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.
Second, many contemporary Protestants have nothing positive to say about the beatific vision. Evangelicals, influenced by Dutch neo-Calvinist thinkers such as Herman Bavinck, often naively think it is impossible to affirm the goodness of creation and the creation mandate, on the one hand, as well as the eschatological prospect of the beatific vision, on the other hand. Wary of all otherworldliness, today’s evangelicals have come to read the Scriptures through the activist lenses of identity politics and the toolkit of the diversity, inclusion, and equity (DIE) movement. Beatific vision doesn’t fit the cultural moment of the day.
Both Catholics and Protestants, therefore, end up championing the notion that the beatific vision is a uniquely Catholic notion.
They are both wrong.
To be sure, I have a lot of sympathy for the decline narrative of modernity and have done my part in blaming nominalism and voluntarism for this decline. But the story of the growth of secularism is multifaceted. It is true that Aristotelianism in the West successfully challenged Christian Platonism and that a participatory metaphysic has had difficulty surviving the rise of Protestant thought and modern secularism.
Still, Christian Platonism never disappeared. It continued to shape Protestant thought well into modernity—as witnessed by allegorizing exegesis, contemplative practices, self-denial and renunciation, and especially belief in the doctrine of the beatific vision. It is not until the early twentieth century, particularly through the influence of Dutch neo-Calvinism, that the beatific vision faded from Protestant thought.
Let me offer just a few examples of Protestant theologians for whom the beatific vision was the center of their theology and spirituality.
John Calvin’s own commentaries on Scripture give ample evidence of his belief in the beatific vision. He was convinced that, in the eschaton, we will see the essence of God—or, as he typically called it, the majesty of God. No longer will our access to God be mediated. Instead, once the veil is removed, “we shall openly (palam) behold God reigning in his majesty and Christ’s humanity will then no longer be interposed to keep us back from a closer view of God.” Calvin held to a rather traditional Western view of the eschaton: one day, we will be divinized, so that we will be able to see the very essence of God.
The poet-preacher John Donne reacted sharply against the “new philosophy” of Baconian empiricism, which he was convinced meant the destruction of the premodern participatory view of modernity. Donne reintroduced traditional themes such as contempt of the world (contemptus mundi) and the art of dying (ars moriendi), staple elements of Christian Platonist spirituality. In his poem Goodfriday, 1631, he turned to the crucified Lord as the object of our beatific vision:
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;(lines 17-20)
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Donne, both in his poetry and in his preaching, professed a participatory ontology, which made him look forward in hope to the eternal vision of God.
Puritan theologians such as Richard Baxter, Isaac Ambrose, Thomas Watson, and John Owen all continued the traditional view of the eschaton as centered on the beatific vision.
Baxter’s famous The saints everlasting rest (1649) holds out a theocentric view of the eschatological future. God himself is the saints’ final goal, and our contemplative practices here on earth are an anticipation of the eternal vision of God in the future. “Christian,” Baxter exhorts his reader, “doth thou not sometime, when, after long gazing heavenward, thou hast got a glimpse of Christ, dost thou not seem to have been with Paul in the third Heaven, whether in the body or out, and to have seen what is unutterable?” Baxter turned to Ignatian spirituality to prepare himself and his readers for the eternal vision of God.
Isaac Ambrose wrote a lengthy tome entitled Looking unto Jesus (1658), in which he looked forward to seeing Christ’s face in the eschaton. For Ambrose, this was an “inward, experimental looking unto Jesus.” Seeing Christ was, for Ambrose, identical to seeing the divine essence itself.
Thomas Watson, in The beatitudes (1660), expounds on Matthew 5:8 (“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”) and explains that the beatific vision will be “the quintessence of happiness.” Dealing with the vexed question of what exactly the object of our eternal vision will be, Watson maintains that the saints will have a “tincture” of God’s glory; “not that they shall partake of Gods very essence; for as the iron in the fire becomes fire, yet remains iron still; so the Saints by beholding the lustre of Gods Majesty shall be glorious creatures but yet creatures still.”
John Owen, too, highlighted the beatific vision in several of his works. Like Ambrose, he insisted that this eternal vision of God would be a vision in Jesus Christ. “That Tabernacle,” exclaimed Owen, “shall never be folded up, never be laid aside as useless.” Nothing was as important to Owen as reaching the eternal vision of God in Christ, the heavenly tabernacle.
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.
Hans Boersma (PhD, University of Utrecht), is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Chair in Ascetical Theology at Nasthotah House in Wisconsin. He is the author of numerous books including Five Things Theological Wish Biblical Scholars Knew (IVP, 2021), Scripture As Real Presence (Baker Academic, 2017) and Heavenly Participation (Eerdmans, 2011).
Dr. Boersma’s book Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in the Christian Tradition (Eeerdmans, 2018) is now available in paperback from February 2022, and can be purchased here.
Comm. 1 Cor. 15:27. ↑
Richard Baxter, The saints everlasting rest, or, A treatise of the blessed state of the saints in their enjoyment of God in glory . . . (London, 1651; Wing B1384), 1.7.5. ↑
Isaac Ambrose, Looking unto Jesus a view of the everlasting Gospel, or, the souls eying of Jesus as carrying on the great work of mans salvation from first to last (London, 1658; Wing A2956), 1.3.2. ↑
Thomas Watson, The beatitudes: or A discourse upon part of Christs famous Sermon on the Mount . . . (London, 1660; Wing [2nd ed.] W1107), 259. ↑
Watson, The Beatitudes, 261–62. ↑
John Owen, Christologia, or, A declaration of the glorious mystery of the person of Christ, God and man with the infinite wisdom, love and power of God in the contrivance and constitution thereof . . . (London, 1679; Wing O762), 368. ↑