Monday 29 January 2007

Andrew Burgess: The Ascension in Karl Barth

Andrew Burgess, The Ascension in Karl Barth (Barth Studies Series; Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 209 pp. (with thanks to Ashgate for the review copy)

Douglas Farrow’s 1999 work on Ascension and Ecclesia has gone a long way towards reviving interest in the theological significance of Jesus’ ascension. In a more recent article, Farrow suggests that Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV is “one of the major works of ascension theology” – and in this new study, Andrew Burgess seeks to develop this suggestion by demonstrating that the concept of “ascension” plays an important role throughout the Church Dogmatics.

Although Barth does not often explicitly affirm Jesus’ ascension, Burgess proposes that the ascension functions as “a presupposition in Barth’s thought” (p. 23), and he argues that this presupposition has far-reaching implications for the whole dogmatic structure of Barth’s theology.

For Barth, “the ascension informs a dynamic of presence and absence – Jesus Christ’s coincident presence and absence during ‘this time between’” (p. 19). The church is the community that exists in this “time between,” in the dialectical space between Christ’s presence and absence. Burgess thus highlights the significance of ascension in Barth’s conception of time. Through his lordly agency, Jesus “reaches into the lives of His people … in such a way that they are now made to share His time” (p. 38). Barth’s whole account of ecclesiology and Christian life is thus structured by this view of the church’s existence in the “time between.”

One of Burgess’ most interesting suggestions is that Barth’s fundamental disagreement with both Roman Catholic and liberal Protestant ecclesiology rests in part on different conceptions of Jesus’ risen lordship: Roman Catholic theology places too much emphasis on the identity between the life of Jesus and the life of the institutional church, while liberal Protestant theology places too much emphasis on the faith of the individual believer (pp. 101-2). In contrast, Barth wants to differentiate as sharply as possible between the agency of the risen Jesus and the agency of the Christian community.

After discussing the function of the ascension throughout the Church Dogmatics, Burgess brings Barth’s theology into dialogue with T. F. Torrance, Douglas Farrow and Robert W. Jenson. He critiques Jenson’s conception of Jesus’ presence in the Christian community, Farrow’s conception of Jesus’ eucharistic presence, and Torrance’s notion of Jesus’ high-priestly work in heaven. In each case, he argues that Barth’s own dialectical emphasis on the church’s existence “between the times” provides a more reliable basis for ecclesiological reflection.

All in all, Burgess offers an interesting new way of reading Barth’s theology, and he rightly highlights the importance of the agency of the risen Jesus in Barth’s thought. As an interpretation of Barth, then, this book is valuable. But I have some reservations about Burgess’ own attempt to demonstrate the contemporary dogmatic importance of the ascension of Jesus.

On the one hand, Burgess is certainly right to point out that some theological projects have suffered from a lack of ascension-theology: for instance, projects in which Jesus is simply assumed to be absent, or in which the risen life of Jesus is simply identified with the Christian community. In contrast to such approaches, Burgess rightly argues that Jesus is “present” not merely passively or noetically, but “as agent of His [own] reconciliation” (p. 49).

Nevertheless, to conceive of this “agency” in terms of an ascended physical body seems intensely problematic. Both scientifically and theologically, it scarcely seems intelligible to speak of the risen Jesus as though he were simply removed to a different spatial location. What does it mean to say that Jesus “departs ‘physically’ in the event of the ascension” (p. 26)? Or that “Jesus is ‘physically’ located somewhere other than the church and sacraments” (p. 187)? Certainly we should distinguish between Jesus’ agency and ecclesial action – but is it meaningful to speak without further ado of a “physical location,” or to give the impression that Jesus is perhaps simply acting from a distance?

It seems to me that Barth wanted to avoid precisely such mythologising when he insisted that resurrection and ascension are simply two “moments in one and the same event” (CD IV/2, p. 150). Indeed, as New Testament exegetes have pointed out, the (late) Lucan depiction of a bodily ascension introduces a temporal distinction between ascension and resurrection that was not present in the church’s earliest proclamation (see, e.g., C. F. Evans, Resurrection and the New Testament). To speak of the risen one is to speak of the ascended Lord; and to speak of the ascension is to speak of the man whom God raised up from death.

