Robert Jenson, 2: on the Ascension of Jesus & Modern Cosmology

This is the twelfth 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. The eleventh post (Jenson, 1) is here.

In the previous post, we introduced Robert Jenson, and the opening of the first volume of his two-volume Systematic Theology regarding the topic of the ascended Christ. Here, we examine the other topics treated in the first volume of his Systematic Theology regarding Swabians and the cosmological problems introduced by the doctrine of the Eucharist in the Middle Ages.

In the Middle Ages, Christ’s body was understood to reside “in the outer Ptolemaic shell or similar space” [Systematic Theology 1, 202], so it became a question as to

how […] it come[s] to be in churches on earth? If heaven is a place in the universe and earth another, it would seem the embodied Christ would have to travel from the one to the other. But this was always too mythological for Christian theology; thus Thomas Aquinas: “The body of Christ does not come to be in the sacrament by spatial motion.” [Summa Th. iii.75.2] [Systematic Theology 1, 202]

This “avoid[s] the notion of cosmic travel” [202]. There are consequences that Jenson will draw from this later.

It turns out that, in the wake of Copernicus, there was a school of (apparently Protestant) theologians in Swabia that were happy to abandon Ptolemy on evidential grounds. Jenson brings forth the figure of Johannes Brenz, whose Wikipedia page seems a decent starting point, but about whom not much secondary literature has been written in English. Further, there are few English translations of his writings. Brenz, himself a Protestant Reformer (seemingly Wittenbergian [i.e., what we today would call “Lutheran”]) seems to have extended Martin Luther’s notions of Christ‘s body as ubiquitous (on the neo-Cyrillian grounds that Christ’s humanity and divinity are joined together and coextensive in his divine Person as the Son), and to have held that, since Christ is God, and as God is omnipresent, then, by virtue of the communication of attributes, Christ’s human body shares in the divine omnipresence. Luther’s contemporary Ulrich Zwingli objected:

“We rely on the testimony of the angel, who said, ‘He is risen, he is not here.’ Christ’s body is not everywhere, even if his divinity fills all things; and nor then is he bodily present where there is faith in Christ.” [Zwingli, Amica Exegesis or “Friendly Exegesis”, found in Volume 2 of Zwingli’s Writings] […] “According to his divine nature Christ […] is everywhere. Where two or three are gathered in his name, he is [in this nature] among them. In his human nature […] he is departed.” [Zwingli, Eine klare underrichtung vom nachtmal Christ, “A Clear Understanding of Christ’s Supper”] [Both passages cited in Systematic Theology 2, 256]

For Zwingli, Christ’s presence in the Church is not in all respects, but only with respect to his divinity. Here, he differs from Luther. While Luther’s view may seem a short distance from the medieval view represented in figures like Aquinas, Aquinas did believe that there was a body of Jesus in a location called heaven above the firmament (which heaven seems to have been understood as “the empyrean heaven”, the same as the angels’ heaven, even if “at the right hand of the Father” in the Creed was taken figuratively by him, rather than literally), and that it would require passing through space and intermediate spaces in order for that body to arrive at the altar. For Brenz, who accepted Copernican cosmology, there was no such place for Jesus to be. “Does Jesus take little walks up there?” Jenson reports Brenz to have mocked the very idea. [203] Brenz and other associates “came to deny –even mock– the whole notion of a ‘heaven’ spatially related to other parts of the created universe.” [203] Space was, as Jenson relates it in Volume 2 of his Systematic Theology, reduced to a matter of time:

for something to be at a place distant from the one where I am is to be where I cannot now reach it, that is, is to be a future unavailable to me. [Jenson, Systematic Theology 2, 253, fn. 24]

Thus, God transcends spatial locations, but not temporal ones: the future of his eschatological consummation of the world is present to himself, but it is still present as future [ST 2, 253]. The problem of Eucharistic presence is “defining a difference between [the Son’s] presence [on the altar] and his presence generally.” [Systematic Theology 1, 203] God is not “in” a place, Brenz argued, but “is his own place” [ST 1, 203], so that the whole creation is one “single place” [ST 1, 204] to God.  Simultaneity of the divine presence to the world is thus affirmed. Jenson makes this plain in Volume 2:

For God there are only two places: the place that he is and the place he makes for creatures, immediately and inwardly adjacent to him. Thus the creation is for God just one place. And the one creation is heaven and earth together, however otherwise they differ. Therefore the difference between God’s being in heaven and his being on earth can only be a difference between styles of his presence; for him to “come” from one to the other does not require him to leave where he was or arrive where he was not. When the Lord rends the heavens and comes down, he comes to his Temple, where he is all along, and does not cease to be in heaven. [ST2, 254]

Thus, given the communication of properties between Jesus’ divinity and humanity, Jenson affirms, using the words of Brenz:

“We do not attribute to [Jesus’] body extension or diffusion in space, but elevate it beyond…all location” [Systematic Theology 1, 204]

Jenson has a hard time with this definition of Brenz’s, however, because “it was and is hard to see by what right they call the entity they describe a body at all.” [Systematic Theology 1, 204]

So where is Jesus’ body? “Where does Christ exercise his priesthood?” [ST 2, 253] Jenson seems to advocate for a strange kind of container theology that steals the functions of the earlier “above the firmament” narratives without their cosmographic baggage: “‘Jesus’ is the name of a known historical figure; the name identifies the one present in the church and at God’s right hand. How is the one in whom we now participate identical with the past historical figure?” [ST 2, 257] Jenson wants theology to be “taught by the collapse of Ptolemaic cosmology” [ST 1, 205] about how to think freshly about the Eucharist and bodies, and so he describes “body” as referring to when someone is “available to other persons and to him or herself, insofar as the person is an object for other persons and him or herself.” [ST 1, 205] So “[t]he church, according to Paul, is the risen body of Christ.” [ST 1, 205] The body of Christ “is whatever object it is that is Christ’s availability to us as subjects” [ST 1, 205]; vi&., the Eucharist and the Eucharistic assembly. This self-understanding of Jesus is true because Jesus is the Logos. [ST 1, 206] Christ “find[s] his Ego in a community of earthly creatures and ha[s] that community as his body. […] [T]he one human personality [of] Jesus [is not] thereby divided or separated.” [ST 2, 254] This Jesus is still one identity of God, transcending space, his total self “in God and in creation”. [ibid.]

Jenson ends by saying that there

is and needs to be no other place than the church for him to be embodied, nor in that other place any other entity to be the “real” body of Christ. Heaven is where God takes space in his creation to be present to the whole of it; he does that in the church. [Systematic Theology 1, 206]

While many of Jenson’s moves are admirable for their honesty, and there may be leads to solutions in the medieval dilemmas he identifies, I am not at all persuaded that his proffered solutions are robust. Worried that Jesus is, for us, a “spook” [ST 1, 202], Jenson seems to sell us that spook under the clothes of the church.


Header image found here.

2 thoughts on “Robert Jenson, 2: on the Ascension of Jesus & Modern Cosmology

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

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

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