Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition, by Hans Boersma. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2018. Pp. 487. $55.55 (hardcover). ISBN: 978-0802880192. [Reviewed by Marco Barone]
This book by Hans Boersma (Anglo-Catholic professor of theology at Nashotah House, an Anglo-Catholic Seminary in Nashotah, Wisconsin), is both a dogmatic elaboration and an historical account of the doctrine of the beatific vision, that is, the meaning of the biblical statements that the saints will see God (e.g., Matt. 5:8). The Introduction ably summarizes the conclusion of the author’s investigation:
The beatific vision is a vision of God’s very own character as revealed in Christ… If it is within the eternal tabernacle, or with our eyes fixed on the heavenly groom…that we see God himself, then this must entail that we see the true or faithful character of God in Christ. Seeing God in Christ, therefore, is at the same time a vision of God’s nature or God’s essence… It is precisely inasmuch as we see Christ that we see the very character of God and so participate also in who he is, that is to say, in his being or essence. No matter how deeply we enter into the being of God—or, as the cover of this book depicts it, no matter how many icons we impose on top of each other—in the end we are still faced with the face of Christ, for in him alone do we see the essence of God. (12-13)
The book has several strengths that make its reading beneficial. However, there are also some weaknesses, and some of them raise reasonable concerns and necessary warnings.
The book will certainly interest lovers of church history and historical theology, but it will also intrigue lovers of philosophy and systematic theology. For the latter group, in the Introduction and in Chapters 1-2, as well as in the final chapter, Boersma sets the stage of his book by offering the historical context and justification for a book of the beatific vision. In these sections, Boersma also expounds on a theological way of looking at the world that he calls “sacramental ontology,” a reformulation of Augustinian and Thomistic metaphysics that is at the basis of all his arguments (see 19-20 for a definition).
After that, lovers of church history will be glad to know that in chapters 3-12 the author offers very informative accounts of the doctrine of the beatific vision as formulated by Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Gregory Palamas, Symeon the New Theologian, John of the Cross, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Nicholas of Cusa, Dante Alighieri, John Calvin, John Donne, Isaac Ambrose, John Owen, Richard Baxter, Thomas Watson, Abraham Kuyper, and Jonathan Edwards. These chapters are helpful because they provide windows on neglected aspects of the theology of well-known and lesser-known theologians. The Reformed reader will be pleasantly surprised to discover the significant length to which Calvin, Owen, Watson, Kuyper, and Edwards discuss the beatific vision. Moreover, these chapters show how these theologians connected eschatology and ethics. Godly living and Christian ethics need to be vitally informed by and grounded upon a proper eschatology.
The entire book is heartwarmingly Christological. The Bible does not tell us much about the nature and modality of our vision and fellowship with God in Christ in the age to come, but Boersma successfully keeps his proposal within the boundaries of Scripture. One of the reasons for his success is his repeated recognition that, even though we will never see God’s infinite and invisible being in itself, we will no less really see Him in His incarnate Son Jesus. This is what Boersma says in relation to Matthew 5:8:
The Beatitudes (and in particular the one that holds out the vision of God to the pure in heart) have Jesus himself as their focus. Jesus does not position himself as a third party between God (the promised object) and his audience (who are told to be pure in heart); Jesus is not an outsider imposing on others an extraneous condition (purity of heart) for seeing God. Rather, in his Beatitude on the visio Dei, Jesus puts himself forward as the subject of both the first and the second part of his saying. In terms of the first part, it seems obvious that Jesus is the very definition of what it means to be “pure in heart.” We obtain purity only by participating in his purity. We participate in the life of God—in his purity—only inasmuch as we are united to Christ. The second part of Jesus’ saying makes clear that this purity of heart enables us to discern who God is in Jesus. If Jesus is the true revelation of God, then in him we see the character or being of God. Jesus’ words, then, hold out to the disciples the way to greater intimacy with himself. Both parts of this Beatitude dispel any notion of Jesus standing aloof from or in between the two parties (God and man) that he reconciles. It is in the hypostatic union of the Son of God that we come to know ourselves as well as God. Jesus does not simply pronounce this Beatitude; he is himself its subject. He is both the one in whom we are blessed (“blessed are the pure in heart”) and the contents of the promise (“they shall see God”). Again, therefore, in Jesus means and end converge: since the three persons of the Trinity are not three individuals, but are one in substance, there is no vision of the Father outside of Jesus Christ. (413)
