St. Irenaeus, the Beatific Vision, and the Instrumentalization of Creation

I’ve spent the last few years studying the theology of St. Irenaeus (d. circ. 200ad). In particular, I’ve been gripped by the way that Irenaeus consistently resisted the anti-body emphasis that emerged in later Christian theology. His eschatology is remarkably focused on the resurrection of the body, and the renewal of the cosmos; and he works overtime to avoid the “angelic soteriology” so prevalent in the later Christian tradition, namely the idea that humans become equal to the angels when they die. For Irenaeus, human beings, made in the image of the embodied Son of God, are at the top of the celestial food chain. Humans don’t become “equal” to angels when they die, but rather “pass beyond the angels” and ascend to God himself (Adversus haereses 5.36.3). In his battle against the Gnostics, Irenaeus was keen to insist that God will one day redeem the body, restore humanity’s earthly throne, and renew the earth itself.  

On the whole, Irenaeus’ eschatological vision is in agreement with the sort of story one finds in Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church,  and Richard Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology. (It’s not obvious that either author realizes they are channeling Irenaeus’ vision.) Both authors, in their own different ways, work to unpack the biblical data that shows the thoroughly terrestrial nature of God’s redemptive activity. Wright and Middleton work hard to show that the bible does not predict the annihilation of the material world, but rather its redemption. Visions of an eternal disembodied existence in heaven, we are told, are really just a hang-over from our Platonic past. Our soul does not ascend upward to spend eternity in heaven with God, as the Platonic tradition proclaims, but God himself comes to earth and restores and renews all things. He will dwell with embodied humans here on earth, rather than disembodied souls dwelling with him there in heaven. 

Michael Allen’s Grounded in Heaven

Reformed theologian Michael Allen isn’t buying it. In his recent book Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope and Life on God, Allen takes Middleton and Wright (and, it turns out, the Kuyperian Reformed tradition!) to task. He writes,

In several prominent recent accounts, central elements of the Kuyperian vision have been articulated in such a way that the center of our faith--the God who is with us (Immanuel)--goes missing at the finale….In particular, Kuyperian eschatology has so emphasized the earthiness of our Christian hope that it has sometimes lost sight of broader biblical priorities and has consequently undercut the catholic tradition's emphasis upon communion with God and the ultimate bliss of the beatific vision. ... We need to be wary of falling into an eschatological naturalism that speaks of God instrumentally (as a means to, or instigator of, an end) but fails to confess communion with God as our one true end (in whom alone any other things are to be enjoyed). (22-23)

Allen is not against Wright and Middleton’s basic idea that eschatology is materialistic; but he is against the way that their material eschatological emphasis tends to instrumentalize God as merely a means to an earthly end. Reading Wright and Middleton, Allen suggests, gives one the impression that the main goal of God’s salvation is that we will one day get to walk through a renewed earth full of flowers beneath a sunny blue sky. Allen suggests Wright and Middleton are wrongly assuming that disembodied eschatology is part of the larger catholic tradition. The problem, Allen says, is really just nineteenth-century dispensational escapism.

Allen is decidedly against what he perceives to be the crass instrumentalization of God. There must be more to God’s redemption than frolicking in fields of pretty flowers. Instead, Allen argues that modern theology needs to reclaim a notion of the beatific vision as central to eschatology. For the uninitiated, the beatific vision is the classic idea that beholding God directly with the “mind’s eye” is the final and ultimate source of happiness. In the larger catholic tradition, the beatific vision is the means by which the saints are perfected in eternity, since being eternally and ultimately happy in God forestalls any desire or inclination to sin. In particular, Allen points to Augustine, and especially Aquinas as model exemplars.

I resonate with Allen’s call to make the beatific vision more central to Christian eschatology. But in my estimation, Allen under-appreciates the widespread influence of dis-embodied eschatology and “angelic soteriology”  present in the catholic tradition. Contrary to Allen’s optimism, Platonism encroached on Christianity much earlier than the nineteenth-century! By the time of Augustine and Thomas it was already quite widespread. In particular, the influence of Platonism (and Greek thought more generally) can be seen in how Augustine and Thomas viewed the resurrection of the body.

