[Note: I am attempting to keep these SBD installments under 2000 words each, but that is–of course–quite inadequate for the topics covered. Consequently, these contributions are more programmatic than they are explanatory or defenses of the positions stated. You may access the whole series at my Serial page.]
Though neither bounded nor contained by the creation, the Triune God of Light and Love lives in relationship with and acts within the creation.
The transcendence of God is often where we begin talking about God. “This is the earthly way of thinking of a Lord,” Eberhard Jüngel notes, “first he has all power, and then perhaps he can be merciful–but then again, perhaps not” (God as the Mystery of the World, 21). When transcendence is our starting point, power or sovereignty dominate our image of God, and this tends to construe “the glory of God” as some kind of egocentricity. One potential result is that the will of God becomes a function of power (or arbitrariness) rather than relationality.
The Christian doctrine of God, as Barth said, is the Trinity. When this is our starting point (or even when we start with the paradigmatic redemptive events in Israel’s history or in Christology), the emphasis falls on relationality (communion) rather than power. It encompasses transcendence, but power serves love rather than love as an addendum to or a coordinate with power. If love served power or if power were the fundamental identity of God, then there would have never been an incarnation where the powerful became powerless.
The powerful (transcendent) God acts in love for the sake of communion or relationship. God, as Barth says, “loves in freedom” and acts with power to demonstrate or manifest that love. This is the fundamental essence of God: the transcendent God who freely loves in holiness by immanently communing with the creation.
The Faithful Holy Lover
God is “holy love” (Grenz). 1 John is structured around the two themes that “God is light” (1 John 1:5) and “God is love” (1 John 4:8). John’s two simple, but profound, declarative statements about God summarize his theology and are defined by his Christology. “God is light” is understood in the light of the righteous purity of Jesus (1 John 2:1-2; 3:2-6) and “God is love” is understood in the light of the atonement of Christ (1 John 4:8-9). Moreover, this light and love is experience by God in Triune communion and communicated to humanity through the indwelling Spirit (1 John 4:13-14). God is also community, a community of holy love, who lives in communion with humanity.
Israel experienced God as holy lover. God marries Israel in righteousness and justice (holy), in lovingkindness and compassion (love), and in faithfulness (Hosea 2:19-20). This is parallel to John’s imagery of holiness, love and community. The Holy Lover pursues Israel, marries her again and loves her despite her brokenness.
Psalm 99, a praise of divine holiness, provides a doxological rubric for thinking about God as the “Holy Lover.” The Psalm thrice declares that God “is holy” (vv. 3b, 5c, 9c). The first stanza focuses on divine transcendence, the second stanza focuses on divine justice, and the third on relationality. God answers Israel when they call, speaks to them and forgives them. God lives in community with Israel—responding, speaking, disciplining, forgiving and communing.
The third stanza cites one of the great confessions of Israel which is found in Exodus 34:6-7. “”The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” This is another way of describing the faithful, holy love of God. Though Yahweh punishes sin to the third or fourth generation, the love of God extends to “thousands.”
To affirm divine relationality is to affirm that God is Spirit—the living, loving communal vitality of being present to and communing with the covenant community. To say that God is Spirit is not so much about immateriality as it is life and relationality. This vitality embraces the covenant community, fills them with presence, and empowers them for communion and transformation. The points of the divine triangle may read love, holiness and faithfulness but its center is Life (Spirit).
To say God is holy is to say that God is loving and to say that God is loving is to say that God is holy, and to say either is to say that God is faithfully loving and holy in relation to Triune community and to the creation. God is the faithful holy lover and this is revealed through covenant relationship with Israel, through relationship with the Incarnate Son, and through relationship with the church. It is revealed through God’s acts and presence within history. We know and experience God through divine acts and not by access to transcendence.
Transcendent But Immanent
Yahweh is the God who is, was and is to come; Yahweh is the “I AM”—Being itself, the ontological ground of the cosmos. Our existence arises out of, is dependent upon and shares in God’s own life. God is both Barth’s “Wholly Other” and Tillich’s “Ground of Being.” God is both transcendent and immanent in relation to the creation.
Transcendence means that the finite cannot contain the infinite. Neither the creation nor human words can contain the fullness of God’s reality. There is an “infinite qualitative difference” between God and the creation such that nothing can be identified with God. Any such identification is tantamount to idolatry.
