Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition

Written by Hans Boersma Reviewed By R. Carlton Wynne

These books join the current movement to retrieve and revive interest in classical theological resources and seek to counter what the authors see as deleterious effects of modernity. Specifically, both books orient from the authors’ view that the patristic and medieval thinkers’ mixture of a broadly Neoplatonic metaphysic and biblical theism helps to respond well to modernity’s disjointed and purely immanent understandings of history, human experience, and hermeneutics.

This outlook, which both authors refer to as Christian Platonism, holds that the deepest meaning of reality and history lies in the diverse participations of all beings in God’s infinite existence. That is, the world is not so many atomized bits of contingent matter but rather a vast hierarchy of creatures who proceed from, and therefore share in, God’s transcendent being, and who, for that reason, restlessly ascend back to God (as their telos) through his work in history. These books seek to work out what this metaphysical position entails for the beatific vision and biblical exegesis, respectively.

Hans Boersma, for example, argues that the Christian Platonic notion that all created things participate in, or partake of, God’s being supplies the only plausibility structure for his assumption that “the telos of the beatific vision lies embedded in our human nature” (Seeing God, p. 11), ordering that nature to the supernatural end of seeing God in Christ after death and even enabling us to experience God’s infinite life on earth. Likewise, Craig Carter contends that “the synthesis of Christianity and pagan philosophy in late antiquity” explains how “the Old Testament writings do actually participate in the reality that is Jesus Christ” (Interpreting Scripture, pp. 86, 151) and that this ontology of Scripture brings a deep Christological unity to the words of the Bible. Hence, a so-called “synthesis” of Christianity and paganism in Christian Platonism is essential to the proposals of each work.

In Seeing God, Boersma argues that a participatory, or as he often puts it, “sacramental” understanding of the beatific vision “points us to the recognition of the real presence of Christ already in this life, in anticipation of the beatific vision of God in the hereafter” (pp. 14–15). While the opening and concluding chapters of the book directly serve this thesis (see further below), the intervening chapters (chs. 2–12) offer a diachronic survey of various theologians’ views regarding the beatific vision. Part 1 (chs. 2–4) focuses on early Christian thought, Part 2 (chs. 5–8) on medieval theology, and Part 3 (chs. 9–12) on Protestant theology. Chapter two, the exception, traces the influence of Plato and Plotinus on later Christian accounts of the beatific vision. Boersma there lays a philosophical foundation for the themes of participation, ascent, divinization, mysticism, etc., that permeate his ensuing discussions of Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Gregory Palamas, Symeon the New Theologian and John of the Cross, Bonaventure and Nicholas of Cusa, Dante Alighieri, John Calvin, John Donne, various Puritans (Ambrose, Owen, Baxter, Watson), Abraham Kuyper, and Jonathan Edwards. Throughout these studies, Boersma commends the ideas that he believes mesh well with his “sacramental” vision of the world and the Christian life (see, e.g., pp. 94–95, 108–9, 162, 211, 222, 313, 352–53, 383–84). The result is a fascinating survey of primary and secondary sources that traces the doctrinal development and theological disagreements regarding humanity’s final end.

The signal feature of Boerma’s work, however, is his argument that a participatory ontology entails that the visio Dei is not only proleptically present to believers today, but also progressively divinizes them throughout this life and beyond. While the notion of the creature’s metaphysical divinization may disturb evangelical readers, Boersma is simply drawing out what is implied in Christian Platonism, i.e., that eternal life is nothing less than a “deifying participation in Christ” (p. 196). That is, just as human beings sacramentally partake of God’s being in their coming from him in creation, so God graciously draws them back into himself as Christ “makes us more than human by uniting us with himself in the incarnation” (p. 221). While Christ, himself, is the deifying visio Dei, Boersma argues that even natural phenomena sacramentally contribute to our beatitude, since “everything we see with the eyes of the body today is a theophany of God in Christ” (p. 384). Eventually, the beatific vision will so transform our body and soul that “like God—and in the risen Christ—we take on incorruptibility and immortality” (p. 393).

As these quotes suggest, for Boersma, the believer’s final end is a never-ending assimilation into God’s own interior life in and through Christ. Boersma assures the reader that man’s divinization through the beatific vision “does not mean that we take the place of God” (p. 393), but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, for Boersma, the beatific vision will make us part of God. As evidence, Boersma expresses hope that Jonathan Edwards’ treatment of the beatific vision “will prove contagious” (p. 16), even as he agrees with Oliver Crisp that “Jonathan Edwards’ Neoplatonism implies that he was a panentheist” (p. 355, n. 5).

