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The Sight of Love

Biblical and Theological Reflections on the Beatific Vision

Few doctrines are as “standard” in the history of theology, while being minimized in contemporary theological reflection, as the doctrine of the beatific vision.[1] 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.[2] In this regard, it is not unusual to hear sentiments asserting that Protestant theologians “largely neglected” the doctrine of the beatific vision.[3] 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

Biblical Material

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.[4] 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).[5] 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.[6] 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.”[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12] 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.”[13]

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.[14]

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.”[15] 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.”[16] 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.[17] 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.”[18] 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’.[19]

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.[20] It is still Christ, even in glory, who is the image of the invisible God.[21] 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.[22]

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.”[23] 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.[24]

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.[25] 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).[26] 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.”[27] 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).

Key Emphases

Before turning to some directions for a constructive account of the beatific vision, it is helpful to pause and reflect on various features of the doctrine. From the above discussion, several key aspects of a doctrine of the beatific vision come to the fore. First, in the biblical material, the emphasis is on a transformative, relational vision of God. The language of “vision” denotes the proximity and relationality available in God’s self-presentation in Christ by the Holy Spirit (the imagery of “light” does this in Scripture as well). Whereas Owen wants to say that this relationship is always known “in the face of Jesus Christ,” certain readings of 1 John 3 allow for an advancement beyond this to include the Father more directly, albeit still in and through the Son. This passage is on the love of the Father to his children, and it is in this context that John claims, “but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). It is certainly possible, with Owen, to rest on Christ’s claim that if you have seen him you have seen the Father, but John seems to allow for us to push this further. In the passage in John, the emphasis is on the Father appearing. With Edwards, we would argue for a kind of sight of the Father known in the Son, but also through the Son in our union with him. This is a sight of God in Christ where we share in Christ’s seeing of the Father and Christ’s being seen by the Father, such that our knowing and being known are brought to perfection in him.[28]

Second, the “beatific” aspect of the vision denotes the fulfillment of the creature according to the fullness of one’s capacity. This is often discussed under the idea of enjoyment. Enjoyment is not simply pleasure, but includes within it the full reality of holiness and communion with God. The doctrine of the beatific vision, therefore, pulls together various strands in theological Enjoyment is not simply pleasure, but includes within it the full reality of holiness and communion with God. Click To Tweetreflection concerning glory, holiness, presence, revelation, anthropology, and ethics, and advances it along the contours of a doctrine of God and soteriology to depict the life of faith in light of faith’s perfection in sight. It is here where we could analyze the emphasis on affections found in the tradition, not the least of which is found in the Puritan tradition. Religious affections matter because the life of faith is on a journey to an eternity of affection; the spark of affections within the pilgrim witness to the fire of eternity, where we will be like him because we will see him as he is.

Third, the focus on the “vision” of the beatific vision, in the tradition, turned into a debate concerning anthropology, with the focus contrasting intellect or will as the primary seat of this vision. One of the great values of this emphasis is that virtues and vices were addressed in relation to sight. Ethics, therefore, must be intimately related to an account of our vision of God. A proper description of theological ethics will need to account, in some fashion, for the beatific vision as a transformative reality of the creature before God. Edwards’s analysis, again, is ripe with insight. The vision of God is not an abstract gazing upon disinterested deity, but is a vision given over by God within love; this is seeing God as he is for me. As Edwards claims, “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, glorious God, they shall see [him] as their own.”[29] Moored to sight, creaturely formation is never merely the habituation of virtue, but requires an account of infusion to fund true spiritual formation.

In light of these key features, we turn now to directions for a constructive account of the beatific vision. These thoughts are preliminary instincts in light of our previous analysis, aimed at encouraging more work on the biblical and theological contours of a doctrine of the beatific vision.

