Sunday, February 17, 2013

Thoughts on God's Transcendence and Immanence

Paul’s speech before the Areopagus in Acts 17:22-32 is the largest example of Paul’s preaching before a pagan audience.  In light of this it is no surprise that Paul spends a great deal of time speaking about the nature and character of the true and living God.  Paul develops a fulsome conception of God in that at least ten attributes of God are mentioned.  God is seen to be: (1) personal, (2) creator, (3) sustainer, (4) self-sufficient, (5) sovereign, (6) desirous of relationship with humanity, (7) omnipresent, (8) graciously patient, (9) a judge, and (10) able to act in human history in performing the miraculous. What is important to notice is not any individual attribute but rather the unique combination of attributes articulated by Paul.  Various ways of formulating the combination have been offered but one of the most well known is the transcendent/immanent distinction. 
Although “transcendence” and “immanence” are established nomenclature in theological studies care must be taken in defining these terms.  Reformed theologian John Frame accurately states:

Transcendence and immanence, however are not biblical terms, and so we must exercise some care in relating them to the teachings of Scripture.  Further, there are some ambiguities in these terms as they have been used by theologians.  So we should not simply take them for granted or assume that their meaning is obvious.[1] 

Often these terms are understood in spatial categories.  Transcendence tends to be seen as God’s remoteness—his distance away from his creation.  Immanence is usually understood to be God’s nearness.    Spatial metaphors are used in Scripture but an exclusive focus on these spatial metaphors to understand transcendence and immanence can be overly simplistic and lead to confusion.  For example, in their common usage among Christians transcendence and immanence refer to God’s remoteness and nearness respectively.  Yet there are some paradoxes to be considered in the notions of transcendence and immanence. 
            We often associate transcendence with God’ otherness—his remoteness due to the “heights” of his glory (notice the spatial metaphor).  Yet it is God’s invasive transcendence—his ability and willingness to break into the “natural” order—that most demonstrates his nearness to us, at times.  We long for his manifest presence to heal and save.  We desire to experience his tangible presence.  These invasive moments of God’s presence are his transcendence over the “natural.”  In this vein, consider God’s immanence. Immanence is usually considered in relationship to his “nearness” and yet it is precisely his immanence, understood as his correlation to natural processes, that tends to make God feel remote and distance.  We want to experience the manifest presence of God (his transcendence) in our individual lives but often we are left with the silence and hiddenness of his immanent presence.  We readily acknowledge God’s omnipresence but we long for his manifest presence.  So there are certain paradoxes latent within the categories themselves that defy simplistic reduction.
            There is also a symbiotic relationship between the categories of transcendence and immanence if understood in a biblical manner.  If we understand God’s transcendence to be correlated with the biblical ideas of his sovereignty, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence then it is precisely these attributes that allow God to manifest himself in an immanent manner within the creation itself.  Consider the words of J. Gresham Machen as he brings out this relationship between transcendence and immanence:

In the Christian view of God as set forth in the Bible, there are many elements.  But one attribute of God is absolutely fundamental in the Bible; one attribute is absolutely necessary in order to render intelligible all the rest.  That attribute is the awful transcendence of God.  From beginning to end the Bible is concerned to set forth the awful gulf that separates the creature from the Creator.  It is true, indeed, that according to the Bible God is immanent in the world.  Not a sparrow falls to the ground without Him.  But he is immanent in the world not because He is identified with the world, but because He is the free Creator and Upholder of it.  Between the creature and the Creator a great gulf is fixed.[2] 

Thus, we see that the categories of “transcendence” and “immanence” are complex.  A part of this complexity is due to the fact that we often fail to connect the categories with the biblical portrait of God.  Paul’s articulation of the nature of God in Acts 17 contains elements that theologians would normally associate with God’s transcendence and immanence.  What we often “put asunder” what Paul “joins together” in his portrait of God.  For Paul, God is the sovereign Creator (transcendence) and in this he “gives to all people life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25) so that the very air we breathe is a gift from God (immanence).  God is the sovereign controller of history (v. 26), thus, speaking of his transcendence.  He is also the One in whom “we live and move and exist” (v. 28) which matches up with his immanence. 
            Recognizing the inter-relationship between transcendence and immanence along with attempting to more faithfully integrate these terms with the specific biblical portrait can have very practical implications for the practice of prayer. There is need to keep both aspects alive and operative in one’s prayer life.  We pray to our Father “in heaven” which is a place of power and authority (Psalm 115:2-3) and yet we ask for “daily bread.”  In an effort to have both transcendence and immanence as part of my prayer life I have found it helpful to come before God in prayer and recognize his august majesty and comprehensive presence (both his transcendence and immanence) by confessing something like the following: “Lord you are the living God and right now you are interacting and sustaining all seven billion people on this planet and yet you are right here now in this room with full presence and power.  You have the very hairs of my head numbered.”  This helps to avoid the remoteness of God by stressing his nearness to me.  It also helps remind me that the epicenter of God’s activity and concern is not selfishly centered on me.  God is not my personal talisman and his purposes and presence are global in scale.  Both realities are crucial in order to keep prayer from devolving into unhealthy thoughts.  I find it a particular struggle to conceive of God as a personally engaged Father.  My tendency is to view God as majestic and, thus, far removed and, at times, unconcerned with the details of my life.  Reflecting on the fact that God is the One in whom I “live and move and exist” (Acts 17:28) helps to focus my mind on the utter nearness of God’s presence.  Considering, also the language of people “groping” for God to find because he is “far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27) is also reassuring.  If this is how God treats even pagans, how much more his adopted children!  This, then, provides a foundation for expectancy for the presence of God.  He is not distant or remote.  He is closer than the air I breathe.

