I suspect that for many of us, the idea of spending time reflecting on the beatific vision might seem like a classic case of being so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly use. The way that the doctrine has traditionally been expressed doesn’t help. The tendency has been to focus on our glorified intellectual apprehension of the Triune God in ways that can seem highly abstract and overly cognitive. It can sound like we are simply going to be heavenly brains on sticks for all eternity, or contemplative souls without bodies. These days, many are rightly putting some serious question marks beside an all-but-disembodied idea of life in “heaven,” and recovering a more scripturally robust account of eternal life in our glorified resurrection bodies in the transformed physicality of the new creation. The problem with these accounts, though, is that God himself can often disappear from view. Our vision of life in the eschaton is so focused on ourselves and our activities that we end up displacing what scripture tells us is its white-hot center: beholding the glory of the Triune God, which draws us into ecstatic worship of God and inexpressibly glorious union and communion with him. This is what the doctrine of the beatific vision has always – and rightly – sought to point us towards. Our vision of life in the eschaton is so focused on ourselves and our activities that we end up displacing its white-hot center: beholding the glory of the Triune God. Click To Tweet
What if there were an account of the beatific vision that could help us to make clearer connections between what we will experience then and our ordinary life of discipleship now? And what if there were an account of the beatific vision that involved our glorified resurrection bodies as much as our minds, in a dynamic, never-ending “more and more-ness” of growing in knowledge, love, and blessedness in worship and adoration?
Owen’s Uphill Battle
Enter John Owen (1616 – 1683). He is amongst a handful of Reformed pastors and theologians who have reworked the traditional understanding of the beatific vision in a more fully scriptural and Christological direction. Perhaps you know Owen as a staunch defender of a “Calvinist” doctrine of election, or as someone who wrote on our communion with each person of the Trinity. He also reflected at length on the nature and importance of the beatific vision, especially in his monumental doctrinal treatise on the person and work of Christ (Christologia, 1679) and in his more pastoral and contemplative Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ (1684), which was the last book Owen prepared for publication before he died. We have an account of how a friend brought him some page-proofs from the printer on what turned out to be the day of his death. On seeing them, Owen is said to have responded: “O Brother Payne! The long wished-for day is come at last, in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done or was capable of doing in this world.”Our vision of life in the eschaton is so focused on ourselves and our activities that we end up displacing what scripture tells us is its white-hot center: beholding the glory of the Triune God. Click To Tweet
Owen considered that there was very little more important for us than to behold the glory of Christ by faith now and by sight in the life to come, but he knew that he would have an uphill battle trying to persuade his readers of this. “Why on earth spend time reflecting on the beatific vision?!” is clearly one of the reactions he anticipated when he raised the subject. He expects that “Some will say they understand not these things, nor any concernment of their own in them. If they are true, yet are they notions which they may safely be without knowledge of; for so far as they can discern, they have no influence on Christian practice or duties of morality…but take the minds of men from more necessary duties” (305). In other words, many will insist that reflecting on the glory of Christ is too obscure and too irrelevant to daily life, and therefore a distracting waste of time. It might be what we will do in heaven, but there are better things to be doing here on earth. The very few who might give it a passing thought do just that, says Owen– they only give it a passing thought, because they consider such reflections and meditations too hard going: “thoughts of this glory…are too high for us, or too hard for us, such as we cannot long delight in” (304).
He makes it clear, though, that thinking about what will constitute the beatific vision is not simply an added extra for the hyper-pious with a good deal of time on their hands. It is a theologically, scripturally, spiritually, soteriologically vital thing to be doing. As far as he is concerned, all evangelical, Reformed Christians should have their whole Christian life and thinking oriented towards the hope of the beatific vision and shaped by the foretaste we receive of it here and now. He urges us to make reflection on the glory of God in the face of Christ by faith now a central part of our “spirituality,” to use a more contemporary term, because he considers this to be a scripturally mandated means of God’s saving and transforming work in our lives. Second Corinthians 3:18 and 4:6 play a particularly important role in this regard. The Christological and pneumatological dynamic of the Christian life here and now, and of our eternal salvation, is there in a nutshell. We are to be conformed by the Spirit more and more to Christ the image of God, and one of the chief ways in which we are formed and transformed (and our minds are renewed, to insert a little of Romans 12 into the context of 2 Corinthians) is by beholding the glory of the Lord, now partially and by faith, and then by sight at the eschatological consummation. There is a soteriological trajectory and a transformational continuum between beholding the glory of God in Christ by faith now and beholding it by sight in eternity.
