Rev. Uri Brito on Christ’s Bodily Ascension

 

Rev. Uri Brito
Rev. Uri Brito

Not too long ago I came across a fine blog posting by the Rev. Uri Brito on Christ’s bodily ascension to heaven.  While he and I come from different church traditions (Reformed versus Orthodox), there are some points in theology where we share common ground.  Reading Rev. Brito’s reflection reminded me of the debt I owe to the Reformed tradition: how it led me out of the shallows of Evangelicalism into the deeper waters of theology, doctrine, and the church fathers, and how the Reformed tradition (for me) pointed to the Orthodox Faith.    

When I was an Evangelical I rarely heard sermons or read expositions on Jesus’ ascension into heaven.  Pastor Brito apparently had the same kind of experience.  He writes:

The Ascension of Jesus is barely mentioned in the evangelical vocabulary. We make room for his birth, death, and resurrection, but we tend to put a period where God puts a comma.

This reflects the sad fact that for many Evangelicals the Incarnation plays a minor role in our salvation.  The focus of Evangelical soteriology is on Christ’s physical sufferings on the Cross.  This is rooted in the penal substitutionary theory that Christ offered up a pure and sinless offering on the Cross so that our sins would no longer be counted against us and that Christ’s righteousness would be imputed to those who believe in him.

Being rooted in the Reformed tradition Pastor Brito has a better grasp on the implications of the incarnation for our salvation.  He writes:

Our Lord is in his incarnation body at the right hand of the Father. This has all sorts of implications for us in worship. We are worshipping a God/Man; one who descended in human flesh and who ascended in human flesh. He is not a disembodied spirit. He is truly God and truly man.

The early Christians had a much broader understanding and deeper appreciation of the Incarnation of the eternal Word (Logos) for our salvation.  Athanasius in his classic work On the Incarnation wrote: “For He was made man that we might be made God.”  (54.3) Gregory of Nazianzen wrote: “For that which He [Christ] has not assumed He has not healed;  but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” (Epistle CI)  This understanding of salvation sees the Incarnation like a 360 degree circle in which the eternal Word descended from heaven, took on human nature, died on the Cross, descended in Hell, rose on the third day, then forty days later ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father.  This means that those who have joined themselves to Christ are positionally with him at the right hand of the Father wherein we enjoy the covenant benefits that belong to Christ by his divine sonship.

This understanding of the Incarnation and its connection to the Ascension represents a significant theological paradigm shift.  Evangelicalism has changed much in recent years, but back in the 1980s serious interest in the Incarnation for Evangelical theology was considered either on the cutting edge or out in left field.  I am grateful for the Reformed tradition teaching me about the early Church and expanding my theological understanding.

I remember one particular incident while I travelling with some Christian friends on the island of Kauai.  As we drove around the island I would from time to time entertain myself by reading the Heidelberg Catechism.

Q.  49. What benefits do we receive from Christ’s ascension into heaven?

A.  First, that he is our Advocate in the presence of his Father in heaven.  Second, that we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that he, as the Head, will also take us, his members, up to himself.  Third, that he sends us his Spirit as a counterpledge by whose power we seek what is above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God, and not things that are on earth. Heidelberg Catechism

I remember being startled when I read this strong affirmation of Christ’s taking on flesh for our salvation.  As an Evangelical I heard much about Christ’s birth and his death on the Cross.  I heard a little about Christ’s resurrection but almost nothing about the significance of his ascension for our salvation.  Reading this little gem in the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the major confessions of the Reformed tradition, helped me to appreciate the Incarnation as a long arc that included Christ’s birth, his death on the cross, his third day resurrection all of which culminates in his ascension to the Father.  It also challenged my understanding back then of heaven as strictly a spiritual place.  As I moved towards Orthodoxy I began to understand that in the Christian worldview both the heavenly and earthly realities interpenetrate each other.  This understanding is critical for a sacramental worldview.  [This is the introduction to an earlier post in 2012.]

