What does it mean that God is transcendent?
Question: "What does it mean that God is transcendent?"
To transcend means “to exist above and independent from; to rise above, surpass, succeed.” By this definition, God is the only truly transcendent Being. The “LORD God Almighty” (in Hebrew, El Shaddai) created all things on the earth, beneath the earth and in the heavens above, yet He exists above and independent from them. All things are upheld by His mighty power (Hebrews 1:3), yet He is upheld by Himself alone. The whole universe exists in Him and for Him that He may receive glory, honor and praise.
Being transcendent, God is both the unknown and unknowable, yet God continually seeks to reveal Himself to His creation, i.e., the unknown seeks to be known. Here is a paradox. Being transcendent, God is the incomprehensible Creator existing outside of space and time and thus is unknowable and unsearchable. Neither by an act of our will nor by our own reasoning can we possibly come to understand God or experience Him personally. God wants us to seek to know Him, yet how can the finite possibly know and understand the infinite when our minds and thoughts are so far beneath His (Isaiah 55:8-9)? Romans 11:33-36 says, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him is the glory forever!”
Another aspect of God’s transcendent nature that places Him beyond the reach of His creation is His holiness and His righteousness. Because of man’s proclivity to sin and his desire for wickedness, he is denied the right to enter God’s presence. God has no choice but to turn His face away from us like He did with Moses when he asked to see God’s glory. God told Moses, "You cannot see my face, for no one may see my face and live" (Exodus 33:20). To see the fullness of the glory of God would be too much for any human to bear; it would break the earthen vessel in pieces. The full revelation of God is therefore reserved for the future, when all things will be seen as they are, and men will be in a condition to receive them.
The prophet Isaiah realized the necessity of God remaining aloof from His creation: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins” (Isaiah 64:6-7). A transcendent God must turn His face away, for He is forced by His very righteousness and holiness to keep Himself separate from anything or anyone sinful, impure, unclean or less than perfect. However, besides being transcendent, God also possesses immanence (nearness), and it is in His immanence that God chooses to draw near to His creation.
This, too, is a paradox. “‘Am I only a God nearby,’ declares the LORD, ‘and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the LORD. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ declares the LORD" (Jeremiah 23:23-24). God’s transcendent nature strives to keep Him distant and remote from His creation both in space and time, yet on the other hand, His immanent nature works to draw Him near to His creation and to sustain the universe. God’s love for His creation is so great that we see His immanence overshadowing His transcendence. This becomes clear in His incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, as He breaks through the barrier of sin and separation to draw all mankind back into a close, personal relationship. We see God not only choosing to draw near to His creation but to personally come into the hearts and minds of His people through the indwelling power of His Holy Spirit. This is the miracle of God’s transcendence.
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Knowing God by J.I. Packer.
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