How do we understand God? Careful readers of the Bible since the time of the Jesus and the apostles have sought to understand the answer to this question, thus the meaning of certain prominent and recurring theological terms. I am persuaded that the most basic of all questions really does come down to this: “How do we define or conceive of God?”
The late evangelical theologian Stanley J. Grenz said, “Perhaps the most deeply ingrained conception among Christian views of God as a being – albeit an eternal, uncreated being – who is both present within and exists beyond the world of created beings” (Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1994, page 78). This kind of thinking corresponds, at least to a certain extent, with the very language that the Bible uses about God, particularly in the Old Testament. Yet, as Grenz notes a great deal of this type of thinking about God owes its prominence to Greek philosophy, especially to Plato and Aristotle. This thinking led to the commonly accepted idea of an unchangeable God. In the twentieth century this kind of thinking has come under severe attack from every side, both inside and outside the church. The result has been a huge debate about time, eternity, God’s mind, his openness, etc.
In the midst of this century-long debate I think one thing stands out clearly – “The traditional discussion of God as a being is no longer helpful” (Grenz, 80). I believe that the central truth we should take away from this oft confusing debate is that there is no God but the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. God is one but he is three persons bound together in a loving, social and perfect union. What this means, if you can bear a little theological sidebar for a moment, is this – the God of the Bible is the Father, the Son and the Spirit in their eternal inter-personal relations with one another. God transcends the world because God is self-sufficient apart from the world. He doesn’t need the world to be God. He is above the universe and comes to our world from beyond it; “God is in heaven, and you upon earth” (Ecclesiastes 5:2). Isaiah reported seeing the Lord, something rarely ever stated in the Bible. He said he saw God “seated on a throne, high and exalted” (Isa. 6:1). This is what I mean by transcendence. The extreme of transcendence is deism, the belief in a supreme creator who takes no active part, nor has any personal concern, for the world or human persons.
But God is also immanent. This means that God is always present to creation. He is not a passive watchmaker but a personal God who is involved with the natural processes of the world as well as with human events. Here is how Paul describes God’s immanence.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’ (Acts 17:22-30, NRSV).