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

This is the thirteenth follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens“. The first follow-up post (on Aphrahat) is here. The second follow-up post (on the cosmography involved in the Sinai narratives in the Hebrew Bible) is here. The third follow-up post (a long excerpt from Paul Tillich on divine omnipresence in a one-story universe vs. a three-story one) is here. The fourth follow-up post (on the ascent through the eight heavens in The Apocalypse of Abraham) is here.

The fifth follow-up post on Theodoret of Cyrus 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 — though I start with Reformed and Evangelical authors who take a somewhat more “high view” of the Bible and biblical authority, and then move towards those Protestant thinkers and traditions that are wrestling in a more open and public way with Christian theology in the modern world. 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, and the twelfth post (Jenson 2) is here.

The previous two posts introduced Robert Jenson’s layout of the cosmographic problems involved in the ascension of Jesus’ body in the modern period, and then followed up with the Medieval traditions about Jesus’ body (both in heaven and in the Eucharist), the Luther-Zwingli debate over the body of Christ, Protestant Swabian response to Copernican cosmology and Jenson’s reiteration of Pauline and Medieval notes regarding the body of Christ in the Eucharist and the body of Christ in the Church.

Here, we examine his writing regarding the biblical and traditional language of heaven and angels, to get a sense of what Jenson does with the biblical, patristic, medieval, and modern material on these related topics within the Christian tradition.

Jenson does a lovely job summarizing the earlier relationship of humans to the stars as the heavenly host, as gods:

[H]umanity has found itself under the heavens, and looking up has perceived itself at once sheltered and tyrannized by a panoply that appears identically as a divine society and as the most calculable aspect of the universe; in archaic civilizations celestial calendars are at once sacred scripture and basic technology. The sun is not originally a symbol or manifestation of the sun-god; the great light is the god. He daily pours out his blessings or his curses and yearly withdraws himself and returns; and all our flourishing depends on him. Nor are the other lights, each with his or her power, some easily predictable and some less so, less than full members of the pantheon.

Humanity has worshipped this “host of heaven,” rather than simply calculating its influences, because in its cycles we have found our primal defense against the threat of the future, the most secure instance of the eternity of perdurance: the heavens present an apparently immutable repetition of movements and conjunctions, whose rule of the agricultural seasons controls an equally immutable wheel of life and death. But Israel and the church want no defense against the future, which they hear as promise rather than as threat; what is coming is the “new thing” the Lord will do, indeed it is resurrection. [Jenson, Systematic Theology 2, 113]

Now, this is generally correct — generally. Jenson follows Gogarten in emphasizing the disenchantment of the world for the ancient Israelites, and I’m not certain that things are quite as disenchanted for them as Gogarten and Jenson would have us believe, although the passage is perfectly fine with some qualifications. If J. Louis Martyn’s volume on Galatians is correct, it seems that, even in the earliest missionary Jewish Christianity coming from Jerusalem, the “elements” –particularly the stars– were seen by the Jerusalem faction as created for the sake of marking times that God had appointed for cultic observance, so that the cosmic cycles were subordinate to something extra-cosmic — the commandments, the Torah. (See Martyn’s excursus essay titled something like “Christ and the Elements” in his Anchor Bible commentary on Galatians.) It should be mentioned that the stars were generally seen as conscious and obedient by the ancient Israelites, rather than inanimate and disenchanted.

The phrase “galaxy clusters and angels and aardvarks” [115 &c.] is often used by Jenson as indices of the range of creatures he is interested in discussing; he emphasizes that Israel is not to worship the stars and the sun and moon: Deuteronomy 4:19, 2 Kings 23:5, and Acts 7:42 are brought out as examples of this exhortation. Jenson shifts registers when using biblical and modern cosmological language, however. Angels were not thought to occupy “galaxy clusters”, but to dwell above the firmament of heaven.

Jenson does address this problem somewhat directly, even if his answers are not entirely satisfying. He takes John of Damascus to represent the early Christian tradition generally, when John writes that angels are formless, but that they appear to humans as having a form, that they are with God when they are in heaven, and not with God when they are on earth, and that they are only in one place at a time. I will not treat his teaching on angels per se, only the related question of heaven as “location”.

–but “how can the angels be located conceptually? If anywhere?” –where is “heaven”? Jenson takes Karl Barth as his primary interlocutor on this. [119]

According to Barth, heaven is created with the earth as earth’s boundary by mystery: it “is the heart of that in creation which is unfathomable, distant, and uncanny for…earthly creatures.” [Church Dogmatics III/3: 494] Thus heaven is not a space related to earth as to another space; we cannot by travelling within creation move from being in the one to being in the other. […]

It does not follow that heaven is in no way locatable, that we cannot point to where it is. […]

According to Barth, both heaven and earth have their being “in the course” of God’s movement to solidarity with us, which in fact encompasses all his action ad extra. […] [A]s God is himself the starting point of his movement to us, so insofar as the movement occurs within creation it has a created starting point identified with him; and that is “heaven.” Heaven is defined as “the place in the world from which” God’s action, insofar as it is an inner-worldly action, originates. [Barth, CD III/3: 503]

[…] But we do have to ask: Where is this place within creation from which God comes to the rest of it? And now it will not do to say with Barth that heaven as a “realm” is merely “unknown and incomprehensible.” [CD III/3: 515] According to Barth, we know that the creation subject to our knowledge or action, “the earth,” is at all points bounded by mystery and that God comes to us from that boundary, and that is all we know. Barth has thus forgotten an essential point about the biblical heaven, that it opens to earthly apprehension.  [Jenson, Systematic Theology 2, 120]

Jenson takes the visions of Ezekiel and John as typical of this: in both cases, the heavens open. It strikes me that the kind of Reformed tradition that Barth seems to represent –whom I admit I’ve not (yet) read– emphasizes a hyper-Deuteronomistic tradition, where the divine word, as a text, or else as the text preached properly, arrives as a saving sign, even as a meteor. This textualization of revelation accompanies a hostility to any apocalyptic vision, any heavenly ascent. Jenson continues,

Heaven is indeed the earth’s bounding by mystery, but the [121] boundary is drawn by the mystery’s speaking to us and opening to our view; just so it locates itself.

