Divine Transcendence and Immanence
Divine transcendence and immanence are the related Christian doctrines that while God is exalted in his royal dignity and exercises both control and authority in his creation (transcendence), he is, by virtue of this control and authority, very present to his creation, especially his people, in a personal and intimate way (immanence).
Divine transcendence and immanence are the related Christian doctrines that speak of God’s authority and control over his creation and people as king. God’s transcendence is seen in that he is exalted in his royal dignity and exercises both control and authority in his creation. Divine transcendence does not mean that he is so far from and other than his creation that we are not able to understand his self-revelation in the Scripture or relate to him in any way. Divine immanence is the description of his kingly control and authority; because he rules over creation, he is present throughout the whole creation, especially to his people, in a personal and covenantal way. Rather than describing God in an impersonal way, the doctrines of transcendence and immanence describe the royal dignity and presence of the God who came to be among his people in Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us.
The terms transcendence and immanence are not found in most versions of the Bible, but they are common in the theological literature to designate two kinds of relationships between God and human beings. In general, to say that God is transcendent is to say that he is exalted, above, beyond us. To say that God is immanent is to say that he is present in time and space, that he is near us. There is no biblical term that captures all of what theologians want to say about God’s transcendence, but the idea of immanence is helpfully summarized in the term Immanuel, God with us (Isa. 7:14; 8:8; Matt. 1:23).
Let us look first at the ways in which God is transcendent. For though the term transcendent is not itself biblical, it is a convenient way of grouping together certain biblical ideas. Scripture often speaks of God as “exalted” (Ps. 57:5; 97:9). He dwells “in heaven above” (Deut. 4:39; cf. Eccl. 5:2), even “above the heavens” (Ps. 8:1; 57:5). He is “enthroned on high” (Ps. 113:5); indeed, he is himself the “most high” (Ps. 97:9). So transcendence is a convenient term to summarize these ways in which God is “above us.”
Some ancient and modern writers, however, have taken God’s transcendence to mean something else:
God is so far above us, so very different from anything on earth, that we can say nothing, at least nothing positive, about him. He transcends our language, so anything we say about him is utterly inadequate. In modern theology, this concept leads to a skepticism about the adequacy of Scripture itself as a revelation of God and about the ability of human beings to say anything about God with real assurance (John Frame, The Doctrine of God, 110).
But Scripture itself never connects God’s transcendence with human uncertainty about God, let alone skepticism. While affirming God’s transcendence, Scripture speaks in clear and certain language about his nature and actions. Indeed, when God reveals himself “from heaven,” he reveals himself clearly, so that those who reject him have only themselves to blame.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Rom 1:18–22)
Clearly, then, it is wrong to think of God’s transcendence as a kind of cloud hiding God from the human mind. To be sure, there are passages in Scripture that emphasize God’s incomprehensibility, his mystery, such as Romans 11:33–36:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom. 11:33–36)
However, this passage does not speak of God’s transcendent existence “on high,” but about God’s “ways” in history as described in Romans 1:1-11:32. What is mysterious in this passage is his “immanence,” not his “transcendence.” As we saw earlier, Paul has spoken in Romans about the clarity of God’s revelation from “heaven” (1:18–21). Granting the mysteriousness of God’s actions in history, Paul is still able to speak of the mystery in clear human language. He tells the Roman church what it is that they do not know, and why they do not know it. The unknowns are “known unknowns.” And the mystery is always a mystery about a God who otherwise is “clearly” known.
How, then, should we define God’s transcendence, if it is not a barrier to our knowledge of God and our clear speaking about him? The biblical language of God “on high” or “in Heaven” refers uniformly to God’s royal dignity. He is “high” in the sense that the king’s throne is high above his subjects. “Heaven” is a way to refer to God’s throne (Isa. 66:1). Of course, God transcends space as he transcends time. He does not literally dwell on a material throne, as Solomon observes at the consecration of the Jerusalem Temple (1 Kgs. 8:27). But there are certain places in the creation where God has ordained that we will sense his presence with particular intensity, like the burning bush in Exodus 3, the inner court of the Temple, and indeed the person of Jesus Christ, God’s temple incarnate (Matt. 12:6; John 2:19–22). Heaven is one of those places, a literal dwelling place of God far up in the sky, to which Jesus ascended when his earthly work was done (Acts 1:11).
