Seeing God: A Review

Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition by Hans Boersma. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s, 2022. 487 pp. Paperback. $34.99.

Seeing God is a robust and ambitious work with an impressive scope. It contains both historical survey and constructive proposal. The bulk of the book consists of historical studies of a wide range of figures from across the Christian tradition, as well as one chapter on Plato and Plotinus as important non-Christian precursors. These chapters are divided into three sections: early Christian thought (Plato, Plotinus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine), medieval thought (Thomas Aquinas, Gregory Palamas, Symeon the New Theologian, John of the Cross, Bonaventure, Nicholas of Cusa, and Dante Alighieri), and Protestant thought (John Calvin, John Donne, Abraham Kuyper, assorted Puritan figures, and Jonathan Edwards).  These studies are book-ended by more expressly constructive chapters, where Boersma further develops his own model of the beatific vision and its bearing upon the Christian life.

The historical studies are too numerous to summarize, but their general shape can be sketched for the reader. Boersma does not offer fully exhaustive studies of his subjects; he often focuses upon one aspect of a figure’s thought that he finds particularly helpful for either our understanding of the beatific vision itself or how the beatific vision may shape the Christian life. These chapters usually consider at least one of a few core questions. First, Boersma considers whether his subjects evince a “sacramental” ontology, usually finding some degree of this in the figures he examines. Second, he probes connections between faith and the beatific vision, between the possibility and mode of seeing God now as both related to and distinct from the eschatological vision of God. Third, he considers whether the beatific vision involves seeing the essence of God in some sense. Fourth, he explores the role that Christ plays in the beatific vision.

Over the course of the book, Boersma slowly develops his own model of the beatific vision, a model that is both suggestive and elusive.  He begins the book by arguing that modernity has been marked by the loss of sacramental ontology and disregard for final causes. This argument draws upon ideas argued in his earlier book, Heavenly Participation.[1] He finds these problems at work even in insightful modern theologians, specifically Bavinck and Balthasar, who, in Boersma’s reading, both deemphasize (without denying) the beatific vision to emphasize the active and social aspects of the eschaton. Boersma suggests that a rich doctrine of the beatific vision can function as an antidote to this modern difficulty, as it expresses the end to which humanity is directed. He also suggests that this teleological understanding of the beatific vision should be connected to the shape of our lives now. Thus, we should affirm some degree of continuity between our perception of God now and our perception of him in the eschaton, particularly in the realm of contemplation. He further highlights the prioritization of vision as a feature of Christian Platonism and articulates an understanding of vision rooted in this tradition, one that takes vision of God to be fundamentally unitive and transformative.

The final chapter of the book offers Boersma’s most robust account of the beatific vision.   He reaffirms the fundamental importance of sacramental ontology for his model and describes earthly Christian life as an apprenticeship for the final beatific vision of God. Our vision of God neither begins nor ends with us, as our vision of God is rooted in God’s vision of us, and seeing God transforms us to be like him. Furthermore, every vision or perception of God involves a seeing of the divine essence in some fashion (Boersma offers the example that perceiving God’s love is to, in some sense, perceive God’s essence, for God is love), and yet the final seeing of God will be far greater than what we possess now. This seeing, as Boersma suggests throughout the book, is a transformative vision of God in Christ. Daringly, yet also hesitatingly, Boersma suggests a physical yet supersensible seeing of God in Christ in the eschaton, conceptualized with the aid of a Christian immaterialism that he finds in Gregory of Nyssa and Jonathan Edwards.

 Seeing God is an impressive accomplishment. As mentioned above, it considers a wide variety of thinkers, and often shapes its questions to the specifics of each thinker. While Boersma does have some consistent areas of interest, he generally tries to follow the shape of his interlocutors’ thought. Specialists will likely disagree with certain details of Boersma’s readings of particular figures, but he reads his subjects charitably, and generally evinces a willingness to admit both disagreement and unexpected harmony. The range of the figures Boersma studies can also be a weakness in the book. It is not always clear just how Boersma wants to hold all these figures together. Some of the medieval mystics make claims about the Christian life that the Puritans would likely question, as one example. And yet, by examining diverse figures in the same book, Boersma reveals important similarities and differences, some expected, others surprising.

