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Whose Visibility?

Reformed and Catholic Specifications on Trinitarian Visibility

Before fully diving into the question of addressing how visibility and invisibility relate in the triune life, we do well to attend to one common way of proceeding. It is not abnormal to construe the Trinity as fundamentally invisible (as Spirit) and to view divine visibility as entirely a function of the incarnation of the divine Son. Thus, the Son is confessed as visible (in his humanity) while the Father and the Holy Spirit are nonetheless fully invisible. We do well to note the appeal of such a schematic. It allows for two bifurcations. First, there is a Trinitarian bifurcation wherein visibility only ever occurs in the case of the Son upon his incarnation. Second, there is a theological bifurcation between the invisibility of God and the visibility of the Son’s humanity.

The apostolic witnesses to the incarnation do mark it as a unique and startling occurrence. The Johannine Prologue is exemplary, though not unique, in this regard. “No one had ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (1:18). While there had been theophanies and prophetic visions beforehand, there is something new here. So new that Paul can speak to the Ephesians and Colossians about a mystery that has only now been revealed and make use of language of darkness and light to express this newfound clarity and manifestation in Christ Jesus (Eph 1:9; Col 1:26-27; 4:3). In light of this apostolic emphasis we must ask series of questions: is divine visibility located only here? and, in its presence here, is it only visibility of the Son? and, still further, is it truly visibility only of his human nature? These questions deserve consideration.Reformed theologians like John Owen have emphasized not only the necessity of Christ's human nature for making God personally visible but also that in so doing Christ's human nature really does make the Son of God personally visible. Click To Tweet

First, it is necessary to note that both the incarnation and the event of Pentecost involve divine visibility in some fashion. Whether in the arms of Mary or atop the heads of the early disciples, sight conveys divine action and genuine divine presence in power. Pentecost, of course, is not the only occurrence of pneumatological visibility. One cannot but remember the dove-like descent at the occasion of Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan River. In neither case does the Spirit become manifest in something that is an enduring form; yet in both cases the Spirit does reveal himself to us in, with, and through visible media.

Thomas Aquinas reflected upon such occurrences in his discussion of what he terms “visible missions.” In the midst of his discussion of the Trinity in the Prima Pars of the Summa theologiae, he concludes by addressing the missions of the persons in question 43. Missions are occasions wherein the movement of the divine life stretches out beyond God’s own internal life to engage others; here processions take shape as external missions in relating to others. In article 7, Thomas poses the question “whether it belongs to the Holy Spirit to be sent visibly.” He first notes false paths: seeming theophanies, prophetic visions, and the sacraments of the Old and New Testaments are not occasions wherein any visible mission occurs. Yet Thomas does note two instances where a visible mission is expressed: the baptism of Jesus and the day of Pentecost. 1 Thomas does not conflate these missions with that of the Son’s incarnation; of them he says: “The Holy Spirit, however, did not take up the visible creatures in which he appeared into a unity of person in such a way that what is ascribable to them could be applied to him.”2 The Spirit does not continue to have any relationship to a dove or a tongue of fire, and the Spirit never enjoyed a hypostatic union with either one. They are visible missions nonetheless. Thus we confess that visible missions are not all of a sort in as much as the Son does continue to exist as Jesus of Nazareth and does enjoy a hypostatic union of divine and human natures while other visible missions do not continue to exist. 3

Second, the New Testament witness points to the Christological nature of the beatific vision. “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” (2 Cor 4:6). Indeed, the apostles witness not only to the positive promise of sight of God in Christ but also to the exclusion of any other sight of God the Father. “Not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father” (John 6:46). There is one way who brings truth and life (John 14:6); he is the only vision we have of the Father. This is at the heart of not only Johannine but all apostolic theology: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).The visible mission of the Son is just that: a visible mission of the Son. Click To Tweet

The beatific vision of the incarnate Son is possible, fully and finally, because God in his freedom has assumed human form and, implied therein, has assumed a human nature. This external act, however, takes Trinitarian form. The Son’s incarnational manifestation before the world stage is not a solo performance. Though he is the only one who assumes human form and takes on a human nature, he does so by the Spirit’s power (as confessed in the creeds and attested by the Gospels) and at the Father’s will (as he so frequently reminds us in his own words in the Gospels). That baptismal account visibly attests this differentiated harmony: the Father speaking of his will and pleasure, the Spirit descending to anoint with power, and the Son as the center and focus of attention as God’s Beloved. The Son and the Spirit alike are visibly involved in manifesting God’s mission to the world, but these are not separable, much less competing, missions. The external works of the Trinity are undivided, though they are differentiated.

So we must first observe that while the incarnation is the moment where God becomes definitively visible, this does not mean that only the Son acts visibly to reveal God. In the baptismal account and then in the day of Pentecost, the Spirit’s mission takes visible form as well. And the Son’s own manifestation is a Trinitarian-and not only a Christological-act. It is the result of the concerted will of the full triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We must now turn to the second question, regarding whether or not the incarnational visibility of the Son is restricted to his humanity or also involves his divinity or his person. In this regard we will listen not only to the patristic witness and that of Thomas Aquinas but also to John Owen and the developing tradition of Reformed Christology.

