Foundations: No.81 Autumn 2021

The End is Not the Beginning… In Fact, Not Even the End


The relation between Christianity and Platonism has always been a controversial topic – even since the second century. For a variety of reasons, Plato’s school was a more obvious conversation partner than any of the others of the Hellenistic age. Nevertheless, the differences were just as stark. Like many ancient Mediterranean and Eastern cultures, time moves in a circle: The end is like the beginning. But in Israel, especially evident in the Hebrew prophets, the circle is broken out into a line of promise and fulfillment. The end therefore cannot be like the beginning, but is something completely new. The goal is not a return to a pristine beginning (“Paradise Restored”), but something “no eye has seen nor ear heard” (1 Cor 2:9). Even in the hearts of Christians today these two eschatologies intermingle, vying for control. That conflict is the interest of this paper.

A few centuries before Socrates, a strange doctrine entered the Hellenic bloodstream via a ribald Thracian cult that celebrated death. Known far and wide for their courage on the battlefield, Thracians embraced a myth attributed to Orpheus, said by some to have been the founder of all mystery religions, in which the body is considered a tomb or prison. A. H. Armstrong summarises well the core of the Orphic myth:

The divine in us is an actual being, a daimon or spirit, which has fallen as a result of some primeval sin and is entrapped in a series of earthly bodies, which may be animal and plant as well as human. It can escape from the “sorrowful weary wheel”, the cycle of reincarnation, by following the Orphic way of life, which involved, besides rituals and incantations, an absolute prohibition of eating flesh.[1]

The inmost part of the self – soul, spirit or mind – is buried in this fleshly tomb, reincarnated many times, until it regrows its wings and can return to the divine All of which it is a part. Thus, the end is like the beginning, as the soul returns precisely to its Origin, like a drop of water absorbed into the sea.[2] Nothing like this had been taught in Athens until Orphism arrived. It has been called “a drop of alien blood in the veins of the Greeks”.[3] Pythagoras was not only the spiritual father of Socrates and Plato, but he was also an Orphic priest who sought to reform the cult into a more esoteric and allegorical philosophy. From there, as they say, the rest is history. “Plato paraphrases Orpheus everywhere”, said Olympiodorus.[4] The Homeric myth of Odysseus’ voyages and return to his homeland became an allegory of the soul.

I dare to suggest that this is the primary myth assumed by most westerners still today, and even many Christians, even if contrary doctrines are laid on top of it. Philo, at the time of Christ, tried to graft the Hebrew scriptures onto the Orphic vine. Yet, while Hellenistic influences were present in Second Temple Judaism, the whole stream of biblical apocalyptic, especially the prophets, pushed against this current. Jewish sensibilities have always stood at odds with Greek, despite Philo’s best attempts to make the marriage work. Even the atheistic Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas could still say in the twentieth century, “To the myth of Ulysses [Odysseus] returning to Ithaca, we wish to oppose the story of Abraham who leaves his fatherland forever for a yet unknown land and forbids his servant to even bring back his son to the point of departure.”[5] Disagreeing over the central character, Christianity nevertheless inherits this horizontal plot-line of redemption anchored in the Abrahamic promise.

When Christianity met the Greco-Roman world, it was the Orphic myth and its doctrines that formed the principal antithesis. In a way, this was because Platonism was more congenial than other philosophies. Platonism taught that the supreme principle, the Good (also called the One) is “beyond being”, transcendent: immutable, impassible and simple spirit. Although it shared with all Greek schools the belief that the world is eternal, Platonism held that the Demiurge (or Logos) formed everything into a designed cosmos and that the soul could exist apart from the body. Stoics were fatalistic pantheists and Epicureans denied any involvement of the gods in creation or providence. So it made sense that Platonism would be the school most likely to be engaged by Christian apologists.

This engagement led sometimes to a frank dismissal of philosophy, especially Platonism, as the mother of all heresies. The second-century Christian writer Tertullian is particularly famous for this view. Like Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, Tertullian regarded the Gnostic heresy as Platonism on steroids. Another second-century pastor, Irenaeus, sounded the alarm against the Gnostic threat in his Against Heresies, opposing to it a full account of the unity of Scripture, Old and New Testaments, around Christ’s person and work. But in Alexandria, Clement and Origen took a different tack. Opposing Gnosticism, they nevertheless called themselves the true Gnostics and set about to advance a Christian philosophy that could appeal to the cultured despisers of the faith.

I begin this paper, first, by comparing and contrasting the eschatologies of Irenaeus and Origen. Second, I focus more specifically on the ascension. Finally, from these contrasts I draw some conclusions about the significance of the ascension for our own reflection on the relation between the “already” and the “not-yet” of the salvation won for us in Jesus Christ.

I. The Beginning and the End

Origen of Alexandria (c. 184-253) played an immense role in conveying Orphic hermeneutics, doctrines and spirituality to a major and enduring stream of Christianity. Since his own time, Origen has aroused widely divergent appraisals, including official condemnations in the ancient Christian East. Origen was not setting out to assimilate Christianity to Platonism; he was reared by a father who steeped him in the Scriptures and was martyred for his faith. But Origen was also a philosopher who had studied under Ammonius Saccas, the teacher also of Plotinus and therefore the true father of Neoplatonism. Philosophy – in particular, the Orphic core of Platonism – is the ultimate meaning of Scripture, which the literal sense merely clothes for the lowly “many” – i.e., the Christian faithful. Writing a half-century earlier, Irenaeus stands out in rather bold relief to Origen. Comparing Irenaean and Origenist trajectories invites reductionism, but it indicates genuine cleavages among ancient Christian thinkers that had ongoing influences on Christian theology. Irenaeus and Origen represent different trends that we may characterise as distinctively Christian and traditionally Orphic. Origen himself drew the contrast and Irenaeus is an arch-defender of what Origen calls the temporal gospel, the preaching of “the many”.