Thomas and Augustine on the Resurrection of the Body

Both Augustine and Thomas insisted that true beatitude was achieved by beholding God directly and immediately via the soul, independent of creation. Augustine’s Platonism makes an appearance when he is discussing spiritual things with his mother:

The conversation led us towards the conclusion that the pleasure of the bodily senses, however delightful in the radiant light of this physical world, is seen by comparison with the life of eternity to be not even worth considering….Step by step we climbed beyond all corporeal objects and the heaven itself….We ascended even further by internal reflection and dialogue and wonder at your works, and we entered into our own minds….In this wisdom there is no past and future, but only being, since it is eternal. We touched in some small degree [eternity]. And we sighed and left behind us ‘the first fruits of the Spirit’ bound to that higher world, as we returned to the noise of our human speech where a sentence has both a beginning and an ending (Confessions 9.10)

Here Augustine’s preference for the immaterial over the material is clearly seen. But this basically Platonic commitment created a bit of a challenge for him when he argued against the Platonists in favor of the resurrection of the body. Augustine was always careful to affirm the resurrection of the body, insofar as he was careful to insist on the biblical teaching that the whole human being is comprised of both body and soul (contra the Platonists, who believed that the human being was strictly a soul—not a soul and a body). Yet in his syncretistic Christian Platonism he had a hard time articulating a positive vision for the resurrected body in the eternal state. While it was true that the body will be part of the resurrected humanity, the best he could say about it (anticipating Thomas) was that it would “offer no hindrance to the soul's contemplation of God” (Civ. 10.29).  

Five hundred years after Augustine, Thomas argued along the same basic lines in his Summa Theologica. Theoretically we do not need the body in order to achieve beatitude.  “Wherefore, since man’s perfect Happiness consists in the vision of the Divine Essence, it does not depend on the body. Consequently, without the body, the soul can be happy,” (I-II Q4 Art.5). But this claim pushed his soteriology in an unbiblical direction regarding the resurrection of the body. He offset this claim by nonetheless affirming the resurrection of the body. Following Augustine, Thomas likewise argued that a mortal body might “prove a hindrance” to the vision of God, and so we would lose our happiness (I-II Q4 Art.5). So philosophically considered, we don’t need the body for beatitude. But biblically considered, we do need the body. This is slicing the bologna pretty thin (as my old professor used to say). Surely there is more to the resurrected body than “not proving a hindrance” to beatitude.  

Both Augustine and Thomas get so many things right in their theology. But they were never able to fully shake free from the anti-material influence the Greek philosophical tradition. They could not put together a positive vision of the body; nor could they articulate how the resurrected body actually enabled human beings to experience God. And yet Irenaeus, nearly a thousand years earlier, had already started us down a path that avoided the Platonic errors of Augustine and Thomas as well the crass instrumentalizing of God that Allen claims can be found in Wright and Middleton.

Irenaeus on the Incarnation of Christ’s Body

According to Irenaeus’ incarnation theology, creation is not a barrier to beholding God, but is the very means by which God reveals himself to us. If our eternal happiness consists of beholding the glory of God (as the beatific vision claims, and as Irenaeus affirms), must this “beholding” be unmediated by creation in order for it to be eternal and beatific? Has not the illuminating fact of the incarnation—Jesus’ body—shown us we can indeed have a beatific vision mediated by creation? Irenaeus is careful to insist (much like Barth) that the only way we can know God is through the embodied man Jesus Christ. God is not known in abstraction or merely by the intellect. The incarnation itself is the very means by which God reveals himself to us. For Irenaeus, the incarnation is a perpetual reminder that God is always and eternally mediated to us by his creation. Which is to say, we achieve a true knowledge of God, and thus true happiness, through creation. Not only in this life, but even more so in the life to come.

