Review: Grounded In Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope And Life On God By Michael Allen

I remember seeing my first one. It was beautiful, and I could barely take my eyes off of it. There before me on a simple piece of paper lay the answers to so many of my questions. This was the secret, the once-for-all final word on where things were going and how they were going to get there. The colors were vivid, the organization was logical, and the details were, well . . . detailed. It was a chart outlining the Book of Revelation and the end of the world. Or at least, that is what it was supposed to be; and to nine-year-old me it seemed to make all the sense in the world. Or so I was told by the people who were in the know. Looking back, my first real glimpse of what I now recognize to be one of the hallmarks of dispensational premillennialism was more overwhelming than comforting. This was how things were going to go, although I could not always make sense of it—and sometimes two charts disagreed with each other. That was always less than comforting, to put it mildly. My theology has changed significantly since then. One difference is in my eschatology: not only am I now amillennial, but the beatific vision also plays a key part in my thinking about and expectations for the end. This is the doctrine that believers will see God face-to-face, both in heaven and the new creation. In other words, as important as the earthly is for eschatology, I now see that the heavenly aspect has priority. Michael Allen has helped with this in his book, Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope and Life on God. Like a skilled physician, Allen determines the problem and offers a solution.

Allen’s Diagnosis

Grounded in Heaven is a strange book in some ways. This is not a criticism—sometimes the strange books are the ones most worth reading because they make you reconsider important beliefs and retrieve help from the Christian past. Part of the strangeness lies in this: Allen is a card-carrying neo-Calvinist (8), yet his concern is that neo-Calvinism has led to a naturalizing of our eschatological hope (7). That is a mouthful. Put another way, Allen is concerned that Abraham Kuyper’s worldview and heirs have taken a helpful corrective (that we should be concerned with this world) and used it to over-correct (leading to a focus on this world to the exclusion of our heavenly hope). As Allen puts it,

When it comes to the climax of redemptive history, neo-Calvinists have often turned from focus upon communion with Christ, the presence of God, or the beatific vision (the classical image for the eschatological spiritual presence of the Almighty) to focus instead upon the resurrected body, the shalom of the city, and the renewal of the earth. (8)

Instead of this problematic emphasis in much modern Reformed theology, Allen presents a way to retrieve an older (and he believes, biblical) doctrine of the beatific vision and its implications for Christian life and practice (18–19). This is not a term with which many of us are familiar; if you are like me, you are tempted to think that anyone who speaks of the beatific vision is a Roman Catholic, whether open or closeted. Thinking this way is problematic, however, because it ignores the catholic (with a small “c”) pedigree of this doctrine (22). Allen argues that the older Reformed writers held to this doctrine and that it has been largely lost, or at least marginalized, in recent generations (40).

What is the result? Allen argues that the eclipse of heaven has led to an unintended consequence: the rise of “eschatological naturalism,” a term he coined (39). By this he means, “a theological approach that speaks of God instrumentally (as a means to, or instigator of, an end) but fails to confess communion with God as our one true end” (39). This is the danger of treating eschatology as if God will bring in his kingdom, and then disappear (40). This is the problem as Allen sees it: under the influence of neo-Calvinism, Reformed Christians have largely focused on the good to the exclusion/marginalization of The Best—God himself.

Allen’s Prescription

As Allen reminds us, when it comes to eschatology “we are speaking of fundamental hopes and ultimate desires” (36). That is why he wants us to retrieve a catholic and Reformed doctrine of the beatific vision. This is another way of saying that heavenly mindedness ought to be an important part of our Christian life and practice. What does Allen mean by “heaven” in this context? He defines it this way:

God’s special presence amidst creation, for heaven is a created realm permeated with and defined by his very presence and rule. Over against earth per se, heaven represents that space and time whereby God has provided and guided. And yet heaven can also be contrasted with the purely spiritual, for it involves not only the divine life but also that eternal reality turned unto the creaturely realm in grace and mercy. (92)

In other words, to be heavenly minded is to keep God as the center of our hope (37). Allen follows John Webster (1955–2016) in wanting us to have a theology that is actually theological—that is, a theology concerned with God as the end and not merely the means to other ends. What does this mean for our eschatology? For one thing, it means remembering that in Christ we have returned to God and will see him (whatever the exact details about how this is possible). This is our primary hope; all the other blessings of heaven and the new creation are secondary.

Allen notes the main Reformed contribution to this doctrine is in Christology—namely, when we see the incarnate Son we do truly see God (79ff). All the details of this are beyond the scope of Allen’s goal for this book, but even his brief discussion of “Reforming the Beatific Hope” (Chapter 2) is worth reading and considering.

After outlining the broad strokes of this doctrine and arguing that it needs to be recovered in our day, Allen turns to the second part of his goal: outlining how a recovery of the beatific vision affects our life in the present. Specifically, he argues for what we may call a reformational asceticism. By this he means a disciplined way of living that acknowledges God as the greatest good and therefore encourages abstaining from earthly pleasures to the degree they obscure our heavenly goal (136–37). Of course, there is a broad spectrum present within such a concept of asceticism, and Allen notes that the term has a mixed history in the Reformed tradition. Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), for example, opposed asceticism quite strongly. But Allen argues that John Calvin (1509–64) outlined a “chastened” version acceptable for Reformed Christians (134–36). With Calvin’s help, Allen outlines a form of asceticism that “involves bodily renunciation of certain earthly goods or pleasures, yet in so doing it need not flow from any hatred of or even dismissal of the body as itself a good” (138). He seeks to give us some directives for a life of self-denial that is catholic and Reformed—in continuity with the best of the broader Christian tradition but also in line with distinctively Reformed beliefs about the gospel and Christology. In giving this outline, Allen avoids “any lengthy analysis of particular examples, believing that the fundamental need of the day is . . . a matter of order and direction” (157). Allen succeeds in answering this need: for all the paradigm-shifting ideas Allen presents in Grounded in Heaven, the book is remarkably short (160 pages). I would not be surprised if it has primed the pump for other theologians to take up these themes and build on the foundation Allen has retrieved.

Assessment

Michael Allen has written a book that should foster much reflection in Reformed circles. May it lead to a consideration of God’s place in our eschatology. In the hope that it will do so, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to all pastors, seminarians, and interested laypeople who want to have a better view of what a biblical eschatology involves. It is not an exaggeration to say that this has been one of my favorite reads post-seminary. If you are interested in the history of the Reformed tradition, the relation of theology and ethics, or the recent retrieval of what has been called classical theism, then this book is for you. Let Allen help you diagnose some of the things wrong with modern eschatological discussions, even if this means you must examine your blind spots. Then let him help you retrieve a biblical (and traditional) view of the chief end of man. We believe that “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 1)—let us think and live like it.

©Christopher Smith. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Allen, Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope and Life on God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).


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