In other words, to say that Jesus is ascended is to make a theological statement about God’s exaltation of the crucified Jesus. It is not a quasi-historical description of Jesus’ movement through space, or a statement about the “physical location” of Jesus. Rather, it is (in Barth’s words) the confession that the crucified and risen Jesus “went to God,” and so entered the “reality [Weltwirklichkeit] by which humans are always surrounded” (CD IV/2, p. 153).

Burgess is right, then, to emphasise the present agency of the risen Jesus, and to distinguish between Jesus’ agency and all forms of ecclesial action. But (so it seems to me) we can offer a meaningful account of this divine agency only by resisting the development of a spatial mythology, and by placing much greater emphasis on the theological unity between resurrection and ascension.


David W. Congdon said...


Does Burgess analyze the relation between Barth and Calvin on the ascension? I find that Calvin's theology is, more than any other I can think of, an "ascension" theology. That is, his Christology is marked by a strong emphasis on the ascended humanity of Christ, and thus his rejection of the Lutheran doctrine of Christ's ubiquity. Thus, the ascension thus fits together with Calvin's doctrine of the extra Calvinisticum. Anything in Burgess touch on these matters?

Aric Clark said...

Somehow when I first read the title of this post I thought it said the Ascension OF Karl Barth, which made me think, "Whoa! Ben, I know you like Barth and everything, but don't you think you're taking it a little far!" Actually reading the article cleared my conscience however.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben.

What indeed does it mean to speak of the "physical location" of the body of the ascended Jesus? This question has always troubled me, particularly as I am not a Catholic and cannot accept a purely ecclesial or eucharistic presence, and as I am not a Lutheran and cannot get my head around the doctrine of ubiquity.

However I will take some convincing that, on the other hand, we can get away with talk of "spatial mythology". That sounds to me like the modernist Bultmann on his soap box! Nor do I think that we can in good canonical conscience simply dismiss Luke as a NT anomaly. Besides, all the NT writers insist on the somatic reality of the risen Christ. Furthermore, if we are not uncomfortable about speaking of the temporal reality of the ascended Christ, why should we be uncomfortable about his spatial reality -especially after Einstein! Indeed, how can we speak about created reality at all and as such without the categories of time and space? (And by the way, speaking of physics, might quantum mechanics be a useful dialogue partner here?)

I can glibly suggest that the way forward is to look at the matter in reverse: not how are we to understand the ascended Christ in terms of space, but how are we to understand space in terms of the ascended Christ, but there my brain begins to stall.

By the way, I always insist that the ascension of Christ is the most political of all Christian doctrines. Does Burgess have any comments?

Anonymous said...

I heard from someone that Tom Torrance argues that Christ's spatio-temporal location is in the future. . . Can anyone confirm this (that Torrance argues it, not that he's right!)?

Anonymous said...

Terry: Torrance advances the concept of an 'eschatological reserve,' whereby the return of the ascended Christ is 'held back' until the future advent. Thus Torrance says, "The ascension means that Christ holds back the physical transformation of the creation to the day when he will return to make all things new, and that, in the meantime he sends the Çhurch to live and work in the form of a servant within the measure and limits of the on-going world of space and time," Space, Time and Resurrection, Eerdmans, 1976, p. 149. Ray Anderson

Ben Myers said...

David, that's an interesting point about Calvin. Burgess doesn't discuss Calvin, although he does discuss the extra Calvinisticum.

Kim, I see what you mean -- and I certainly don't want to sound like "Bultmann on his soapbox"! As a minimal requirement for theological statements, though, I think Bultmann is right: any statement that isn't intelligible (within the basic framework of what we know about the world) has to be thought through more deeply.

So I think you're absolutely right that we need to re-think "space" and "time" from the standpoint of Jesus' resurrection/ascension (this is perhaps one of the most urgent tasks for contemporary theology). But the account of space and time that we come up with can't simply be a mythology -- it has to cohere with what we already know from other sources about space and time.

