I was sitting expectantly in the doctor's office, waiting for the results of some tests. I had convinced myself that there was nothing wrong. At worst, it was a hernia; at best, a pulled muscle. The doctor finally entered, and he gave me the news: "I am sorry to tell you, we have found a large mass by your right kidney, and it looks cancerous."
My stomach sank, my world spun, and I cried out to Jesus. Some further tests determined that I had a rare and deadly cancer for which there is no known treatment.
As a husband, a father of two young children, and a theologian, the news confronted me with the fact that life would change drastically. What would it be like for my kids to grow up without their dad? How would my wife handle all of this? Why would God allow this to happen to me, and where was God in the midst of this turmoil? As Christians, we all feel the gravity of life bearing down, and we all meet with trying circumstances that force such questions upon us.
Questions about God's presence—and apparent absence—hearken back to what Christians have traditionally called God's transcendence and immanence. Or, to use more biblical language, his apparent "veiled-ness" and "unveiled-ness."
Theologian G. R. Lewis writes of God's transcendence and immanence this way:
As transcendent, God is uniquely other than everything in creation. God's distinctness from the being of the world has been implied in . . . discussions of God's attributes metaphysically, intellectually, ethically, emotionally, and existentially. God is "hidden" relationally because [he is] so great in all these other ways. God's being is eternal, the world's temporal. God's knowledge is total, human knowledge incomplete.
Lewis explains God's "otherness" through a series of comparisons between the finite (human history and humans in general) and the infinite (God's eternal nature and interior life). In other words, what we humans are not, God is. In his infinite life, God is above and beyond all that we are as finite beings.
Near and Far
But if God is transcendent—if his ways are unknowably above our own—how can we know him? Within the Christian tradition, several voices have spoken to this dilemma. A medieval Roman Catholic theologian, William of Ockham (1285–1349), is known for positing a "dualism" in God. By this, he meant that there are two ways to think of God and his presence among us. Ockham argued that God behaves one way in his "transcendent" life and another way in his "immanent" life (his activity in human history, primarily through the Incarnation). If God seems remote and secretive, that's because he can act differently "way above yonder" than how he acts in revealing himself in Christ.
The problem with Ockham's perspective is that it severs God's transcendent life from his immanent life. As a result, Jesus Christ might not seem like the same God who has always lived in eternity. Dualistic thinking dissolves any necessary relation between the "veiled" God and the "unveiled" God in Christ. This introduces an element of anxiety for those who seek to know God: If God's revelation in Christ does not truly represent God's eternal nature, then sending Christ could have been an arbitrary gesture. God might well have reached out to humanity in a very different manner—or not reached out to humanity at all. And at any point in the future, he might act in an infinite number of unpredictable ways. If God's activity in revealed time doesn't reflect his eternal nature, we cannot be sure of Jesus' words to doubting Thomas: "If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him" (John 14:7).
About two centuries after Ockham, Martin Luther construed Ockham's categories quite differently. The result was to bring God's transcendence, his "hiddenness," closer to God's immanence—his revelation in Christ. Luther contended that God's hiddenness, or transcendence, shapes his activity in his immanent, revealed life.
For Luther, the eyes and ears of faith give us contact to God's transcendent life, which to ordinary eyes and ears remains hidden. As the prophet Isaiah said, " 'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, /neither are your ways my ways,' / declares the Lord" (55:8). Because God's ways are transcendent, his ways in his revealed life, in the life of Christ, remain hidden for those without faith. Only as we walk by faith and not by sight can we discern God's transcendent ways through looking at the life of Jesus.
Luther writes in his Heidelberg Disputation that the true theologian "comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross." For Luther, the suffering endured at the cross of Christ shows that God, even in his transcendence, meets us where we are, in the midst of our own suffering. He meets us in the lowliness of the manger, in the indignities of earthly existence, and in the agony of the Cross. In all this suffering, we see the character of our transcendent God—driven by love and grace, full of mercy and compassion, and moved by an unfathomable care for humanity.
Thomas Torrance, the 20th-century Scottish theologian, took something implicit in Luther's theology and made it explicit: There is no distinction between God's transcendent life and his immanent life. So when we look at Jesus we actually see God on full display. We don't have to wonder whether there might be a different God hiding up in eternity. Torrance wrote in this vein:
It belongs to the essence of the Gospel that God has come among us and become one with us in such a reconciling and miraculous way as to demolish the barriers of our creaturely distance and estrangement from him, and has spoken to us directly and intimately about himself in Jesus Christ his beloved Son. In him he has made himself known to us as God the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible, the one Lord and Saviour of mankind.
Thus, when we wonder what God is like in his transcendent, faraway life, we ought to realize, according to Torrance, that he is exactly the same God we encounter in the face of Jesus Christ.
We Don't Have to Go Anywhere
Having looked at the mystery of immanence and transcendence through the eyes of some major theologians, how best to move forward? What can we say about moments in life when suffering and doubt overwhelm us, the moments when God seems absent?
I suggest we constructively combine some of Luther with all of Torrance. Both men understood that because God is love in his transcendent, inner life, he comes down to us in his immanent, revealed life. Therefore, God is the same God in eternity as he is in the realm of human history. And because God is love, he meets us right where we are, in our suffering squalor. He meets us as the suffering servant, obedient to the point of death on the cross. We don't have to go anywhere to relate to a God like this.
When I found out I had cancer, I didn't know the answers to my most immediate questions. But God reminded me, as he wants to remind all of us, that he is not a God far away, but a God who has come near to us and dwelt within the very circumstances of our lives. He wants us to trust him with eyes of faith, believing that he reveals himself redemptively in our darkest hours and deepest longings. His ways remain hidden to those without faith, but those with faith see the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. When you see Jesus, you see the invisible God made visible. So look to Jesus.
Bobby Grow is coeditor of Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Pickwick Publications). He blogs at The Evangelical Calvinist.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingCompany that Trademarked ‘Worship Leader’ Makes Others Drop the TermPopular meme accounts lose social media pages after being reported by Authentic Media, which says it coined the phrase.
- From the MagazineIs It Time to Quit ‘Quiet Time’?Effective biblical engagement must be about more than one’s personal experience with Scripture.
- RelatedJunia, the Female Apostle Imprisoned for the GospelWhat Scripture tells us about the story of this “outstanding” Jewish woman in chains.
- Editor's PickShift Your Bible Reading into a New GearJonathan Pennington has written the rare study aid that equips without oversimplifying or overwhelming.