John 1:18: No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
I appreciate Carl referring to my view of the beatific vision in his article. And I mean that sincerely because these kinds of opportunities afford us the chance to more clearly define our terms. Doing this philosophical work will then allow us to do the historical work of asking what theologians of the past said and what they meant by what they said. As I read and reread Carl’s article, I saw that some important terms need to be clarified, even after his own attempt to do so. These are “beatific vision,” “seeing the face of God,” “union,” and “deification.” In fact, the word “God” itself needs to be defined since Plato’s use of the term seems to be equated with the Christian use of the term. I will define each of those below and then explain why this matters. Carl cites one of my books on Charles Hodge. There I argue for the many valuable things Hodge did. For instance, he takes natural theology much more seriously than Aquinas because Hodge believes we can know by reason that the world had a beginning, and Hodge understood that Plato and Aristotle represent systems that compete with theism. But I also point out that gaps, ambiguity, and remaining fideism resulted in challenges and problems that we now face and must solve. Some of those are coming out in this discussion, and Christians must learn to see what is clearly revealed about God in both general and special revelation.
My view is that our highest good is to know God. We know God as he has revealed himself to us in general and special revelation. Knowledge is propositional. God is glorified by all of his works. The future vision of the glory of Christ gives us propositional knowledge of God. We are united to God in the truth. We become like God in knowledge, holiness, and righteousness. My solution is that we use the Biblical term “eternal life,” which is knowing God, or the Confessional term “chief end,” which is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The idea of a chief end is synonymous with the highest good. This is the doxological focus of the glory of God revealed in all of His works.
1. We know God as He Reveals Himself
Reformed Theology begins with the claim that we only know God as he reveals himself to us. And he reveals himself to us in general and special revelation. Therefore, those who say that we can somehow avoid his revelation and instead know the being of God in itself apart from his revelation are rejecting this beginning point of Reformed Theology.
We know from scripture that there are statements like “see the face of God “ and also other statements like “no man has seen or can see God.” One solution is just that the Scripture wildly contradicts itself. None of us in this discussion believe that. So the other alternative is to think that the words “seeing the face” are not being used literally/physically but as figures of speech about intimate or familiar knowledge or direct knowledge rather than signs and symbols. No one in the discussion thinks that God, who created all bodies, has a body or has a face with two eyes, a nose, and a mouth (mistakes about Christ can be avoided by remembering the dual nature of Christ: he is both God and man). So we already recognize that this is speaking figuratively. And the same insight applies to the word “see.” What is meant when we see the face of God is not light waves entering our eyeballs, but understanding. The highest pursuit of mankind is to know God (John 17:3). To see God without any symbols or forms or types is to see God directly.
Thus, it could be said of Moses that he spoke to God face to face and also that no man has seen God. God spoke to Moses without symbols and types. He spoke directly. When Job says, “now I see you,” he isn’t referring to seeing the whirlwind. He is referring to understanding God in a greater way, and he is repenting for his failure to see before. God directs Job to consider His works. God is known by what He does. For the classical thinker, those who love Aristotle, this shouldn’t be a problem because Aristotle says we know a thing by what it does. The height of God‘s revelation comes in Christ. So we can say that God is known through his works of creation and providence, and God’s providential rule includes his redemptive plan in which his justice, mercy, and perfect love are revealed in Christ.
Now, why does it matter? Why not just say we die and go to heaven and see God? There are several problems with such a simple statement. One is that God isn’t a physical being. That is obvious to everyone in this discussion, but once you have admitted that, then you have acknowledged that we are not seeing in the physical sense, but we are seeing in the mental sense of understanding. Knowledge is propositional. When we come to understand God we are thinking propositions. If the idea is that in the future, after death, we have experiences that we do not have now, that is true, but we must interpret any experiences we have (now or then) to have meaning. And we do that with propositions: God is real, God is good, God redeemed me.