 One core concept of the book that is likely to divide readers is that of sacramental ontology. This is not a new idea for Boersma; he has defended this concept in other places, most notably in Heavenly Participation. And yet I suspect readers of the more thorough-going Reformed variety, such as myself, will be leery of this idea. Indeed, this concept (in earlier forms) has already received a certain amount of criticism from figures such as Kevin Vanhoozer and Michael Allen.[2] I myself found the category to be unhelpfully fluid and unclear, at least as used in this text. When both Jonathan Edward’s immaterialism and Aquinas’ robust account of creaturely reality can be described as sacramental ontology, it seems to me an unfortunately loose category. This lack of clarity is exacerbated when used to describe figures like Calvin who have a much narrower understanding of the language of “sacrament.”[3] In addition to historical infelicity, I worry that the language of sacramental ontology obscures the particular ways in which the two sacraments of the church (baptism and Lord’s Supper) function. Surely we are better served recognizing “sacrament” as a more limited category naming a particular mode of signification, sealing, participation, and presence. That said, I do not mean to fully reject what Boersma is after here. The basic idea that creation and, in a much deeper way, God’s people participate in God in some fashion is one that is important to much of the Christian tradition. Furthermore, Boersma’s emphasis upon teleology is a very helpful antidote to a whole host of modern woes that contemporary theology has not fully escaped. Yet I remain convinced that the language of sacramental ontology is, on balance, less helpful than a basic affirmation of telos and participation that then uses more variegated or subject-specific language to describe the many modes of God’s presence to us.

Another key concept of the book is the idea of transformative vision, the idea that our seeing of God will transform us, remaking us more fully into his likeness. Here I think Boersma is on surer ground, in terms of both Scripture and Christian tradition. Boersma’s emphasis on this point is enriched by his interweaving of this idea with the idea that we see God, always and finally, in Christ. This latter claim, of course, is far from unanimous in the Christian tradition, as many have held that we see the Triune God directly in the final state. Nevertheless, Boersma makes some powerful arguments on this score, and he demonstrates that select figures across Christian history have held this view.[4] By developing this idea, Boersma is able to suggest that by viewing God in Christ, we are made more fully into, simultaneously, the image of God and the image of Christ. The arguments for this transformation are compelling, resonating as they do with Biblical passages describing our glorification following that of the risen Christ and tied to a deeper communion with God in the eschaton (e.g. Rom. 8:29-30; 1 Cor. 15:20-22, 49), as well as with the common consensus of the catholic Christian tradition (various in detail but largely shared in outline) of our future resurrection and glorification. The latter connection between our transformation by the beatific vision and Christ’s transformation is strengthened by the idea that the beatific vision is fundamentally a viewing of God in Christ. Nevertheless, a transformative account of the beatific vision can be held alongside an affirmation that we view the triune divine essence directly. As such, readers can benefit from Boersma’s meditation upon our transformation even if they are not convinced by his Christological account of the beatific vision.

Boersma’s account of the glorification and transformation received in the resurrection and tied to the beatific vision takes an odd turn at the conclusion of the book. As noted above, he argues that a Christian immaterialism (similar to that of Gregory of Nyssa and Jonathan Edwards), can help account for a suprasensible, yet physical, perception of the glory of God in Christ. He offers this account as a way of making sense of the deep transformation he has described throughout the text. This argument is very brief, and arguably requires more space than it receives. While affirming the serious transformation of the resurrection body (1 Cor. 15), I’m skeptical of some of the transformations described by Gregory of Nyssa (for example, no eating and no differentiation of gender). More fundamentally, I find this immaterialism (especially in Edward’s occasionalism) to imply a greater unreality to created things than I think some of Boersma’s better articulations of sacramental ontology would suggest. We will be transformed in ways that defy our present understanding, yet I do not think we need to be immaterialists to recognize this, nor need we do away with all creaturely activity and variation, as Gregory of Nyssa sometimes gets dangerously close to doing.           

