Misadventures in Retrieval: Further Readings in Credo and a Consideration of their Notions of Deification and the Beatific Vision in the Reformed Tradition

Misadventures in Retrieval: Further Readings in Credo and a Consideration of their Notions of Deification and the Beatific Vision in the Reformed Tradition

For my part I think it more likely that the WCF’s authors got their idea of the soul returning unto God directly from Scripture itself, and that neither Scripture nor their exegesis and systematization of it was formed in light of Neoplatonic tradition, be it knowingly or not.

Previously I discussed how Carl Mosser mistakenly implied that Rome-leaning Hans Boersma is Reformed in an article at Credo that purports to discuss Reformed notions of the beatific vision. I noted that such a blunder invites skepticism as to the rest of his claims, and one who considers those claims will find such skepticism justified. Mosser quotes Westminster Seminary professor R. Carlton Wynne’s suggestion that Boersma’s writings should be shunned “as harboring unbiblical Neoplatonic influences” and says that “these claims are curious since The Westminster Confession . . . alludes to the originally Neoplatonic notion that all things come from God (exitus) and return to him (reditus).” He quotes Westminster Confession (WCF) 32.1 as proof, which says that “[men’s] souls (which neither die nor sleep), having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them.” Mosser omits WCF 32.1’s Scripture proofs, however, which show that “immediately return to God who gave them” is a direct reference to Ecc. 12:7 (“the spirit shall return unto God who gave it”).  With that his argument falls apart, for it shows that Westminster’s notion of the intermediate state is derived directly from Scripture, not Neoplatonism.

Now in defense of Mosser one could say that Ecclesiastes itself was written late and under Platonic influences, though I think it highly unlikely that there is a convincing amount of evidence to support such a claim (it would take much) and doubt very strongly that such a thing was the view of most of the Westminster assemblymen, or even yet widely-heard in the pre-Enlightenment and pre-scriptural criticism era of the 1600s. But those are questions of canon and historical thought that are not quickly answered, and the burden should be on the one so inclined to make such a claim.

Alternatively, one could say that the WCF’s authors were recipients of a theology that had been influenced by Neoplatonism, and that, as such, they were recipients of Neoplatonic notions which they then confessed publicly. This seems to be Mosser’s point, as well as the view that Credo has been promoting as of late: there is a tradition – or rather, ‘Great Tradition’ – of common belief that permeates all of Christian history, and while it appeals to Scripture for proof of its doctrines, the tradition itself is often logically prior to its scriptural proofs. Hence Chapter Two of Boersma’s Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew is titled “No Plato, No Scripture,” and the ‘Great Tradition’ elsewhere lauds Platonism, which obviously exists apart from Scripture. On this view, in writing a confession the Westminster Assembly began with certain notions of the intermediate state that were derived from the Great Tradition that spanned back through the medievals and into the early Church, and they then turned to Scripture to buttress those notions and exegeted it in light of them.

Mosser asserts further that “the [Westminster] divines’ individual writings” show that they “confessed the hope of beatific vision in continuity with their patristic and medieval forbears,” and he appeals as proof to “many approving citations on the topic from the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Aquinas, Bonaventure and other figures sometimes alleged to have been unduly influenced by Neoplatonism.” That last sentence throws a pall over his whole argument. He begins by confidently asserting Neoplatonic concepts in the Westminster Standards, only to turn and say that the earlier figures whom he asserts Westminster’s divines approvingly quoted were only “sometimes alleged to have been unduly influenced by Neoplatonism.” Well might a reader think with some exasperation: ‘So were they actually Neoplatonic or only allegedly so?’

In any event, Mosser does not provide any examples of such “approving citations” as he confidently asserts abound in the Westminster divines’ individual writings in such plenitude, and so I say we let Mosser and other eager-for-tradition contributors at Credo prove that the Westminster Assembly’s systematization of doctrine was formed under Neoplatonic influences if they can. For my part I think it more likely that the WCF’s authors got their idea of the soul returning unto God directly from Scripture itself, and that neither Scripture nor their exegesis and systematization of it was formed in light of Neoplatonic tradition, be it knowingly or not. And if any is inclined to differ I invite him to read the WCF itself, with its 4,000 Scripture references and precisely zero references to Platonism, and attempt to make the case.

Having made an unconvincing case that the Westminster Standards are Neoplatonic in their confession of the believer’s experience of God after death, Mosser then formulates a doctrine of the beatific vision that is centered upon the concept of deification. He does not clearly define deification, though in passing (and in accord with wider usage) he links it to the Eastern concept of theosis, which holds that it is the believer’s end “to become a god” and “to be like God Himself” by union with him and participation in his nature. It is noteworthy that Mosser regards deification as essential to the beatific vision: quoting Boersma, he says that “historically, the doctrine of the beatific vision went hand in hand with theologies of deification,” and he elsewhere argues that “Reformed theologians who eschewed deification tended to also neglect the beatific vision or, at most, affirm a minimalist version of the doctrine.” He is so bold as to say that “deification is – and always has been – an ecumenical doctrine of the universal church,” and he mentions several prominent reformers in claiming that it is a historic Reformed teaching.

