Grounded in Heaven

Recentering Christian Hope and Life on God

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Michael Allen
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , October
     2018.
     144 pages.
     $18.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802874535.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Grounded in Heaven, Michael Allen challenges what he describes as the rise of “eschatological naturalism” in Reformed circles and argues that we need to return to a theocentric and “spiritually minded” approach to both our eschatology and our evaluation of our present lives and practices. Allen’s approach is constructive and historically rooted; he depicts himself as recovering insights from the patristics, reformers, and puritans. This book is an important source for anyone interested in the connection between eschatology and ethics and the biblical tension between the importance of the spiritual and the promise of the resurrection.

Allen begins the book by attempting to trace the rise of the “eschatological naturalism” that he views as so problematic. He argues that Dutch neo-Calvinism has played an important role in this development and had an impact even upon scholars who are not themselves a part of this school of thought. The emphasis upon a holistic and embodied eschatology, and the value of the physical world, has led to a deep suspicion of any sort of “heavenly-minded” theology that might imply or enable some sort of spiritual escapism.

J. Richard Middleton and N.T. Wright serve as Allen’s most prominent examples of this tendency. In response, Allen argues that we need to follow Augustine in recognizing that our final good consists in union with God and the coming of the kingdom of heaven. This requires us to embrace, rather than evade, the tension between the earthly and the heavenly. Allen’s approach does not reject the significance of the bodily resurrection, but he argues that we must place this right vision of the embodied eschaton within the context of a larger vision of a supernatural and heavenly kingdom.

Allen fills out this argument by considering the beatific vision, heavenly mindedness, and self-denial. The beatific vision, according to Allen, is the promise that the invisible God will be made visible in the eschaton. Allen follows John Owen in arguing that this visibility occurs in the person of Jesus Christ. Following Owen and Calvin, Allen argues that this promise of the beatific vision in the eschaton can “frame” our present existence and give rise to a valuable “heavenly-mindedness.”

This heavenly mindedness can order our loves and practices, reminding us that our ultimate end lies in God, and that our love for God must serve as the nexus and source of our love for others. Heavenly mindedness can also fund a richly Protestant understanding of self-denial.

Following Calvin, Allen argues that this form of self-denial emphasizes repentance and sanctification, understood as centrally involving the rejection of one’s sinful or misplaced desires. We deny ourselves to fully live in union with Christ. Such “asceticism” is not, then, about contempt, but about the pursuit of God under the authority of the Scriptures. Self-denial serves as a kenotic outworking of heavenly mindedness which encourages service of and care for others in the light of the kingdom of heaven.

Allen’s book provides a cogent argument for the importance of a robustly spiritual and theocentric eschatology. It appears to be written primarily for the well-read, evangelical or Presbyterian layperson or pastor. It does not appear to be primarily aimed towards academics, though academics will certainly benefit from reading it. Allen’s constructive account, funded in large part by historical retrieval, should challenge and assist academics and non-academics alike. Allen treats his interlocutors fairly, but he is willing to challenge both their presuppositions and their particular arguments.

Moreover, while Dutch neo-Calvinism receives some sharp criticisms, Allen labors to make it clear that he intends to resituate, rather than simply reject, its emphasis upon the embodied character of the eschaton. Allen also offers substantive answers to those who worry that such an eschatological focus negatively impacts our opposition to injustice by appealing to its potential for the motivation of self-sacrificial action and the relativization of the desire for comfort and for worldly goods.

The popular character of the book is most apparent in Allen’s historical work. Allen engages with quite a few figures in this book, and I regularly find his readings compelling. However, an academic will likely find that at least some of Allen’s readings of historical figures do not have the level of detailed exegetical support that one would prefer. This criticism, to be fair, is rather blunted by the intended audience of the book. Given the shorter length of the book, which is clearly intentional, Allen makes the understandable choice to avoid overly technical discussions. This, then, is an introduction to and theological reflection upon the shape of “spiritual mindedness” in certain of our theological forebears, not an extensive historical study.

Allen’s laudable choice to keep this book short makes itself negatively felt in one other area: a lack of guidance in the practical application of his ethical and practice-oriented points. This is not a particularly damaging critique: many of the principles that Allen argues for are reasonably straightforward. The lack is most clearly felt in the fourth chapter, where Allen discusses the possibility of ascetic practices within a Protestant context. Allen outlines substantive principles for guiding the development of such practices, but this reviewer would have greatly benefitted from a couple of examples. However, the flaws are largely outweighed by the clarity of the central arguments and the admirable succinctness with which Allen manages to cover such a broad topic.

On the whole, Grounded in Heaven is an impressive and compelling book. It draws upon a variety of important historical Christian thinkers in a theologically arresting effort to resituate certain emphases upon the embodied character of the eschaton within a larger theocentric perspective. The importance of the beatific vision and a certain kind of asceticism are creatively defended, and the reader is left with much to ponder. Reformed and/or evangelical readers and scholars will be particularly interested in this text.

About the Reviewer(s): 

J. Caleb Little is a doctoral student in Religion at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
June 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Allen is John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. He has written many books and is coeditor (with Scott R. Swain) of the Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology.

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