A Vision of God, A Vision of Seminary

D. Blair Smith
Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte

I. Introduction: The Westminster Shorter Catechism and a Vision of God

“To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” So answers the Westminster Shorter Catechism to the question of “What is the chief end of Man?” In his popular work, Desiring God, John Piper has brought the juxtaposition of ‘glorifying and ‘enjoying’ into widespread consideration in the evangelical world. Piper contends that we glorify God by enjoying him, a key formula to his idea of Christian hedonism. As elsewhere he famously claims, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”[1] And hence, we glorify God by enjoying him.

Certainly the enjoyment of God is as essential as the WSC presents it to be. I believe far too many theologians overlook the enjoyment of God, or at least under-appreciate it.[2] However, Piper’s is not the only way of understanding the relation between glorifying God and enjoying Him. If we go back to the eighteenth century, to the classic commentary by James Fisher, we find a proper order and balance in understanding the Catechism’s opening question. Fisher concludes – through 49 questions and answers expositing just the first question of the Catechism(!) – that we enjoy God by glorifying him. Listen to the careful order and distinction of his 44th question on WSC Question 1:

Q.44. Why is the glorifying God made the leading part of man’s chief end, and set before the enjoyment of him?

A. Because, as God’s design in glorifying himself was the reason and foundation of his design in making man happy in the enjoyment of him, Rom. 11:26; so he has made our aiming at his glory, as our chief end, to be the very way and means of our attaining to that enjoyment, Psalm 50:23.[3]

In other words, when we glorify God through receiving Christ by grace we are fully engaged in our highest purpose as those created in the image of God. Filling out our supreme design, then, in faith, obedience, and worship – in glorifying God – in that we find our delight, our happiness, our eternal enjoyment.

These wonderfully rich insights are within our Reformed tradition if we have eyes to see them. But what if we take these questions to eras well before the Reformation? What if we go all the way back to the fourth century? I believe that these questions of ‘chief’ importance, seriously engaged within our Reformed tradition, have much to gain from being subjected to an earlier light.

My focus is simple, encapsulated by a great fourth-century father of the West, Hilary of Poitiers, when he said, “God can only be known in devotion.” The form of knowledge that is appropriate to God, he writes, is “thinking with understanding formed by piety,” approaching God with a devout mind.[4] Indeed, life and doctrine should be an intertwined pair. Theology and spirituality breathe the same air.

As we probe this crucial integration of life and the study of God and his ways, we will do so through the ancient Christian conception of the “vision of God”, specifically in the light of the theology of Basil of Caesarea. As a result, we will learn more about the relationship between glorifying and enjoying God, gain deeper insight into who God is in his Trinitarian relations, and into the nature of his glory, and how our enjoyment of him transforms our lives, thus connecting theology and life in profound ways.

I acknowledge that the connection of WSC Question 1 the vision of God may not be readily apparent. I hope, however, we will share B. B. Warfield’s insight when he was giving consideration to how no other catechism begins on a higher plane, and said, “The Westminster Catechism cuts itself free at once from entanglement with lower things and begins, as it centers and ends, under the illumination of the vision of God in His glory.”[5] As we explore this vision first through the Trinitarian insights of one great patristic theologian (Basil), then through some relevant biblical texts, and finally its eschatological hope, I hope you will see that it also yields a vision for seminary. That is to say, understanding what is meant by the vision of God prompts us to reexamine our postures and practices when studying God and his ways, where we find our goal, our telos,our eternal “end” in Him.

II. The Vision of God according to Basil of Caesarea

One of the reasons I love studying the theology of the Fathers is their theological reflections were never disconnected from worship and transformative living in Christ: life and doctrine were one, heart and mind were united. Theology, for them – as I hope it is for us –was “worshipful knowledge” or “a doxology of understanding,” emerging from biblically saturated prayer and worship. For them, to pray, to worship, and to do theology came from essentially the same posture. The particular father whose theology I want to explore Basil of Caesarea, or as he is sometimes referred to, Basil the Great. In a very real sense, he built his Trinitarian theology from his conception of the vision of God.

As one of the great Cappadocian Fathers – friend to Gregory of Nazianzus and brother to Gregory of Nyssa – Basil lived in the latter half of the fourth century when the church’s Trinitarian doctrine was being refined in the face of increasing heretical heat, which wanted to separate first the Son and then the Spirit from the eternal Godhead. Basil was born into an aristocratic family that privileged him with one of the finest educations one could receive at that time, leading to a period studying in Athens where he would have been a schoolmate of the future emperor, Julian (known in history as “Julian the Apostate”).

Like Augustine, in Basil we are presented with a compelling three-dimensional character. As a bishop, his training coupled with his distinct personality traits enabled him to be effective in what were incredibly complex times to be in church leadership. In his own area, he led the charge to build a hospice for travelers and a hospital for the sick, plus a center to feed and train the poor for practical work. As a disciple, he knew in his formative years, through his sister and brother as well as his friend, Gregory Nazianzus, the profound importance of spiritual relationships. We actually have letters between Basil and Nazianzus seasoned with playful banter, yet in the context of two friends who were passionately seeking God. Despite certain judgments that could be cast upon his ecclesiastical maneuvers, there is an unmistakable authenticity to Basil leading to perspectives where we are able peer into points of integration between life and theology. And as a theologian, it is fair to say he has been underappreciated, though this is changing with a new generation of scholars. The combination of intellectual gifts, academic preparation, and keen devotion to God and his Word enabled him to be a theologian of depth and insight. Let us now turn to his theology.