 

ascension-pskov-pecheryFor readers who are wondering why I am posting this so many weeks after the original posting (8 May 2013), the reason is that on 13 June 2013 the Orthodox Church around the world will be celebrating Ascension Thursday.  The different calendars between the Eastern and Western church traditions are something Protestants converts to Orthodoxy have become accustomed to.  Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the Nicene Creed formulated by the First (Nicea 325) and Second (Constantinople 381) Ecumenical Councils unequivocally affirm the Incarnation and Christ’s bodily ascension to heaven.

For the Orthodox, Ascension Day is one of the major feast days of the Church.  They are expected to make an attempt to be at church.  For inquirers, attending a midweek service has the advantage of not getting lost in the crowd and seeing for one’s self how the Orthodox Church understands Christ ascension to heaven.  I encourage readers to contact a local Orthodox church and inquire about the time of their services.

Robert Arakaki

29 comments:

  1. A couple weeks ago I attended my former evangelical church for a memorial service for a recently deceased church member. During the brief message, I was taken aback by a comment by the pastor, that in the incarnation, Christ united Godhead with our humanity. Now, to be fair, I cannot say that I never heard him say that before, or that I never heard that teaching in my years in protestant/evangelicalism. But after coming to Orthodoxy, I heard the statement with ‘new ears’.

    I know that I heard the teaching that we now have a God-man at the Father’s right hand in heaven. But the significance of that fact was not developed. With the emphasis on the key event in our salvation being Christ’s sacrificial death, the incarnation becomes simply a means toward an end, rather than the pivotal, essential part of God’s plan that it is. Maybe I am just dense and missed the significance while everyone around me got it.

    1. George,

      Thank you for sharing your insights with us.

      To answer your question, no you weren’t dense, you were operating from a different paradigm. Under the forensic paradigm knowing that the God-man Jesus Christ is in heaven sitting at the right hand of the Father seems to be an isolated piece of data. We accept it because the Bible teaches it. But the Orthodox theological paradigm connects the dots in ways that the penal substitutionary model does not. That is why I recommend people read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When we become conscious of the fact that we do theology from a particular paradigm, we are no longer locked into that paradigm but can critically scrutinize its claims.

      Robert

  2. You are right that the Ascension is rarely preached in Reformed Churches today. There are several reasons:

    1) Ascension necessarily entails the kingship of Christ over the nations, with the implication that they submit to his law.
    2) It implies a dynamic view of history, since Christ will reign until his enemies are under his feet.

    From 1980 until the mid-2000s, the Reformed fought a war to keep the practical implications of the above two points out of the seminaries (I was a minor casualty in that war).

    Another reason
    3) The Reformed *do* teach this. A number of us have routinely mentioned that hippies like Mark Driscoll and pop-Anglicans like RC Sproul do not represent the Reformed faith. Men like Brian Schwertely, Greg Price, Greg Bahnsen, and Francis Nigel Lee represent the Reformed faith. Their sermons are soaked with Ascension theology.

    I know you’ve mentioned your former Reformed background, but could you provide a link to the former denominational website? Thank you.

    1. Jacob,

      You raised an interesting point. Your first point seems to imply that Christ’ lordship is manifested in terms of law as civil legislation. But I understood from reading Richard DeRidder’s Discipling the Nations that the Great Commission passage (Matthew 28:19-20) was the enthronement speech of the victorious suzerain. Thus, the rule of Christ is spread via the Gospel and the nations live under Christ’s law in the Church. This was written by a Calvin Theological Seminary professor so it is undoubtedly Reformed, but at the same time I consider it quite compatible with the Orthodox understanding of missions.

      I trace my Reformed roots several ways. My former home church was part of the Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ which traces its roots to the New England Puritans. While Reformed theology was taught in an attenuated form in the UCC in the 1980s and 1990s when I was active, there is a direct ecclesial link. During the 1980s, I embraced Mercersburg Theology which came out of the German Reformed Church which is now part of the United Church of Christ. So I define “Reformed” broadly in terms of ecclesial link and theology. I’m not all that comfortable with your derisive characterizations of Mark Driscoll and RC Sproul. You assert confidently that they “do not represent the Reformed faith,” but who today is in a position of authority today to say who is Reformed and who is not?

      Robert

      1. Civil legislation is one aspect of it, though I usually don’t phrase it that way since it connotes different things to different people.