Some medieval theologians claimed that the beatific vision is necessary to know the substance of God. Some said we can never know the substance of God, others that we can know it in the afterlife as a disembodied spirit. When we distinguish between God as he reveals himself and God as he knows himself the temptation might be to think that the knowledge of God from revelation (whether general or special) is partial or incomplete whereas the knowledge of the substance of God is attained in a direct otherworldly vision. This is a mistake. It relies on a false distinction between appearance and reality borrowed from Plato. In Plato, knowledge is direct vision of the forms. We do not have that vision in this life while in the body. Since we have knowledge, Plato concluded that we must have had a vision of the forms in a previous life. In this same manner of thinking, the disciple of Plato advocating his beatific vision says that now we only see a shadow of God but after death we will see the substance of God. Here is the dilemma for the disciple of Plato: either this is a non-cognitive vision in which case it does not give knowledge, or it is a cognitive vision in which case it is propositional and not different in kind than what we have now. We can know God as he is now, and we will know more in the future both after death and after the resurrection. But what we know will always be propositional.
If we know God, we are thinking. But the non-cognitivist says that we must go beyond thought and be absorbed into the experience of oneness. Many forms of the beatific vision are just this kind of non-cognitivism. In taking that approach, their advocates can no longer affirm that knowing God is our highest good or that knowing God is eternal life. Instead, they emphasize non-interpreted or undifferentiated experience. This religion of cognitive silence asks us to go beyond thought and directly contradicts Christianity’s teaching of the Word, which makes God known.
Consider how the saints are described as they surround the throne of God. They are praising God’s glory as they observe his works, “God is holy.” They are able to glory God and enjoy him forever as they consider his works. The experience of enjoying God cannot be disconnected from knowing God. We enjoy God because we know and glorify him. To make the beatific vision only non-cognitive is to empty it of meaning. Otherworldliness, including the beatific vision, has consistently been used to neglect and minimize the works of God or to advocate for a mystical “sense” rather than knowledge. The Biblical Faith given to us so richly in the Psalms reminds us, again and again, to direct our attention to the works of God. The Psalmist in 145:6-7, just one place among many, says, “I will meditate on your works and tell of the awesome power of your works.” These are the works of creation and redemption. Meditating on the works of God leads us to glorify God. The beatific vision passed on to us by Plato and Aristotle directs us away from the works of God.
Second, we are raised from the dead. There is a highest good, but it isn’t what Plato taught. Our highest blessing is not achieved as a disembodied spirit but as a body/soul unity after the resurrection. The Greek “beatific vision” takes place in a disembodied state. It directs us away from God’s creation. Let me distinguish between a formal claim and a content truth. The formal claim is that there is a beatific vision or highest good. When you study belief systems, you ask, “what does this belief system think is the highest good?” In that sense, I don’t deny there is a beatific vision (highest good). It is the content truth that matters. By asking, “what do they mean by ‘beatific vision,’” you get to the specific content. Plato and Aristotle are gravely mistaken (without excuse) about the beatific vision. I also argue that many Christian thinkers, including Hodge, are not sufficiently clear on this point.
Third, this means we can see God now, not just in the future after death. Not only can we know God, but we should know God. Our failure to do so is a sin. Job repents of not seeing God in this life, which means it was a sin for him not to have seen God. He should have known those things. The future hope isn’t that we will finally see God after only being given a vague shadow in this life but that we will be glorified and without sin. General revelation is full and clear, not vague and minimal. Our present hope is the same as our future hope, which is to know God as he reveals himself to us. There is no doubt that the future condition of glorification will be far superior, but it is so precisely because of the knowledge of God. The glorified state cannot become an excuse in the present to give a weak, simple natural theology that falls far short of a full definition of God. What is at stake is affirming that we only know God as he reveals himself to us, and to ignore that revelation is a sin of unbelief from which the other sins spring. The pagan philosophers did ignore this truth and replaced the glory of God with a lie. They put their hope in some future vision of being, apart from matter, as a disembodied spirit. When you read Reformed theologians in this their concern is the difference between faith now and a vision latter, but both give us knowledge of God but in the future we have more.