A number of Origen’s doctrines germane to his eschatology cannot be considered here, but will only be mentioned briefly. Foremost, Origen assumed the trichotomist division of humanity into body, soul and spirit, which also determined his cosmology (three levels of reality) and hermeneutics (literal, moral and allegorical or spiritual interpretation).[6] So, for example, there is a simple message taught to “the many” (viz., “Christ crucified and raised”) and a higher meaning for the advanced (viz., a spiritual resurrection). He referred to these as “two gospels”: the temporal versus the eternal gospel. “There is not one gospel, but two: the temporal gospel for the simple, which treats of Christ’s work in the flesh; and the eternal gospel, for the wise, which treats of his invisible heavenly glory.”[7] While Irenaeus was busy trying to show Gnostics a single biblical plot, from Genesis to Revelation, each piece of scripture contributing a piece in “the mosaic of Christ”, Origen was fascinated with the world before this one. Pagan thought imagined an eternal circle governed by emanation and return, a falling away from the Sun of being and the re-ascent of these rays back to their origin. Irenaeus realised – against the Gnostics – that this eternal cycle of descent and return had been broken out into a temporal line of promise and fulfillment. Although Origen was not a Gnostic, he shared the Orphic horizon of fellow-Platonists. “For the end is always like the beginning…” he said.[8] In fact, as sympathetic an Origen specialist as Henri Crouzel notes, “One principle dominates Origen’s cosmology: the end is like the beginning.”[9]Origen follows Plato’s own stated goal for philosophy in the Phaedrus: “What we must understand is the reason why the soul’s wings fall from it, and are lost” (246A-247C). According to Origen’s version, the hierarchy that we observe in the cosmos and among human beings originates with a rebellion of rational souls prior to this world, meriting different levels of being.[10] “And when they reach the neighborhood of the earth” Origen writes, “they are enclosed in grosser bodies, and last of all are tied to human flesh.”[11] Falling by their free will, these incarcerated spirits may ascend by their free will and merit higher stations; this world was created as a reform school for winning back our wings. Our lives here and now serve as an opportunity to win back our wings and re-ascend by moral effort and contemplation. There was only one soul that remained fastened in its contemplative gaze upon the One, the soul of Jesus. In fact, his soul was so ardent that it became practically fused with the Logos, like a lump of iron in a red-hot fire. This Logos-infused soul descended willingly to teach us how to win back our wings. This cyclical view is opposed to the traditional Christian interpretation of history as broken out into a line from promise to fulfillment. In this respect, Origen is anchored in the theosophy of Alexandrian Platonism. Andrew Louth writes, “As souls, they dwell in bodies which, as it were, arrest their fall and provide them with the opportunity to ascend again to contemplation of God by working themselves free from their bodies and becoming minds, noes, again.”[12]

God’s clothing of the fallen couple in animal skins to clothe their nakedness (Gen 3:21) also has “a certain secret and mysterious meaning” (CCels. 4.40). The “animal skins” are actually human bodies, an interpretation adopted by Philo (Q&A in Gen.), the Hermeticists (CH X.18) and Gnostics (GPhil 66,16-20; GThom Logion 37; related also by Irenaeus, AH 1.5.5, Clement, Exc. 55.1 and Hippolytus, Haer. 10.13.4).[13] “Tunics of skin” as a trope for human bodies was a common phrase used in Hellenistic Jewish texts.[14] E. R. Dodds explains, “The word kitôn [garment] seems to have been originally an Orphic-Pythagorean term for the fleshly body”, found for example in Empedocles (fragm. 126 Diels) and Plato (Gorg. 523C). “The clean linen tunic of the Orphic votary perhaps symbolized the purity of his ‘garment of flesh’.”[15] It is this mortal coil – the “garments of flesh” – not of animals (to cover their nakedness), but human flesh, that will be sloughed off upon death. The true resurrection is spiritual, not physical.

Origen also accepted Philo’s belief that Genesis 1 and 2 represent two creations: the archetypal “spiritual Adam” followed by the ectypal “physical Adam”. Something like Philo’s teaching, I believe, is behind Paul’s rather polemical point in 1 Corinthians 15 that the first Adam was physical, not spiritual. Christ is the “spiritual” Adam – which is to say, the eschatological life-giver. In any case, the idea that the “animal skins” of Gen 3:21 are human bodies rather than actual animal skins places Origen on the Platonist rather than Judaic-Christian side of interpretation. A host of Christian writers, especially veterans of the wars with the Gnostics, such as Hippolytus, condemned this interpretation as pagan rather than Christian.

The main difference between Origen and Irenaeus is that they read the Bible differently. Reacting against Gnostic allegorising, Irenaeus’ hermeneutic is governed by (1) an ordinary-sense interpretation; (2) christocentric integration of all Scripture – a “mosaic” or “symphony” directing us to Christ; (3) a “presbyterial reading” – that is, eschewing idiosyncratic conclusions; instead, interpreting within the church and guided by its pastors and elders. After carefully summarising Gnostic exploitation of John’s Prologue as a myth of the Aeons, Irenaeus concludes that “it simply does not fit with the text”.[16] There is no higher hermeneutic of philosophical religion by which the ordinary sense of the text can be judged. Jesus indeed taught parables, Irenaeus acknowledges, but he explained them and did not give us licence to interpret historical narratives parabolically.[17] Parables should be interpreted in the light of clearer statements in Scripture, so that “the parables will receive a similar interpretation from all, and the body of truth remain complete, structured harmoniously, and unshaken” (2.27.1).[18]

The ecclesial reading of Scripture with Christ as the unifying center begins already with the apostles themselves, who interpreted the Old Testament as being fulfilled in Christ. While Gnostics gain credit for their myths by taking biblical expressions out of context and allegorising them, Irenaeus announces that in the fifth book he will draw up “the rest of the words of the Lord, which he taught concerning the Father not by parable but by expressions taken in their obvious meaning, and the exposition of the epistles of the blessed apostle” (4.41.4).[19] Not only now, but in eternity, we will still be learning the truth (2.28.3). So we must ignore speculative questions, such as what God was doing before he created the world (2.28.3).[20] Irenaeus rejects the Gnostic interpretation of the animal skins in Gen 3:21 as fleshly bodies. Rather, Adam sewed fig leaves in repentant acknowledgment of his transgression: “Inasmuch as, he says, I have by disobedience lost that robe of sanctity which I had from the Spirit, I do now also acknowledge that I am deserving of a covering of this nature, which affords no gratification, but which gnaws and frets the body. And he would no doubt have retained this clothing for ever, thus humbling himself, if God, who is merciful, had not clothed them with tunics of skins instead of fig-leaves” (3.2.3).

For Origen, the Orphic horizon was predominant and Christian teaching was accommodated to it. The soul that will “climb to the heights of heaven shall no longer be a man, but according to his word, will be ‘like an angel of God’” or perhaps divine; but in either case, “he shall certainly no longer be a man”.[21] For Irenaeus, however, “The glory of God is man fully alive”.[22] This could only happen because the eternal Son, equal to the Father, descended in flesh to save that same humanity in which he was born, lived, died, was raised and ascended. Jesus Christ – God incarnate – raises us from mortality, not humanity; from enmity with God, not from physicality. The bodily resurrection of Jesus, Irenaeus claims, is the great watershed in human history. The Jesus who sits at the Father’s right hand interceding for his people did not leave his flesh behind, and in him our humanity is not left behind, but redeemed and glorified. “For by the hands of the Father, that is, by the Son and the Holy Spirit, man, and not [merely] part of man, was made in the likeness of God.” To strip away his flesh would be to save not the man but merely a part of man (5.6.1).

