The Rhythm of Transcendence and Immanence— Reflections on Christian Worship of the God of Wonder(s)


For almost twenty years, I have been engaged in worship planning and leading.  Being a Southern Baptist in the “free church” tradition, I have always been free to construct worship services in any way that I wished.  Other than my pastor’s occasional directives and the general worship language of my church, no other outside governing body has dictated which songs I selected, what prayers were prayed, what scripture was read, or the sequence of the worship elements of my services.  Freedom is an awesome thing!  Each week, I began with a blank slate and asked the Holy Spirit to guide me.  Week after week, I would begin fast and celebrative and then end slow and reflective.  The concepts of transcendence and immanence never entered my mind while worship planning.  It’s not that my fast to slow services were bad or wrong or dishonoring to the Lord.  I believe that, generally speaking, my heart was in the right place.  I truly wanted to make much of Christ and to celebrate the good news of the gospel, his greatness, and his glory.  I truly wanted the worship services that I planned to be transformative…that at the end of the day, we would be more like Christ than when we entered the gathering place of worship.  I’m thankful for the Lord for his grace to work despite my shortcomings.

My reflections back on those days has led me to a new reflection on “that thing we do” (to borrow a phrase from Louie Giglio) week by week.  Is there more to worship planning than simply fast to slow or celebrative to reflective?  Are there glimpses of worship planning paradigms hidden in the pages of the Old and New Testaments?  Having given this question considerable reflection and research, I believe the answer is an emphatic YES!   The next several blogs will help unpack the ideas of transcendence and immanence as it relates to worship planning and prayerfully provide a biblical rubric that can be used by worship planners/leaders to fill their white sheets of paper with songs of worship, the words of worship, and a biblically-modeled sequence of worship.  Let’s begin the journey with a few additional introductory thoughts.

Related:  Christians and Culture

To know God, to love God, to worship God, to glorify God forever—these phrases describe the ultimate goal for all people of God.  A more profound knowledge of God’s self-revelation in Scripture enables a deeper love for God and a deeper worship of God that is faithful, authentic, pleasing, genuine, heartfelt, and transforming.  God wants his people to know him.  According to the Bible, the summum bonum, the highest good, is to know God.  Isaiah 11:9 states that “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord” [emphasis mine].  In Jeremiah 31:34, the Lord declares that his people will all know him, from the greatest to the least.  In Hosea 2:20, God speaks these words to his people Israel, “I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.”  Through the New Covenant, Christ makes it possible for people to know God more fully.  Jesus reiterates the Old Testament’s theme of knowing God and indeed expands on it in John 17:3 to include himself, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (NRSV).  The apostle Paul declares, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8a).  For Paul, nothing was more valuable than the ability to know God, full of grace and truth, now revealed in Christ who is the exact image of his father.[1]  Knowing God, the highest good and the ultimate human quest, defines our created purpose and is the wellspring from which the love and worship of God should and must flow.

If proper, God-pleasing worship is predicated on knowledge of God, then the Christian journey must include an ever-deepening pursuit of this knowledge of the one the Bible calls holy.  If knowing God is a prerequisite for acceptable worship, believers are wise to continually ask two questions: (1) what is the nature of this worship that humans are beckoned to perform, and (2) who is this God who demands to be the sole object of human worship?

Related:  Worship in the Assembly

The Bible gives multifaceted answers to the question of the identity of this mysterious God.  He is the Creator of the universe, the giver of life, the great I AM, the Alpha and the Omega, the one who was and is and is to come.  In a broad categorical sense, the God of the Bible is depicted in two ways; he is both transcendent and immanent—far and near, within and without, inside and outside his creation.  He is simultaneously separate from his creation and intimately close with his creation.  On the one hand, he is Yahweh—the one whom no man can see and live (Exod 33:20).  On the other hand, he is the God who draws near to his people, who hears their cries, who comforts them in times of trouble, and who provides for their every need.

Exodus provides a vividly clear depiction of the juxtaposition of God’s transcendence and immanence.  After the great emancipation of the people of God from Egyptian slavery, God summoned Israel to Sinai Mountain to worship and to receive his covenant commandments.  In Exodus 19, God’s transcendence—his separateness from his creation—is highlighted.  Here, God commands that no man may touch his holy mountain.  To do so would result in immediate death.  This restriction of human approach to God instructed his people of his transcendent otherness, his infinite holiness, and his sovereign authority.  Yet, in his transcendent otherness, God purposed to be near and with his people.  Exodus 25-30 chronicles God’s meticulous detail for the construction of a place where he and his people would tabernacle together.  Yahweh himself designed the physical structure and the means by which sinful man could approach him.  Yet, God was careful to remind his people that human approach to him is and always will be limited; they may only come so far and no further.[2]  Transcendent in Exodus 19, immanent in Exodus 25-30—God is both.

Related:  Defining Transcendence

In the New Testament, the revelation of God in Christ is incarnated immanence.  Jesus Christ is Immanuel, God with us.  In Christ, God reveals himself as one who is intimately personal and near his people.  Yet, the juxtapositions continue to stand firm.  While Christ is near and with his people, he also remains ontologically distinct from creation, sovereign ruler over creation, and ultimate judge of sinful humanity.

In summary, Scripture is replete with examples of the juxtaposition of God’s otherness with his nearness making clear that he is not one or the other; he is simultaneously both.  Therefore, if Christians are to rightly and most completely worship God for who he is, they must dually affirm their God as both completely separate from his creation and simultaneously present with his creation.  Once the believer acknowledges that Scripture depicts God as both transcendent and immanent, he or she can then ask how these two facets of God’s being are to be considered.  Does the Bible indicate how believers are to approach their transcendent and immanent Creator in worship?  Does the Bible give any indication of a proper order in which these attributes are to be considered, especially in individual and corporate worship settings?  Tune in for the next few weeks as we unpack the concepts of God’s transcendence and God’s immanence while exploring how scriptural patterns may potentially influence how worship is planned and how Christians approach God in worship.

[1]Jesus states in John 14:9, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” and in John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.”

[2]“And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it.  Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death’” (Exod 19:12).