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Beatific Vision and Moral Perfection: Basic Categories in Reformed Scholastic Ethics

Published Monday, February 8, 2021 By Seung-Joo Lee

Franciscus Junius (1545–1602), a notable Reformed theologian in the tradition of Geneva, Heidelberg, and Leiden, is well known for his contributions to Reformed dogmatics. His employment of the terms “archetype” and “ectype” was so effective in discussing prolegomenal issues that even twentieth century Reformed theologians, such as Herman Bavinck and Louis Berkhof, reaffirmed the distinction’s ongoing value in their works.[1] Yet, despite his reputation as a dogmatician, Junius is not really known these days for his contributions to Reformed ethics. This is rather unfortunate, because on a closer look one can find that Junius presented a robust account of nature and grace as fundamental concepts that determined the principle, power, and pathway of human action. Moreover, the appeal to nature and grace is so pervasive in Junius’s theology that, without understanding their relation, even his contributions to dogmatics cannot fully be appreciated, adopted, and appropriated.

Righteousness as Human Nature’s Attribute

First of all, to understand Junius’s moral thought one should consider his concept of righteousness. He argued in A Treatise on True Theology (TT) that the proper pattern of life for God’s heirs is “true righteousness” (TT, 212). In other words, just as God the Father is righteous, His children will possess righteousness as a proper pattern, feature, and attribute of their nature. Heaven understood in this way was “the dwelling place of God our Father and the inheritance of His sons” (TT, 132). This paternal, filial, or familial concept of heavenly righteousness is crucial because the perfected nature in heaven is presented not merely as a God-like nature, but concretely as a Father-like or sometimes as a Son-like nature. Junius then asserted that God distributes the “hereditary goods” to His children, and these moral goods, he argued, are communicated to them not only in heaven but also in the present life through faith: “Truly those hereditary goods indeed exist in the life to come, but nevertheless they are actually communicated already in this present life and are perceived through faith until we attain full possession of them in the future life” (TT, 212).

Nature and Grace

Thus we can see in Junius’s account the triadic relationship that heavenly righteousness has with communication, perception, and possession. These three concepts explain the economy of moral goods because human persons can possess them by perceiving and receiving what God has communicated through His Word. We can then raise a question here as to whether those moral goods are attainable by nature alone. Junius in his treatise on human freedom argued that Adam was originally created in holiness and therefore possessed “innate rectitude.”[2] However, Junius acknowledged that “to this particular principle of his nature was added (superadditus) a singular principle of grace for Adam, by which his intellective will was acting, singularly moved, above its natural mode.”[3] This is a more technical expression of the claim that “in man, even before the Fall, intellect could not raise itself by transcending the natural limits to supernatural knowledge, nor could the will apprehend those things, except supported and sustained by supernatural help.”[4]

In order to explicate the meaning of “superaddition” here at least two things need to be mentioned. Firstly, natural actions are analyzed by Junius primarily in terms of intellectual actions. He focused on the intellectual or rational power of nature because he believed that a human will chooses or refuses that which is presented to it by the intellect. It makes sense then that Junius endeavored to tease out the activities of intellect in explaining the order of human action: natural actions of human persons should be considered first at the level of reason, as what reason knows is a necessary prerequisite for what the will chooses; and what the will chooses in turn eventually shapes the trajectory of natural actions. The role of grace understood against this background therefore pertains to the communication, perception, and possession of heavenly righteousness, as God communicates supernatural truths to human reasons so that heavenly righteousness can be perceived and possessed by spiritual actions.

Secondly, although God uses the cognitive power of nature to lead humans toward a heavenward trajectory, Junius clearly affirmed that natural power alone is insufficient to cause such a trajectorial change. Rather, it is the power coming directly from the Spirit of God that leads human nature toward its eschatological perfection. Hence the concept of “superaddition” expresses the fact that the power to enter into heavenly home in heavenly righteousness must be added from above, and that it does not reside principally in the creature’s power. Such a position served to counter any Pelagian or Semi-pelagian notions of nature earning grace purely by its power or strength. Furthermore, it is because of this eschatological and moral character of grace that Junius saw supernaturalis theologia (supernatural theology) fundamentally as sapientia (wisdom): “[Theology] includes the intellection of first principles, the knowledge of conclusions and ends, and it is the most beneficial skill of our work, by which we strive toward God” (TT, 102).

Accordingly, in wrestling with Junius’s moral concepts, it is important to note that in his framework grace does not merely communicate superior principles of knowledge, or impart superior powers of perception, but also inaugurates superior pathways of action. In this moral framework, the grace of the Triune God is clearly designated as the singular cause of both potency and actuality of moral perfection, and its utter gratuitousness is highlighted whenever Junius attempted to explain the order of human actions.

Beatific Vision and Moral Perfection

All of these points indicate that Junius’s moral ideas are interlocked with his prolegomenal ideas. In his thought, eschatological righteousness overlaps with theology of vision, and righteousness received through faith overlaps with theology of revelation. Against this background we can truly understand his claim regarding beatific vision: “The theology of vision is that which has been communicated with the angels, and with the spirits of the saints made holy or perfect in heaven” (TT, 130). The righteous children of God on earth, then, should strive to perceive the heavenly goods as clearly as possible through revelation, and to possess them as purely as possible through faith, so that they can be enjoyed as much as possible even before entering into heaven. Thus, it is critical to bear in mind here that there is a mutual relationship between the purity of one’s moral condition and the purity of one’s theological perception: “As the righteous await this perfection, indeed, they grow up through their advances into the perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the full-grown Christ, and they rise up to the perfect vision of Him (Eph. 4:13)” (TT, 138–9).

In summary, in Junius’s thought—and in Reformed scholastic theology generally—moral perfection cannot be understood comprehensively without its relation to the beatific vision. Junius’s moral thought expresses a profound consideration of the fact that a finite, mutable, and earthly human nature advances to its perfection in the context of various causal, intellectual, and spiritual movements. Yet such advancement requires God’s supernatural grace; the power of perception and possession of heavenly righteousness does not reside in the human power, but in the divine power alone. In this regard, as noted just above, the role of theological perception is of paramount importance to one’s moral perfection: when someone’s life is lived out immorally despite his profound grasp of true theology, then the life is lived in disorder, not in proper order. For these reasons, though Junius’s ideas are expressed in the technical terms of his day, he can still teach us a great deal about the order of human action; and he can do it so well because of this: by using various patristic and scholastic categories, he explained the order of human action first and foremost against the background of the order of divine action. And due to this intimate connection between divine actions and human actions in his theology, Junius’s Reformed dogmatics speaks volumes about Reformed ethics.  

[1]. To explore further the life and work of, and scholarship on, Franciscus Junius, see http://www.juniusinstitute.org/.

[2]. Junius, De libero hominis arbitrio, ante & post lapsum, thesis 38. Cf. Reformed Thought on Freedom, 104.

[3]. Junius, De libero hominis arbitrio, thesis 34. Cf. Reformed Thought on Freedom, 103.

[4]. Junius, De libero hominis arbitrio, thesis 33. Cf. Reformed Thought on Freedom, 103.

Seung-Joo Lee holds an M.A. degree from Westminster Seminary California and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Seung-Joo is married to Daisy, and is working at Reformed Theological College in Melbourne, Australia, as Personal Assistant to the Principal.

  • Seung-Joo Lee