Theological Eschatology 3 - A Christ-Centered Vision of Hope
September 14, 2015
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Mt. 5:8). In describing the blessed life, Jesus hearkens to an ancient yearning: "When shall I come and behold the face of God?" (Ps. 42:2) Central to the biblical and classical description of Christian hope is that promise described by the doctrine of the beatific vision.
Like other doctrines central to the faith, the beatific vision prompts us to reflect upon seeming tensions in the scriptures. The way in which the prophets and apostles say one thing alongside another thing may frequently cause us to wonder how the two realities can both be true and not be mutually contradicting one another. Excursions into Christological and Trinitarian doctrine are the most widely known of such instances, though they are not alone. It is for this reason that theologians speak of the significance of mystery (a favored term of Paul: see, e.g., Eph. 6:19; 1 Cor. 15:51; 1 Tim. 3:9,16) and the accompanying doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. In what ways does the beatific vision seem to create pressure in the wider spectrum of Christian teaching?
Psalm 11:7 offers a brief anatomy of the promised reality: "the LORD is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face." Here we see that the beatific vision denotes a relational reality premised upon moral grounds: only the upright enjoy it, because God loves righteous works, because, ultimately, God himself is righteousness. In other words, the beatific vision, then, involves the intimacy or proximity relationally that corresponds to a moral conformity. It is the one who is holy as God is holy (Lev. 11:44) or perfect as God is perfect (Mt. 5:48) who fits the bill. David addresses this reality in Psalm 24:
Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
He will receive blessing from the LORD
and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
The hands, the heart, even the soul itself must be true, right, and pure. Only then may the man of God see the face of God.
The problem stems from the fact, narrated so forcibly and repeatedly through the Old Testament, that God's people do not fit this bill. Upon being freed from bondage in Egypt, God's people come to Sinai. Yet we are told there that "the people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was" (Exod. 20:21). God had warned that they could not touch the mountain, lest they die (Exod. 19:21-24). As Dennis Olson has argued at great and detailed length (especially in his book Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses), this begins the mediatorial work of Moses, who will serve as a sign of one yet to come (a point made not only in Deut. 18:15-22, but also in Heb. 3:1-6). An intercessor is needed, because sinners cannot see God and live. Tragically, we learn that Moses is not holy enough as he can only see God's back side (so Exod. 34). We need one "worthy of more glory than Moses" (Heb. 3:3) if we are to have any good news about seeing God.
The transfiguration account serves such a definitive role, then, in defining the gospel. Atop that mountain, God's people are able to behold the glory of God radiating before them, without need for a tabernacle (Mt. 17:4) and without any fear (17:7). Notably, they not only see the resplendent Jesus but the holy one "came and touched them." The imagery involves that of Sinai recapitulated. In which case, we must ask: how? How can they stand there? How can they watch? How can they be touched by the incarnate God? And, most pointedly, how is it that they do not die then and there? Dale Allison has observed, in a number of studies, that Matthew the Evangelist pairs the transfiguration account with another episode upon a hill, the crucifixion of Jesus in Mt. 27:32-54). In reading Matthew's account coherently or fully, then, we see that the two are interrelated. A proleptic enjoyment of promised blessings can be given to those privileged disciples because of the work to be done in a similar setting that, as it turns out, is actually quite different: cursed, not blessed; marked by Godforsakenness, not divine illumination (27:46). Indeed, Elijah's absence in the later episode (27:49), and the result it brings, makes possible the restored fraternity with the great prophet in the earlier instance.
The beatific vision is a gift enjoyed by those who are perfect and righteous, those who are pure in heart, and those whose hands are clean. While believers are marked by such realities in their regenerate lives in an increasing way throughout their discipleship and sanctification, they are not ultimately and finally marked by such descriptions apart from the forgiving, reconciling, justifying work of Jesus. Augustine spoke of descent and ascent in addressing the communion we have now with God. In commenting upon the Psalms, he said: "They are songs of one ascending and loving, and he is ascending because he is loving ... Even though now we have fallen by evil desire, hope remains for us. If we acknowledge who it is who has not fallen but descended to us, we will ascend by clinging to him, because we are not able to rise by our own strength" (Augustine, en. Ps. 122.1). The blessed sight of God is the culmination of our journey, but the path is one which requires, first and fundamentally at every step, our union with Jesus Christ and our bearing his purity, perfection, and righteousness.
