Here is my summary of the Introduction to Calvin’s Ladder by Canlis wherein the stage is set for what the book is about. I also have gleaned what I think the benefits are for the reader in not only a theological but in a spiritual and practical way.

First, what is the book about? Canlis state right up front, “This book is concerned with a story line that has always been at the heart of Christian mystical theology and spiritual praxis: the “ascent of the soul.” This is in the subtitle, “A spiritual theology of ascent and ascension.” The reader who is unfamiliar will need to think or lookup what is meant by the word ascent. It is not commonly used in everyday parlance, except when we think about mountaineers ascending mount Everest. But the idea of the ascent of the soul is probably foreign. We can guess, but the material is too rich to make mistakes. She continues to help by using the words repeatedly. “The ascent of the soul” has had a colorful and venerable history with at least one clue, the apostle Paul was “caught up to the third heaven.” In seeking to define it she quotes one writer who warns, “ascent was more than a metaphor: it was the decisive and final action of Jesus Christ…” Then the writer grabs the attention of the careful reader to join Christ’s actual ascent to the believer (someone like Paul?) by saying, “we are included”.  Then this “including” of the believer is described as based on our union with Christ an how it takes place. There is a joining which is described as “participation” based on an important Greek word in the New Testament. She introduces briefly how this works by God’s descent to us as man to stand in for us (the cross?) and his leading us back to the Father (ascent). Canlis points to two major theological figures ancient (Irenaeus) and Calvin (Reformation) to support the treatise. “My thesis aims to tease out this concept” (the ways of sketching the concept of “participation” of the believer, that “we are taken into the divine life.” She argues that this relationship between the believer, God and Christ goes far beyond that of “societas” (from which we get our word society). It is really intimate and powerful. “For Christians, it expresses the reality of their experience of being drawn into the triune community…by the Spirit and in the Son. This is exciting in its practicality because it will impact “desire for God, prayer, obedience, vocation, or worship.” This all flows, not from “the soul’s powers and God-given natural abilities” but the “way God shares his life and benefits with us drawing humanity to ‘participate’ in his triune communion’” God is the engine whereby this works, not ourselves. “The entire Christian life is an outworking of this ascent-the appropriate response to God’s descent to us-that has already taken place in Christ.” She quotes Humphrey, “The great pattern of life is the ecstasy and intimacy of God, who went out the self to the extreme point, and so dwell among us in an intimacy we can hardly imagine.” 

The last part of the Introduction (which I cannot address now, “Participation and Irenaeus” and “Calvin and Irenaeus” will be addressed at another time. It is prudent to state her conclusion to the introduction. “Yet because participation- dealing as it does with how humanity and God are related- spans such a broad spectrum of topics, our way into the maze will be through the conventional motif of Christian ascent (chapter1). Once I have established Calvin’s version of a Christian doctrine of participation in God with the breadth and boundaries so unique to his vision, I will be in a position to follow the implication of his doctrine upward in ascent.

Maybe this study with enhance our understanding of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesian Church, “And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:” 

From an e-mail to a friend: Calvin’s Ladder, so far, as I see it is about two main Themes

  1. The Assent of the Soul and 2. Our Participation in Christ. She compares the ascent of the soul as the Greeks philosophers envisioned it. They had an interest in God as they understood God despite their distortions. Nevertheless, they provided words which were co-opted by Jews and later Christians to describe the real thing, The ascent of the soul as we would understand it, since Jesus himself ascended. The second part, the word Participation (Greek word koinonia) was discussed explaining how we are somehow connected to Christ and his ascent (the vertical)and to one another (the horizontal). We participate and we benefit from his ascension to the right hand of the Father. She looks a bit at the history of how this word was used and how the church “fathers” understood these ideas, in particular Irenaeus (2nd Century) and later Calvin (16th Century). We Protestants and other modern Christians have inherited much of this rich tradition, especially through John Calvin. But she would argue that most only know of caricatures of Calvin, and not his superbly pastoral teaching with emphasis on such subjects as the Ascension of Christ. She will argue, I think, that Calvin’s work has a lot to teach us about this theme of not only the Ascension of Christ (the ascent of the soul), but of our place or position in relation to it (koinonia) participation.