How Reformed Theology Attacks the Ascension of Christ
“He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above
all heavens, that He might fill all things” — Ephesians 4:10
In Luther’s explanation of the Second Article, we confess, “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is My Lord.” Here in this simple identification of the Savior, we confess two vital pieces of doctrine: That Jesus Christ is true God and true Man, united in one, indivisible person as clearly identified by the Holy Scriptures. When we examine the person of Christ in both His state of humiliation and His state of exaltation, it is imperative, above all things, that we follow the Apostle Paul’s exhortation in II Corinthians 10:5, “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” Knowing that we are built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets (Ephesians 2:20), our only source and standard of Christian doctrine and practice is the Word of God. Therefore, any and all teachings which contradict or deny the clear and certain words of Holy Writ must be condemned as heretical (Quod non est biblicum non est theologicum — What is not Biblical is not theological). This exaltation of imaginations against the knowledge of God is referred to as the magisterial use of human reason and is common among those who fancy themselves theologians, regarding their own intellect as more significant than the Holy Scriptures. This magisterial use of human reason (also referred to as Rationalism) is embraced by many heterodox church bodies such as the Reformed. Reformed teaching does not consistently subject itself to the authority of Scripture but often insists that the Bible must be interpreted according to human reason, or according to rationalistic axioms. In this article we will show just how Reformed theology, according to its rationalistic principle that “the finite is not capable of the infinite,” attacks the ascension of Christ with regard to Ephesians 4:10, “He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things.”
We know from the Scriptures that Jesus, as true God, possesses all of the divine attributes including omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence (John 21:17; Matthew 28:18-20). Because of the personal union of Christ, in which the divine and human natures are perfectly united in one person, the attributes of the divine nature are really and truly communicated to, or “shared” with, the human nature for common possession, use, and designation. The Scriptures teach that Christ possessed all the divine attributes of God, essentially according to His divine nature and by communication according to His human nature, from the very time of His conception (Luke 1:35; Romans 9:5; Colossians 2:9; I Timothy 3:16). So Christ, also according to His human nature, possesses all of the divine attributes (John 1:14; Colossians 2:9; I Timothy 3:16).
Forty days after His resurrection, Christ took His disciples out as far as to Bethany, blessed them, and as He blessed them He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:9). In Ephesians 4:10, the Apostle Paul declares that “He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things.” Christ had fulfilled His work of redemption on the tree of the cross (John 19:30), and the time had come for Him to remove His local, visible presence from the world and to go to prepare a place for His true believers in heaven (John 14:2). By His ascension into heaven, Christ acted as our forerunner, since on the last day all true believers will ascend up to be with Him in the joys of heaven forever (John 14:2b-3; I Thessalonians 4:17). Now in His state of exaltation, in which He always and fully uses the divine attributes communicated to His human nature, Christ fills all things by virtue of His omnipresence. Jesus prayed to His heavenly Father, “And now, O Father, glorify Thou Me with Thine own self with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was” (John 17:5). The omnipresence exercised by the Savior in the state of exaltation from the time of His ascension is known as Christ’s repletive presence by which He, according to both natures, is truly everywhere present, filling all things.
Reformed theology attacks the ascension of Christ by denying the communication of attributes with its rationalistic axiom, “the finite is not capable of the infinite” (finitum non est capax infiniti). In particular, they deny the communication of divine omnipresence to the human nature of Christ and claim that Christ’s finite body can only be in one place at a time. Reformed theologian Danaeus writes, “Nothing whatever that is proper and essential to the Deity can in any way be communicated to a created thing, such as is the human nature assumed by Christ, unless we are ready to admit that a sort of new God can be born and come into existence” (Exam. Libri Chemnitii, p. 104). Reformed theology teaches that when Christ is spoken of as being omnipresent, it is in regard to His divine nature working apart from or outside of His human nature. In defense of their denial of the communication of divine omnipresence to the human nature, they offer the notion that if Christ’s body were truly everywhere present with the divine nature, it would need to be extremely large and stretched out in order to accommodate the immensity of God (local extension). Their doctrinal position based upon their rationalistic understanding of the communication of attributes directly contradicts the clear words of the Holy Scriptures (Colossians 2:9, etc.).
After His resurrection from the dead, Christ told His disciples, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20). Nowhere in this passage is the separation of the two natures mentioned or even implied, but rather the affirmation of the whole person of Christ being present with His disciples. The Scriptures teach that, also during His state of humiliation, the human nature of Christ was omnipresent with the divine nature, not only locally (Luke 2:7) but also according to His illocal presence (John 8:59). Christ told Nicodemus in John 3:13, “No man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven.” Here Christ demonstrated how He, specifically according to His human nature (“Son of Man”), was at that time in heaven even as He was speaking to Nicodemus. The denial of the communication of all the divine attributes to the human nature of Christ contradicts Colossians 2:9, “In [Christ] dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.”