To put it bluntly (and Owen frequently does), you cannot expect to enjoy the consummation in heaven of what you have shown no interest in whatsoever here. In his words, “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. Where the…soul is not previously seasoned with grace and faith, it is not capable of glory or vision…” (288). For this reason, Owen summons us to a life of spiritual apprenticeship. He points out that we “are not so vain as to hope for skill and understanding in the mystery of a secular art or trade without the diligent use of those means whereby it may be attained; and shall we suppose that we may be furnished with spiritual skill and wisdom in this sacred mystery [beholding the glory of God] without diligence in the use of the means appointed of God for the attaining of it?”(306). To put it bluntly (and John Owen frequently does), you cannot expect to enjoy the consummation in heaven of what you have shown no interest in whatsoever here. Click To Tweet
Desiring the Desirable
For Owen, it therefore matters crucially for our lives now and for all eternity that we should set aside time for our minds to be shaped by the foretaste that is offered to us of the beatific vision. This is partly because Owen takes a firm line on the reasons why we behave as we do. We want what seems most desirable to our minds. Our minds are shaped by what we most desire. Our wills and actions follow suit. So, as he remarks,
When the minds of men are vehemently fixed on the pursuit of their lusts, they will be continually ruminating on the objects of them…The objects of their lusts have framed and raised an image of themselves in their minds, and transformed them into their own likeness…And shall we be slothful and negligent in the contemplation of that glory which transforms our minds into its own likeness, so as that the eyes of our understandings shall be continually filled with it, until we see him and behold him continually, so as never to cease from the holy acts of delight in him and love to him? (307).
We are changed into the likeness of whatever most stamps itself upon our thoughts, and our actions reflect the molding of our minds. If people can be so diligent in occupying their minds with lusts or worldly advantage, and so single minded in turning those thoughts into action, then shame on those who claim to be earnest Christians and yet who do not bother to make the time to behold the glory of the Lord, by which we are transformed more and more into his likeness.
As this suggests, spending time reflecting on the glory of God in anticipation of the beatific vision can never be seen simply as a world-denying, passivity-inducing exercise, detached from any significance for our daily lives. While Owen does indeed recall us to meditating on God’s glory in order to take our minds away from an undue attachment to and obsession with “earthly” things, this foretaste of the beatific vision is important for life in the world too. As he points out, if we were more diligent in occupying our minds with the glory of God, “we should more represent the glory of Christ in our ways and walking than usually we do” (304). That is, our actions and interactions would reflect the growing conformity of our minds to Christ. It is as we are consistent in seeking to behold the glory of God in the face of Christ that we are enabled to be steadfast in acts of faith and obedience, and that we are shown what this means. He refers in particular to the kind of self-denial and taking up of the cross that makes us ready to lose goods, liberty, relations, and even our lives. When we recall that Owen wrote these words in a time of crushing persecution for Nonconformists, when many were called to exactly these kinds of sacrifices, we can see the strong connection he is forging between having our minds shaped by a foretaste of the beatific vision and being prepared for lives of the costliest discipleship.For Owen, then, there was very little more important for us than to spend time beholding the glory of Christ now, in anticipation of the beatific vision at the eschaton Click To Tweet
For Owen, then, there was very little more important for us than to spend time beholding the glory of Christ now, in anticipation of the beatific vision at the eschaton. We now need to clarify how he understands this concept. Owen considers that to behold the glory of Christ means apprehending as much as our creaturely and fallen minds can fathom of his person – fully divine and fully human – along with what this signifies for his saving work, and the implications of his two natures for the whole Christian life, now and through eternity. At a time when many were beginning to dismiss the divinity of Christ as either irrational or irrelevant, Owen repeatedly insists that there can be no true knowledge of God, and no salvation, if we do not recognize Jesus Christ as the eternal Son incarnate. It is central to our true beholding of the glory of Christ that we recognize that it is the glory of God that we behold in the face of Jesus Christ. As Owen trenchantly puts it: It is central to our true beholding of the glory of Christ that we recognize that it is the glory of God that we behold in the face of Jesus Christ. Click To Tweet
The glory of Christ is the glory of the person of Christ’ (293) as he is fully God and fully human. ‘Otherwise we know it not, we see it not, we see nothing of it …This is the foundation of our religion, the Rock whereon the church is built, the ground of all our hopes of salvation, of life and immortality… He who discerns not the glory of divine wisdom, power, goodness, love, and grace, in the person and office of Christ, with the way of the salvation of sinners by him, is an unbeliever…such is the present condition of all by whom the divine person of Christ is denied… (293-294).
