Reading the expanded endnotes in a Tim Keller book is like watching the director’s cut of a film — you see everything the director wanted you to see before the movie got trimmed to the attention span of a popular audience.
In his excellent new book due out in about a month, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, Keller shows the importance of the beatific vision for the Christian life, a profound reality, which leads to profound understanding of the role of the gospel in sanctification, and to a profound understanding of the business of prayer.
Of course if you read only the main body of the book you’ll find great lines like:
“… unless you learn how to behold the glory of Christ, you are not actually living a truly Christian life.”
“To behold the glory of Jesus means that we begin to find Christ beautiful for who he is in himself.”
“If we don’t behold the glory of God in the face of Christ then something else will rule our lives.”
These are key insights. But he explains the robust theological foundation behind these statements . . . in the endnotes. Take gem #291, buried somewhere around page 311:
291. In her important article [“Beholding the Glory”], Suzanne McDonald points out that John Owen’s emphasis on the beatific vision put him somewhat at odds with other Protestants in his day. Most of his colleagues saw the vision as too otherworldly and too “Catholic.” Only Francis Turretin, Reformed Protestant theologian in Geneva and Owen’s contemporary, gave it attention. Thomas Aquinas and Turretin, however, both thought of the vision as basically one of intellectual apprehension of God in general, with Jesus as a kind of conduit for it (see McDonald, 151–54). Owen accepted the idea of the beatific vision but then “reformed” it along what he considered less speculative and more biblical lines, putting it into a Protestant and Reformed theological framework.
Rather than understand it as some generic apprehension of the infinity of God, he understood it as centering on the person and work of Christ. Christ was not a mere vehicle for the vision; he was its central object. Indeed, Owen argued, even in the future it would be in Christ’s glorified human nature that we would continually see God. Instead of a completely future, intellectual experience, then, Owen described the beatific vision as something that could happen in part by faith now, and would affect the whole person through its impact on the heart. Owen made the apparently esoteric concept of the beatific vision into a practical basis for prayer and experience right now. Because we can be shaped by the foretaste of the beatific vision, it can profoundly shape how we actually live day by day in the world.
Owen looked at the 2 Corinthians texts and noticed the unusual nature of the verb “behold as in a mirror.” In 1 John 3:2, we are told that the vision of Christ is future, but in 2 Corinthians 3:18, we are told that we can see and contemplate the glory of Christ now. The Greek verb katoptrizdomenoi is a compound word, meaning “to gaze at an image reflected in a mirror.” This makes sense of the two texts. When we look in a mirror, we are not seeing the object itself; we are seeing a two-dimensional reflection of a three-dimensional object. We can “see” Christ now, though only by faith.
What does it mean to behold Jesus by faith? “For Owen, the mirror through which we behold Christ’s glory is the gospel. We do not have unmediated access to Christ’s person in his ascended glory; we behold the glory of Christ, in his divinity and humanity, through the mirror of the Scriptures” (Ibid., 149. Owen also makes this case in Works, vol. 1, p. 305. “We have ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in his face alone.’ . . . This is the principal fundamental mystery and truth of the Gospel.” Cf. chapter 2 in Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, 293–309. Owen also makes the same point throughout his work The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded).
So it is when the gospel of Christ’s salvation is preached and explained that the glory of Jesus’ person and work is unveiled. It is as we meditate especially on gospel truths as they are set forth in the Bible that, with the Spirit’s help, the truth begins to shine, the love of God becomes palpable, and the glory of Christ dazzles, moves, melts, and transforms us.
This reading of the 2 Corinthians passages has good support by commentators today (see Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 206). “What will be Paul’s torch to shine the glory of that light into the hearts of others? It is ‘the gospel,’ the word of God,” by which the “knowledge of God” lights up the hearts of Paul’s hearers (2 Cor 4:11, 6; cf. Gal 1:16). Paradoxically, therefore, Paul’s readers see the glory of Christ as they hear the gospel, which in turn gives the knowledge of God” (206). See Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians.
“‘The glory of the Lord’ is God’s glory as it is revealed in his image, Christ. If we must identify the ‘mirror’ in which God’s glory is seen, it is more likely to be Christ as present in the gospel, the essence of which is Christ, or the gospel along with the Christian life as lived in the Spirit, than gospel ministers or Christians in general” (315).
So, Owen concludes, our “sight” of Christ is only by faith through the gospel, and partial. In the future, we will see him face-to-face (1 Cor 13:12).
See what I mean. If you plan on reading Prayer (why wouldn’t you?), don’t skip the endnotes.
This excerpt is reprinted by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Timothy Keller, 2014. Transcribed from an unfinished draft by clumsy fingers.