[1] John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Philippsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002), 103-104.
[2] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), 62-63.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

John Piper on Tongues, Prophecy, Healing, and Exorcism

There are some excellent short videos (7-10 minutes each) that feature John Piper talking about some of the more "extraordinary" spiritual gifts.  I like the content as well as the pastoral sensitivity Piper demonstrates with these issues.

On tongues and NT prophecy

On healing and exorcism

Friday, February 8, 2013

ADF Video on Defending Marriage

This new video, put out by the Alliance Defending Freedom, is wonderfully done.  It briefly, but poignantly, articulates why the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is good and ought to be preserved.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Stephen and Zechariah Parallels

In reading through Acts again for my New Testament survey course at Phoenix Seminary I was reminded of the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 and a parallel passage in the Old Testament--2 Chronicles 24.2-22.  As I looked at this passage and discussed this in class I was struck by the number of interesting parallels.  Here is 2 Chronicles 24.20-22:
Then the Spirit of God came on Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest; and he stood above the people and said to them, "Thus God has said, 'Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord and do not prosper?  Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has also forsaken you.'"  So they conspired against him and at the command of the king they stoned him to death in the court of the house of the Lord.  Thus Joash the king did not remember the kindness which his father Jehoiada had shown him, but he murdered his son.  And as he died he said, "May the Lord see and avenge!"
What is often noted is the obvious difference in the prayer that is called out by Zechariah from that of Stephen.  The one is a cry for justice whereas Stephen's calls out for mercy: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" (Acts 7.60)  There are a number of other parallels as I note below.

1.  The Spirit of God is mentioned in association with both men.  Zechariah: "Then the Spirit of God came on Zechariah... (2 Chron 24.20).  Stephen: "But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven..." (Acts 7.55).

2.  Both spoke of breaking God's law.  Zechariah: "Why do you transgress the commandments of God?" (2 Chron 24.20).  Stephen: " who received the law as ordained by angels and yet did not keep it."  (Acts 7.53)

3.  There is a conspiracy against both men.  Zechariah: "So they conspired against him..." (2 Chron 24.21).  Stephen: "They put forward false witnesses..." (Acts 6.13)

4.  Both revolved around the temple precincts:  Zechariah: "they stoned him to death in the court of the house of the Lord." (2 Chron 24.21).  Stephen is brought before the Council (Acts 6.12) and they bear false witness against him.  They charge Stephen with speaking "against this holy place" by saying that Jesus "will destroy this place" (Acts 6.13,14).  The reference to "this place" is the temple and they are obviously close enough to it to refer to it as "this place."

5.  Both suffer the same death.  Zechariah: "...they stoned him to death..." (2 Chron 24.22).  Stephen: "They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord..." (Acts 7.59)

Another interesting item: Zechariah is the last prophet martyred in the Old Testament and Stephen is the first martyr in the New Testament after the inauguration of the New Covenant by Jesus.  This seems to be confirmed by Jesus in Matthew 23.34-35:
Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.
Leon Morris comments on this passage in regards to Zechariah:
This appears to be the death recorded in 2 Chronicles 24:20-21, which in the order of books in the Hebrew Bible (the Law, the Prophets, then the Writings of which 2 Chronicles is the last book) is the last martyrdom recorded in Scripture.  Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, pp. 589-590.
Morris goes on to add an explanatory note regarding the identity of Zechariah since 2 Chronicles speaks of him being "the son of Jehoiada" whereas the Matthew citation speaks of him as "the son of Berechiah."
There is a difficulty in that in 2 Chronicles Zechariah is said to be the son of Jehoiada; therefore a number of other Zechariahs have been suggested.  But none of them has any plausibility.  It seems better to think of this Zechariah as being named from his grandfather rather than his father.  That this was sometimes done is clear from the fact that the prophet Zechariah is called "the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo" in Zechariah 1:1, but the same man is also named from his grandfather; he is "the son of Iddo" in Ezra 6:14.  Apparently the same procedure is followed in the case of the Zechariah of this passage also.  Another view is that the man had two names.  Lenski accepts Luther's suggestion that Jehoiada also had the name Barachiah (Ryle is another to accept this view), and he cites the son of Joash who had the name Gideon and also Jerubbaal (Judg. 8:29, 32; Lenski, p. 920).  Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, pp. 589.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Few Thoughts on the Tabernacle

As a church we're reading through the Bible this year.  So recently we hit the section in Exodus which describes the plans for the building of the tabernacle, its furnishings, and the requirements for the priests.  This section of scripture can be especially frustrating because it seems as though the Lord tells them how to build the tabernacle in Exodus 25-31 and then in chapters 35-40 the text details how the tabernacle was actually build.  In that this can be one of those sections that is difficult to read and even more difficult to apply I thought it might be interesting to look as some random thoughts regarding the tabernacle.

