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 The Principles of Theology - Article 2

by W.H.Griffith Thomas


<< Part 4

Part 5. The Ascension And Session

1. The Ascension. The New Testament regards the Ascension with its complementary truths of the session and intercession of Christ as the culmination of His redemptive work. Our Lord Himself said to His disciples: “It is expedient for you that I go away,” and in this “expediency” there is something which has been very largely neglected by the Church. It is doubtless due to the fact that Ascension Day is a weekday festival, instead of a Sunday one, that its observance has been very insignificant compared with that of Easter Day, and yet perhaps this is not the entire explanation of the comparative neglect of the festival of the Ascension and its profound meaning. In the fourth Gospel there are at least twelve clear references to it (e.g. 1:51; 3:13; 6:62; 13:3; 17:11; and especially chaps. 14-16). In the Epistle to the Hebrews no reference to the Resurrection is found, except in the concluding doxology, while the Ascension is the main spiritual truth. Then, too, we see what it meant to our Lord Himself in St. Luke 9:51 and Acts 2:33. It was at the Ascension that our Lord entered upon His work as Priest and King, and this is why the doctrinal position of the Epistle to the Hebrews centres in the fact of the Ascension in relation to our Lord’s priesthood.

But it also meant much to the disciples as well, for the “expediency” applied to them as well as to our Lord. (a) It brought a deeper peace. Christ’s Ascension was the culmination of His earthly life and work, and gave purpose and reason to all the rest. While the removal of the guilt of sin was associated with His death, and the destruction of the power of sin with His Resurrection, the removal of the separation caused by sin was associated with His Ascension, and herein lies the force of the Apostle’s word: “It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God” (Rom. 8:34), so in the assurance that “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2) the conscience and heart find rest. Christ’s righteousness has been accepted, His position is assured, and now access is possible to all believers. (b) It elicited a stronger faith. There was a great work to be done, and one that needed much confidence and boldness. Only the thought of a victorious Master could make victorious disciples. As long as His life was incomplete, or one of suffering only, their life would lack inspiration. But the Ascension was the pledge of a victorious result (Heb. 4:14), and the disciples were therefore to “hold fast their confession,” for whatever struggle they might have it was certain to end in victory (2 Tim. 2:12). (c) It led into a larger work. During the earthly life of Christ His work was local only, but after He had been received into heaven He could not be limited to Judæa or Galilee. The word was, “Go ye into all the world,” and in the Ascension of their Master the disciples would be elevated above narrowness and pettiness as they contemplated the purpose of worldwide evangelisation. (d) It gave a clearer hope. They doubtless had the usual Jewish ideas of salvation, but it was their Master’s presence in heaven that made it real to them. At once human and Divine He had told them that He was going to prepare a place for them (John 14:2, 3). He went there as Forerunner and Pledge, and told them to rejoice because He was going to the Father (John 14:28). His word for them was an inspiration, “Because I live ye shall live also.” (e) It provided a greater power. On earth their Master was necessarily limited and circumscribed, but at the right hand of God authority and power were His, and the disciples could therefore depend upon His presence and grace in all the work which He was sending them to do (Mark 16:20). This was the meaning of His own word, “Greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto My Father” (John 14:12), and so when the Comforter came they were enabled to accomplish tasks which even the Lord on earth was unable to do. His presence and power led to the accomplishment of spiritual results of marvellous extent and influence (John 7:37-39; 16:7; Acts 2:33; Eph. 4:8). Thus, the Ascension was to the disciples at once a cause of joy (Luke 24:52; John 14:28), the secret of fellowship (John 16:16; 20:17), and the standard of life (Col. 3:1 f.).