Developing a Constructive Account

The purpose of the following four points is to provide a broad architecture for developing a doctrine of the beatific vision. The goal is not to develop each of these four points, but simply to gesture toward what this development might look like. We will conclude with some notes concerning how a retrieval of this doctrine could be fruitful for contemporary theology and ministry. Ultimately, we want to push back on the tradition a bit to relocate the doctrine of the beatific vision within the specific register of God’s presence. The beatific vision is about God presenting himself to his creatures, and therefore, the focus of this doctrine is God, and only after patient attention to God in his self-giving and self-revealing love, should we turn to anthropological queries.

To construct a doctrine of the beatific vision, first and foremost, one must maintain a continual emphasis on God. It is tempting to allow a doctrine of the beatific vision to slip into anthropology, but at its heart, its focus is about creatures coming to stand before the Lord of Glory. This Lord of Glory is the God of fullness and freedom – of pure actuality – who is an eternal fountain of love in se. This is the God of infinite blessedness, who, as such, can pour forth that blessedness to his creatures.[30] Whereas grace is God’s self-giving, initially received in regeneration, the beatific vision is the fulfilment of this initial down-payment. This ushers in a healthy pneumatology, strangely absent from Owen’s account, and links the down-payment of the Spirit in regeneration and sanctification with glorification (an ever-increasing union with God, in Christ, by the Spirit).[31] The beatific vision is the “perfect that arrives,” that puts away all we received only “in part,” bringing to focus love as the defining anthropological corollary to God’s self-giving presence in eternity. This is why Paul ends his reflection on love by looking to the day when God’s people will see face to face; when the perfect comes, that which was partial will be perfected in sight and in love (1 Cor. 13:1-13).In Christ, believers come to know God within the love of the Father upon the Son. Click To Tweet

Second, it is important to follow the biblical link between knowledge by faith (in a mirror dimly) and the clear knowledge of the beatific vision. There is a kind of spiritual sight available in Christ by the Spirit, and presently this sight is shrouded in darkness. Furthermore, following the Reformed recovery of the archetypal / ectypal distinction, we must maintain the connection between creaturely knowledge of God and God’s own self-knowledge. Human knowledge of God is always by grace – by God’s self-giving – and as such, God is known as he gives over his self-knowledge. God’s knowledge of himself is had within the fullness of his own life, a fullness that is wrapped up in his self-enjoyment and love. This is how God has revealed himself: by sending his beloved Son who loves and calls his people to love. Jesus grounds his relationship to his people in his eternal relation with the Father, and Jesus’ eternal identity is what he knows in nature that is offered us in grace (e.g., John 14:20-21, 23; 15:9-10; 17:10-11, 21-26). In Christ, believers come to know God within the love of the Father upon the Son. As such, creaturely knowledge of God is familial knowledge; to know God is to know him as Father, in the Son by the Spirit, and to know oneself as his child.

Third, and building on the first two points, a proper doctrine of the beatific vision should, in our opinion, hold the language of “vision” loosely, and reconnect this with other biblical imagery like light, harmony, and communion/fellowship.[32] To understand this, it is relevant to note the biblical depiction of the New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem descends from heaven, signifying that this is God’s creation and not humankind’s achievement. We do not create the new creation, God gives it by grace. Furthermore, the imagery of the New Jerusalem represents the Holy of Holies from the temple (Rev. 21:16), signifying that this city is the perfect presence of God, no longer cut off from his people, but now the context of their lives.[33] This is why John tells us, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22-23). This is God for us as he has redeemed the world and shines forth in his radiance. It is important that while God is the centrepiece to this reality, creatures don’t fall into endless contemplation and singing (the singing in Revelation is important, but it does not signify an eternal choir session). Instead, God’s glory is the light that bathes this creation, such that we do not stare blankly into it, blinded by its luminosity, but have life itself illumined. As with all light, we see because of it, and do not merely focus on it. In the light of God we are illuminated and illumined, seeing the God of light, and therefore seeing him and seeing by him. C. S. Lewis makes the important distinction between seeing light and seeing by it, saying, “Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.”[34] In God’s self-giving, we receive both.As with all light, we see because of it, and do not merely focus on it. In the light of God we are illuminated and illumined, seeing the God of light, and therefore seeing him and seeing by him. Click To Tweet