Again, Reformed theology attacks the ascension of Christ since it teaches that once He ascended, His body is now locally enclosed, or trapped, in heaven. It is true that, when Christ ascended into heaven, He did so with His true human body, passing through the celestial space of the universe (Ephesians 4:10); but He, at the same time, remains here with us, also according to His human nature, by virtue of His omnipresence, just as He promised His disciples before His ascension (Matthew 28:20). Here, we distinguish between Christ’s local presence and His repletive presence. When Christ told His disciples in Matthew 26:11, “Me ye have not always with you,” He was referring to His local, visible presence. By His ascension, Christ removed His mode of local, visible presence and “ascended up far above all heavens” (Ephesians 4:10). By His repletive presence, Christ “fills all things,” according to both natures (Ephesians 1:20-23; 4:10). The Scriptures teach that Christ, according to His human nature, is not only in heaven and sitting at the right hand of God, but is also in all other places, including here among us. In Ephesians chapter 1:20-23, the Apostle Paul writes, “[The Father] raised [Christ] from the dead, and set Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places… and hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.”
Moreover, if the accusation that Christ’s human body is enclosed in heaven stands, then He is not really present in the Lord’s Supper. Christ told His disciples, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you” (I Corinthians 11:24). Christ had exercised His divine attribute of omnipresence there in the upper room, giving His own true body to His disciples in the Lord’s Supper while He Himself sat at the table. Just as the disciples did, so also we receive the true body and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in, with, and under the bread and wine by virtue of Christ’s assurance of this in His Word, “This IS My body …this IS My blood” (Matthew 26:26, 28). Yet, the Reformed hold that the finite body of Christ is not capable of being infinitely present. Therefore, their rationalistic axiom denies the Real Presence of the true body and blood of the Lord in the Sacrament of the Altar. At the announcement of Jesus’ birth, the angel Gabriel told the virgin Mary, “With God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37). The Lord Himself told His disciples, after His encounter with the rich man, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). In effect the Reformed challenge this testimony of our Lord Jesus Christ and His divine omnipotence by insisting that the almighty God operate within their way of thinking, rather than bringing their thoughts into captivity to the obedience of Christ (II Corinthians 10:5).
The Apostle Paul warns us in Colossians 2:8, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” Because of their insistence upon being subject to their own rationalistic principles, the Reformed attack, in particular, the ascension of Christ by denying the full communication of all the divine attributes to His human nature. Though Reformed theology denies the full communication of attributes to Christ’s human nature, nevertheless it claims to hold to the doctrine of the personal union, in which the divine and human natures are perfectly united in Christ Jesus. It must be pointed out that the communication of attributes properly belongs to the personal union, and that therefore, by denying the communication of attributes, Reformed theology implicitly denies the real personal union that is taught in Scripture (Colossians 2:9).
The ascension of Christ into heaven is of such great importance and comfort to us latter day Christians. Christ’s assurance to His disciples in Matthew 28:20, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world,” is a blessed promise that He, according to both natures, will never leave us. Though we may not be able to see Him, we continually witness in the Scriptures His great love towards us in having completed His vicarious atonement for us that we might live through Him (I John 3:16; 4:9b; II Corinthians 5:15). The Apostle Peter writes that Christ, “whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see Him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls (I Peter 1:8). As we wait for the second coming of our Savior from the glories of His heavenly kingdom (Acts 1:11; Matthew 25:31), we take comfort in the fact that He is even now still with us here, not just in spirit according to His divine nature, but also, really and truly, according to His human nature, both of which continue to be fully and inseparably united in His divine person. Therefore we may boldly proclaim with the writer to the Hebrews, “He hath said, ‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee,’ so that we may boldly say, ‘The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me’” (Hebrews 13:5c-6).
Lo, God to heaven ascendeth! Throughout its regions vast,
with shouts triumphant, blendeth the trumpets thrilling blast:
“Sing praise to Christ the Lord! Sing praise with exultation!
King of each heathen nation, the God of hosts adored!”
With joy is heaven resounding Christ’s glad return to see.
Behold the saints surrounding the Lord who set them free.
Bright myriads, thronging, come; the cherub band rejoices;
and loud seraphic voices all welcome Jesus home.
From cross to throne ascending, we follow Christ on high
and know the pathway wending to mansions in the sky.
Our Lord is gone before; yet here He will not leave us,
but soon in heaven receive us and open wide the door!
— TLH 214, 1-3
— Daniel P. Mensing, Seminarian
(Submitted through his Pastor)