The whole direction of divine-human interaction is different. For Irenaeus, the gospel is God’s descent in the flesh to save the whole body-soul person and for Origen the eternal gospel is our ascent of mind to take the station we have merited. The eternal Son was sent by the Father, says Irenaeus, to be “united to his workmanship… so that what we had lost in Adam – namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God – that we might recover in Christ Jesus.”[23] Regarding the ascension of Jesus, Origen taught, “If we understand the ascent of the Son to the Father with holy insight and in a way suitable to God, we shall realize it is the ascent of mind rather than the body.”[24] However, Irenaeus had emphasised that Christ did bodily “ascend to the height above, offering and commending to His Father that human nature which had been found, making in His own person the first-fruits of the resurrection of man.”[25] Origen interprets passages like Romans 8 as the escape from embodiment, contrary to the ordinary sense of the text, which speaks of the restoration of all creation. While for Origen “the restoration of all things” (Ac 3:21) includes only spirits, with this world being annihilated, Irenaeus says against the Gnostics, “neither is the substance nor the essence of the creation annihilated (for faithful and true is He who established it)”.[26] Origen considered the apokatastasis as a uniting of all spirits in the Logos who is no longer human. In contrast, Irenaeus, drawing on Romans 5 and other passages, describes recapitulation in historical (horizontal) and covenantal terms, as being united to Adam as head in a “first covenant”, which was a “covenant of law”, distinguished from being united to Christ as head in “the gospel covenant”.[27] He focuses on the economy as it was revealed historically in Scripture.

For Irenaeus, everything in salvation turns on the activity of the three divine persons in this economy rather than in the believer’s ascent to God.[28] We do not rise up, as quasi-divine spirits returning to the One; rather, the Holy Spirit lifts us up into the eschatological life of the embodied Son. “Oscillating between exclusion and fusion”, Julie Canlis observes, “Gnostic anthropology can best be seen as schizophrenic. In neither scenario can the human as human participate in God as God.” However, “For Irenaeus, the secret was not ‘a casting away of the flesh, but by the imparting of the Spirit.’”[29] Douglas Farrow notes that for Irenaeus “deification is hominization through the commending of the whole man, body and soul, to the Spirit, as the eternal inheritance of God in Jesus Christ”.[30]

On Origen’s Neoplatonic map, souls become spirits and therefore divine. Our spirits become “something of the divine nature”. This was Athanasius’ view at first, but he rejected it during the Nicene council. In fact, Athanasius insists that we will be deified only in the Son, “without losing our own proper substance”.[31] It is the same point that Irenaeus made above: “neither is the substance nor the essence of the creation annihilated”.[32] The Son “became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself”, says Irenaeus.[33] A little further, he stipulates that this consummate union “will render us like unto Him… the image and likeness of God”.[34] Among the post-Nicene theologians, deification consists of immortality, pertaining to body and soul; restoration of the image of God and confirmation in holiness and righteousness; adoption, and the vision of God.[35]

The contrast between Irenaeus and Origen may also be seen in their view of the church and its ministry. Origen was a churchman. Indeed, we may even say that Origen has a high ecclesiology, to the point of assimilating Christ’s natural body to the church. And yet, his ecclesiology – like his cosmology, Christology and soteriology – is so high that it seems not to touch the earth. It divides sharply into earthly and heavenly, not unlike the higher and lower churches asserted by Gnostics. In addition, it is more individualistic. The Song of Songs was interpreted by many, including Irenaeus’ student Hippolytus, as prefiguring Christ’s relationship to the church.[36] However, Origen sees it as an allegory of the individual soul’s union with God. He applies the three stages common in Neoplatonism: After being purified from everything visible and associated with the body and its passions, the intellect achieves illumination and finally union with God.[37] And union with Christ is the goal, not the basis, of the search.[38]

The tripartite anthropology reaches into his ecclesiology with the division between “the many” or “simple believers” (pistikoi), the “soulish” (psychikoi), and the “spiritual” (pneumatikoi), correlated with historical, moral and allegorical senses of Scripture.[39] This would have to lead to an elitist view of the spiritual prophet-philosopher like Origen himself as superior to the average minister of the “temporal gospel”. While he participates in the regular ministry of the church when called upon, Origen is clearly dissatisfied with “the multitude”, “the many who cling to Christ according to the flesh”, never wanting to ascend beyond the “literal gospel”. The institutional church is different from the true church led by the real heirs of the prophets and apostles who are called directly by the Spirit, among whom Origen considered himself.[40] The spiritual gospel is for the individual athlete, like Plotinus’ (and Numenius’) “flight of the alone to the Alone”.

External preaching and sacraments are contrasted with the inner word.[41] Origen says that “an eternal gospel (Rev 14:6), which would properly be called a spiritual gospel”, offers symbols to those who already see God “face to face”. While there is scriptural justification for a distinction between sign and reality (Rom 2:29), Origen’s ontological dualism presses beyond this distinction to a division. “The Spirit” and “the letter” in 2 Cor 3 become assimilated to these categories of outward and inward, which are all assimilated to body and spirit. Origen says that baptism “is not corporeal, since the Holy Spirit fills the one who repents, and a more divine fire removes everything material, and utterly destroys everything earthly, not only from the one who contains it but also from the one who hears those who possess it”.[42] Like John the Baptizer, Origen is particularly vexed by those who come to water but without repentance.[43] Yet his dualistic ontology governs his counsel. The miracles of Jesus and the apostles were “symbols” of a spiritual, inward healing. “In the same way also, the washing through the water”, he says, “is a symbol of the soul’s purification…” However, the true “bath of rebirth” takes place “above the water, since it is from God, but it does not appear in everyone after the water”.[44] The waters above and the waters below must be not only distinguished but divided, just as the Christ of spirit is higher than the Jesus of the flesh.

