Martin Luther, 5: On The Ascension of Jesus & The Location of Jesus’ Body

This is the nineteenth follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens”; here we continue (following follow-up posts fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen) to look at the OG Protestant, Martin Luther. This is likely the final post on Luther — at least for the foreseeable future. 

The previous posts were not organized well before, so I ordered them; further, they were becoming so numerous, and the text block listing and introducing them was so large, that they were soon going to take up more space than the posts themselves. Thus, I organized and listed them here.

Did Jesus ascend, in his risen body, above the firmament and above all the heavens? Why the ascension? Luther addresses this in the course of his first major argument about the nature of the Eucharist with what seem to be Zwinglians. He accuses his opponents of suggesting that, when Christ enters the heart through preaching, he “descends on a ladder and climbs back up again”, even though the same Christ can be “in your heart” and sit “on the right hand of the Father”.

I preach that he [Christ] sits on the right hand of God and rules over all creatures, sin, death, life, world, devils, and angels; if you believe this, you already have him in your heart. Therefore your heart is in heaven, not in an apparition or dream, but truly. For where he is, there you are also. So he dwells and sits in your  heart, yet he does not fall from the right hand of God. Christians experience and feel this clearly. [“The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ — Against the Fanatics” (1526) in Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 227]

So what does Luther make of the ascension? Don’t the narratives clearly suggest a change of place for the body of Jesus? Addressing the common belief of Christians, Luther notes that 

we believe that Christ, according to his human nature, is put over all creatures [Eph. 1:22] and fills all things, as Paul says in Ephesians 4[:10]. Not only according to his divine nature, but also according to his human nature, he is a lord of all things, has all things in his hand, and is present everywhere. […] We read of Stephen in Acts 7:56 that he said: “I see the heavens opened, and Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father.” How does he see Christ? He need not raise his eyes on high. Christ is around us and in us in all places.

Those people [vi&., the “fanatics”, likely Zwinglians] understand nothing of this. They also say that he [Christ] sits at the right hand of God, but what it means that Christ ascends to heaven and sits there, they do not know.

It is not the same as when you climb up a ladder into the house. It means rather that he is above all creatures. That he was taken up bodily, however, occurred as a sign of this. Therefore he now has all things before his eyes, more than I have you before my eyes, and he is closer to us than any creature is to another. 

They speculate thus, that he must ascend and descend from the heavens through the air, and that he lets himself be drawn down into the bread when we eat his body. Such thoughts come from no other source than from foolish reason and the flesh. [Luther’s Basic Writings, 3rd ed., 228]

I have changed the original text by boldfacing some of it. It is interesting that Luther sidesteps the implications of the heavens opening before Stephen’s eyes by a dogmatic assertion. Further, Luther seems to take the physical motion upwards of Jesus in Luke-Acts as a sign to signify the elevation in status (in terms of being, work, and power, &c.) of the person of Christ and, therefore, the humanity in Christ. This notion of a divine sign strikes an Augustinian note, and is close to the heart of Lutheran theology. Divinely given signs —whether the signs of the spoken word-signs of the gospel, or the physical gesture-signs of the sacraments— all signify the hope of the divine promise in Luther. As signs of the promise, they are received with trust and gladness by the faithful.

They are also intelligible. It is not clear that the rising of a human body would signify to us, today, a change in status. Perhaps it would. We have a different cosmology, even though height signifies many similar things to us. It is conceivable, if we were to take this charitably, that a divine sign to first-century Judeans that used our more empirically accurate cosmological models would probably not have been intelligible. Perhaps there are signs that could have cut across both antique and modern models with adequate intelligibility. As I mentioned, the significance of height has retained certain connotations that have not changed. We would think of it similar to a scene in Superman, however; we do not imagine the space above the firmament as the late medievals and early moderns did before Copernicus-Galileo-Newton or Descartes-Spinoza-Kant. Some of the more charged connotations to the ascension of Jesus, taken as a sign, seem to hang on their really being a place above the firmament that could contain us, that would give a body a vantage point out over the round, flat disc of the world. The vision of the Earth from heaven in The Apocalypse of Abraham, for example, is like this, and is nearly impossible to visualize without serious effort. Luther never seems to argue against this space, but seems to assume it, and then to refute it as containing the flesh of the risen Christ.

