Did Jesus Christ Have the Beatific Vision from the Moment of His Conception?Pt. 1
The main question and main point I will be addressing in these two blogs is this: Did Jesus Christ possess the beatific vision from the moment of his incarnation in the womb of Mary? And I will first address the question from a magisterial perspective. And just so you know the answer at the back of the book, the answer is, “yes, he did.” Secondly, I will examine this question from a biblical perspective. And finally, I will answer the all-important question: “Does this really matter one way or the other?” And the answer to that question is a resounding, “yes, it does matter!” Hopefully, by the end of these two blog posts that question will be amply and clearly answered.
The Beatific Vision
First, let’s define terms. What is the beatific vision? The beatific vision is, by definition, “The immediate, directly intuited vision, knowledge, or possession of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the passive intellect as a gift of God’s grace to the blessed in heaven.”
What do we mean by “immediate” vision or knowledge? Immediate means apart from any of what St. Thomas calls “phantasms,” images, or even concepts whereby we come to know God indirectly or by analogy.
What do we mean by “vision?” When the church speaks of “vision,” in this context, she does not mean seeing with eyeballs. The Church here means comprehending with the intellect analogous to a physics student who studies earnestly and finally comes to understand the answer to an equation. He says, “Now I see!” Similarly, when we say the blessed “possess” God, we mean “They’ve now got it!” To use the physics student again, when he finally comprehends the equation he had been studying, “he got it!” It’s in this sense of comprehending something that we would say to the comprehendor, in popular parlance, “you own it! It’s yours, dude!”
CCC 1028 puts it this way by way of a pithy definition:
Because of his transcendence, God cannot be seen as he is, unless he himself opens up his mystery to man’s immediate contemplation and gives him the capacity for it. The Church calls this contemplation of God in his heavenly glory “the beatific vision”
Pope Benedict XII defined infallibly, in 1334:
… these souls [in heaven] have seen and see the divine essence with an intuitive vision and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature by way of object of vision; rather the divine essence immediately manifests itself to them, plainly, clearly and openly, and in this vision they enjoy the divine essence.
Notice, CCC 1028 says the beatific vision is a matter of contemplation with the mind, not a kind of “seeing” with the eyes. “An intuitive vision” as Pope Benedict XII said, “without the mediation of any creature by way of object of vision.” There are no images or analogies between God and the blessed. “The divine essence manifests itself to them.”
So with this understanding of the beatific vision as the Church understands it, we can begin with our main question we want to answer: Did Jesus Christ in his human nature possess God in the beatific vision from the moment of his Incarnation? The short answer is, yes! The Church does teach Christ had the beatific vision from the moment of his conception, but unfortunately, in recent years we have had a disturbing number of Catholics and from very different points along the Catholic spectrum of belief denying this crucial truth. When I was in formation for the priesthood in the late eighties and early nineties, the Jesuit Priest, Fr. Jean Galot’s book, “Who is Christ: A Theology of the Incarnation” was all the rage in liberal circles in the Church. He categorically denied this teaching. We’ll hear from him later. And just so you know, it is an awful book! More recently, it was another Jesuit, Fr. Jon Sobrino’s even more horrid two liberation theology books, “Jesus the Liberator” and “Christ the Liberator” (don’t think I am picking on these two Jesuits because they are Jesuits, folks. I’m not. I could have easily picked any number of similar examples across the board in recent times! It’s just that Jesuits seem to be particularly good at this stuff!).
At any rate, and thanks be to God, Fr. Sobrino’s works were actually examined by the CDF and found wanting! I will speak more about that later as well. But you have others who are otherwise orthodox that are on the bandwagon as well denying this that is the teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church, which results, as we will see, in making mincemeat of both our Christology and Soteriology (study of salvation).
For some, the reason is found in a misapprehension when it comes to CCC 474, which we will deal with later in detail. That is relatively easy to fix. Others, however, are much more difficult to deal with. Among these, I have found there to be a, sort of, common denominator—there seems to be a rather insidious tendency to want to reduce Jesus to the level of what I like to call “Joan Osborne” Christology! Remember the song? “What if God Was One of Us?”
What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us Just a stranger on the bus Trying to make his way home Like a holy Rolling Stone Back up to Heaven all alone Just trying to make his way home Nobody callin’ on the phone ‘cept for the Pope maybe in Rome
Poor little God, right?
Poor little Jesus!