Craig Carter in Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition explicitly endorses Boersma’s commitment to the “sacramental” ontology of Christian Platonism (see pp. xvi, 34–36), arguing that it is the outlook of the Great Tradition (i.e., classical Christianity). However, instead of arguing for the endless divinization of creatures in the beatific vision, Carter deploys this metaphysic to “recover classical theological interpretation of Scripture for the church’s benefit today” (Interpreting Scripture, p. xv). The opening chapter sets the stage by describing a “gulf” between the modern historical-critical theories of the academy and the church’s perception of the Bible as an inspired text, using as a test case their divergent approaches to the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 53. Carter then spends three chapters laying out the theological and metaphysical program (Part 1: Theological Hermeneutics) which he argues can rectify the academy’s failures. The next three chapters (Part 2: Recovering Premodern Exegesis) build on the prior theological treatment by working out the details of Carter’s hermeneutical proposal, addressing the unity and diversity of Scripture, the issue of meaning, and the Old Testament as a Christ-laden text. The concluding chapter revisits Isaiah 53 in light of Carter’s prior discussions, assesses contemporary approaches to the text (Goldingay and Payne, Motyer, Childs), and engages with Vanhoozer and Carson regarding the current Theological Interpretation of Scripture movement.

Foundational to Carter’s retrieval effort is the idea that the Bible is the Word of God “insofar as it participates in the divine Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity” (p. 58). By “insofar,” Carter does not mean to deny the inspired character of the Bible per se (see pp. 37–42). But, for him, inspiration is what opens up the depth of meaning conveyed through Scripture as its human words participate in God’s Word, namely, Jesus Christ. For example, Scripture’s participation in Christ accounts for the fact that God “speaks His Word through the human words of the inspired text” (p. 32), particularly as God “commandeers those texts and speaks through them” (p. 167). And because of this dynamic, it is possible “to regard what we learn from the Bible as the Word of the almighty God” (p. 36). Throughout these accounts of divine speech, Carter appeals to John Webster (to whom the book is dedicated), who depicts the Spirit’s sanctification of the biblical text (see pp. 25–26, 32–36, 58–59), noting that such language is just another way of affirming that “Scripture functions sacramentally,” both for Webster and for himself, “just as it does for Hans Boersma” (p. 35).

In other words, Carter finds Christian Platonism amenable to what “all three of us [i.e., Carter, Webster, and Boersma] are referring to when we speak of the context in which the saving self-revelation [of God] occurs to our benefit” (p. 59). That is fascinating, for if Carter is right, one can use the language of metaphysical participation to express a creature’s vertical contact with God in more sacramentally incremental (Boersma) or more sacramentally actualistic (Webster) terms. In both cases, created things—human nature for Boersma and the human words of the Bible for Carter—witness to transcendent spiritual realities precisely because God makes those created things to participate metaphysically in his own being, especially as that being is revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth arguably represent the most explicit and refined forms of this kind of Christological participation, but Carter’s work, perhaps unintentionally, synthesizes enough strands of thought to weave this common thread.

Carter’s intention is, itself, hermeneutical. In line with his Christian Platonism, he argues for biblical interpretation “as a sacramental activity” (p. 131) centered on Jesus Christ. That is, he indicates, just as Christ was sacramentally present in the literal forms of Israel’s life prior to the incarnation, so Christ remains sacramentally present in the literal meaning of the text of Scripture. For this reason, one need not pit the literal sense of a text against its deeper, spiritual or allegorical meaning, since, within Carter’s participationist framework, the literal meaning includes that deeper meaning within itself, just as God “encloses time within himself and transcends time in the incomprehensible mystery of his unique being” (p. 175). So whether we are dealing with the Old or New Testaments, Christ is “ontologically” present as its participated origin and end, so much so that the text “becomes the sacramental means by which we are united to Christ” (Interpreting Scripture, p. 154).

These works by Boersma and Carter have received accolades in the Reformed and evangelical world. Seeing God won Christianity Today’s 2018 award in the category of theology and ethics. Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition has been hailed as a home run on the topic of hermeneutics. However, upon careful review, it must be concluded that the metaphysical project underpinning each of these works and, therefore, the views these works espouse, conflict with the best of Reformed theology at central points. For example, though Boersma criticizes Herman Bavinck as “too this-worldly” (Seeing God, p. 38), the latter affirms a beatific vision that is firmly fixed on the presence of God and not a warm glow from worldly shalom. But Bavinck makes clear that the hope of seeing God face-to-face is the hope of consummated covenant fellowship with the triune God through a Spirit-wrought, faith-secured, non-deifying union with the risen Christ, whom believers, as creatures, will see with glorified eyes. On this account, the visio Dei is not a metaphysical elevation. It rather constitutes an ethical advancement and bodily transformation into the fullness of covenant blessing, the richest and deepest enjoyment of God of which his human image is capable. This is what Christ now enjoys in his non-deified humanity as the eternal Son in glory, and it is what he has secured for his people. Moreover, as the Westminster divines understood, the substance of this covenant blessing was revealed and applied to believers in history prior to the coming of Christ through redemptive prophecy and symbol, and the same hope is revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures thanks to the organic character of biblical typology, not because the Old Testament or its readers metaphysically participate in the person of Christ.

Unfortunately, rather than elucidate these tenets of Reformed theology, Boersma and Carter’s retrievals of patristic and medieval concepts too often obscure and even deny them. As a result, for those who seek to follow the “deeper Protestant conception” (to use the language of Geerhardus Vos), their books should prompt Christians to shun, rather than to embrace, Christian Platonism as harboring unbiblical Neoplatonic influences and to hold firmly to biblical theism as expounded in Reformed confessionalism.

R. Carlton Wynne

R. Carlton Wynne
Westminster Theological Seminary
Glenside, Pennsylvania, US

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