The Sight of Love
Few doctrines are as “standard” in the history of theology, while being minimized in contemporary theological reflection, as the doctrine of the beatific vision. While there are encouraging signs of a reversal in this trend, Protestant theologians and biblical scholars have neglected this theme in recent memory, leading some to think that the beatific vision was never a major feature of Protestant thought. In this regard, it is not unusual to hear sentiments asserting that Protestant theologians “largely neglected” the doctrine of the beatific vision. What we find in the Protestant tradition, however, provides a different narrative.
The goal of this article is to provide an introduction to the doctrine of the beatific vision. To do so, we start with some general reflections on the biblical material, and then address the instincts of some of key theological trajectories from the tradition, with particular focus on Reformed thinkers like John Owen and Jonathan Edwards. Pausing to reflect on key emphases in this material, we build on this foundation to suggest some fruitful avenues for constructing a doctrine of the beatific vision. Because this doctrine is muted in recent theological reflection, it is helpful to begin with a brief working definition: The beatific vision is the sight of God revealed to God’s people in eternity; it is the final end for which human persons were created. Scripture hints toward a future vision of God in glory, and therefore it is called “beatific” because it is a sight that brings happiness and perfection. Importantly, as we will see below, the beatific vision is not simply a piece of eschatology, as central as it is for that, but asserts its influence over several key doctrines.The beatific vision is the sight of God revealed to God’s people in eternity; it is the final end for which human persons were created. Click To Tweet
A doctrine of the beatific vision is not the result of an overly speculative theology, but is first and foremost the fruit of exegesis. There are many passages used to develop a doctrine of the beatific vision that point ahead to an unknown and indescribable reality, such as Psalm 17:15: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.” To “behold your face in righteousness” is a depiction, however limited, of standing before God in eternity. Building upon that, we might turn to Revelation 22:3-4 to further narrate the psalmist’s satisfaction: “No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (NIV – my emphasis). Throughout Scripture we find passages like these pointing ahead to a time when God’s people will “see his face.” Exegetically, we have to make decisions about this language: What is it seeking to depict? What is the point of such imagery? At the very least, it is clear that the idea of seeing God is used to talk about satisfaction (happiness), and, as will be filled out below, this sight is what “happifies” the creature (to borrow Edwards’s language of the beatific vision as a “happifying sight”). We might borrow Irenaeus’ often quoted line, that “the glory of God is man fully alive,” and say that the sight of God is a sight of God’s glory that brings his people to life in its fullness.
But these passages simply point forward to what other verses spell out in more detail. For instance, closing out his famous depiction of love, Paul states, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). It is important to note, first, this depiction of the heavenly vision orients our present circumstances. We currently see by faith, which is through darkness (in some sense), whereas in eternity we will see “face to face.” Our knowledge of God in regeneration is somehow connected to the knowledge of God in eternity. Building on this, second, is that our knowledge of God is connected to our being known by God. This is the thrust of the latter half of that verse. “Face to face” knowledge, therefore, is not simply a depiction of proximity, but of relational intimacy. Relational knowledge entails knowing as you are known, and this is the kind of knowledge we are presented with here. Knowledge of God is not knowledge of an object, but is personal knowledge – knowledge available within a relationship of love. This knowledge begets happiness. In other words, knowing God, as Paul describes here, is always relational, which leads him to say, in Galatians 4:9, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God,” once again linking the two realities. To see God face to face entails a relational knowledge that exists in knowing and being known – a relationship available to us through Christ – only known in the Spirit who illumines both Christ and the deep things of our own hearts. Last, it is significant that Paul’s description comes on the heels of his exposition of love. The beatific vision is the vision of love, and as such, it is both knowing and being known in love. One fruit of this is that the believer will come to know himself or herself as the one who is beloved of God. We already catch a glimpse of this in the Gospels, where the apostle John refers to himself as, “The disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). John had come to taste the knowledge of God through the dark glass of faith, and therefore he came to know himself as the one beloved of God, the perfection of which is the face to face knowing of the beatific vision.
Even more descriptive are two passages found in 2 Corinthians. The first is where Paul culminates his discussion of the glory of the “ministry of death,” which caused Moses’ face to shine, contrasting it with the glory known in regeneration: “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (3:18). Likewise, Paul continues in verse 4:6, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Just prior to this, Paul claims that unbelievers are blinded to the gospel, and states, “In their case, the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Instead of a focus on the kind of knowledge available, as in the 1 Corinthians passage, here the focus is on creaturely transformation. The object is now God’s glory, which is clearly tied to an immediate vision of God himself (immediately-mediated, we might say, through the humanity of Christ and the illumination of the Spirit). This sight is transformative, it is beatifying, because it is a knowledge of God, and, furthermore, a knowledge of God for me.
