Transcendence and Immanence

By James M. Rochford

The Bible describes God as being transcendent, holy, and ineffable—far beyond our comprehension. But it also describes God as immanent and close to humans.

Biblical Basis: Transcendence, holiness, and ineffability

God is transcendent. The term transcendence comes from two Latin root words that mean “beyond” (trans) and “to climb” (scandere). This means that “God is separate from and independent of nature and humanity.”[1] The psalmist writes, “I lift up my eyes to you, to you whose throne is in heaven” (Ps. 123:1 NIV). Jesus said, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (Jn. 8:23).

God’s holiness relates to his transcendence. Another way to explain the transcendence of God is through the use of the term holy. This term is quite often confused. It is simply “not correct to think of holiness primarily as a moral or religious quality, as is generally done.” Rather, it refers to the “position or relationship existing between God and some person or thing.”[2]

Put simply, holiness refers to God’s “uniqueness.”[3] For instance, Moses sang, “Who is like You, majestic in holiness?” (Ex. 15:11) Likewise, Hannah prayed, “There is no one holy like the Lord, indeed, there is no one besides You, nor is there any rock like our God” (1 Sam. 2:2).

Some theologians connect this to God’s moral uniqueness. They state that holiness refers to “God’s… ethical majesty.”[4] They assert that God is “totally and utterly set apart from all creation and evil,”[5] and that he is “separated from sin and devoted to seeking his own honor.”[6] God, of course, is totally separate from evil. Yet, to demonstrate that God’s sinlessness relates to holiness, these theologians frequently cite passages like Job 34:10 and Habakkuk 1:13. However, it’s quite odd that these passages never mention the holiness of God![7] In our estimation, God’s holiness includes his sinlessness, but it’s mistaken to limit God’s holiness to his moral nature. God’s holiness includes everything else about his nature and attributes.

The term holiness can also refer to being “set apart” for a special purpose. The Hebrew word “holy” (qādôš) means “marked off” or “withdrawn from common, ordinary use.”[8] For example, the Most Holy Place was “separate” from the rest of the Tabernacle (Ex. 26:33; 1 Kings 6:16).

Holiness is both a communicable and an incommunicable attribute. On the one hand, we can share in God’s holiness in the moral sense (1 Pet. 1:15-16), but we can never possibly share in his holiness in the metaphysical sense.

God’s ineffability relates to his transcendence. The term “ineffable” comes from two Latin root words that mean “not” (in) and “capable of being expressed” (effabilis). God is so totally different from us that it’s shocking that we can even comprehend him. One of Job’s friends asks, “Can you discover the depths of God? Can you discover the limits of the Almighty?” (Job 11:7) When meditating on God’s omniscience, David prayed, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it” (Ps. 139:6). Likewise, God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9) Truly, God’s thoughts are “unsearchable” and “unfathomable” (Rom. 11:33).

This doesn’t mean that we cannot communicate truths about God. While we cannot speak about God “perfectly, completely, and comprehensively,” we can still communicate about him accurately and truly. As Geisler writes, “Although God can be apprehended, He cannot be comprehended.”[9] We can know God truly, even if we cannot know him fully.

Biblical Basis: Immanence and closeness

God is transcendent, holy, and ineffable. However, he is also omnipresent and omnibenevolent. Thus, in addition to being transcendent of creation, God is also close to his creation. The term immanence comes from a Latin root word that means “to dwell” (immanens or manere). This refers to “God’s presence and activity within nature, human nature, and history.”[10]

Biblical Basis: Scripture captures the tension of both transcendence and immanence

Isaiah writes that God is the “high and exalted One” who “dwells on a high and holy place.” This perfectly captures the transcendence of God. Yet, in the same verse, we read that God will “revive the spirit of the lowly” and “revive the heart of the contrite” (Isa. 57:15). This infinite being wants to nurture low and humble people.

Later, Isaiah writes, “Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool… My hand made all these things, thus all these things came into being.” Again, this describes the utter transcendence of God. But then, this same infinite Creator states, “But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isa. 66:1-2).

David experienced this tension as well. On the one hand, he prayed, “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth, who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!” (Ps. 8:1) But David didn’t just pray to the Cosmic Creator. He also marveled at the fact that God would care about humans: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; 4 what is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him?” (Ps. 8:3-4).

If God wasn’t transcendent or immanent, what implications would this have for our lives?

If God wasn’t immanent, we wouldn’t be able to relate to God. He would be closer to the God of deism, than theism. We would view him as distant and detached—like a long lost relative we have no hope of ever meeting. However, our relationship with the true God should be nothing like this. God “is nearer to us than any other being or thing can possibly be.”[11] The psalmist writes, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18).

If God wasn’t transcendent, we would talk to him like he is our buddy. It’s true that Jesus calls us his “friends” (Jn. 15:15). Yet, a low view of transcendence can result in approaching God like he’s merely a friend. It’s true that we can boldly come into God’s presence (Eph. 3:12). But whose presence? The King of Kings and the Lord of Lords! God is our friend, but he’s also our Creator and our King. If we are missing transcendence in our perception of God, we might speak to him in a diminished or even in a profane way.

Postmodern people often have a sentimental conception of God. To the postmodern person, God is a therapeutic concept who exists to validate our thoughts and feelings. God is fun and friendly like a teddy bear—or soft and soothing like a quilted blanket that’s fresh out of the dryer. To be in God’s presence would be comfortable and cozy.

Do you think this way about God? If so, you’re in the minority. Most people across the world don’t perceive God this way. People across the world have a “frightening and irrational experience” when they come into contact with the divine.[12] Scholars of comparative religions call this the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” This means that God is “wholly other” (mysterium), “full of awe” (tremendum), and also “attractive” (fascinans) despite our fear.

The worshipper “finds the feeling of terror before the sacred, before the awe-inspiring mystery (mysterium tremendum)… that emanates an overwhelming superiority of power. The numinous [i.e. God] presents itself as something ‘wholly other,’ something basically and totally different. It is like nothing human or cosmic. Confronted with it, man senses his profound nothingness, feels that he is only a creature.”[13]

To most people, God isn’t comfortable and cozy, but terrifying and attractive all at once. Otto writes, “Mere awe, mere need of shelter from the ‘tremendum’, has here been elevated to the feeling that man in his ‘profaneness’ is not worthy to stand in the presence of the Holy One, and that his entire personal unworthiness might defile even holiness itself.”[14]

We see these sorts of encounters in Scripture. When Isaiah encountered God in his throne room, he said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined!” (Isa. 6:5). When God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, Moses “was afraid to look at God” (Ex. 3:6; cf. Dan. 10:7-9).

Likewise, when Peter witnessed the divine power of Jesus, he said, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Lk. 5:8). Where is the comfortable and cozy Jesus that we’ve come to expect?

When Jesus healed a demon-possessed man, we expect the people to flock to Jesus, but what does Mark record? The people became “frightened,” and they “began to implore Jesus to leave their region” (Mk. 5:15-17). But be careful what you pray for! Jesus answered this request and left them alone.

At the end of his life, we see the same phenomenon. On the night of his betrayal, Jesus blasted the Roman cohort (600 men!) with just two simple words, “I am!” His words frightened these battle-hardened soldiers so much that they “drew back and fell to the ground” (Jn. 18:6). This is only a preview of the Second Coming, when all people will collapse in Jesus’ presence and “every knee will bow” (Phil. 2:10). Again, we must ask: Where is the comfortable and cozy Jesus that we’ve come to expect?

If God wasn’t immanent, we would live in perpetual fear of his overwhelming power. When John encountered the resurrected Jesus, he heard a voice that sounded like a blasting trumpet (Rev. 1:10) and like roaring waters (v.15). Jesus’ eyes blazed like a “flame of fire” (v.14), and his feet smoldered like glowing metal in a furnace. Jesus’ face “was like the sun shining in its strength” (v.16). This overwhelming sight was enough to cause John to feel like he had dropped dead! (v.17) No matter how phenomenal we imagine Jesus to be, he will look even more breathtaking and unimaginably awesome!

Yet Jesus is not only a being of unspeakable power and inexpressible glory. He is also the friend of sinners. So, what happened to John gives us a window into the heart of God. Jesus reached down from his transcendent royalty and placed his hand on John and said, “Do not be afraid” (Rev. 1:17). The mysterium tremendum placed his hand on John’s shoulder, and told him that there was no reason to be scared. Truly, the safest place to be is in the presence of power and love like this. This might be why John wrote, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn. 4:18).

Perhaps C.S. Lewis got it right, when one of his characters in the land of Narnia asked if Aslan (Jesus) was safe—to which one of the Narnians replied, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.”

[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology., 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), 338.

[2] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 73.

[3] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology., 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), 311.

[4] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 73.

[5] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology (Arlington, TX: Bastion Books, 2021), 566.

[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 202.

[7] God’s holiness also includes his perfect moral nature. Better passages would include Isaiah’s vision of God (Isa. 6:1-5) or Jesus being called “the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14).

[8] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology., 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), 311.

[9] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology (Arlington, TX: Bastion Books, 2021), 529.

[10] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology., 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), 329.

[11] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology (Arlington, TX: Bastion Books, 2021), 606.

[12] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (Orland, FL: Harcourt, 1957), p.9.

[13] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (Orland, FL: Harcourt, 1957), pp.9-10.

[14] Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (London, 1928), p.56.