Review: Douglas Farrow’s Ascension Theology

A review of Douglas Farrow, Ascension Theology, T&T Clark, 2011.

Available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Douglas Farrow’s 1999 book, Ascension and Ecclesia (available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk), has been widely acclaimed as a landmark study of the doctrine of the ascension. Farrow shows how the ascension fulfils a number of Old Testament motifs and how it is central to New Testament theology. Taking Irenaeus as his standard, he charts the history of the doctrine. He is especially critical of the move to the ‘ascension of the mind’ that began with Origen and has plagued Western thought every since, running to seed in the Enlightenment’s secularized version of the ascent of reason. The result is a Christ who is universally present in an disembodied form rather than an embodied Christ who is both absent and present through the Spirit. Farrow critiques various faulty ways of conceiving the presence of Jesus now without every quite spelling out clearly where he is. His central claim is that we need the ascension, with its reminder of Christ’s absence, to check our arrogant claims to have arrived, whether those are claims made for the authority of the church or the progress of civilization.

Chapters 1-4 of Farrow’s latest book, Ascension Theology, offers a simplified version of Ascension and Ecclesia. Shorn of some of the academic arguments and wider discussions, this allows Farrow’s central argument to come through in a way that is more clear and more compelling. So far so good.

The final chapters, however, represent an extension of the thought of Ascension and Ecclesia. And the significant thing here is that in 2005, midway between the publication Ascension and Ecclesia and Ascension Theology, Farrow converted to Catholicism. So, as Farrow wrestles with the presence and absence, these chapters become a defence of Catholic ecclesiology, including its theology of transubstantiation (albeit with an emphasis on transubstantiation as an eschatological concept) and Petrine succession. Indeed in chapters 5 and 6 the ascension recedes from view.

Ascension and Ecclesia is harder work, but a more helpful source of stimulation. Or Gerrit Scott Dawson’s Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation presents many of Farrow’s central ideas in a more accessible and biblical way (available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk).