Defining Immanence through the Lens of God’s Transcendence
As transcendence is a descriptive term used to characterize the Creator-creature distinction, so also immanence expresses an aspect of the Creator-creature relationship. Immanence refers to God’s choice to be intimately involved in the world that he created. Though God in his intrinsic self-sufficiency could have remained apart from creation, in his great love and care, he chose to interact with creation rather than stand completely apart from it.
Creation marked the beginning of non-divine otherness. All that is can be divided into two categories: (1) God and (2) all that is not God. All creation stands apart from the prime mover, from the one whom its entire existence finds its source. The act of creation grounds both God’s transcendence and God’s immanence. God in his transcendence is totally and completely separate from and other than his creation. Simultaneously, God in his immanence graciously dwells with his people. The imagery of the Old Testament tabernacle and temple was a vivid reminder to the children of Israel that their God was one who was pleased to dwell with them. Yet, the temple veil separating the inner court from the Holy of Holies was a poignant reminder that God was utterly holy and wholly other than sinful humanity.
Though the Bible clearly defines holiness as a characteristic of divine transcendence, God’s holiness is often recorded in tandem with a clear expression of his immanence. He is not simply the “Holy One.” He is also described as the “Holy One of Israel” and the “Holy One in your midst” (Pss 71:22; 78:41; Isa 5:24; Hos 11:9). In his transcendent holiness, God chose to dwell in, with, and near his people. In the New Testament, Christ was a walking, breathing exclamation that God is pleased to abide with his people. Christ was Immanuel, the transcendent God who drew near to his creation. At the moment of crucifixion, the rent temple veil powerfully symbolized the reestablished access to God and the restored nearness to God that was inaugurated at Calvary and will ultimately be consummated upon Christ’s return.
The story of God coming nearer, a rich and recurring scriptural theme, permeates the whole of the biblical narrative. From the moment of the great separation of man from God recorded in Genesis 3, the Bible chronicles the journey of God drawing near to his people again with the ultimate goal of being with his people for all eternity in heaven. In the end, God will be with his people. The spatial divide that separates God and man will be replaced with intimacy and nearness. As the psalmist reflected in Psalm 59:10a, “My God in his steadfast love will meet me.”
W. Argyle in God in the New Testament said, “The emphasis of the Bible falls upon God’s activity, God’s initiative, God’s approach to man preceding man’s approach to God. Both in the Old Testament story and in that of the New, he is an intensely personal God who visits His people and hears and answers their prayers.” God is always the initiator. God is the one who moves, comes, and acts in and with creation. As initiator, God, through a free act of grace, lowered himself from his place of exaltation and condescends to reveal his name, his character, his righteousness, his will, and his love to those who would have never known him apart from his self-disclosed revelation. God’s immanence is not a divine necessity. God could have decided never to create or, in creating, to stay totally veiled or aloof remaining detached and disconnected from the world he made. Yet, his choice to create was voluntary, and his decision to draw near to his creation was also voluntary—a free choice and a gracious act of an involved God. In God’s divine freedom, not divine necessity, he voluntarily created the world, and he willingly chose to remain involved in that creation. Nothing intrinsic to God’s nature or extrinsic to his person required him to reveal himself immanently. The decision to abide and dwell with creation was an uncoerced choice of the graciously transcendent, yet immanent God.
Ultimately, Christ is the fullest manifestation of divine immanence. In Christ, God actively sought to restore man’s broken relationship with himself. In Christ, God incarnated himself in the finite without in anyway ceasing to be infinite. In Christ, God ultimately and maximally demonstrated his desire to dwell with and redeem his people. In Christ, we see “the full impact of the revelation of God’s immanent self-relatedness. . . in light of humanity’s sinful rebellion against God and God’s indefatigable and self-sacrificing determination to restore and refashion that relationship to its intended fullness.”
The wonder and significance of immanence is only correctly understood against the backdrop of properly understood and acknowledged transcendence. In the words of Donald Bloesch in God the Almighty, “God is never immanent without being essentially transcendent.” For this reason, I believe that God’s immanence is best interpreted as an outflow and extension of his transcendent attributes. When immanence is interpreted against the backdrop of transcendence, God is appropriately viewed in the grandeur and majesty he possesses. When the immanence of God is contemplated in isolation, the knowledge of God is incomplete. When the immanence of God is considered independently, man’s understanding and view of God is diminished. When the immanence of God is perceived separately from the transcendence of God, the worship of God will ultimately suffer.
With this in mind, I would like to make a bold statement. For God to be rightly understood and rightly worshiped, he must be apprehended in the arrayed splendor of one who is first and primarily transcendent and only then as one who is intimately involved in and with his creation. This concept, this rhythm—the rhythm of transcendence and then immanence—is the framework through which Scripture reveals God and the way men of the Bible meet with God in personal or corporate worship settings. The rhythm of transcendence and then immanence is key to an accurate view of God, a healthy worship planning paradigm, and a necessary antidote for the 21st century Christian tendency to rush to God’s immanence at the expense or neglect of considering his transcendence.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 267.
John M Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 148.
Rob Lister, God Is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 191.
For a more comprehensive exploration of the story of God coming nearer, see J. Ryan Lister, The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).
A. W. Argyle, God in the New Testament (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1965), 11.
David Cairns, God Up There? A Study in Divine Transcendence (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967), 10.
Lister, God Is Impassible and Impassioned, 197; see also 282.
Donald G. Bloesch, God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 24.
Asher Finkel and Lawrence Frizzell, eds., Standing Before God: Studies on Prayer in Scriptures and in Tradition With Essays in Honor of John M. Oesterreicher (New York: KTAV Publishing, 1981), 23.
Bloesch, God the Almighty, 85.
Bruce A. Ware, God’s Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 52.
Goris, Rikhof, and Schoot, Divine Transcendence and Immanence, x; and Ware, God’s Greater Glory, 36.
Bloesch, God the Almighty, 24.