The Christological nature of any vision of God is true, with the proper distinctions, for the saints of both Old and New Testaments:
The difference between Moses’s vision of God and the beatific vision is not that Moses saw one thing (say, created objects) whereas the blessed see another (the divine essence). When in the Old Testament God appeared in theophanies by means of creaturely objects, it is his own being or essence that was seen (though it was seen indirectly through the veil of the bodily appearance). Similarly, when in the hereafter the blessed will see God’s essence, they will see it in a theophany–that is to say, in God’s ultimate self–manifestation in Christ. To be sure, in one important respect the object is different: not every theophany is an actual incarnation. As Saint Augustine reminds us in De Trinitate: “The Word in flesh is one thing, the Word being flesh is another; which means the Word in a man is one thing, the Word being man another.” While the eternal Word (his essence) is mysteriously present in the burning bush, he does not identifies with it as he does with the flesh of Christ. The difference between the former and the latter is not just epistemological, therefore, but also ontological: only in connection with the incarnation can we say in a univocal or straightforward manner that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). (417-418)
Another interesting point the book argues is that a focus on the ultimate and highest end of men (the visio Dei, eternal life with God and fellowship with Him in Christ) does not detract from a healthy engagement with the world and with our earthly callings. Relatedly, the author seems to show little sympathy towards Neo-Calvinism’s emphasis on “Christianizing the world” (my terms) as embraced and developed by Herman Bavinck (33-40) and Abraham Kuyper (351- 353). In fact, one of the (unintended?) results of the book is that it shows that the preoccupation with the earthly and the “culture” (espoused by Neo-Calvinists and supporters of the doctrine of common grace) was certainly not the norm in the church prior to Abraham Kuyper (a point that, although it does not demonstrate anything by itself, is certainly indicative).
Many if not all the errors or flaws of this volume are symptomatic of the tradition to which Boersma belongs, that is, Anglo-Catholicism.
On one occasion, the choice of which theologians to discuss is questionable. Chapter 6 is entitled “Mystical Union and Vision: Symeon the New Theologian and John of the Cross.” The chapter belongs to Part 2, “Beatific Vision in Mediaeval Thought.” However, John of the Cross (1542-1591) was a Jesuit theologian well into the Early Modern period. The author, a most capable historian, knows that but does not offer any explanation for such a strange placement. More importantly, the chapter contributes little or nothing to the discussion. Still more, the speculations of John and Symeon, with their extreme subjectivism and unhinged mysticism, are often disturbing.
Boersma also shares some common misunderstandings about Calvinism (296, 302, 399), which is unforgivable considering both his learning and the fact that the book itself discusses several Calvinist theologians.
The book is also naively ecumenical, even to the point of claiming that the relatively secondary issue of the specific nature of the future vision of God in heaven can help contribute to “bridge the East-West divide of the church on a key point of spiritual theology” (192; see also 126, 163-165).
Both learned and less-learned readers need to be warned about these errors, and encouraged to develop any locus of systematic theology (including the eschatological doctrine of the beatific vision) within the boundaries of Scripture, which, for the Reformed reader are well summarized in the Reformed standards. Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est (the church reformed, always reforming), says the motto, but it adds secundum verbum dei (according to the Word of God).
Keeping in mind the reservations expressed in the previous section, from the viewpoint of historical theology and constructive dogmatics the volume is certainly an impressive achievement. The book, besides being lengthy, is very scholarly and, therefore, not a popular-level book. The discerning theological student will benefit from reading the book by judiciously finding in it material and insights for thinking biblically about the doctrine of the beatific vision of God which, with few exceptions, is rarely addressed in Reformed circles.