Polkinghorne on the Ascension of Jesus

This is the tenth follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens“. The first follow-up post is here. The second follow-up post is here. The third follow-up post is here. The fourth follow-up post is here.

The fifth follow-up post was broken up into several parts; follow-up post five-one is here, post five-two is here, post five-three is here, post five-four is here, post five-five is here, post five-six is here, and post five-seven is here.

Starting with the sixth follow-up post, I will focus (not indefinitely) on modern Protestant, then modern Catholic, then modern Orthodox interpretations either of the ascension of Jesus in Luke-Acts or of the nearly-identical articles from the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds that refer to Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The sixth follow-up post (Dodds) is here, the seventh (Erickson) is here, the eighth (Grudem) is here, and the ninth (Packer) is here.  

John Polkinghorne wrote a book titled The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (Princeton, NJ: , Princeton University Press, 1994), 123

‘he ascended into heaven and is seated
at the right hand of the Father’

The language of the creed, and the New Testament passages on which it is based (Luke 24.51; Acts 1.6-11; 2.34—6; Heb. 8.1, etc.), is heavily symbolic at this point. We are not committed to the quaint picture, sometimes found in medieval stained glass, of the Lord’s feet projecting from the underside of a cloud, as he sets out on his space-journey to the heavenly realm. In scripture a cloud is the symbol of the presence of God (Exod. 19.16; Dan. 7.13; Mark 9.7, par.), and its role in the story of the ascension is to emphasize the divine authority of the exalted Christ. A similar purpose is served by the mythological language of the heavenly session. The words of Psalm 110.1: ‘The Lord says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool,” ‘ afforded the early Church some clue to how the Lordship of Christ was related to the fundamental Lordship of God – a clue quite probably originating in the probing words of Jesus himself (Mark 12.35-7, par.) – and that made this verse the Old Testament text most frequently referred to by the writers of the New Testament.

The ascension and session symbolize two profound mysteries of Christian  belief: that in Christ the life of humanity is taken up into the life of God  himself, and that, though ‘we do not yet see everything in subjection to him’  (Heb. 2.8), yet Jesus Christ is the invincible agent of the ultimate purpose of  God.

This article of the Creed receives almost no attention from Polkinghorne — everything he wrote about it appears above, in contrast to an enormous amount of attention given to most of the other doctrines. This teaching — the ascension of Jesus — can only appear as a cipher for more abstract ideas about Jesus. What it meant to early Christians cannot be brought out to show, as that would be too embarrassing. This is disappointing, as the few texts I’ve read from Polkinghorne were invariably very good, very high quality. The man is no dummy — but this instinct to translate this passage from the biblical text into terms that are acceptable is so strong to us moderns that I don’t think Polkinghorne is quite aware that he is so doing — he is smart, so he has the intertextual tools to note the role of a cloud elsewhere, &c.

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Header image found here.

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