A Grid for Understanding Biblical and Unbiblical Transcendence and Immanence
John Frame’s The Doctrine of God (P&R, 2002) is one of the most helpful books I’ve read on this glorious subject. In this work, Professor Frame uses a rubric he introduced in his book on covenantal epistemology, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. He calls it the Square on Transcendence and Immanence.
He explains that transcendence evokes the pictures of God as “high,” “lifted up,” “exalted” (Ps. 7:7; 9:2; Isa. 6:1). Immanence, on the other hand, connotes God being “near” and “with us” in covenant (Gen. 21:22; 26:3, 24, 28; 28:15; Deut. 4:7; Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23).
Although Frame uses a box to illustrate this, I wonder if it’s more helpful to do it in a traditional chart. What follows is essentially his teaching:
|Transcendence||A. God is in authoritative control||C. God is not present|
|Immanence||B. God is covenantally present||D. God and the world are indistinguishable|
The A-B boxes of the first column, taken together, are the unified biblical view of God’s transcendent- immanence and his immanent-transcendence.
God exhibits his covenantal lordship attributes of control and authority (A), and presence (B).
The C-D boxes of the second column represent incompatible and unbiblical views.
In an unbiblical view of God’s transcendence (C), he is so far “above us” that he cannot be known or identified in history—he is “wholly other” (so Barth).
In an unbiblical view of his immanence (D), he is so near to us that he essentially is us. Functionally, either man becomes God or God is reduced to man.
The diagonal boxes (A-D and B-C) and are contradictory.
To say that God is supreme (A) is to deny that man is autonomous (D).
To say that God is covenantally present (B) is to deny that God is so far beyond us that he cannot be known, spoken of, or identified in history (C).
This grid ends up being a more nuanced and fruitful way to think these biblical truths than merely defining transcendence as “God above or apart from us” and immanence as “God’s omnipresence.” And contrasting them with their distortion and opposite clarifies the biblical meaning all the more.