Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope and Life on God
by Michael Allen
192 pages (paperback), $18.00
The central message of Michael Allen’s Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope and Life on God might be summed up in one pithy axiom: The vertical empowers the horizontal. The more those who know the Lord fixate on the pending glory of beholding him face-to-face, the more this will necessarily affect our perspective on the vale of tears of our mortal life. Counterintuitively, heavenly-mindedness grounds, frees, and motivates us to sacrifice our own earthly comforts and deny ourselves—not just for the sake of doing so, but also for the higher purpose of serving those around us and building Christ’s kingdom. In all this, the opacity of God’s face may be reduced not only in the “hereafter” but in the “here.”
The book has several goals: the recovery of the beatific vision as the Christian’s ultimate destination from the threat of “eschatological naturalism,” the retrieval of heavenly-mindedness in the ascetic way of life with God, and scripturally prescribed self-denial in the Christian life. If the goal of the Christian odyssey is to see God face-to-face, then it’s fitting we should assess our historically inherited conception of the beatific vision vis-à-vis the inscripturated revelation.
The notion that “some people are so heavenly-minded that they are of no earthly good” is a bromidic criticism that Allen doesn’t openly address in the book. That would be so predictable. He admitted, however, in an informal conversation with me that it’s a platitude that has enjoyed far more use in the modern Christian vernacular than is biblically warranted. He doesn’t set out to debunk this notion of being “too heavenly-minded,” but rather to reorient readers to the temporal benefits of a heavenward gaze—the purpose being to show that longing ultimately for the beatific vision of seeing God in his glory, as he is revealed in Jesus Christ, actually enables us to more fully engage with this world.
Allen demonstrates how this hope carries into the New Testament by quoting from An Exposition on the Shorter Catechism: What Is the Chief End of Man? (repr. Christian Heritage, 2004) by Alexander Whyte:
The Scriptures constantly teach that man’s only true happiness is in God, and that his full happiness in God cannot be attained in this life, but that believing men have that happiness assured to them in the life to come. Commenting on John 14:6, [Frédéric Louis] Godet says, “Jesus here substitutes the Father for the Father’s house. For it is not in heaven that we are to find God, but in God that we are to find heaven.”
In his reflections on the mundane, Allen believes that recent Christian thought on eschatology—the doctrine of the end time and last things—has sought to refocus Christians on the earthly and the material, believing that it is essential to affirm both the goodness of this world, as well as the sufferings, injustices, and inequities of temporal reality. While charitably acknowledging all the positive that has come from such recent affirmations of eschatology, he is concerned that it has failed to be a productive reform. He says that it has made the penultimate ultimate, thereby degrading the biblical vision of glory that adumbrates the revelation of God’s face and evincing our own idolatry.
This overemphasis on the earthly is what Allen has tagged “eschatological naturalism”: “a bent toward the elevation of the earthy, embodied, and material as that of ultimate significance,” and “very specifically to a theological approach” that speaks of God instrumentally as a means or instigator of an end but fails to confess substantively God’s identity as our one true end (in whom only, any other things are to be enjoyed).
Eschatological naturalism marginalizes the presence of God and regularly maligns the spiritual hope of earlier Christians, [and it] presents a particular vision of God’s kingdom, wherein the triune God sovereignly brings about that kingdom but then seemingly slides off stage-right upon its culmination.
Taking a detailed historiographic approach, he elaborates on his concerns about how reforms have had both a productive and counterproductive effect within the neo-Calvinist tradition. He then discusses the Christian practice of ascetic self-denial and how it is properly carried out according to reformational principles such as solus Christus and sola fide, relying heavily on Calvin’s articulation of eschatological theology in his Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis:
Since the eternal inheritance of man is in heaven, it is truly right that we should tend thither; yet must we fix our foot on earth long enough to enable us to consider the abode which God requires man to use for a time. For we are now conversant with that history which teaches us that Adam was, by divine appointment, an inhabitant of the earth, in order that he might, in passing through his earthly life, meditate on heavenly glory.
Allen also confronts secular thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, who was suspicious of Christianity’s “slave ethic” and consequently unacceptable restraint of the modern spirit.
Nietzsche’s heirs have seen Christianity’s heavenly focus as a distraction or opiate: focusing upward, on the mythic heavens, we acquiesce to our miserable earthly plight. The spiritual, then, preserves the material status quo. The ethereal props up earthy injustices and frustrations.
He recalls C. S. Lewis’s response to Nietzsche with several examples that demonstrate that “if you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”
Allen then turns to the visio Dei debate, providing the reader with a summary of the historical background and weighing in on present discussions. The beatific vision, defined in passages such as Matthew 5:8, 2 Corinthians 4:6, and Revelation 21:3 and 22:4, is God’s people seeing him face-to-face in the new heaven and new earth. In a robust juxtaposition of Trinitarian visibility and invisibility in Scripture, he presents both attributes as being categorically true, while affirming visibility as an eschatological promise of divine sight. Allen enumerates ways that Matthew Levering, Hans Boersma, and G. C. Berkouwer all gave due attention to the visio Dei doctrine, especially Berkouwer’s treatment of the visio Dei that led him to affirm the visibility of God and, in effect, deny the invisibility of God as a divine attribute. He disagrees with Berkouwer on several points: by identifying divine invisibility’s biblical pedigree (Rom.1:19–20; Heb. 11:7) and by showing that Berkouwer’s chapter on the visio Dei ignores his own church’s confessional standards (The Belgic Confession), which affirm it.
Despite this critique, Allen agrees with Berkouwer concerning our moral fitness to see our Creator (Matt. 5:8; Heb. 12:14). He points out Berkouwer’s interesting statement, “The possibility of seeing God is the background of the fear of the consequences,” saying, “Berkouwer suggests that limits are moral, not optical, and relate to permission, not capacity” of human beings to behold God’s face. The Psalms frequently refer to the expectation and experience of divine sight, not only the longing for it (Ps. 42:2) but also the moral conditions requisite for it (Ps. 11:7): “For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.”
The book is well researched, carefully presented, and thoughtful—although considering its conceptual emphasis, I felt that greater attention to definitions would have been beneficial. For example, his definition of “classical” isn’t always clear. Toward the end of the book, Allen says,
We do well to retrieve the classical, catholic commitment to heavenly-mindedness that was cherished also by the early Reformed and the later Puritans so that we might confess the whole faith in a way that manifests an ordered set of loves. As we do lift up our hearts in this way, drawing even our minds also to contemplate the heavenly, we may be more earnestly compelled to go out where Christ sends us.
While certainly a true statement, this implies that the classical view has been monolithic throughout catholic history, which might be mildly misleading. At another point, he alludes to “the classical view” as being “the scriptural witness of the prophets and apostles and their intellectual and spiritual reception in the history of the catholic church.” While more specific, it seems to assume a consensus where there has been significant debate.
Even today, there is diversity in the continuum of church history on many points of doctrine, so the oversimplification of “classical” potentially can occur in as many subject areas as disagreement exists. Terminology is most helpful to people when it’s well defined, which is why in-depth theological writing with its qualitative demands tends to be long. I would altogether ignore the book’s lack of clarity on the meaning of “classical” if the word was not so integral to Allen’s underlying premise. All the same, if semantics is the biggest flaw in this work, then he has succeeded in proving his fundamental points about heavenly-mindedness and its translation into the Christian walk, all of which are enriching and of tremendous benefit to the church militant.
Peter Benyola (BA in journalism, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis) is the author of several Reformed theological e-books and many articles at www.Benyola.net.