Origen also interprets the Eucharist in a higher, spiritual manner. Edwards notes, “nowhere does Origen say that the commandment to eat Christ’s flesh can be obeyed by our attendance at the Eucharist”.[45] Bread is “the ethical teachings” [mathêmata] that sustain life, “but the esoteric and mystical doctrines [theôrêmata] come from the ‘true vine’ and are called ‘wine’ because they cheer and produce ecstasy…”[46] In fact, where the Passover was regarded by the wider church as fulfilled in Christ’s passion, whose benefits are received in the Eucharist, Origen says nothing about this sacrament in his Treatise on the Passover. Even as sympathetic an interpreter of Origen as Robert Daly concludes,

It would also be a somewhat anachronistic application of a later theology to an earlier figure. Nevertheless, the very fact that Origen, so skilled at bringing in ideas and insights from any and all sources, did not make even one obvious allusion to the sacramental Eucharist in this whole section, suggests at least that this doctrine did not hold a strong place in his imagination and consciousness, or at least that he did not feel constrained to emphasize it on every possible occasion.[47]

If we were to compare Origen to his Neoplatonic counterparts, we might conclude that he stands with Plotinus’ contemplative ascent over against Iamblichean theurgy, including the emphasis of the former on merit and of the latter on grace. All of these distinctive elements of Origen’s view of the church, preaching and the sacraments contrast with Irenaeus’ interpretation. In fact, against the Gnostics, Irenaeus draws a correlation between affirming a literal incarnation of the Son and the union of the bread and wine in the Eucharist to Christ’s body and blood (AH 5.2).

Origen’s eschatology gives us the picture of souls as lumps of coal placed in the fire of the Logos, in red-hot contemplation of the Father. By contrast, Irenaeus directs our hope to the wedding feast with the redeemed enjoying everlasting blessedness in a new creation. For Irenaeus, there is no “spiritual gospel” or higher allegorical meaning beyond “Christ and him crucified” and there are no spiritual saints who are higher than ordinary believers. There is no higher sacrament of the Eucharist than the one that occurs by feeding on Christ through eating the consecrated bread and wine, even though the ultimate reality in which it participates will be far greater still. It is hard to resist the judgment of Vladimir Lossky that Origenism is “Platonic intellectualism and spiritualism alien to the spirit of the gospel”.[48] As it stands, Irenaeus’ description of the Gnostic’s idea of salvation is indistinguishable from the position that Origen endorses repeatedly throughout his writings: “This, then, is the true redemption… that their inner man may ascend on high in an invisible manner, as if their body were left among created things, while their soul is sent forward to the Demiurge.”[49]

   Behr concludes, “Irenaeus is, of course, the most important theologian in the articulation of Christian orthodoxy to his time, and, arguably, thereafter.” Marcion broke away. So did the Valentinians, after trying unsuccessfully to turn “psychic” Christians into “pneumatic” gnostikoi. It was they who condemned the orthodox believers as of a lower nature and condemned the church for refusing salvific knowledge.[50]

Yet, for all his importance as an architect of “orthodoxy” and an expositor or exegete of the divine economy, Irenaeus is par excellence the theologian of the flesh. His theological vision is “incarnational” through and through. While much modern theology wants to emphasise the “incarnational” dimension of Christianity, to underscore the fact that the body and material reality are good, its focus on human beings as “persons” betrays something of an uneasiness about the body, as something the “person” has rather than is. For Irenaeus, on the other hand, the human being is essentially and profoundly skillfully fashioned mud: the flesh is the handiwork of God, fashioned in a hands-on manner by Christ and the Spirit, the Hands of God, leading it from animation by a breath of life to vivification by the Spirit directly, transfiguring the flesh “inside out” (haer. 4.39.2), to be a living human being, “the glory of God” (haer. 4.20.7).[51]

This is different from the usual view of the use of the term “incarnational” in contemporary theology. “The assumption of the flesh by the Word is less a reduction of the Word to the level of flesh than it is the raising of the flesh to the level of the Word.”[52] Origen was not a Gnostic, but he could never be called “a theologian of the flesh”. In the Origenist stream, the end is always like the beginning: a return to the origin. For Irenaeus, the end could never be like the beginning. Adam forfeited the crown of immortality and glory, but the Last Adam has won it for us, entering the true sanctuary as the pioneer of our glorification. Awaiting us therefore is something “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).

Origen’s legacy gave powerful impetus to the monastic movements and inspired formative theologians who rejected his heretical views but appreciated his spirituality of ascent. A philosophical stream flows from Pseudo-Dionysius to Eriugena, Eckhart, radical mystics, Anabaptists and pietists, Romantic philosophers and many critical theologians and biblical scholars to the present day. Yet the Irenaean stream continues to course vigorously in the proclamation, theology and spirituality of various ecclesial traditions. It would be more accurate historically to say that these rivers flow in and out of each other in ongoing interactions between Christ and Gnosis.

II. The Ascension

Most discussions of Origen in relation to the teaching of “the many” focus on the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. There is plenty to compare and contrast on these points. If we had the space here, I would draw attention to a host of passages where Origen allegorises all of these events. Again, he does not outright deny the literal interpretation, but he says that this is only true symbolically, at the level that “the many” can understand. The ultimate truth is not just higher than the “temporal gospel”, but totally contradicts it. No more than the myth of Er at the end of the Republic does Origen believe that after the resurrection Jesus’ body was the same (though in a different condition) as the body that nursed at Mary’s breast and was crucified. Nevertheless, I wish to focus on the ascension.

Why the ascension? Because even when we still today affirm that Christ rose again in the flesh, there is a tendency to imagine that he left his humanity behind. Of course, if the head of the church is less than human, then that is the destiny too of his members. “Will there be hairdressers in heaven?” We might expect this rhetorical question from philosophers like Celsus, but actually it is pressed by Origen in opposition to a literal resurrection (OFP 2.3, 2.10, 3.6, 4.4). Origen would acknowledge that Jesus ate fish after the resurrection. In his diatribe against Christians, the Platonist philosopher Celsus said that “the great church” never tires of pointing out this episode to show the earthiness of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. In engaging Celsus, Origen seems hardly more disposed to the argument. But whatever the nature of Jesus’ resurrected body, the ultimate question is: With what body did he leave this earth, entering the Holy of Holies above, to take his place at the Father’s right hand?

At Christ’s ascension, the angels said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). What does “in the same way” mean? An ordinary interpretation is that whatever the change in condition – namely, the glorification of Jesus in body as well as soul, Jesus’ present intercession and future return are in the flesh. He will not return as an omnipresent spirit, but as the same person who he has always been since he became incarnate in the womb of a Jewish virgin.