Throughout his theological corpus, Basil repeatedly highlights the “grammar” of worship as resource for Trinitarian reflection (a grammar planted within the liturgy by Scripture). What is confessed simply about God at baptism, for example – that He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – marks the distinctive character of Christian worship and becomes, for the Christian, the outline for one’s spiritual growth. According to Basil’s homilies on the creation of the world, his Hexaemeron, this is in accord with our creational purpose as human beings. Basil’s vision for man emerges from a Trinitarian matrix where the “Let us make” of Genesis 1:26 is a unique deliberation (rather than a simple command) between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each divine person is active in creating Adam and Eve in the image and likeness of God so that they might, in turn, glorify the Trinity.[6] Basil invites his “audience” (within these sermons) to consider themselves as “in” the first humans so that they, too, might find their telos in worship. For Basil, the return to ‘origins’ in Genesis has the greater purpose of contemplating our destiny. Indeed, his message in the closing sections of the final homily in this work is: “You were created that you might see God.”[7]

Our ability to worship God, however, is “blocked” by our sin, a result of the fall. In light of the fall of humanity, redemption through Christ reawakens believers to their destiny. That destiny is “mapped” by Basil through a theological epistemology in which a deepening knowledge of God is a tracing of the Trinitarian persons–where we get “inside” the Trinity, as it were, and are led on a divine trajectory that leads to the Father, in particular. In tracing the Trinitarian persons two prominent metaphors emerge within Basil’s writings for understanding the Trinity, which not incidentally parallel how he also understands the creation of Man: image and likeness (or, as he refers to the latter, ‘kinship’). For our purposes, we will only be looking at the metaphor of image in Basil.

We turn first to a passage from De Spiritu Sancto, “On the Holy Spirit”, where Basil sets forth his spiritual program, that is to say, where we glimpse the integration of Basil’s spiritual vision and Trinitarian theology. He writes:

The way…to knowledge of God is from the one Spirit, through the one Son, to the one Father. And conversely the goodness and holiness by nature and the royal dignity reach from the Father, through the Only-begotten, to the Spirit.[8]

As those created to ‘see God’ and redeemed to ‘return to the Father through the Son,’ according to Basil, the clarifying vision of Christians begins with the work of the Spirit.[9] It is only “in” the Spirit that we can make our way through the Son to the Father. Here we see how divine knowledge proceeds on the “inside” of the Triune God. The gifts the Spirit brings to souls include rebirth and adoption, which begin the purification process necessary to see God while also placing one into a real relationship with God where we call upon him as “Father.”[10] Thus, the Spirit is the one who by grace enables worship from a familial place of “sonship.”

Just as it is proper to say the Spirit resides in human souls, so, according to Basil, should we speak of our “place” in the Spirit. He grants purification and knowledge of God by being “in” us, but it is our place “in” him that speaks to our adoption and relation to the Father through the Son in worship. Basil elaborates on how “knowledgeable worship” in the Spirit proceeds

just as the Father is in the Son, so the Son is seen in the Spirit. Therefore, worship in the Spirit suggests that the activity of our thought is like light…. [W]e speak of worship in the Son as worship in the Image of God the Father, so also we speak of worship in the Spirit as worship in him who manifests the divinity of the Lord. Therefore, in worship the Holy Spirit is inseparable from the Father and the Son, for if you are outside of him, you will not worship at all while if you are in him, you will in no way separate him from God – at least no more than you will remove light from objects of sight. For it is impossible to see the Image of the invisible God, except in the illumination of the Spirit, and it is impossible for him who fixes his eyes on the image to separate the light from the image. The cause of seeing must be seen together with the things seen.[11]

In this wonderfully dense quote we see the Spirit’s role in human knowledge of the divine is to bring illumination, an illumination that comes from his very self. The Spirit brings illumination by making believers like himself – spiritual – through communion with Himself, so that they can “see spiritually God.”[12]

The “journey” of this contemplation follows a Trinitarian path, and thus integrates the Vision of God to a Trinitarian theology. Therefore, the one “seen” in the Spirit is the Son, and “the cause of seeing must be seen together with the things seen.”[13] In this language Basil highlights the inseparability of the Spirit and Son, an inseparability experienced by the illuminated worshiper who, through the light, is inevitably brought to the image.[14] It is the Spirit who grants illuminating power for the eyes to be fixed “on the beauty of the image of the unseen God.”[15] Here Basil quotes Psalm 36:9, “In your light do we see light,” which he understands to refer to the illuminating work of the Spirit. He then connects that with John 1:9, “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world,” in order to demonstrate the Spirit’s work of illumination as a revelation in Himself of the glory of the Only-begotten. Worship in the Spirit, then, is illuminated worship where the divinity and glory of the Image are made manifest.