Even as we meditate upon the divinity of Christ, we must not neglect his humanity. Beholding the glory of Christ requires both. It is through the Son as he is incarnate that God communicates to us directly, and our salvation depends upon the eternal Son assuming our full humanity, as one who is like us in every way except sin. Owen is particularly insistent that we hold fast to the continuing humanity of Christ not only in the ascension but also into the eschaton. When we behold the Lord in glory, we will therefore be looking upon the person of Jesus Christ in his ascended, glorified humanity. God will always communicate with us through the eternal Word who came to us as one of us. That is what he did in the life of the incarnate Son; that is what he continues to do as we live by faith now; and that is how it will be through all eternity. As he puts it in his Christologia, whatever way these ‘glorious communications of God unto his saints’ take place into eternity, ‘… they shall be all made in and through the person of the Son and the human nature therein’ (271). Christ the incarnate Son will always be the mediator between us in our humanity and the Triune God, even in glory. Even as we meditate upon the divinity of Christ, we must not neglect his humanity. Click To TweetThis also means that “The person of Christ, and therein his human nature, shall be the eternal object of divine glory, praise and worship…with…the Father and the Spirit, the human nature in the Son [being] admitted into the communion of the same eternal glory” (272). In other words, the ascended, glorified humanity of the Son is included in the glory of the Triune God, and it is intrinsic to the worship of the Triune God that the eternal Son has assumed flesh for us and for our salvation. Moreover, it is also because of the ascended, glorified humanity of the Son that we can be assured that our glorified humanity will belong in fullest union and communion with the Triune God in him. It will therefore be part of God’s glory that through all eternity the one who has glorified our human nature by assuming it to himself will be the mediator of our knowledge, love and worship of the Trinity, and the consummation of our salvation, just as he is the mediator of all those things while we are still pilgrims on the way.
It is this utterly Christ-focused understanding of the beatific vision, and his insistence on the importance of Christ’s full humanity as well as his divinity even in the beatific vision, that sets Owen apart from the more traditional understanding of the doctrine. For the latter, the focus is on our intellectual apprehension of the Triune God. For Owen the focus is on beholding Christ.
This is in part because, even in glory, we will never be able to see and apprehend the Triune God in an unmediated way. As Owen says, “God in his immense essence is invisible unto our corporeal eyes and will be so to eternity; as also incomprehensible to our minds…Wherefore the blessed and blessing sight which we shall have of God will always be ‘in the face of Jesus Christ.”’ (292). But also, for Owen, that Jesus Christ himself will be the object of the beatific vision is both more scriptural and a demonstration of God’s consistency from beginning to end. The whole of our knowledge of and union and communion with God now, and everything about our salvation, has come to us through Jesus Christ. That is how it will be through all eternity as well. As Owen puts it, “All communications from the Divine Being… unto the glorified saints, are in and through Christ Jesus, who shall forever be the medium of communication between God and the church, even in glory…And on these communications from God through Christ depend entirely our continuance in a state of blessedness and glory…” (414).
