April 2017 Credo
“Am I a God who is near”, says the Lord, “and not a God far off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I do not see him?” says the Lord. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the Lord (Jeremiah 23:23-24).
For centuries, theologians of every stripe have unequivocally taught that God is omnipresent, that is, that he is everywhere. This concept of God is grounded in the testimony of Scripture itself, and not the result of philosophical speculation or human imagination.
In Psalm 139: 7, David asks: ‘Where shall I go from your Spirit, or where shall I flee from your presence?’ In 1 Kings 8: 27, we are told that God is so immense that even the ‘heavens and the heaven of heavens cannot contain’ him. And the passage from Jeremiah quoted above tells us that there is no place – no far-flung corner or deep crevice of this globe – we can go to in order to hide from the divine presence.
But how are we to understand the divine omnipresence? What do we mean when we say that God is everywhere?
Perhaps we should begin by considering how we must not think about God’s presence in the world. That is, we should begin by examining theologically erroneous conceptions of the divine presence that would distort our understanding of God and of his relationship with the world he has created.
The first error is to think of God’s presence as some sort of physical or bodily presence. God’s presence cannot be conceived of in this way simply because God is Spirit – he is immaterial being.
This has led theologians like John Feinberg to underscore the fact that there are ways in which the omnipresent God must be said to be absent from the universe. We must say that God is not physically or bodily present anywhere in space and time.
The second error is to think of God as being ontologically present as each point in space. This is the error of pantheism, which removes the ontological distinction between God and the created order by conflating or confusing the two.
The Christian Faith teaches that God is ontologically other than the world he brought into being. We can therefore speak of God’s presence at or with (or to) each point in space, but never as each point in space.
Furthermore, unlike physical bodies that are bound by space, God is not. Thus, theologians have maintained that physical bodies are in space circumspectively, but God is in space repletively – he fills all of space.
However, we must hasten to point out that to say that God fills all of space is not to suggest that he is contained by it.
When the Fathers of the Church speak about the presence of God, they constantly refer both to God’s immensity and to his infinity. God is immense in the sense that he embraces the whole universe with his being, but he is never encompassed or contained by it.
God is infinite in the sense that he can never be limited by anything. As the great fourth century Doctor of the Church, Hilary of Poitiers, explains: God is ‘infinite for nothing contains him and he contains all things. He is eternally unconditioned by space, for he is illimitable’.
God is at once ontologically present in the whole vast expanse of the universe and also at each point in space. This means that God is present in the totality of his being throughout the creation as well as at each point.
Wherever he is (and he is everywhere), whether in outer space or in a molecule, God is present in the fullness of his being.
Because God is simple being, he cannot be divided in any way. This means that we must not think that one part of God is present on Earth while another part of him is present in Jupiter.
Following this trajectory of thought, some philosophers have asked how the simple God could be present to a composite world. The reply they receive from theologians is that since God is the creator of the universe, the latter is simple to him.
The answers that theologians proffer are premised on a certain understanding of the relationship between divine knowledge and divine action. As Ron Highfield explains: ‘Just as God exhaustively knows his creation by knowing his action, he is fully present to the world because he is fully present in his action’.
‘God can be fully present to every part of creation at the same time’, he adds, ‘because his simple act integrates each “part” perfectly into the whole, so that the part and the whole are not different places’.
Here, Highfield follows Thomas Aquinas who asserts succinctly in the Summa Theologica that ‘God is in all things … as an agent is present to that upon which it acts’.
Much more can be said about the divine presence. But I end this brief article with a passage from John of Damascus’ De Fide Orthodoxa (The Orthodox Faith) that brilliantly summarises this discussion:
God, then, being immaterial and uncircumscribed, has not place. For he is his own place, filling all things and being above all things, and himself maintaining all things … But it must be understood that the Deity is indivisible, being everywhere wholly in his entirety and not divided up part by part like that which has body, but wholly in everything and wholly above everything.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.