The Teleology of the Christian Life

I read a paper in Glasgow at a conference last year which is now being turned into a book. My paper was on the beatific vision in Jonathan Edwards, and as I revisit the topic I’ve been thinking more and more about the tradition which uses the beatific as an organizing principle. I wanted to start a conversation here about this kind of teleology of the Christian life. What are its upsides? What are the pitfalls? Richard Bauckham notes that this tradition can lead to an individualized and intellectualized account of glory, and by implication, life under God in general, but notes that this isn’t necessary. What are the competing options, and do those offer a more holistic account of the Christian life?

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4 thoughts on “The Teleology of the Christian Life

  1. My exposure to the beatific vision tradition is limited, but I shared Baukham’s worries when I read a recent depiction of the Christian Life along these lines. As I worked through it with students last semester it seemed overly intellectual and rationalistic, especially when trying to frame the teleology of the Christian life in terms of those with severe mental disabilities.

    My preference is for “fellowship.” It’s transparency to the Scriptural narrative of covenant relationality commends it to me and, being a relational category, it follows on straightforwardly from the doctrine of the Trinity. But from what you have told me, J. Edwards is able to pull it off in an entirely trinitarian way. I will look forward to seeing how you trace that out.

    • I wonder if the issue with the beatific and mental disabilities would have more to do with one’s anthropology than with the vision itself. The “beatific” aspect of the vision simply outlines its result – it is the kind of sight which leads to human happiness – or as Edwards said, it is a happifying sight. Therefore fellowship and beatific aren’t mutually exclusive in any real way, at least if we are focusing in on glory. It is, at least in my mind, up in the air whether the beatific has real material import for a construction of the Christian life. If faith is perfected into sight, then our situation here is qualitatively different than the one in glory. Yet John Owen, for instance, took meditation and linked it to the immediate contemplation the elect experience in heaven. If one doesn’t meditate upon Christ here, Owen would say, then they won’t ever see him immediately in heaven. There is certainly some Scriptural reasoning behind this (we see through a glass darkly…), but I’m not sure it has a lot of traction for a full-fledged account of the Christian life.

  2. Much of the Bible itself suggests that God is so powerful and frightening, that humans like Moses, cannot withstand “see”ing his “face,” “face-to-face.” (Though some say Adam saw him this way).

    This seems like a useful metaphor at least, for the all-important admission, essential to all Theology worthy of the name: that God is infinitely powerful and complex, therefore, as some have said here, all our human ideas – and theologies – about God, are inevitably imperfect, incomplete. God is so complex that none of us have really seen God “full”y, or learned to “face” him, face-to-face. (As Job however at times claims to? Though Job has seen God only indirectly, in a “Leviathan”?).

    Especially, the Beatific Vision usefully suggests that we do not really know God adequately – largely because we cannot face the difficult, painful, disillusioning side of him. We cannot “face” God, because we cannot face our Fear; of the “awe-ful” side of God.

    All these Biblical aspects of The Beatific Vision seem useful to a progressive theology. While then too, the Bible is essentially a collection of variously, slightly different “appearances” (cf. “parousia”) of God. Including what is conventionally (mis?)named the “trinity”; God appearing as The Father, then Son, then (albeit mostly invisible) Holy Spirit. But here note, our vision of what God is like, is … changing. Progressing? which implies a certain LACK, in our registering of earlier appearances; even of the Trinity itself?

    Especially, the “beatific vision” institutionalizes epistemologial and theological modesty; the real “humility” that scholarly theology needs. Biblical references to the Vision rightly suggest often, that none of us, no theologian, on earth, have seen God fully; perhaps therefore, even our idea that God is a “Trinity” is inadequate. No one will know, till the Beatific Vision is attained; until we see God “face-to-face” in the end, in Judgement Day.

    I like this Vision idea therefore, because it keeps Theology open; non-dogmatic. Open to scholarship, and speculation – and progress. No one should dogmatise too much about God, or “the Trinity,” or in general rest too comfortably with old theological ideas … because probably no normal human being to date, has ever really adequately, fully “seen” or known God. And no one will. Until Heaven, it seems. So that the subject of God, is still an open question. And available for scholarly questioning, exploration – and new discoveries.

    Especially though, the Vision suggests that there will be something FRIGHTENING and disillusioning, about seeing God as he really is. Which suggests in turn, that if elements of current postmodern or rational theology frighten us, then after all, that might be a sign we are on the right track. After all.

    • The extent of an ‘open’ view of theological and biblical understanding represented by the previous post is concerning. God has revealed much of Himself through His word and it is the primary resource we have to understand the Trinity, how we relate to God, and the Christian life in general. When we become so ‘enlightened’ that we seek to make God a scholarly pursuit and not a relational one, we are prone to err. This is especially true because one tends to rationalize away the supernatural nature of God (an impossibility, but yet they achieve it in theory) in their attempts to appear scholarly (1 Cor. 1:18ff & 3:19). It seems to me that seeing God is an awesome thing… one I can’t begin to wrap my brain around… mostly because Scripture gives us little to hold on to. Whereas relating to God seems much more doable (even though to say it sounds absurd) because God has revealed so much more about how, why, through whom, when, etc. Essentially the revelation of God we have from the Holy Scriptures is that of a Supernatural, sovereign, creator, provider, sustainer, purposeful, loving (insert other appropriate adjectives here) RELATIONAL being. From the beginning He sought relationship and the whole of Scripture is the pursuit of meaningful, mutual relationship. Scholarly pursuit is a means to an end. That end is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

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