For Basil, then, it is by the light of the Spirit that we can see the image of the Son. An image cannot be “seen” without light. The Son is that image, and the Spirit is that light. This is an epistemological move – from light to the image – while also being a Trinitarian one: while the worshiper is growing in divine knowledge by beholding the Image, he or she is also understanding the relationship obtaining between the divine persons.

To speak of the “image” raises the question “of what?” Just as to see an image one needs illumination, so for there to be an image there needs to be an “original.” In this metaphor each of its elements in the order of knowing suggests the other, helpfully expressing the interrelationships of the divine persons. In expressing those interrelationships it “moves” quickly from one to the other, meaning the light is about the image and the image is about the “original” or what Basil calls the “archetype.”[16] Here we have the Father. The honor brought to the image “passes over” in “worshipful knowledge” to the archetype.[17] Indeed, Basil presents this movement as an inevitable one that moves when with illuminating power worshippers “fix [their] eyes on the beauty of the image of the unseen God, and through the image are led up to the more than beautiful vision of the archetype.”[18] The beauty of the archetype seen in the image that Basil has in mind here is Hebrew 1:3’s the “radiance of glory.” Perfect radiance – the image – proceeds from the perfect glory, and through that radiance we are led to the beauty of the glory.[19]

What Basil presents in this metaphor is a fully Trinitarian vision that moves for the worshipper from the light through the image to the archetype. Accordingly, Basil’s metaphor not only teaches the order of knowing that proceeds through the Trinitarian persons to the Father; it also draws out, at the same time, the inseparability of the divine persons. Following John 14:23, Basil connects this inseparability to the previously mentioned presence of the Spirit within the soul of the worshipper: “[W]hen sanctified by the Holy Spirit, we receive Christ who dwells in our inner man [Eph 3:16], and along with Christ we also receive the Father who makes a home with him in those who are worthy.”[20] Thus we experience “intimacy with God” and enjoy “union in love.”[21]

Basil’s theological epistemology tracks and draws out the intricacies of his Trinitarian theology, yet within a transformative spiritual vision where progressing through the persons to the Father corresponds to creational purpose. Human beings were created “according to the image,” and they reawaken to their purpose by regaining vision of “the image,” the Son. The Spirit’s purification and illumination enables the vision, which from the image leads to the glorious “archetype.” The image metaphor reveals the Father, then, as the one to whom our redemptive spiritual vision presses—to his unique “place” within the Trinitarian relations. As Basil’s theology reveals, however, whatever order or distinct texture may be revealed among the Trinitarian persons through the vision, they at the same time are present with one another even as they make us present with them.

A significant question is whether this vision, as laid out by Basil, is a biblical one. As those whose supreme authority and fundamental source for our theology is the God-breathed Word, we are not content simply to quote those who have come before us—no matter how elevated a position they hold within our theological stratosphere, or how many followers they have on Twitter. We must continually engage and exegete biblical texts that form an interconnected web undergirding and informing our theological reflections. So, let us follow some of the biblical paths leading to Basil’s integration of vision and Trinitarian theology.

III. Scriptural Basis

That vision of God is a distinctly biblical idea carrying a host of realities is unmistakable. We could unfold a whole biblical theology of vision, tracing from the highly suggestive and enigmatic texts involving Moses (and others) in Exodus 24 and 33 all the way through the end of Revelation. But perhaps we get at its heart and set it in its proper context by turning first to a poetical description in Psalm 27.

a. Psalm 27 – worship

Here we learn that the Vision begins and ends with worship. In the words of the Psalmist, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.” The Psalmist further expresses his ardent desire, “You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, LORD, do I seek.’…Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path…. I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living!”

What David is after here is an intense knowledge of God conceptualized in terms of a ‘Vision of God.’ This is answering the call of our God who commands, “Seek my face.” Why face? A face is an expression of who someone is. School yearbooks have pictures of faces because, better than elbows or stomachs, they best represent the whole of a person. God is not saying he possesses a face. He is conceiving knowledge in terms of vision and guiding our sights to the whole of his character. The Psalmist is clear a vision for who God is can only be captured in communion with him—in his house, in his Temple. Only a genuine worshipper can behold God’s true beauty and know Him, and, in knowing Him, find transformation. The connections between knowledge of God, communion, and the entailment of our transformation set the table for much of what we will consider through the vision of God as we follow biblical revelation to the Incarnation.

b.  John 1:14, 16 – seeing/knowing the incarnate Son

In order to begin to draw out these connections, let us turn to John’s Gospel and the two high points of his prologue, vv. 14 and 18. In v. 14 we are told the Word, who was in the beginning with God [the Father] and “was God”, became flesh. There is something seen in him, though, that goes beyond mere flesh, for John says “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” Then in v. 18 John repeats Exodus 33’s claim about no one ever having seen God but then claims, in light of the incarnation, God the Father has been made known by God the Son: “the only God [that is, God the Word], who is at the Father’s side [or, more accurately, in his bosom], he has made him known.” What I want to highlight in these two verses is how it carries forward the fruitful connection between seeing and knowing from Psalm 27 but focuses our sights now on the only-begotten Son, who brings about a degree of intimacy with the Father heretofore unknown. Though we do not yet see him as he is, faithful attention to God the Son enters one into a vision where God is made known. We see – that is, we know – his glory in the incarnate Son who reveals the Father.

