On Bavinck, the Beatific Vision, and Theological Practice

Michael Allen
John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

Reformed theology at its best seeks to apply as broadly as possible a theocentric approach to Christian faith and practice.[1] In that sense it is catholic both in its concern about all things and its reliance on this creedally Christian commitment to be God-centered. That has been the genius of Reformed Christianity, and it remains a helpful measure of its limits or missteps through the ages. We ought to ask regularly: has it maintained that theocentrism in a biblical and coherent way or has it sometimes fallen short of its own commitments? Reformed Christians will also expect that such limitations or lacks will arise, because we do not have an Edenic notion of the church. So we are not surprised at the existence of theological mistake or limitation; it fits our view of the Christian life.

We need to be willing, when necessary, to move from principled statements to specific cases. Hans Boersma and I have both written about dangers within modern Reformed faith and practice that would sideline the typical theocentrism intrinsic to that theological tradition. In particular, we have both warned that many Neo-Calvinist or Neo-Calvinist influenced thinkers have placed theocentric tenets like the beatific vision (the blessed vision of God in the eschaton) at the margins of Christian eschatology or, worse, have maligned the doctrine altogether as being spiritualist.[2] Eventually, these moves can so focus on other emphases that they render churches susceptible to secularism. In varied and overlapping ways, each of us also identify the failure of the great Dutch Reformed dogmatician Herman Bavinck to offer a healthy or robust account of the beatific vision in his rightly praised Reformed Dogmatics. Both of us respect Bavinck immensely, which is precisely what prompts our alertness to this seeming inconsistency in his theocentric practice. While his theology in that magnum opus is generally a remarkable challenge to secularism, his eschatology is not consistently fixated upon God and the presence of God in a way that would help avoid what I’ve called “eschatological naturalism.”[3]

In the last year, three capable Bavinck scholars have addressed our claims. The subject plainly matters to all three, though their perspectives don’t line up exactly. First, in his recent, much-celebrated biography of Bavinck, James Eglinton has pushed back on those criticisms by Boersma and me. In a section of his biography discussing Bavinck’s essay “The Future of Calvinism,” Eglinton includes this lengthy parenthesis:

“(In the same article, Bavinck sets Calvinism’s “deep vein of mysticism” in contrast with the “worldly Christianity” produced by liberal Protestantism in its failure to recast this life in light of the hereafter. On this point, the caricatures of the Neo-Calvinist tradition, and of Bavinck in particular found in the writings of Michael Allen and Hans Boersma—as “this-worldly” and unspiritual, and having “sidelined the beatific vision,” in contradistinction to the apparently more mystical Kuyper—do not suggest close familiarity with Bavinck’s biography or oeuvre.)”[4]

The response seems to suggest that further study shows there’s nothing to see here: Bavinck proves his heavenly-minded bona fides elsewhere, and so our criticisms are wrong. Further, questioning here is a sign of ignorance of who he was and unfamiliarity with what else he wrote. Even more recently, one of Eglinton’s former doctoral students, Cory Brock, has published a whole essay length response to Boersma’s argument.[5] This second response fills out Eglinton’s reply by showing places in his writings where Bavinck does comment (even if briefly) on a theocentric eschatology before then arguing that there’s a reason for his general reticence around the topic, namely, his conviction that scripture is underdetermined regarding what can be said of the vision of God. And, third, a still further doctoral student of Eglinton and now colleague of mine, Gray Sutanto, has written a forthcoming essay on the topic as well. His essay draws on strands of Bavinck’s teaching elsewhere in the Reformed Dogmatics to show what his doctrine of the beatific vision would be if synthesized from adjacent texts, thereby showing it would actually be quite companionable to the proposals of Boersma and me.

Each of them makes distinct moves, and they each need to be considered discretely regarding what they say of the claims of Boersma and me, what they point to in Bavinck’s writings, and what they might prompt in contemporary Christian (especially Reformed) theology.  In this brief post I want to describe what seems to be an occasionally overlapping and also a varied set of responses and to engage them each on their own terms. I hope not only to clarify the immediate point but also to use this exchange as an occasion for reflection about theological practice itself, in particular, how we can best engage a historical figure like Bavinck.

