On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology

Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology

Robinson, Tiffany C

Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology. By Douglas Farrow. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1999. xi + 340 pp. $35.00 (cloth). Also published by T&T Clark (Edinburgh), 24.95 (cloth).

Douglas Farrow’s Ascension and Ecclesia, aimed at theologians and theological students, is a rigorous reappraisal of the tradition of interpretation of the doctrine of the ascension. Furthermore, as the contemporary church continues to struggle to understand its unique place in the world, Farrow’s book offers a resource that is highly practical in its implications.

The opening chapter explores the larger questions facing church identity right now. The second chapter studies the biblical material relating to the ascension. The next two chapters analyze the post-biblical theologies of the ascension Farrow considers most formative for future centuries, that is, those of Irenaeus, Augustine, and Origen. The fifth chapter then takes stock of modern theologies of the ascension in light of these theological legacies, critiquing the work of Kant, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Barth, and Teilhard de Chardin, among others. The final chapter details what Farrow believes are the subsequent questions facing the church today.

Doctrinally, Farrow’s approach to the ecclesiological question is Christological. He claims that it is through misinterpretations regarding the person of Christ in his ascension that the church has greatly compromised its ability to perceive its own position as inhabiting one history (our current spatiotemporal reality), but deriving its primary identity and mission from an ongoing relationship with a risen and ascended Lord, who now inhabits a different “history.” Because the eucharist is the event which most represents and instantiates this position and allows us to exist fruitfully within it, Farrow will consistently reiterate and substantiate the point that the one of the church’s primary identifying marks is that it lives within a “eucharistic tension.”

One of the most interesting moves Farrow makes is that he turns the question “Where is Jesus?” on its head and claims that the more important question is “Where is the church in its relation to the ascended Jesus?” In so doing, he not only asks a different theological question than much of the tradition, but simultaneously shifts the epistemological ground of the questioning by implying that the problem of locational ambiguity is our own.

Farrow calls for a “thoroughly eschatological treatment” (p. 164) of the problem of Christ’s presence and absence or, in other words, an eschatological treatment of the cosmological question of Christ’s location. Farrow has incisively critiqued the weaknesses of the cosmological underpinnings of theologies to date and has done the difficult work of assessing the manner in which eschatology is key to moving forward. However, the interaction with cosmology stops there, and one senses that a significant gap remains between non-theological cosmological work and Christian eschatological claims that are implicitly cosmological in nature.

To conclude, Ascension and Ecclesia is a key theological analysis of a series of problems that lie at the heart of an often sick and lost church that does not know how to locate its risen Lord. As such, it serves as a tremendous gift to theologians and leaders in the church in their attempt to link their practices to the consequences of serving an ascended Lord. It was a stimulating, challenging, and ultimately humbling book to read. However, the book also leaves much work to be done, in terms of practical criticism of current ecclesial practices, or exploring the pneumatological aspects of a recovery of Christ’s humanity, or in the development of cosmologies that more clearly grapple with theological ideas. For a text that prepares us for these tasks, by its criticism of our status quo and its preparation of a theological ground from which to explore, we owe a great debt of gratitude to Douglas Farrow.


Wycliffe College, University of Toronto

Toronto, Ontario

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Fall 2002

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