The Beauty of God’s Transcendence

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Isolated from the other summits in the Himalayan Mountain range, the peak of Mount Everest is stunningly beautiful-in-itself. But viewed as the largest mountain in the world, towering above other mammoth peaks in the region, one is struck by the singular beauty of Everest and begins to understand why natives call it the “Goddess of the Sky.” In Greek mythology, Zeus and his wife Hera were believed to live on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece.

Those things which are high above us have the potential to captivate our sense of beauty and arouse religious intuitions. They are signposts in the theater of God’s glory, as Calvin put it, directing our eyes to a glorious Creator who is above all (Rom. 1:20). The mysterious beauty of a snow-capped peak, the overwhelming sight of a panoply of stars, and the staggering force of a rushing waterfall—all invite us to gaze upon the beauty of the all-transcendent God.

It is fitting that the God of Israel chose to settle above Jerusalem on Mount Zion: “The Mighty One, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Ps. 50:1–2, cf. Ps. 48:1–2). But unlike Zeus, the true God is not consigned to a single hill: “This is what the LORD says: ‘Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool. What kind of house will you build for Me? Or where will My place of repose be?” (Isa. 66:1). Everest is God’s ottoman; Olympus is his footrest. “For the Lord is a great God,” declared the Psalmist, “and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also” (Ps. 95:3–5). Isaiah proclaims, “The LORD is exalted, for He dwells on high” (Isa. 33:5, cf. Ps. 83:18).

The one true and living God is constantly depicted in Scripture as transcending or being above all that is in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities: “For you, O LORD, are most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods” (Ps. 97:9). God’s transcendence means that God is infinitely above and incomprehensibly higher than everything that is created. As the transcendent Creator, God reigns with absolute authority and control over his creation. To contemplate God’s transcendence is to “behold the king in his beauty” (Isa. 33:17).

The Creator-Creature Divide

The Creator God “sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; [he] stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in” (Isa. 40:22). From the limb of a tree, ants are barely visible. From the top of a ferris wheel, humans look like ants. From the seat of an airplane, ants and humans are equally invisible. From God’s highly exalted position, all of creation is incomprehensibly small.

God’s transcendence means that God is infinitely above and incomprehensibly higher than everything that is created. As the transcendent Creator, God reigns with absolute authority and control over his creation.

This is, of course, to speak analogically. When Scripture says that God is “up there” and we are “down here,” it is accommodating our human limitations so that we can perceive something of the glory of the incomprehensible God. Since we are bound by physical space, God reveals himself in terms that we can understand: high and low, up and down, large and small. Sensitivity to Scripture’s analogical way of speaking is vital for all Christian theology.

We must resist the temptation to interpret God’s self-revelation in a hyper-literalistic way. When Scripture says that God “reaches out his hand,” it does not mean that God has a physical hand; likewise, when Scripture refers to God being “above us,” it does not mean that God is an actual physical distance—however great that distance might be—from where we are. To view God in this way risks collapsing the Creator-creature divide, moving God-in-himself to the realm of space, and worshipping an idol of vain imagination. There is this constant danger to domesticate God, to make him like us, and thereby obscure his glory and beauty.

In fact, the Creator is in a class of his own; as Reginald Heber put it, “only thou art holy; there is none beside thee” (see 1 Sam. 2:2). Holiness includes the idea of separateness: God is completely set apart from all that is created. In this way, God’s transcendence is closely related to his holiness. There is a sharp divide between God and all that is not God, between Creator and creature. Isaiah “saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne” (Isa. 6:1), and the angels cried, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isa. 6:3). “Thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place’” (Isa. 57:15).

There is a constant danger to domesticate God, to make him like us, and thereby obscure his glory and beauty.

It is crucial to recover our sense of the Creator-creature divide, to fear the Holy One of Israel at a time when metaphysical naturalism prevails. Naturalism sees all of existence within a box, a closed system, and seeks to explain all that happens by something else in the box. But the God of Scripture transcends the box. Because God is infinite (not finite) and Spirit (not material), he is not limited by time, space, or matter. The omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God infinitely transcends the material world: he is an immeasurable distance beyond the four walls of material human existence. No matter what measurement we use to compare ourselves to the Creator God, we find that he is off the chart altogether, completely set apart from nature with all its hierarchies. Every comparison falls short of his transcendent being.

Transcendence: the Foundation of Immanence

To speak of God’s utter transcendence is not to obscure the beauty of his immanence—God’s nearness to his creation. Rather, appreciating God’s transcendence is prerequisite to a proper understanding of God’s care for and immanent presence in the world he created.

God’s transcendence is not antithetical to his immanence; it is the ground and assurance of it. If God did not transcend space, he could not be present everywhere. David could not say, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Ps. 139:7). But because God is unlimited in presence, he is able to be fully present with me and also with my wife when I am traveling far from home. I am able to have his full attention, and so is my son in the next room. If God was limited in his knowledge, he could not know and relate to us perfectly. But because he is omniscient, God relates to us with unsurpassed intimacy. By him, we are fully known. Those who disparage God’s transcendence to stress his nearness only strike at the foundation of divine immanence. Thomas Oden explains,

Transcendence and immanence are not separable in the Hebraic faith. The very One who is beyond the finite and human is intimately manifested and warmly knowable within the human sphere. It is a common misjudgment to take only one side of the transcendence/immanence dialectic, which is to miss the chief interfacing point: it is precisely the holy God who is with us, the transcendent God who is immanent, indwelling in the world (Athanasius, Incarnation of the Word, NPNF 2 V, pp. 36 ff.; Tho. Aq., That God Knows Lowly Things, SCG I.70, I, pp. 231 ff.).