Last, it is important that we maintain the anthropological insights of the tradition, but focus those around the ecclesial community and love. Love is the ultimate virtue, with every other virtue refracting the radiance of love.[35] Love is a uniting virtue, and therefore God’s self-giving love always connects union with God together with union with others. As Paul claims, “above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body” (Col. 3:14-15a). Note the connection between love, harmony, and peace, with the oneness Christians are called to in Christ’s body. This vision of love is what brings peace to the soul, which it does through the harmonizing of the whole soul to God in Christ by his Spirit.[36] To enact the refracted virtues of love one must receive them, such that Paul’s list in 1 Corinthians 13 (love is patient, love is kind, it does not boast, etc.) is a description of how we are loved by God before it is a plumb line for our own loving. A true vision of God, as a vision of God for me, is something that quiets the soul by God’s love (Zeph. 3:17), and orients the creature to love.

Whereas many descriptions of the beatific vision digress into an event of individual ravishment, we need to recall the kind of sight God provides: the sight of God does not take our eyes off of everything else, but the sight of God allows us to finally see. God’s self-giving presence leads to community – a city in fact – where the light of God’s love illumines all reality. Love of God and love of neighbor are interconnected realities because love of God entails partaking in vision (dark through faith) of the God who is love. This is what leads John to say,

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might love though him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7-12)

The focus in the tradition on anthropology could be revised in this fashion to allow for a broader focus on the human person and society. Anthropologically, the human person is fully alive in the sight of God, knowing and being known in love, and is therefore able to rest in the fullness of God’s life such that he or she is able to embrace life itself. Therefore, an account of the vision must not simply rest on intellectual judgments about the nature of spiritual vision and knowledge, but must also include the dimensions of human personhood in our embodied and relational fullness. “Heaven is a world of love,” Edwards maintained, and the economy of eternity is fuelled by a vision of love ordered in and by God and his self-giving presence. This sight and communion with God creates a new order, society, and relationality, because God himself is the center of that place.


What we see in Scripture is a depiction of God’s self-giving in the Son and Spirit to reveal himself in love and provide access to his life, such that creatures can live in a society of love. Love of God and love of neighbor is the fruit of creatures captivated by God. This captivation names the truth of contemplation, which is to set one’s mind on Christ who is seated at God’s right hand (Col. 3:2a). As such, the divide between action and contemplation is annihilated in the vision of God. God is love, and when we see him we will be like him, and so contemplation is an act to set one’s mind and heart on God to be transformed into his image, from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). It is no wonder that Paul’s description of the beatific vision in 1 Corinthians 13:12 is in the context of his description of love. In Paul’s articulation, all else fades but love – “love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:8a) – because God is the God of love who makes the Father’s love of the Son available to his children in him (John 17:26).As the perfection of faith, hope, and love, the beatific vision should orient, doctrinally, the life of faith in this present evil age. Click To Tweet

As the perfection of faith, hope, and love, the beatific vision should orient, doctrinally, the life of faith in this present evil age. The call of theology is to witness to the Light that descended into darkness, but the prophetic declaration of the theologian must be one of love, following our call to be heralds of city of love. Our orientation as pilgrims, therefore, must be captivated by this city, this society, of God. Richard Bauckham notes,

The vision of God . . . offers a symbol of human destiny that highlights its theocentricity. It combines a sense of being in the immediate presence of God with the idea of knowing God in his true identity, as it were ‘face to face’. It has sometimes been understood in a rather intellectualized and individualized way, but need not be. It is the whole person that is engaged in immediate relationship with God.[37]

To give an account of the beatific vision, therefore, we suggest the four major emphases laid out above in light of the earlier mapping of the doctrine, but we must not rest there. There is, of course, much more than could be said both about the material content of this doctrine, as well as the pressure it asserts across a doctrinal system. Most obviously, perhaps, is how ecclesiology is given shape by the perfection of a people of love who gaze upon the God of love. A people oriented by this reality must consider carefully the role of praise, in all of its various facets, as we “learn a new song we will sing for eternity.”[38] The harmonizing of a people in love is at the heart of the practices of the church, and a doctrine of the beatific vision, properly construed, should help orient the hearts of the people around the fountain of light and life.