A higher (i.e., Orphic) interpretation of “the ascent of the Son to the Father”, says Origen, recognises it as “the ascent of mind rather than the body”.[53] If one were to have heard Origen preach an average sermon to the many, it may well have included references to “Christ crucified” and raised, even ascended. He would even have spoken of the final judgment. However, all of this would have been nothing more than a moral goad to the fleshly or soulish believers who cannot yet rise to the spiritual understanding. Mark Scott suggests, boldly but correctly, that for Origen “a fleshly resurrection” is more likely to encourage people to lead better lives. “Origen allows these misconceptions only insofar as they promote virtuous living. Intellectually, however, they have no merit. The truth about the resurrection body is much deeper.” The literal meaning may be used to encourage virtue among the multitude, but the higher truth is veiled, says Origen, in a “secret and hidden meaning” (OFP 2.2.2).[54]

Therefore, even if Origen acknowledges some bodily existence beyond the grave, as Mark Edwards believes, Origen understands “spiritual body” in 1 Corinthians 15:44 not as a different condition of the same body but as a different body altogether. In fact, Scott concludes that “the logic of his eschatology necessarily entails the end of corporeality”.

So while only God is incorporeal, when the soul unites with God, it, too, will become incorporeal. This is the “secret and hidden meaning” of the mystery of the resurrection that he will not disclose to the multitude… In Origen’s eschatology, the end mirrors the beginning, so we must speculate on the end in view of the beginning. Bodies, then, are not constitutive to the identity of the soul.[55]

As goes the head, so go the members of his body. Like Jesus’ repatriation – “the ascent of mind rather than the body”,[56] the soul that will “climb to the heights of heaven shall no longer be a man, but according to his word, will be ‘like an angel of God’” or perhaps divine; but in either case, “he shall certainly no longer be a man”.[57] A literal interpretation of the ascension entails that we too will be embodied forever in heaven. This leads to ludicrous conclusions, Origen believes: Will there be hairdressers in heaven (OFP 2.3, 2.10, 3.6, 4.4)?

Instead, Origen encourages the adept to move from the temporal gospel for the simple to the eternal gospel for the spiritual, fixing our eyes not on Christ crucified and raised in the flesh but on Christ as the post-incarnate Word filling the universe (OFP 2.6.7; 2.11.6). Origen calls believers “to remove the earth from each of you and open up your fountain. For he is within you and does not come from outside, just as ‘the kingdom of God is within you’.”[58] The ascent upward is a descent inward, into the inmost self.[59]

On the other hand, he only accepted as the word of God his allegorical interpretations of Scripture and the doctrines included in the rule of faith: “One must understand the divine scripture intellectually and spiritually; for the sensible or physical way of knowing that is according to the historical meaning is not true.”[60] Just as the body is left behind, when it comes to the “letter” of Scripture, he advises, “Cast all this aside like the bitter rind of a nut.”[61] “[L]et us seek out not the letter but the soul… If we can do this, we will also ascend to the spirit.”[62] Strictly speaking, Jesus’ soul entered a body that he later left behind after showing people how to return to the Father by the same ascent of mind. Consequently, for believers as well, “the end is like the beginning”: Having fallen into various bodies according to merits in a previous life, purgation will lead all souls finally to a restored contemplative gaze in the next world. The visible world will be no more as God is all in all.

The “Platonizing cast of his thought” is obvious enough, says Robert J. Daly, S. J., adding, “Origen seems to take pains to avoid a reference to the humanity and historical Incarnation of Jesus”.[63] The extant writings of post-apostolic Christian leaders from Clement of Rome to Tertullian of Carthage exhibit the incarnational theology that Origen associated with the rule of faith. Yet for Origen this is the “temporal gospel” that “the many” imbibe. No more than Plato believed in the literal truth of the Myth of Er did Origen believe that the historical claims of scripture were literally true.

III. For What Do We Hope?

So, will there be hairdressers in heaven? It is unwise to speculate about the state of glory, but if God created hair, then Jesus still has it and we will too. Even if posed in sarcasm, this question does point up the thoroughness of the redemption that the Father has accomplished in Christ and by his Spirit.    

Ephesians 4 is a lodestar for ascension theology: “Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives and gave gifts to men.’ (In saying, “He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)” (vv 8-10). The heart of Paul’s argument turns not on a philosophical principle or political ideal, but on the redemptive-historical event of Christ’s ascension. Before focusing directly on these verses, it may be helpful to place them in the wider context of Israel’s exodus-conquest motif. The antecedent in “Therefore it says”, is Psalm 68.

1. Conquest

Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson develops the theme of Yahweh’s march (Israel in tow) out of Egypt to Sinai and then on to Zion.[64] Psalm 68 (probably dated somewhere between the thirteenth and tenth centuries BC) is a war psalm, recounting a march through the wilderness led by “the God of Sinai”, where the camp is fed and its thirst quenched by Yahweh himself (vv 7-10). Rich with a combination of martial and liturgical elements, the verses that follow “record a march of YHWH from Sinai, a military campaign in which the God of Israel and his retinue… set out across the desert”.[65] (It is this Psalm that Paul will cite in our passage below.)

As important as Sinai is in the march, it lies midway between Egypt and Canaan (Zion). It is a covenant of law, prescribing the work to be done, rather than the Sabbath rest; the place of trial rather than the place of victory and consummated blessing. Levenson observes that the focus shifts from Sinai to Zion, for example, in Psalm 97, but also in Psalm 68:8-9 (cf. Ps 50:2-3). In fact, the shift can be seen already in Deuteronomy 33:2. “The transfer of the motif from Sinai to Zion was complete and irreversible, so that YHWH came to be designated no longer as ‘the One of Sinai’, but as ‘he who dwells on Mount Zion’ (Isa 8:18)… The transfer of the divine home from Sinai to Zion meant that God was no longer seen as dwelling in an extraterritorial no man’s land, but within the borders of the Israelite community.”[66] And in the Zion traditions, “there will emerge something almost unthinkable in the case of Sinai, a pledge of divine support for a human dynasty”.[67] In other words, God’s unilateral promise to Abraham is similar in form and content to his pledge to David’s heirs (2 Sam 7:1-17).