Or to put it another way: I'd be quite happy to talk about an "ascended physical body", as long as we had done the hard work of explaining what that means!

Anonymous said...

Yes, Ben, I agree. Thanks for the clarification.

Anonymous said...

Kim F. said - What indeed does it mean to speak of the "physical location" of the body of the ascended Jesus? This question has always troubled me, particularly as I am not a Catholic and cannot accept a purely ecclesial or eucharistic presence, and as I am not a Lutheran and cannot get my head around the doctrine of ubiquity.

I suppose you can’t imagine a point (no position) or a line (no width) either, but you can conceive them. Christ and Mary both must have ascended, not because it is imaginable, but because the alternative is inconceivable.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anonymous,

That's quite an interesting point (no pun intended!). It's a kind of ontological-Christological argument (bracketing the mariological question): as one way of putting Anselm's prayerful argument is that the non-existence of God is, with the believer, inconceivable, so too for the bodily ascension of Jesus.

Anonymous said...

Hello Kim…
If an alternative to something is inconceivable, does that mean that that something must be immaculately conceivable?
Talking of assumptions here, I don’t see how you can validly ‘bracket’ Mary when talking of Christ’s sinless incorruptibility and consequent ascension. Can we conceive of the Holy Spirit coming upon Mary in grace and of her being overshadowed by the power of the Most High to become the real, present Mother Of God, and still conceive of her being in a state of sin all the while and so corruptible and susceptible to death?

Halden said...

Um, just for the record, I can conceive of that!

And this actually raises an ironic point. How is it inconceivable that Jesus couldn't have been born sinless unless Mary was immaculately conceived? Why couldn't God do that? Maybe that's not a very sophisticated question, but I think it's apropos.

The other question that comes to my mind in what you're saing about the immaculate concepetion relates to the vrigin birth. Ironically enough, it seems to me that the Catholic insistence on the immaculate conception actually undercuts the theological significance of the virgin birth. If Mary can be immaculately conceived through normal sexual intercourse, between sinful people, why must Jesus be born of a virgin to be sinless? As far as I understand, the Catholic tradition understands Jesus' sinlessness to be based on the virgin birth. But if Mary can be born sinless through normal sex, why do we even need a virgin birth (from the Catholic perspective)?

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that the important thing is to preserve the fact that there are two moments, even if they are moments of the one event. In your third last paragraph, Ben, it seems to me that you risk collapsing these two moments into one. Can I also suggest the chapter on "the passion and triumph of Christ" in O'Donovan's On the Thirty Nine Articles, which includes interesting comments similar to what you suggested, e.g.: "However problematic the statement of the resurrection may seem to be, the problems posed by the ascension are of a much more fundamental kind. For 'heaven', 'God's throne', and 'the right hand of the Father' are not places that can be mapped topographically within space. The verb 'ascended', like the verb 'came down' in the creed, can refer to no form of spatial movement known to man."

Anonymous said...

Hello Halden...

Two points.
One. Certainly Jesus could have been conceived immaculately through the sexual activity of two as yet unredeemed parents, as Mary was. But this arrangement would not do expressive justice to his divine procession.

Second. The incarnation is an act of pure grace, an act of absolute enfolding of the other in freedom and love. Action that is absolute, free and loving is brought to term only when it is received absolutely, freely and lovingly. Consummated if you like. Made fruitful. Magnified. This pure, enabling receptivity cannot be conceived of unless as already redeemed.

Anonymous said...

The Virgin Birth of our Lord is not the reason he is sinless. He is sinless because he true man, not fallen man. His heart is always in harmony with His Heavenly Father's. He would have been the sinless true man even had he not been born of a virgin. The Virgin Birth does not teach that Jesus is half man and half God, nor does it teach anything about Mary being a co redeemer. Nor does it teach us that sexual activity is a necessary evil, nor that our sexual nature is somehow bad and that "God would not stoop to such low activity." The Virgin Birth is nothing more than a sign that child born of Mary is the long awaited Messiah spoken of in the Scriptures.

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