As this indicates, God is not going to change the way in which he relates to us at the consummation of all things, as if making himself known in the person of the incarnate Son were just a temporary emergency measure to be discarded. Owen also picks up on 2 Corinthians 3:18 to indicate that our glorification will take place in the same way as our sanctification. Just as, by the Spirit, beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ now by faith is the instrument of sanctification, so beholding Christ in glory at the eschaton will bring about our glorification. In Owen’s words, ‘The vision we shall have of the glory of Christ in heaven, and of the glory of… God in him, is perfectly and absolutely transforming. It doth wholly change us into the image of Christ’ (410). Sanctification is perfected in glorification, and the whole process, from beginning to end, is rooted in beholding the glory of Christ by faith now and by sight at the eschaton.The beatific vision is about beholding the glory of Christ, and that means the fullest possible intellectual apprehension of the hypostatic union, which will lead us into the fullest possible intellectual apprehension of the being of… Click To Tweet
All of this means that Owen also departs from some traditional approaches when it comes to what we mean by the “vision” of the beatific vision. For the traditional understanding, this vision is above all intellectual apprehension. While no one holding this view would deny the resurrection of the body, it is still the case that our bodies all but disappear when it comes to the beatific vision itself. Owen, by contrast, repeatedly insists that the beatific vision will involve glorified physical sight as well as the most purified intellectual apprehension. Owen integrates the resurrection of our bodies with the doctrine of the beatific vision in ways that the more traditional approach does not and cannot. While Owen agrees that intellectual apprehension is essential, even the reason for this is Christological. The beatific vision is about beholding the glory of Christ, and that means the fullest possible intellectual apprehension of the hypostatic union. It is that which will lead us into the fullest possible intellectual apprehension of the being of God as Trinity. And it is precisely because the beatific vision entails understanding the fullness of the person of Christ in his humanity as well as his divinity that the beatific vision can never be exclusively intellectual. Owen insists that “The body as glorified, with its senses, shall have its use and place herein. After we are clothed again with our flesh, we shall see our Redeemer with our eyes…” (383). He speaks of the object of the beatific vision as being “Christ himself, in his own person, with all his glory, [who]shall be continually with us… As a man sees his neighbour when they stand and converse together face to face, so shall we see the Lord Christ in his glory” (378-79). What’s more, for Owen, the primary reason we shall receive our glorified physical sight will be so that we can behold Christ in his glorified humanity as well as his divinity. In the beatific vision, “There will be use herein of our bodily eyes…That corporeal sense shall not be restored unto us, and that glorified above what we can conceive but for this great use of the eternal beholding of Christ and his glory.” He adds, “Unto whom is it not a matter of rejoicing that with the same eyes wherewith they see tokens and signs of him in the sacrament of the supper, they shall behold himself immediately in his own person?” (379).
Here, then, we have an account of the beatific vision that is rigorously scriptural and Christ-focused, that enables us to see the centrality of beholding the glory of Christ in his two natures now and through all eternity, and that shows us how, by the Spirit, beholding the glory of Christ by faith enables us to live more fully for Christ in this life, until that time when we will indeed see him face to face and know as we are known.
This article is based on my essay, ‘Beholding the Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ: John Owen and the “Reforming” of the Beatific Vision’ in Kelly M. Kapic & Mark Jones, eds., The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology (Ashgate: Surrey, 2012), 141-158) , and on my article, “Contemplating Jesus in John Owen’s ‘Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ”’ in Primer, Issue 12 (2021), 56-67. All citations are from from Owen’s Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, except for two from his Christologia. Both works are in Volume I of the most accessible edition of Owen’s works, the 1965 Banner of Truth reprint of the Goold edition of Owen’s works: The Works of John Owen, 16 vols., ed. William H. Goold (Edin burgh: Banner of Truth, 1965). All page references are to Volume I in this reprint.