c. Colossians 1:15 & 2 Corinthians 3 – 4 – transformed in the true Image by the Holy Spirit

Indeed, the incarnation focuses the attention of our worshipful vision to behold the face of God in Christ. As Colossians 1:15 instructs us, the true Image of the invisible God is Christ. Set within a transformative vision, the goal of life as those created in the image, the end toward which our lives aspire, is likeness to the Image—likeness to Christ.[22] This dynamic between beholding the Image and being transformed in the Image is elucidated by Paul in a complex passage that extends from 2 Corinthians 3-4, which we will have to merely glean from for the sake of time. Starting in 2 Corinthians 3:7, Paul sets out through a number of allusions and contrasts to highlight the increased glory of God revealed in the New Covenant that we know when we turn to Christ. At the close of the chapter, in v. 18, it says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” This passage brings up a host of questions regarding reference to Lord and Spirit, yet it is clear, I think, that a transformation occurs through seeing – beholding – an image. And this transformation occurs by the Holy Spirit. That the image is indeed Christ as revealed in the glorious Gospel is put forth in 4:4, where knowledge is again presented in terms of seeing. Then in 4:6 Paul connects seeing, transformative knowledge, and the heart: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” The spiritual connection between eyes and heart was perceived well by Augustine when he said, “In your flesh you hear in one place, you see in another; in your heart you hear there where you see.”[23]

d. Ephesians 1:3-14 – union with Christ

Now, we can put a little flesh on these bones of transformation in the Image if we highlight the central Pauline doctrine of ‘union with Christ.” We do not just see the Son as an image from afar—we are “in” him. That is to say, while within the Vision we have our sights set on the Image, we do so as those united to the Image—believers are in union with Christ. Basil eloquently outlined that to properly study God is to ‘enter’ into him through Christ and by the Spirit, and there to be transformed in Christ by the Spirit. In other words, in Christ we have a “place.” This is beautifully laid out in Ephesians 1 where Paul establishes a spiritual topography, as it were, and functions as a kind of cartographer who places us in Christ on his spiritual map. The grand, soaring sentence that takes up most of chapter 1 begins, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” The apostle goes on then to delineate all of these blessings we enjoy as a result of the love of the Father placing us “in Christ.” From v. 3 through v. 14 he stretches out these blessings all the way from the eternal plan of God to our future inheritance. No less than eleven times Paul refers to ‘in him’ or ‘in Christ.’ What this reinforces is that everything we have by way of having God as our Father is mediated through our union with Christ, including our adoption as “sons” (1:5). An irrevocable relation has been established out of love and grace and it is in and through Christ. Out of that relation we have certain privileges and responsibilities. One of these privileges is a place—what we might call a vantage point. The former bishop of Oxford, Kenneth Kirk, said in his 1928 Bampton Lectures that whereas before Christ many spoke – especially the prophets of the Old Testament – of a vision of God, Christ gives a vision.[24] He gives a vision because “in him” we have a spiritual standpoint. Thus, “union with Christ” establishes for us the fruitful place of our transformation. Returning to a few Johannine texts will add depth to this picture through pinpointing the familial and Trinitarian dimensions of the vision, as well as set us on a course for perceiving its eschatological direction.

e. 1 John 3:1, John 14:6-13 and 17:21 – familial intimacy

A fundamental truth of New Testament spirituality is our place in Christ is a familial one established in the Father’s love: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1). We are children of the Father; we are so because we are united to the Son by grace through adoption—we are “sons in the Son.” Conceiving of our place in terms of being family – sons and daughters – immediately puts us into the context of Trinitarian relations. What is more, it orients us not only to identify our place of transformation, but also our experience of enjoyment. As we have seen, Basil’s conception of the vision involves an integration with Trinitarian theology where there is a certain texture that is discerned when the Spirit places us in Christ wherein we are transformed and by which we have an eternal Father. Now, of course, we need to be careful to delineate what is by nature, according to the eternal Son, and what is by grace, according to us. Nonetheless, in a text like John 14 the vision of God is revealed to have a texture through eternal divine relations that we in some measure participate in by grace.

John 14:6-13 is replete with references to God as Father and the Son’s relationship with Him that entails our relationship with him. Thomas first asks Jesus to show the disciples the way in v. 5. Jesus tells them in v. 6 He is the way and that no one can come to the Father except through him. Philip follows up in v. 7 by asking Jesus to show them the Father. Jesus replies that to see him is to see the Father, a statement we are prepared for in light of what we saw in 1:18. Jesus has made the invisible God visible. In vv. 10-11 Jesus elaborates further on the closeness of His relationship with the Father, maintaining that he is “in” the Father and the Father is “in” him. What Jesus speaks of with this “in” language is not an identity of persons or some kind of mystical relationship: He is indicating a very close personal family relationship – beyond one with merely a unity of purpose, it is one of intimacy, love and trust. What is astounding is, Jesus turns from describing the Father-Son relationship revealed in the Son and includes his disciples in the dynamics of that relationship. He articulates this simply and beautifully in v. 23, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” The intimacy, love and trust between Father and Son will be the disciple’s who shares in the familial bonds. This is precisely what Jesus says in his high priestly prayer in chapter 17 when he prays in v. 21 that “they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us.” This striking “in” language communicates in the highest register human capability to know God within the very relations of the Father and Son.

Through John 14 and 17 we are presented with a rich combination of realities that connect vision of God with the Trinitarian relations, and not in any abstract sense. The apostle John draws us into Trinitarian life, where we share in the intimate home life of the Father and Son. This is effected by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us (John 14:17); and, as Romans 8:15 reveals, it is by the Spirit we can give vent to that intimate cry, “Abba! Father!” If we were listening carefully to these texts we have just considered, we heard them echoed within Basil’s theology. (One note we perhaps did not hear clearly in Basil is the Father-Son dynamic we share in what John explores in chapters 13-17 of his Gospel, but this is more due to my select reading of Basil than a deficiency in his overall theology.) If we were to summarize briefly the Vvsion of God at this point, through Basil’s theological construction and the underlying biblical texts, it would be that it involves personal transformation, through seeing Christ, in the context of Trinitarian relations.

IV. Eschatological Vision
a, 1 John 3:2-3 – the ‘now’ and ‘not yet’

A remaining question regarding the vision is its end. We have seen how the vision entails our progressive transformation in the Image in this present reality. Yet if we return to 1 John 3 and move to v. 2 we discern there is also a “not yet” aspect to our transformation in the Vision that awaits fulfillment, for the apostle says, “when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” Now, who this “he” is not readily apparent from the grammar of 1 John 3:1-3.[25] However, for obvious contextual reasons extending back to 1 John 2:18, this appearing is a reference to Christ’s second coming.

This is our eschatological hope, a hope John is careful to say redounds into the present in v. 3. For as we look to what is to come – being as fully like Christ as a creature can be – we purify ourselves in the present. We are united in Christ in an objective sense now, but our placement in Christ among our present reality of sin within and without means our communion with him is on a continuum. In this life the increasingly pure in heart have an expanding vision of God as their communion with Christ is deepened, something Jesus taught in the sixth beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” What happens, though, when sin is entirely separated from us and from the realm in which we live? What happens when our vision is no longer occluded from the effects of the fall, or hindered by the separation of the domains of Creator and creation? There are some answers we want to rule out right away. Certain mystical trajectories moving in the direction of a kind of divinization of human beings where in heaven we see God in his essence – “as he is in himself” – is an ontological bridge too far. Indeed, to suggest a transgression of the Creator-creature distinction is to slip the control Scripture should maintain on our theology. Even when sin is wiped off the map, and its stain erased from our being, Scripture demands we remain modest with regard to the future hope of the vision of God. Most importantly, God’s incomprehensible nature never changes. We may increase in our knowledge of him, but we will never comprehend him, which, along with many of the church fathers, is what I take knowledge of his essence to mean. Though in the new heavens and new earth we will share the same domain with God, we will ever remain finite creatures. Our capacity to take in his vision will be deepened and broadened once the spiritual glaucoma of sin is removed from our “eyes.” Nonetheless, no matter how high the state of glory will be, even there human beings remain human. In the words of Herman Bavinck, “Humanity’s blessedness indeed lies in the ‘beatific vision of God,’ but this vision will always be such that finite and limited human nature is capable of it.”[26]

b. Ephesians 1:4-6 – elected in love

With those qualifications, there is much to hope for in our eternal state when we shall, in some sense, see God as He is! As we probe the eschatological vision – which is our great hope in this Christian life – I want to emphasize the character of this vision of God as one of holy love. That love marks the eternal character of the vision of God is based in nothing less than our election. Returning to Ephesians 1, where we learned of our union with Christ, Paul bases our eternal place in the Father’s family in his predestinating love: “[4] In love [5] he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ….” Paul doesn’t stop there, however. In v. 6 he picks up, “to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” God’s ultimate purpose is not our redemption but hs glorification, which takes place among “the Beloved.” This is a truth the Westminster Confession of Faith picks up in chapter 3, article 5: In eternity past God loved us in Christ. In eternity future we will glorify him among the eternally loved, that is, “the beloved.” With this notion of love and the beloved we reach the highest peak of Jesus’ prayer to his Father in John 17.

c. John 17:22-26 – shared love among the Father and Son

We turn to that chapter again, to the very end, and see where Jesus moves from the intimacy of “in” language to the character of that communion. Jesus prays to the Father,

[22] The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, [23] I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. [24] Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. [25] O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. [26] I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.

Notice how Jesus’ prayer is for our future vision of God. “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given to me [in election], may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” So our vision of God is ultimately to share in the love that the Father has for the Son. Jesus obeyed His Father, fulfilling the divine will, “that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” What is the vision of God at its height, at its depth? It is, yes, to know his glory and worship him, but in that to enjoy the love of God both now and, even more fully, in all of eternity. Our union with Christ will finally be matched by our communion, and all that the Son has known of the Father’s love by nature, we will know by grace. For, as Robert Smith Candlish observed in his 1864 Cunningham Lectures, while there is a difference in dates and the grounds of relation, there is no difference in quality: we are loved by the Father as adopted sons with the same love with which He loves His eternal Son.[27]

d. Revelation 22:1-4 – God’s face and our experience of holy love

We who are in Christ were eternally chosen to be with God out of his grace and love, which we know and experience in the present. Yet there is a fuller measure of knowledge, a greater experience of that love, which awaits, for which we hope. The Revelation of John is replete with images that excite our imaginations as to what this experience will be. We turn to just one in closing out this point, the final scene around the throne of God and the Lamb, Revelation 22:1-4. As John sees the New Jerusalem the vision he presents there recalls the Garden of Eden and is set in contrast to the only things we’ve known, an accursed world:

[1] Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb [2] through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. [3] No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. [4] They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. [5] And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Note where the throne is. No longer separate from earth but joined with it, there is immediate access to God’s throne for worshippers. Worship is no longer mediated; his presence is immediate and uninterrupted. To further this point of presence, the face of God is addressed. We are reminded that while the face of God is something we should seek, it is not something we can ultimately see in this life. The holiness and glory would undo us. We cannot take it in. To see God’s face will be to know God in his personal being in holy love where he wipes away every tear from our faces (21:4). The knowledge will not be comprehensive, as we’ve said. But it will be deeply personal, knowing the uninterrupted intercourse of his presence, and to an extent heretofore unknown. This vision will be the heart of our eternal joy in our eternal worship of God where we revel in his love. God is love because God is a trinity of persons who have eternally loved one another, yet in their loving have done so as Father, Son, and Spirit: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” And so we are, because of the Father’s love, a love shared eternally in the Godhead, a love expressed in the work of Christ, a love applied by the Spirit, a love experienced as pilgrims in our state of faith, a love to be fully reveled in and enjoyed when we see God ‘face to face.’

V. Conclusion: Seminary as Enjoyable?

This experience of love is what Paul so mysteriously alludes to in his great “love chapter” (1 Corinthians 13), when he connects seeing with knowing while contrasting our present state with our future one:

[12] For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. [13] So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Interestingly, Paul’s use here of a mirror analogy suggests our Vision of God not only enhances our knowledge of God; it enhances knowledge of ourselves. We know, but before that we are known. In our future state, our partial knowledge will expand, both of God and ourselves. These thoughts might call to your mind the opening of Calvin’s Institutes. In setting the foundation for theological study, Calvin lays out in that our knowledge of God and of ourselves is intertwined. It is unmistakable: theological study results in self-discovery. That mere suggestion, however, invites a strong caution. Priority must be given to knowing God, because it is in knowing God that we have the perspective to know ourselves. Given sin, knowledge of self can result in a revulsion. Nevertheless, if we situate our knowledge within the expansive vision of God, we will understand our proper and greatest end—our greatest enjoyment. Who would have thought seminary, where we study God and His ways, can increase your enjoyment? But indeed it can, if you approach your studies in the vein of the vision, the vision of God, which casts our lives in light of a holy pursuit of eternity and their end in the enjoyment of God.

It is easy in seminary to live your life on one plane and have your studies exist on another, to treat your time in class and completing assignments as a job, as a card being punched in order to meet some earthly end, to open some occupational or ministerial door. We must resist that natural bifurcation—I say ‘natural’ because it fits with so much of how we are tempted to approach academic study, as a means to some temporary end. Indeed it is a means, but a means to an eternal end. If you are here you are a professing Christian; you see yourself in relation to God. You confess to know Him. You have the Spirit who leads you to want to know Him more. Therefore, press forward in your studies as a son or daughter living in the Father’s house, not as one who only enters the house on Sundays or during your devotional time. You don’t leave that house when you attend class or work on your assignments and papers. Theological study is an opportunity to experience that house more and more as a home, as you are transformed into the character of the firstborn Son, as you speak to the Father in thoughtful prayer through your work. Jesus tells us in John 14:2 that the Father’s house has many rooms and he has gone to prepare a place for us there. The glory of the Christian life is, as those united to the Son by the Spirit, we do enjoy a measure of home life now, even as we await the putting into place of every last rug, cabinet, table setting, cushion—you get the picture.

When we think about the end, the telos of our vision of God, we should primarily  think of enjoying the love shared between us and God that will be known and experienced eternity much more fully than it is known and experienced in the present.

That love is the eternal character of our relationship with God is seen, in the last verse in Paul’s love chapter. Why is love greater? Because it is forever. Faith and hope recede once we are with God in the new heavens and new earth. Faith becomes sight—full vision. Hope is fulfilled. But love: love not only goes on as we love God and he loves us; the experience of love will be deepened. The reason is there is an inextricable bond between knowing and loving in the deepest structures of Scripture. We will know/see God as he is, Paul says, even as we are fully known. The intervention of means will cease. There will be an immediacy to our intimacy as we will know the full harvest of our enjoyment of God. Those who know such things, John says, purify themselves in the present. Let us do so, even through our theological study, for the sake of our eyes, so that by grace we may increasingly enjoy God as we glorify him in prayerful study.