What happens over and over again especially in our day and age, is in the name of creating a Jesus who is “just like us,” we end up losing the real Jesus! The idea is the “little Jesus” makes us feel better about ourselves and our own imperfections and sins. Because after all, wasn’t Jesus “just a slob like one of us?”
Let me give you an example here of what I am talking about that is a really subtle one. How many of you have heard this line, “The Bible says Jesus was like us in all things except sin!” FALSE! The Bible never says this! This is actually a misquotation of Heb. 4:15, which actually says: Christ “was tempted in all respects as we are yet was without sin.” Big difference! Anybody here have two natures, one divine and one human hypostatically joined in one divine person? If you said yes, you’re wrong! If you said no, you are right. And Jesus is not “like us in all things!” At least, not in a strict sense.
Now, don’t get me wrong here, there is a sense in which we can say, and properly so, “He is like us in all things except sin,” if by that we simply mean Jesus fully possesses a truly human nature, just like ours. However, that phrase, I have found, is often accompanied by all sorts of errors concerning Jesus Christ, many of which reduce him to something less than he is… less than the revealed savior of the world, folks! He becomes a Jesus who would either sin or could sin…. just like us. He is a Jesus who was ignorant… just like us, etc. So be careful when you hear those words, “He is like us in all things, except sin.” You may just find the person using this line to end in believing in a Jesus who “is just a slob like one of us….”
Now, for our purpose here, and in this our modern era of re-creating a nice little Jesus who makes us feel good about our sin and ignorance, I have found too many good people ending up losing the real Jesus entirely! In Catholic circles, the emphasis on “like us in all things” becomes “stupid like we are.” Or, as Fr. Galot put it on page 350 of this book,
The fact of this ignorance [in Christ], which is undeniable, takes on special importance in the light of the Incarnation. Jesus conferred a superior significance upon human ignorance, since it is not unworthy to be assumed by the Man who is God.
Oy vey! Perhaps Jesus forgot to add this to the beatitudes, right? “Blessed are the ignorant…?”
This kind of what I like to call “teaspoon-deep theology” leads to, well, let me tell you a little story. Some years ago I was reading an article commenting on Matt. 16:13-18 and the famous “who do you say that I am” passage that said words to the effect of, “When Jesus asked the apostles ‘who do men say that I am,’ we focus on the response of Peter, but the question is equally important. Jesus was uncertain and needed to be affirmed by the apostles!” Remember the song by Supertramp? “I know it sounds absurd, please tell me who I am!”
Was that Jesus? “Please apostles, please tell me who I am!”
Oy vey, people!
At any rate, at this point let me lay out a road map as to where we’re going so we’ll know if or when we get there that we’ve arrived! In these two posts we are going to attempt to accomplish three major objectives:
1. What does the Magisterium have to say about Christ having the beatific vision from the moment of his Incarnation?
2. What does Scripture have to say about it?
3. What happens to our Christology and Soteriology when this teaching is denied?
Let us start at the beginning, which, according to Maria Von Trapp, is a very good place to start! Contrary to a lot of popular sentiment in our day and age, the Church is actually quite clear in her teaching that Christ had the beatific vision from the moment of his conception. Though it has not been the object of an infallible declaration, it is at the very least the teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium that requires religious assent of the intellect and will and cannot be licitly publicly denied. I will not attempt an exhaustive exposition here but let me give you some recent examples of the clear teaching of the Church.
Pope Pius XII, in his great Encyclical on Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Haurietis Aquas (May 15, 1956):
the Heart of the incarnate Word… is… the symbol of that burning love which, infused into his soul, enriches the human will of Christ and enlightens and governs its acts by the most perfect knowledge derived both from the beatific vision and that which is directly infused.
And by the way, concerning “infused knowledge,” that is beyond the scope of what we want to accomplish here. We are focusing on the beatific vision. But the argument is that if St. John Vianney, or St. Padre Pio had infused knowledge enabling them to read souls and such, then Jesus Christ would have had these gifts, and indeed all of the spiritual gifts, to the greatest possible extent a human soul can possess them. And this is backed up in Scripture with texts like John 3:34 that we will examine in more detail later because it concerns our topic as well. John 3:34 declares God to have poured out the Spirit upon Christ “without measure!” That means, to the fullest extent that is possible given a human nature. But most importantly for now, that same Pontiff, Pope Pius XII, also gave us his masterpiece Encyclical, Mystici Corporis, of June 29, 1943, in which he declared in paragraph 75:
But this most loving knowledge of our Divine Redeemer, of which we were the object from the first moment of his Incarrnation, exceeds all that the human intellect can hope to grasp. For hardly was he conceived in the womb of the Mother of God, when he began to enjoy the beatific vision, and in that vision all the members of his Mystical Body.
