A Reformed Account of the Beatific Vision

I received my copy of the new book Jonathan Edwards and Scotland (Dunedin Academic Press, 2011) the other day, and I wanted to talk a bit about my essay in that volume: “Jonathan Edwards’ Reformed Doctrine of the Beatific Vision.” The volume itself is a series of papers-turned-chapters from the Jonathan Edwards and Scotland conference held at Glasgow University in 2009. While most of the essays focused on Edwards and Scotland and the interchange between Edwards and the Scots, mine obviously did not. My essay, rather, focused on the beatific vision as it was being developed in Reformed high orthodoxy, particularly in the thought of John Owen, Francis Turretin and Jonathan Edwards. I peppered the footnotes with some random other Reformed thought on the beatific vision, spanning from John Calvin, Johannis Wollebius, Lewis Bayly, Thomas Watson, Bavinck on to Charles Hodge.

Without going into my essay in much detail, I want to focus on some themes I saw develop in Reformed thought on the beatific vision. First, and maybe most interestingly, there was incredible breadth and creativity in the Reformed accounts, particularly the three I focused on. At first glance, finding any similiarities seem nearly impossible. Owen develops his account with a particularly robust Christology, allowing Christ’s imaging of the Father to do the most dogmatic work for him. Turretin, by contrast, puts himself in conversation with Scotus and Aquinas, and with Bavinck after him, goes the way of Bonaventure. Rather than using Christology to help navigate questions of the vision in glory, Turretin turns to anthropology, virtue and soteriology to do most of the heavy lifting. God’s nature is not discussed to the degree one would think, and, in my opinion, Turretin’s account seems to sketch a vision of deity abstractly considered rather than the Triune God of glory opening up his life in love to his creatures in a vision of his true self. Edwards’s account, I would suggest, does just this, turning to distinctively trinitarian machinery to develop his account of the beatific vision.

That said, I closed my essay with some thoughts that are still very much in construction. I attempted to highlight what a Reformed doctrine of the beatific vision would look like, with specific emphasis on the figures I outlined. Let me sketch those here. First, it seems, the Reformed account of the beatific vision focuses on seeing God personally rather than essentially. The essence, all agreed, is invisible and out of reach of creaturely perception. Rather, the vision of God is a personal vision, and as such, never ceases to be a gift. Second, and this would leave Turretin to the side, the beatific vision is a vision of God pro nobis. For Owen, the vision of God is translated through Christ’s mediatorial office; the God who is for us in Christ is only known in Christ. For Edwards, the beatific vision is given by an act of God’s love, such that the vision is had in that love. The focus then, for both Owen and Edwards, is on the God who gives the vision rather than the vision received. For both, this vision takes up the history of redemption such that it is a vision of God qua Redeemer.

Like I said, my thoughts on this are still very much in construction. Any thoughts? Has anyone had the beatific vision and could just explain it to us (!)? haha

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14 thoughts on “A Reformed Account of the Beatific Vision

  1. But if the essence is a part or a constituant of the persons, how can the persons be seen but not the divine essence (to reopen the old debate between thomists and scotists)?

    • For Edwards, what is made visible is the spiritual. So, for instance, believers this side of glory have a spiritual sight that allows them to see Jesus as having “grace and truth.” Grace and truth are pushed into an aesthetic register such that they partake in the concept of beauty. Beauty, for Edwards, is primarily a spiritual term that denotes personal relations. The beatific, in this sense, is a grasping God’s fundamental beauty – which, again, is ushered into the realm of persons rather than essence.

      Furthermore, Edwards ends up following Gregory of Palamas quite closely (without ever reading him). Edwards develops something incredibly similar to the essence / energies distinction except that he follows Calvin’s distinction between the essence and nature of God. The nature of God is communicable, whereas the essence is not, in a similar way as Easter Orthodox theologians like Lossky would parse Palamas’ distinction. One benefit for making the essence / nature distinction in this manner is that you can talk about 2 Peter 1:4 in a more robust manner – that creatures truly to partake in the divine nature, and that isn’t somehow a partaking in God’s essence (which would, it would be argued, be divinizing the creature in such a way as to make a fourth person of the Trinity.

  2. Kyle, I would like to see this essay. Do you have a version you could email me? I don’t have the book as yet and am in the midst of moving house this summer to Pasadena, so I would value any help you could afford me. I am completing work on the final version of the mss for my book, Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation (OUP, 2012) and think it might be worth my reading your essay before I turn it into the publisher. Would that be possible?

      • Hi Kyle,

        I also left a note over on the JE Project post on Metamorpha, but I’m wondering if I could get an electronic copy of your essay as well. I’m having sticker shock with the book on Amazon, but I’m very interested in this thread of JE’s theology.

        Thanks,

        Ben

  3. Very cool, Kyle! I think your chapter is one I read from you in the past, isn’t it? What is your assessment of the rest of the book? Which Scots do the authors of the other chapters place Edwards in conversation with?