[1] Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Press, 1996), 50.

[2] For examples, see A.A. Hodge (The System of Theology Contained in the Westminster Shorter Catechism Opened and Explained [New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1888], 7-8.) and G.I. Williamson (The Westminster Shorter Catechism For Study Class, 2nd ed. [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003], 1-5.).

[3] Fisher’s Catechism (East Stroudsburg, PA: Dovetail Books, 2015), 6.

[4] De Trinitate 1.18; 11.44.

[5] The Works of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (Volume 6: “The Westminster Assembly and its Work,” 1931; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981), 379.

[6] Hexaemeron (Hex.) 10.4; SC 160:172, 5-9; Harrison, 33: Πατὴρ ἐποίησε διὰ Υἱοῦ, καὶ Υἱός ἐκτίσατο πατρῴῳ θελήματι˙ καὶ δοξάσῃς Πατέρα ἐν Υἱῷ, καὶ Υἱὸν ἐν Πνεύματι ἁγίῳ (“the Father created through the Son, and the Son created by the Father’s will; that you may glorify the Father in the Son, and the Son in the Holy Spirit.”)

[7] The quote is an alteration of Ἐγένου ἵνα Θεὸν βλέπῃς found in Hex. 11.15; SC 160:270, 16-17; Harrison, 61. The last two homilies give special attention to Genesis 1:26-27 and the theological implications of the creation of humanity. In Hex. 11.15-17 Basil contrasts the way human beings were made with beasts whose heads incline downward. God created humans “upright” and gave a special and distinct structure, including a head that is uniquely placed so that the eyes can gaze upward – “where Christ is”. After making a spiritual association between the position of the head and eyes and humanity’s purpose of seeing God, Basil details how the physical structure of human beings supports the position of the head and eyes.   English translations of Hex. are adapted from Nonna Verna Harrison, trans., On the Human Condition (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005).

[8] Spir. 18.47; SC 17 bis:412, 17-23; Hildebrand, 83: Ἡ…ὁδὸς τῆς θεογνωσίας ἐστὶν ἀπο ἑνὸς Πνεύματος, διὰ τοῦ ἑνὸς Υἱοῦ, ἐπὶ τὸν ἕνα Πατέρα. Καὶ ἀνάπαλιν, ἡ φυσικὴ ἀγαθότης, καὶ ὁ κατὰ φύσιν ἁγιασμός, καὶ τὸ βασιλικὸν ἀξίωμα, ἐκ Πατρός, διὰ τοῦ Μονογενοῦς, ἐπὶ τὸ Πνεῦμα διήκει. Οὕτω καὶ αἱ ὑποστάσεις ὁμολογοῦνται, καὶ τὸ εὐσεβὲς δόγμα τῆς μοναρχίας οὐ διαπίπτει. English translations of Spir. are adapted from Stephen Hildebrand, trans., On the Holy Spirit (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011).

[9] In Spir. Basil highlights the Spirit’s work as united and indivisible from that of the Father and Son. He quotes 1 Corinthians 12:11 to explain, however, how the gifts given by God are understood from the ‘human point of view’. While there is unity among the divine persons in the giving of gifts, the ‘point of contact’ for humans is the Spirit: “For [Paul] begins from our point of view, since when we receive gifts, we first encounter the one who distributes them, then we consider the one who sent them, and then we turn our minds to the source and cause of them (ἐπειδὴ ὑποδεχόμενοι τὰ δῶρα, πρῶτον ἐντυγχάνομεν τῷ διανέμοντι ˙ εἶτα ἐννοοῦμεν τὸν ἀποστείλαντα ˙ εἶτα ἀνάγομεν τὴν ἐνθύμησιν ἐπὶ τὴν πηγὴν καὶ αἰτίαν τῶν ἀωαθῶν)” (16.37; SC 17:376, 33-36; Hildebrand, 70).

[10] Ibid. Cf., Eun. 2.23; 3.4.

