The Rhythm of Transcendence and Immanence— Reflections on Christian Worship of the God of Wonder(s): Implications and Applications for Worship Planning and Design (Part 2)
In last week’s blog, I made the following statement: “understanding God in his transcendent otherness is not simply important, but, perhaps surprisingly to many, it turns out to be one of the most consequential concepts a worship leader can embrace and deploy in worship planning. Divine transcendence uniquely and best provides the necessary and proper interpretive framework for God and every immanent attribute he possesses. No other concept can better clarify or explicate God’s immanence than his transcendence. Sequencing the drama of worship in such a way that begins with transcendence and incorporates the rhythm of transcendence then immanence will transform how believers conceive God and subsequently how they worship God.” This week, I would like to continue to explore the answer to this question: “why does ordering and sequencing of a worship service matter?”
Order and sequence matter because faithfulness to the biblical narrative and the grand scriptural themes matters. Each worship service communicates a portion of God’s story, and every worship service through both its form and content communicates theological convictions about God’s story that are held by the church. Worship pastors must be faithful to rightly convey God’s story in a way that is true to and patterned after the biblical narrative. What are the stories that worship services communicate? I contend that every worship service communicates (or should communicate) one or more of four overarching grand biblical themes: the story of God’s glory, the story of the biblical metanarrative, the story of the gospel, and the story of worship. These four stories enable believers to be more rightly oriented toward the God of their worship, to know more fully the God who summons believers to worship, and to properly understand their role in the dramatic dialogue of worship. To faithfully mirror the contours of Scripture, worship pastors must carefully cast each part of God’s story in the right way and in the right order. Not surprisingly for the student of the Bible, all four stories illuminated in the paragraphs to follow launch from and are built upon the foundation of the transcendence of God.
The glory of God. To be true to the grand themes of Scripture, worship services must faithfully express the wonder of God’s glory. The glory of God could be considered the most central story of all, subsuming all other biblical storylines. God is intrinsically glorious, a term most difficult to define within the limitations of human vocabulary. His inconceivable majesty transcends all human language to describe. According to John Piper, the glory of God “is an attempt to put into words what cannot be contained in words—what God is like in his unveiled magnificence and excellence.” Karl Barth states that the glory of God “is the self-revealing sum of all divine perfections. It is the fullness of God’s deity, the emerging, self-expressing, and self-manifesting reality of all that God is.”
As exclusive deity who alone is eternal, infinite, and uncreated, God alone is glorious and will not allow his glory to be diminished. Glory is exclusively a divine quality; no thing or no one shares this summative attribute of God. God declares this truth in Isaiah 42:8a: “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other.” His right hand is glorious in power (Exod 15:6). His name is glorious and awesome (1 Cor 19:13; Ps 66:2). His works are glorious (Ps 78:4). The majestic greatness of God is glorious (Ps 145:5). His throne upon which he reigns is glorious (Jer 17:12; Matt 25:31). His grace is glorious (Eph 1:6). His strength and might are glorious (Col 1:11). We are commanded to “sing the glory of his name” and to “make his praise glorious” (Ps 66:2 NASB). Ultimately, the proclamation of every Christian in worship and in life is this: the God of the Bible is transcendently glorious (Ps 96:3).
We understand that God is intrinsically glorious only because God has chosen to reveal his glory, at least in part, in and through his creation. All creative acts of God and his continued engagement within creation extrinsically declare that which is intrinsically true about himself—that he is majestically glorious. The Bible declares that “the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa 6:3b). To this end, John Calvin remarked, “The world was no doubt made, that it might be a theatre of the divine glory.”
As the Westminster Shorter Catechism instructs, the chief end of man is to recognize, appreciate, treasure, and reflect the glory of God—to ascribe to God the glory that is due his name as we worship him in the splendor of his holiness (Ps 29:2). God’s glory must be the parchment upon which every other story expressed in worship is penned. It is the glory of God that keeps the orientation of man’s attention, affection, and treasure appropriately directed toward God rather than misdirected toward himself. Man’s propensity to desire and take glory for himself is so strong that the psalmist was compelled to write: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory” (Ps 115:1a).
The metanarrative of the Bible. To be true to the grand themes of Scripture, worship services must faithfully express the metanarrative of the Bible. The metanarrative is often summarized in four words: creation, fall, redemption, consummation. This overarching plotline unquestionably begins by casting God in his transcendent otherness; God is the one who created out of nothing. God spoke all that exists into being. God stands transcendently apart from his creation because he himself is uncreated. He is not like us; nothing created is comparable to the one who was not created. Therefore, the metanarrative of God begins with and is framed by the transcendent “creatorness” of God. As worship leaders reflect the biblical metanarrative in their worship services, they must begin with God’s magnificent transcendence as the Uncreated One, the one who is totally independent of his creation, the one who needs nothing from this creation, the one who stands apart from his creation, and the one who stands over his creation as Sovereign and Lord.