*This article was originally published by Union Resources. It has been updated by the author and is used with permission.

[1] I am particularly thankful for the feedback from Jamin Goggin and Ty Kieser on this article.

[2] Hans Boersma’s book, Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 2018), is the most obvious example of a new generation of reflection.

[3] Bauckham, R. J. (2005) ‘Vision of God’, in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. Ferguson, S. B., and Wright, D. F., Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, p. 711.

[4] Of these passages, perhaps the most utilized are, Matthew 5:8; 1 Corinthians 13:12; 2 Corinthians 3:18, 2 Corinthians 4:6; and 1 John 3:2.

[5] Edwards makes this point throughout his corpus. The sight of God is immediate (not mediated) in that the Spirit gives a true perception of God in Christ through his work of illumination. The sight is mediated in that we currently have Scripture, the elements of the Lord’s Table, etc., that mediate this vision to us. For more on this, see Oliver Crisp and Kyle Strobel, Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought (Eerdmans, 2018), 53-58. I also take this to be a central feature of the gospel as a movement of God’s self-giving rather than giving through mediation (see Galatians 3:19-20). The law was given by God through intermediaries, which makes it less than the gospel, which was given by God through God himself in Son and Spirit.

[6] This is an important point in Jesus’ teaching, when he criticizes those who have eyes but cannot see, and ears but cannot hear (e.g. Mark 8:18 cf. Jeremiah 5:21).

[7] Henry Scougal, The Life of God in the Soul of Man in The Works of Henry Scougal, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2002), 23.

[8] Turretin avers, “Here we walk by faith, not by sight; while there, faith being changed into sight, place will be given for sight alone. Here hope sustains; there fruition will satisfy us. Here the word and sacrament are the mirrors in which God presents himself for contemplation and the means by which he draws near to us; there we will behold God face to face without a veil and means and intimately enjoy him. Here is the place of groans and sighs, of the cross and trials because we live in a vale of tears where we are continually attacked by enemies and pressed by innumerable evils; there, however, is the place of joys and exultation because, being delivered from all evils, there will be nothing which can bring weariness or grief to us, nothing, on the other hand, which will not contribute to our solid and constant gladness.” Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 3 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 634.

[9] For some examples of recent evangelical reflection on how the beatific vision orders Christian contemplation, see Embracing Contemplation: Reclaiming a Christian Spiritual Practice edited by John Coe and Kyle Strobel (IVP Academic, 2019).

[10] Severin Valentinov Kitanov, Beatific Enjoyment in Medieval Scholastic Debates: The Complex Legacy of Saint Augustine and Peter Lombard (New York: Lexington Books, 2014), xiii.

[11] This continues to be true all the way up until Bavinck: “In theology, theologians have disputed whether this blessedness in the hereafter formally had its seat in the intellect or in the will and hence consisted in knowledge or love. Thomas claimed the former, Duns Scotus the latter, but Bonaventure combined the two, observing that the enjoyment of God (fruitio Dei) was the fruit not only of the knowledge of God (cognitio Dei) but also of the love of God (amor Dei) and resulted from the union and cooperation of the two.” Herman Bavinck (2003) Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, ed. John Bolt and John Vriend, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, vol. 4, p. 722.

[12] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 3, p. 609.

[13] Ibid.

[14] For an excellent overview of Owen’s understanding of the beatific in contrast to Turretin’s, see Suzanne McDonald, “Beholding the Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ: John Owen and the ‘Reforming’ of the Beatific Vision,” in Kelly Kapic & Mark Jones, eds., The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology (Ashgate, 2012). For more on Edwards in conversation with both Owen and Turretin, see my Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation (London: T&T Clark, 2013), 125-144, 155-176.

[15] Gould, W. (ed.) (1850-5) The Works of John Owen, vol. 1, p. 287; emphasis mine.

[16] Ibid., p. 240.

[17] Ibid., p. 288.

