Christ’s Beatific Vision amongst the Reformed Orthodox: An Alternative Account

It has become common amongst contemporary Reformed theologians to claim that one of the differences between the 17th century Reformed and Roman Catholics was whether Christ had the beatific vision during his earthly life. The Reformed Orthodox are said to deny Christ’s beatific vision during his earthly ministry while the Roman Catholics affirm. Michael Allen, amongst others, has claimed this difference is due to a distinctively Reformed understanding of soteriology. This paper explores reasons to question this narrative both historically and theologically. Historically, I want to extend the work begun by Steven Duby by presenting more examples from within the Reformed tradition of those who affirmed Christ’s earthly beatific vision. This will then stimulate a theological assessment which concludes there was an eclectic appropriation of the medieval tradition by the Reformed in both its Thomistic and Scotistic distinctives. There are a number of early modern Reformed theologians, such as Samuel Maresius (1599-1673), John Forbes (1568–1634) and John Norton (1606 – 1663), whose continuity with various medieval approaches to Christ’s beatific vision remains to be fully appreciated.
After providing a taxonomy of various theological responses to this question within Reformed Orthodoxy, I treat its relation to other important doctrines. I argue there are considerable resources within the Reformed tradition to affirm Christ’s beatific vision, and suggest there were various specific polemical contexts in the 17th century which explain the progressive shift to a consensus of rejecting Christ’s earthly beatific vision by the 18th century. These polemical contexts include disagreements over the communicatio idiomatum with the Lutherans and Calvins teaching on Christs descent at the cross. Overall, a more nuanced appreciation of the various streams within Reformed Orthodoxy on this question will ground a greater ecumencial dialogue with Roman Catholics and revive engagements with the Thomistic and Scotistic influences within the Reformed tradition.