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A Sideways Glance at the Beatific Vision

Exploring the Network of Christian Doctrine in Light of the Beatific Vision

Beatific Vision, file under eschatology.” If a Christian today has heard the phrase beatific vision before, she likely thinks of it as part of the doctrine of the last things: eschatology. There’s no problem with that. Eschatology is the beatific vision’s natural home. That said, Christian theology is a tightly woven net, and no part is disconnected from any other, the beatific vision included. Other contributors to this edition of Credo have done an excellent job of looking at the beatific vision in its native territory of eschatology, and in some of the main historical sources. With that covered admirably elsewhere, this article will venture something different, asking about the place of the beatific vision in the wider tissue of theology. We will consider the work the beatific vision can do if we allow it to wander a little from its usual place.

God is happy

Let’s begin with the doctrine of God, and the simple but profound Christian teaching that the vision of God is beatifying because God is beatific: the vision of God makes the saints happy because, by it, they share in God, and God is happy. By no means every cause of delight has this characteristic, let us notice. While every sort of vision is some kind of sharing in what one sees, when the landscape of the English Lake District delights me that’s not because the hills and valleys themselves experience delight. The hills make me happy, but I can’t claim that I’m sharing some happiness of their own. In contrast, the vision of God is a deeper sort of sharing, even the deepest of all. To see God is to be made a partaker of what God is: to “become participants in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1.3). To see God is to share in something of who God is, including God’s beatitude: “when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3.2).

Some thinking about the beatific vision, then, can inform our doctrine of God, and vice versa. Central here is the conviction that God is happy. This has been a surprisingly controversial proposition in recent decades, at least if my experience as a teacher is anything of a guide. The idea that God is happy somehow hasn’t seemed quite sober enough. Talk of divine happiness chafes againt a tendency in later twentieth-century theology to focus on tragedy instead, making that the test of seriousness in theology. It’s not difficult to see why that sprang up. The twentieth century was a spectacularly bloody century. The turn to tragedy in response is particularly associated with the Cambridge theologian Donald McKinnon (Norris-Hulse Professor at Cambridge, and a fellow of Corpus Christi College), and more recently through the stamp of McKinnon’s thought on his most brilliant student, Rowan Williams, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury.

For my part, in a provocative move, I’ve often started lectures on the doctrine of God, or on the divine attributes, with the beatitude of God or, as I have tended to put it, with the contention that God is happy. I choose the word “happy” deliberately. It’s easy to hide behind the technical vocabulary of “beatitude,” supposing that beatitude is too fancy a category really to mean anything quite as vulgar as “happiness.” I disagree. While Christian thinking about beatitude might certainly require us to revise our idea of what true happiness means, it points to a fuller and deeper happiness, not to a circumscribed one. The beatific vision tells us something about God: the scandalous idea that God is happy. Click To Tweet

The beatific vision tells us something about God: the scandalous idea that God is happy. From there, let us move on to the doctrine of creation, and to human beings in particular.

Double-decker anthropology

On that territory, the beatific vision lies at the heart of one of the most entrenched theological debates of the twentieth century, particularly among Roman Catholics, although others have taken sides, or been caught along in the torrent. The question is whether creation (typically described here as that which is “natural”) is woven through – or not – with a desire for God, and an orientation to a life of grace, which lies beyond anything it can provide on its own terms (the “supernatural”): in particular a desire for the vision of God. The debate asks whether an orientation towards that sort of beatitude is integral to human beings, such that our nature cries out for that destiny, even if the ears of our spirit are deadened to that cry by the effects of sin.

The pivotal figure is the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac (1927–1991), appreciated today as one of a handful of friends who helped to reconnect theology with its historical sources. De Lubac claimed that every human being is oriented towards God, and to a more-than-natural fulfilment, which to have forfeited is an incomparable loss. That might seem innocuous. It might look simply like taking taking Augustine’s now famous line in the Confession seriously, that God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him. At the time, however, it got de Lubac into a lot of trouble, pitching him against advocates of what has been called a “double decker” view of creation and grace. This was associated, in fact, with de Lubac’s own Jesuit order, and with some prominent Dominican friars. They saw the realm of nature not only as good (although now fallen), but also as complete in itself. It would have its own logic, and – crucially – its own purely natural ends or goals. That is one “deck,” and it makes perfect sense on its own terms. Grace, if and when it comes, adds a second “deck,” which is wonderful but fundamentally extraneous to the first. What was there previously makes complete sense without it. Without grace, nature has its own goals and perfections, such as raising a family, being a good citizen, and knowing God as well as one can by reason alone. They would be a recipe for a complete contentment of their own, even if grace can draw back the curtain on something greater still, previously unguessed, unsought for. By grace, if grace is given, one’s destiny is expanded to belonging to the family of Christ, and to seeing God face-to-face, but nothing would be missing from a human life, considered simply as human, without it.

The double-decker approach set out to preserve the gratuitousness of grace in a neat and orderly fashion. If the human constitution as such were to call for the beatific vision, it worries, would grace then really be given freely? This is a tradition, we should note, that doesn’t think that God would create an innate desire without allowing it to be fulfilled, at least if the creature had not blown it. The de Lubacian might reply that we need to be more at ease with paradox in theology. We find here a natural orientation to what goes beyond an nature, for union with God, and if that seems paradoxical, get used to it. For my part, I’d start with the idea that there simply is no nature before grace. Creation, after all, is the first grace, the first great undeserved gift. If there’s a natural orientation to God, it’s not as if that surprises God and forces his hand. God freely chose to make it that way.