[18] Ibid., p. 288. This distinction does not entirely separate the two for Owen. For Owen, there is a sense where sight is the perfection of faith, and therefore without faith, sight will never occur. He states (ibid.), ‘No man shall ever behold the glory of Christ by sight hereafter, who doth not in some measure behold it by faith here in this world. Grace is a necessary preparation for glory, and faith for sight’.

[19] Ibid., pp. 292-293; my emphasis.

[20] To “perfect the means,” for Owen, entails two differing gifts of sight, one in regeneration and the other in glorification. For Edwards, in contrast, there is just one sight given over that is perfected. See my Jonathan Edwards’s Theology, 188-190 for more on this.

[21] Charles Hodge follows Owen when he states, “This vision of God is in the face of Jesus Christ, in whom dwells the plenitude of the divine glory bodily. God is seen in fashion as a man; and it is this manifestation of God in the person of Christ that is inconceivably and intolerably ravishing.” Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology Vol. 3 (London: James Clarke & Co., 1960), 860.

[22] Jonathan Edwards, “Romans 2:10” in Jonathan Edwards: Spiritual Writings Classics of Western Spirituality Series edited with Ken Minkema and Adriaan Neele (Paulist Press, 2019), 172. This sermon is Edwards’s most robust articulation of the beatific vision. See my lengthy engagement with it in my book, Jonathan Edwards’s Theology: A Reinterpretation (T&T Clark, 2013), 125-144.

[23] Ibid., 173.

[24] Under a major heading on the two natures of Christ in a single person, Calvin makes several comments about the beatific vision, stating that “Christ is said to be seated at the right hand of the Father [Mark 16:19, Rom. 8:34]. Yet this is but for a time, until we enjoy the direct vision of the Godhead.” Calvin, like Edwards, seems to be focusing on a vision of the trinitarian God as such, rather than focusing solely on Christ as the image. He continues, “But when as partakers in heavenly glory we shall see God as he is, Christ, having then discharged the office of Mediator, will cease to be the ambassador of his Father, and will be satisfied with that glory which he enjoyed before the creation of the world.” Therefore, in a sense, Christ’s office as mediator is “discharged” with his office as ambassador. Furthermore, Calvin notes, “That is, to him [Christ] was lordship committed by the Father, until such a time as we should see his divine majesty face to face . . . Then, also, God shall cease to be the Head of Christ, for Christ’s own deity will shine of itself, although as yet it is covered by a veil” (Calvin, Institutes, 2.14.3). Like Edwards’ depiction of the beatific vision, Christ’s divine nature is included in the consummate vision, and, it would seem, Christ’s role as mediator is perfected in some real sense, so that believers are no longer veiled by his humanity. Todd Billings offers an overview of Calvin’s understanding of the union with God in eternity, which follows remarkably similar contours as Edwards’: “In their union with Christ, believers are ‘participants not only in all his benefits but also in himself.” Indeed, “day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us, until he becomes completely one with us . . . Yet this union with Christ is impossible without a participation in the Spirit, who unites the believer to Christ.” J. Todd Billings Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 52.

[25] Michael Horton claims, “This distinction between archetypal and ectypal knowledge is the epistemological corollary of the Creator-creature distinction.” Michael Scott Horton, Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), p. 17. Likewise, Muller states, “Revelation, given in a finite and understandable form, must truly rest on the eternal truth of God: this is the fundamental message and intention of the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology.” Richard A. Muller, Prolegomena to Theology Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1 2nd edn, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 229.

[26] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, The Divine Essence and Attributes Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 381-384. For a helpful summary of Petrus van Mastricht’s understanding of the beatitudine Dei, see Adriaan C. Neele, Petrus van Mastricht (1630-1706) Reformed Orthodoxy: Method and Piety Brill’s Series in Church History Vol. 35 (Boston: Brill, 2009), 174-180.

[27] See my chapter, “The Nature of God and the Trinity” in The Oxford Handbook to Jonathan Edwards edited by Jan Stieverman and Doug Sweeney (Oxford, 2021), 118-134.