Thus, the march from Sinai to Zion also speaks of a progress in covenantal history from conditionality and temporality to unconditional and everlasting blessing, notes Levenson.[68] While the Sinai covenant is always threatened by the unfaithfulness of Israel to its conditions, the heavenly Zion exists “by his grace alone”.[69] This is why Jeremiah 7 faults those who “have taken the cosmos out of the cosmic mountain”, turning it “into a matter of mere real estate”. They do not long in joy and awe for the mountain. “Why should they? They are standing on it. The edifice on Mount Zion does not correspond to the gate of heaven; it is the gate of heaven. In other words, they have lost the sense of the delicacy of relationship between the higher and lower Jerusalem, and have assumed that the latter always reflects the former perfectly.”[70]

I have argued elsewhere that this failure to see the earthly Zion as merely a type or foreshadowing of the heavenly Zion that would descend from heaven is the result of confusing the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants.[71] Levenson comes close to saying something identical, yet he concludes that for Judaism Sinai always has the last word.[72] Hence, “Even in modern Israel, the Judaism practiced is not that of the Hebrew Bible, but the continuation of its rabbinic successor, which fashioned a tradition that could deal with a world without a Temple, Jewish sovereignty, or, increasingly, a homeland.”[73] After richly exploring the contrast between the Sinai and Abrahamic/Davidic covenants (as conditional treaty and unconditional grant, respectively), Levenson concludes, “In fact, the Davidic theology is the origin of Jewish messianism and the Christology of the church.”[74]

Recapitulating the trial of Adam in Eden and Israel in the desert, Jesus Christ leads the exiles out of the ultimate bondage into the liberation of the Sabbath rest (Heb 4:1-13), with the powers of the age to come penetrating this evil age through word and sacrament (Heb 6:4-19). The march from Sinai to Zion is at last completed by Jesus Christ: those who look to Christ, Jews and Gentiles, have arrived not at Sinai but at Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem in festive assembly (Heb 12:18-24). For Paul, too, Sinai and the earthly Jerusalem correspond to Hagar and bondage, while all who trust in Christ are citizens of Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, and children of Sarah (Gal 4:21-31). With Christ’s fulfilment of the work of new creation-and-conquest, all prior history – including the Sinai theocracy – now belongs to the old order that is “passing away”, “fading”, “becoming obsolete”. Christ’s resurrection has inaugurated the age to come, so that the Abrahamic promise – and Israel’s commission to the world – can finally be fulfilled. As Robert Jenson finely puts it, “By Jesus’ Resurrection occurring ‘first,’ a sort of hole opens in the event of the End, a space for something like what used to be history, for the church and its mission.”[75]

In Ephesians 4:8, Paul appeals to Psalm 68, especially verse 19, although I will quote verses 15-20 for a fuller context:

O mountain of God, mountain of Bashan; O many-peaked mountain, mountain of Bashan! Why do you look with hatred, O many-peaked mountain, at the mount that God desired for his abode, yes, where the LORD will dwell forever? The chariots of God are twice ten thousand, thousands upon thousands; the Lord is among them; Sinai is now in the sanctuary. You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the LORD God may dwell there. Blessed be the LORD, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation. Our God is a God of salvation, and to GOD, the Lord, belong deliverances from death.

Verse 1 (“God shall arise, his enemies be scattered; and those who hate him shall flee before him”) echoes the battle cry in Numbers 10:35. In that event, the ark of the covenant was leading the people of Israel through the wilderness on their way to Zion.

It may be that Psalm 68 was composed to commemorate the arrival of the ark in the sanctuary at Zion. In any case, it celebrates the procession: “O God, when you went out before your people, when you marched through the wilderness, the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain, before God, the One of Sinai, before God, the God of Israel” (vv 7-8). The fighting men sleep while the Lord lays the enemies to waste and scatters kings, and the women announce, “The kings of the armies – they flee, they flee!” and “divide the spoil” of precious treasures from the Lord’s victory (vv 11-14). Housing the sacred tablets, the ark is a portable Sinai, which has now moved into its sanctuary. Verses 24-27 report “the procession of God, my King, into the sanctuary”, with singers and congregation. “Summon your power, O God, the power, O God, by which you have worked for us” (v 28). The days are envisioned when God will break the spears of his enemies and bring many captives to worship on his holy hill in peace (vv 32-33). “O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God; sing praises to the Lord… Awesome is God from his sanctuary; the God of Israel – he is the one who gives power and strength to his people. Blessed be God!” (v 35).

The God of Sinai is now the God of Zion. Although Sinai is not forgotten, it yields to a broader, fuller and richer future, when a remnant of all the warring nations will find safety and peace in the presence of the God of Israel. God ascends his own mountain in conquest and enters his sanctuary in triumph, while the mighty men of Israel slept.

Some have argued that this Psalm was part of the Jewish liturgy of Pentecost, since it was this annual feast that celebrated the giving of the law at Sinai.[76] According to Rudolf Schnackenberg,

“You have received gifts among humanity” was understood as “received gifts for humanity”, so that he (Moses) might give the gifts to them… Originally taken [in the OT and Judaism] to apply to God who, coming from Sinai majestically rises to Zion, and in Judaism taken to mean Moses who climbs the Mountain of God (Sinai) and there receives the Tables of the Law, the text is now interpreted in the style of a midrash and is understood in a Christian way as referring to Christ. [77]

Already the transfer from Moses to Jesus may be seen in Peter’s Pentecost sermon: “Exalted at the right hand of God, he received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father and poured it forth, as you [both] see and hear” (Acts 2:33; cf. 5:32-33).

2. Distributing the Spoils

Like the Book of Joshua that Psalm 68 reprises, conquest is followed by the distribution of the spoils of victory. Near the end of Joshua, God gives rest to his land and people from all enemies that defile. God himself has assumed Adam’s role of casting the serpent out of his typological garden. The emphasis throughout the book is upon God’s victory. It is not the Israelites but Yahweh who has cleansed his garden of all that defiles and has given them rest on all sides: “And I sent the hornet before you, which drove them out before you, the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. I gave you a land on which you had not laboured and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant” (Josh 24:12-13). It is the same emphasis in Psalm 68: God triumphed “while the mighty men slept and the women divided the spoils”.

Then, after God distributes the inheritance of land to the twelve tribes, Joshua declares, “And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed” (Josh 23:14). And now, the Abrahamic promise having been fulfilled, Israel swears its oath to the Sinai covenant as the terms for remaining in the good land.

Paul’s otherwise puzzling editing of the Psalm from “you received gifts” to “he gave gifts” makes perfect sense, therefore, in the light of the ascension as the fuller reality to which the Psalm pointed.[78] “Like Adam, Israel sinned and transgressed the covenant” (Hos 6:7). Yet Christ, as the Last Adam and faithful Israel, has fulfilled the trial as servant of the covenant. In the light of Christ’s ascension after having defeated his enemies, he is now distributing the spoils of victory to his people. Consequently, there is no way to interpret this event other than to refer to Jesus Christ as the gift-giver rather than the recipient. Christ has ascended in triumphant procession, not to an earthly Zion but to its heavenly archetype. He enters not with the ark of the covenant and its sacred tablets – Sinai in miniature (Ps 68:17) or with the sacrifices it prescribed – but with his own blood (Heb 9:11-12). It is a covenant founded on better promises, since they are based on God’s faithfulness rather than the people’s, extend to all nations and not only Israel, and pertain to an everlasting rest rather than a temporary land of blessing.