Engaging the Varied Responses

Each response warrants a unique reply, noting its varied arguments and trying to engage each with its specific claims. First, James Eglinton suggests in his biography that criticisms of Bavinck’s teaching on the beatific vision manifests a lack of awareness of his biography and his wider works. In particular, Dr. Eglinton points to Bavinck’s significant essay “The Future of Calvinism” and its mystical streak as standing against such criticisms. His biography shows the value of reading Bavinck whole and reading his texts in their varied contexts. That’s an important point, and that’s why I too talked about Bavinck’s overarching theocentrism in my Grounded in Heaven before pointing out how that theocentrism isn’t consistently manifest in the eschatology present in volume 4. More specifically, that’s why I quoted from that exact essay, “The Future of Calvinism,” at even greater length than Eglinton does to show the wide-ranging theocentrism of which Bavinck is so capable.[6] I suppose one could say that the essay wasn’t interpreted aright or that its implications weren’t fully appreciated in my book, but it is somewhat ironic to cite the very text which I discuss at length as evidence that I have not read the Reformed Dogmatics in light of Bavinck’s wider corpus. Indeed, my assessment arises precisely because Bavinck’s other writings suggest he could and would have done more than he actually does in the relevant section of the RD. Given Bavinck’s widespread theocentrism (on which I take him to be perhaps the leading modern Reformed model, matched only by the writings of the late John Webster), the inconsistency raises a number of questions – of biographical interest – regarding why he went silent about God and the experience of seeing God in just this place, given that so much of his principles and practice would lend itself to a theocentric account here. More on those potential questions arises below.

Second, Cory Brock argues (mostly against Boersma) that Bavinck really does have a doctrine of the beatific vision and that Boersma’s criticism simply doesn’t stick. In doing so he turns to texts beyond the Reformed Dogmatics (such as the Wonderful Works of God). Even more interestingly, Brock argues that Bavinck’s tight-lipped response is owing to his belief in the underdetermined character of the beatific vision. Because we have been told rather little, he says little. I suspect that Brock’s answer on this point is at least partially correct (or, I dare say, it is most likely a leading explanation for that reticence in the RD). That is, Bavinck thinks we ought to say less because we are told less. (I myself talk about the limits of our knowledge here and thus of the necessarily underdetermined character of our doctrine of the blessed vision in Grounded in Heaven, chapter two, so I am amenable to that posture and perhaps, therefore, more than a little eager to accept this explanation.) But here’s the thing. Bavinck has talked about medieval arguments that we understand the beatific vision this way or that. He doesn’t argue thereafter that we can’t know what Thomas and Bonaventure say. He doesn’t show that we lack resources to speak to the issue. He simply goes quiet. There’s an underdetermination to theological practice that marks our understanding on every topic, but it isn’t the same as simple silence. Underdetermination and mystery are products of wrestling through an issue, not a replacement for doing so. Now Bavinck himself greatly appreciates that element of mystery in theology (which is emphasized early and poignantly in RD 2:29) but he does not argue for its significance here. Therefore, while there are a number of accurate observations rendered, Brock’s essay doesn’t focus on what’s distinctive or surprising about Bavinck’s eschatology here, that is, his actual reticence regarding the vision of God in the RD relative not only to the wider ecumenical tradition but also relative to his own thoroughgoing theocentrism.

