The Rhythm of Transcendence and Immanence— Reflections on Christian Worship of the God of Wonder(s): Scriptural Models
As I set out to write about the rhythm of transcendence and immanence depicted in Scripture, I was compelled by the Spirit to read the entire cannon, cover to cover, in one sitting (actually, in one sitting spread out over about three months). My goal was to discover every Scripture passage relating to the transcendence of God, every Scripture passage relating to the immanence of God, and to discover if the rhythm of God’s transcendence then immanence is a recurring pattern represented in Scripture specifically in personal and corporate worship encounters with God and in prayers offered to God. If accepted as true, the rhythm of transcendence then immanence should have a profound impact on the development of a liturgical theology that would apply this rhythm to the conception and planning of corporate worship services. In addition, acknowledgement and application of this descriptive pattern have the potential to influence the mindset of worshipers as they approach God and the entire ethos of worship in many houses of God throughout Christendom. Here is what I discovered.
The Bible as a whole moves in a large cycle revealing God first as transcendent and then immanent. The scriptural authors never depict God as simply immanent; moreover, Scripture does not present the possibility of fallen man to intimately commune with the holy and transcendent God apart from mediation. Because God is always transcendent first, God’s immanence finds its appropriate grounding, definition, and interpretation in his transcendence. All immanence derives from God’s transcendence.
Though transcendence and immanence are complementary characteristics of God, they must be understood by believers in the appropriate sequence for God to be rightly comprehended. Specifically, divine transcendence must be acknowledged and understood first in order for the immanence of the divine to be rightly interpreted. Hence, the starting place for understanding the beauty of divine nearness is the infinite incongruence between God and man. God is not like man. Man is finite. God is infinite. Man’s life is short. God is timelessly eternal. Man is sinful. God is absolute purity. Man is frail. God is strong. Man’s knowledge is limited. God’s knowledge is exhaustive. Man is contingent and dependent. God is noncontingent and independent. Man is needy. God needs nothing. Man is earthbound. God is free in every way. Yet, this God who is independent of the world he created chooses to draw near to his creation, to be active in and with his creation, and to love those he created in his image—in a word, to be immanent in and with his creation. In the words of Bruce Ware,
The divine immanence is made far more meaningful and can rightly be understood, only when we comprehend the astonishing truth that the God who relates to us is the God who stands apart from creation, in the fullness of his infinite and eternal glory and perfection, needing no part of what he has made, yet longing to give himself to this very world that contributes nothing to his own existence or fullness. In this sense, then, transcendence takes priority over immanence.
God’s nearness, love, compassion, and condescension can only be properly understood when interpreted against the backdrop of the God who exists “eternally in the infinite fullness of his own intrinsic beauty, truth, joy, goodness, godliness, and all perfection.” Therefore, the proper sequence of the rhythm of transcendence then immanence becomes vitally important to the proper formation of liturgical theology. Does this pattern indeed appear in Scripture? Indeed it does. In divine-human encounters, the Bible demonstrates a repeated pattern of conceptualizing and understanding God in his transcendent otherness both prior to his immanence and as the framework within which his immanence can only be rightly understood and experienced.
The rhythm of transcendence then immanence is a dominant feature of the worship scenes and divine-human encounters captured in Scripture. As the newly emancipated Hebrews were summoned to Mount Sinai by God, his transcendent holiness required them to approach only so far and no farther. As the temple of God was inaugurated and later reestablished, it is God’s unfathomable transcendent uniqueness, holiness, creator-ness, and sovereignty that form the context for the unimaginable decision of God to abide with his people. In the interaction between Job and God, we are allowed to listen to God describe himself as one who is unmatched by anything of this world, the transcendent God who is the master architect of the world and who sovereignly, meticulously, and wisely governs every detail of human history. Isaiah and the Apostle John were given a rare glimpse of celestial divine glory that few have experienced. They saw the glory, majesty, righteousness, and magnificence of their transcendent Lord and were undone—the brilliance of his holiness unequaled, the greatness of his power and strength unrivaled.
Not only is God’s transcendence in full view in the worship scenes and divine-human encounters listed above, but also his wholly otherness is proclaimed and represented in the prayers of God’s people throughout Scripture. The great kings of Israel extolled God’s transcendent timeless eternality, his unmatched greatness, and his boundless power. They knew their own power was derivative from the one who grants or takes away power and authority. The prophets understood God as the transcendent, all-wise, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the cosmos whose home is not of this world. Nothing is too difficult for the Lord of hosts who is eternally boundless and free in every way.
God’s transcendence also forms the backdrop for prayers of lament, confession, supplication, thanksgiving, and benediction. Likewise, God’s transcendence is an ever-present reality shaping the heartbeat of the Psalms, canticles, and other songs of worship recorded in both Testaments. God is magnificently majestic—the Most High Lord—whose greatness and splendor are incomprehensible by the human mind. Sometimes explicit, at other times tacitly acknowledged, the transcendence of God is the biblically attested beginning point for worshiping the God who demands the exclusive and right worship of his people.
As the Old Testament gives way to the New, Christ is presented in glorious splendor with God—co-equal, co-eternal, and co-transcendent. While on earth, Christ taught his disciples to pray with the transcendent distinction of God’s dwelling, holiness, and dominion as the appropriate context for how to approach God and how to understand God. Paul and the believers in Acts saw God as transcendently glorious, infinitely powerful, and utterly sovereign.
Each prayer, each worship scene, and each divine encounter depicts the God of heaven as first gloriously transcendent. Therefore, it can rightly be said that all biblical prayers—either explicitly or implicitly—are grounded in the reality that God is wholly other than his creation, separate from his creation, and infinitely greater than his creation. However, this first and supremely important concept of understanding God in his transcendent otherness is indeed the first step of a two-step pattern or rhythm. God is never only to be understood exclusively by humans as infinitely transcendent. God is also profoundly immanent. He is near and with his creation. He hears and answers prayers. He feels compassion for those in need. He dwells in intimate relationship with those he created in his image. This is an unbelievable truth. The transcendent God of the universe—the one who needs nothing, the one who is totally and completely independent—graciously chooses to draw near, to dwell with, to care for, to love, to provide for, and to redeem those he elects to be his own. The God who is transcendent is also immanently intimate. Yet, his immanence—this love, care, and concern for his people—can only be rightly understood and rightly interpreted through the rubric of God’s transcendence. If Christians are to properly worship God, they must first correctly understand God. Therefore, the rhythm of transcendence then immanence is essential to rightly understanding God, rightly approaching God, and most effectively worshiping God. God’s transcendence gives the proper context for God’s immanent interactions with his people. When transcendence is understood first and his immanence is rightly understood through the interpretive framework of God’s transcendence, both God in his transcendent otherness and in his immanent nearness is more fully comprehended and, therefore, more fully magnified and more completely worshiped by believers.
As a result, I conclude that the rhythm of transcendence then immanence should have a profound impact on the development of liturgical theology and must provide a necessary rubric that shapes the worshiping church of the twenty-first century.
Bruce A. Ware, God’s Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 152.
Ibid., 46; see also 159.
Ware, God’s Greater Glory, 61.
Miller, They Cried to the Lord, 329.