Though providence is a future installment, here it is important to note that divine transcendence does not mean that God is disinterested, uninvolved or disconnected from the creation. Rather, God is dynamically present within and with the creation. “We live and move and have our being” in the Creator (Acts 17:28). Immanence means that God is fully invested, present and active within the creation.
Balancing transcendence and immanence is a difficult theological task but it is important. If God is too distant, we experience God as apathetic and uncaring. If God is too close, we identify ourselves as God. The finite cannot contain the infinite, but the infinite is not absent from the finite.
The balance between transcendence and immanence is doxologically portrayed in Psalm 139. Divine knowledge transcends us (omniscience) but also extends to every corner of creation. Divine presence transcends us (omnipresence) but also fills every space within the creation. Divine transcendence generates wonder, awe and astonishment. Divine immanence generates confidence, belovedness and comfort. Though God is incomprehensible because of transcendence, God is experienced through immanent presence.
Transcendence means that the mode of divine existence is beyond our grasp. Immanence means that God is mysteriously present in all things. The only faithful human response is doxological. We cannot exhaust the depths of how and what God knows (we cannot explain the “omnis”) nor can we intellectually manage the boundaries of divine presence as if to remove the divine mystery from the creation. We can only praise the God who far exceeds the imagination of our finitude both transcendently and immanently.
The One Who Is
Ultimately, theology is doxology because whatever we say about God can only approximate who God really is. Nothing we say about God is univocal, that is, nothing we say about God is exactly and fully how God thinks about God. On the other hand, our talk of God is not simply equivocal either, that is, our language about God says something true accommodated to finite modes of experience. What we theologize, then, is neither fully God’s own knowledge nor mere human imagination. Rather, our God-language is analogical—it only approximates yet nevertheless authentically communicates something true about God. Consequently, we speak of God not as God really is in God’s own life but as God appears to us in faithful, holy love.
Theology, then, is relational for whatever is known about God is secondary to knowing God. Our doxology expresses relationship. We confess God as love because God has loved us. We confess God as holy because God has acted in righteousness and justice. We confess God as communal because God has come to us as Father, Son and Spirit. We praise God as omnipotent because God is creator. We praise God as omniscient because God unfolds history, knowing the beginning from the end. We praise God as omnipresent because wherever we go God is there.
As both doxological and relational, our knowledge of God is rooted in the history of God’s relationship with Israel and Jesus. We know God is love because God has loved us in Jesus. We know God is holy because God has atoned for our sins. We know God is communal because the Father loved the Son. Our knowledge of God comes through knowing God or else our knowledge of God is an impoverished intellectual cognition.
Theology is authentic only when we speak of God doxologically as we are in relationship with God. Psalm 99 and Psalm 139 illustrate this approach to “theology proper.” They are doxological reflections on God’s encounter with humanity where God is experienced as both transcendent and immanent, experienced as faithful, holy and loving.
This is the community into which humanity is invited, and thus we are called to practice a faithful holy love in community. As creatures created in the image of God and as participants in the divine community, the human community ought to mirror this faithful, holy love….in marriage, in family, in society, in ecclesia.
Divine transcendence and immanence are a bulwark against idolatry and human arrogance. Transcendence means that nothing within creation can be identified as God but immanence means that nothing within creation is devoid of divine mystery. Anything that substitutes for God is idolatry and any thought that defines or binds God is human arrogance.
At the same time divine transcendence is the ground of faith’s confidence since we confess that God is able and divine immanence is the ground of faith’s comfort since we confess that God is always present. The transcendent but immanent God appears to us through redemptive history and is experienced by ineffable presence. God is not unknown but neither is God comprehended nor confined by human knowledge. God is known and experienced through covenant relationship.
Human knowledge of God cannot be univocal with God’s own knowledge since transcendence means that we do not see the world with God’s own eyes. Human knowledge is not equivocal because God has entered history to communicate and commune. Consequently, we speak of God with humility as we recognize that nothing we say is absolutely equivalent with God’s own mind. But at the same time when we think God’s thoughts after him (Van Til) through analogous language we apprehend something true of God. We are, therefore, neither epistemological agnostics nor epistemological rationalists. Rather, we are little children who learn about their Father in ways accommodated to our limited, finite, fallible capacity.
This invigorates the journey to know God. It is a journey that is new every morning as we experience the divine but whose end seems even further away as we recognize our limited capacity to comprehend the one we are coming to know. It is an eternal journey—renewed every morning and filled with the wonder of what we do not yet know.