Transcendently Immanent

There are many wonderful tensions in the Word. One such tension is observed in the worship orientation of God’s immanence (closeness) and God’s transcendence (distance). “The theological term immanence speaks of God’s nearness, His pervading presence in the space where we live [emphasis in original]”(Wilt, 2009, p. 186). The term transcendence recognises God’s supreme sovereignty and ‘otherworldliness’. Prior to God becoming man in Christ Jesus, God’s presence was expressed through the cultus of the Old Testament law and its tent/tabernacle/temple rites (White, 2000). God’s immanence was experienced by virtue of his transcendence. But then God became flesh. The transcendent became immanent. As David Peterson (1992) rightly acknowledges, “…‘it is not only his glory, his name or Shekinah, but God himself, God the Word, who dwells with his people. Now at last the longstanding tension between the transcendence and the immanence of God [was] resolved’” (p. 94).

The ‘longstanding tension’ has been resolved in Christ. Amen.

Unfortunately we still grapple with the practical expression of this resolution in our churches. Two thousand years after Christ’s ascension we are still unable to hold the pendulum in balance. We find ourselves swinging from one position to another. This oscillation is seen clearly in the lyrical content of our worship repertoire. Mark Evans (2002) identifies that, “another consideration of the theological (lyrical) analysis of contemporary congregational song takes into account questions of immanence or transcendence, that is, is the repertoire focused more on our intimate relationship with God or his transcendent holiness?” (p. 101).

It has been my general observation that in the modern church we have settled into camps of either/or. The conservatives celebrate God’s sovereign transcendence, while contemporary models seek to focus on God’s felt presence. It would seem I am not alone in making similar observation. Warren Wiersbe (2000) highlights the generational differences by stating,

I’m generalizing, but it seems to me that the younger generation leans towards the immanence of God, a God who is more a present Friend than an exalted Sovereign, while my generation is more accustomed to a transcendent God who is worthy of our worship and praise. (p. 179)

Whether it is denominational or generational one thing remains certain, we continue to seek balance and assurance in that which God has already accomplished. Sadly, our meanderings and squabble have led to the following observation by Michael Lawrence and Mark Dever (2009).

For far too many evangelicals, worship has been reduced from service to God to an experience of God [emphasis in original]. As a result, we have become obsessed with questions of aesthetics and style. When we move to a new city, we church-shop based on the style of music or service. When we grow dissatisfied with our current church, we assume that the problem, in part, must be that we need a different style of worship. What all of this betrays is that in public worship, what we are fundamentally after is an experience. That experience no doubt differs from person to person. Some are searching for that spiritually ‘orgasmic’ wave of emotion that carries them along for the rest of the week. Others are seeking a profound experience of transcendence and awe. Others are looking for a feeling of warmth and acceptance. Attached to each of these experiences that we have defined as ‘worship’ is a style, often musical but sometimes more that produces the emotional state we are seeking. (p. 251)

I quote Lawrence and Dever at length because they state succinctly the core of the issue. We have become selfish in our worship. It has become about what ‘I’ want. The argument has deteriorated to the ‘self’ determining what is right and proper as opposed to what God and His Word says.

Jesus promised that where two or three are gathered in His name He would be among them (Matt 18:20). Often used as a supporting scripture for God’s immanence we must also note its acknowledgement of Jesus’ claim to deity; His omnipresence and thus his transcendence. It is not in our strength that either His immanence or His transcendence is experienced but by His grace.

14And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15(John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:14–18; ESV)

Can we throw off the shackles that so easily ensnare us? With humble reflection and necessary repentance of selfish ways – perhaps! Firstly we must recognise that our focus of the corporate gathering is to celebrate together a God who is omnipresent; a God who is with us, a God who is transcendently immanent.

Reference

Evans, M. (2002). Secularising the sacred: The impact of Geoff Bullock and Hillsong church on contemporary congregational song in sydney, 1990–1999. Unpublished Thesis, Macquarie University, Sydney, AUS.

Lawrence, M., & Dever, M. (2009). Blended worship. In J. M. Pinson (Ed.), Perspectives on christian worship: 5 views (pp. 218–268). Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers.

Peterson, D. (1992). Engaging with God: A biblical theology of worship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

White, J. F. (2000). Introduction to christian worship (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Wiersbe, W. W. (2000). Real worship: Playground, battle ground, or holy ground? (2 ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Wilt, D. (2009). Contemporary worship. In J. M. Pinson (Ed.), Perspectives on christian worship: 5 views (pp. 143–217). Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers.