Several important realities are highlighted above that are worth paying attention to: God is known in Christ, his image, and his image proclaims the glory of God. Likewise, in Christ we have the true mediator who sees and is seen, and who unveils and reveals. Throughout Scripture we learn that no one has seen God (e.g. John 1:18), and yet Christ boldly claims, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me – not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:45b-46 – my emphasis). Jesus, clearly talking about himself, claims that he is the one who has seen the Father. It is hard to conceive how one might make a more provocative claim, but Jesus does, going on to assert, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9b). More than merely the expected messiah, Jesus is the one who beholds God the Father in the love of the Spirit for eternity. In Christ we share in this vision, through the dark glass of faith now, and in clarity for eternity.This sight is transformative, it is beatifying, because it is a knowledge of God, and, furthermore, a knowledge of God for me. Click To Tweet
The bulk of biblical passages addressing the beatific vision speak to the knowledge of God in its perfection, or else in faith, where we taste the preliminary fruit of Christ’s redemptive work. Knowledge and transformation are often central emphases in these descriptions. Perhaps most explicitly, John declares, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). Truly seeing God is having your eyes opened, no longer like Adam and Eve, who had their eyes open to evil, but now to God, taking in the reality of who he is. This is receiving the love of God in full, to have God as the ultimate object of your love. As Henry Scougal notes, “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love.” Christians are those who have seen and been captivated by the Father in Christ; they are those who have caught a glimpse of the eternal Son who is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3a). But, importantly, Christians are those who see through a mirror dimly – their sight is by faith. Faith and hope both dissolve into the sight of eternity, but it is in faith and hope that this eternal vision orients the heart of the Christian. The Christian puts her hope on Jesus’ promise: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).
Beatific Vision in the Tradition
Reflection on the beatific vision began early in the Christian tradition, with a focus on contemplation and union, which then developed into discussions concerning enjoyment in medieval theology through the enduring legacy of Augustine. Severin Kitanov narrates this well:
Based on New Testament allusions to the indescribable experience of heavenly bliss in the presence of God, the concept of beatific enjoyment became a staple of Christian systematic theology thanks to Church Father and Saint Aurelius Augustine. St Augustine developed the concept both as a way of giving a teleological orientation to Christian learning and as a way of distinguishing the Christian ideal of heavenly beatitude from rival philosophical – Neo-Platonic and Stoic – conceptions of human flourishing. St Augustine’s concept and treatment of enjoyment were passed on to medieval scholastic theologians as a result of the systematizing effort of Peter Lombard.
Reformed High Orthodox theologians adopted the legacy of the medieval scholastics, engaging directly (and, at times, indirectly) with figures like Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus, who provide detailed reflection on the nature of beatific enjoyment. Turretin’s discussion highlights this fact, where he claims that Aquinas holds to a vision of Christ located in the intellect in comparison with Scotus who holds to love through the will, and suggests that these are not mutually exclusive and must be understood as united in the beatific vision. Specifically, what is united in the vision of God is: sight, love and joy. Turretin explains: “Sight contemplates God as the supreme good; love is carried out towards him, and is most closely united with him; and joy enjoys and acquiesces in him. Sight perfects the intellect, love the will, joy the conscience.”
With these particular points of focus, the emphasis of these debates became anthropology. The nature of the vision and creaturely enjoyment of the vision led to questions about its proper seat among the faculties (i.e. intellect, will, affections, etc.). Medieval discussion of the beatific vision led to arguments focusing on anthropological questions, leaving Protestant theologians the opportunity to follow suit or change trajectory. Turretin’s focus in his account of the beatific vision is anthropology and ethics, showing little interest in changing the trajectory or theological location of the vision. In contrast, figures like John Owen and Jonathan Edwards articulated accounts specified more directly by their doctrines of God.
Concerning the biblical material, Owen is particularly captivated by the notion that if we have seen Christ, we have seen the Father. Owen assumes that this is not simply a feature of the age of faith, but continues on to eternity as an aspect of Christ’s continued mediation. Owen avers, in his work on Christ’s glory, “That which at present I design to demonstrate is, that the beholding of the glory of Christ is one of the greatest privileges and advancements that believers are capable of in this world, or that which is to come.” Owen defines this “beatifical” vision, as “such an intellectual present view, apprehension, and sight of God and his glory, especially as manifested in Christ, as will make us blessed unto eternity.” Linking the vision of eternity with regenerate existence, Owen delineates two ways or degrees of beholding Christ’s glory: first, by faith, which is the “sight” given in this world; and second, by sight, which is the immediate vision in eternity. The beatific vision, Owen states, is christologically focused: as “it is the Lord Christ and his glory which are the immediate object both of this faith and sight.” Therefore, the sight that saints behold in heaven is the result of their beholding Christ by faith during life on earth. This connection is important: just as seeing Christ in heaven is the perfection of faith on earth, so seeing Christ immediately in heaven is the perfection of seeing through a mirror dimly in this world. As Owen describes it,
The enjoyment of God by sight is commonly called the BEATIFICAL VISION; and it is the sole fountain of all the actings of our souls in the state of blessedness . . . Howbeit, this we know, that God in his immense essence is invisible unto our corporeal eyes, and will be so to eternity; as also incomprehensible unto our minds. For nothing can perfectly comprehend that which is infinite, but what is itself infinite. Wherefore the blessed and blessing sight which we shall have of God will be always ‘in the face of Jesus Christ’.
