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Calvin's Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension
Calvin's Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension
Julie Canlis
Eerdmans, 2010
336 pp., $33.00

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Eugene Peterson


Living with the Triune God

The Christian life is relentlessly personal.

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What follows is a theologically astute, exegetically brilliant, and pastorally sensitive recovery of Calvin's metaphor of the ladder: Jesus' descent in the incarnation so that we can grasp and participate in his work of creation and redemption, followed by Jesus' ascent to the Father, bringing us with him in all our humanity, living the life of Jesus completely and robustly.

The metaphor of the ladder has a long pedigree, beginning with Plato but then picked up by Greek philosophers and Christian theologians to describe the ascent of the soul to God. The metaphor continues in many contemporary secular forms: "fulfilling my potential," "staying true to myself," various and assorted three-step/seven-step/twelve-step programs. But Calvin's Ladder demonstrates how Calvin radically re-imagines the metaphor. It is not about our ascent to God but our participation in Christ's ascent. As Canlis puts it, "In one deft move Calvin has relocated 'participation' from between the impersonal (the soul in the divine nature) to personals (the human being in Christ, by the Spirit." The narrative of Jesus now becomes our narrative, or, to put it differently, our narrative gets continued in the Jesus narrative. We become more human as we live the Christian life, not less. Just as the very humanity of Jesus is the means by which he reveals his salvation to us, our humanity is the means by which we enter into communion with the persons of the Trinity.

We don't fit Christ into our lives by fashioning programs of ascent, schemes sometimes designated "spiritual formation," getting closer to God, making our way to heaven. Rather, we are fitted into Christ's ascent. In him and by his Spirit we ascend to the Father. Apart from Christ we do not have an "in" with God. Calvin has only disdain for nonchristological schemes of ascent: "All who, leaving Christ, attempt to rise to heaven after the manner of the giants are destitute."

The ladder now becomes a metaphor that controls the entire Christian life. The programs and structures that we try to fashion in order to make something of ourselves turn out to look something like "playing house" compared to living in the large household of God, in which the Spirit provides the means through our presence and obedience to ascend to the Father. The Christian life in its entirety is marked by a return to God in the company of Jesus as we find ourselves included in the triune God of love.

Two features are critical in the ladder metaphor. The first is that the Christian life is relentlessly and persistently personal: words such as relational, mutual indwelling, sharing-in-being, participation, and communion collect around what George Hunsinger names koinonia-relations: "Kononia means that we are not related to God or to one another like ball bearings in a bucket, through a system of external relations. We are, rather, something like relational fields that interpenetrate, form, and participate in each other in countless real though often elusive ways." Nothing impersonal, nothing abstract, nothing in general; no role-playing, no posturing, no pretense, no condescension.

The second is that the Christian life is fundamentally a human life. God revealed in the flesh, Jesus, was very man, not disguised as human, not temporarily human. We do not live the Jesus life by minimizing humanity, either his or ours. We are not angels. Everything in Jesus' life, his human life, is livable by us. In the ascent and ascension, the Spirit takes us into the humanity of Jesus, bringing us with him in all his humanity, in all our humanity, to the Father.

For all who give direction or leadership in the Christian community, Calvin's Ladder is a superb rehearsal of what is involved in spiritual theology. In this culture, impoverished as it is in both spiritual and theological imagination, we need all the help we can get.

Eugene Peterson is the author most recently of The Pastor: A Memoir (HarperOne). His five-volume spiritual theology is published by Eerdmans.

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