Isn’t that beautiful folks? More on this later as well. But Christ’s having the beatific vision is what empowers him to be able to know and love each of us from his mother’s womb and to merit our salvation from the womb to the cross. In fact, CCC 478 says during his passion, Christ “knew and loved each of us with a human heart.” More on all of that and much more in Pt. 2! But just remember this: Given the revelation that we have received, this beatific knowledge of both God and each of us is necessary for Christ to be “the savior” at all! This is why this kind of matters, folks!
Now I should note here that in more recent Magisterial statements, the language of “beatific vision” has not been used; rather, you’ll find words like “a clear vision,” or “immediate vision.” But I want to emphasize this is not a change in the essence of the teaching on this. In fact, the Magisterium of the Church has told us as much. It is, it seems, a way of the Magisterium emphasizing that there is a difference in Christ’s experience of the beatific vision before and after Calvary. And that seems rather obvious. Though Jesus received the beatific vision, as St. Thomas says, in his passive intellect from the moment of his conception, he chose to not allow the ancillary effects of the beatific vision to penetrate into his lower faculties, that is, his emotions, feelings, and into his physical body. He emptied himself not only of his divine glory in the “kenosis” of Phil. 2:5-10, but he also freely chose to not allow into his human nature what are the fruits of the beatific vision that, for example, the Blessed Mother enjoys now in heaven. Namely, the gifts of glory, subtility, agility, and impassibility, as well as the emotional consolation and elation that is the common lot of the blessed in heaven. These belonged to Jesus by right because he possessed God in the beatific vision. And when we get to the biblical texts concerning this issue, we will see that from time to time Jesus did allow himself to experience some of these gifts, such as when he experienced the gift of glory on the Mount of Transfiguration in Matthew 17, or perhaps when he was in his home town of Nazareth and there a mob was about to attempt to kill Jesus, “But passing through the midst of them he went away” (Luke 4:30).
Jesus chose to empty himself of these gifts and more in the Incarnation. But remember this: the beatific vision is the essence of what heaven is. Jesus did not and could not “give up” the beatific vision, folks, for reasons we will see that are as clear as a bell! Hang on! But, very importantly, he did give up all of these great gifts that are what I will call the fruits of the beatific vision in order that he could be one with us in our wayfaring state. This will be important when we get to understanding the soteriological consequences of denying Christ has the beatific vision. For example, in order to merit our salvation he had to be both “comprehensor” and “viator”—that is—both possessor of the beatific vision, but also be in a wayfaring state, which seems to be a contradiction. But it is not. More on that later. But for now, just remember all of these other gifts are species or subsets under the genus of the beatific vision of God. And these are gifts Jesus Christ freely chose to give up for us.
Again, and one more time, more on that when we get to why this stuff matters! Hang on to your hats, folks!
But for now, back to the Magisterial statements of the Church. Pope St. John Paul II, from his General Audience of Dec. 7, 1988 gives us a great example of a somewhat nuanced use of terms when speaking of Christ possessing the beatific vision that too many folks do not understand in their proper context. In the context of describing the passion and then death of our Lord, JPII said,
… it is the soul of Jesus that enters into the fullness of the beatific vision in the bosom of the Trinity (è l’anima di Gesu che entra nella pienezza della visione beatifica in seno alla Trinità)
Unfortunately, in the English translation of this papal address the word “fullness” (pienezza) is omitted, which has led some to wrongly think John Paul was contradicting the earlier teaching of the Church, as well as his own later teaching, as we will see, and saying Jesus did not have the beatific vision from the moment of his conception, but only after his death on the cross. This is not so. But it is understandable if you read the English translation that leaves out the word “fullness.” If you read these words again one can see the problem: “… it is the soul of Jesus that enters into the beatific vision in the bosom of the Trinity.” And this, again, is in the context of Christ’s passion and death. However, if we read it again properly translated there is a huge difference: “… it is the soul of Jesus that enters into the fullness of the beatific vision in the bosom of the Trinity.”