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About Dr Daniel K. Robinson

Daniel is a freelance artist and educator. In 2011 Daniel completed his Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. He has served as National Vice President (2009–11) and National Secretary for the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing (2006–11) and was awarded the ANATS National Certificate of Recognition for service to the profession in 2012. Daniel is the principal Singing Voice Specialist for Djarts (www.djarts.com.au) and presents workshops and seminars to church singers across Australia and abroad. He and his wife Jodie have three children and live in Brisbane, Queensland Australia.

Posted on April 20, 2010, in Immanence, Lyrics, Religion, Transcendence, Worship and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. There are many tensions in scripture. E.g.The Bible is the Word of God yet written by people. Jesus is both God and man. Believers are eternally secure yet can lose it if they abandon their faith.Etc,etc.
    It is one of the characteristics of cults to abandon tensions and choose between the opposites or find some compromised position in between. The truth is in holding both sides of any biblical tension simultaneously. While it is valid for one statement, song or whatever to affirm one side of any tension, our collective statements (songs, sermons etc) should reflect a balance. Whenever the bulk of statements reflect only one side of the tensions it indicates a failure to think biblically. Even though one side of a tension might be true according to scripture, it can never be truly biblical until it is held in balance with the other side of the tension. This is so important in worship and life. If we lose the sense of immanence, our god becomes a far away god who cannot be with us in our daily struggles. If we lose the sense of transcencence, god ceases to be distinct from creation and we drift towards pantheism. God becomes our cosmic boy-friend or perhaps even mother nature.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts Dan and really emjoyed the insight from Ross also. I wholeheartedly agree that with such tensions, the goal is to actually maintain it – at both ends – and certainly not simply to collapse them into some lame compromise ‘middle ground’- but rather full reflection of each pole of the tension. Jesus the God-man is always the key to that.

  3. Daniel K. Robinson

    Hello Ross and Steve,

    As always, thanks for engaging in the blog – I think people’s comments enrich my general thoughts. I whole heartedly agree with both of you. We must maintain a balance and in order to do so we must consider, through active reflection, our own leanings (bias). I know that I can find myself drawn to the notion of God’s immanence, but I must constantly remind myself of God’s determination to be near and experienced in the now.

    Again, thanks for your comments.

  4. From a position of a daily battle to maintain an intimate relationship with our Saviour, may I humbly submit that there is another view surely lacking in the distinction between the “nearness” and “distance” we experience.

    In the first instance, the Old Testament is littered with moments of the immanence of God – Jacob wrestling the Angel of God, Moses on Mt Sinai, Samuel and the voice of God in the night etc. These indicate a God who sought to bridge His transcendence with His beloved Creation.

    Although Christ resolved the tension of a temporal immanence, and gave us permanent access to a God, on His transcendence Jesus gave His followers the Gift of God’s immanence through the Holy Spirit.

    I believe clarity can be gained if we are to view the tension of God’s immanence and transcendence through the eyes of relationship with Him. The work of the Holy Spirit is to bring us into deeper relationship with the Father, whether through experiential worship or quiet reflection. The nearness of the Holy Spirit brings us into the reverent presence of a Transcendent Father, whom we can only gain access to through the salvation work of Christ.

    When we consider that we are made to be in relationship with God, it makes me wonder if people are searching for that relationship through their worship, by asking the songs we sing to become a vehicle of our desire for nearness with our Saviour.

    In an age of the impersonal, of faceless transactions, of superficial anecdotes of the futility of our lives being posted on walls and blogs for all to cast their opinion on (and don’t think I don’t see the irony in that comment with the forum in which I now write), could it be that our Worship has simply become an attempt to connect with God; do we long for the experience, the emotion, in our worship because we lack it in the superficiality of our daily existence?

    Although I trust the intention of Lawrence and Dever is to highlight the superficiality they see in the Church today, could we be judging the ‘I’ culture and missing the desperation for relationship with God that it could be?

    Could we be making the same makes as Eli who judged Hannah for crying out to the Lord for a gift of a miracle child, or of those who considered the prostitute self-indulgent as she bathed our Lord with perfume?

    I am not so foolish as to believe that we our search for the ‘experience’ is always so noble in every worship service we participate in. However, I believe that as we allow the imminent presence of the Holy Spirit bring us into deeper relationship with the Father, we will be awe inspired by His transcendence. And in that awe, the self becomes insignificant and falls way.