    • Bobby, I can’t remember. I might have sent on the original paper I gave at the Edwards and Scotland conference that this chapter is based on. The book is a bit random. I am dissappointed that Bebbington didn’t include his paper in it (he must have had it slotted for another publication). Wilson Kimnach focuses on the transatlantic brotherhood of preachers, Adriaan Neele focuses on Scotland, Netherlands and America with specific focus on van Mastricht and A History of the Work of Redemption. David Ceri Jones looks at the Welsh Methodists and their reading of Edwards, and Chris Chun focuses on Edwards and revivals among Presbyterians and Baptists in Scotland. Nicholas Batzig discussed Edwards, McLuarin and the transatlantic concert of prayer, and Kelly van Andel discussed subjectivity and the mission frontier. Richard Hall wrote on Edwards and Hume on causation, and H. G. Callaway wrote on Witherspoon, Edwards, and ‘Christian Magnanimity.” Natalia Marandiuc wrote on human will, divine grace and virtue in Edwards and Kant (which looks particularly interesting) and Susan Miller wrote on Edwards and Keats.

      • Kyle, I don’t remember either; I’m going to have to pull my files and see if I have this one in there. Thanks for the run down on the book. It looks interesting. Glad to see Batzig in there too. I’ll have to see if I can get a review copy for the blog at some point. Hope all is well, Kyle.

  4. Hi guys, I hesitate to say anything here because I can tell you are out of my league in a lot of ways. But I was very interested to read your comments about the possible experiencing of the beatific vision by well known protestant reformers. i was starting to think only catholics had this kind of experience and I’m not catholic but I had an experience several years ago that I haven’t been able to find another suitable description for other than what I’ve read about the beatific vision. I lived in the glory of that experience for 4-5 years with very little fading of what I “saw” but lately it’s getting dim and I hope to find someone who can help me regain the vision…I know it’s in His Word but sometimes I think a flame can be rekindled by hearing someone recount their experience. At least I hope so. Anything you have read that might help me?
    jiml

    • Jim, for the Reformed, there is no experience of the beatific vision, as such, prior to glory. We always will see “through a glass darkly” until that time. In terms of some spiritual advice, let me suggest that regaining whatever experience you had would not be the right approach. An appropriate model for the vision we do have now is not to try and perfect what cannot be perfected here, but to proclaim, “Without you I can do nothing” – it is to focus on Christ regardless of the experience (or even if there is no experience). I hope that helps. Blessings, kyle

  5. Kyle,
    I know I’m arriving here a little late (well, over a year late to be exact) so I don’t really expect a reply but if you happen to read this: I’m a reformed philosophy student and I’ve recently been looking into Thomistic hylomorphism. Not sure exactly where I stand on it yet, but I was intrigued by Brian Leftow’s closing comments in his essay “Soul, Mind, and Brain” which can be found in “The Waning of Materialism” (ed. by Koons and Bealer):

    “A thing with a complete nature can *under natural circumstances* do the actions natural to its kind. In *nature,* says Thomas, the soul cannot do its peculiar action without a body. For its act is to understand, but the soul cannot do this *naturally* without a body to supply ‘phantasms,’ the data and media of its understanding. If the soul cannot understand on its own, it cannot be fully a soul on its own. If the soul can understand only in a body *(naturally),* the soul can fully be itself only when in a body *(naturally).* So if the soul is a soul by itself, it is incompletely a soul. *So too, a severed but still live eye, unable to see, would be incompletely an eye.*” (414)

    Leftow goes on to say that the real difference between Descartes and Thomas is that the former believes that the soul can act on its own, “apart from input or aid by [the] body or brain, without a *miracle*” while the latter disagrees. I was wondering: could this ‘unnatural miracle’ (lets call it) partly be explained by the doctrine of the beatific vision? That is, is there something about the beatific vision that–despite our awaiting glorified bodies and thus being incomplete–we may still be conscious and perceive God without bodies? Any help on this issue would be appreciated; especially, any material from the Reformed tradition.

    Thanks for your time.

    Ray

    • Ray,

      The reformed tend to assume that the way we “see” God, since he is invisible, is with “the eyes of the soul.” Even Owen, who orients the beatific vision around seeing Christ, claims that in glorification we receive a “new visive faculty” (on top of the new visive faculty received in regeneration) to see God. So there is still a physical as well as spiritual seeing taking place. The problem with this, I think, is that they seem to leave these two kinds of seeing as separate and important, but not equally so. In other words, the real sight is the sight of the soul, and the physical sight is just an added bonus. So, one way to think about it, put by (if I recall correctly) Turretin, is that the physical sight purifies the body while the spiritual sight purifies the soul.

      I hope that helps.

  6. Kyle,

    Thanks for the response. That does help. I just wanted to know if I was headed in the right direction with connecting the beatific vision with the miracle that could give a disembodied soul *spiritual* perception and consciousness (i.e. that once disembodied the soul isn’t necessarily inert or unconscious given hylomorphism).

    I do like the idea that “the physical sight purifies the body while the spiritual sight purifies the soul.”

    I’m just doing some preliminary studies for a philosophy of mind course that I just started at the undergraduate level and am trying to wrap my head around this view (considering I only have a layman’s knowledge of theology right now).

    After being impressed by checking out some of your other posts, I added this site to a list of blogs I check regularly. I look forward to following you and the other contributors. Also, if it is alright with you, you might hear back from me from time to time if I need some help with certain theological heavy lifting.

    Thanks once again!

    Blessings,

    Ray

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