The Transcendence of God
Malcolm C. Davis, Leeds, England
1. The Meaning of God’s Transcendence.
The dictionary definition of ‘transcendent’ is ‘excelling’ or ‘surpassing human experience’, and, as applied to God, ‘existing apart from, not subject to the limitations of, the material universe’. God is transcendent over all His creation, angelic and human, animate and inanimate, because in His very nature He is infinite, eternal, and self-existing, whereas all that He has created is finite, temporal, and dependent. He is also morally and spiritually transcendent over creation, since it is now marred by the invasion of sin. But it is important to realise that God manifests His absolute transcendence over His creation most fully in the way that He is able to overrule and use sin in creation to further His higher purposes in redemption. In so doing He reveals the glory of His grace and nature as love. Because God is absolutely transcendent, the invasion of sin into His creation has provided Him with the opportunity to reveal Himself in greater glory as the Saviour God than He could have done simply as Creator. it also means that the revelation and maintenance of God’s own glory is the real purpose of redemption, rather than simply our blessing, although the latter is involved in the former. This explains, finally, why God does not always reveal to us quite all that we might naturally wish to know, but only so much as accords with His own purposes of glory and pleasure in and through us as His creatures. Hence there is always an element of mystery in His ways with us, and often a measure of unexplained suffering allowed in the interests of His greater glory.
2. Examples of God’s Transcendent Ways with Men.
(i) Christ Crucified.
God’s transcendence in His ways with men is seen in sharpest focus at the cross of Christ. The great paradox of the fullest expressions of Satanic and human evil and Divine righteousness, love, and grace in one and the same event is highlighted in several Scriptures. In Isaiah chapter 53 verses 3-6, the prophet is led by the Spirit of God to take the place of his people Israel as restored in a coming day, and to see that their rejection of the Lord’s true Servant had been overruled to accomplish God’s plan of salvation for them by His substitutionary sacrifice at Calvary. In 1 Corinthians chapters 1-2 the apostle Paul explains that the apparent weakness and foolishness of God as seen in Christ crucified is wiser than men, in reality the supreme proof of God’s wisdom, because by that means He accomplished eternal redemption. In Acts chapter 2 verse 23 the apostle Peter also states the paradox succinctly in the words, ‘Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain’. The cross thus reveals fully the evil of man’s heart, his hatred against God, and his total blindness to the truth revealed in Christ, and also the infinite love, wisdom, and power of God in accomplishing by that very means His own eternal purposes of redemption. The transcendence of God over men so clearly demonstrated in Christ crucified prepares us to trace that same transcendence working out in many similar ways.
(ii) Joseph Rejected.
In Genesis chapter 50 verse 20 Joseph clearly traced the transcendent hand of God overruling the crime which his brothers had committed against him when they sold him into Egypt, and he reassured them with explanation of faith, ‘ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good,…to save much people alive’. The evil done to him had ultimately led to worldwide preservation of life and the repentance and spiritual restoration of the wrongdoers. Joseph readily forgave the wrong done to him and simply rejoiced to see God fulfilling His wider plans of salvation by its means despite the cost to himself.
(iii) Job Tested.
In Job chapter 23 verse 10 Job said, ‘he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold’. At that moment he knew nothing of the immediate cause of his suffering, namely, the argument in heaven between the Lord and Satan concerning the genuineness of Job’s faith in God. He sensed the deeper purpose in his trial. For the truth was that the Lord both allowed and overruled Satan’s malice against Job so as to refine Job’s character from its natural pride and self-righteousness, until, at the sight of his transcendent Creator god, Job confessed his nothingness, judged himself, and on repentance was restored to greater prosperity of body and soul than he had ever known before.
(iv) David’s Godly Desire Denied.
In 2 Chronicles chapter 6 verses 8-9, at the dedication of the temple, Solomon recalls that the Lord had said to David his father, ‘Forasmuch as it was in thine heart to build an house for my name, thou didst well that it was in thine heart: notwithstanding thou shalt not build the house’. Instead, in 2 Samuel chapter 7 the Lord had promised to build David a house, and to establish his kingdom forever. He denied David’s godly desire, but rewarded it in a far better way than David could ever have expected.
(v) Israel Chastened.