Something else needs to be thought through, however, regarding the link between the beatific vision and the Christ. Consider the final words of Matthew's account of the transfiguration: "And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only" (17:8). Surely Paul's comments to the Corinthians and Colossians are prompted by this episode, when he will later speak of God who "has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6) and then when he names the Son "the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15). It is for this reason that the Reformed tradition has regularly included not only an emphasis upon the singular mediation of Christ in making the beatific vision possible for sinners, but also, as John Owen and G. C. Berkouwer have both suggested in various ways, that Christ singularly defines the very vision itself. Jesus is not just the salvific context of the vision; the good news is that Jesus is the content of the vision as well.
Berkouwer went so far as to suggest that the beatific vision somehow requires the denial of divine invisibility. His motivation is noble, of course, in seeking to commend rigorously the promises of the gospel offered in Holy Scripture. But in so doing, he has extracted the gospel promise from its wider canonical matrix, wherein we are told that "God is spirit" (Jn. 4:24) or that the "invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature" are perceived in nature (Rom. 1:20). Indeed, Berkouwer's critique of divine invisibility not only forecloses the breadth of biblical teaching which he can attest (honoring the promise of divine sight at the cost of losing the repeated witness of divine invisibility) but also renders unsteady the Christological character of that sight. If God per se were not invisible, why then would the Christ's work as "image of the invisible God" be definitive and noteworthy and not merely the latest episode of a temporary theophanic appearance?
In thinking about eschatological hope, one fundamental rule is that this doctrine and its various sub-topics not be allowed to function separately from the wider teaching of the prophets and apostles. The beatific vision, for example, points to a unique and necessary facet of biblical teaching, and it will serve a needful role in supplementing, augmenting, and qualifying other teachings. That said, understanding its character also requires a contextual reception of it that does not forget the basic metaphysical, covenantal, and ethical parameters of Christian existence as sketched by the Holy Scriptures. Issues of coherent and interrelationship, then, are necessary exercises in faithful Christian reflection upon eschatology. In the Reformed tradition, one recurring emphasis has been the re-tethering of eschatology and Christology. Whereas certain versions of late medieval piety severed the links between Christ and the specific character of the heavenly bliss enjoyed by God's people, the early Reformed sought to think clearly and consistently about ways in which Christ singularly provides the pathway to participatory bliss for those united to him by faith and even how he might definitively and singularly define that blessedness itself.
Might it be that vision of the Christ opens up a wider vista wherein we somehow see God in the form of the persons of the Father and the Spirit? Perhaps. We can certainly say that there is an ocular focus upon the Christ as the one in whom such vision occurs. We can furthermore say that there are scriptural principles regarding divine invisibility that seem to suggest that seeing the divine persons as such would be impossible: "No one has ever seen God" (Jn. 1:18). And, of course, the incarnational availability of the divine Son for sight owes to his enfleshment or tabernacling presence: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:14). Dogmatic restraint will suggest avoiding speculation beyond scriptural promptings. Here the Reformed tradition - especially as typified in the analyses of Owen - has shown a restrained focus upon Christ as the image or vision of God. But restraint is not merely prompted by scriptural silence (regarding other visions) alone; restraint from speculation flows also from a concern to think this doctrine together with other adjoining truths (e.g. divine invisibility). With Turretin, then, we must say: "Because the Scripture does not disclose it to us, so neither should we rashly define anything concerning it" (Inst. XX.viii.14).
We can surely say that we will see Christ more fully than has been the case in any prior situation (1 Jn. 3:2). And we can attest that our knowledge of the whole Godhead will be greater in glory than in this time of grace (1 Cor. 13:12). To what extent the idiom of sight is helpful in attesting not just the first escalation of intimacy with the God of the gospel but also that the second sort of escalation - that intellectual and volitional perfection unto glory in knowing and loving the triune God in his entire blessedness as Father, Son, and Spirit - that is a matter for fine judgment and well beyond this sketch (though see Turretin for a keen example: Inst. XX.viii). It is worth noting that the tradition has made use of the language of beatific vision for this spiritual perception of the mind's eye as well. Such growth in theological and personal knowledge and love will surely be a part of our great hope. If we deem the language of vision less than apt, we will need to make use of some other biblical idiom to attest to that gospel promise as well. Again, the need to think in interconnected ways is crucial here as ever.
Michael Allen is associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida