In Douglas Farrow’s account, the developed doctrine of Mary (mariology) is an expression of the church’s displacement of Christ with its own self. That which belonged to Christ was gradually co-opted by the church, with Mary as the more truly human mediator. In medieval and baroque Catholic piety (and still today), Mary often acquires the mediatorial role as the human means to God/Christ. For Farrow, this is a consequence of a defective theology of the ascended humanity of Jesus Christ, which safeguards the church from deifying itself in response to the absence of Christ.

Farrow spends considerable energy tracing how Irenaeus’ theology, wherein Jesus’ time is not collapsed into creaturely time, was betrayed by mystical, Platonist, Gnostic influences, especially beginning with Origen. With Schleiermacher, he discerns a similar faulty understanding of Christ and especially the events of resurrection, ascension, and parousia. This results in a faulty ecclesiology, where the church is the continuation of the incarnation of the Son. Here is part of Farrow’s account:

On Schleiermacher’s view doctrines such as the resurrection, ascension, and parousia do not speak of things that happened to Jesus, but of things that happen in us; that is, they articulate in various ways our recognition of his ‘peculiar dignity’ and our longing to be united with him in his perfect God-consciousness. Internalizing these doctrines was not a new thing, of course, but for the first time we encounter from within systematic theology the really quite astonishing contention that the Easter events and the parousia ‘cannot be laid down as properly constituent parts of the doctrine of his person.’ That is, they have no organic connection with belief in the redeemer qua redeemer. So far from being ‘one of the chief points of our faith,’ then, as Calvin thought, the ascension ‘is not directly a doctrine of faith’ at all! From one perspective it is merely ‘an accidental form’ for effecting Christ’s heavenly session. [footnote: See CF § 99, cf. 29.3, 158.1]

The immediate impact on the Where? question was to collapse the spatial distance on which Calvin had insisted into something radically Lutheran, that is, to render it in strictly existential terms. [footnote: By describing our relationship with Jesus as a ‘mystical’ one, Schleiermacher (§ 100) moves the whole issue of distance and nearness back into Lutheran territory, so to speak. In effect, it becomes an hamartiological question, related to the waxing and waning of the God-consciousness.] But at the same time it opened up the temporal dimension to Christ’s absence which the reformers had largely ignored. Jesus’ contemporaneity could no longer be taken for granted. For the new christology to work, a bridge between past and present was required, rather than a bridge between heaven and earth. Schleiermacher set out to build it, spanning Lessing’s ‘great ugly ditch’ with an attractive Romanesque structure: In the society of his followers Jesus’ unique God-consciousness (which is also his true self-consciousness) has survived and indeed widened with the advance of history; his personality and spiritual activity have been prolonged in the common life of the church. Here was Protestantism’s own mariological turn, modestly performed yet even more decisively. The church itself was now the τόπος [“place”] of Jesus, the only possible answer to the Where? question.

[footnote: Schleiermacher’s construct allows us to speak of an ongoing incarnation that passes from Jesus to the church: ‘And so, since the Divine Essence was bound up with the human person of Christ, but is now (his directly personal influence having ceased) no longer personally involved in any individual, but henceforward manifests itself actively in the fellowship of believers as their common spirit, this is just the way in which the work of redemption is continued and extended in the Church’ (§ 124.2; cf. 122.3).]

[Ascension and Ecclesia, Eerdmans 1999, pp. 181-182]

When Farrow gets to Kierkegaard and Barth, he is obviously happy that they broke with a speculative logos asarkos, and related matters. In his treatment of Irenaeus and Origen, earlier in the book, Farrow had identified Origen’s logos asarkos as a big part of the problem, in contrast to Irenaeus’ consistent identification of the Word with Jesus. Yet, Farrow is not happy with Barth’s identification of eternity with time, reconciliation with revelation, act with being, Christ with creation, just to name a few! This is an enormously complicated part of the book, spanning twenty-five very dense pages (pp. 229-254) in an already very dense book. I won’t even attempt to summarize. He ends with T. F. Torrance, who emerges as (finally!) the one who comes closest to getting back to Irenaeus (and the Bible). Farrow interprets Torrance as, for the most part, correcting Barth’s speculative pitfalls while maintaining all that is good and proper in Barth, which Farrow recognizes is enormous.

He concludes:

The answer we have been advocating is a disturbing one. It is not disturbing because, in maintaining that Jesus has gone in the flesh to the Father, it refuses to admit that ‘we do not know what has happened to him.’ On the contrary, it is disturbing because it states quite categorically that we do not know; that we cannot place him, spatially or temporally or materially or spiritually, with respect to ourselves; that he is not above us or ahead of us or alongside us or within us, even if each of these metaphors has something helpful to say about his actual relation to us. It is disturbing because it challenges the assumption that to talk about a human being who cannot be so placed is meaningless, and because it implies that every attempt to define him as something other than a human being is really an act of violence designed to force him to yield his meaning on our terms. It is disturbing because it challenges our entire frame of reference, physical and metaphysical, by allowing one particular man to stand over against us as a question mark against our very existence.

[pp. 267-268]

Ascension and Ecclesia was published in 1999. More recently, he published a follow-up volume, Ascension Theology, in 2011. From the reviews that I’ve read, it is partly a concise presentation of the larger, prior book, but it is also a reframing in terms of his newfound Catholicism. He converted to Roman Catholicism halfway between writing the two volumes. I am curious how he understands mariology now.


Image: Friedrich Schleiermacher (source)


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.]