        RE Sproul: depends. On one hand I admit he is the most popular Calvinistic (note I didn’t use the word “Reformed”) teacher in the world today. That said, Reformed refers to those who sought to reform the *worship* and discipline of the Western Catholic Church (yes, that includes soteriology, but the thrust for the Magisterial Reformers was worship, not soteriology).

        Sproul simply does not hold to Presbyterian worship and discipline, and hence he is not Reformed (I used “Presbyterian” because Sproul is an Anglo-American. If he were Dutch or German my argument would still apply).

        On the other hand, 90% of conservative Calvinists would be embarrassed with their Scottish and English forbears. So your broadsides against them are probalby accurate in what modern Calvinists believe, but not traditional Reformed.

        So who are the traditional Reformed? The following list might help:
        1. Samuel Rutherford (I don’t actually expect you to deal with him; most of his work has not been translated from the old English font, and there is a reason for that: modern Calvinist publishers don’t want to come to grips with what Rutherford taught!)

        2. George Gillespie: Two works, Against English Popish Ceremonies and Aaron’s Rod Blossoming. They are in modern-ish English and probably online for free.

        3. Richard A. Muller. He has two books that warrant special attention: Christ and the Decree and *Calvin and the Reformed Tradition.* His *Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics* is world-class, but good luck finding it cheap from a reliable publisher (another problem I have with Reformed publishers).

        4. Those who descend from the Solemn League and Covenant. This Covenant, while largely reviled by today’s Calvinists, is technically binding on them. Those who follow this Covenant, while a minority, areprobably the guys to respond to. just google “Still Waters Revival Books.” You will come across names like Brian Schwertly, Greg Price, and Reg Barrow.

        5. This will come across sectarian and mean, but it’s the truth: Baptists by definition cannot be Reformed. They can hold to a Calvinistic soteriology, but since it isn’t rooted in Covenant theology, it’s warped and not representative of True Reformed.

        1. Jacob, it seems like your understanding of Reformed narrows things a mite too much, so that no one can be accurately Reformed if they do not hold to the authors you mention. I’m just saying, since it seems to me that not going to, say, Calvin and the confessions, but rather these seemingly obscure authors narrows the field quite a bit.

          As for your use of the term Magisterial Reformers, it seems that you must not be referring to Martin Luther as one of them, since I am pretty sure that he would have made soteriology the major issue. I think that proper worship was something that supported proper soteriology . . . not the other way around. Because of his view of faith, the word, and the sacraments, he had a particular view of worship. In fact, some parts of worship / piety he deliberately did not reform because he did not want reform to be a stumbling block in the way of a proper understanding of soteriology!

          1. I do narrow the things a bit. I am not saying that the only Reformed people can be those on the list I gave. That is not what I said. I tried to get across that those gentlemen best represent the historic Reformed faith. So often people act like John Macarthur, Driscoll, and Piper are Reformed, which is utterly laughable.

            Magisterial Reformers: not so much Luther, since the term “Reformed” has always been used in contradistinction from “Lutheran.” The Reformed reformed worship. Luther didn’t. Simple as that. The Magisterial Reformers can be seen as such in their views of the civil magistrate in the various Reformed confessions (Westminster, 3 Forms of Unity, etc).

            You wrote:
            >>>>Calvin and the confessions>>>

            Almost all “Reformed today” reject what Calvin and the Confessions said on the civil magistrate, thus my original statement. I got viciously (if mostly spiritually and intellectually) attacked at a “Reformed” seminary for holding to what Calvin and the Confessions said on the civil magistrate.

          2. I’ll say it another way: Reformed theology is a unit which cannot be reduced to the so-called “Five Points.” This five-point nomenclature (TULIP) really didn’t exist until certain English translations of texts in the late 19th century. I’m currently working through Robert’s critique of TULIP and I am noticing these things. The “L” and the “I” in TULIP are very misleading, depending on which language you are using For example, when we are talking about “limiting” the atonement, do we mean sufficiency or effeciency? Suddenly it is a different question.

