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Herman Bavinck on the Beatific Vision

The doctrine of the Beatific Vision, so central to medieval Western theology, is much rarely discussed in Reformed churches. It does appear in most of the older dogmatic writers, however. There are interesting points of variety between them too– take, for instance, Calvin’s view and Owen’s (more on them in a later post…). Here is Herman Bavinck’s statement of the doctrine:

Now, as we look into the mirror of God’s revelation, we only see his image; then we will see him face to face and know as we are known. Contemplation (visio), understanding (comprehension), an enjoyment of God (fruition Dei) make up the essence of our future blessedness. The redeemed see God, not—to be sure—with physical eyes, but still in a way that far outstrips all revelation in this dispensation via nature and Scripture. And thus they will all know him, each in the measure of his mental capacity, with a knowledge that has its image and likeness in God’s knowledge—directly, immediately, unambiguously, and purely. Then they will receive and possess everything they expected here only in hope. Thus contemplating and possessing God, they enjoy him, and are blessed in his fellowship: blessed in soul and body, in intellect and will. In theology, theologians have disputed whether this blessedness in the hereafter formally had its seat in the intellect or in the will and hence consisted in knowledge of love. Thomas claimed the former, Duns Scotus the latter, but Bonaventure combined the two, observing that the enjoyment of God (fruition Dei) was the fruit not only of the knowledge of God (cognition Dei) but also of the love of God (amor Dei) and resulted from the union and cooperation between the two.

…All the saints together will then fully comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ (Eph. 3:18-19). They will together be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19, Col. 2:2, 10), inasmuch as Christ, filled with all the fullness of God (Col. 1:19), will in turn fill the believing community with himself and make it his fullness (πληρωμα, plērōma; Eph. 1:23; 4:10). And sitting down at one table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matt. 8:11), they will unitedly lift up a song of praise to the glory of God and of the Lamb (Rev. 4:11; 5:12; etc.).

(Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, pgs. 722-723)

A few things are worth mentioning here.

1) Bavinck defines the beatific vision as an immediate apprehension of God, something apart from the use of either “nature” or Scripture. Indeed, once man reaches this eschatological state, those means will no longer be necessary.

2) He notes the diversity among the medieval writers, and while not clearly endorsing one position, it would appear that he favors Bonaventure’s synthesizing approach.

3) Bavinck is able to include a corporate dimension into this, as it is not merely individuals as individuals who behold God in eternity, but individuals together as the body of Christ. Note well that the people of God are “filled with all the fullness of God,” indeed, they are filled “inasmuch as Christ, filled with all the fullness of God, will in turn fill the believing community with himself.” Going still further, Bavinck states that Christ will make the community itself “his fullness.” We could justifiably describe this as a sort of deification–as we are filled with Christ, we are filled with that which Christ is filled with.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.

4 replies on “Herman Bavinck on the Beatific Vision”

Any thoughts on why the Beatific Vision has fallen out of favor with the Reformed, and modern people generally?

It would be interesting to synthesize that last bit on the believing community being, in the last day, Christ’s “fullness” with what Bavinck says earlier in _RD_ concerning man as in the _imago Dei_: that in the ultimate sense, the whole of humanity is the fully developed image of God. (2:621ff) If you label that final state “deification”, how might the image of God theme be integrated?

Good stuff. The beatific vision is a doctrine far too frequently neglected.

As a side note, I’ve been reading through Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics this year (I’m half-way through volume 2 now) and I’ve noticed an interesting trend; although Bavinck cites Thomas Aquinas much more frequently than Bonaventure, when he cites both of them he sides with Bonaventure more often than Thomas.

Thank you for this reference and commentary. While the beatific vision has a long tradition in the church, I struggle to see how it is grounded in scripture or reason.

If the final blessedness is direct, immediate, and apart from creation (what Bavinck calls “nature”), what was the original purpose of creation?
It seems to me that the beatific vision makes the knowledge of God through the work of dominion superfluous.

Also, I realize that 1 Corinthians 13 talks about knowing God face to face but many other places in Scripture speak about how God is known through his creation (Rom. 1:20, Heb 11:3). Do you (or Bavinck) posit that the knowledge of God in this life is essentially different than the knowledge of God in the next?

I would very much appreciate a response, if time permits.

Thank you, again.

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