The Immanent-Transcendent God

A quick word on words: Imminent means impending, likely/soon to happen.  Eminent means lofty, high rank, prominent, etc.  Neither of these words is the subject of this post; instead we are looking for Immanent.

To be clear, when we speak of the immanence of God, what we are referring to is His nearness, His willingness to enter the confines of our familiar space-time continuum.  This is a common, comforting notion among Christians, because we believe in the omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, and complete goodness and kindness of our God, which means that in our suffering, He is our Comforter; in our pain, He is our Healer; in our confusion, He is our Clarity; in our restlessness, He is our Peace; in our uncertainty, He is our Stability; as we walk in a dark world, He is our Light.  All of this hinges on the principle that God is in our world and that He cares for us.

This notion sometimes leads people to think of God as nothing more than a pocket-sized genie (bound to our every wish and desire), a best friend who looks, speaks, and acts far too much like us, or an insurance policy against the fires of hell.  This happens when we overemphasize the immanence of God at the expense of His transcendence.  By transcendent, we mean not only that God has overcome the world and has shown Himself to be the strongest Being in our universe, but rather that God surpasses the universe itself in measure and existence.  In fact, the universe itself emanates from the Being of God; all that we can see, touch, and hear only has existence because God has brought it into being.  God created all matter ex nihilo (out of nothing).  This is why Colossians 1:16-17 says of Jesus, “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities– all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.  This is why Acts 17:28 and Revelation 4:11 say that in God we move, live, and have our being.  God is the Creator, Sustainer, and in some sense the Sphere of life (in God, there is life; apart from Him, there is not).

It is crucial that we do not so emphasize God’s transcendence that we lose the truth of His immanence.  This is the danger of Deism, which says that the majestic, supreme, Creator God does in fact exist but does not concern himself with the lowly affairs of our world.  Trending too heavily toward immanence leaves us with a pocket-sized deity who, while he is certainly a good friend and cares deeply for us, is utterly incapable of any God-sized work in overcoming the world and all its troubles.

This, of course, points us toward the miracle of Christ: that the transcendent Second Person of the Trinity–the very Son of God–would take on flesh and subject Himself to the toil and troubles of the world.  Being transcendent, He of course had no need of the worship, honor, service, or labor of His own creations; yet being immanent, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).  The transcendent God who lacks immanence is a God un-knowable; the immanent god who lacks transcendence is a god unworthy of the devotion of our lives.  In Jesus, God showed us His perfect meshing of the two:

“…Although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:6-11)

This is a God we can know and a Lord we can worship.

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