The fourth and last point here is that the future vision is compared to faith (and hope) in this life, not to knowledge and understanding. If 1 Corinthians 13:12 is about the beatific vision, then it is affirming we know now and then. The difference is that we know in part now and fully then. Faith has a future-looking component. We have faith in the promises of God that will be but are not yet fulfilled. Once they are fulfilled, we are no longer looking forward to them in faith but have received them. But in both cases, the knowledge is propositional, “God is holy,” or “God is trustworthy.” John Owen explains present faith and future vision this way and affirms that our future knowledge is propositional. “Our present mortal state is this wall, which must be demolished before we can see him as he is” (Glory of Christ ch 13). We see him as he “is.” Owen says we will see him in his glory (in our gloried state). This is an answer to Jesus’s prayer in John 17:24, which follows John 17:3, where we are told that eternal life is knowing God. Our knowledge of his glory will be propositional, just like our knowledge of God is now. “He is glorious.” Why? Answering that requires you to understand what he has done, so you know who he is. The saints in Revelation 5 watch the Lamb open the seals and praise him for his works.
We are united to God in the truth. I don’t have any issues with how Carl defies union or deification in this article because he is able to develop his thoughts and explain what he means by those terms. But I want to suggest that “union” and especially “deification” are ambiguous words that require attention to context. There are formal claims about union, and there are content truths about union. Many world religions affirm the formal statement, “we will be united to God.” But it is what that means that matters. Carl correctly points out that union could mean pantheism but that, in Reformed thinking, it doesn’t mean that. Many/most of the world’s religions have taught that we are gods and will become part of God. As Christians, we teach that we are united to God in Christ. That is the wonder of Redemption. So Carl’s care in clarifying that this is not pantheism is important while also opening up the door to explain more. We avoid much of this if we make Christ’s statement in John 17:3 as our central concept: eternal life is to know God and Christ Jesus. That is the fixed point, and we understand “union” in reference to it.
Understanding “union” requires we understand “knowing God,” which requires understanding how God has revealed Himself to us. Knowledge is propositional (God is real, God is good, etc.), and in unbelief, we do not know God, but we are redeemed so that we can know God. We are united to God in the truth. Any attempt to get union with God apart from the truth will fail and become an error. This leads to the next ambiguity.
3. Deification: “And you will be like God.”
We become like God, but we never become God. Deification, I argue, is simply a problematic term. It has led to many mistakes in theology from the Garden of Eden to the present. More precise terms have been developed to avoid those mistakes. Carl correctly points out that we never become God. But that isn’t a merely theoretical possibility that no one adopts. Consider the trajectory of a theologian like David Bentley Hart or Richard Rohr. Or the teaching that atman is Brahman. Or even the way “vision” shapes Aquinas’s own epistemology and his final mysticism (not unlike Al-Ghazali, who had more time as a mystic to develop a theory of union). The world’s religions are filled to the brim with false teachings about deification.
The incommunicable attributes of God make God different from us. However, the word “deification” seems to a least imply a loss of the aseity of God. Other terms avoid that problem, such as sanctification and glorification. When we find phrases like “you are gods” in scripture, this is from the same word as rulers or lords. We don’t normally use the English word “gods” that way, but it would be perfectly acceptable if all you meant was someone who is a judge over a nation.
Why does it matter? Because it is a sin to believe we either are God or can become God in an ontological sense. And yet this has been a standard form of unbelief in world history. It is the original, first sin. This, using that same term and having to spend time clarifying what we don’t mean, can easily be avoided by not using that term. We become like God in having knowledge, holiness, and righteousness, but we are always temporal, finite, and changeable in those. We become unchangeable in the covenant, but we never stop being temporal, which means going through one moment after another, and thus changeable. Being more clear on this point will help avoid massive mistakes from the first sin all the way down to current New Age teaching. The Reformed Tradition has provided us with the terms to use to be clear.
