In the Foreward to Gerritt Scott Dawson’s Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation, Dr. Douglas F. Kelly writes,
For whatever reason, the ascent of the glorified body of Christ bearing our new humanity to the Father’s Throne has been generally neglected for centuries in most theological and ecclesiastical traditions.
Writes that after 18 years of ministry, “I had not preached a single sermon devoted entirely to the ascension” (Accent on the Ascension, Carl Brumback, Gospel Publishing House, 1955). He had not heard any such sermon. He went to look for a book on the subject, but “the cupboard was bare.” He checked the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (for those younger readers, finding the contents of a library used to require actually traveling to the physical building):
I could scarcely believe my eyes when I examined the files. Among the thousands of books on religious subjects, there was but one work in the English language which dealt solely with the ascension: The Ascended Christ, written by Henry Barclay Swete, and published originally in England in 1910.
He had missed William Milligan, The Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of our Lord, 1894. Now this lack of recent work actually begins a delight of this Dawson’s book: First, it is good to have such a thorough and thoughtful book available. Second, due to the lack of recent work, Dawson’s authorities for explication of the relevant biblical texts are drawn largely from the Church Fathers. Too many theology books spend their time sparring with graduate students and fail to consider the extraordinary history of the church.
However, as is amply demonstrated by Dawson, the Christological and Trinitarian debates of the early Church brought out brilliant insight into the biblical texts which might have received less consideration if more doctoral theses had focused on the Ascension.
Now neglect of a doctrine may be a mere historical curiosity – but Dawson draws a practical pastoral implication. He reviewed the nature of the life of his local congregation:
All of these signs point to a membership composed of committed Christians who are living in the grip of a world that has claimed them as its own. I do not believe my people are consciously trying to serve two masters. Generally, I do not think they even realize the contradiction between our beliefs and our life as a church. They are kind, happy, forgiving, dear church fold. Their pastor, however, knows himself to be compromised, realizes that he, too, has ‘the world is too much with us’ disease, and wants to get better (21).
Dawson locates recovery of the doctrine of the Ascension as vital antidote to the poison of worldliness:
A solution to the world’s being too much with us is an increasing awareness of how much our true identity and life’s destination is located in heaven, followed by the change in life here on earth that comes from the transformation in vision. (26)
Dawson than makes a reference to the postscript of Swete’s volume which bears more substantial examination. Swete identifies seven ways in which right knowledge of the doctrine of Ascension would affect the manner in which we live as Christians in the current age.
The first aspect (which Dawson quotes in part) is that the doctrine directly countermands the spirit of the age: The current age of the world seeks to make the here and now, the getting and spending, as the beginning and end of human existence. Yet, when we rightly realize there is a human being – God incarnate, Jesus Christ at the right hand of majesty on high and that he is ushering in the age to come, it transforms the manner in which we think of this world:
The Ascension and Ascended Life bear witness against the materialistic spirit which threatens in some quarters to overpower those higher interests that have their seat in the region of the spiritual and eternal. They are as a Sursum corda—’ lift up your hearts’—which comes down from the High Priest of the Church who stands at the heavenly altar, and draws forth from the kneeling Church the answer Habemus ad Dominum—’ we lift them up unto the Lord.’ Faith in the Ascended Christ was S. Paul’s remedy for the sensuality which he encountered in the Greek cities of Asia Minor: seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth; for your life is hid with Christ in God; mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth. How strong a motive this appeal supplied is evident from the history of the primitive Church. The grosser vices of paganism have less attraction for our age, but the downward pressure of external things remains; at a time when life is being reduced to a complex machinery for the production of wealth, there is ample room for a doctrine which points men persistently to an order of realities which are at once present and eternal, a world which already surrounds us and waits only for the coming of the Lord to be manifested in overwhelming power. (Swete, 155-156).
However, the doctrine of Ascension does not lead us to flee the world. We are to live in the world, for our Lord is man of the physical world (even as he is also Son of God by nature). We cannot give the world our ultimate allegiance, for our King lives elsewhere – and yet we must not forget the world entirely. We must be in the world, but not of the world:
Faith in the Ascended Christ dictates the attitude which the Church should maintain towards the world. Two mistakes have been made in reference to this matter. There have been times in the life of the Church when she has been tempted to make common cause with the world, or to meet it halfway; and times, again, when she has gone to the opposite extreme of retiring from the world altogether. Neither of these attitudes is Apostolic or primitive, for in the early days of the faith, when men lived in full view of the Ascended Life, they knew how to live in the world without being of it. There is a familiar passage in a second century Apology which puts this into words, and must be quoted here once again. ‘Christians,’ the writer says, ‘ are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either by country or speech or customs. They neither inhabit cities of their own, nor use a different language, nor practise a manner of life which is out of the common. But while inhabiting cities Greek or foreign, as the lot of each determines, and following the customs of the country both in regard to dress and food and life in general, they shew themselves to be possessed of a citizenship which is all their own, and the nature of it is a paradox. They dwell in their native lands, but as sojourners; they share all things as citizens and endure all things as strangers; every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland a foreign country to them. They are in these sides of the Christian life, or exaggerates one of them at the expense of the other, suffers spiritual loss; and it suffers because it has failed to realize the full significance of the Ascension and the Return in their relation to the present duty of the Church as representing Christ in the world.
Thus, as Swete and Dawson note, the doctrine of the Ascension is a necessary anchor to permit the Christian to navigate the world rightly. Since our hope is anchored beyond this world, this world cannot ultimately trouble us, nor should it take our dearest attention (for it is the world that killed our Lord). Yet, our Lord has seen fit that we should witness to his majesty in this world. Thus, his kingship gives us the strength to remain in the world.
Thus, recovering and understanding the doctrine of the Ascension is of critical importance for the people of God.
In the next posts I will review Dawson’s development of the doctrine.