Seeing God

The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition

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Hans Boersma
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , June
     2018.
     512 pages.
     $55.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780802876041.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The beatific vision has a long and reputable history in the Christian Scriptures and theological traditions. However, according to Hans Boersma, the beatific vision is not as well recognized among Christians in general, not to mention theologians, as perhaps it should be. In his Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition, Boersma attempts to shine a light on the relative obscurity of the beatific vision in contemporary Christian discourses. This book is, by and large, historical in character, yet it is not a mere historical survey of the subject, as Boersma makes clear with the following: “I simply don’t pretend to write an entire history of the doctrine” (15). His reason for avoiding an encyclopedic historical treatment of the beatific vision is twofold. First, it “would require something like Bernard McGinn’s six volumes on the history of spiritual theology” (15). Second, Boersma seems to have in mind contemporary audiences in communicating the beatific vision. Such communication cannot be carried out by means of historical investigations of the topic alone, no matter how deep and profound those investigations turn out to be. Instead, the beatific vision has to find a path into contemporary ways of life, including its culture, politics, and religion.

To do this, Boersma draws upon sociologist Peter Berger’s concept of “plausibility structure,” whose definition Boersma explains in one of the footnotes: “Each world requires a social ‘base’ for its continuing existence as a world that is real to actual human beings. This ‘base’ may be called its plausibility structure” (18). Building on this notion, Boersma questions, “what is it about our changed plausibility structure that makes us turn away from the beatific vision?” (18). In response, he asserts, “it is that we have done away with the belief that the purpose (telos) of things lies sacramentally embedded within them” (18). This “done-away-with” Boersma attributes to the rise of the naturalistic mindset, bringing about the flourishing of modern natural science. A sacramental view of things is contingent upon the perspective that everything in the physical world has its own purpose toward which it is designed or created. In contrast, science—in its modern sense—cannot afford to create any such teleological space in its examination of things. In that regard, inherently embedded in the beatific vision is the fact that we humans are created and designed towards the telos of seeing God—namely, the beatific vision. It is no wonder the beatific vision has lost its plausibility structure in contemporary society. 

If Seeing God were more sociological and/or ethnographic in character, it could have delved into detailed analyses of how we have lost sight of the beatific vision and its embedded view of things. Instead, Boersma finds clues from history as to how the beatific vision fits within a world different from our own, as well as how it could fit into the world in which we live. In both emphases of the book, Boersma delineates the following four characters of the beatific vision: “divine providence, teleology, Christ-centeredness, and transformation” (14). What do these four characteristics comprise in one succinct thesis statement in the book? Boersma says, “I will argue that God trains us to see his character (that is to say, his essence) by transforming our eyes and mind” (14). 

With this roadmap in view, Boersma does a diachronic examination of the doctrine of the beatific vision beginning with the Platonic tradition, of which Christian theology’s appropriation has been particularly controversial. After detailing the complex and tumultuous engagement of Christian theology with the Platonic philosophy, Boersma summarizes, “(i)t should not cause surprise that theologians were not always in complete agreement on which elements of the Platonic tradition to appropriate, and in which manner, in connection with the doctrine of the beatific vision” (47). After Plato, Boersma engages with a host of scholars on the Christian tradition of the beatific vision, such as Gregory of Nyssa (chapter 3), Augustine of Hippo (chapter 4), Thomas Aquinas (chapter 5), St. John of the Cross (chapter 6), St. Bonaventure (chapter 7), and John Calvin and the Puritans (chapters 9 and 11). Overall, Boersma takes pains to show the nuances of how each of the aforementioned theologians—let alone the denominational traditions to which they belong—has treated the beatific vision in a creative yet engaging manner. 

Regardless, these historical materials might not have ended up serving Boersma’s stated purpose of making the doctrine of the beatific vision plausible in contemporary society were it not for the last chapter, in which he deals with the beatific vision as divine pedagogy toward human transformation. As a scholar of practical theology and religious education, this reviewer has been helped by reading Boersma’s treatment on how the history of a particular doctrine could shed light on understanding human transformation in light of the Christian faith. Boersma’s insight into the need for “a teleological metaphysics as the plausibility structure within which it makes sense to look forward to the beatific vision” (387) has implications for practical theologians and religious educators working on a metaphysic for human transformation. Nevertheless, an important loophole in Seeing God, perhaps due to its purport and limited length, is that Boersma fails to address how his metaphysics of sacramental teleology squares with contemporary scientific worldviews. Unless he examines the seeming irreconcilability between science and sacramental presence, readers might be engulfed in unsolvable tensions and conflicts within their own mind. Thus, this reviewer looks forward to Boersma’s next volume on sacramental ontology and science. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sang-il Kim is a doctoral candidate in Practical Theology at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hans Boersma is the J. I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College. Among his other books is Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry.

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