God in his essence remains invisible, but the sight of God that is both blessed and blessing, is a sight of Christ. The difference between regeneration and glory is that a new kind of sight is provided in each, but in glory it is given a clarity and immediacy unknown to believers now. The sight that saints behold in heaven is the result of their beholding Christ by faith during life on earth. Click To TweetBut what remains the same in regeneration and glorification is the object. It is still Christ, even in glory, who is the image of the invisible God. What is so important about this move, in comparison with Turretin, is that Owen is invoking his Christology to do work for his understanding of eternity. In seeing Christ, we see the Father, and as such, eternity entails gazing upon Christ and knowing God “in the face of Jesus Christ.”
What we see in Edwards is a slightly different emphasis following broadly similar instincts. Edwards turns to his doctrine of God, where the ultimate vision of God is the gazing of Father and Son within the Holy Spirit, made known in and through Christ by the indwelling of the Spirit. Edwards notes that the “cause” of this vision, so to speak, is the love of God:
This very manifestation that God will make of himself that will cause the beatifical vision will be an act of love in God. It will be from the exceeding love of God to them that he will give them this vision which will add an immense sweetness to it . . . They shall see that he is their Father and that they are his children . . . therefore they shall see God as their own God, when they behold this transcendent glory.
It is within the love of God that the saints come to know that they are loved by God, and only there are they able to know him as Father and themselves as his children. This is the inclination Paul depicts in 1 Cor 13:12. This emphasis follows the biblical focus on adoption as the overarching image of soteriology. The broad movement of adoption is that it is known and available in Christ, the Son of God, by the Spirit of adoption. Following a similar trajectory, believers come to see God the Father in and through the Son by the Spirit of illumination. In Edwards’s words, “The saints shall enjoy God as partaking with Christ of his enjoyment of God, for they are united to him and are glorified and made happy in the enjoyment of God as his members.” The saints’ access to God is through the person of Christ alone: “They, being in Christ, shall partake of the love of God the Father to Christ. And as the Son knows the Father, so they shall partake with him in his sight of God, as being as it were parts of him. As he is in the bosom of the Father, so are they in the bosom of the Father.” The saints come to participate, according to their capacity, in God’s own self-joy and delight.
Turretin, Owen, and Edwards each provide us with a differing glimpse into how we might come to understand the beatific vision theologically. Turretin utilizes the anthropological notions of the medieval debates, staying within those contours to try and show how the beatific vision actualizes the full potentialities of the glorified human person. Owen turns to Christology to focus on the object of the vision, keeping tight constraints on speculation by restricting the vision of God to Christ. Edwards follows Owen’s emphasis on Christology and soteriology, but he ties it in with his overarching trinitarian theology. On Edwards’s emphasis, Christ is not only the object of our vision, but is the place in which the vision of God is known and received. In this sense, the vision known in and through Christ is a knowing and being known, by the Father in the Son and the Spirit. It is in our union with Christ that we come to share in the gaze of the Father upon the Son, and within the Son, we share his sight of God as Father.
The knowledge of God for the regenerate is by faith, whereas the knowledge of eternity is beatific; knowledge by faith is clouded, knowledge by sight is clear. Click To TweetAlong with these various approaches to constructing a doctrine of the beatific vision, the Reformed expanded the doctrine beyond eschatology. While the beatific vision is most often developed in an account of eschatology, Reformed thinkers could also introduce the beatific vision in their theological prolegomena, as they delineated the various types of knowledge of God available: the archetypal knowledge God has of himself, and the ectypal counterpart, which is creaturely knowledge of God. In this latter material, the beatific would be addressed as the knowledge had in glory, and would be contrasted with pilgrim knowledge, which is knowledge by faith. God’s own knowledge provides the archetype, and Jesus’s ectypal knowledge of the Father by union mediates all human knowledge of God. The knowledge of God for the regenerate is by faith, whereas the knowledge of eternity is beatific; knowledge by faith is clouded, knowledge by sight is clear. But even beyond this, various Reformed theologians recovered the notion of God’s blessedness (beatitudo Dei). By recovering God’s blessedness in this manner, figures like Edwards were able to moor their understanding of the beatific vision to a participation in the eternal blessedness of God. Even more robustly, Edwards’s doctrine of the Trinity was an articulation of God’s own inner-beatific-gazing. God’s life simply is the Father and Son gazing upon one another within the Holy Spirit of love, what I have come to call “religious affection in pure act.” In Edwards’s theology, it is this vision that is broken open to creatures when God sends the image of the invisible God and the Spirit of love and illumination. God’s own blessedness is given over in the Son, such that his creatures come to know God as their God, and the Father of the Son as their Father, with the Spirit pouring forth his love into their hearts (Rom. 5:5).