2. The Session. Following the act of ascension the New Testament has not a little to say of our Lord’s present life in heaven. Most Lives of Christ written of recent years commence with Bethlehem and end with the Ascension. But the New Testament commences earlier and continues later. It is with the glorified life of Christ above that the Article deals, and it is important to observe with some detail the Scripture teaching. He is seated on the right hand of God (Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12). He bestowed the gift of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4). He added disciples to the Church (Acts 2:47). He worked with the disciples as they went forth preaching the Gospel (Mark 16:20). He healed the impotent man (Acts 3:16). He stood to receive the first martyr (Acts 7:56). He appeared to Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:5). He makes intercession for His people (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25). He is able to succour the tempted (Heb. 2:18). He is able to sympathise (Heb. 4:15). He is able to save to the uttermost (Heb. 7:25). He lives for ever (Heb. 7:24; Rev. 1:18). He is our Great High Priest (Heb. 7:26; 8:1; 10:21). He possesses an intransmissible or inviolable priesthood (Heb. 7:24). He appears in the presence of God for us (Heb. 9:24). He is our Advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1). He is waiting until all opposition to Him is overcome (Heb. 10:13). This includes all the teaching of the New Testament concerning our Lord’s life above. It is important to keep strictly to this, because of a current view found in certain quarters that He is now offering Himself before the Father. Many years ago a number of clergymen declared their belief in these terms: “We believe that in heaven Christ our Great High Priest ever offers Himself before the Eternal Father.”[30] And some recent works teach the same doctrine. But it is impossible to reconcile this with what is found in the New Testament. All our Lord’s offering is there regarded as in the past in connection with the Cross (Heb. 7:27; 9:14). The offering is said to have been “once for all” (Heb. 10:10); and He is seated at God’s right hand (Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12). There was no altar in the Holy of Holies, the symbol of heaven (Heb. 9:3-5); and the Lamb in the midst of the throne in the Revelation is not offering Himself (Rev. 5:6; 7:17). In a word, there is not a trace to be found of Christ’s presence above being a perpetual presentation before God of His sacrifice. The Greek verb “offer” in the phrase, “somewhat to offer” (Heb. 8:3) is in the aorist tense, implying something completed, and, like all other references in the New Testament, it looks back to Calvary.[31] One great authority, Bishop Westcott, shows that our Lord’s present work is that of applying the fruits of His completed Atonement, and that “we have no authority to go beyond” the teaching of Hebrews in this connection. Further, no trace of this doctrine can be found in the Prayer Book. If Christ were offering Himself or His sacrifice in heaven it would be so important a truth that it ought to occupy a position of definite prominence in the teaching of our Church. But on opening the Prayer Book we find no trace whatever of it.[32] If, therefore, a doctrine is taught which cannot be found either in the New Testament or in the Prayer Book it is certainly no part of Anglican teaching.

A somewhat different yet closely connected doctrine is sometimes taught by saying that our Lord is pleading His sacrifice above, as though pleading were not fundamentally different from offering. The two must never be identified or confused. It is, of course, true that our Lord is preset in heaven because of the sacrifice He offered on Calvary, and obviously His intercession is founded on the fact of His complete atoning work. But the New Testament, significantly as it would seem, never associates His intercession with the pleading of His sacrifice, and some of the best scholarship is entirely opposed to this view that our Lord is now engaged in pleading His sacrifice. Thus, Bishop Westcott:
“The modern conception of Christ pleading in Heaven His Passion, ‘offering His blood’ on behalf of man, has no foundation in this Epistle. His glorified humanity is the eternal pledge of the absolute efficacy of His accomplished work. He pleads, as older writers truly expressed the thought, by His presence on His Father’s throne. Meanwhile, men on earth in union with Him enjoy continually through His blood what was before the privilege of one man on one day in the year.”[33]

It need hardly be said that the words connected with the Holy Communion, “Do this”; “Remembrance”; “Shew,” tell us nothing of our Lord’s present life in heaven.[34]

So that our Lord is not offering Himself to the Father, or pleading His sacrifice, or representing, or even re-presenting His sacrifice, but He is appearing in God’s presence on our behalf; interceding there by His presence and on the basis of His completed redemption on the Cross; sympathising; succouring, and saving the sinful; giving the Holy Spirit; governing and guiding the Church; waiting till He shall appear again.

We are therefore to “lift up our hearts.” It is significant that the Epistle to the Hebrews describes the crowing point or pith of the Epistle  “An High Priest who is set down” (chap. 8:1). When the High Priest had presented the blood on the Day of Atonement his work was complete, and if we could imagine him able to remain there in the presence of God, it would be on the basis of that completed offering, and not on his continuing to offer, or present anything. Besides, as there was no altar in the Holy of Holies, so there could not be any sacrificial offering. Christ is not now at, or on an altar, or at a mercy seat but on the throne. His presence there on our behalf, as our representative, includes everything.

Dr. Swete agrees with Bishop Westcott in holding that our Lord’s presence in heaven is His intercession:
“The Intercession of the Ascended Christ is not a prayer but a life. The New Testament does not represent Him as an orante standing ever before the Father, and with outstretched arms, like the figures in the mosaics of the Catacombs, and with strong crying and tears pleading our cause in the presence of a reluctant God; but as a throned Priest-King, asking what He will from a Father Who always hears and grants His request. Our Lord’s life in Heaven is His prayer.”[35]

We can well be content with the thought that He is there, and that His presence with the Father is the secret of our peace, the assurance of our access, and the guarantee of our permanent relation with God. It is just at this point that one essential difference between type and antitype is noticed. The High Priest went into the Holy of Holies with blood, but with regards to Christ’s entrance into heaven there is a significant alteration in the phrase. He is said to have gone there “through His own blood”; His access is based on the act of Calvary (Heb. 9:12). It is in the priesthood of Christ that Christians realise the difference between spiritual immaturity and spiritual maturity (Heb. 6:1; 10:1), and it is the purpose of the Epistle to the Hebrews to emphasise this truth above all others. Christianity is “the religion of free access to God,” and in proportion as we realise this privilege of drawing near and keeping near, we shall find in the attitude of Sursum corda, “Lift up your hearts,” one of the essential features of a strong, vigorous, growing, joyous, Christian life.[36]

