Robert Jenson, 1: on the Ascension of Jesus & Modern Cosmology

This is the eleventh 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. I reserve the right to break this order.

First, Protestant responses. They are in no particular logical or chronological order, and encompass evangelical and Magisterial Protestants. The sixth follow-up post (Dodds) is here, the seventh (Erickson) is here, the eighth (Grudem) is here, the ninth (Packer) is here, and the tenth (Polkinghorne) is here.

Robert Jenson died at home on the 5th of September, 2017. By all accounts, his influence was not insignificant — an influence that reached out through printed media (both through his own writings and through his editorial work at the journal Pro Ecclesia), through his teaching in higher education at several places, including Oxford University & St. Olaf’s College (both lectures and relationships with students), and through the ecumenical work of the institutes with which he was associated (the Center for Theological Inquiry and the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology). While a graduate student at Heidelberg, he did his dissertation on Karl Barth (though he originally wanted to write on Bultmann), seemingly under the guidance of Wolfhart Pannenberg (whose influence on Jenson is clear), and he attended seminars with giants such as Heidegger and Gadamer (who, correspondingly, appear in the footnotes of his work). Pannenberg himself wrote a review of volume one and volume two of Jenson’s Systematic Theology. David Bentley Hart seems to consider him “our” (American) theologian, a title that Jenson seems to want to reserve for Jonathan Edwards. He was professionally and, it seems, personally close to Carl Braaten, with whom he edited several volumes.

Despite its flaws, Jenson’s Systematic Theology is usually a pleasure to read. Jenson has read widely, if somewhat eccentrically, beyond the standard figures (Plato, Aristotle, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Lombard, Aquinas, Luther & his tradition, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Barth, Bultmann), and comes across as very approachable and down-to-earth as a person. Volume One has a rather long section that deals somewhat straightforwardly with the problems we set out to tackle in “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens“, by taking us through the problem of the tradition of the ascended body of Jesus before & after Copernicus. As Jenson phrases the traditional Christian teaching:

Somehow there now exists a body that is the living Jesus’ human body.

Through most theological history, this assertion itself caused no great problem. […] Premodern theology presumed we know what a body is, and mostly let it go at that. And the creation as mapped by premodern Western science seemed nicely to accommodate a body of the risen Jesus: it is located “in heaven.”

Heaven, as we have so far considered it, is the created future’s presence to God. But, just so, “heaven” is, vice versa, also the created place for the presence of God; as the creeds have it, Christ went into heaven in order to be at God’s right hand. “Heaven” in Scripture and traditional theology is the accommodation God makes for himself within creation, from which to be present to his creatures and in which some of his creatures can be immediately present to him. If we think of this accommodation as a place, then that is where the risen Christ’s body can have its place.

Our civilization’s premodern Ptolemaic cosmology posited just such a place. Surrounding the earth were supposed to be concentric transparent spheres on [202] which the stars and planets ride and by whose different rotational vectors the observed movements of the heavenly bodies could be predicted. The universe around the earth is divided by these spheres into shell-shaped domains, each more ontologically rarefied than the one next closer to earth — the Ptolemaic cosmology was earth-centered only topographically, and not in its valuations! It was, then, perfectly rational to suppose that the outermost and least earthly of these domains was that made and reserved by God for his own place within his creation, that it was the “heaven” of Scripture. And it was equally rational to suppose that this is where Christ’s risen body is at home, having “ascended” there. Thus the best available science made the located existence of a body of the risen Christ unproblematic.

Copernicus’ new cosmology undid this accommodation. The Copernican universe is homogeneous; no part of it can be more suited for God’s dwelling than any other. It can map no topologically delineated heaven. There is in a Copernican universe no plausible accommodation for the risen Christ’s body; and, indeed, within any modern cosmology, the assertion that the body is up there someplace must rightly provoke mocking proposals to search for it with more powerful telescopes, or suggestions that perhaps it is hiding on the “other side” of a black hole. But if there is no place for Jesus’ risen body, how is it a body at all? For John Calvin was surely right: “…this is the eternal truth of any body, that it is contained in its place.” [fn. here says “Institutes iv.122″, though I couldn’t find the passage cited.]

The disappearance of heaven from the accepted topography of the universe has had powerful and destructive impact on the actual theology of believers. It is safe to say that most modern believers, whatever doctrine they may formally espouse, actually envision the risen Christ as not embodied, as a pure “spirit,” or perhaps as embodied in a very thinned-out fashion, as –not to be too fine about it– a spook. A body requires its place, and we find it hard to think of any place for this one. [Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Triune God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 201-202]

There is the problem; this is the crisis for Christian teaching on the ascension in the modern period. One could hardly ask for a better summary. It is nearly impossible to think of how one could mount an answer to this, but Jenson proceeds to hazard one, anyway.

We shall look at his answer in the next posts: first, the Swabian response; second, the complications that Eucharistic theology already presented to the easy accommodations of the Ptolemaic and Christian cosmoses (or cosmoi, if you prefer a Greek construction), before Copernicus, in the Middle Ages (as well as Jenson’s tentative answer to this through his reading of Paul’s understanding of the Church and the Eucharist; third, his understanding of angels and heaven; and fourth, his answer to the question about “from where” Christ exercises his priesthood.

Stating that heaven is the world’s future is both brilliant exegesis and apologetics. In the biblical text heaven is, of course, the firmament and what is above the firmament. There are things “up there” that are revealed only in the end, and, in the end, the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven (in the book of Revelation). Thus, there is something to Jenson’s statement that heaven is the future of creation. One could read the language about heaven as referring to things that are “off stage”, so to speak.  I do remember N.T. Wright using that phrase, though I can’t for the life of me find where he said or wrote that — heaven is “off stage” with God. It cannot be avoided that this “location” for what is off-stage is unmistakably, for the biblical writers, above the firmament, and, if that location were denied, some things just won’t work, such as the language and logic of heavenly ascent — whether Jesus or someone else.

Temporalizing the spatialized heaven –at least the way that Jenson does it– seems like it extracts an abstraction of heaven’s functions, and then re-concretizes the abstraction in a more suitable location. It saves the appearances, but maybe at the price of honesty.

And yet I still hope for, and long for, resurrection as the final justice and affirmation of the world. Maybe I’ve just read too much Pannenberg.


Header image found here.

3 thoughts on “Robert Jenson, 1: on the Ascension of Jesus & Modern Cosmology

  1. Pingback: Robert Jenson, 2: on the Ascension of Jesus & Modern Cosmology | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: Robert Jenson, 3: on the Ascension of Jesus & Modern Cosmology | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: C. S. Lewis on the Ascension of Jesus | Into the Clarities

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