I’ve been reading Hans Boersma’s helpful and interesting book Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Eerdmans 2018). For a while I’ve been wanting to learn more about this intriguing and often neglected doctrine, so now I’m finally getting around to it.
The beatific vision is widespread throughout the early and medieval church, East and West, and into Protestantism (especially the Reformed tradition). Yet many evangelical today have never heard of it, or misunderstand it. As Kyle Strobel puts it, “few doctrines are as ‘standard’ in the history of theology, and ignored in contemporary theology, as the beatific vision.”
So here, drawing from the work of Boersma and a few others like Strobel, I offer some reflections regarding what this doctrine means and entails, in the spirit of rehabilitating it somewhat among those who (like me) have been curious about it.
1) The beatific vision is not done with our resurrected eyeballs.
Now, this point is sometimes disputed, and some have spoken of the beatific vision as necessarily tied to bodily vision. This view in turn requires that the beatific is unavailable during the intermediate state, but awaits the final resurrection (this was Calvin’s view, and it has been a point of dispute in the Roman Catholic tradition). Others in the Puritan tradition like Richard Baxter and Thomas Watson maintained the beatific vision involves the sight of both body and soul.
But more commonly, the beatific vision has been conceived of as a spiritual, not physical sight. As Jonathan Edwards put it, “the Beatifical vision of J[ahweh] is not a sight with the Eyes of the Body but with Eye of the Soul” (quoted in Boersma, 365). Thomas Aquinas argued at length for the same view, claiming in the Summa Theologica that in heaven “God will by no means be visible to the bodily sense.”
So why do we use the metaphor of sight to describe this heavenly apprehension of the divine? Ultimately because of the language of Scripture (Psalm 11:7, 17:15, 27:4, Revelation 22:4, etc.), but perhaps also because vision generally indicates a more immediate, direct kind of perception than other senses. As Edward Pace put it, “it is called ‘vision’ to distinguish it from the mediate knowledge of God which the human mind may attain in the present life.”
2) The beatific vision is more than seeing the ascended flesh of Christ.
Now, this point is disputed as well, and parsing out the nuances gets complicated quickly. Protestants, for instance, with the exception of Francis Turretin, have generally emphasized the beatific vision as mediated through Christ. Boersma himself suggests a more Christologically oriented beatific vision (409-420), and there is evidently some precedent in the early tradition for this. And, most certainly, we don’t want to set our knowledge of Christ at odds with our knowledge of the Godhead. Even in his earthly life Jesus can say “whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Nonetheless, the beatific vision has typically been understood as less like what Paul experienced on the Damascus road, and more like what Moses experienced on Mt. Sinai. In fact, when Augustine commented on Numbers 12:8 (“he beholds the form of the Lord”), he interprets Moses’ experience here at his obtaining in this life what all believers inherit in heaven. Augustine also evidently thinks Paul had the same experience as referenced in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 (see the discussion in Boersma, 112-117).
So, if in the beatific vision we are seeing something not tantamount to the incarnate and glorified flesh of Jesus, what precisely are we seeing? Not all theologians have gone as far as Thomas Aquinas in claiming that “God will be seen in His essence by saints in heaven” (though this is one standard view). Some, worrying about maintaining God’s transcendence and incomprehensibility, will say that we see God personally rather than essentially; we see God pro nobis (for us) rather in se (in himself). A stricter qualification that is sometimes offered is that we see God as he is in himself, but not as he sees himself. However we exactly parse this, the fact remains that the beatific vision has generally been taken to refer to seeing, in some sense, God Himself. Even Calvin, as Boersma ackowledges, “adopted the medieval consensus that the eschatological promise of seeing God face-to-face, as he is (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12, 1 John 3:2), entails a vision of the divine majesty in se” (277).
3) The beatific vision achieves the permanent happiness that is our end.
The beatific vision is understood as the ultimate end of human nature. It is why we exist. It relates to human nature the way the destination functions for those in a race. It is the ultimate and final human experience, resulting in a perfect and permanent happiness. (Perhaps one reason that the beatific vision has dropped out somewhat in the modern era is that we have lost any sense of teleology and purpose to the material world. Thus, Boersma treats the beatific vision especially in relation to the sacramental ontology that he sees as its “plausibility structure.”)