But to say that God is “high” is not primarily to speak of his presence in any of those places. It is to speak of why he has the right to dwell in such places. They are his thrones, and he sits on them because he is the king. So if we choose to use the term transcendence to refer to God, we should use it to refer to his lordship, to his powers and rights as the king of everything he has made.
These lordship rights and powers are his control and his authority (see John Frame, The Doctrine of God). First, his control: Because he is lord, he is omnipotent; he has the power to do anything. That is, he has full control over the world he has made. Many of the Psalms, for example, celebrate his kingship by praising the strength by which he controls his domain (Ps. 2; 47; 93:1; 96:10–13; 97:1; 99:1).
His authority may be understood as his control over the moral sphere, but it would also be possible to understand God’s control as his authority over everything that happens. Still, in our usual philosophical discourse, we generally see control in terms of physical causation and authority as an imposition of moral obligation; control represents might and authority represents right. As God’s control, so his authority is an implication of his lordship:
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. (Exod. 20:1–3)
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the LORD your God. Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the LORD your God. (Lev. 19:1–4)
Through the Leviticus text, the refrain “I am the LORD your God” is repeated fifteen times to reinforce the truth that Israel’s law is based on the authority of Gold’s lordship over them.
Therefore, we can define transcendence as God’s lordship over his world with particular reference to his royal prerogatives of control and authority. So understood, God’s transcendence does not imply that he is hidden from people; quite the contrary. Indeed, since his transcendence governs all the events of creation and his authority governs all his creatures, he is certainly the most visible being in the universe. As Paul says, his revelation is clear (Rom. 1:20).
God’s control and authority are such that he is present, immanent in all of his creation. We know already that God’s immanence is not some kind of opposite to God’s transcendence, some paradoxical negation of transcendence. Rather it is a necessary implication of his transcendence.
God’s transcendence is a way of referring to his lordship over the world, but lordship does not confine God to a sphere beyond our knowledge. Indeed, it often refers to the way he rules the world of our history and experience. He controls the events of nature and history, including the course of our salvation from sin. And he expresses his authority by proclaiming to us his commands.
Indeed, God’s lordship is his covenant relation to the world he has made, particularly to the persons in it. It is not just a relationship of control and authority, but also of presence with his covenant partners. The heart of the covenant is a relationship of intimacy. The chief promise of the covenant is the Lord’s word, “I will be with you” (Gen. 21:22; 26:28; 28:15; 28:20; 31:3, 5; 39:3–4; Exod. 3:11–12; Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23). God’s promise to Israel prior to the Exodus was,
I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. (Exod. 6:7)
This intimate relationship, the heart of the covenant, resounds through Scripture (see Deut. 4:7, 20; 7:6; 14:7; 26:18; 2 Sam. 7:24; 2 Cor. 6:18; Rev. 21:7). Because he is our God and we are his people, he will be “with us” for all eternity: Immanuel!
The importance of this divine-human intimacy cannot be stressed enough. It is the heart of our relationship to God in Christ. We should especially avoid two errors in this connection. First, we cannot fall into mysticism or pantheism, the notion that this immanence eliminates the distinction between creator and creature so that we become God, or that he becomes indistinguishable from us. Our relation to God is always personal—a relation between the divine person and ourselves as human persons. Secondly, deism, or the notion that since God is transcendent his nearness to us is only a figure of speech, an “anthropomorphism.” No! God is really and truly near to us, difficult as that may be for us to conceive. God’s immanence as we have understood it is the heart of biblical redemption, the very name of Jesus, God with us.
God’s covenant presence is primarily with his redeemed people. But in a broader sense it is with his whole creation, for the whole creation is part of the program of redemption:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Rom. 8:18–22)
Indeed, there is a sense in which the creation itself will be redeemed through Christ:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities– all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:15–20)
So we should understand God’s immanence, the covenant presence of his lordship, to be everywhere in the universe, as well as being especially intense in particular locations. God is “omnipresent,” present everywhere (Ps. 139:7–12), not only because he made everything and governs everything by his plan (Eph. 1:11) but because the created world serves his redemptive covenant purposes.
Scripture does not require us to use the terms transcendent and immanent, and some misuses of these terms have brought theological confusion. But if we define these concepts to express God’s lordship, his covenant relations to his world and to his people, they can be used to express wonderful truths of God’s word: the riches of Christ, the depth of our relationship to God.