Just as ancient rulers would divide the spoils of conquest (see Gen 14; Jdg 5:30; 1 Sam 30:26-31), and then erect a temple-palace in honour of their victory, Zion’s sanctuary is the house that the conquering King of Israel builds to celebrate his victory over all the earth. The captives in the victorious train of the conquerors (Yahweh/Christ) are Satan, death and hell.[79] Paul adds that there is no ascent without a prior descent, which I take to refer not to a literal descent into hell, but into the depths of the earth.[80] There is no conquest without the exodus, no victory without the battle, no ascension without the incarnation, cross and resurrection.

3. Theological and Practical Implications

Where is Jesus? This question is determinative for our view of who Jesus is. If we follow Origen’s path, Jesus has left his personal history behind along with his fleshly body. Now, at last, he can return to his beginning, as the Logos-infused soul that never lost its contemplative gaze upon the One. Origen could not distinguish the humanity of Christ from his lowly estate. The idea of Jesus being forever the one who nursed at Mary’s breast and was crucified yet now glorified found no place on his Neoplatonist map. Instead, the Jesus of history had to surrender to the Christ of faith and even more of spiritual and philosophical contemplation.

When we look away from the historical Jesus, now glorified in our humanity, we search for substitutes. In much of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology, the church has replaced its ascended Lord as his bodily form. Just as in transubstantiation the earthly signs of bread and wine are annihilated and replaced by the reality (Christ’s body and blood), the visible church simply is Jesus in his now-visible activity in the world. Augustine’s expression, totus Christus, which he used to refer to the intimate union of Christ and his body, downplayed crucial differences. Interpreted in even more deeply Neoplatonic terms throughout the Middle Ages, this idea justified a hierarchical ecclesiology according to which grace flowed down the ladder of being from its highest to lowest rungs. Indebted to Fichte, Hegel and Schelling, nineteenth-century “Reform Catholicism” (as well as liberal Protestantism in the wake of Schleiermacher) also spoke of the church as an extension of Christ’s incarnation and redeeming work in the world.

Douglas Farrow shows the extent to which this paradigm is generated by a failure to recognise the significance of Christ’s bodily ascension. Origen represents the extreme limits to which a thinly Christianised Platonism can go. If Jesus Christ’s own glorification was, as Origen said, “more of an ascension of the mind than of the body”, [81] then it follows that ours is as well. As the spiritual educator of the human race, Jesus leads us away from the shadows of time and matter into the reality of being. Even in less radical accounts (such as that of Athanasius and Augustine), the absence of Christ in the flesh is no longer a loss but becomes the occasion for his “return” in and as the church. Increasingly, the particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, was forgotten, yielding to a cosmic Christ whose visible-earthly existence was now transferred to the church. “Indeed, it meant that the church now controlled the parousia”, notes Farrow. “At the ringing of a bell the Christus absens became the Christus praesens… Seated comfortably with the Christ-child on its lap, the church soon became his regent rather than his servant. In short, its Marian ego, already out of control at the beginning of the eucharistic debates, afterwards knew no bounds”.[82]

With the rise of German Idealism (especially Fichte and Hegel), the synthesis of Christology and ecclesiology seemed complete in many Roman Catholic and Protestant systems. In our own day, this synthesis is pursued to its fullest extent by writers like Graham Ward, who scolds those who grieve over and long for “a lost body” – “the body of the gendered Jew”, instead of realising that in his ascension Christ’s body is not loss but expansion. His natural body becomes transcorporeal; he returns (has already returned) in and in fact as the church.[83]

However, Paul’s “body of Christ” analogy is neither to be taken literally, in the sense of replacing Christ, nor as a mere figure of speech. Taken univocally, the theory of the church “as ‘the extension of the Incarnation’”, as Lesslie Newbigin observes, “springs from a confusion of sarx with soma.” “Christ’s risen body” – that is, his ecclesial distinguished from his natural body – “is not fleshly but spiritual”. “He did not come to incorporate us in His body according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Hence, his promise that when he ascends he will send the Spirit.[84] Newbigin’s point reminds us of the importance of both the ascension of Christ in the flesh and the descent of the Spirit. Our union with Christ does not occur at the level of fused natures, but as a common participation of different members in the same realities of the age to come by the same Spirit.

It is the difference as much as the affinity between Head and members that constitutes Paul’s ecclesiology. Just as husband and wife become “one flesh” without becoming one person, so also with Christ and his church (Eph 5:31-32). In fact, Avery Cardinal Dulles recognises, “The root of the metaphor”, he says, “is the kind of treaty relationship into which a suzerain state entered with a vassal state in the ancient Near East”. In addition to providing the background for the Body of Christ analogy, “That kind of military and political treaty afforded the raw material out of which the concept of ‘People of God’ was fashioned”.[85] Overlooking this covenantal context of the body analogy, warns Dulles, may lead “to an unhealthy divinization of the Church”, as if the union “is therefore a biological and hypostatic one” and all actions of the church are ipso facto actions of Christ and the Spirit.[86] Drawn from the realm of politics rather than philosophy, the analogy of a covenantal body makes otherness and plurality as essential as unity. It is that unity that is so deeply dependent on the work of the ministry that Paul describes as God’s gift.

As John Webster points out, the emphasis on the church as an extension of Christ’s person and work, which owes “as much to Hegelian theory of history as to theology… has become something of a commonplace in some now dominant styles of modern theology and theological ethics”. God’s work of reconciling the world in Christ merges with the church’s moral action.[87] Interpreted within a more cultural-linguistic paradigm, Stanley Hauerwas, Timothy Gorringe and others join this trajectory. They still speak of the Trinity and grace, but the emphasis falls on the acts of the church, “often through the idiom of virtues, habits and practices”.[88] According to Timothy Gorringe, “the community of reconciliation” is “the means through which atonement is effected, which is the reason, presumably, Christ bequeathed to us not a set of doctrines or truths, but a community…”[89] The force of Christ’s completed work, Webster judges, “is simply lost” in this inflated talk of the church’s redemptive activity.[90] Christ’s person and work easily becomes a “model” or “vision” for ecclesial action (imitatio Christi), rather than a completed event to which the church offers its witness.

