How Do We Define Transcendence?

The Rhythm of Transcendence and Immanence—
Reflections on Christian Worship of the God of Wonder(s): Defining Transcendence

(Blog Article Part 2)

Deus non est in genere encapsulates the motto of the early church fathers: “God is always greater.”[1]  No matter how vast, expansive, or complex the human conceptions of God are, he is always grander than the mind can imagine or language can articulate.[2]  Paul exclaims in Romans 11:33, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”  God is always greater.

The difficulty of defining divine transcendence lies in finding or creating human language to describe and quantify that which is fundamentally ineffable and measureless.  Essentially, transcendence is an all-encompassing term that describes the difference between God and all that is not God, between God and all that God created.  Transcendence is central to how God reveals himself in Scripture and foundational to the proper development and application of liturgical theology (I will use the term liturgical theology to describe biblical concepts that govern how Christian worship is planned, approached, and presented).  God is not the sum of all human virtues.  Neither is God a superlative amalgamation of humanity’s greatest strengths or the “highest abstraction of human thought.”[3]  God is supranatural and suprahuman. 

God’s transcendence cannot be defined without also considering God’s immanence.  Although neither term is found in the Bible, transcendence and immanence are foundational concepts woven throughout the Old Testament and intensified by the New Testament writers who characterize God as both the one who is unapproachable and the one who dwells with his people.[4]  He is high, exalted, and separate; yet, he is pleased to abide in the hearts of his children.  God is great and big, though small enough to reside in the human hearts of those he has redeemed.  He is self-existent as well as self-relating—independent of all creation, yet intimately involved with the world he spoke into being.  The idea that God who is absolutely and utterly other than his people would also dwell within his people by the Holy Spirit is a paradoxical irony.[5] 

Though inextricably linked, transcendence will initially be highlighted in this blog and immanence in the next blog in this series.

In Genesis, God begins his self-revelation to mankind by establishing this truth: God and humans are not alike.  God is qualitatively different from humans and all created things. This fundamental difference of the divine from the mundane is captured in the word transcendence.  God is transcendent.  He is wholly other, he is beyond, he is other than.  God is not continuous with the natural world.  He is discontinuous.  Geoffrey Wainwright in Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life makes this statement: “Nothing within creation can depict God in so far as he, the Creator, is transcendent over creation.”[6]  God’s transcendence makes him ineffable and incomparable.  He is both independent of creation and superior to it in every way.[7]  God’s transcendence essentially means two things: God is above, and God is beyond.  David Wells, distinguished professor of theology and noted author, remarks that Scripture declares that

God is exalted, that he is “high,” that he is “above.”  They celebrate the fact that God in his being, character, and will is not subject to the ebb and flow of life, to its limitations and distortions, that such is the power God has that even in a fallen world he is able to effect his will, exercise his sovereign control, and act in the fabric of its life.[8]

God is distinct from his creation.  Creatures are weak, finite, physically bound, limited, and sinful.  God, on the other hand, is infinite, limitless, invisible, eternal, and holy.  God knows all and sees all.  He possesses all knowledge and all power to do anything he wills to do.  God is timelessly eternal and temporally everlasting.  He is the Alpha and Omega—the one who has no beginning and will have no end.  He is infinitely wise, infinitely holy, and infinitely powerful.  He is inescapable, incomprehensible, and the unmoved mover.  From him and through him and to him are all things.  Nothing is above God.  Nothing is beyond God.  Nothing is prior to God.  Nothing is grander than God.  God transcends our world, and God is so far above that the human mind will never be able to fully comprehend him. 

For humanity, transcendence is the appropriate and essential beginning place for the proper understanding of God.  God is above, and God is beyond.  However, when examining God’s transcendent attributes, care must be taken not to diminish or jeopardize God's immanence, nearness, care, or concern for his creation.[9]  This gloriously unfathomable God chose to dwell with his creation in nearness rather than remain wholly remote.  Though the Creator-creature distinction is first characterized by God’s transcendent otherness from his creation, the Creator-creature distinction is secondly characterized by God’s immanent nearness with his creation—the subject of the next week’s blog.

[1]Donald G. Bloesch, God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 34.

[2]A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1961), 45.

[3]Bloesch, God the Almighty, 84.

[4]Allen P. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006), 45.

[5]Donald P. Hustad, Jubilate II: Church Music in Worship and Renewal (Carol Stream, IL: Hope, 1993), 110.

[6]Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 33. 

[7]Erickson, God the Father Almighty, 256. 

[8]David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1994), 122.

[9]Ware, God’s Greater Glory, 36. 


This blog article is written by Chuck T. Lewis, Ph.D.  Dr. Lewis serves as Assistant Professor of Church Music and Worship at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Lewis is also currently serving as Worship Associate at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky and has formerly served as Worship Pastor of the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Florida.  Lewis’s complete research on the rhythm of transcendence and immense can be viewed under the “Complete Dissertation” tab found at worshipdesignproject.com.  Also, worshipdesignproject.com features the findings of a nationwide survey of the largest Southern Baptist Churches in America designed to discover the prime influencers on how worship pastors select elements to be included in their worship services and how those elements are sequenced.