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In his book Transubstantiation, Brett Salkeld (whose work we voluminously cited in follow-up post sixteen), quotes Ratzinger on this very topic. (Yes: Ratzinger is the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.) The quote is from, I think, this work, which has the essay “The Problem of Transubstantiation and the Question About the Meaning of the Eucharist”. Ratzinger writes that

no natural ubiquity is to be attributed to Christ, and on this point Calvin is right as opposed to Luther. But no local limitation to an imaginary heavenly place should be attributed to him either. Nowhere does the Risen One have a physically restricted place that can be designated. As the Risen One, he has entered into a new mode of existence and participates in God’s might, by virtue of which he can give himself to his own whenever and wherever he wishes. [Brett Salkeld, Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019)]

It is hard to see how this is not exactly what Luther was arguing, or else how, here, Ratzinger wants the results of Luther’s theology through the commitments of Calvin’s. Perhaps I need to read more Calvin to see how the Pope Emeritus is, here, correct. I’ll return to Ratzinger later, eventually, when we get to Catholic writers; I already have drafts for two posts on him.

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In his 1528 Sermon (published in 1530), “On the Prayer of Christ”, Luther treats the extended prayer of Jesus in the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel According to John. (Apparently, Luther considered a stretch of the John sermons as his best and most important work after translating the Bible into German!) I will simply present most of Luther’s exposition on the first passage from verse 11,

“And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to You.”

Luther comments:

[…] He is present and lets Himself be found everywhere that men seek and call upon Him. […] When, then, does He say here that He is no longer [72] in the world and pull the wool over our eyes, as if He were going far away so that we could no longer have Him with us?

I answer that people have come to speak of this in two different ways. The first way is like the fanatics, saying that He has ascended and is seated in heaven above like a swallow in its nest. They play foolish tricks with their thoughts according to the eye and sight, which is fixed on one place at a time and cannot look simultaneously toward heaven and earth, and so they think He, too, must be trapped and circumscribed in one place, so that He cannot at the same time be anywhere else. And so, in accordance with their sight and thoughts, they want to conclude from this and similar passages that it is impossible for Christ to be present everywhere with His body and blood in the Sacrament.

But we give an answer in accord with Scripture. To be “in the world” means to be in this outward existence, perceptible to the senses, that is, in this life that the world uses and lives, called a natural life, in which one must eat, drink, sleep, work, have house and property — in sum, must make use of the world and all the necessities of this life. On the other hand, they are said not to be in the world any longer if they are withdrawn and separated from all the things just listed, so that they do not need to eat, drink, go, stand — in short, they have no need of any natural, bodily activity. This is what the prophet Isaiah spoke of with his words “cut off out of the land of the living” [Isa. 53:8], or, as we say, cut off from this life — not that He is completely separated from the world and no more with us, but that He does not have to concern Himself as a human being with His physical life. Therefore, He now lives no longer in a worldly way, that is, in this bodily life with its necessities. Their thoughts, therefore, are sheer scurrilousness and idle babble when they dream that “leaving the world and going to the Father means to depart beyond heaven and earth and to go to some separate place. Otherwise, the devil would have to rule the world all by himself because there would be no room for God, and Christ could not be either in the Sacrament of in Baptism — nay, according to their logic, He could not even be in the hearts of believers.

[73] So it is a much different thing to be in creation (that is, in the place where creation is) and to be in the world. “They are in the world,” He says, that is, they live as man lives in the world: they require the functions of the body, the five senses, all the elements without which this worldly existence and corporeal life cannot be sustained. “But I am leaving that,” He says, that is, “I am forsaking and withdrawing from all corporeal matters, eating and drinking, working and suffering, and all external society.”

Therefore, persevere in the belief that, though Christ is in the Sacrament with His body and blood and in Baptism with His Holy Spirit and His entire divine essence, He is not “in the world,” for He does not move, stand, walk, talk, or perform any activity such as happens on earth. Otherwise, the text that follows could not stand: “And I am coming to You.” For, tell me, where is the Father? Certainly not up there in the swallow’s nest. But if He is coming to the Father, He must then be everywhere the Father is. Now, the Father is everywhere, in and outside heaven and earth and all creatures, so that He cannot be bound or fixed to any particular place as the stars are fixed in the heavens. We must say and believe that He is with us wherever we call upon Him: in prison, amid water, fire, and all afflictions. But our fanatics will neither hear nor see this text but flutter over it and snatch only the one piece of which they can make use. But this has been adequately dealt with elsewhere.

[Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 69: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Chapters17-20, ed. Christopher Boyd Brown (St. Louis: Concordia, 2009), 71-73]

The stars are “fixed in the heavens”, and Christ is not “up there” in “the swallow’s nest”; his humanity may not be left behind, but something of its boundedness and dependence is, it would seem. This is part of the communication of properties we saw in the first Luther post. Luther takes Cyril of Alexandria’s Christology and dials it up to 11.

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Header image found here, but also see here.

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