One final aspect of Boersma’s approach that is worth highlighting is his heavy emphasis upon rest and contemplation. I don’t want to oversimplify here; Boersma certainly prefers accounts, such as those of Gregory of Nyssa and Jonathan Edwards, that speak of an ever-deepening exploration of God’s glory and character. He also emphasizes that such exploration and enjoyment of God must be simultaneously intellectual and affective. That said, Boersma does not provide any substantive consideration of how the eschaton may involve the communion of Christians and activity within the new heavens and new earth. Instead, we are left with a model that focuses upon contemplation of God by the individual (resurrected) soul. To be fair to Boersma, his reflections in this book are not intended to be a full discussion of the eschaton, and there is much to our eschatological future that is necessarily mysterious and beyond our understanding. And yet Scripture seems to weave together both promises of contemplative rest (Heb. 4:9-10; Matt. 5:8) and stewardship in a new earth (Matt. 5:5, Matt. 25:14-30; Rev. 21:22-22:5).[5] Boersma’s insights, then, contribute to only a partial account of the eschaton, just as Bavinck’s account may lean in the other direction.

I close my review by permitting myself the indulgence of suggesting a solution to the conundrum posed above: how do we reconcile apparently conflicting depictions of the eschaton as contemplative rest, on the one hand, and enhanced stewardship, on the other? I think we can consider a solution that incorporates some of Boersma’s best insights with the help of Bernard of Clairvaux’s depiction of our progress in love for God, articulated in On Loving God. Bernard of Clairvaux posits a progress in love of God that moves from loving God as a result of love of self, wherein our love of God stems from how he benefits us, to loving self and others as a result of loving God, wherein we love God as the ultimate good and love other things as God’s. This love funds care for others and will be fulfilled in the eschaton, which Bernard himself describes in largely contemplative and ecstatic terms. Yet I think this idea that a full love and contemplation of God fosters, rather than removes, love for others and self provides a key to considering how contemplation and stewardship can cohere in the eschaton. We can combine this with Boersma’s insistence upon the beatific vision as humanity’s end as we see the glory of God in Christ. In seeing God in Christ, we will be perceiving God himself in communion with his creatures as a creature, the one Son of God united to humanity without division or confusion. We will see, directly in the person of Christ, God’s communion with his creatures in their embodiment, in communion with one another. The fullness of humanity’s end, both rest and service, can be found in this vision. Perhaps, then, we find the seeds for a fuller account of the eschaton within Boersma’s emphasis upon Christological and transformative contemplation of God.

It seems only fitting that Seeing God continues to prompt important discussions and considerations. After all, Boersma insists, along with many in the Christian tradition, that we will continue to grow in our knowledge and love of God in our seeing of him, even in the eschaton. And as for now, when we see in part, our understanding of the beatific vision can only be partial, as we contemplate the promises of unimaginable fullness found in Scripture. Seeing God is thus a book I recommend as an invitation to serious consideration of the importance of a contemplative, transformational, and Christological account of the beatific vision.

J. Caleb Little is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology and Ethics at Baylor University.

[1] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011).

[2] See Kevn Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Christian Protestantism (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2016), 55-56, where he criticizes sacramental ontology from a specifically Protestant and covenantal perspective. See also Michael Allen, Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope and Life on God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 45n28, who argues that the language of sacramental ontology “unintentionally undervalues the distinctive and particular place of the two sacraments given to the church by her Lord.”

[3] See Calvin’s Institutes IV.xiv. Calvin offers a more general definition of signs tied to God’s promises, which include things such as the rainbow for Noah and the smoking fire pot for Abraham, and more specifically the ceremonies of the Old Testament (such as circumcision and sacrifice) and the New Testament (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). All these definitions, however, emphasize a specific and explicit tie to God’s promises and covenant and are far narrower than Boersma’s account.

[4] Interestingly, Michael Allen has recently made a similar argument for a Christological account of the beatific vision, tied to an emphasis upon considering contemplation of God as our end in his book, Grounded in Heaven. See particularly Grounded in Heaven, 75-87. Perhaps we are experiencing a shift in Reformed and Anglican thinking around this topic. However, see Will Bankston, “Seeing God’s Essence: A Teleological Coordination of the Beatific Vision and Christ’s Work of Atonement,” Pro Ecclesia, 30(4), 539-566, for a robust, Reformed defense of the divine essence as the direct object of the beatific vision.

[5] The New Jerusalem descending upon the New Earth in Revelation is arguably a symbol for the people of God, and yet the descent of this symbol to earth suggests to me a future reality that has meaningful, active, and corporeal existence beyond, while centrally including, contemplation.


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