If you have ever thought, “Why are there so many religions out there?” Or, what is the difference between the God of Christianity and the gods of Hinduism, or why it is that the various “holy books” portray such a vast difference in their understanding of God than that of the Bible, I believe the answer lies simply in the way people understand God in relation to two theological terms: transcendence and immanence. If you have ever wondered if theological jargon has any use, I hope that after reading this, you may come to see that theological language has an important role to play in our definitions when speaking of God. In my opinion, many errors both within the church as well as within religion in general comes as a result of a misunderstanding, and therefore a misapplication, of the doctrine of God’s transcendence, as well as His immanence. But what exactly do we mean by these terms?
Before we go into each term as it relates to God, let us first define what we mean by transcendence and immanence. Michael Horton defines transcendence as “being entirely above and outside of creation”, and he defines immanence as “being entirely within creation.” In other words, if we say that God is transcendent, we mean that he is entirely “above and outside of creation,” and if we say that God is immanent, we mean that he is “entirely within creation.” And so it is easy to see just how these two seemingly contradictory terms can cause a problem for our understanding of God, unless they are held in perfect balance. The Biblical understanding of God holds these two seemingly opposed emphases in balance. But how? We will therefore have to define both in relation to God as he is revealed in the Bible, and also see how different philosophies and religions emphasize one or the other, and the implications thereof.
The God Who Is Transcendent
When Genesis 1:1 opens up with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” it seeks to emphasise the fact that God is completely distinct from the universe which he created. In other words, by implication, there was a time when the universe was not, but there was never a time when God was not, because time only exists within a material universe. God is entirely outside of the material universe, and therefore outside of time. In this sense the question, “Who created God?” falls entirely flat, because God by definition in order to be God is entirely uncreated, eternal, and transcendent.
Now, many religions and philosophical ideas emphasize God’s transcendence and teach that because God (if such a being even exists) is transcendent, he is both unknowable as well as completely uninvolved within the world, or in other words, entirely impersonal. One such understanding is deism, particularly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries: “deism involves belief in a creator who has established the universe and its processes but does not respond to human prayer or need.” Another philosophical position, which can in a way be attributed to a radical transcendence of God, is agnosticism, which is the belief that in the absence of evidence, one cannot know if there is a god or not. If one exists, he is unknowable.
Another system which was very influential in religion was that derived by the Greek philosopher Plato, who also held to a radical transcendence of what he called the ultimate Good. The metaphysical dualism of Plato drove a wedge between the material world and, what Plato considered to be the “real” world from which we fell, which is beyond the material. Though Plato rejected atheism, there is no certainty as to whether or not he “believed in one god, or two, or more.” The reason for this is though Plato “believed that a divine intelligence and purpose is at work in the universe”, he did not believe that this “intelligence” was personal or knowable in any way.
In religion, Plato’s concept gave rise early Gnosticism, which attempted to merge Biblical teaching with Plato’s dualism. It drove a great distinction between the material world and the spiritual world, the former being evil and the latter being good, and taught that a spiritual saviour had descended to give us spiritual knowledge of how to escape the evil material world and ascend to the spiritual world above. It even drove a radical distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New, saying the former was evil and at war with the latter. The good God was transcendent and could only be known in a pure spiritual state outside of this creation. Gnostic gospels were popular during the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., when texts such as the Gospel of Judas were circulated opposing the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Another religion that emphasises the radical transcendence of God is Islam, with Allah being entirely other and even unknowable personally. He interacts with the world through angels and spirits, who communicates his message to prophets, the final of these according to Muslims being Muhammad. One can only be obedient to Allah, not know him personally, and even the prayers that are prayed to him are done out of obedience, not necessarily relationship. Submission is the key concept for a Muslim, for Allah demands unquestioned obedience.
Another example is in certain sectors of primitive African religion, where there exists the concept of a higher being which is mediated through the ancestors of particular tribes. While the higher being cannot be known in a personal capacity, and in some respects cannot know the people either, the mediation that happens through the ancestors is of incredible importance. Ancestors who have departed are thought to be in a spiritual state and can mediate between this god and the people, and bring good fortune or ill as a result. Therefore appeasing the ancestors in order to earn favour for crop growth and fertility is an important aspect of Traditional African Religion.
While we can see that transcendence is a very Biblical concept, we have also noticed how the emphasis on transcendence alone can lead to a variety of incorrect concepts of God. For example, if God is only transcendent, then he cannot be known in a personal capacity, he remains uninvolved personally in the world, and there is no way of knowing who he is, or what he is, or if speaking of he or she or it is correct or not. But what happens when we emphasize immanence?
The God Who Is Immanent
Not only does Genesis speak of God’s transcendence, but Genesis 1:2 reads, “The earth was without form and void, and the darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” This text clearly speaks of God’s immanence, that though he is completely distinct from his creation, he is nonetheless involved personally within it. The entire Bible shows God speaking directly to his people, first to Adam in the garden, then to Cain, to Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc. etc. The Bible portrays a God who is personal and intimate. He makes himself known to us especially by revealing himself in a way we can understand. Of course, in Christianity, Christians insist that God is most intimate in the person of Jesus, who we say is God in flesh, becoming one like us in order to communicate himself to us in a way we can understand. This doctrine of God’s immanence makes a radical distinction between the Bible and the Qu'ran, African Tradition Religions, and other religions which emphasize transcendence only.
