The Transcendence and Immanence of God
God calls Himself “Lord” as head of the Mosaic covenant (Ex. 3:13-15; 6:1-8; 20:1). The same title, “Lord” is given to Jesus as Head of the New Covenant (Jn. 8:58; Acts 2:36; Rom. 14:9). In other words, Lordship is a covenant concept.
God as the covenant head of believers, is exalted above His people, that is, He is transcendent. He is also deeply involved with His people, or, we can say He is immanent.
Distorted views of transcendence has understood God as being:
- infinitely removed or distant from creation
- so “wholly other” that we can have no knowledge of Him, or make true statements about Him
With this view of transcendence, for all practical purposes, men become their own gods, since God has been removed from interacting with His creation. He has said nothing, and we are not responsible for anything towards Him.
Likewise, distorted views of immanence has understood God as being:
- virtually indistinguishable from the world
- “worldly” and thus cannot be found
- a God whose activity cannot be identified in space and time
With such a view of God’s immanence, one is saying there is no revelation from God, and again, we have no responsibilities to Him.
Both distorted (and false) views of God’s transcendence and immanence are believed by the non-Christian and attempts to do three things:
- satisfy sinful man’s desire to escape God’s revelation
- avoid all responsibilities to God
- excuse any disobedience to God
Yet, if transcendence is covenant headship (and it is) and immanence is God’s covenant involvement with His covenant people (and it is) then such errors in thinking as we’ve described vanish. Our thinking must abide under the full authority of sola scriptura, the Scriptures alone, and not be based on philosophical speculation of unbelievers.
The differences between biblical and non-biblical thought on these questions may be clarified in the following figure known as the “square of religious opposition.”
The four corners represent four assertions:
- God is head of the covenant.
- God is involved as Lord with His creatures.
- God is infinitely far removed from the creation.
- God is identical with the creation.
Assertions 1 and 2 are biblical, 3 and 4 are unbiblical.
Assertion 1 and 2 are biblical views of transcendence and immanence, respectively.
Assertion 3 and 4 represents non-biblical views of transcendence and immanence.
The two sides distinguish a Christian vs non-Christian approach to God’s transcendence and immanence. The diagonal lines represent direct contradictions:
- 1 asserts God is distinct from creation as Lord
- 4 denies any distinction at all
- 2 asserts a meaningful involvement
- 3 denies any meaningful involvement at all
The horizontal lines represent linguistic similarity:
1 and 3 can be expressed as views of transcendence, exaltation, mystery, etc.
2 and 4 can be expressed as forms of “involvement,” “immanence,” and so forth.
So, there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding! Although the two views are diametrically opposed, they can be confused with one another. For example, Scriptural passages on God’s greatness, exaltation, incomprehensibility, and so forth can be applied either to 1 or 3, passages on divine nearness to either 2 or 4. This is why 3 and 4, which are essentially non-Christian philosophical speculations, have gained acceptance among theologians and churches. We must labor to clarify these differences and attack any ambiguity if we are to speak clearly into the modern theological climate.
Vertical lines 1-2 and 3-4 represent the internal structure of each system. As we’ve seen, 3-4 is inconsistent at a basic level, though 1-2 presents a meaningful, coherent analogy with ordinary experience as interpreted by Scripture.
So, next time you hear someone speak erroneously of God as being “infinitely distant”, perhaps you will have a better sense of where they are coming from!
Adapted from The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: A Theology of Lordship by John M. Frame