This is no mere esoteric fighting over mere details. These questions bear deeply on how we understand human beings (and whatever other rational animals there might be in the cosmos), and how we go about mission. The double decker view suggests that the message of the gospel comes as something alien, as strange tidings, while the de Lubacian approach sees the gospel as bringing a message that reconnects people with their deepest longings, for all they may have been muffled by sin. Both, we might also note, suggest that there is more to the work of Christ than simply repair or restoration. There is also the offer of an elevation beyond anything we ever lost: to membership of the family of God as brothers and sisters of Christ, and to the perfect joy and completion of seeing God. There is more to the work of Christ than simply repair or restoration. There is also the offer of an elevation beyond anything we ever lost: to membership of the family of God. Click To Tweet

I stand towards the de Lubacian view, but his opponents had a point in warning us not to domesticate what God does in granting the beatific vision. Obviously, curing us from sin is a big deal, but we can and should go further, stressing that no capacity for the vision of God falls within the natural capacity of any creature, not even in the angels. It might be – I think it is – that only the vision of God can fulfil us, but no capacity for that vision is latent within us. The beatific vision is a miracle, a work of grace, and yet it also does no violence to us. We may have no natural capacity for it, but the beatific vision goes supremely with the grain of what we are. Christ both addresses our deepest longings, and offers something entirely beyond our nature.

The Beatific Vision is anti-Pelagian

That brings us from theological anthropology, and the question of the deepest truth of our constitution, to soteriology: the doctrine of salvation. The besetting heresy here is Pelagianism, the idea that we can save ourselves, can sort ourselves out and, even if God aids us, that’s ultimately just some help with what we could have done anyway. Every theologian worth reading has opposed Pelagianism. Among all the arguments that might be made against it, the most devastating builds on the theme of the previous paragraph: that the beatific vision goes beyond the natural capacity of any and every creature. If a Pelagian thinks that salvation is something he can achieve on his own, he simply hasn’t grasped the magnitude of what salvation means, entails, or offers. The Pelagian model of salvation is thin, prim, and moral: it’s the idea that we can be good people.

However, while moral transformation is certainly part of what salvation brings about, it’s far from being the whole story. Granted, St Paul, and many others, would pour cold water on the idea that we can sort out even our own moral standing, but that’s not the worst we can say about Pelagianism. What God promises isn’t principally renewed good behavior, but seeing him face-to-face, being “like him,” being “participants in the divine nature.” None of that is even faintly, vaguely, even partly within the capacities of even the most upstanding person by her own powers, of even an unfallen person, of even the highest seraph or archangel. No-one can see God by her own powers. Pelagianism is false on account of its arrogance, but it is even more false on account of its denuded understanding of salvation. No one can see God by her own powers. Pelagianism is false on account of its arrogance. Click To Tweet

Christ enjoyed the beatific vision

Let us end with Christ. We come to the beatific vision through him, and a much disputed question in writing on the topic remains whether the vision of God is primarily a vision of Christ, or of God as Trinity, or of the Divine essence. However, since I am avoiding talking about the beatific vision in its eschatological home territory, I won’t close with that, but with Christ’s own enjoyment of the beatific vision, and again with what that might suggest about the nature of being human.

The central confession about Christ from the days of the Early Church is that he is fully human and fully divine. The Fathers, Scholastics, and Reformers all tell us that, in Christ, the Eternal Person of the Word, eternally God by nature, took our human nature to himself. I began with the rousing claim the God is happy. Since our humanity is perfectly united to God in Christ, that leads to the striking claim (made by Thomas Aquinas, for instance), that the divinely human mind or soul of Christ enjoyed the beatific vision right from the first moment of his conception. It follows from the perfect union of his humanity with his divinity. This led Aquinas to make the equally striking claim that Christ was perfect in love but had no need for either hope or faith. Those are the virtues of people who do not yet see God, but Christ already did, from the beginning.

I’ve heard the objection that if Christ always enjoyed the beatific vision, that it separates him from us, or that it’s somehow cheating, and devalues the contingencies of his story. For one thing, it would mean that there was never any chance of Christ sinning, since it is precisely the totally compelling vision of God that preserves anyone – human or angel – from falling. But if this sets Christ apart, is that not right? He is God; we are not. And should we really think that a capacity for sin makes us more human? As Augustine had it, we are diminished in our humanity by the fall, in moving from a position of “being able not to sin” to one of “not being able not to sin.” And our humanity will only be perfect when, thanks to the vision of God, we are no longer able to sin at all.

Should we think that the human being without the beatific vision is more authentically human? Grace perfects nature, it does not abolish it. Ascribing the beatific vision to Christ, drawing on one more thread in the interwoven net of doctrine, underlines that it is what we were created for, as de Lubac so usefully stressed in the twentieth century: we are made for. That comes by Christ, and in the beatific vision, he is the pioneer who leads the way.

Andrew Davison

Revd Dr. Andrew Davison serves as Starbridge Associate Professor in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, where he is a fellow in Theology and Dean of Chapel, Corpus Christi College. He is also a 2022-24 Visiting Fellow of the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton. He is the author of Participation in God: A Study in Christian Doctrine and Metaphysics (Cambridge, 2019).

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