But immanence, if emphasised on its own, can also lead to gross distortions and error. For example, theologians such as Friedrich Schleirmacher emphasized God’s immanence to the point where God was no different from his creation. He was so involved in his creation that he became one with it. In this sense, God cannot be known in a personal way, only felt. An overemphasis of immanence moves away from doctrinal conviction about God more to the experience of God. God becomes mysteriously shrouded in darkness and we can only behold him as one feels the sensation of mist upon the skin, though one cannot see the cloud itself.
New Age religions and philosophies emphasizes this aspect of the divine as being part of the world, and mystical experience being a key to connect both with the divine in the world as well as the divinity within oneself. Pantheism, which literally means God is all things, and panentheism, which states that creation is contained within God and is included in the divine, is the logical conclusion of those who emphasize only God’s immanence. Many religious philosophies fall prey to this error, notably Buddhism and Hinduism, whose “god” and “gods” are merely symbols that teach us to follow a certain path in this life in order to attain eventual “enlightenment” or “liberation” which is, in an analogy, being swallowed up by the universe as a drop dissolves in the ocean. In other words, it is becoming one with the One, which is the universe. New Age philosophies with its understanding of the interconnectedness of creature and divine, connecting all living creatures, follows a similar philosophy, and reincarnation becomes a prominent theme for those still striving to be released into the universe. A great amount of emphasis is placed on esoteric experience of the individual, doctrine is to be treated with great scepticism, and truth becomes entirely subjective.
Once again, as with transcendence, we first showed that immanence is a Biblical concept. The God of the Bible, though he is completely distinct from his creation, is nonetheless personally involved within it, or in other words, he is immanent. However, when immanence is emphasized to the exclusion of transcendence, we find that errors such as pantheism or panentheism creep in, and this is even true for Christian theology. The Creator/creature distinction then becomes blurred, and experience becomes the dogma, though God himself remains unknowable apart from our personal experience. The question is, however, how can Christianity hold these two seemingly opposed doctrines about God in balance?
Conclusion: God as Transcendent and Immanent
As we have seen above, the emphasis on either transcendence or immanence leads to distortions in our understanding of God. According to the Bible, God is both transcendent and immanent. Because we understand God to be transcendent, we avoid speculation as to his divine nature. There are many things we cannot know about God precisely because he is transcendent. Theologians have always emphasized that we cannot know God as he is in himself, or in other words, we cannot know all of him. Theologians have called this doctrine the incomprehensibility of God, meaning that “Neither in creation nor in re-creation does God reveal himself exhaustively.” This does not mean that we cannot know anything about God, but just that we ought not to speculate beyond what he has made known about himself. Deuteronomy 29:29 is an important verse in light of this, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but that which has been revealed belong to us and our children forever.” Those who emphasize the transcendence of God are right in saying that unless God makes himself known, we can know nothing of him. However, as Christians we are convinced that God has made himself known, and we can know what he has revealed about himself because we have his revelation recorded for us in Scripture.
And because we understand God to be immanent, we also know that he is personally involved in this world. Though he is not part of creation, his presence does permeate it. We say that God is omnipresent, meaning that he is present everywhere, and that is because he is Spirit (John 4:24; Psalm 139:7-12). But this in no way makes him either part of creation or within creation in the sense that he is limited to material existence, or depended upon it. However, what God’s immanence does teach us is that we can in fact have an authentic experience of God! But because it is held in balance with his transcendence, it is always on the basis of his revelation, and not on the basis of our experience alone.
Holding the balance between transcendence and immanence therefore teaches us that there are certain things we can know about God we would otherwise not know if he didn’t reveal it to us, and on the basis of how he has revealed himself to us, we can have an authentic experience of God because he is also immanent, or in other words, personally involved in the world and interacts with his creatures. Christian dogma, therefore, allows us to experience God through worship in a manner that does not risk idolatry, which is one of the primary reasons that the creeds were written down, taught, and recited. We can therefore say, “I believe (personal experience) in God, the Father Almighty (immanent) creator of heaven and earth (transcendent).”
I am the pastor/elder of a small suburban church on the outskirts of Cape Town. I enjoy coffee, theology, and fresh air. We are grateful to have all three in abundance.
 Horton, M. 2011. The Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, pg. 996, 1002.
 See Augustine, Confessions: XI:XIII:15, “But if before heaven and earth there was no time, why is it demanded what Thou then dists? For there was no ‘then,’ when there was no time.” See also Davies, P. 1992. The Mind of God. London: Penguin Books, pg. 50: “What happened before the big bang? The answer is, there was no ‘before.’ Time itself began at the big bang. As we have seen, Saint Augustine long ago proclaimed that the world was made with time and not in time, and that is precisely the modern scientific position.”
 Gaskin, J. C. A. 1995. Deism (in Honderich, T. ed. 1995. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pg. 182).
 Nash, R. H. 1999. Life’s Ultimate Questions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, pg. 62.
 See Bavinck, H. 2004. Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation (transl. John Vriend). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, pg. 43: “ God is the ‘whence’ of our existence; and as such an absolute causality, he cannot be the object of our knowing but only the content of the feeling of absolute dependence.”
 Young, R. F. 2014. Hinduism: History, Beliefs, Practices (in Muck, T. C. et. al. eds. 2014. Handbook of Religion. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, pg. 53).
 See Sire, J. 1988. The Universe Next Door. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, pg. 140.
 A very prominent movie which follows this philosophy is Cloud Atlas.
 See Frame, J. F. 1987. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, pg. 13ff.
 Bavinck, Dogmatics, pg. 36.