            That’s why older and wiser Reformed theologians never used “Calvinist” or “TULIP” because that isn’t what Reformed theology reduces to. It has to focus around covenant theology (which is why Baptists by definition cannot be Reformed).

        2. Ah Jacob,

          What is “TR” — Truly Reformed? Obviously the Scott Covenanters do not define it just like the Dutch (old or new) Reformed, or even like Hooker and the Reformed Anglicans…much less Calvin, Luther and a host of others modern Reformed. Like Drake, Kevin and Tim (Piper, Sproul and a host of others) we all have our own “right” definition of TR. Sola Scriptura is no help here as all group claim it, and we’re trying to pen down a particular Tradition…a historic lens for seeing the Faith outside of Scripture. Perhaps, like “Baptist” there are several Tradition(s) here. Interestingly, these various ‘communions’ within a specific ‘Reformed branch’ of Protestantism…do NOT communion at the table with each other…much less allow their ministers to fill in and substitute for each other. Indeed, several are so narrow not to believe the others Christian. A Systemic flaw that fundamentally denies the Trinitarian Unity of the Faith?

          1. >>>What is “TR” — Truly Reformed? Obviously the Scott Covenanters do not define it just like the Dutch (old or new) Reformed, or even like Hooker and the Reformed Anglicans…much less Calvin, >>>

            And all of those would have agreed with the necessity of Reforming the church, contra sexxed up hippies like Driscoll.

        3. Jacob,

          What defines Reformed for most of the Reformed today seems to be how one understands sovereignty with regard to free will and predestination. So I concede that the Reformed today are not generally completely in line with the Confessions nor with Calvin – though, I must say that many still make the Westminster Confession officially a binding document on their churches and schools. In fact ACSI (Association of Christian Schools International) accreditation only accepts schools of which at least one Board member holds to the Westminster Confessions.

          As to the Magisterial Reformers, I would seriously differ with your definition. I have not seen anywhere that Luther is excluded. My understanding is that Magisterial refers to working through the magistrates. Luther is very much a Magisterial Reformer. Perhaps you should have stuck with Reformed instead of also adding Magisterial Reformer. And I cannot help but think that the reforms in worship had nothing to do with the Magisterial Reformers’ views of soteriology. The way they worship at the Eucharist, for instance, clearly follows from how they view the body/bread and blood/wine of Christ. The reforms were not merely about how to worship right, but how worshiping right demonstrated a correct understanding of the reality of God and his interaction with man. I think that they ultimately followed the ancient thinking of lex credendi, lex orandi. They knew that people believe what they do and pray and they do and pray what they believe. So the reform of worship was, I believe, connected with soteriology.

          Anyway, another problem I have with you narrowing Reformed theology so much is that you seem to be asking people on this website to quit dialoguing with those who profess to be Reformed and aren’t according to your definition. Instead you ask people to read the books you recommend. But it seems to me that this website is meant to interact with Reformed and Protestants whoever they may be. So it seems more reasonable for you to just critique Orthodoxy from your particular Reformed background instead of saying that we are arguing against a straw man. The theology opposed here is connected to what many identify as Reformed. Those people think they are Reformed. And whether they truly are doesn’t really matter. The conversation can happen even if we don’t agree on all the details of what makes someone truly reformed. I suspect that it would make more sense to discuss what is truly reformed on another forum.

          Also, if covenantal theology is all that is distinctive of Reformed theology, then why not be Orthodox? Isn’t Orthodoxy covenantal? But TULIP is actually one huge difference between the way Reformed and Orthodox understand covenant.

          1. Prometheus,

            I think you understand well the blog’s purpose which is to serve as “as a meeting place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians.” I take a broad approach to Reformed Christianity. I can’t see myself or anyone having the authority to define what is “Reformed.” There are of course useful markers like Calvin’s Institutes, Westminster Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism. The main thing is that we have a dialogue going on between the various theological traditions.

            Robert

          2. >>> Luther is very much a Magisterial Reformer>>>

            Kind of. Luther’s view of the civil magistrate is a bit different from Calvin’s. Not to mention Luther’s theology of baptist, consubtantiation, and others clearly place him outside the reformed camp.

