On God’s Immanence and Transcendence, Bill Muehlenberg
There is no more important, profound and majestic theme than God, and to talk of his attributes is a sublime and never-ending discussion. Oceans of ink can never even begin to exhaust who God is and what he is like. But we are called to think God’s thoughts after him, and seek to put the truths of Scripture into some order and structure.
That is the task of theology, especially systematic theology. And all important theologies give pre-eminence to God, who he is, and what he is like. Here I want to focus on just one aspect of this, namely these twin features of his nature: his transcendence and immanence.
These two theological terms are nowhere near as scary as they might appear. They in fact express rather simple concepts: God is both far removed from us, and close at hand. Unlike the conception of God in many other religious systems, Christianity gives us a nice balance of both truths.
God is near yet far; majestic yet approachable; greatly to be feared, yet easily to be loved. That is the God we serve. Scripture speaks to both aspects of God, sometimes emphasising the one, sometimes the other. And often we find passages clearly emphasising that God is both.
God is transcendent
Let me look at each aspect in more detail. Simply put, God’s transcendence refers to his distance, his separation from all else. He is infinitely exalted above all creation. The description Thomas Trevethan gives to God’s attribute of holiness serves as a very good description of divine transcendence:
This means “that God is other and set apart from everything else, that he is in a class by himself. God is not just quantitatively greater than us, but qualitatively different in his greatness. He is transcendent, infinitely above or beyond us. The true God is distinct, set apart, from all that he has made as the only truly self-sufficient Being. All his creatures depend on him; he alone exists from within himself.
“And the true God is distinct, set apart, from all that is evil. His moral perfection is absolute. His character as expressed in his will forms the absolute standard of moral excellence. God is holy, the absolute point of reference for all that exists and is good. Across the board he is to be contrasted with his creatures. At heart he is a glowing-white center of absolute purity.”
God is not like us. He is God, we are not. He is holy and we are not. He is sovereign and infinite and we are not. He is perfect and pure and we are not. He is separate from us and independent from us. He does not need us but we need him. We are fully and always dependent on him.
His transcendence, as noted, has a moral dimension: he is majestic, perfectly good, holy and pure. No evil can be allowed in his presence. He is implacable and utterly opposed to all that is evil and sinful. God and evil cannot peacefully coexist.
Unlike Eastern religions and the New Age Movement, God is separate and distinct from the world. He is not part of the world. The world is not an extension or appendage of God. So biblical Christianity of necessity must reject all concepts such as pantheism, panentheism, and the like.
The biblical material on divine transcendence is of course found throughout the Bible. Let me just offer several obvious texts before moving on:
Isaiah 55:8-9 – “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Psalm 113:5-6 – Who is like the LORD our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?
John 8:23 – You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.
God is immanent
But thankfully for us, God is not just transcendent; he is also immanent. Simply put, God is near. God is wholly present with and active in the created order. God is near us, present with us, active on earth and involved in our world. He is present and active in nature, in history, in our lives. He acts in this world and dwells with his people.
The incarnation is a supreme example of this of course. Jesus became one of us. He became man, took upon himself human likeness, and lived, worked and died among us. This was no God from afar, aloof, unconcerned about our plight. He actually became what we are so that we might become like he is, as Athanasius put it.
And his work on the cross, along with his resurrection, shows how God took great efforts to restore our relationship to himself, to allow us to again enjoy his immanence. Our sin magnified his transcendence, but our repentance and faith enables a new and deeper immanence.
Thus the harsh, cold, arbitrary, aloof and entirely transcendent God of Islam for example is not to be compared with the biblical God. Allah is not Yahweh. Nor are sub-biblical concepts such as those offered by deism. God is fully distinct from us, but he also deigns to be like us, to stoop down to our level, to be close to us.
From the very beginning of Scripture we read about God’s immanence: “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:8).
As mentioned, the incarnation is the greatest expression of this truth. Consider just two texts:
John 1:14 – The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Philippians 2:6 – Christ, “although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men.”
And we find this doctrine expressed elsewhere, as in Ephesians 4:6: “there is one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” One can see this expressed in his love relationship with his people for example. Thus we read about God’s intimate love for his people even in the Old Testament. Just look at such beautiful passages as Hosea 11:8 where we read of his love – just as a mother loves her daughter:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
God is both
Both truths must be affirmed. The two ideas must be kept together in biblical balance. Only Christianity has the right mix. Pantheism denies God’s transcendence. Deism denies God’s immanence. Only Christianity affirms both, especially as we see in the incarnation. The texts stressing both his immanence and transcendence are many. Here are just a few:
Deuteronomy 4:39 – Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other.
Isaiah 57:15 – For this is what the high and lofty One says – he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.
Jeremiah 23:23-24 – “Am I only a God nearby,” declares the LORD, “and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?” declares the LORD. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” declares the LORD.
Luke 11:2 – Our father (immanence) who art in heaven (transcendence)…
Or as Paul put it in his speech to the Athenians in Acts 17:24-28:
“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things; and He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist.”
In sum, we can say that when it comes to God’s transcendence, Scripture uses metaphors of farness or distance, and speaks about him as creator, king, judge, warrior, master, etc. When discussing divine immanence Scripture uses metaphors of nearness or closeness, and speaks about him as bridegroom, father, shepherd, husband, lover, etc.
Both these sets of descriptors fully apply to God. We must embrace him in both his transcendence and his immanence. Anything less will do grave injustice to the biblical witness. We need a God who is both near and far. As C.S. Lewis put it in The Problem of Pain, “God is both further from us, and nearer to us, than any other being.”