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Hudson Martin
Hudson Martin

Beatific Vision


Yet as plain as it may seem in some regards, why is it that so many Christians throughout the ages have had such seemingly different instincts, or at least struggled to be satisfied that seeing Jesus will be enough, that the God-man himself is the essence of the beatific vision and not some additional sight around or past or beyond Christ?




Beatific Vision


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"Beatific" comes from the Latin past participle beatifica, to make happy.[8] "Vision" comes from the Latin nominative visio, to see.[9] The beatifica visio is to see something that makes one happy.


In Christianity, the Bible states that God "dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has even seen or can see" (1 Timothy 6:16), but when God reveals himself to us in heaven we will then see him face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12).[12] This concept has been termed "the beatific vision of God" by theologians of the Catholic Church and later on by various Protestant denominations, including the Lutheran Church and the Methodist Church.[12][13][6]


The immediate knowledge of God which the angelic spirits and the souls of the just enjoy in Heaven. It is called "vision" to distinguish it from the mediate knowledge of God which the human mind may attain in the present life. And since in beholding God face to face the created intelligence finds perfect happiness, the vision is termed "beatific."[14]


Spirit of Holiness, let all thy saints adore / thy sacred energy, and bless thine heart-renewing power. / No angel tongues can tell thy love's ecstatic height, / the glorious joy unspeakable, the beatific sight.[6]


The beatific vision is when God, though transcendent, opens himself up to man and gives man the capacity to contemplate God in all His heavenly glory.[15] Contemplation is the prayer of silently focusing on God and heeding His word; in other words, contemplation is the prayer of uniting with God.[16]


The beatific vision is a grace and a privilege intended for every man and angel, since God created men and angels to enjoy the beatific vision; the beatific vision is the ultimate purpose of each person's and angel's life.[19]


According to Aquinas, the beatific vision surpasses both faith and reason. Rational knowledge does not fully satisfy humankind's innate desire to know God, since reason is primarily concerned with sensible objects and thus can only infer its conclusions about God indirectly.[27]


Thus only the fullness of the beatific vision satisfies this fundamental desire of the human soul to know God. Quoting Paul, Aquinas notes "We see now in a glass darkly, but then face to face" (i Cor. 13:12). The beatific vision is the final reward for those saints elected by God to partake in and "enjoy the same happiness wherewith God is happy, seeing Him in the way which He sees Himself" in the next life.[29]


According to the Roman Catechism, the saints in heaven see God, whereby they share in God's nature, wherewith they are truly and always happy. The catechism elaborates that the saints' happiness includes not just joy, but also glory (knowledge of one another's dignity), honor (reverence for one another as adopted sons of God), and peace (fulfillment of all the heart's desires). Moreover, the catechism adds, the beatific vision will, on Judgment Day, make the saints' resurrected bodies impassible (free from inconvenience, suffering, and death), bright as the angels, agile (free from the limitations of space-time), and subtle (as subject to the soul as the soul is subject to God).


The Catholic Encyclopedia defines the beatific vision as the immediate knowledge of God enjoyed by all the heavenly creatures.[49] It explains that the vision of God is called "beatific" because by seeing God the mind finds perfect happiness, and called "vision" because the sight of God in heaven is not the same as mediate knowledge of God.[49]


The immediate knowledge of God which the angelic spirits and the souls of the just enjoy in Heaven. It is called "vision" to distinguish it from the mediate knowledge of God which the human mind may attain in the present life. And since in beholding God face to face the created intelligence finds perfect happiness, the vision is termed "beatific". For further explanation of the subject, see HEAVEN.


Only Catholics believe in the beatific vision, the eternal contemplation of God in the hereafter. Protestants, by contrast, look for a new heaven and a new earth, where created goods, and our active engagement with them, will continue forever. Briefly put, Catholics are otherworldly, Protestants world-affirming.


