Book Reviews

The Ascension in Karl Barth

Andrew Burgess, The Ascension in Karl Barth (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 209. $99.95

Reviewed by Benjamin Myers (February 16, 2007)

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 in the International Journal of Systematic Theology, Farrow suggests that Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV is “one of the major works of ascension theology” – and in this 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 speak of 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 therefore 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 institutional church, while liberal Protestant theology places too much emphasis on the faith of the individual believer as the locus of God’s presence (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 tracing 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 – and 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’ attempt to demonstrate the contemporary dogmatic importance of the ascension of Jesus.

In the first place, 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 practices of 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 rather problematic. I wonder whether it is intelligible – either scientifically or theologically – 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?

As writers like Bultmann and Pannenberg have argued, it is a minimal requirement of all theological statements that they are intelligible within the general framework of what we know about the world. So on the one hand, Christian theology has a right and a responsibility to re-think the concepts of “space” and “time” from the standpoint of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. But on the other hand, the account of space and time that we thus formulate cannot simply be a mythology; as a minimal requirement, it must cohere with what we already know from other sources about the nature of space and time.

In any event, it seems to me that Barth wanted to avoid any form of ascension-mythology when he argued 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 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 need not be regarded as a quasi-historical description of Jesus’ movement through space, or as a statement about the “physical location” of Jesus. Rather, and more straightforwardly, 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 the agency of this risen one and all forms of ecclesial action. But it seems to me that we can offer a meaningful and sufficiently radical 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.

Note: This review first appeared on Benjamin Myers’ blog, Faith and Theology, and may be accessed here.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.