Westminster Seminary California
Book Review: Calvin’s Ladder by Julie Canlis
Book Review: Calvin’s Ladder by Julie Canlis

Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010. Xii + 286pp. $32.00.

The title of Julie Canlis’s book is clearly provocative. Yet the title is not a trick. In this work Canlis sets out to show how essential the concept of ascent is for Calvin’s theology. For Calvin, Canlis argues, the possibility for ascent rests in humanity’s participation in Christ rather than in an inherent anthropological capacity.

Although participation is usually bogged down by concepts from Greek metaphysics, Canlis attempts to show that Calvin’s doctrine of participation is based on a “pneumatological anthropology and ontology” (p. 14). Despite the fact that a doctrine of participation is usually given sparse attention in Reformed theology, Canlis suggests that it is a valid Reformed category since it was so integral to Calvin’s theology. For Calvin, ascension is always christological rather than an abstract philosophical idea. Since Christ ascended into heaven it follows that his members, who are united to him, must also ascend into heaven. While Greek metaphysics and medieval Christianity based the possibility of ascent in the individual, Calvin restructures the concept by locating ascent solely in Christ. Through communion and participation in Christ, humanity’s future is ascent to the Father. Yet participation is not to be understood as an ontological mixture. Canlis is especially keen to note that participation in Christ preserves difference, otherness, and the Creator/creature distinction. Participation is not a fusion of essences but a bond of koinonia achieved through the power of the Spirit.

Canlis begins her study by examining the Greek patterns of ascent, the assimilation of these patterns by the early church and the medieval church, and Calvin’s appropriation of these patterns. Canlis argues that even in Calvin’s first work, Psychopannychia, Calvin had a distinct view of ascent and participation. For Calvin, ascent is always bound up with Christ. Instead of understanding participation as the soul ascending the ladder to be united to the divine essence, Calvin argued that humanity’s ascension is through participation in Christ’s ascent. Simply put, Christ is the ladder. Calvin reconfigured Platonic and medieval notions of ascent by emphasizing that ascent must be understood christologically rather than anthropologically.

In order to understand ascent in Calvin, Canlis argues that we must first understand his doctrine of creation. “Communion is the groundwork of creation, the purpose of anthropology, and the telos toward which all creation strains” (p. 54). All creaturely reality is ordered and related to God only through the Mediator. The telos of humanity is communion with God and communion is through the Mediator. Even the nonfallen creature “must constantly be united to the Mediator” (p. 64). Even prior to his fall into sin, Adam required a Mediator. Correlating creation with the Fall, Canlis argues that the Fall too must be understood in light of communion. Rather than a loss of substance or essence, in the Fall, Adam lost communion with God. Only through the incarnation can this communion be restored.

Due to the incarnation, Christ’s descent is the basis for our ascent. Humanity is included in Christ’s ascent back to the Father; this is true through our participation in Christ. Canlis notes that Calvin continually insisted on the true humanity of Christ. Only if Jesus is truly human can we participate in him. Further, Calvin’s innovative theology of the Spirit enables humanity’s participation in Christ. Rather than basing participation on some ontological similarity between divine and human, Calvin argues that the bond between humanity and God is the person of the Holy Spirit. Humanity participates in the life and obedience of Christ through the activity of the Spirit. Christ did not live his life as an isolated individual but “it was lived deliberately for us to share in by the same Spirit available to both Jesus and us” (p. 99). Canlis rightly notes the importance of Christ’s ascension for Calvin’s Pneumatology. The Spirit is not a substitute for Christ but provides humanity access to Christ. Following the Ascension, humanity's participation is through communion by the power of the Spirit. Yet participation ought not be understood as fusion or assimilation but as a relationship that preserves difference and particularity.

In order to broaden the historical credibility of her study, Canlis also engages the thought of Irenaeus of Lyon. For Irenaeus, through the Son of God, humanity can become sons of God. Irenaeus viewed the whole of human life as growth into communion with God. Although Adam broke off this communion, through Christ and the Spirit, humanity is able to ascend to the Father. Against the Gnostic dualism of his age, Ireaneus argued that God receives glory not by dissolving creation but by bringing it into communion with himself.

In the final chapter Canlis correlates the theologies of Calvin and Irenaeus while also offering some constructive proposals for how a robust doctrine of participation can help the church today. Due to the radical alienation and autonomy of the modern self, Canlis argues that the koinonia of God offered to humanity “constitutes a radical alternative (p. 251). Rather than seeking our own self-fulfillment, “participation in the divine life of the Trinity offers to take us out of ourselves in order to find ourselves in truth in Another (p. 257). Since humanity participates in the ascended Christ, the Christian life must be viewed accordingly. Canlis argues that the Christian life must be seen as participation in God rather than response to God. Communion with God is only through Christ and must be viewed according to our participation in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Humanity does not have the capacity in itself to ascend to God and thus it must locate itself in Christ’s ascent to the Father.

On the whole, Canlis’s book is an incisive and fresh reading of the importance of participation in the theology of Calvin. However, this work is not without its faults. Canlis sometimes gives into the Calvin vs. the Calvinists theme on a number of occasions. She specifically picks out Francis Turretin as a Protestant scholastic who distorted Calvin’s insights. Her critique of Calvin’s Eucharistic theology is also curious. She faults Calvin for his recommendation in 1537 that the Supper should only be celebrated once a month. She notes that this implies Calvin’s distrust and suspicion of the goodness of physical creation. However, Canlis fails to note Calvin’s historical context at this time. Calvin preferred a more frequent celebration but since the citizens of Geneva were used to celebrating the Roman mass only two or three times a year, Calvin wisely noted that such a change to frequent communion might cause a disruption. Calvin was also constrained by the civil authority. The Genevan town councils reduced the celebration of the Supper to four times a year. She also criticizes Calvin for his “suspicion of material things as unable to bear the weight of spiritual reality” (p. 170). The curious thing about this criticism is that it seems to run contrary with Canlis’s whole project. In the pages immediately preceding this criticism, Canlis had just correctly noted that for Calvin, the Spirit unites sign and reality. It is only through the Spirit’s power that the faithful are able to eat of the body and blood of Christ. It is therefore remarkable for Canlis to say that the material things have the capacity to bear spiritual reality when the whole point of Calvin’s discourse is to point to the fact that this is only possible through the work of the Spirit. Since Canlis carefully notes throughout the rest of the book that Christ has ascended and therefore humanity’s only access to him is now through the Spirit, it is peculiar that she faults Calvin for not allowing creaturely reality itself to convey spiritual reality.

Yet these minor faults do not detract from the significance of Canlis’s contribution to Calvin studies. Her reading of Calvin is clear, vibrant, and engaging. Especially insightful is the light that is shed on Calvin’s theology of participation in Christ. Canlis recognizes the centrality of Jesus Christ in the theology of Calvin and how communion with God is through the Son by the power of the Spirit. As Canlis rightly notes in the final chapter, participation in Christ has far-reaching consequences for the Christian life as believers ought to locate their identity in Christ rather than in their own inherent capabilities.

Reviewed by Micah Throop, MAHT Candidate