The caricature I have just sketched is persistent for at least three reasons. First, genealogical accounts of modernity often point to late medieval nominalism and voluntarism, along with the loss of the participatory metaphysic of Christian Platonism, as the root causes of both Protestantism and the ensuing secularism. Catholics often use this narrative of decline to critique Protestantism for the loss of contemplation in Western spirituality. Belief in the beatific vision was lost with the world-affirming, activist Protestant mindset.


I could go on. I have not even touched on the many Reformed scholastic authors who all discussed the beatific vision as our final telos. And we really should single out the great Christian Platonist Jonathan Edwards for his remarkably insightful views of the beatific vision. But hopefully I have written enough to make the point that the doctrine of the beatific vision had a long-lasting trajectory within Protestant theology.


Of course, this is not to say that these Protestant theologians had identical views on the beatific vision. The careful reader will have noticed differences even in the brief descriptions that I have offered above. Nor do I mean to suggest that Protestants left the inherited teachings of Western eschatology (particularly those of Thomas Aquinas) unaltered. My point is simply that, much like the preceding tradition, each of these theologians was convinced that the beatific vision is the telos of human existence. The reason is simple: to let go of the beatific vision would be to let go of the centrality of God himself. The beatific vision is what keeps theology theological.


Few doctrines are as 'standard' in the history of theology, and ignored in contemporary theology, as the beatific vision.[i] While there are signs of a reversal in this trend, it is clear that contemporary dogmatics has little time for such a doctrine. This is particularly true in Protestant theology. The irony in this is that, among Protestants, the beatific vision is often regarded as a specific locus of Roman Catholic theology, whereas it can be argued that the Reformed tradition utilized this doctrine most broadly and creatively. It is not unusual to hear sentiments such as this one, found in a dictionary of theology: Protestant theologians 'largely neglected the notion [of the beatific vision]; but in doing so they neglected an important element in the eschatological hope of the New Testament and lost some of the valuable insights of medieval theology and spirituality.'[ii] Whereas the comment about Protestant theologians is historically misguided, it is certainly true concerning our own contemporary theologians.


The goal of this article is to provide an introduction to the doctrine of the beatific vision. To do so, we start with some general reflections on the biblical material, and move from that into a broad overview of some of the key theological trajectories in the tradition, with particular focus on the Reformed tradition. Pausing to reflect on key emphases in this material, we build on this foundation to suggest some ways to understand the beatific vision for theology and the church today. Because this doctrine is so neglected in our own context, it is helpful to begin with a brief definition: The beatific vision is the sight of God given over to creatures in eternity. Scripture hints toward a future vision of God in glory, and therefore it is called 'beatific' because it is a sight that brings happiness and perfection. Importantly, as we will see more fully below, the beatific vision is not simply a piece of eschatology, as central as it is for that, but comes into play in several key doctrines.


Reflection on the beatific vision began early in the Christian tradition, with a focus on contemplation and union, which then developed into a focused discussion of a theology of enjoyment in medieval theology through the enduring legacy of Augustine. Severin Kitanov narrates this well:


What we see in Edwards is something different. Edwards turns to his doctrine of God, where the ultimate vision of God is the gazing of Father and Son within the Holy Spirit. Edwards notes that the 'place' of this vision, so to speak, is within the love of God:


'This very manifestation that God will make of himself that will cause the beatifical vision will be an act of love in God. It will be from the exceeding love of God to them that he will give them this vision which will add an immense sweetness to it . . . They shall see that he is their Father and that they are his children . . . therefore they shall see God as their own God, when they behold this transcendent glory.'[xxiii]


In light of these key features, we turn now to directions for a constructive account of the beatific vision. The focus of traditional accounts, as we have seen, has been broad. Medieval accounts tended to focus on anthropology, making arguments for which faculty was primary and addressing issues such as the contingency of the beatific vision and enjoyment. Reformed accounts tended to focus more on the sanctification of creaturely knowledge by focusing on the link between faith and sight. Blessedness, therefore, was oriented by the eternally blessed God who has revealed himself to his creatures in Christ. The discussion tended to gravitate, as we have seen, to the object and means of this vision. With this as our backdrop, it is helpful now to turn to several key points of orientation for constructing a doctrine of the beatific vision today. 041b061a72


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