    • Daniel K. Robinson

      Hey Sam,

      Thanks for commenting on the blog…’bout time! LOL

      You make some interesting points. Whilst you appear to suggest that there is a third position to be held when considering this matter, transcendence and immanence, I am struggling to understand what that position might be. I understand that your writing suggests ‘relationship’ is the missing position, but I fail to see how this figures as a third distinct position on the matter. To clarify – in my mind, relationship is not determined by either distance or nearness. When I am close to my wife in an intimate manner I would hold that my relationship is no different than when I am away ‘on tour’ and only able to talk by phone. Our love remains constant regardless of perceived distance. No prizes for guessing which one I would choose in this illustration, but the moment my relationship with my wife is built solely on the ‘intimate’ aspects of our relationship I believe we would run the risk of a distorted existence and interaction – putting at risk the very foundations of our relationship.

      I also would like to note (in order for you to clarify if you feel it is necessary) that each of the supporting examples you have used; “Jacob wrestling the Angel of God, Moses on Mt Sinai, Samuel and the voice of God in the night, Eli who judged Hannah for crying out to the Lord for a gift of a miracle child, or of those who considered the prostitute self-indulgent as she bathed our Lord with perfume” are each enacted prior to Jesus ascension and thus prior to the Holy Spirit being given to each believer. Perhaps you have other scriptural examples that occur after Pentecost. I query this because each of your examples highlights God’s/Jesus nearness but I would also argue that they highlight God’s/Jesus distance. For example, Jacob [near] sent his family [distant] on in their journey (Gen 32:22-24 ESV) – a family who no doubt acknowledged Yahweh as their God. Moses [near] left Aaron and the people [distant] at the base of Mt Sinai to go up to meet with God (Ex 19). I won’t go on, but essentially my point is that in order to recognise nearness one must, through relativity, acknowledge distance. This is the wonderful thing about Jesus as God-man. He holds the tension in perfect balance!

      I do agree with you wholeheartedly that we run the risk of “…judging the ‘I’ culture and missing [their] desperation for [a] relationship with God”. It is so easy to judge…on this point (and many others) I compete with Paul as ‘foremost of sinners'(1 Tim 1:15).

      I also take your point, which is well made, that we have access to the transcendent God through the Holy Spirit; whose role is, among many things, to bring us to Christ – who then presents us to the Father spotless; clothed in Christ’s righteousness. Again, here we see Christ as the perfect point of balance, linking us to the Father (transcendent) having been led by the Holy Spirit (immanent). As David Peterson (1992) states, “Jesus is not the focus or object of worship…but the means by which the Father obtains true worshippers from every nation” (p.99).

      Finally, I completely agree with you that many “…people are searching for that relationship through their worship, by asking the songs we sing to become a vehicle of our desire for nearness with our Saviour.” This is such a danger! I’ll finish my reply with a quote from Timothy Quill (2009) who states in the book Perspectives on christian worship: 5 views,

      “If one equates a meeting with a personal God with an emotional experience, then emotive music becomes absolutely necessary. Unfortunately this puts a burden upon both music and the emotions that they simply are not capable of carrying. God has not promised to be present through music but through His divine, living, Spirit-laden Word and in His miraculous Sacraments. These things are certain and true. Ecstatic feelings of excitement, passion, and joy may cause one to feel as if he or she is in the presence of God, but feelings can be easily fooled and are frustratingly unreliable, fickle, and fleeting. Any attempt to establish one’s faith on a musically induced emotional experience generated by worship leaders and praise bands/music is to build one’s faith on a very uncertain and unstable foundation. Music does not sanctify; God’s Word does (John 17:17)” (p. 207).

      Again, thanks for commenting on the blog. (Prov 27:17)

  5. Hi Dan,

    While I believe you taken the examples I have given out of context, and have missed my point of God’s longing to bridge His own transcendence prior to the work of Christ, I would agree that it is Christ who holds the balance. Is this not just a picture of the God-head in perfect balance and perfect relationship with each other, which is clearly my point? God held His transcendent state after the Fall (the severing of the imminent relationship with man), and then provided a means through the fullness of the God-head for a permanent relationship to be established, which is so much more fulfilling then Adam’s.

    I do not propose that relationship is a third state, but rather the purpose and motivation of our worship. Worship in itself is only one vehicle by which we come to know our Father and ourselves, as are prayer and the sacraments. Paul chastised the Corinthians for making the celebration of the sacraments into a drunken orgy of self-indulgence and neglect of others. In the same way, we should be careful that our prayer and/or worship do not regress to the same self-indulgence.

    And on this point I whole-heartily disagree – you beat Paul hands down as the ‘foremost of sinners.’ :o)

    I propose that it is the longing for a fulfilling relationship with God that should motivate us. And as you have so clearly demonstrated, every good relationship is a balance of imminence and transcendence, with the strong tie of love that moves us between the two with absolute ease and confidence. If our worship, prayer or taking of the sacrament brings us into a ‘stronger’ (for want of a better word) relationship with the Father, then it has fulfilled its purpose.

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