Christ entering into “the fullness of the beatific vision” is easily squared with the idea of Christ not allowing the fullness of the fruits of the beatific vision to flow fully into his human nature. This, he had to do, as we will see, for example, so that he could truly merit our salvation. He had to be in a “wayfaring state” in order to merit. In other words, he had to overcome obstacles that are inherent in a wayfarer, that are not in one who possesses all of the fruits of the beatific vision, such as, the gift of impassibility. He had to be able to suffer and die for him to be able to win the victory over suffering and death.
I keep getting ahead of myself here. We will get to more of the reasons why Jesus is revealed to have possessed the beatific vision later, but right now, I want to note that Pope St. John Paul II would later, and clearly, teach that Jesus did have the beatific vision from the moment of his Incarnation. First, we find it taught in CCC 473 promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II later in 1997:
“The human nature of God’s Son, not by itself but by its union with the Word, knew and showed forth in itself everything that pertains to God.” Such is first of all the case with the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father.
Notice first, CCC says Jesus’ “human nature” had “immediate” knowledge of his Father and, very importantly, the CCC italicizes this next phrase as a matter of emphasis, “not by itself but by its union with the Word.” This language goes to the heart of what it means to possess God in the beatific vision and for Christ it means that he had it from the moment of his conception. Second, the sentence in quotation marks is a quote from St. Maximus the Confessor teaching on Christ having the beatific vision from his mother’s womb.
Third, take note that, according to CCC, Jesus does not have faith. He possessed the “immediate knowledge” that comes through the beatific vision of God in his human nature and from the moment of his Incarnation, or by its union with the Word. Remember: the union of Christ’s human nature and the Word—the hypostatic union—occurred at the moment of the Incarnation of our Lord. Thus, the great mysteries of the Incarnation and the hypostatic union are the sources of Christ’s knowing and showing forth in his human nature “everything that pertains to God” including “the… immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father.” We here who are not the Savior possess a faith in God necessarily mediated through images precisely because we don’t have the beatific knowledge of God. We can only know the truth of God through images and through analogy. Christ’s human knowledge of God was immediate by virtue of the hypostatic union from which it necessarily follows that Christ had the beatific vision.
Moving forward on the magisterial train now, we have to consider Pope St. John Paul II’s Jan. 6, 2001 Apostolic Letter, Novo Millenio Ineunte, “the Beginning of the New Millenium.” Here, Pope St. John Paul puts an end to any notion that he denied Christ had the beatific vision making very clear that even at the darkest moment in his earthly life—on the cross—he possessed the beatific vision of God in his human soul. In paragraph 26:
At the very moment when he identifies with our sin, “abandoned” by the Father, he “abandons” himself into the hands of the Father. His eyes remain fixed on the Father. Precisely because of the knowledge and experience of the Father which he alone has, even at this moment of darkness he sees clearly the gravity of sin and suffers because of it. He alone, who sees the Father and rejoices fully in him, can understand completely what it means to resist the Father’s love by sin. (I need to interject here that Christ needed to possess the beatific vision of God in order to be the savior. You can’t give what you don’t have, folks! And he needed to be wayfarer in order to truly merit as I said before—and that not for himself, but for us! Moreover, he needed to have the beatific vision in order to do what Is. 53:4 prophesied: “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” He could not see the full gravity of sin apart from the beatific vision!” Now back to Pope John Paul II) More than an experience of physical pain, his Passion is an agonizing suffering of the soul. Theological tradition has not failed to ask how Jesus could possibly experience at one and the same time his profound unity with the Father, by its very nature a source of joy and happiness, and an agony that goes all the way to his final cry of abandonment. The simultaneous presence of these two seemingly irreconcilable aspects is rooted in the fathomless depths of the hypostatic union.
There is much we could say here that would take us far beyond our space constraints. But most importantly for now, notice, Jesus “sees the Father and rejoices fully in him” even in the midst of the unthinkable pain of the cross. And by the way, it is the beatific vision, notice, that is the source of both the joy Christ possessed by virtue of his immediate knowledge of his Father, and it is the source of pain in that it alone enables Christ, in his human nature, to be able to comprehend the full weight of the sin he was called to bear!
Oh, the depths!
Moving forward magisterially, we have a very important document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, promulgated Nov. 26, 2006, where the CDF issued what is called a “Notification” concerning the two awful books I mentioned before written by Fr. Jon Sobrino, S.J., “Jesus the Liberator” and “Christ the Liberator.” These each contain manifold grave errors concerning multiple points of theology deemed contrary to the Catholic Faith. Among the six major errors or categories of errors was Sobrino’s express denial of Christ having the beatific vision (category #5). He claimed Christ had faith rather than knowledge and as such taught Christ to be purely an exemplar of faith for us even up to giving us the ultimate example of faith on the cross. These were serious errors that emptied the Faith of meaning at the very core. “Just a slob like one of us!” somehow comes to mind!