            >>>Reformed theology so much is that you seem to be asking people on this website to quit dialoguing with those who profess to be Reformed and aren’t according to your definition>>>

            I am asking them to dialogue wtih better representatives of the Reformed faith. For crying out loud, people still think that Driscoll is Reformed.

            >>>Also, if covenantal theology is all that is distinctive of Reformed theology, then why not be Orthodox? Isn’t Orthodoxy covenantal? But TULIP is actually one huge difference between the way Reformed and Orthodox understand covenant.>>>

            Because a number of leading EO apologists specifically reject Covenant Theology as “Scotist,” whatever that means.

          3. Jacob, but it seems to me that the conversation is about the conversation, not about limiting it to those “more representative.” If someone comes here who is currently in Driscoll’s reformed circles comes here, is that person not entitled to critique Orthodoxy or ask questions about it? And are not the Orthodox entitled to answer them where they are instead of telling them to come back when they are more reformed?

            Your definition of the Magisterial Reformation is not what most people mean when they say it. Language needs to be not only precise, but perspicuous. If you use a term the way nobody else is using it, how is that helpful? Sure Luther was different than Calvin. No one is arguing that. But Luther is included in most lists of the Magisterial Reformation.

          1. I agree that language needs to be perspicuous, but not at the expense of historical accuracy. While we both say Lutheran is magisterial reformed, even here there are some big qualifications: Lutheran countries upheld the Cuius regio, eius religio principle. Most Reformed nations, by contrast, rejected that form of tolerance and advocated covenanting with God by contrast.

  3. It is funny that I remember in my high school experience hearing someone say that crucifixes are bad because they forget the ascension. This was in a Protestant setting. That said, I do think that in Protestantism, the emphasis on Jesus death as the point of the incarnation and the resurrection as kind of a “duh, that had to happen incidentally” kind of event is really common. For a Protestant, salvation is only about being saved from our sins, not about theosis. The incarnation does not have implications for how we are to envision our own future. In certain circles, though, Jesus’ life before his passion has great significance . . . his example of life, his teaching. It has more to do with sanctification or holiness than with incarnational theosis. I do believe that Orthodoxy has a fuller understanding than most Protestantism. That said, I, too, heard a Reformed pastor (former president of Wheaton College) emphasize the risen Lord as the glorious Jesus we see in Revelation. The point was that he was no longer the humble, weak, humiliated man that he had been when he was here on earth. It actually was used to give a sense of awe and separation between us and Jesus (instead, I suppose, of the Jesus is my boyfriend mentality). However, there was no connection to the God-man idea – that he brought our humanity up to God, that he divinized the human just as he humanized the divine, that our future lays in being united with the divine. Sorry to ramble! 🙂

    1. Prometheus,

      Thank you for sharing your insights with us. I think it’s also important that we engage our Evangelical friends in a discussion about the significance of the Incarnation for our salvation. I know it can be frustrating that many evangelicals are not all that interested in doctrine, but there are some who are ready to move into deeper waters. One way you could start the conversation is by asking questions like: Do you think Jesus still had a body after he ascended into heaven? A friend of mine who went to Fuller Seminary had to stop and think before she gave me her answer which was: Yes. I suspect that there may be other evangelicals out there who may find the question not an easy one to answer.

      Robert

    1. The Nicene Creed teaches us that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. This is usually understood to indicate equal honor and authority. Beyond that, I prefer not to speculate. Is this an important question? I am, of course, open to what the church fathers have to say.

      Robert

      1. I assume we both agree that Jesus’s human nature, which includes a human body, is forever united to his divine person. This person is in heaven, right? This means is human nature (including his body) is in heaven, right?

        I do grant the difficulty in defining what “heaven” is.

        1. Jacob,

          Your question would have to lead into the discussion of the Communicatio idiomatum. And because the Orthodox have an Essence vs Energies distinction, we would look at this by way of God’s Energies (All Three Persons of the Trinity share the Energies in common).