The gospel. To be true to the grand themes of Scripture, worship services must faithfully express the gospel story. Essentially, the gospel story is this: “God is holy. Man is sinful. Jesus saves. Jesus sends.” The beginning point of the gospel shouts the transcendent otherness of God. God is holy. He is perfection. He is something that earth-bound humanity will never be—sinless. He is set apart from his creation and stands before his creation in complete purity. In order to capture the gospel story accurately, worship must launch with the beautiful and frightening transcendent holiness of God in full view. In the words of Wells, “Holiness is what defines God’s character most fundamentally, and a vision of this holiness should inspire his people and evoke their worship. . . .”
Early in Genesis, the Bible makes known God’s holiness and utter contempt for sinful disobedience especially revealed in God’s punishment of Adam and Eve recorded in Genesis 3. As God’s revelation continued in Leviticus, the sacrificial system accompanied by a host of rules, regulations, and ceremony was established to make a way for man to approach God. This system was a daily reminder of God’s holiness and the people’s sinful separateness from him. Ultimately, Christ’s substitutionary atoning crucifixion for the sins of man would stand forever as the testimony of the magnitude of God’s holy abhorrence of human depravity.
Holiness matters to God, and holiness must matter to worshipers. Those who worship must approach with a sense of awe and wonder of the utter and complete purity of God, the splendor of his perfections, the absence of imperfection, and his separateness from all that has been created. Holiness, by its very nature, is not approached casually or with a sense of entitlement. Rather, holiness is approached by wretched sinfulness in sackcloth and ashes, in contrition and repentance, and finally in gratitude and wonder for the gifts of righteousness and forgiveness offered through the blood of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross.
Yet, the gospel story is not singularly the story of God’s transcendence. It is also the story of God drawing near to his fallen creation. The idea that God draws near to humans or that humans can approach God, albeit boldly (Heb 10:19), presupposes that a distance exists between the infinite and the finite, between the sinless and the sinful. It is God who initiates the journey of drawing near, first through the offer of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus and then in perpetual personal relationship mediated by Jesus Christ. God in his gracious condescension voluntarily chose to draw near to broken mankind and, through the blood of his Son, to close the once non-traversable gap that existed between rebellious man and sinless God. Through the agency of Christ, God made it possible for a human being to come into his terrifying and glorious presence. Through the gospel, God approaches man, and man draws near to God again, but in reverence and in fear for the Lord is a consuming fire (Heb 12:28-29).
God’s holiness represents the epitome of his transcendent otherness. It is the essential beginning component of the gospel story and is, therefore, foundational to twenty-first century worship whose theological substructure and organizing principles are properly informed with biblical models of God’s interactions with man.
Worship. The story of worship, like all of the biblical stories described above, is authored by God, commanded by God, and made possible by God as he reveals himself and calls mankind to bow down and worship him. God was not obliged to disclose himself to humanity, to rescue humanity from its wretched condemned state, or to invite the elect to join in the everlasting song of worship, adoration, and praise of the transcendent God of the universe. Yet, in his great mercy and grace, he chose to welcome believers to join him at the grand celebration of worship where he perpetually remains the transcendent God of glory and we always remain the created redeemed.
This relationship between the two parties engaged in the story of worship—indeed the drama of worship—is utterly asymmetrical. Worship is not a dialogue between two equals. God exists inside the realm of holiness. Humans exist outside the sphere of holiness. God exists inside the realm of independent self-sufficiency. Humans exist inside their own world of need and dependence. In the scriptural worldview, God is above humanity. Humanity stands before God, not vice versa. God is the giver; humans are the receivers. God is the originator; humans are the originated. God is the initiator; humans are the responders. In this asymmetrical relationship—this asymmetrical worship dialogue between God and man—man’s place is one of humility, seeking, gratitude, fear, contrition, and awe of the transcendent God of wonder who, to our utter amazement, would allow and even summon sinful man to engage in an intimate dialogue of worship and life with him. This is the story of worship that must be captured in every service a worship pastor prepares.
The rhythm (sequence) of transcendence then immanence has the potential to profoundly reshape the way worship leaders approach worship planning and worshippers approach the God of their worship. Next week, we will explore three potential outcomes when the rhythm of transcendence then immanence is embraced.
Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, 16.
Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 1:337.
John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, 3rd ed. (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2003), 308.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, vol. 2, The Doctrine of God, pt. 1, trans. T. H. L. Parker, W. B. Johnston, Harold Knight, and J. L. M. Haire (New York: T. & T. Clark, 2004), 643.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2:648.
Christopher W. Morgan, “Toward a Theology of the Glory of God” in The Glory of God, ed. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 169.
Morgan and Peterson, The Glory of God, 160-87.
John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1948), 266.
Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics, “The Westminster Shorter Catechism” Question 1, under “Historic Church Documents,” accessed November 11, 2014, http://reformed.org/ documents/index.html.
Stephen J. Nichols, “The Glory of God Present and Past,” in The Glory of God, eds. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 25.
Wells, God in the Wasteland, 136.
Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, 123.
Wells, God in the Wasteland, 138.
Ware, God’s Greater Glory, 18; see also 33 and 157.