Of these reformers he only attempts an explanation with two. He begins with Zwingli, and his suggestion that Zwingli taught deification is not convincing. The first paragraph simply describes a version of the beatific vision that does not in itself mention anything about deification, but which emphasizes rather the perfect and enduring satisfaction that the vision of God will entail. Mosser states that “Zwingli’s description of the eternal state probably reflects the influence of Gregory of Nyssa who referred to this idea as epectasis” (emphasis mine). Two sentences later he says that “Zwingli’s description of epectasis expounds a doctrine of deification that he earlier inscribed in the first formal statement of Reformed theology, the Sixty-Seven Articles (1523).” From “probably reflects” to a definite “description of epectasis” in two sentences, and that on the basis of an assumed identity between Nyssa’s notion of epektasis (as it is more commonly spelled) and Zwingli’s statement that “the good which we shall enjoy is infinite and the infinite cannot be exhausted.” Note that Zwingli’s statement does not mention us being deified or perpetually increased in our capacity for good, but rather emphasizes God’s goodness being infinite. That seems to be the opposite of what is in view in Gregory’s epektasis.

Mosser quotes Article XIII of Zwingli’s Sixty Seven Articles as a more direct proof of Zwingli’s doctrine of deification: “Where this (the head) is hearkened to one learns clearly and plainly the will of God, and man is attracted by his spirit to him and changed into him.” There is a complication, however, in that the phrase that purportedly teaches deification comes from a single translation of Zwingli’s works that was published in 1901. The OPC and Reformation Heritage Books have more recently translated Article XIII differently, with “changed into him” appearing as “converted to him” and “transformed into his likeness,” respectively.

As a general rule a single obscure statement is not a good ground to build a major doctrine upon, especially where its meaning is translated differently by others. Mosser therefore appeals to a monograph called The Defense of the Reformed Faith, in which we find Zwingli’s exposition of his Sixty Seven Articles and with it some explicit mention of deification (“that a person is drawn to God by God’s Spirit and deified, becomes quite clear from Scripture”). There are a few things to note here. One, The Defense translates Article XIII as ending “transformed into his likeness” – it is in fact the translation Reformation Heritage Books uses above. Two, here too we are at the mercy of a single translator, who says that Zwingli’s original German “implies deification,” but who does not further explain why. Three, the only German translations of the Sixty Seven Articles I was able to find online give different versions of the text of Article XIII than are mentioned in The Defense, thus suggesting there are multiple variations of the text of Article XIII extant. Four, Mosser himself references a German phrase (in inn verwandlet) when he discusses Zwingli’s exposition of Article XIII, and cites The Defense, page 57 as his source. That German phrase does not appear on page 57 of The Defense: no German phrase does, and the only allusion to the original German is in two footnotes on page 58, the second of which is irrelevant here, and the first of which contains a different German phrase (und in got verwandlet) than Mosser uses. It is not clear then where Mosser is getting his German text, for it is not from The Defense.

Lastly, the orthodoxy of the translator of The Defense, E.J. Furcha, is in question, for he contributed to a festschrift that included a piece titled “Comparing Dharmakaya Buddha and God: Not an Exercise in Emptiness.” Furcha’s own contribution (“The Paradoxon as Hermeneutical Principle: the Case of Sebastian Franck, 1499-1542”) also invites suspicion, for Furcha regards Franck positively (“Franck’s Paradoxa is a masterpiece”), and seems to do so for reasons that we would disapprove (Franck is an “independent thinker who seeks to integrate expressions of a living Christian faith with valid manifestations of such faith in non-Christian religions”). We might be forgiven for suspecting that someone who could write that last sentence is perhaps likely to interpret a somewhat obscure phrase in a more liberal manner.

Mosser also searches for support for deification in Calvin’s writings, and here too his case is unconvincing. Some of Calvin’s statements simply sound like descriptions of a beatific vision, not the deifying one that Mosser promotes (e.g. “[Calvin] says ‘participation in the glory of God’ will exalt the bodies of departed saints ‘above nature’”). Mosser substitutes his own meanings of French and Latin phrases for those of the original translators of some of the works he cites, and in so doing translates them more sympathetically to his own view than did the original translators (see his endnotes 26 and 28). Of his competence in Latin and French I know nothing; yet his method is odd, as it invites the question as to why we should prefer his translations over the originals.

Some idea of how he handles his material can be gained from his consideration of Calvin’ statement that “Christ took to Himself what was ours in order that He might transfer what was His to us,” which Mosser says is an example of “the patristic exchange formula” which shows “the deep influence patristic writers . . .  had on [Calvin’s] soteriology.” That seems reasonable, but when in the very next sentence Mosser says “in these patristic writers, the exchange formula ‘teaches deification without actually employing the word’” and then goes on to say that “there can be little doubt Calvin meant it the same way,” well might we object that his use of words is far more convenient for his cause than those words themselves justify. Even the one passage which uses the actual word deify does so timidly and with reservation (“the end of the gospel is, to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us”). All of which is to say that anyone who wants to learn what the Reformed teach concerning the beatific vision will have to go somewhere other than Credo. For our state in glory, see Calvin’s Institutes III, ch. 25, a passage Mosser invokes only to mention Plato (in true Great Tradition fashion).[1]

Tom Hervey is a member, Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Simpsonville, SC. The statements made in this article are the personal opinions of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of his church or its leadership or other members.

[1]Concerning deification, see Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. II, pp. 187-190.

Scroll to top