Theologians have therefore spoken of the beatific vision with alluring and vivid language. Isaac Watson called it “the heaven of heaven” and “the quintessence of happiness.” Edwards writes that “the pleasure of seeing God is so great and so strong that it takes the full possession of the heart; it fills it brimful, so that there shall be no room for any sorrow, no room in any corner for anything of an adverse nature from joy. There is no darkness can bear such powerful light” (quoted in Boersma, 366). At the same time, and in contrast to criticisms that beatific vision implies a static and overly intellectual view of heavenly experience, theologians often speak of the beatific vision in dynamic terms as an infinitely progressive, expanding reality (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa’s concept of “eternal progress” in the being of God). This is something of the paradox of the joy of heaven: it is perfect, yet always increasing.
I find this whole way of thinking a refreshing and happy alternative to modern views of humanity, in which human nature and rationality are explained as an evolutionary spinoff, without any ultimate purpose or goal. Perhaps that is one reason why I personally find this doctrine so intriguing.
A Doctrine Ripe For Retrieval
The beatific vision seems to be an area of theology that contemporary evangelicals could benefit from engaging more. Historically, it has been widely embraced among Protestants, though some, like John Owen, have offered significant qualifications to it. But you don’t have to read Aquinas’ Summas to encounter it; you can find it in Edwards sermons, or in Charles Wesley’s hymns:
no angel tongues can tell thy love’s ecstatic height,
the glorious joy unspeakable, the beatific sight.
Certainly, it would be unhelpful to set the beatific vision at odds with other metaphors and images for heavenly life. And there are other objections to the beatific vision that I have not addressed here (e.g., it derives too much from Platonic thought, it tends toward deification and the blurring of the Creator-creature distinction, etc.). Nonetheless, it seems to be a doctrine that is ripe for retrieval: catholic in its heritage, and timely in its implications.
Fascinating. I so respect theology that is both faithful to Scripture and accessible to experience. Thanks, Gavin.
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Reblogged this on #WritingAloud and commented:
Thanks so much for this post! It seems to me that there is #somewhereinthisdoctrine a key that unlocks/dispels the myth that God’s ‘sole’ purpose (if we are allowed to refer to blueprints within the evolutionary scenario) is the evolution and the ultimate redemption of the biosphere–and that humankind’s ‘sole’ purpose is function (see Middleton) and not relationship. PS. I have been engaged for rather a long time in the pursuit of a satisfactory defense for the ‘Goodness of God’ in the light of the harms of evolution..PPs. Hope that makes sense. DW
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I don’t believe we’ve ever met. I count your Dad a dear friend here in Nashville. I appreciate your writing. This article is no exception. I am attaching the article I wrote for The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans). Of course, it is presumptuous of me that you would be interested. I just thought you might find it interesting, given you mention JE.
Yours for the faith, with much love and affection,
Pastor David Owen Filson Teaching Pastor – Christ Presbyterian Church-PCA Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary http://www.teachinglikerain.wordpress.com http://www.tabletalkmagazine.com http://www.christwardcollective.com http://www.reformation21.org http://www.twitter.com/davidowenfilson insta @davidowenfilson Hebrews 6:19 “We are not our own, but belong unto our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…
Beatifical Vision The visio beatifica is crucial to Edwards’s theological program. Obviously, this vision of God is fundamental to his theology proper, but it functions especially in his soteriology and eschatological view of the progressive nature of heaven. The glorified saints’ relationship to the triune God is eternally characterized by this transformative sight. As the Trinitarian nature of heaven permeates Edwards’s thinking, it is not surprising that many “Miscellanies” and sermons contain his thoughts on the beatific vision. Exemplary in his corpus are the sermons entitled The Pure in Heart Blessed (no. 150, WJE 17:57–86), True Saints, When Absent from the Body, Are Present with the Lord (no. 879, WJE 25:222–56), The Portion of the Righteous (no. 373, WJEO 50), and “Miscellanies” nos. 5, 777, and 822 (WJE 13:201–2; WJE 18:427–34, 533–34). Theologians have long contemplated the visio Dei. In City of God (22.29), Augustine wrestles with the notion of the saints seeing with their bodily eyes God “though a spirit, ruling all things.” This seems to describe mainly the saints’ view of God’s works of providence. A seeing of God’s work (of redemption) is an aspect of the beatific vision for Edwards. However, in The Pure in Heart Blessed, he sets forth a seeing of the soul, as it were, wherein the saints view God’s attributes and disposition toward them. They enjoy an immediate sense or seeing of his “excellency and beauty,” his “great and awful majesty,” his “pure and beauteous holiness,” as well as his “wonderful and endearing grace and mercy.” Edwards justifies the idea of the