ascension, christology, Gerritt Scott Dawson, incarnation, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation, John Calvin, Lewis Smedes, Union with Christ
Lewis Smedes in Union With Christ orients the doctrine of union in the “situation” of the Christian between the resurrection and the Second Coming. But before he explores the union, he begins by noting types of doctrines of union.
First, he references the “communion with God” model. This model denies any real union with Jesus. The man Jesus is dead and gone. While there may be communion with God (or with “Christ”), Jesus, himself cannot be an object of union.
Dawson in Jesus Ascended considers the problem which the non-union “communion” model places to the fore: How can a man, Jesus of Nazareth, be the subject of any real relationship, seeing he is physically located somewhere (“heaven”) distant from us?
Still, because a body occupies space, the spatial distinction is not merely a metaphor but a reality. There is a place where the human Jesus is. There isa heaven in which spiritual bodies occupy space, a created realm in which creatures are, to the limits of their capacity, in the presence of God (49).
Dawson responds by noting that the trouble of union with a distant Jesus lies in our concept of space. While there is a physical location of Jesus, we must limit our conception of space to a receptacle which holds the body of Jesus.
Relying upon Calvin and Thomas Torrance, Dawson discusses the matter of “relational” space:
Rather, in a relational sense, God in Christ crosses the divide to enter our existence, our way of being. Then, through this union, Jesus returns, still bearing his humanity, to the place the place of relation described as the Father’s right hand, the ‘place’ or honor, glory, power and dominion. Thus, heaven as a relational place is where God has ‘room’ for his divine life and activity in ever-deepening communion with humanity. (49)
The non-union response would be that this distant Jesus cannot be accessed from the place of our life. However, as Calvin notes, the Holy Spirit can communicate the blessings of Jesus to us.
We see how, in order to unite Christ with the Church, he does not bring his body out of heaven. … Here it is clear that the essence of the flesh is distinguished from the virtue of the Spirit, which conjoins us with Christ, when, in respect of space, we are at a great distance from him…. He sends his grace to us from heaven by means of the Spirit. (4.17.28).
John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, vol. 3, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 424-25.
Now, of those who do admit to a union, Smedes defines three types: First, a sacramental union. Such a union depends upon an exalting humanity:
Sacramental Christology stands and falls with the historical Jesus. But it does not find its center in the meaning of the historical events of Jesus’ life; it finds the center in the elevation of humanity to a new level. There is indeed a new creation, a new being that is Christ. But the primary note in the new creation is its being, not its action. Humanity is deified; that is the core of the good news. (9).
He next defines a “transaction Christology”:
[Jesus] became a man to obey, to die, to sacrifice, to atone. The heart of Christology lies in what Jesus did personally to transact with God for our atonement (10).
Now, as Calvin notes, Jesus does us no good as long as he remains outside of us:
As long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and is of no value to us. [Calvin’s Institute, 2.17.3, quoted in Smedes, 11).
Third, Smedes brings forward the category of Situation Christology. Situation Christology does not deny the position of transaction, but rather “stress[es] that Christ radically changed the historical situation in which men live” (15).
The work of Christ took place within history – but also without and transcending history: “The decisive event was able to alter the human situation fundamentally because it too place behind the scenes of the human situation” (18).
Yet, it is just this change in situation which leads to the present quandary:
In view of the spiritual revolution in the world situation that took place at the resurrection and in vie of the fact that the ultimate triumph is still waited for, what is the meaning of the present time? Is there a Christological interpretation of the present existence of Christian people. (22)
Smedes notes that some of tried to solve this problem by arguing that Christ merely changed the “spiritual” situation, a “spiritual” experience –but one that has no real effect no or ever upon history. Smedes rejects that position and contends,
The present reality is the reality of union with Christ. And union with Christ is the experience of people who are introduced to the new age, with Christ as Lord (25).