It is not a novum in the Reformed tradition or the work of John Owen to suggest that it is the humanity of the divine Son that enables vision of God. Indeed, Gregory of Nyssa offers a reading of the Song of Songs 1:16 that renders the notion of “thick shading” (suskios) as an identification of the humanity of the Son that enables vision of God’s face. 4 Hans Boersma comments that “Gregory here describes the human nature of Christ as a bodily garment (peribole) that overshadows his divinity, so that the Incarnation not only permits the divine nature to be present in and with the human nature but also allows us to see the very Son of God.”5

Yet the attendant condition of the humanity of Christ does not mean that the blessed vision of God in the face of Christ can be reduced to a vision of his humanity. Rather, we see him: the person of the Son of God, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God.” Just as the person is the subject of all incarnational action, so the person is the object of all beatific vision. We might break this down grammatically. The Son as Son is visible. But the Son as Son is visible by means of his humanity. Here Owen and the Reformed tradition are affirming with Augustine that the humanity of the Son is the instrument by which the vision of God occurs. Yet they are also going beyond Augustine. Michel René Barnes has described how Augustine insisted that the visions of God in the Scriptures (whether theophanies in the Old Testament era or the incarnation in the New Testament) were occasions of “created matter being used as an instrument of communication by the Trinity” and, indeed, that “what is seen is not God; it is a sign or symbol of God’s presence.” 6 Augustine believed Matthew 5:8-the beatitude noting hat the pure in heart (and they only) will see God-located any actual sight of God at the eschaton and not before. Augustine believed our sight was restricted to the humanity of Jesus, a sign of God that is itself (as a human nature) not God.

Herein lies the contribution of Reformed Christology, as best expressed by Owen, in maintaining the emphasis upon the particular humanity of the Son as the place wherein God is seen and at the same time insisting (beyond even Augustine) that God really is seen here. Further, this has eschatological implications: Jesus really has brought forward the kingdom and, in his person and presence, given us a foretaste (not a substitute) of the eschatological hope to which we journey in faith. That is, we see God and not simply an instrument of or attachment to God in this vision. Reformed Christology in Owen’s vein really does note that his human nature makes actual such sight, rendering it in the and the senses. But it is equally insistent, categories of the eye notably so when viewed against its Augustinian backdrop, that in seeing according to the humanity one really is seeing God’s Son, the second person of the Trinity. As Gregory’s description suggests, the humanity of the Son is the garment giving form to this vision, but it is the person in the garment who we see: the divine Son.Jesus really has brought forward the kingdom and, in his person and presence, given us a foretaste (not a substitute) of the eschatological hope to which we journey in faith. Click To Tweet

The words of the Johannine Prologue are pertinent again: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The incarnate Word who tabernacles among us brings visibility not merely to a man named Jesus, but specifically to “his glory,” that is, “glory as of the only Son from the Father.” The reference to the unique (monogenës) Son surely must refer to the divine Son as person as opposed to referring to the human nature of Jesus alone. John does not merely say this one dwelt among us; he uses the term for the tabernacle presence of God in the Old Covenant, eskënösen. Jesus’s dwelling is God’s dwelling. That this is so can be seen from the next phrase, wherein his singular sonship is marked out by his being “full of grace and truth.” This phraseology is derived, most likely, from the words of the text of Exodus 34, wherein God’s name was proclaimed before Moses atop Mount Sinai. 7 If John has identified the Son with YHWH by way of one of the great theophanies of the Old Testament as well as the ongoing glory present in the tabernacle, then our vision is not simply of the human Jesus, but in the human Jesus we really do see God.

The visible mission of the Son is just that: a visible mission of the Son. Personal visibility occurs only through the instrument of Jesus’s humanity, no doubt, but this tabernacle really does serve as a “garment” in which the person of the Son-the unique, divine Son-is made manifest to us. Reformed theologians like John Owen have emphasized, therefore, not only the necessity of Christ’s human nature for making God personally visible but also that in so doing Christ’s human nature really does make the Son of God personally visible. In so doing, they affirmed Augustine’s argument but extended it further (with Gregory of Nyssa) to emphasize the genuine sight of God himself in the incarnation.

The above excerpt is from Michael Allen’s book Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope and Life on God. Copyright 2018 by Michael Allen. Used by Permission. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 4035 Park East Court SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49546.


1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia, Q. 43, Art. 7, ad 2.

2. Thomas, Summa theologiae, la, Q. 43, Art. 7, ad 1.

3. Cyril distinguishes between seeing the divine essence (what he terms “the nature of God in its very substance”) and what Ezekiel identifies as “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezek1:28). “More precisely, it was a likeness that conveys God-befitting thoughts like a picture, while the truth of these matters surpasses mind and speech” (Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, ed. Joel Elowsky, trans. David Maxwell, Ancient Christian Texts Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013l, 1:70 on John 1:18).

4. Gregory of Nyssa, In canticum canticorum 4.107.9-108.12.

5. Hans Boersma, Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa: An Anagogical Approach, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 91.

6. Michel René Barnes, “The Visible Christ and the Invisible Trinity: Mt. 5:8 in Augustine’s Trinitarian Theology of 400, Modern Theology 19, no. 3 (2003): 346.

7. See D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 129-30. Carson traces the terminology of Exodus 34:6-7 (hesed and ’emet) through the Old Testament, Septuagint, and into intertestamental Judaism.

Michael Allen

Michael Allen serves as the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean of Reformed Theology Seminary in Orlando. Previously, he taught at Knox Theological Seminary, where he held the D. James Kennedy Chair of Systematic Theology and also served as Dean of the Faculty. He has published many academic articles and books, including Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval in Theology and Biblical Interpretation (with Scott R. Swain), Sanctification, a volume in the New Studies in Dogmatics series, and Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope and Life in God

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