[28] For how being seen by the Father could help organize a doctrine of contemplation, see my chapter, “Contemplation by Son and Spirit: Reforming the Ascent of the Soul to God,” in Embracing Contemplation: Reclaiming a Christian Spiritual Practice edited by John Coe and Kyle Strobel (IVP Academic, 2019), 166-184.

[29] Jonathan Edwards, “Romans 2:10,” 172.

[30] Edwards attends to Christ as the place where the divine blessedness is made known, writing, “Christ from eternity is as it were in the bosom of the Father, as the object of his infinite complacence. In him is the Father’s eternal happiness. Before the world was, he was with the Father, in the enjoyment of his infinite love; and had infinite delight and blessedness in that enjoyment” (WJE 25:235). Furthermore, he claims, “The saints by virtue of their union with Christ, and being his members, do in some sort, partake of his child-like relation to the Father; and so are heirs with him of his happiness in the enjoyment of his Father, as seems to be intimated by the Apostle in Galatians 4:4–7. The spouse of Christ, by virtue of her espousals to that only begotten son of God, is as it were, a partaker of his filial relation to God, and becomes the ‘King’s daughter’ (Psalms 45:13), and so partakes with her divine husband in his enjoyment of his Father and her Father, his God and her God” (WJE 25:234). See also how Richard Muller narrates the work the beatitude Dei does for the Reformed High Orthodox. Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, The Divine Essence and Attributes Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 383. For contemporary attempts to retrieve the divine blessedness, see Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), and Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012).

[31] Suzanne McDonald’s original paper on Owen is what helped me to see how Edwards advanced Owen’s account in his own work, as well as the pneumatological deficit of Owen’s account. See her, “Beholding the Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ: John Owen and the ‘Reforming’ of the Beatific Vision,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology, edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Mark Jones (Ashgate, 2012), 141-158.

[32] Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, writing on Bavinck’s account of the beatific vision, writes, “The Christian’s dwelling place is with God, but that also includes the fellowship with God’s people in a renewed creation. We may not be sure how these two – rest and activity, contemplation and social relations – go together, but because of the witness of Scripture in both Old and New Testaments, we should continue to maintain both emphases, though without neglecting that God himself is our ultimate good.” This instinct matches our own here. See Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, “Herman Bavinck on the Beatific Vision,” in International Journal of Systematic Theology (Early Access, August 2022), 5.

[33] For more on this, see G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004).

[34] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 212.

[35] I take the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 to be love, full stop. The following virtues listed are refractions or fruit of love (i.e., joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control).

[36] Note Edwards’s description of holiness: “Holiness, as I then wrote down some of my contemplations on it appeared to me to be of a sweet, pleasant, charming, serene, calm nature. It seemed to me, it brought an inexpressible purity, brightness, peacefulness and ravishment to the soul: and that it made the soul like a field or garden of God, with all manner of pleasant flowers; that is all pleasant, delightful and undisturbed; enjoying a sweet calm, and the gently vivifying beams of the sun. The soul of a true Christian, as I then wrote my meditations, appeared like such a little white flower, as we see in the spring of the year; low and humble on the ground, opening its bosom, to receive the pleasant beams of the sun’s glory; rejoicing as it were, in a calm rapture; diffusing around a sweet fragrancy; standing peacefully and lovingly, in the midst of other flowers round about; all in like manner opening their bosoms, to drink in the light of the sun.” Y16:796

[37] Bauckam, R. (2007) ‘Eschatology’, in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology ed. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner and Iain Torrance, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 320.

[38] The notion that the Christian life is singing a new song we will sing for eternity is taken from Jonathan Edwards. See Y22, “They Sing a New Song,” 227-244.

Kyle Strobel

Kyle Strobel (Ph.D. University of Aberdeen) is a systematic theologian who teaches spiritual theology for Talbot’s Institute for Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Formation Focus programs. His areas of interest include systematic theology, Jonathan Edwards, spiritual formation and prayer. He writes both popular and academic books and articles, and is on the preaching team at Redeemer Church, La Mirada.

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