This meditation was originally given as a chapel talk in 2001.
One of the turning points of my early Christian life was reading J I Packer’s Knowing God. That book did what better books should do: it helped me understand Scripture and thereby to know God in a true and more profound way. Since then it has always been difficult to understand those who separate “knowing about God” from so-called head knowledge from so-called “heart knowledge.” The science of theology entails the art of making good distinctions, but the distinction between head and heart knowledge is not one of them.
All Christians confess “I believe in God.” Our faith, our life, our being, our salvation is found in, grounded in and sustained by our Triune God. The Bible and the Christian faith begin with God. If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, then we must know him. It glorifies God when we know him more deeply and we can enjoy and serve him well only as far as we know him, but we cannot know him in our hearts without knowing him in our heads.
Remember that Calvin described Scripture as God’s condescending speech to us. From the divine perspective, it is baby talk, i.e., divine speech to creatures is true, if not exhaustive (Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.13.1). Thus as he reveals himself to us, God uses anthropomorphisims, that is, he attributes to himself qualities which we think of as human. The divine attributes are ‘the essential properties by which he makes himself known to us…by which he is distinguished from creatures’ (F. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 22.214.171.124). That is, they are those things which make God who he is. To say that God has attributes also means that there is a real foundation in the divine essence for his attributes revealed Scripture. They are not just modes of revelation or illusions or ways of talking with no basis in reality.
The Limits and Truth of Human Language About God
At the same time, it is not as if our word immensity comprehends God’s immensity. As far as our understanding of it is true to God’s self-disclosure our word immensity is accurate. We want to say with Scripture that God really does “think,” “feel,” and “will.” These are not just modes of speaking. Yet, they are not identical to our experience of these faculties. Our experience is analogous but not identical to God’s.
Substance and Attributes
Charles Hodge said that the divine substance and attributes are inseparable. The one is known in the other. A substance without attributes is nothing, i.e., it has no real existence’ (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1.371). Nor is it true to say that God is the sum of his effects—this is no more true of God than it is of us.
Communicable and Incommunicable Attributes
Reformed theology has historically maintained that some attributes are communicable to humanity and others are not. In sanctification, God communicates to us his moral attributes (e.g., holiness and justice) as part of the process of renewal. To be sure, our experience of these moral attributes is markedly different.
Those attributes which can belong naturally to God alone, those unique ontological attributes, are incommunicable. Immensity is one of those incommunicable attributes.
Immensity is not a theologian’s playground. It is a theological category which arises from God’s self-disclosure in Scripture.
1 Kings 8:26–7
Solomon’s dedicatory prayer says in part,
And now, O God of Israel, let your word that you promised your servant David my father come true. “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!
Standing before both Israel as Qoheleth (convener of the covenant assembly), Solomon invokes Yahweh, the sovereign creator and redeemer of his people.
As he prayed, he considered what it means for humans to build a building in which our infinite, spiritual and immense God can be said “to dwell” Solomon was saying, “Look here, we know that you are so transcend our experience and being, that building a box in which to meet and worship you is, in one sense, absurd, yet you have graciously ordained it.” That is the mystery of meeting God. He is everywhere and fills everything. In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
Nevertheless, he designates special places where he meets with us. The question is not exactly, “where is God” Â– we know the answer to that; he is everywhere and fills everything; but rather, the question is, “how is God with us”? What Solomon was suggesting is that God has a special covenantal presence with his visible assembled people. This is a remarkable thing. On the other hand,, there is a sort of ordinary (if we can use that word of God), universal experience of the presence of God, and then there is a special, unique presence of God, which he reveals and gives to the people who bear his name when they are assembled before his feet.
There is an intensity of God’s presence with us when we call on him in the name of Jesus, an intensity which is greater than his universal cosmic presence. This is because, as Vos taught us, heaven is pre-eminently the place of God’s special presence. We the people of God participate in that special blessedness of God’s presence to the degree that we also participate, by the Spirit, in that final reality.
So the difference between God’s general and special presence must be a difference of degrees. It must also be a difference in quality. When God the Spirit comes to us, he blesses us with salvation and with peace with God, it is the result of his special covenantal-saving presence with his people.
Most of the time when the Scripture speaks of God’s goodness, it is in the context of his covenantal presence with his people. His tabernacle-temple is throne and therefore his royal resting place.
1 Corinthians 11:10
Paul had both these truths (GodÂ’s immensity and covenantal presence) in mind when he said that, in corporate worship, women who stand to pray should do so with their heads covered, in part, “because of the angels.” Whenever God draws near to his people, in the Old Testament in smoke and fire, his holy angels are always attending him. Paul was saying, “Yahweh is present when you gather, be careful.
1 Corinthians 14:25
Likewise Paul’s hope was that, when an unbeliever comes into the worshiping assembly, Christ’s special-covenantal presence in the assembly would be so obvious and overwhelming that he would fall down and worship the living God.
The writer to the Hebrews agreed. As the people of God gather to call on God’s name, they should be aware acutely of God’s immensity—that there is no place where we can escape his presence, but especially of his dangerous, holy and powerful covenantal presence. If Sinai was dangerous, Mount Zion is so much more, since we have come to the true mountain, the city of the living God. Heaven thundered at Sinai, but now heaven is open, and we have entrance by faith, and we are before the angels and they are before his throne.
