Review of Douglas Farrow’s Ascension Theology

Farrow Ascension Theology“I’ve been reading Farrow on the ascension.”

“Which Farrow? Protestant or Catholic?”

“Catholic.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.”

I know, I know, this is supposed to be a book review. But I’ve had enough conversations like the one above to get the sense that Douglas Farrow, despite his highly regarded Ascension and Ecclesia (T&T Clark, 1999), has been declared persona non grata by some—to the extent that his more recent volume, Ascension Theology (T&T Clark, 2011), merits little or no attention—simply because between the writing of the two volumes he set out on the road to Rome. So before engaging its particular ups and downs, I have to state that I, a Protestant with no intention of following in Farrow’s Petrine footsteps, found Ascension Theology to be one of the best books I have ever read.

Jesus Christ ascended bodily to the Father following his resurrection. The crucial term, of course, is bodily; outliers from Origen to Hegel to Bultmann have tried to see it otherwise, but Scripture and tradition are clear: with God dwells resurrected human flesh . Not ascension of mind alone, where at death we leave the tainted physical realm and our spiritual selves move upward to a higher plane, or where throughout life we experience a mystical—that is, non-bodily—progression, in order to reach some kind of enlightened state. This is Gnosticism, says Farrow, whose originators at least understood (as we need to understand today!) the necessary connection between the value of one’s own physical existence and the ongoing bodily existence of Christ.

Having established that ascension must be bodily, Farrow moves to the Eucharist. What has the Eucharist to do with the Ascension? Much in every way! To begin, it is through the Eucharist that Christ (who is bodily present with the Father in heaven) continues to be present with his church on earth. [This, of course, is where Protestants fear to tread; for Farrow, he who denies transubstantiation “denies the reality of the church on earth” (80). The basis for this claim is that the church must really partake of Christ’s physical new creation body in order to be itself a harbinger of the new creation to come.]

Perhaps more crucial to Farrow’s broader argument, though, is the fact that participation in the sacrament is participation in new creation. How so? Insofar as Christ’s humanity—his body and blood—has been transformed in resurrection into eschatological humanity, new creation humanity, our partaking of that body and blood is proleptic engagement with new creation. The upshot of this is that the sacrament is not mere memorial, but eschatological anticipation: it is the church’s claim that all things will be made new after the manner of the risen, ascended, Christ. But Farrow also notes that eschatological acts are necessarily political acts as well. The Eucharist is therefore a political declaration that despite the best efforts of the “man of lawlessness” of whom Paul speaks, the king has already been crowned and will return to make good his claim to the throne.

Farrow thus moves from Eucharist and eschatology to atonement. Atonement is necessarily the narrative framework within which bodily ascension must be viewed, for it tells the story of what that ascension accomplished as well as what remains to be done. First, the ascension of Christ is the coming together of humanity and the Father—the human Jesus enters the presence of God and remains there. Second, it is the return of humanity to its rightful place of authority over the created realm. Third, Jesus’ self-offering purifies heaven itself (cf. Heb 9:22) and thereby inaugurates the new creation—what earth must one day be, heaven has now become. Fourth, Christ’s ascent anticipates (as was mentioned in the previous paragraph) one final descent, at which time all creation will be made new and the unity between God and man begun at the ascension will be fully realized.

In the preceding paragraphs, I have tried to sketch in brief Farrow’s main points. This is the type of book that those of us who like to underline or highlight as we read end up marking nearly every sentence (and thereby defeating the purpose!); I have undoubtedly missed some things and failed to spell out his argument in sufficient detail. It is a densely packed volume, weighing in at a mere 156 pages [alongside a more weighty $85 on Amazon], but one that is very readable for a learned audience. That is, the style is clear and simple, though the content is fairly technical, and Farrow does not explain himself in full at every point, leaving the typical scholarly recourse to extended footnotes for another day.