At the other extreme – often in reaction against this first paradigm, is the tendency to separate the invisible, eternal and spiritual reality from everything visible, temporal and creaturely. The democratic reaction against special offices is consistent with an anti-institutional and anti-sacramental bias. As a result, however, the logic of Paul’s argument – namely, that Christ is delivering the spoils of his victory to his people is easily exchanged for a model of the church that focuses on the activity of believers. “One Lord” easily becomes assimilated to a one-sided emphasis on “my personal Lord and Saviour”. “One faith” succumbs to my act of believing. “One baptism” no longer refers to the objective sacrament, but to the inner experience of new birth. Identified by the Reformers as “enthusiasm”, this radical Protestant trajectory is especially evident in the history of various groups ranging from the most extreme (e.g., the Gnostics) to more orthodox (e.g., the Montanists and Spiritual Franciscans). This heritage reaches us today through Anabaptism, pietism and evangelical as well as Pentecostal groups. At the time of the Reformation, Zwingli represented the view that Christ is truly absent in the flesh – the “not-yet” of the salvation awaiting us, but without a sufficiently robust pneumatology to support the “already” of his presence – even physical presence – with us now in the power of the Spirit. In more recent times, Karl Barth and his students have defended Zwingli’s basic outlook.[91]

However, these two paradigms are not our only options. What is missing is the perspective of Luther, Calvin and the Reformation confessions that speak of the Spirit binding himself in his ordinary operation to the creaturely ministry of weak and sinful ambassadors. The Triune God works when and where he will, remaining sovereign in his gracious activity. Nevertheless, he condescends to work through means. Just as there is a “sacramental union” between sign and reality in the means of grace, there is a sacramental union between Christ and his church. This union is never determined by epistemological or ontological distance, but by the eschatological coordinates of “already” and “not-yet” – coordinates that are set by the concrete events of our Lord’s descent, ascent and return in the flesh.

The ascension highlights the paradox of our Lord’s real absence in the flesh and his real presence in saving action in the power of the Spirit. This parenthesis in redemptive history cannot be mapped onto a Platonic ontology, whether in the direction of Hegelian synthesis or Kierkegaardian antithesis.[92]  Rather, the ascension keeps us in the tension between the already and the not-yet, as subjects of and witnesses to Christ’s saving action rather than co-agents of it. Neither the sacramental body of Christ (baptism and the Supper) nor the ecclesial body of Christ can be allowed to substitute for the personal body of Jesus of Nazareth. Christ cannot be made present in the flesh by the church or by pious believers. As Paul argues in Romans 10, it is “the righteousness that is by works” that seeks to ascend into heaven to bring Christ down or descend into the depths to bring him up from the dead, while “the righteousness that is by faith” receives Christ as he delivers himself through his Word (vv 5-17). Jesus Christ cannot be made bodily present on earth until his second coming, and all attempts to jump the eschatological gun end up reinterpreting Christ as someone other than the particular “gendered Jew” (to borrow Ward’s phrase) who as the first-fruits determines the nature of our own future bodily existence.

Farrow suggests that Calvin, like Irenaeus, brought attention back to the economy and thus to the problem of Christ’s absence. “‘But why’, asked Calvin, ‘do we repeat the word “ascension” so often?’ To answer in our own words, it was because he found it necessary to reckon more bravely than the other reformers with the absence of Christ as a genuine problem for the church.”

Especially in the Eucharistic debates, Calvin returns our focus to the economy of redemption. Like Irenaeus, he challenges every docetising tendency in Christology by focusing on the actual history of Jesus of Nazareth from descent (incarnation and his earthly ministry of redemption), to his ascension and heavenly ministry, to the parousia at the end of the age.

To maintain a real absence is also to maintain a real continuity between the Saviour and the saved. All of this demonstrates that Calvin had a better grasp on the way in which the Where? question is bound up with the Who? question. That indeed was his critical insight into the whole debate. Calvin saw that neither a Eutychian response (Jesus is omnipresent) nor a Nestorian one (absent in one nature but present in the other) will do, since either way Christ’s humanity is neutralised and his role as our mediator put in jeopardy. It is the God-man who is absent and the God-man whose present we nevertheless require… A “species of absence” and a “species of presence” thus qualify our communion with Christ, who remains in heaven until the day of judgment. It is we who require eucharistic relocation.[93]

Instead of moving from Eucharist to Ascension, Calvin moved in the other direction and this led him to stress “the particularity of Jesus without sacrificing sacramental realism”. In other words, Calvin took with equal seriousness both Christ’s real absence from us in the flesh until he comes again and his real presence in Word and sacrament. If Christ is truly absent from us in the flesh, and our entire salvation depends on being united to him (the whole person, not just his divinity), then we are completely dependent on the Spirit’s work. This “forced him to seek a pneumatological solution to the problem of the presence and the absence” (emphasis added).[94]

Jesus Christ did not ascend spiritually, leaving behind his body and world history; rather, he ascended in the flesh, opening up space within history for the in-breaking of the powers of the age to come. Our personal and ecclesial existence is determined not by supra-historical realities, but by the history that Jesus has opened up for us in these last days. The gift of salvation comes to us extra nos, outside of us. We dare not divert our attention from Christ and his gift-giving reign by focusing on the church and its activity, whether conceived in hierarchical or democratic terms.

This present evil age, dominated by the flesh, is under judgment that is nevertheless postponed until the unfolding mystery of his plan for the church is fully realised. In the meantime, it is the historical career of Jesus Christ that determines world events. The Father raised his Son “and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:20-22). A church that does not acknowledge Christ’s absence is no longer focused on Christ, but is tempted to idolatrous substitutions in the attempt to seize Canaan prematurely. The parallel with Moses is striking: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him’” (Ex 32:1). In view of this survey, Farrow seems quite justified in concluding, “Looking away from Jesus has become a natural reflex.”[95]

Yet the Reformation traditions are riveted to the argument in Ephesians 4: Christ has ascended as victor and is now distributing his gifts by his Spirit through “the gifts that he gave”. These gifts are ministers of the gospel who, through preaching and sacrament, build up the whole body in Christ (Eph 4:11-16). The historical body of Jesus glorified is the presupposition for the ecclesial body being built up. Even now, then, there is an “already” to the penetrating powers of the age to come breaking into this present evil age (cf. Heb 6:1-5). Through the ministry of the means of grace, the Spirit who united the Son to our humanity now unites us as the new humanity to the glorified Son. When the church either confuses itself with its head or divorces itself from its head in a cacophony of competing individuals, it fails to stand where Paul calls us to stand in this passage: under the reign of the gift-giving King.


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