others we will encounter later, we begin to hear of the ‘post-existent’ Christ or about the period after the incarnation. In other words, just when the gospel has taught us to think of salvation in the most concrete terms, as an act of God in the flesh and for the flesh, the story of Jesus is turned against itself. His humanity is betrayed and marginalized after all.

[Ascension and Ecclesia, Eerdmans 1999, pp. 12-13.]

If that doesn’t get you excited, then I don’t know what will. A little later, as you could guess, he critiques theologians like Macquarrie and Bultmann, though (so far) not in a great amount of detail. He also admirably engages with some of the historical-critical conclusions, e.g., those who dismiss the Ascension because Luke is the only Evangelist to mention it, not counting the longer ending to Mark. In the quote above, he is criticizing those theologians who conflate the Ascension with the Resurrection and, thereby, with Christ’s overall glorification and exaltation over all things. It’s an ambitious project, to state the obvious.

I would also like to quote from Oliver O’Donovan, as Farrow does on p. 39 in a footnote:

The incarnation is not simply a mythic portrayal of the fellowship between men and God, nor the ascension of the triumph of the cross. Insofar as these transitions have one foot in our space and time, they are seen there as events — events which, however, have another end to them beyond the historical sequence of which, at this end, they form a part.

[On the Thirty-Nine Articles, Paternoster 1986, p. 36f.]

4 Responses to ““Christ is everywhere really means Jesus of Nazareth nowhere.””

  1. Robert F said

    This is a very complicated matter. Spatial location is not easily defined.

    For instance, does the normal human body occupy a single unit of space? It doesn’t seem so to me. To me, it seems as if the human body is spread across, or through, an indeterminate area of space.

    You might say that the matter/energy that makes up a human body is contiguous across an area of space. But upon close inspection, science shows what seems to be vast chasms of open space between the coalesced matter/energy that make up the physical human body.

    To make matters more complicated, space itself cannot be said to be “empty” except in a relative way. The ancient Buddhist saying in the Heart Sutra, “Form and emptiness are the same, they are not different,” seems to be partially born out by quantum physics when it asserts that without something to fill it, space does not exist. Conversely, neither can something exist without space to exist in. Maybe it could be said that matter generates space to exist in, or that space is a quality of matter that necessarily comes into existence wherever matter does. What is clear is that there is no such thing as absolutely empty space; where there is space, there is something, some matter/energy, however subtle and refined, occupying it.

    When we transpose these complications to the subject of the Incarnation, I think it’s dangerous to assert that we know what location could mean for the glorified spiritual body (which is his human body) of Jesus Christ. Maybe the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus walking through closed doors, and disappearing in an instant from sight, as if into nothing, give us a clue as to just how mysterious and indefinable is the terrain we are dealing with.

    • I think it’s dangerous to assert that we know what location could mean for the glorified spiritual body (which is his human body) of Jesus Christ

      I think that Farrow would agree, but I have not gotten far enough in the book to say. He definitely wants to counter the demythologizers or Gnostics, and others, who too readily substitute the existential or spiritual for the bodily and material. But he has also hinted that it is not simply a matter of spatial relocation, at least not without qualification. What are those qualifications? I do not know. I’ll see.

  2. Joel said

    “He also admirably engages with some of the historical-critical conclusions, e.g., those who dismiss the Ascension because Luke is the only Evangelist to mention it, not counting the longer ending to Mark.”

    Philippians 2 blows up (or at least seriously complicates) so many historical-critical reconstructions of severe early doctrinal drift. As even Bart Ehrman acknowledges to a degree.

    “In what sense is Christ still embodied as a human?” is a tough question I don’t know how to answer though. I’m pretty sure he isn’t floating around in outer space!🙂

    • Indeed. Farrow briefly deals with Phil 2, as part of a larger engagement with the Pauline corpus. He spends a lot of time on Hebrews and especially John’s gospel. Farrow’s point is that Luke is not the only NT author who witnesses to (or presupposes) the bodily Ascension of Christ. He does a fine job dealing with the exegetical material, but it could have been longer. Instead, he moves on to historical theology, where Irenaeus (contra Origen) is his hero.

      I am loving it so far, but his frequent referrals to the Eucharist and “Eucharistic theology” are not well-defined and are, frankly, confusing. So far, it doesn’t add anything to his (otherwise) brilliant thesis.

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