For my money, the connection between ascension, eucharist, and new creation is the most important part of Farrow’s argument. In his words: “the eucharist is left behind as a witness to the world of what actually happens in the ascension, namely, that the entire cosmos is fundamentally reordered to God in Christ” (65). To flesh this out a little more: Christ enters heaven as the resurrected first fruits of the new creation. As a consequence, he is given the authority in heaven which humanity ought to have (and will some day have) over the created realm.

It do not think it necessary, however, that we hold to transubstantiation for this equation to work. For Farrow, Christ must be physically available at the table or else the connection between eucharist and new creation is sundered. But the eucharist can certainly be a celebration of Christ’s ongoing bodily existence without also being a participation in that existence. There are many kinds of presence, and to deny that Christ is physically present in the elements is hardly to deny that he has a physical existence elsewhere. Quite the opposite, in fact: a Skype conversation (wherein the other person is digitally present) assumes necessarily that the other person is a real, embodied human being whose physical presence is not immediately available.

I see no reason why a “lower” view of the sacrament (whether “spiritual presence” or “memorialist”) may not appropriate Farrow’s connection between ascension, eucharist, and new creation. The physical bread and wine remind us that Christ’s physical death and physical return (thus we “remember the Lord’s death until he comes” [1 Cor 11:26]—this is the eschatological piece Farrow claims is missing from the Protestant sacrament) necessarily imply a physical, new creation status of Christ in the meantime. Perhaps we ought to add to our celebrations of the table the reminder that Christ’s bodily existence, of which the physical elements remind us, did not end at the cross but continues today as Christ physically (in a resurrected/new creation body) ascended to heaven from whence we await his return. This invites us—nay, requires us—as his body (which is enlivened by his Spirit) to be conformed to his new creation likeness. Thus we have ascension, new creation, and eucharist held together without transubstantiation.

I also found the final chapter, on ascension and atonement, to be tremendously helpful. Adam Johnson of Talbot Seminary remarked at the opening of a paper delivered at ETS (Milwaukee, 2012) that he was interested in anything that made the doctrine of the atonement bigger and more glorious—if you like that sentiment, you will like this chapter! Farrow articulates how Christ’s atoning work carries beyond the cross into the tomb, up from the grave, and into heaven itself (though he does not suggest [one thinks of Faustus Socinus] that the cross is any less important for it!). But more importantly, atonement does not stop there—if the atonement ended in heaven, this would gnosticism in yet another disguise. No, it must leave heaven (having made new that element of creation) and return to earth in order to complete the work. Thus Farrow emphasizes the ascension without unduly making it the cornerstone of the whole dogmatic structure. The ascension is crucial, but the parousia is the true climax of the story. And yet the parousia is not the end, either, for the (again combating gnostic tendencies) physical new creation marks the “beginning of the kingdom that shall have no end” (156).

[caveat: if you want to see a fascinating intersection of thinking between this Catholic theologian and a Baptist New Testament scholar, read Farrow alongside David Moffitt’s Atonement and the Logic of the Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Brill, 2011). Not a single overlapping source, and the methods employed in each could not be more different, and yet they come to startlingly similar conclusions about Christ’s resurrected humanity in heaven.]

In all, as I said above—a phenomenal book. Thanks to T&T Clark for the review copy.

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About Mike Kibbe

I am a recent graduate of the PhD (NT) program at Wheaton College, having completed my dissertation on the Sinai theophanies in relation to their use in Hebrews 12. I have been married to Annie (Kerns) for 7 years, and we have one son, Sean, who was born February 2012. I currently teach undergraduate New Testament courses at Wheaton.
Aside | This entry was posted in Biblical Theology, Book reviews, Hermeneutics, New Testament, Sacraments, Systematic Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Review of Douglas Farrow’s Ascension Theology

  1. Stephanie Lowery says:

    Mike,

    Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t aware of the “which Farrow” discussion. I have read Farrow’s “Ascension and Ecclesia,” which was well done and thought-provoking, so it sounds like I need to read more Farrow, particularly “Ascension Theology.” Thanks for bringing this onto my radar.

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