When was the last time you thought about the beatific vision? Have you ever thought about the beatific vision?!
Let’s be honest, this hasn’t exactly been a prominent topic for Protestant theologians or pastors down the centuries. Reflection on the beatific vision has found its home mostly within Roman Catholic theology. On a traditional Roman Catholic understanding, the beatific vision is the culmination of our salvation, when the redeemed will be able to contemplate the Triune God in an unmediated way, and so will be brought into perfect union and communion with God.
I suspect that for many of us, the idea of reflecting on the beatific vision might seem like a classic example of being so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly use. What’s more, the traditional understanding might seem like a highly abstract and over-intellectualized concept of eternal life. It can sound rather like we are simply going to be heavenly brains on sticks for all eternity, or contemplative souls without bodies. These days, many are rightly putting some serious question marks beside an all-but-disembodied idea of life in “heaven,” and recovering a more scripturally robust account of eternal life in our glorified resurrection bodies in the transformed physicality of the new creation. This leads us to a far more embodied, dynamic, and active way of thinking about eternal life which seems to leave little place for the concept of the beatific vision as it is traditionally understood. The risk with this, though, is that we can place ourselves and our activities so much at the center of how we envision eternal life that we end up losing sight of God himself.
Within the historic Reformed tradition there is a strand of thinking that takes a somewhat different approach. It offers a more strongly scriptural and Christ-centered understanding of the beatific vision, which helps us to see how much Christ’s divinity and humanity matter not only for our salvation and our life now, but for all eternity. It also shows how the beatific vision will involve our glorified resurrection bodies as well as our minds. And it helps us to make some clearer connections between the beatific vision in glory and our ordinary life of discipleship now.
One of the foremost amongst those who take this route is the 17th century Reformed theologian and pastor, John Owen. Perhaps you have come across Owen because of his staunch defense of a “Calvinist” understanding of election, or as someone who explores how we can experience communion with each person of the Trinity. He was also a tenacious defender of classical Christology in the face of a growing tendency in his time either to deny the divinity of Christ outright or to disregard it as irrelevant. He does this most fully in his doctrinal treatise, Christologia (1679), and also, in a more pastoral and contemplative way, in his Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ (1684). This was the last book he prepared for publication, and we have an account of how a friend brought him some page-proofs from the printer on what turned out to be the day of his death. On seeing them, Owen is said to have responded: “O Brother Payne! The long wished-for day is come at last, in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done or was capable of doing in this world.”
For Owen, beholding the glory of Christ has a very specific meaning. It signifies acknowledging the fullness of his person, divine and human, and what that means for his saving work, along with the implications of his two natures for the whole Christian life now and through eternity. Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ encourages all believers to devote themselves to contemplating this understanding of the glory of Christ by faith now, in anticipation of beholding him in the fullness of his glory by sight in the beatific vision.
This means that for Owen the beatific vision is not simply going to be our intellectual apprehension of the being of the Triune God. Picking up on 2 Corinthians 3:18 and 4:4–6, he asserts that we will behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. We will see him in his glorified ascended humanity with our glorified resurrection eyes, just as our glorified minds will finally be able to grasp as much as it is possible for us to apprehend of his divinity as well as his humanity. It is as we behold the person of Christ in glory that we will come to fullest knowledge of and union and communion with him, and through him, the Triune God. Just as Jesus Christ is the mediator of our knowledge of God, our worship of God, and our communion with God in this life, so he will be the mediator of all of these things through all eternity.
In the meanwhile, beholding the glory of Christ by faith here and now matters enormously. Again with 2 Cor. 3:18 and 4:6 very much in mind, Owen is adamant that this is the primary means used by the Holy Spirit for our sanctification, and so for maturing us in our discipleship. Meditating on the glory of Christ now is therefore never simply about “heavenly musings,” detached from earthly reality. It is as we behold the glory of Christ that we are transformed by the Spirit more and more into his likeness, until the full sight of Christ in the beatific vision will mean our full and final transformation and glorification.
Here, then, we have an account of the beatific vision that is rigorously scriptural and Christ-focused, that enables us to see the centrality of beholding the glory of Christ in his two natures now and through all eternity, and that shows us how, by the Spirit, beholding the glory of Christ by faith enables us to live more fully for Christ in this life, until that time when we will indeed see him face to face and know as we are known.[i]
[i] This article is based on my essays, “Beholding the Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ: John Owen and the ‘Reforming’ of the Beatific Vision” in Kelly M. Kapic and Mark Jones, eds., Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology (Ashgate: Surrey, 2012), 141–158); “Contemplating Jesus in John Owen’s ‘Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ’” in Primer, Issue 12, “In The Flesh: Understanding and celebrating the person of Christ (The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches/Oak Hill College: London, 2021), 56–67; and a similarly titled forthcoming essay in the online magazine, Credo.