Allen is concerned that we not instrumentalize God; a good concern. And I think he is probably right that Middleton does a bit of this. But perhaps the problem is that neither Allen (nor Middleton) can conceive of a fully glorified and instrumentalized creation. I suspect this is Augustine’s and Thomas’ problem as well. For Augustine, materiality is mutable and thus falls short of conveying the true immutable God. Irenaeus, on the other hand, has a category for deified creation—not just of Christ’s humanity, but of the whole cosmos—and thus he does not need to have a beatific vision that side steps creation. His doctrine of creation and beautification gives us a both/and. According to Irenaeus, the wonder of the eschaton is that creation becomes fully glorified in such a way that it serves as the perfect medium by which we mere creatures can behold God's glory. Contra his Gnostic opponents, Irenaeus insisted that all matter—not just human bodies—would be saved (Adv. haer. 1.6.1). Rather than being a “lesser good” to be climbed and then kicked away once one had reached the divine top, creation will be saved/glorified in such a way that God's glory will shine unmistakably through its every facet.

This idea is seen most clearly in Irenaeus’ Christology, but also in his broader anthropology. Human beings are the high point of creation. This is why Irenaeus can write, “The glory of God is a man fully alive, and the life of man consists in beholding God” (Adv. haer. 4.20.7). Thus, according to Irenaeus, the way to keep God from becoming instrumentalized, is not by finding an end around the necessity of creation, but by perfecting the instrumentality of creation; by looking forward to a day when creation will be perfected in such a way that God's glory will finally, at last, be revealed fully through it—a day in which seeing a fully alive human beings is the very means  by which we behold God.

At present (because of sin and creaturely limitations) the knowledge and glory of God is muted by creation. This is why we must hold the “present world” loosely. Not because it is earthly, but because it is not yet perfected, which is to say, not yet fully instrumentalized. But a day is coming when the Son of God will be revealed, and then all of creation, man especially, will not only not obscure the glory of God, but will fully reveal it.  

A Final Thought in Favor of Augustine

I conclude with a final thought in favor of Augustine’s vision of an eternal unmediated beatific vision. For Augustine, an unending immaterial and immediate experience of God—such as he and Monica experienced—is the glory of redemption. This Augustinian framework sees creation as a barrier to the vision of God. According to Augustine, we must ascend beyond creation, leave our mortality and bodies behind, and only then we will be truly and eternally happy. This frame of mind (very Platonic) runs against the Bible’s picture of eternity, as Middleton and Wright have shown. Yet Augustine’s frequent descriptions of his divine encounters are quite compelling, and I don’t want to dismiss them out of hand.

Here we can take a cue from Augustine’s typology and compare our final eschatological redemption to marriage, and the idea of an unmediated beatific vision to sex. Just as sex is the consummation and ultimate glory of marriage, so too the unmediated beatific vision is the consummation and ultimate glory of redemption. Marital sex (in its ideal) brings the husband and wife to a peak of pleasurable union that transcends words and conversation (similar to how Augustine and Monica’s vision of God transcended human speech and conversation). But just as human marriage is more than sex, and therefore sex is all the more wonderful, so too the Christian eschatological life is more than an unending beatific vision, and thus the beatific vision is all the more wonderful. Which is to say, there’s more to our final redemption than an unending, unmediated, beatific vision. Just as the shared rhythms and life of marriage give meaning to and increases the depth of the sexual relationship, so too our redeemed humanity and all its corporeality increases and gives meaning to the beatific vision. And just as marriage does not consists of unceasing sexual intercourse—however much sex is the rightful consummation of marriage—so too our final redemption does not consist of unceasing unmediated beatific vision—however much the unmediated beatific vision may be the rightful consummation of redemption.

Irenaeus’ mediated beatific vision reminds us that God’s glory shines through all that he has made. And Augustine’s unmediated beatific vision reminds us that there is an experience of God that transcends the limits of humanity.

So maybe Irenaeus and Augustine were both right, after all.  

Gerald Blog Thumb.jpg

Gerald Hiestand is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Center For Pastor Theologians. Gerald also serves as the Senior Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Chicagoland. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in theology and completed his PhD in Classics from the University of Reading.