A Damning Immensity
By implication therefore, there is a special, presence of God by virtue of his immensity with the reprobate. He is not with them in grace and forgiveness, but in righteous and everlasting judgment such that, relative to grace, it can be considered a sort of withdrawal, of the sort envisioned by Scripture when God speaks of “hiding” his “face” from one in judgment.
God is not diffused throughout creation as though he is partly here and partly there, but rather he is completely here, and completely there at the same time and with no loss to himself (See L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 60–1).
Immensity is a sub-set of God’s infinity relative to space. God Put positively, to say that God is “immense” is to say that he fills all that can be filled with all of himself all the time. Put, negatively, there is no place where he is not. Therefore God cannot be “contained.” There could not be any such things as space or location unless God is immense and in is actively filling all things sustains them. “In him we live and move and have our being.”
Is God’s immensity the result of his free-will or is he necessarily so? In other words, could God not be immense? The Bible does not know a God who could be other than he is. Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” The God of the Bible is not becoming, he just is. That does not mean that God does not also will to be immense, he surely does, but it also means that it is not possible that he should will to be something else. Therefore our theologians, e.g., Amandus Polanus, were correct when they said that immensity is one of GodÂ’s “essential” properties meaning that God, to be God, must be immense and without it God is not (Partitiones, 1.1).
By Power, Knowledge and Essence
If God is necessarily immense and if immensity is an essential property, then God is with us not only by his power and operation, but also in his very being. For God to be present with us is for him to be present, personally and intimately because God is a tri-personal God (See Turretin, Institutes, 3.9.4).
Our View Not Philosophical
It also puzzles me to no end when leading neo-evangelical theologians such as Donald Bloesch dismiss this view as unbiblical, and driven by philosophy more than Scripture. Were one a philosopher one could devise a much simpler and easier to understand doctrine of God, a much more manageable God. After all, how “rationalist” is it to say that God is completely here and there, at the same time?
Contra Theology from Below
Some contemporary Reformed theologians simply ignore the doctrine of immensity and still others start with human experience and work out to God and therefore they reject the doctrine as counter to empirical evidence or rationality. So, given it not surprising that, given their starting points, that they have trouble with this doctrine.
Among Origen’s enemies were the “Anthropomophites,” i.e., those who taught that when Scripture attributes to God bodily parts and passions, that we’re to take Scripture to teach that he actually has these things. The anthropomorhpites were not just a problem in the ancient church. There are so-called evangelical theologians who are verging on the same error in our day. In his recent book, Most Moved Mover [(Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 34–35] Clark Pinnock toys with Mormon anthropomorphite formulations. Pinnock notes repeatedly that his doctrine of God is closer to the popular evangelical view than ours. That is probably the case, but it is the first time that God’s people have been confronted by popular idolatry.
Nor can the God of the Bible be locked up into heaven. Because he is immense, he fills heaven and earth with himself. Not that he spills over, but that he fills whatever there is to fill yet not by multiplication or identification with the world.
Have you ever thought about the practice of closing one’s eyes in prayer? Has it ever struck you as an odd thing to do? It sometimes strikes me as perverse. Its true that we make our children close their eyes so that will not be tempted to monkey about when they are meant to be praying, but when we close our eyes we do not thereby come any closer to God. Indeed, as a way of recognizing God’s constant presence with us, perhaps we adults should pray with our eyes open. It is a marvel that the God upon whom we call in prayer is completely present. We cannot see or touch him, yet here he is, completely present and because we are adopted Sons in Christ, he is specially present with us by the power of the resurrection, the Holy Spirit.
God’s immensity means that God is not only transcendent—”out there”if you will—but he is just here, with us. This is why Paul told the Athenian Philosophical Society, “though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).
It is perhaps God’s immensity which is in view as much as any other attribute when we speak of living our lives Coram Deo, before God. This is the force of the last half of Jeremiah 23:24 which contains the rhetorical question, “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” declares the LORD. ” The answer is, “Yes, of course.” So our response is to live in the Spirit and to conduct our lives morally before the face of the God who is completely present with us.
Therefore there is nothing we do which is hidden from him. Calvin is probably right, Ps.139:7 (“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”) is not intended as a proof-text for this doctrine, but it immensity is a corollary it. For the Christian, one who is alive to the living God, the question is, where indeed?
Our God is a great God. He is not like the gods of the nations nor is he like the God of the evangelical process/openness theologians. Far from being made by hands, he cannot be captured by hands because he is immense and yet because he is immense, he does not need to be captured, because he is not going away from us. Indeed, quite the opposite. He has come to us and sought us out.
It is our immense, triune God who wonderfully and mysteriously took on humanity in addition to his immensity, as the greatest condescension to our weakness. He who by nature fills and upholds all things by his power, became a flesh and blood human being. Why? Because the height, depth and width of God’s love is as great as his immensity. God the Father loved us with all that he is and gave up his only and eternally begotten Son, so that we might know him.