What about “grace perfecting nature?” It depends on what you mean. This phrase has often been expressed in an otherworldly manner that uses the Greek disdain for creation to suggest spirit is superior to matter. If you mean that nature does not reveal God, or is unclear, or bare, then this is mistaken. If you mean that the revelation of redemption deepens the knowledge of God and restores us to the truths of general revelation that we rejected in sin, then this is correct.
Look at how Revelation 5 progresses. Once the Lamb takes the scroll, you have progressive descriptions of doxology as our highest good. The 24 elders sing a new song. They are surrounded by a multitude of angels saying, “worthy is the Lamb.” And then all of creation praises the glory of God. Each group praises the redemptive works of the Lamb.
4. God: Plato, Aristotle, and Moses
A significant problem that the retrieval movement faces is recognizing the ambiguity of terms like “god.” You don’t have to be an analytic philosopher to know that context determines meaning. Neither Aristotle nor Plato meant “God” in the way Moses meant “God.” And this is not a difference of revealed religion. God is revealed in general revelation contrary to both Plato and Aristotle‘s definitions. At best, they might have said some true things about what is eternal, but their sin of unbelief is both in commission, saying false things, and omission, failing to see all that is revealed in general revelation. So if Plato says our highest good is union with God, or Aristotle teaches it is the contemplation of God, they are both mistaken.
Remember the difference between formal and content truths. Plato says that we should become like god, but what does he mean by “god?” Plato teaches about a final disembodied condition apart from the world of change. In other words, he directs us away from God’s creation. And he does so with the pious sounding phrases. That Plato only saw a shadow from afar is due to his own sin, not due to any lack in God‘s revelation or creation. From creation, Plato could have known that God: is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchanging in being wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. He could have known of the material world and the human soul that both had beginnings and were created by God. He could have known that God imposed death after sin as a call to repent, death is one time, and God will judge each person. Plato denied all of these things. He needs a redeemer, and he, like Job, could have known so much more from God’s works all around him. “God” defined in the Theatetus or the Timaeus is a good example of unbelief and conceptual idolatry, not something after which we, as theologians, should strive.
The world of sin is passing away, but the kingdom of God comes on earth. We pray for this each Sunday. We are strangers in the sinful worldly system, but we are at home in God’s creation which will always reveal His glory.
The intentions of retrieval are good, but we need to pay greater attention to how presuppositions and systems work. The truth of a sentence about God in a monistic (all is one, all is eternal) or dualistic (both matter and mind are without beginning) context changes when we remember what is meant by “God” in each. If analytic philosophy has taught us anything (and that’s debatable), it has taught us to clarify our words and be precise in our meaning. Do I believe in the beatific vision? It depends on what you mean by it. Do I believe in a beatific vision, meaning we see being in itself apart from all the works of God (Plato and Aristotle)? No, I believe that is demonstrably false. I believe that we know God as he has revealed himself to us. I believe God used forms and types to teach, but once the reality has come, those pass away, and we see directly. I believe eternal life is knowing God and our chief end is to glorify God. God makes Himself known by the Logos. And we could never know God apart from the Logos.
So what? Why does this matter? There is a chance that you, reader, have used an otherworldly vision as justification for your own neglect of general revelation. Relatedly, you may have mostly thought of special revelation as a vehicle to get you to that otherworldly vision and not as redemptive revelation that restores you to the knowledge of God you rejected in general revelation. Take some time to reflect on how Job, Asaph, and Agur repent. Each of them had to confront their own failure to know what is clear about God and repent of not seeing this. Have you committed this same sin? Are you ready to repent of this?
John 1:14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
For more, see “The Knowledge of God Contrasted With the Beatific Vision in Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas,” The Journal of General Revelation, 1.1. 2022.