At any rate, this document will give us key insights into the Magisterium’s understanding of the earlier documents I cited as well as key biblical texts involved in the discussion. Take note of some of the responses:
These citations [of Fr. Sobrino’s making] do not clearly show the unique singularity of the filial relationship of Jesus with the Father; indeed, they tend to exclude it. Considering the whole of the New Testament it is not possible to sustain that Jesus was “a believer like ourselves”. The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus’ “vision” of the Father: “Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father”. This unique and singular intimacy between Jesus and the Father is equally evident in the Synoptic Gospels.
The CDF here cites John 6:46: “Not that anyone has seen the Father except him who is from God; he has seen the Father,” and John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known (revealed him!).” This makes clear Jesus had the beatific vision from the perspective both of Christ “seeing” the Father, and “revealing” the Father. You have to “see” to “reveal.” And then the CDF cites Matt. 11:27: “… no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Here, the Scriptures reveal Christ to have “knowledge” rather than faith, from the perspective of the Church.
Warning, real important stuff here! The CDF continues to make clear not only that the Church teaches Christ had the beatific vision from the moment of his conception, but that the change in language used in more recent magisterial documents as we’ve seen does not contradict this essential teaching as I said before. And even more, this understanding is necessarily connected to our soteriology! Given the revelation that we have, we know without Christ possessing God in the beatific vision, we cannot be saved! This is not Tim Staples’s opinion. Let me cite the CDF, in section V:
The filial and messianic consciousness of Jesus is the direct consequence of his ontology as Son of God made man. If Jesus were a believer like ourselves, albeit in an exemplary manner, he would not be able to be the true Revealer showing us the face of the Father. This point has an evident connection… with… what will be said in VI below concerning the salvific value that Jesus attributed to his death. For Father Sobrino, in fact, the unique character of the mediation and revelation of Jesus disappears: he is thus reduced to the condition of “revealer” that we can attribute to the prophets and mystics. (More about this later!)
Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, enjoys an intimate and immediate knowledge of his Father, a “vision” that certainly goes beyond the vision of faith. The hypostatic union and Jesus’ mission of revelation and redemption require the vision of the Father and the knowledge of his plan of salvation. This is what is indicated in the Gospel texts cited above.
Various recent magisterial texts have expressed this doctrine: (Quoting Mystici Corporis, 75) “But the knowledge and love of our Divine Redeemer, of which we were the object from the first moment of His Incarnation, exceed all that the human intellect can hope to grasp. For hardly was He conceived in the womb of the Mother of God when He began to enjoy the Beatific Vision”.
Though in somewhat different terminology, Pope John Paul II insists on this vision of the Father: “His [Jesus’] eyes remain fixed on the Father. Precisely because of the knowledge and experience of the Father which he alone has, even at this moment of darkness he sees clearly the gravity of sin and suffers because of it. He alone, who sees the Father and rejoices fully in him, can understand completely what it means to resist the Father’s love by sin”. [That is a quotation from Novo Millenio Ineunte (Pope St. John Paul II, “On the Coming of the New Millennium”)]
Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the immediate knowledge which Jesus has of the Father: “Such is first of all the case with the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father”. “By its union to the divine wisdom in the person of the Word incarnate, Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal”.
That is the CDF telling us that Pope St. John Paul II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church “likewise” teach that Jesus Christ had the beatific vision from the moment of his conception, folks!
And then we have this, continuing with the CDF:
The relationship between Jesus and God is not correctly expressed by saying Jesus was a believer like us. On the contrary, it is precisely the intimacy and the direct and immediate knowledge which he has of the Father that allows Jesus to reveal to men the mystery of divine love. Only in this way can Jesus bring us into divine love.
To put it simply folks, and according to the Catholic Church, Jesus needed the beatific vision in order to fulfill the revelation we have received concerning, 1. Who the savior is, and 2. How the savior saves.
I should note here that there is no natural necessity here, folks. God could have saved us in any number of ways because he is almighty! He didn’t have to be incarnate at all! However, given the revelation we have as understood by the Church, to empty Christ of the beatific vision is to lose both the savior and salvation itself!
More on all of this in our next blog post!
God Bless You!