In the paradigm passage from Revelation the mystery revealed is the future — and noting that, we are set on a path very different from Barth’s. As we discussed earlier, heaven is finally defined within apocalyptic metaphysics, where it is the created future’s presence —as future!– with God. There is future in God, but not so as to transcend God: God anticipates his future and so possesses it, and so there is a present tense of creation’s future with God, and therefore there is also its place with God. Just so heaven is, as earlier described, the created space God takes, from which to be present to his other creatures.

Since there is this space, God can if he chooses open a door to what is in it. […] [Jenson, Systematic Theology 2, 120-121]0

We might object that there is no way that an ancient Israelite or an early Christian, for over the first millennium of the Church’s life, would have been able to conceive this as separate from the space above the firmament. Jenson grants this, and tries to highlight complications in the older view:

In Jacob’s dream [Gen 28:17ff.], heaven appears as a space separated vertically from earth. But when he wakes, the earthly location of the dream, with the stone that Jacob erects to mark it, is itself a “house” of God, a temple where he may be found. As such, it is a “gate of heaven,” a conjunction of heaven and earth. And it was the marked-out place itself from which for centuries the Lord’s initiatives then moved Israel’s history. [Jenson, Systematic Theology 2, 121]

If this seems to alter through elision, Jenson will not let you harbor this suspicion for long before he confronts your wariness:

In the Old Testament, the stereotypical usages at first seem, so to speak, topographically clear: the Lord “looks down” from “heaven, his holy habitation”; from there he examines humankind and judges or blesses them [e.g., Deut 26:15; Psalm 2:4; 80:14]; and when the [122] Lord or the Angel of the Lord calls or answers us he does so “from heaven.” [e.g., Gen 21:17; 22:1] The writers plainly are thinking of a boundary somewhere up there and of God as located just beyond it. but these relations can suddenly be confused; so, for example, the holy mountain can itself be the place from which the Lord comes, and the spatial heaven and earth together the goal of his coming. [Hab 3:3]. [Jenson, Systematic Theology 2, 121-122]

We have looked at the imagery from Exodus and Deuteronomy, and its topographical clarification in Nehemiah, in a previous post. The boundary-moving figurations in the biblical text are real, but Jenson is trying to make them do work that they cannot do without fundamental alteration or obfuscation. Jenson claims that Sinai occurring both in heaven and on earth offers us identification-in-difference, and suggests that the temple “fully confounds spatial simplicities.” [122] He is partially correct. It is not clear how the conceptualization of heaven and earth as overlapping can survive the death of a cosmography in which the heavens are a location with occupants that is geographically above the earth, and above the dome of the firmament. The umbilical cord(s) that connect the space above the firmament and the space(s) within the temple –or in the sacraments [123ff.]– require that what appears in the temple is an image of what is above the firmament.

Jenson wants space to be something that allows creatures a “present tense” [123] next to God, and heaven as a “space” between the Father and Son that allows for creaturely space. I remember Pannenberg making an argument like this, suggesting that the self-differentiation of the Father and the Son is the origin of the possibility of creatures to be at all, that this is how the differentiation that is necessary for beings to be has its origin. Jenson is showing his reliance on Pannenberg here. It may be true, but it doesn’t work for the tasks for which Jenson purposes this distinction regarding the recovery of the biblical ideas of heaven.

In the Gospel According to John, for example, to be baptized is to be born again “from above”, not from out of an inner-worldly space. The loss of the sky leads to this kind of equivocation; the break with traditional thinking leads, also, to a break with traditional Christian architecture. The Eucharist, for example, is clearly connected with the bread of angels (which angelic food is sometimes the divine glory itself in some literature), and to the body of Christ in the heavens. This is almost always visually explicit in the art and architecture of pre-modern churches. It is not fair to traditional teaching to characterize these things as though they regarded inner-worldly spaces, however, Jenson does. Although he grants that

[refusing] to posit heaven as located “elsewhere” than, for central instance, the place of the Eucharistic congregation around bread and cup [is “not usual”] [Systematic Theology 2, 123]

he also writes that “heaven is no place at all; and, were circumscriptive location the only sort, heaven would indeed be earth’s boundedness by mystery everywhere in general and no place in particular.” [124] He does not want to confine heaven to the sacraments, but, in the collapse of the sky, he is left with what feels quite a bit like obfuscation, like an attempt to house the contents of the old heaven into a new container, whilst simultaneously denying that the container is, as such, a real container as it was formerly thought to be — for where could that boundary be other than in atavistic language about it that is a hangover of the dead cosmography?

Jenson’s presentation of the problems associated with modern cosmology is accurate, but his solutions feel unsatisfying.


Header image found here.

One thought on “Robert Jenson, 3: on the Ascension of Jesus & Modern Cosmology

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

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