February 2017 Credo
In the Eastern Church, the Trisagon is usually sung before the Prokeimenon of the Gospel and the reading of the Epistle. Known as Ter Sanctus in Western Christianity, this ancient prayer celebrates the holiness and transcendence of God with the familiar words taken from Isaiah 6:3: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts …’
The transcendence of God is everywhere attested to in the Bible. In Psalm 113: 5-6, the psalmist declares: ‘Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?’
And in Isaiah 55, a passage well known to Christians of all stripes, the transcendence of God is depicted in light of his unfathomable ways: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (vv 8-9).
It was belief in the utter transcendence of God that marked out the Israelites from the ancient world, leading them not only to reject all forms of idolatry but also the reverencing of all earthly sovereigns as divine, even at great political and social cost.
To speak of the transcendence of God is to emphasise his absolute uniqueness. As Emil Brunner explains: ‘Transcendence of essence means that God is God alone, and that his “Godhood” is absolutely and irrevocably different from all other forms of being’. Put differently, divine transcendence points to God’s ‘wholly otherness’, his absolute distinction from the creation.
The concept of divine transcendence must always be accompanied by the concept of divine immanence if theology is to achieve a more balanced understanding of the God revealed in Scripture. For the Bible portrays God as the transcendent Creator who is also intimately involved in the world he has sovereignly brought into being.
As Donald Bloesch puts it: ‘If we conceive of God as infinitely other, we must at the same time envisage him as infinitely close. If we picture him as wholly transcendent, we must at the same time allow for the truth that he is radically immanent in the sense of being present with us and for us’.
The immanence of God has to do with his active presence in the whole of creation. Scripture attests to this in various ways. For example, in Jeremiah 23: 24, the Lord declares: ‘Can a man hide himself in secret places to that I cannot see? … Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ The divine immanence signals God’s closest and most intimate relationship with the world, but without ever compromising his transcendental otherness.
To quote Bloesch again: ‘… he is never immanent without being essentially transcendent, just as he does not remain transcendent without making himself for our sakes immanent’.
Understanding the relationship between the divine transcendence and the divine immanence is extremely important if modern theology is to navigate safely across the metaphysical labyrinth and avoid the Charybdis of deism and the Scylla of pantheism.
Deism so emphasises divine transcendence that the god it creates is for the most part an absentee deity, aloof to the affairs of the world. Pantheism, on the other hand, privileges divine immanence in such a way that the distinction between God and the world is erased.
In contemporary theology, it was Karl Barth, the great Swiss German theologian who emphasised the importance of the otherness of God – his utter transcendence – more than any other theologian in his long and bitter battle against the theological liberalism of his day.
Liberalism envisions the divine immanence in such a way that the work of God is often conflated with the historical and political processes. The gap between God and human beings is narrowed and even blurred, and the enterprises fanned by human ideologies and ambition are often confused with the divine purpose.
Such immanentism has made the liberal Protestant churches of Barth’s day susceptible to the Nazi ideology and agenda.
In response, Barth emphasised the infinite and qualitative distinction between God and the world, his utter transcendence. God cannot be gleaned from our observation of the empirical world – hence Barth’s rejection of the natural theology of liberal Christianity. He is only known by revelation, which comes from above.
For Barth, human beings can never succeed in domesticating God or coercing him into endorsing their most ambitious political and social projects. The transcendent God, who is ever immanent in his creation, remains forever sovereign.
Christians worship the God who is at once transcendent and immanent without attempting to unravel this unfathomable mystery. Christians worship the Creator and Sustainer of the universe who dwells in the hearts of human beings (John 14:23; 1 Corinthians 3:16), the God who is exalted but never remote.
As Gregory of Nyssa has declared: ‘God’s transcendent power is not so much displayed in the vastness of the heavens, or the luster of the stars, or the orderly arrangement of the universe or his perpetual oversight of it, as in his condescension to our weak nature’.
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.