Here is the latest installation of bi-weekly reflections on the Heidelberg Catechism. As a way to mark the 450th anniversary the publication of one of the most significant documents in the Reformed tradition, I’m offering these brief thoughts. (For some background and the entire document, check this out).
LORD’S DAYS 17-18
Q. 45. What benefit do we receive from “the resurrection” of Christ?
A. First, by his resurrection he has overcome death that he might make us share in the righteousness which he has obtained for us through his death. Second, we too are now raised by his power to a new life. Third, the resurrection of Christ is a sure pledge to us of our blessed resurrection.
Q. 46. How do you understand the words: “He ascended into heaven”?
A. That Christ was taken up from the earth into heaven before the eyes of his disciples and remains there on our behalf until he comes again to judge the living and the dead.
Q. 47. Then, is not Christ with us unto the end of the world, as he has promised us?
A. Christ is true man and true God. As a man he is no longer on earth, but in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit, he is never absent from us.
Q. 48. But are not the two natures in Christ separated from each other in this way, if the humanity is not wherever the divinity is?
A. Not at all; for since divinity is incomprehensible and everywhere present, it must follow that the divinity is indeed beyond the bounds of the humanity which it has assumed, and is nonetheless ever in that humanity as well, and remains personally united to it.
Q. 49. What benefit do we receive from Christ’s ascension into heaven?
A. First, that he is our Advocate in the presence of his Father in heaven. Second, that we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that he, as the Head, will also take us, his members, up to himself. Third, that he sends us his Spirit as a counterpledge by whose power we seek what is above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God, and not things that are on earth.
As the catechism continues to move through the Apostles’ Creed, it expounds upon Jesus Christ’s resurrection and ascension, two of the most important components of the Gospel message, but two that occasionally get less air time than the proclamation of Jesus’ death on the Cross. Certainly the crucifixion is a vital and irreducible part of Christian proclamation (1 Cor 2:2), but without the resurrection the story is incomplete, and, worse, “your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17).
The resurrection is the means by which Christ has overcome death and the pledge that we, too, shall overcome death by virtue of our union with him in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-11; 8:11). His is the prototype, as it were, or firstfruits, of what will one day be for all those whom the Father has drawn to himself through the Son and by the Spirit.
At least during this Easter season we make sure to highlight the reality and centrality of the resurrection–but it seems to me that the ascension is a somewhat neglected (or misunderstood) doctrine within much of Protestant Christianity. Growing up in the church, I confess that I never gave it a whole of lot of thought, nor did I hear much teaching or preaching on it past the simple statement: “Jesus ascended into heaven”.
Fine, but so what? What’s he doing? What “benefit do we receive” from this? He said he would be with us always (Matt 28:20), but is that possible? How can he be here if he’s really there (wherever “there” is)?
This is a deep topic, and it hinges upon what’s called the communicatio idiomatum (the communication of Christ’s human and divine properties). Briefly, here’s what is involved:
With the incarnation, the eternal “Word became flesh” (John 1:14), and orthodox theology has affirmed that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son, is fully God and fully man, two natures–distinct but not separate–in one person “without conversion, composition, or confusion” (Westminster Confession of Faith VIII.2). He is, and will remain, our Mediator. He continually represents us in our flesh before the Father, ever living to intercede for us (Hebrews 7:25). In his glorified, resurrected body, he is in the place that we will one day be, offering a pledge and promise of our coming audience with the Father.
But if he’s there, then how he can be here?
As the catechism makes clear, although Jesus Christ in his physical presence is absent from us, he is, in respect to his divinity, present with us through the Spirit. Michael Horton has emphasized what he calls “the real absence and real presence” of Jesus Christ that the ascension secures for us, two truths that we simultaneously embrace. He is here. He is not here.
This does not mean that Jesus’ divine and human natures have separated from one another. Rather, it points to the notion that the finite is incapable of containing the infinite (finitum non capax infiniti). A physical body such as Christ has cannot embrace or take on characteristics such as ominpresence, otherwise it would cease to be a real physical body. The divine nature of Christ is infinite, and “fully united to but never totally contained within the human nature” (Richard Mueller). This concept is sometimes disparagingly called the extra calvinisticum (Calvinistic extra), though it find expression in early church fathers like Augustine and Athanasius and is a “christological concept, safeguarding both the transcendence of Christ’s divinity and the integrity of Christ’s humanity” (Mueller).
Jesus’ two natures are not separated, but they have different ranges, if you will. He is with us in a very real way spiritually yet absent from us in a very real way physically. This idea comes into play again later when the catechism explores the Reformed understanding of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, but we’ll have to wait till then to get into that…
In the meantime, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ reveal to us the wonderful truth that we have a living Lord who represents us before the Father at all times, and who, by his Spirit, is indeed present with us always, even though we are not yet in his physical presence–something we are assured will one day transpire because of our coming resurrection.