Sunday, February 17, 2013

Thoughts on God's Transcendence and Immanence

Paul’s speech before the Areopagus in Acts 17:22-32 is the largest example of Paul’s preaching before a pagan audience.  In light of this it is no surprise that Paul spends a great deal of time speaking about the nature and character of the true and living God.  Paul develops a fulsome conception of God in that at least ten attributes of God are mentioned.  God is seen to be: (1) personal, (2) creator, (3) sustainer, (4) self-sufficient, (5) sovereign, (6) desirous of relationship with humanity, (7) omnipresent, (8) graciously patient, (9) a judge, and (10) able to act in human history in performing the miraculous. What is important to notice is not any individual attribute but rather the unique combination of attributes articulated by Paul.  Various ways of formulating the combination have been offered but one of the most well known is the transcendent/immanent distinction. 
Although “transcendence” and “immanence” are established nomenclature in theological studies care must be taken in defining these terms.  Reformed theologian John Frame accurately states:

Transcendence and immanence, however are not biblical terms, and so we must exercise some care in relating them to the teachings of Scripture.  Further, there are some ambiguities in these terms as they have been used by theologians.  So we should not simply take them for granted or assume that their meaning is obvious.[1] 

Often these terms are understood in spatial categories.  Transcendence tends to be seen as God’s remoteness—his distance away from his creation.  Immanence is usually understood to be God’s nearness.    Spatial metaphors are used in Scripture but an exclusive focus on these spatial metaphors to understand transcendence and immanence can be overly simplistic and lead to confusion.  For example, in their common usage among Christians transcendence and immanence refer to God’s remoteness and nearness respectively.  Yet there are some paradoxes to be considered in the notions of transcendence and immanence. 
            We often associate transcendence with God’ otherness—his remoteness due to the “heights” of his glory (notice the spatial metaphor).  Yet it is God’s invasive transcendence—his ability and willingness to break into the “natural” order—that most demonstrates his nearness to us, at times.  We long for his manifest presence to heal and save.  We desire to experience his tangible presence.  These invasive moments of God’s presence are his transcendence over the “natural.”  In this vein, consider God’s immanence. Immanence is usually considered in relationship to his “nearness” and yet it is precisely his immanence, understood as his correlation to natural processes, that tends to make God feel remote and distance.  We want to experience the manifest presence of God (his transcendence) in our individual lives but often we are left with the silence and hiddenness of his immanent presence.  We readily acknowledge God’s omnipresence but we long for his manifest presence.  So there are certain paradoxes latent within the categories themselves that defy simplistic reduction.
            There is also a symbiotic relationship between the categories of transcendence and immanence if understood in a biblical manner.  If we understand God’s transcendence to be correlated with the biblical ideas of his sovereignty, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence then it is precisely these attributes that allow God to manifest himself in an immanent manner within the creation itself.  Consider the words of J. Gresham Machen as he brings out this relationship between transcendence and immanence:

In the Christian view of God as set forth in the Bible, there are many elements.  But one attribute of God is absolutely fundamental in the Bible; one attribute is absolutely necessary in order to render intelligible all the rest.  That attribute is the awful transcendence of God.  From beginning to end the Bible is concerned to set forth the awful gulf that separates the creature from the Creator.  It is true, indeed, that according to the Bible God is immanent in the world.  Not a sparrow falls to the ground without Him.  But he is immanent in the world not because He is identified with the world, but because He is the free Creator and Upholder of it.  Between the creature and the Creator a great gulf is fixed.[2] 

Thus, we see that the categories of “transcendence” and “immanence” are complex.  A part of this complexity is due to the fact that we often fail to connect the categories with the biblical portrait of God.  Paul’s articulation of the nature of God in Acts 17 contains elements that theologians would normally associate with God’s transcendence and immanence.  What we often “put asunder” what Paul “joins together” in his portrait of God.  For Paul, God is the sovereign Creator (transcendence) and in this he “gives to all people life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25) so that the very air we breathe is a gift from God (immanence).  God is the sovereign controller of history (v. 26), thus, speaking of his transcendence.  He is also the One in whom “we live and move and exist” (v. 28) which matches up with his immanence. 
            Recognizing the inter-relationship between transcendence and immanence along with attempting to more faithfully integrate these terms with the specific biblical portrait can have very practical implications for the practice of prayer. There is need to keep both aspects alive and operative in one’s prayer life.  We pray to our Father “in heaven” which is a place of power and authority (Psalm 115:2-3) and yet we ask for “daily bread.”  In an effort to have both transcendence and immanence as part of my prayer life I have found it helpful to come before God in prayer and recognize his august majesty and comprehensive presence (both his transcendence and immanence) by confessing something like the following: “Lord you are the living God and right now you are interacting and sustaining all seven billion people on this planet and yet you are right here now in this room with full presence and power.  You have the very hairs of my head numbered.”  This helps to avoid the remoteness of God by stressing his nearness to me.  It also helps remind me that the epicenter of God’s activity and concern is not selfishly centered on me.  God is not my personal talisman and his purposes and presence are global in scale.  Both realities are crucial in order to keep prayer from devolving into unhealthy thoughts.  I find it a particular struggle to conceive of God as a personally engaged Father.  My tendency is to view God as majestic and, thus, far removed and, at times, unconcerned with the details of my life.  Reflecting on the fact that God is the One in whom I “live and move and exist” (Acts 17:28) helps to focus my mind on the utter nearness of God’s presence.  Considering, also the language of people “groping” for God to find because he is “far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27) is also reassuring.  If this is how God treats even pagans, how much more his adopted children!  This, then, provides a foundation for expectancy for the presence of God.  He is not distant or remote.  He is closer than the air I breathe.

[1] John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Philippsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002), 103-104.
[2] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), 62-63.