[11] Spir. 26.64; SC 17 bis:474-476, 1-23; Hildebrand, 103: ὅτι ὥσπερ ἐν τῷ Υἱῷ ὡρᾶται ὁ Πατήρ, οὕτως ὁ Υἱὸς ἐν τῷ Πνεύματι. Ἡ τοίνυν ἐν τῷ Πνεύματι προσκύνησις, τὴν ὡς ἐν φωτὶ γινομένην τῆς διανοίας ἡμῶν ἐνέργειαν ὑποβάλλει…. ἐν τῷ Υἱῷ προσκύνησιν λέγομεν, τὴν ὡς ἐν εἰκόνι τοῦ Θεοῦ καὶ Πατρός, οὕτω καὶ ἐν τῷ Πνεύματι, ὡς ἐν τῇ προσκυνήσει ἀχώριστον ἀπὸ Πατρὸς καὶ Υἱοῦ τὸ Πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον. Ἔξω μὲν γὰρ ὑπάρχων αὐτοῦ, οὐδὲ προσκυνήσεις τὸ παράπαν ˙ ἐν αὐτῷ δὲ γενόμενος οὐδενὶ πρόπῳ ἀποχωρίσεις ἀπὸ Θεοῦ ˙ οὐ μᾶλλόν γε, ἢ τῶν ὁρατῶν ἀποστήσεις τὸ φῶς. Ἀδύνατον γὰρ ἰδεῖν τὴν εἰκόνα τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, μὴ ἐν τῷ φωτισμῷ τοῦ Πνεύματος. Καὶ τὸν ἐνατενίζοντα τῇ εἰκόνι, ἀμήχανον τῆς εἰκόνος άποχωρίσαι τὸ φῶς. Τὸ γὰρ τοῦ ὁρᾶν αἴτιον, ἐξ ἀνάγκης συγκαθορᾶται τοῖς ὁρατοῖς. Ὥστε οἰκείως καὶ ἀκολούθως διὰ μὲν τοῦ καθορῶμεν ˙ διὰ δὲ τοῦ χαρακτῆρος, ἐπὶ τὸν οὗ ἐστιν ὁ χαρακτὴρ καὶ ἡ ἰσότυπος σφρωὶς ἀναγόμεθα.For Basil, the image metaphor is an extension of Colossians 1:15.

[12] Spir. 26.62; SC 17:472, 11-12; Hildebrand, 101: ἰδεῖν γνωστῶς…τὸν Θεὸν.

[13] Spir. 26.64; SC 17 bis:476, 19-20; Hildebrand, 103: Τὸ γὰρ τοῦ ὁρᾶν αἴτιον, ἐξ ἀνάγκης συγκαθορᾶται τοῖς ὁρατοῖς.

[14] Spir. 26.64; SC 17 bis:476, 18-19; Hildebrand, 103: “[I]t is impossible for him who fixes his eyes on the image to separate the light from the image (τὸν ἐνατενίζοντα τῇ εἰκόνι, ἀμήχανον τῆς εἰκόνος ἀποχωρίσαι τὸ φῶς.).”

[15] Spir. 18.47; SC 17 bis:412, 1-2; Hildebrand, 82: τῷ κάλλει τῆς τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου εἰκόνος ἐνατενίζομεν.

[16] Spir. 18.45; SC 17 bis:406, 19-20; Hildebrand, 81: τὸ πρωτότυπον.

[17] Ibid.: διαβαίνει.

[18] Spir. 18.47; SC 17 bis:412, 1-3; Hildebrand, 82: τῷ κάλλει τῆς τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου εἰκόνος ἐνατενίζομεν, καὶ δι᾽αὐτῆς ἀναγόμεθα ἐπὶ τὸ ὑπέρκαλον τοῦ ἀρχετύπου θέαμα.

[19] Hom 24.4. Cf. Spir. 26.64

[20] Hom. 24.5; PG 31, 609; DelCogliano, 298: Ἁγιαζόμενοι…διὰ τοῦ Πνεύματος, δεχόμεθα τὸν Χριστὸν κατοικοῦντα ἡμῶν εἰς τὸν ἔσω ἄνθρωπόν, καὶ μετὰ τοῦ Χριστοῦ τὸν Πατέρα, κοινὴν ποιούμενον τὴν μονὴν παρὰ τοῖς ἀξίοις.

[21] Hom. 6; PG 31, 344b: ἡ προσεδεία τοῦ θεοῦ, καὶ ἡ διὰ τῆς ἀγάπης συνάφεια.

[22] Some Fathers, such as Irenaeus and Basil, saw a distinction between the “image” and “likeness” of Genesis 1:26. The former is something irrevocable and static, the latter something we grow into.

[23] Tractates on the Gospel of John 11–27, trans. by John W. Rettig (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 79; Washington DC, CUA Press, 1988) 136.

[24] K.E. Kirk, The Vision of God (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1991), 46.

[25] Grammatically, it could be a ‘he’ or even an ‘it.’ For the sentence that reads “when he appears” has no nominative to which the ‘he’ or ‘it’ supplied by the verb refers. Some translations go ahead and insert “Christ,” that is, “when Christ appears” even though that is not within the Greek text (φανερωθῇ). The ESV does not interpret the sentence that far, leaving it at just ‘he.’ I think we are on good contextual footing, however, to interpret this as Christ’s appearance. The reason for this is the flow of John’s argument, which takes us back to the previous chapter. Beginning in 1 John 2:18 John argues that the antichrist denies the Father and Son. In order to have the Father one must confess the Son and abide in Him. In v. 28, then, John commands us to “abide in him, so that when he appears…” This appearing is referring to the Son, and I think it is clear the appearance in 1 John 3:2 is a continuation of this same idea and, therefore, refers to Christ’s second coming.

[26] Reformed Dogmatics, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 2:191.

[27] The Fatherhood of God: Cunningham Lectures (Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2010), 174.