1.  The crucial verse in this section of scripture is Exodus 25.8 which states:
Let them construct a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell among them.
The whole purpose for the tabernacle is so that God's presence may dwell among his people.  The tabernacle is, essentially, an incarnational symbol.  Philip Rosenbaum has written an interesting book entitled How to Enjoy the Boring Parts of the Bible and in his discussion of the tabernacle he writes the following in regards to Exodus 25.8:
Dwell among us? This is something new.  God told Abraham He would be a God to him and his descendants.  After the Exodus He promised, "You shall be a special treasure to Me above all people... a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6).  Now at the first mention of the tabernacle, He says that He will dwell among us!  To put this statement in its proper perspective, consider that the rest of the Bible is essentially the outworking or fulfillment of Exodus 25:8.  Does that seem too much to claim for one little verse at the entrance to the boring parts?
"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory..." (John 1:14).  A literal translation of this passage is, "the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us."  When the Old Testament was first translated into Greek (well before the time of Christ), the Greek noun derived from this verb was used to express the Hebrew words for tabernacle.  Furthermore, the Hebrew word for tabernacle in Exodus in 25:9 is derived from the word dwell in 25:8 and Christ's dwelling among us could hardly be stronger.
John 1:14 is the first biblical use of that Greek word for dwell; its last use is equally instructive:
Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, "Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God.  (Revelation 21:2-3, emphasis added)
The Interlinear Bible reads, "Behold, the tabernacle of God with men!  And He will tabernacle with them..."  The Greek noun and verb are that closely related.  The point of all this linguistic exercise is that the coming of Christ and the coming of His heavenly Bride are inseparable f rom Exodus 25:8.  If you want to understand the end of Exodus you must read your New Testament.  And if you want to understand the New Testament... (pp. 59-60)
This theme of God's presence dwelling with his people in the tabernacle is repeated in this section of scripture.  Consider these passages:
You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give to you.  There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.  Exodus 25:21-22 
It shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the doorway of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there.  I will meet there with the sons of Israel, and it shall be consecrated by my glory.  I will consecrate the tent of meeting and altar; I will also consecrate Aaron and his sons to minister as priests to me.  I will dwell among the sons of Israel and will be their God.  They shall know that I am the Lord their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the Lord their God.  Exodus 29.42-46
2.  The tabernacle had a certain physical beauty as was befitting God's good presence.
You shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty.  Exodus 28.2 (also see v. 40)
This was no sloppily thrown together uniform.  God's priestly representative was to be glorious and beautiful which spoke of God's glory and beauty.

Part of this beauty is described in the way the priest's garments were to be adorned.  Here is how Exodus 28.33-34 describes the hem of the priestly robe:
You shall make on its hem pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet material, all around on its hem, and bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around on the hem of the robe. 
This has some interesting implications for artistic pursuits as Francis Schaeffer illustrates:
But there is something further to note here.  In nature, pomegranates are red, but these pomegranates were to be blue, purple, and scarlet.  Purple and scarlet could be natural changes in the growth of a pomegranate, but blue isn't.  The implication is that there is freedom to make something which gets its impetus from nature but can be different from it, and it too can be brought into the presence of God.  In other words, art does not need to be "photographic" in the poor sense of photographic!  Francis Schaeffer Art and the Bible in The Complete Works (vol. 2, p. 380).
3.  The details of the tabernacle's construction are an indicator of the historicity of the narrative.  Real people who are given the task of building something need specific instructions in order to complete the task.  Again, the words of Schaeffer are instructive:
It is tempting sometimes to read the Bible as a "holy book," treating the historical accounts as if they were upper-story situations that had nothing to do with down-to-earth reality.  But we must understand that when God commanded these works of art to be built, some artist had to make them.  There are two sides to art.  It is creative, yes, but art also involves the technical details of how things are to be made.  In Exodus 37:7 we are given something of these technical details: "And he made two cherubim of gold; of beaten work made he them at the two ends of the mercy seat."  The cherubim on the ark didn't suddenly appear out of the sky.  Somebody had to get his hands dirty, somebody had to work out the technical problems.  The very thing that a modern artist wrestles with, these artists had to wrestle with.  Art and the Bible, p. 380.
There is much more to say--so much more!--but I'll finish up for now.