beatific vision as vision or as actual seeing because it is direct apprehension, results in certainty, is as clear and lively as anything seen with the bodily eyes, and involves a sensibility of God’s presence to the saint. Yet, this apprehension, certainty, sensibility, etc., is greater than anything the sight of bodily eyes could produce. So, the beatific vision is immediate in the sense that it is not mediated through the bodily eyes: “the blessedness of the soul does not enter in that door.” The immediate nature of the vision is both crucial and qualified. For were the beatific vision mediated through the physical eyes of the body, even the glorified body of the saint, then dependency would be upon that physicality. However, the vision is not immediate, in the sense of the intuitive or innate property of the saint. Instead, the vision is the soul’s immediate perception of God as he is, revealed to the saint by Christ. In this sense, the vision is mediate—mediated by Christ. In True Saints, When Absent from the Body, Are Present with the Lord, Edwards’s 1747 funeral sermon for David Brainerd, union with Christ is the beginning of a vital, experiential knowledge, which reaches a new level of perfected potentiality in heaven. In glory, the saints are “unspeakably more fit” for this knowledge of Christ, of whom they enjoy an “immediate, full, and constant” view. In their vision of Christ, the object of the vision, he is “unbosomed” to them, as mutual love between Redeemer and redeemed is enjoyed. This vision, and the relationship it enables, is described in the sensible language of eating, drinking, swimming, and being swallowed. Grounded in union with Christ, the vision of God is not, strictly speaking, immediate or innate for the saint, but rather is mediated to the saint by Christ himself, who alone can, of himself, see God immediately and share that vision with his members. Thus, the lengthy “Miscellanies” no. 777 speaks of four ways that spiritual beings may have a view or knowledge of other spiritual beings: (1) as images or resemblances, (2) through words and declarations, (3) as effects, and (4) a priori, by arguing from the cause. Edwards maintains that the saints’ vision of God is mediated by Christ in each of these. First, Jesus, of course, is the very image of God. The saints have a vision of him, and thus see God. Second, the saints’ vision of God is also by conversation in heaven. This too is mediated by Christ. Third, saints have a vision of God’s character and perfections by their effects on display in the work of redemption. This work is wrought in Christ. Fourth, these ways of seeing God mediated by Christ all point to the a priori necessity of God’s existence. Edwards’s treatment of the beatific vision, grounded in the ongoing necessity of the incarnation of Christ the mediator, takes on a covenantal character that is not as clearly seen in some medieval works. Christ mediates a sight of God’s work of redemption, as the saints in heaven view the progress of the church on earth. This vision results in a progress of happiness among the saints in heaven, as the redemptive work of God unfolds on earth. Yet, the vision involves progress at another level. In “Miscellanies” no. 1225, Edwards speaks of the beatific vision resulting in an increasing knowledge, wherein the soul’s capacities for delighting in God are enlarged (WJE 23:157). In “Miscellanies” no. 5, a young Edwards describes this as “like a vessel thrown into the sea of happiness.” In “Miscellanies” no. 822, the “enjoying faculty” of the soul is opened in the vision, enabling an increase of happiness and blessedness. In his 1735 sermon on Romans 2:10, The Portion of the Righteous, Edwards speaks of the beatific vision as the most perfect way of seeing God, because it is immediate; it excites a loving desire for union with God, enjoyment, and partaking of Christ; and it involves filling with the Holy Spirit, the soul’s adoration of God, and a progressive capacity for the pleasure and desire for God that the vision brings. The beatific vision is christological, transformative, and progressive in nature, yielding an eternal increase of amor intellectualis Dei, of growth in blessedness, happiness, and holiness. As such, it is a programmatic feature of Edwards’s eschatological view of heaven. David Owen Filson further reading Gerstner, John H. The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 3. Powhatan, VA: Berea Publications; Orlando: Ligonier Ministries, 1993. Lee, Sang Hyun. The Philosophical Theology of Jonathan Edwards. Expanded ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Strobel, Kyle C. Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation. London: Bloomsbury T. & T. Clark, 2013.
WJE The Works of Jonathan Edwards are published by Yale University Press, WJE The Works of Jonathan Edwards are published by Yale University Press, WJE The Works of Jonathan Edwards are published by Yale University Press, WJE The Works of Jonathan Edwards are published by Yale University Press, WJE The Works of Jonathan Edwards are published by Yale University Press, David Owen Filson, “Beatifical Vision,” ed. Harry S. Stout, The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 61–63.
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This is great, thank you for sharing! How cool you know so much about this topic. It would be fun to talk more sometime. Next time I’m in Nashville I hope we can connect in some way, I’d love to get to know you better!