Bible studies

Immanence and Transcendence | Adventist Review

Jthe theologians speak of the immanence and transcendence of God. In primitive terms, immanence means its proximity to us, and transcendence its distance from us. How grateful I am, not only to see these characteristics revealed in the scriptures, but to have consciously experienced both.

Immanence refers to God’s closeness to creation at the level of humanity or below. This is not pantheism or panentheism, in which God is part of creation; on the contrary, although distinct from creation, his presence is intimately close to it. “’Am I only a near God,’ declares the Lord, ‘and not a distant God?’ (Jer. 23:23).* Paul told the Athenians that “they would seek him and perhaps approach him and find him, although he was not far from one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:27, 28). Daniel told Belshazzar, “You have not honored the God who holds your life and all your ways in his hand” (Dan. 5:23). If it’s not immanent, what is?

But God is also transcendent to our world. He exists outside and above her, sovereign over and controlling not only the earth but the cosmos. Inherent in the transcendence of God is the promise of a reality, a meaning, greater than the ashen pain of this world and, as some atheists have conceded, the only place to find hope. (“This world,” wrote Albert Camus, “has a higher meaning that transcends its cares, or nothing is true but those cares.”) The Bible is replete with declarations of divine transcendence. “For you, Lord, are the Most High over all the earth; You are exalted far above all gods” (Ps. 97:9). “He sits on a throne above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like locusts” (Isaiah 40:22). “All the peoples of the earth are considered nothing. He does what he wills with the powers of the heavens and the peoples of the earth” (Dan. 4:35).

Daniel 2 reveals both its immanence and its transcendence. Nebuchadnezzar has a dream (verse 1), a dream given by God, which he does not remember, but a dream which, in “visions of the night” (see verse 19), God reveals to Daniel. Closer to us than our thoughts, nothing is so intimate, inner and close to us as dreams, so intimate, inner and near that they often fade from memory moments after we have had them, although ‘they stay buried inside. (Have you ever forgotten a dream, only to see something that brings it back?) Yet the God who guides the constellation of Orion through the cosmos reached Nebuchadnezzar’s head, then Daniel’s, putting in a head the dream and in the other the dream. and its interpretation. It doesn’t get much more immanent than that.

And the dream? The history of the world from ancient Babylon to the present day and then to the eternal future. When we read about the feet and toes of the image, symbolic of the partly weak, partly strong nations (verse 42), nations whose “people will be mixed and will not remain united, no more than iron mingled with clay” (verse 43), we read not only an accurate description of contemporary Europe, but a rational proof of the transcendence of God. Only a God greater than, outside and controlling our world could have revealed our world so accurately over 2,500 years ago. Scripture tells us about the transcendence of God, then proves it.

Although for decades I experienced the immanence and transcendence of God, about 40 years ago my life was changed by both. In 1979, after having looked up at the sky and declared: “God, if you exist, I need a sign!” (see 1 Cor. 1:22), I met a guy with the same name, Clifford Goldstein. He was from Miami Beach, where I was from. He was in the same kibbutz in Israel where I had lived months earlier. He stayed in the same room as me, slept in the same bed (there were two in the room). He had, on the shelf above the bed, some of the same books that I had left on the shelf, but they were his books, not mine. When I asked if he was a writer, Cliff said he wanted to be a writer, which I was. While we were talking, a girl, whom I had never seen before, came into the room. It was his blonde Danish girlfriend, named Tine; when, at the kibbutz, I had a blonde Danish girlfriend named Tine.

“You asked God for a sign,” someone had told me. “Dude, what more do you want? The Lord calls you by your name!

What else but transcendence could have arranged such a confluence of events, starting with two sets of parents, both named Goldstein, and both about 20 years earlier naming their sons “Clifford”, and both finding themselves in Miami Beach, which in my family’s case happened solely because of marital infidelity? And two sets of Danish parents each named their newborn “Tine”, and the two girls some 20 years later found themselves in Israel, on the same kibbutz, friends of Clifford Goldstein. Only a transcendent God could not only have known all these things but, despite the free will choices of fallen souls, worked through endless variables, each of which could have changed on a human whim, in order to have brought about these providences. . —and everything when I asked for a sign?

And immanence? Nothing I had read that year in that play had touched me more than Ariel, by Sylvia Plath. I used to make people (whether they liked it or not) listen to me read his poems to them, which I never did with any other book. And among the books on the shelf above Clifford Goldstein’s bed was Arielle, his copy. Only a God who knew me so well, so personally and was so close could have known what this would mean to me. But if “the very hairs” of my head “are all numbered” (Matthew 10:30), why be surprised that God knows my literary tastes?

The transcendence of God. The immanence of God. I can’t begin to understand them, but they are real and comforting, especially in a world where chaos seems to reign and evil is never far away.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of Sabbath School Bible Study Guide for Adults. His most recent book is Baptizing the devil: evolution and seduction of Christianity.


* All biblical texts come from Holy Bible, new international version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used with permission. All international rights reserved.