Third, Gray Sutanto’s forthcoming essay takes a different tack in turning to this area[7]. He surveys the writings of Boersma and Brock and then he reads across Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics to show – quite effectively, I might add – that Bavinck has all the building blocks in place to affirm the beatific vision in a distinctly Reformed (largely Owenian) manner. In so doing, he shows that Bavinck’s approach would be quite similar in broad strokes (if not every detail) with the development of the doctrine in Boersma’s Seeing God and my Grounded in Heaven. Sutanto’s essay leans heavily on Christological teachings in volume three, chapter six, and it helpfully shows how Bavinck’s understanding of mediation should inform his beliefs regarding the beatific vision. It is still forthcoming, so I’ll be brief here. Suffice it to say that I think it’s a capable guide of adjacent arguments that would shape the development of a Bavinckian doctrine of the beatific vision or, better, show how Bavinck’s view would likely look like that of other, earlier Reformed theologians and would surely be expressed with a few contextually and polemically pertinent emphases. In both regards, it is a real achievement of a thought experiment that remains engaged with the real claims and silences of the Reformed Dogmatics. When it appears, we should all study it carefully.

Returning to Theological Practices

Thankfully, Bavinck studies looks still to be on the rise for the next extended season, given that there’s a range of primary sources recently translated and others yet to be translated, alongside a still relatively underdeveloped secondary literature.[8] There’s lots of blue water there for the theologian to study today and for several years yet to come. I hope students of mine, as well as others, will continue to turn to Bavinck, so I have vested interest in productive methods and principles being employed in analysis of his texts. I want to engage these responses in that spirit, namely, as a way of thinking more carefully about Bavinck and, in so doing, reflecting on wise theological practices. Hopefully so doing clarifies a bit about how we might think about what he does (not) say regarding the beatific vision, but considering the discussion itself may also bring to light the importance of at least a couple methodological commitments which should have much wider significance for theological practice (especially by those of us committed to the task of retrieval as a key aspect of our work).

No one denies that Bavinck has resources in his theology that would allow for the exposition of a mature doctrine of the beatific vision that is both catholic and also distinctly Reformed. Sutanto has traced the varied themes through the RD that would provide a framework for what we might call Bavinck’s implicit doctrine of the blessed vision. But here’s the thing: it’s an implicit doctrine in his magnum opus. When we read the eschatology in Reformed Dogmatics volume four, Bavinck affirms the existence of the beatific vision and briefly sketches the debates about its character that have marked earlier eras. He then simply moves on without saying what he thinks and why or why he thinks the questions are moot and/or unanswerable. If Bavinck has resources to develop a Reformed, Owenian approach, then why doesn’t he do so? If his textbook and his wider oeuvre suggest a principled theocentrism, then why not express that here? Boersma and I have raised these questions precisely because of his broader instincts and other writings.

I want to conclude by pointing to two broader methodological observations. First, we need to avoid the general instinct to defend a beloved figure at every point. The Fifth Commandment does have consequences for theological method. Loyalty is a virtue. Inability to attend thoughtfully to the texts of our forebears and heroes precisely where they may seem inconsistent, or understated, or even plain wrong is nonetheless not. The First Commandment always has axiomatic primacy and governs the Fifth. Therefore, far from Bavinck being my favorite nineteenth century theologian somehow stopping me from being alert to his weaker spots, that favored status should actually lead me to be especially attuned to those spots where his remarkable witness might falter or fall silent (in hopes that I’ll find help from others before, or alongside, or after him at those points). His own eclectic use of a catholic range of sources ought to model this necessity for us, and it needs to be applied here.[9] We do not want Bavinck studies to become a more orthodox variant of Barth studies, where the propensity has existed to argue that a single, solitary scholar somehow provides an unassailable answer to everything. Organicism doesn’t solve every quandary, and the Reformed Dogmatics doesn’t say everything just right. We should read the whole corpus, but do so cognizant that it surely didn’t get everything whole. Let’s engage Bavinck’s writings with the maturity that he modeled so often, not with anything marked by defensiveness or parochialism.