There is one other matter that seems to call for attention connected with our Lord’s session in heaven. When controversies arose in regard to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, some writers used language concerning the glorified body of our Lord which seemed to suggest that after His ascension His human nature became deified, and almost, if not quite, lost the attributes of humanity. It is this that has led to the enquiry: Can we think of our ascended Lord as present everywhere as Man? There can be no doubt whatever that the Article was intended to oppose this opinion, and a strong confirmation of this is seen by a comparison of the words of the Article with the rubric at the end of the Communion Service.[37] The subject was thus clearly before the compilers of our Articles.[38] The Article teaches unequivocally the local presence of Christ’s humanity in heaven, since He “took again His body … wherewith He ascended into heaven, and there sitteth,” etc. So that in regard to His humanity we may rightly speak of the Real Absence of Christ, just as we may also equally speak of the Real Presence in and through the Holy Spirit. But while this is so, we are not for a moment to suppose that “the Two Natures” are in any way separated from each other even though, as in the record of our Lord’s earthly life, the union and correlation are beyond our comprehension. Hooker has endeavoured to state the truth, though it must be confessed that even he is unable to shed much, if any, light on it. While on the one hand he holds it “a most infallible truth that Christ as Man is not everywhere present,” he adds that “in some sense He is everywhere present even as Man,” and he speaks of this universal presence as “after a sort,” since wherever the Word is the Manhood is united with it. According to Hooker, therefore, there is a sort of presence of the Manhood by conjunction, a presence of co-operation and a presence of force and efficacy.[39] There is really no danger of Nestorianism or Eutychianism if we carefully adhere to the plain teaching of Scripture as interpreted by the Article, that our Lord is absent as Man and yet present as God. The difficulty is almost wholly due to an erroneous conception of our Lord’s glorified humanity as associated with the Holy Communion, but Scripture, with our Prayer Book following it, clearly limits the thought of our Lord’s death, and not His glorified state, to the Holy Communion, where, as Cranmer says, we are concerned with the body ut in cruce non in coelo.

>> 6. The Return And Judgment


[30] Correspondence between the Rev. W. B. Marriott and Canon T. T. Carter, p. 3.

[31] See Dimock’s treatment in Our One Priest on High (pp. 14-16), with the striking quotations from three masters of New Testament scholarship, Marriott, Westcott, and Gifford.

[32] “Echo may answer ‘where’? It is the only sound in reply. There is a dead silence – no voice, or any to answer. … We look at our time-honoured creeds – it is not there. We turn to the grand anthem, which has come down to us from remote antiquity – the ‘Te Deum’; not a word. We examine our Eucharistic Service – it is not there. We find a proper Preface for the day of our Lord’s Ascension into heaven – it is not there. In the obsecrations of our Litany we find mention of all the prominent points in our blessed Lord’s work for our salvation, but no word of any offering of sacrifice in heaven. We look at the Articles of Religion. It certainly is not there” (Adapted and abbreviated from Dimock, The Christian Doctrine of Sacerdotism, p. 13 f.).

[33] Hebrews, p. 230
“These words, ‘Still … His prevailing death He pleads’ have no apostolic warrant, and cannot even be reconciled with apostolic doctrine. … So far as the Atonement in relation to God is spoken of in any terms of time, the Bible seems to me to teach us to think of it as lying entirely in the past – a thing done ‘once for all’” (Life and Letters of F. J. A. Hort, Vol 2, p. 213).

[34] Plummer, “St. Luke” International Critical Commentary, p. 497 f.; Gore, The Body of Christ (First Edition), p. 315; W. B. Marriott, Memorials, p. 206.

[35] Swete, The Ascended Christ, p. 95.

[36] The last few sentences are based on and taken from the author’s article, “Priest”, in Hastings’ Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels.
“Our faith has to lift up its head and thank God that our Great High Priest is no longer sacrificing for sin; that, having by one offering perfected for ever them that are sanctified, He now lives and reigns, sitting in His majesty, throned in His glory, holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens, with power before which every knee must bow, giving victory to His saints, whom He loves to the end, able also to save to the uttermost all that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them” (Dimock, Our One Priest on High, p. 78).

[37] “No adoration is intended, or ought to be done, either unto the Sacramental Bread or Wine there bodily received, or unto any Corporal Presence of Christ’s natural Flesh and Blood. For the Sacramental Bread and Wine remain still in their very natural substances, and therefore may not be adored (for that were Idolatry, to be abhorred of all faithful Christians); and the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in heaven and not here; it being against the truth of Christ’s natural Body to be at one time in more places than one.”

[38] See also Reformatio Legum, De Hæresibus, c. 5.

[39] Hooker, Eccl. Pol., Bk. 5., Ch. 54, Section 7.


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>> 3 - Descent into Hell

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