The relationship between transcendence and immanence is perfectly captured in Psalm 138:6: “Though the LORD is on high, He attends to the lowly” (cf. Isa. 57:15). Transcendence does not mean that God is uninterested in our needs or aloof from our pain; rather, that the near and personal God is able to meet our needs and help us in our pain. The thought of a less than fully transcendent God, or a God who is affected by the created world, is cheap comfort. God is not like us, and that is good news.

Transcendence does not mean that God is uninterested in our needs or aloof from our pain; rather, that the near and personal God is able to meet our needs and help us in our pain.

God is transcendent and immanent; absolute and personal. He is further from us than the fiery sun and nearer to us than its warm rays glowing against our faces. C. S. Lewis puts it well: “God is both further from us, and nearer to us, than any other being.”

Gazing on the Beauty of God’s Transcendence

In light of the beauty of God’s transcendence, how should we respond?

Worship the Holy One of Israel. Our principal response in the presence of beauty, especially the beauty of the grandeur of Mount Everest or Niagara Falls, is not to say, “What can I do with it?” Rather, “Wow!” Tourists gaze with delight and reverence at the foot of Westminster Abbey or the cathedral of Notre-Dame. How much longer and more intently should we look upon the beauty of the all-transcendent God? This was David’s supreme desire: “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4). God is seeking such people to worship him (Jn. 4:24).

Stand in wonder of his immanence. If a good and mighty king comes down from his mountain castle to live in an unknown hamlet, the villagers cannot stop spreading the news that the king is here, among us, with us. This is precisely because they have first understood who he is: the high and exalted one from up there. Their knowledge of his transcendence heightens their experience of his immanence. It would be much more dangerous for the villagers if they spoke only of his immanence and, after a few years, all but forgot his transcendence. Then, they would be likely to abuse the privilege of the king’s presence and risk offending him to their peril.

Christ is the king who came down from the high castle. This was God’s plan from the beginning: to dwell among his people. His presence came down to walk in the garden; his glory descended to fill the tabernacle; and his fullness arrived in human likeness to touch his creatures. God above us is also God with us, and most profoundly so in the person of Jesus. In the face of Jesus, we see the glory of God. This is reason to “rejoice with trembling” (Ps. 2:11). Delores Dufner captures the mystery of our confession:

Dawn of all the living,
What is and what shall be,
O Light and Flame of loving,
Transcendent Mystery:
You dwell where none can follow,
In worlds beyond our own,
Yet all who seek may find you
In flesh and blood and bone.

Trust his ways. God’s transcendence means that his ways of acting in the created world are more complex than we can imagine. This is the lesson of Job 38–41. The ways of the Lord are not merely better than our ways, they utterly transcend them: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8–9). Since God cannot be figured out, it remains for us to cry out:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom. 11:33–36)

Speak carefully about him. Christian preachers and teachers are privileged to help ordinary believers in the local church to see the beauty of the transcendence of God so that they can experience deeper satisfaction in him. We must guard our ways of speaking about God so that we do not obscure or diminish the church’s sense of his beauty. A common illustration for the Trinity, for example, begins, “God is like an egg….” Setting aside the theological problems with the illustration, I do not feel very worshipful when someone tries to tell me that God is like an egg. These sincere attempts to make God more accessible usually do more harm than good. My personal practice is to rely almost exclusively on analogies used in Scripture or in the Great Tradition. In our attempts to “put the cookies on the lower shelf,” let us never forget that God transcends every shelf, and it is impossible for the wisest among us to fully grasp or explain him. It is for us to embrace, confess, and exult in God’s self-revelation. Herman Bavinck’s maxim is true for all Christian teaching: “mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics.”

Go deeper in the knowledge of the holy. A. W. Tozer insists that God’s transcendence should produce the fear of the Lord, capture the church’s religious imagination, and fuel our interest in theological knowledge. He imagines what would happen if an angel descended from heaven to speak of divine things:

If some watcher or holy one who has spent his glad centuries by the sea of fire were to come to earth, how meaningless to him would be the ceaseless chatter of the busy tribes of men. How strange to him and how empty would sound the flat, stale, and profitless words heard in the average pulpit from week to week. And were such a one to speak on earth would he not speak of God? Would he not charm and fascinate his hearers with rapturous descriptions of the Godhead? And after hearing him could we ever again consent to listen to anything less than theology, the doctrine of God? Would we not thereafter demand of those who would presume to teach us that they speak to us from the mount of divine vision or remain silent altogether?

Tozer’s hyperbole is classic literary flourish, but his point is well taken: once one beholds the glory of God, his supreme desire is to learn about God and all things in their right relation to him. Since God will always be infinite and we will always be finite, there will always be more to learn about his divine nature. Even in heaven, through all eternity, we will increase in the knowledge of the holy. The beauty of God’s transcendence inspires us to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him…increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10). For “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9:10).

Long for the beatific vision. Michael Allen convincingly argues that “modern Protestant divinity evidences a deep abyss: the doctrine of the beatific vision has dropped into oblivion.” While the glorious hope of a renewed creation has captivated the interest of contemporary theologians, nothing surpasses the incomprehensible promise that the saints will behold God in his beauty. Now, we see by faith. Then, face to face. Having this hope, let us purify ourselves even as he is pure (1 Jn. 3:3). If we remain faithful, we will see one whose beauty transcends all earthy beauties. This is worth living for.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.