"Beholding God's Glory: John Owen and the 'Reforming' of the Beatific Vision"
Suzanne Mc Donald of Calvin College
Given on November 13, 2008
Which is lesser known in Reformed circles, the theologian John Owen or the
doctrine of the beatific vision? Dr. Suzanne McDonald, assistant professor
of religion at Calvin College, introduced the Fall 2008 Meeter Center
Lecture, "Beholding God's Glory: John Owen and the 'Reforming' of the
Beatific Vision," by noting the "curious" choice of the doctrine by the
influential but oft-overlooked seventeenth-century theologian.
The audience in the Meeter Center Lecture Hall on November 13, 2008, heard how John Owen faced a number of contemporary difficulties that might have discouraged him from exploring the doctrine of the beatific vision, or the"beholding of the glory of God." There were popular doubts about the doctrine. It smacked of otherworldliness, and common sense piety had little room for doctrines with no practical significance. Moreover, the teaching had not typically been discussed in Reformed academic theology.
But for Owen the doctrine of the beatific vision was of great importance for the Christian life. The idea of beholding the glory of God, both now and in eternity, had clear implications both for Owen's dogmatic efforts as well as for pastoral exhortation. The Christian life should be "shaped by the foretaste" of the beatific vision, making it central for ethics in the world.
In her lively and engaging presentation Dr. McDonald stressed the regard
Owen had for the doctrine of the beatific vision and the extent to which he
labored to "re-form" and "re-shape" it for his audience. The teaching of the
beatific vision is typically associated with Thomas Aquinas, the
thirteenth-century scholastic theologian, and Owen's Genevan contemporary,
Francis Turretin, also picked up the doctrine in his theology.
Both Aquinas and Turretin had emphasized the intellectual aspects of the *visio Dei*, the vision as intellectual apprehension. But Owen worked to make the doctrine accessible to the laity by "integrating it into a Reformed theological framework" in such a way that the "what" and "how" of the beatific vision were refocused.
For Owen, the content of the beatific vision ceased to be a generic vision of God and his glory, but rather was centered on the person of Jesus Christ in both his divinity and his humanity. This Christological emphasis, on beholding "the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ," is an accent that is not apparent in either Aquinas or Turretin, but is absolutely central to Owen's presentation of the doctrine. Indeed, for Owen the idea of glorified physical sight is a characteristic point that differentiates his presentation of the doctrine from his predecessors and contemporaries.
Dr. McDonald, who received her doctorate from the University of St. Andrews in 2006, concluded her lecture by asking, "Where might this leave us today?" While Owen made a major contribution in bringing the doctrine of the beatific vision into Reformed theological discussion, Dr. McDonald argued that there is still work to be done. She noted especially the lack of explicit pneumatological emphasis in Owen's presentation. A more thoroughgoing Trinitarian construction of the doctrine would build upon the advances made by Owen, she said.
Jordan J. Ballor, Calvin Theological Seminary Student