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Deconstructing Some Convoluted Christology

October 29, 2009 

By: Jonathan David Price

Jesus Ascended
Gerrit Scott Dawson.

P&R Publishing, 2004.
(paperback) 192pp.

What starts as ostensible Christology in Dawson’s Jesus Ascended quickly reveals itself to be Pneumatology, the study of the Holy Spirit, in disguise. In the forward to the book, we learn that Christ sends down “his own personal presence in the Holy Spirit” (Dawson xii, my italics added). And the chief emphasis of this book is Christ’s conspicuous absence from the life of the Church since the Ascension.

However, according to Dawson, Christ’s blessings are still with the Church through and in the Holy Spirit. But Christ himself, “He is Gone” and “[w]e cannot simply go and find [him] somewhere” (8, 51, respectively). The prospect of Jesus’ total absence from the world is troubling, especially since he promised to be with his disciples, even unto doom. Additionally, he promised to send a Comforter. If the Comforter can be identified with Christ himself, this is less troubling. Nevertheless, Christ did not say, I will come back as the Comforter; he said “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). This brings us to the three problems with Dawson’s work.

The first is his exposition of the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper, which amounts to the real presence of only the Holy Spirit. Christ’s blessings are present through the Holy Spirit, but Christ is in heaven(54, 180).

If this is the case, then there are two mediators through which the Church must go to approach the Father. The Holy Spirit mediates Christ to us, and Christ is the mediator between us and the Father. Christ is not directly approachable. Having two mediators, thus, is the second problem.

Perhaps to avoid the seeming existence of two mediators, Dawson makes an unannounced identification of the (Holy) Spirit with the Spirit of Christ, which is, as it were, problem number three. This identification may save him from betraying the Christian understanding of the immediate approachability of Christ, but it does so by dissolving the particular identity and work of the Holy Spirit into that of Christ. For Dawson, all the workings of grace in Communion are done by the Holy Spirit, who brings us the substance of Christ’s flesh, and “unites us with Jesus” spiritually (180).

With these three problems in view, Dawson’s Trinitarian economy works in one of two ways during Communion. (1) Only the Holy Spirit is really present in the Supper mediating the blessings of Christ to us. This suggests two mediators, the Spirit and the Son, between the Church and the Father. Or, alternatively, (2) only the Holy Spirit is really present in the Supper; but since the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of Christ are identical, Christ too is present.

Dawson does employ the term “mediate” for the role of the Holy Spirit on at least one occasion (105). And the paradigm of Christ’s blessings coming exclusively through the Holy Spirit is not limited to the Supper, but is assumed to be the norm in Dawson’s book. For these reasons and others, I believe that his Trinitarian economy results in two mediators between the Church and the Father. How his soteriology can be saved from this same error is beyond me.

Dawson supports a spiritual Real Presence in the Supper. This presence of Christ’s blessings through the Holy Spirit can be likened unto a father with a daughter away at college. If the father sends money to his daughter through the mail, he is not really present, although his ‘blessings’ and ‘gifts’ are. Likewise, when Christ’s blessings are mediated to us through the Spirit, he is not really present.

If you wish to read a book primarily on the Ascension, you should look to the authors whom Dawson cites in vast block quotes. Much of the book, after all, is a footnote to Alan Torrance, Andrew Murray, Douglas Furrow, and John Calvin. And it should be a footnote to Calvin, because Dawson’s doctrine of the Real Presence is derived from Calvin’s (albeit read through the eyes of Torrance). Calvin says of the Supper that Christ is present in the Spirit “sustaining [his people], quickening, keeping them unharmed, as if he were present in the body” (Institutes 4.17.18, italics added).

But Real Presence is the presence of Christ himself. Christ is not divided, but still fully man and God. Real Presence then, if it is to be anything meaningful, is the Real Presence of Christ in his divinity as well as in his risen human body for the forgiveness of sins. The paradigm is the same for anything rightfully to be called a Sacrament.

If we consider Dawson to be representative of the Reformed position on the Real Presence, then perhaps it is time for the Reformed to find a new term for what happens in the Sacraments. They simply do not subscribe to the classical expression of the Real Presence of Christ in his Sacraments. To be sure, they believe in the real presence of the Holy Spirit, but this is a redefinition of the classical expression of sacramental presence. After all, Calvin and his interpreters are emphatic: Christ is in heaven. He stays there. And heaven is a far away place. Such redefinition of the Real Presence is better suited to a fresh designation for Calvin’s innovative doctrine. What is more, it would be a service to those who retain the classical designation and meaning of Real Presence, be they Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, or otherwise.

For some, the scandal and the off ense of the Incarnation on earth ended nearly 2000 years ago when Christ went to heaven. But that scandal still persists in our age each time the Supper is celebrated by those sent forth in his name. This is why we must receive it worthily, because we are in his presence. It is He that we receive. It is grace.

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