The Transcendence and Immanence of God

Is God transcendent, or is he immanent? The concept of transcendence – as well as the concept immanence – is fundamental. It seems that we throw off these concepts (and maybe even philosophical thoughts in general) because they appear to be too complicated for the laymen. Besides, what do transcendence and immanence even mean? Regardless of our thoughts on the complexity of transcendence and immanence the issue remains important. An improper view of God’s transcendence leads to lawlessness, and an improper view of God’s immanence leads to disrespect to the Holy God.

Before we can adequately understand biblical transcendence and immanence, we must first understand God’s Lordship and his covenant with man. Lordship itself is a covenantal concept.[1] Yahweh, the Hebrew word for Lord, is what God names himself when he establishes his covenant with Moses (Ex. 3:13-15; 6:1-8; 20:1). Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus is kurios, the Greek word for Lord (John 8:38, Acts 23:6; Rom. 14:9). Lordship in all actuality is God’s covenant headship with his covenant people. John Frame in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God says this:

God as covenant Lord selects a particular people from among all the nations of the earth to be His own. He rules over them by His law, in terms of which all who obey are blessed, and all who disobey are cursed. Yet the covenant is not merely law; it is also grace.[2]

God is not Lord (covenant head) of his chosen people alone. Instead, all men without exception are in covenant with God. This is not to say that all men are God’s chosen people. Instead, God exercises covenant headship – lordship – over all men without exception. Though Israel is named as his people in the Old Testament, the title was not exclusively unique. God called them to a status that everyone holds, but only the chosen acknowledge. With the covenant of headship established, we can understand God’s transcendence and immanence.

The answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article is that God is both. God is both transcendent and imminent. God can only be transcendent, and imminent because he is covenant Lord. God is transcendent because he is a covenant Lord, and he is imminent because he is covenant Lord.[3] Transcendence and immanence cannot coexist in one being outside of covenant headship. Biblical transcendence and immanence are directly opposed to secular transcendence and immanence.

In secular and philosophical thought, transcendence means to be wholly other than, or wholly different. A being that is transcendent cannot be known and is not revealed to us because it is far off. John Frame says, “Such a god, therefore, has not revealed—and perhaps cannot reveal—himself to us. He is locked out of human life so that for practical purposes we become our own gods. God says nothing to us, and we have no responsibilities to Him.”[4] Believing that we have no responsibility to God is the danger of secular transcendence.

Secular immanence presents a similar yet different danger. In secular immanence, a being is intertwined with creation so that it is indistinguishable. Thus, this being, this god, has abandoned its deity and has not revealed itself to us. This would mean that – just as with secular transcendence – secular immanence leads us to believe we have no responsibility towards God.

So how do they relate to the biblical view of transcendence and immanence? Biblical transcendence is directly opposed to secular immanence, and biblical immanence is directly opposed to secular transcendence. How is biblical transcendence and immanence opposed to secular transcendence and immanence? Throwing the word “biblical” behind it does not mean anything. Again, the difference is that God is covenant Lord of all; his transcendence is revealed in his covenant control and authority, and his immanence is revealed in his covenant presence.

It is the power of God in bringing about his covenant that reveals his control and authority – his transcendence – over his covenant people. He created and chose his covenant people (Isa. 43:10-13), and he exercises authority over nature to rescue his covenant people from bondage (Exod. 3:8, 14). God’s divine control and authority may not be questioned (Rom. 9:20), transcends all other loyalties (Exod. 20:3), and extends to every area of life (2 Cor. 10:5). God’s immanence is seen in his relationship with Israel (Exod. 29:45; Lev. 26:12). God’s immanence means he is deeply personal with his chosen covenant people. To know God is to know him person-to-person.

This concept is made more understandable when we think of two examples: A father, and king. A father exercise control and authority over his family.[5] He gives his children commands to obey and directs and protects their lives. However, a father is not so far removed from his family that he is unknown to them. A father has a direct, personal relationship with his family. A biblical father is therefore transcendent and immanent (in a creaturely fashion). A king is similar. A king exercises control and authority over his citizens, yet he is involved with his people, and his people know him. A king is transcendent and immanent in a creaturely sense.

So, why in the world are God’s transcendence and immanence so important? Because without it (or even worse, with a secular view of it), we become lawless, wild creatures. I genuinely believe that these secular definitions of transcendence and immanence were created to throw off all responsibilities towards the Holy God. We try to get away from the knowledge of God by saying, “He is too great for us to know, therefore we cannot know what he commands us. Therefore we are not responsible for our sin.” The creature knows what the law of God requires.

Similarly, secular immanence “allows” us to say, “God is so relational that he is indistinguishable from us. Therefore he must be exactly like us. Therefore we have no responsibility to him.” As Paul says in Romans, “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”[6]

Secular transcendence is the unbelievers attempt to escape the knowledge of God, and the conviction of their sin. Secular immanence is the believer’s (yes, the believers!) attempt to escape the law of God, and the consequences of their sin. In secular transcendence, individuals treat God like a parent who is away at work and therefore acts in lawlessness. In secular transcendence, individuals cross the line and disrespect the Holy God, just like a child might get too friendly with his/her father, forgetting for a second their father’s control and authority.

Here is the fact of the matter: All men know God and know what his law requires. Although God has not revealed saving knowledge (knowledge that the believer holds), he has revealed himself to all men.[7] Beyond knowing he exists, we can know what he requires of us. We must preach biblical transcendence (God’s control and authority), and biblical immanence (God’s covenant presence). This is the reformed perspective on the transcendence and immanence of God.

References

  1. Frame, J. M. (1987). The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (p. 12). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
  2. Frame, J. M. (1987). The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (p. 12). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
  3. Frame, J. M. (1987). The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (p. 13). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
  4. Frame, J. M. (1987). The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (p. 13). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
  5. I should add that abuse of control and authority is not proper control and authority and therefore is not proper covenant headship.
  6. The Hole Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ro 2:15). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
  7. Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 149). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

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