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Seeing God: The beatific vision in Christian tradition by Hans Boersma

28 October 2022

A study of the beatific vision for today, says Andrew Davison

BEHOLDING God — the beatific vision — has been considered the chief joy of the saints for much of Christian history. I suspect that it does not feature anything like as often today as a subject for sermons or devotional writing. That makes Hans Boersma’s Seeing God specially welcome. We could say that, compendious and clear, it offers for today what Kenneth Kirk did in the 1920s, and Vladimir Lossky in the 1960s, both with books entitled The Vision of God, except that Boersma’s work is even more extensive in its coverage.

Boersma forswears the idea that he provides “a fulsome history of the doctrine of the beatific vision”. Since he offers a selection of detailed studies rather than a wider but shallower survey, that may be true; but the book is none the worse for that. We have chapters, or part-chapters, on Plato, Plotinus, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Symeon the New Theologian, Thomas Aquinas, Gregory Palamas, Bonaventure, Dante, Nicholas of Cusa, John of the Cross, John Calvin, John Donne, a selection of English Puritans, Abraham Kuyper, and Jonathan Edwards, with an introduction with sections on Anselm, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Herman Bavinck. In an extended conclusion, Boersma expands on some of the themes that he has highlighted as most significant in previous chapters.

Boersma is sympathetic to his sources, but has certain furrows to plough, apportioning criticism and praise. He is particularly glad to encounter authors who describe the world around us as coming from, and dependent upon, God, and therefore antepenultimate in value, yet shot through with divinely derived splendour and meaning. Readers of his best-known book to date, Heavenly Participation, will recognise this as the “sacramental” or “participatory” ontology that he sets out there. One of his contributions in the present book is to explore how the beatific vision might be foreshadowed or anticipated here below — for instance, in encounters with God in the Old Testament, nature, goodness, truth, and beauty, prayerful rapture, and the sacraments.

If, in that way, this world can ramp up towards the beatific vision, another of Boersma’s distinctive perspectives is to keep a sense of intensification even in the life of the world to come, even in seeing God, face to face. In that, he endorses the position characteristic of the Eastern Churches (and Gregory of Nyssa most of all) of an endless journey into God, in contrast with the more typically Western perspective of the beatific vision as completion and rest.

Boersma’s bête noire is insufficient emphasis on the beatific vision as a vision of Christ. Many, even most, of the authors discussed here fall at least partly under Boersma’s criticism on this front, the exceptions including Bonaventure, some English Puritans, and — most of all — that fascinating theologian Jonathan Edwards, with his combination of revivalist fervour and Christian Platonism.

The book varies somewhat in tone according to the subject matter in view, whether philosophical, poetic, mystical, or systematic. Some chapters cover a wide corpus; others offer more detailed readings — for instance, in a chapter devoted to three poems and a sermon by Donne. Twenty-four pages of bibliography witness to the academic seriousness of this book, and offer a wealth of suggestions for further reading.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Senior Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and Visiting Fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, New Jersey, in the United States.


Seeing God: The beatific vision in Christian tradition
Hans Boersma
Eerdmans £28.99 (pbk edition)
Church Times Bookshop £26.09

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