Simon Francis Gaine, OP, “Thomas Aquinas and John Owen on the beatific vision: A Reply to Suzanne McDonald,” New Blackfriars (2016)

One of the most interesting trends in recent work on John Owen has been a reconsideration of the Catholic sources of his theology. Sebastian Rehnman’s Divine Discourse: The Theological Methodology of John Owen (2002) and Carl R. Trueman’s John Owen: Reformed, Catholic, Renaissance Man (2007) set an agenda for this discussion, which was developed more specifically and in more detail in Christopher Cleveland’s Thomism in John Owen (2013). Another important contribution, which was given broad exposure by its inclusion in The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology (2012), and which is the subject of this reply, was Suzanne McDonald’s essay on “Beholding the Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ: John Owen and the ‘Reforming’ of the Beatific Vision.”

McDonald’s essay works to critique Aquinas’s account of the humanity of Christ as an aspect of the beatific vision, and to contrast it with Owen’s more fully developed discussion of this theme. While Aquinas argues for an immediate intellectual and spiritual vision of the entire Trinity, Owen argues that the beatific vision will be grounded in a physical vision of Jesus Christ. 

Gaine’s reply mounts a defence of Aquinas’s Summa, arguing that we should not make judgements upon the silences of a text that was never completed, nuancing the representation of Aquinas and the distinctions proposed in McDonald’s work. Gaine moves to defend the Thomistic position he has articulated, on the basis that it alone can sustain the teaching of Benedict XII’s Benedictus Deus (1336) that the beatific vision will occur without the mediation of any created thing (on the basis that Christ’s human nature was created). He calls upon support from Francis Turretin, who hinted in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology that the eschatological vision of God might be unmediated. The rest of Gaine’s article is a seven-fold defence of the position articulated in Benedictus Deus.

The following are among Gaine’s key arguments. Gaine argues that “as a result of making the physical sight of Christ’s humanity the ‘how’ for the intellectual vision of the divinity, Owen delays the soul’s essential beatitude until the resurrection, leaving the elected separated soul always in the realm of faith” (p. 440). “Where … an eschatology delays the beatific vision to the resurrection in every case, as does Owen’s, by making the resumption of the body a necessary condition of that vision, there is more possibility of confusion about that in which the essential core of our ultimate happiness formally consists” (p. 441). Gaine further argues that while Aquinas assumes that the saints will see the glory of God throughout the new creation, Owen believes this will only occur as they are viewing Christ. Owen’s vision is not merely “Christocentric:” his “Christomonism,” which seems so “indispensable to his overall theology of the beatific vision,” appears “narrow, individualistic, and static” (p. 445), and unsatisfactory, in Gaine’s analysis.

McDonald’s work called for greater ecumenical discussion, and Gaine has made an important contribution to this end, even if writing on a theologian “whom I know hardly at all” (p. 446), in hope for further discussion of the subject.

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