          I’m going to quote the late Fr. John Romanides (memory eternal) on this one.

          page 161-162 from the book “Patristic Theology”
          quote
          “43. On God’s Presence and Absence

          God is not limited in any way whatsoever. This is why the Fathers stress that God the Father is everywhere present through His energies. Since the Word and human nature are united by virtue of the hypostatic union,(120) Christ, being the Word, is also everywhere present through His energies. And although Christ is, as the Word, absent from the world in terms of His divine nature, His human nature is everywhere present in terms of its nature.

          God or the Holy Trinity is by nature absent from the world, because God is not connected to the world through His Essence. God’s dealings with the world are solely at will through His energies. Only Christ’s human nature, which is everywhere present, is connected in terms of its nature to the world. Christ’s Divine nature, however, does not have this connection.

          These distinctions form the Orthodox Christian teaching on God’s essence and Energy. This teaching is really quite simple. its foundation is the very experience of theosis itself. No philosophy whatsoever slips in here. The Church Fathers are not making these distinctions on the basis of philosophical reflection, because they know by their own personal experience that during the experience of theosis the glorified believer is united with God through God’s energy.”

  4. So Jacob,

    Is Christ now disembodied or is his resurrected body not “somewhere” locally? Granted, the ancient understanding of the Eucharist is a mystery that transcends our understanding of space time. (CS Lewis thought his resurrected body far more materially heavy…that it could pass through doors and walls much like we now pass through a fog.) Who knows it all and I too would be curious what the Fathers thought & Cannon teach. But does not the Incarnation and bodily resurrection have an eternal reality…for humanity after death?

  5. Jacob,

    Father Romanides (memory eternal) also said, in another book:

    page 121 from the book “An outline of Orthodox Patristic Dogmatics”
    (in regards to Apostolic Succession and Christ’s Presence in the Sacraments)
    quote:
    “As God is divided undividedly in His energies and is partitioned without being reduced to parts in separate (hypostaseis) and enters and dwells without being contained in each of His energies, likewise the human nature of the word, on account of the hypostatic union and the exchange of properties (communicatio idiomatum), dwells in its entirety in each uncreated energy of God.”

    He also said on page 79 (in regards to the issue of the church in general)
    quote:
    “For the Calvinists, Christ, after the Ascension, dwells in heaven and, consequently, the change of the bread and the wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is impossible. Christ, then, is totally absent from the Eucharist. The Papal view is somewhat similar, inasmuch as it stresses that, through the prayer of the priest, Christ, who was not present, now becomes present. The conclusion is that Christ is absent from the Church. The fact is, however, as we stated above, that the members of the Church have the pledge of the Spirit and are participants in theosis.”

    1. Well, I’ve listed problems and contradictions with the e/e distinction as well as your view of the communicatio elsewhere. I won’t rehash them here. Romanides’ second statement is okay. There’s a fallacious jump where he correctly identified the Reformed (let’s not say Calvinist) belief in Christ’s locality in heaven, and then to the non sequitor that it’s impossible for him to be in the Eucharist. Calvin said Christ was present by his spirit. Now, you might not like that, but that is a form (mode) of Christ’s presence. Romanides’ statement would have been more accurate had he said Christ is not corporeally present, which is true.

  6. Let’s look at it this way, would it be fair to EO if I took Bro. Nathaniel Kapner as representative? How about Lazar Pulaho? Or Seraphim Rose on 6 day creation (which I actually agree with), toll-houses, and his attacking the false ecumenicism of the Ecumenical Patriarchate?

    That’s what I am getting at.

    1. Jacob,

      The original posting was about Christ’s ascension and it’s relevance to our salvation. I think we need to stop the quibbling about who’s truly Orthodox and who’s really Reformed. As the site administrator I allow for a fairly wide latitude for both sides. I give preference to the mainstream and authors known to a wide audience, not to obscure little known writers that few know of. My concern is that you’re hijacking the comment thread by your questioning who’s truly Reformed and your display of obscure Orthodox writers. Let’s stick to the topic at hand in the future.

      Robert

  7. Duly noted, but my comments were relevant none the less. Anyway, other commenters posted before I did outlining my points (e.g., coming from evangelical background yet not hearing about the Ascencion, to which I felt the need to point out true representatives of said position). I will take your cue, however, and bow out of this thread

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