Second, a more particular methodological concern should be named. There’s a difference between showing how something is underdetermined after one has wrestled with a long-standing debate, on the one hand, and simply going effectively silent, on the other hand. For whatever reason, Bavinck’s eschatology in the RD just goes mostly silent (in constructive terms) regarding the major debates pertaining to the beatific vision. And we should ask: why? I suspect that he’s simply got other polemical and principal concerns to the fore at that point (for some understandable reasons) given his (appropriate) worries about mysticism and about dispensationalism. Those are conjectures based on his biography and other works (which Eglinton rightly calls us to remember). But we need to deal with his actual texts and what they do and do not say. Further, I think we need to acknowledge where his focus shifts, and why it might do so (so far as we can surmise), so we can make our own judgments in our own day about how best to present a proportionate eschatology that addresses the real challenges of our own day without failing to give voice to the whole counsel of God. And when we think an older argument that has marked the tradition isn’t actually answerable (in other words, that it’s scripturally underdetermined), we ought to show why that’s the case. We have to earn that silence by showing why we cannot say more (a position which we’ll often reach at one point or another, given the mysterious and infinite glory of the Christian God whom we study).

So that’s a lingering set of questions that still exist even if one acknowledges that Bavinck has a mostly implicit doctrine of the beatific vision, that he elsewhere presents a theocentric eschatology, and that his views on Christological mediation should set up a strongly Reformed approach to the blessed vision. In point of fact, they are actually questions that emerge precisely because of those realities, not in spite of them. And they are questions that ought to help prompt deeper biographical analysis. Retrieval and respect should not hinder but should encourage such probing inquiry. But asking those questions also shouldn’t hinder us from exploring how Bavinck’s resources and dogmatic impulses implicitly suggest a potential account of the topic that remains underexplored in the Reformed Dogmatics. Gray Sutanto’s essay helpfully shows that last point about what resources might help us extrapolate an implicit account of the vision of God from Bavinck’s Christological and trinitarian resources, and that’s most important from a constructive, positive perspective. At the end of the day, that’s the ultimate goal, namely, that, made more competent through careful examination of the work of others, we might be ready to account for the hope we have and better able to work as theologians. If we can’t talk about what might need improving, then we’re all less likely to press onward.

[1] Thanks to Scott Swain, Gray Sutanto, and Steve Duby for feedback on this brief essay.

[2] See Hans Boersma, Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), see esp. 33-41; and Michael Allen, Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope and Life on God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), see esp. 6, 61-63. I should emphasize that the two books share many judgments and concerns, but they do not agree at all points.

[3] Allen, Grounded in Heaven, 7-8.

[4] James Eglinton, Bavinck: A Critical Biography (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), 195-196. Eglinton’s reference to “the same article” follows on a lengthy quotation from Bavinck’s essay “The Future of Calvinism,” Presbyterian and Reformed Review 5, no. 17 (1894), 4-5.

[5] Cory Brock, “Revisiting Bavinck and the Beatific Vision,” Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies 6, no. 2 (2021), 367-382. While Brock alludes to my essay at points, he focuses upon Boersma’s argument.

[6] Allen, Grounded in Heaven, 26-28, 61-63. I might add that I have also turned to Bavinck’s “The Future of Calvinism” as a prompt for my own essay “The Central Dogma,” Reformed Faith & Practice 4, no. 2 (2018), 4-20 (see 6-9); repr. in The Knowledge of God: Essays on God, Christ, and Church (London: T & T Clark, 2022), ch. 1.

[7] N. Gray Sutanto, “On the Beatific Vision,” forthcoming in a book on Herman Bavinck and Theological Anthropology.

[8] Fortunately, there has been a spate of wonderful work in recent decades from researchers, highlights of which involves doctoral theses from Syd Hielema, James Eglinton, Brian Mattson, Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, and Gayle Doornbos. There remains yet much work to be done.

[9] Cory Brock and Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, “Herman Bavinck’s Reformed eclecticism: On catholicity, consciousness and theological epistemology,” Scottish Journal of Theology 70, no. 3 (2017), 310-332. This essay helpfully draws out a principle of eclectic use of figures and movements in the Christian tradition that does not involve one in an unprincipled or arbitrary (and perhaps consumeristic) approach, thereby differentiating the authority of a figure like Augustine or Thomas or Calvin or Bavinck or Barth from that of a creed or a confession. In so doing, I think it helpfully goes beyond the explicit arguments of Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), albeit in a companionable manner.