In Isaiah chapter 10 the Lord predicts that He will send the arrogant and cruel Assyrian king as His chastening rod against His erring people Israel. He clearly understands the Assyrian king’s quite selfish motives in the conquest of Israel, but decides to overrule these for as long as they subserve His own purposes in discipline. After that, He will judge the Assyrian king for his pride and excessive cruelty. In His transcendent sovereignty the Lord can use even unconverted men to chasten His own people for disobedience.
(vi) Lazarus Raised from the Dead.
In John chapter 11 verse 4, when Jesus heard that His friend Lazarus was ill, He first declared, ‘This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God’, and then deliberately stayed for two days in the same place where He was, during which time Lazarus died. The Lord’s purpose in so acting would seem to have been to create a situation in which He could reveal Himself more fully as the Resurrection and the Life by raising lazarus from the dead than he could as the healer of the sick by going to him before he died. He allowed greater suffering to occur in order to manifest His own glory as the Son of God more fully. A believer’s suffering must be seen in the wider context of the greater glory of God.
(vii) Onesimus Converted.
In Philemon verses 15-16 the apostle Paul traces the transcendent ways of God in overruling Onesimus’ crime against his Christian master when he reasons, ‘For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him forever; not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved.’ Onesimus’ crime had led to his conversion in Rome under the apostle’s preaching, and so to the upbuilding of the assembly of which his master, Philemon, was a member, and to a new and closer relationship between master and servant as brothers in Christ.
(viii) Paul Guided.
In Acts chapter 16 verses 6-10 Paul’s desire to preach the gospel in Asia and Bithynia, although it did accord with the Lord’s general commission to preach the gospel, was denied, because God had plans for the wider proclamation of that gospel in Europe. Paul could have been misunderstood for bypassing needy areas, but the Lord of the gospel harvest is sovereign in His control of His reapers.
(ix) Paul Afflicted.
In 2 Corinthians chapter 12 verses 7-9 Paul explains that his thorn in the flesh, which he describes as the messenger of Satan sent to buffet him, and so hinder him in his ministry, was in reality the Lord’s means both of checking his natural pride in his spiritual privileges and also, by causing him to draw continually on the Lord’s grace in his weakness, of making his ministry far more effective than it otherwise would have been.
3. Implications of God’s Transcendence for Believers.
On a devotional level, a consideration of the transcendence of God thus illustrated throughout the pages of Holy Scripture will cause believers to worship God for His infinite greatness with a deeper reverence that refrains from an improper familiarity in their approach to and attitude towards Him. For they will gratefully recognise the priceless privilege that is theirs of being related to God now not simply as creatures to their Creator, but even as sons to their Father in the Person of His only begotten Son, Christ Jesus their Lord. In Christ, God has raised them up from the depths of sin and ruin to share His own grace and glory, and to enjoy Him in all the wonder of His Person forever. Therefore, they will readily appreciate the words of Isaiah chapter 55 verses 8-9, ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts’. Furthermore, they have the great assurance of Romans chapter 8 verse 28, that ‘all things work together for good to them that love God’, and of Psalm 76 verse 10, ‘the wrath of man shall praise thee’. And they can rejoice in a God who is transcendent not only over all the powers of evil in His creation, but also over even their most godly thoughts, so that their prayers are answered exceedingly abundantly above all that they ask or think; they know the love of Christ that transcends knowledge, the peace of God that transcends all understanding, and a joy in Christ that transcends expression.
On a practical level, the truth of God’s transcendence encourages an unquestioning faith to obey the Word of God at all times (even when there is no evidence of its fulfilment and positive discouragement from doing it), in the conviction that He will fulfil and reward obedience to it in His own time and way. It also engenders a patient humility to accept joyfully all God’s dealings with us, even in trials, misunderstanding, and persecutions, although we do not understand the reason for them at the time; we simply trust that He will ultimately vindicate and bless us as His people for His own Name’s sake.
In short, a proper understanding of the transcendence of God is essential for the deepening of our spiritual life and fellowship with God in worship, walk, and witness. For this alone will enable us to view our finite and sinful selves in their true perspective and context, namely, our God and Father’s own eternal glory and counsels in Christ.
This article was first published in Precious Seed, Volume 35, No. 3, May-June 1984, pp. 73-76. The author has made a very few minor corrections and alterations to the original printed text.