Excerpt from The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives, Copyright © 2015 by J. Ryan Lister, Published by Crossway
We know that good stories do not begin at the theater or on the bookshelves. Instead they begin with the difficult (often tedious) yet necessary jobs of research, location scouting, and storyboard preparation. Likewise, a proper grasp of the biblical drama demands comparable legwork—though theological in nature and never tedious! This is what we will set out to do in this chapter. We want to do that ground-level work that will provide the theological parameters and theological clarity necessary to help us understand who God is and what it means for him to be present.
Let me be clear: establishing such foundations is difficult work and work that, given our focus, will be limited in scope.1 Still, time spent in theological cultivation is necessary. It helps us worship God on his terms and understand ourselves in light of redemption. This particular type of theological spadework will begin with the doctrine of God, especially his relationship with creation. The thought of an infinite God stooping low to relate to and redeem a broken people rightfully leaves our minds reeling—or at least it should. When we meditate on the mysteries of God’s relational pursuit of his creation, we are bombarded with theological questions that will ultimately determine our concept of God, the gospel, and ourselves. Why does the God of Christianity draw near to sinners in the first place? What does it mean for the transcendent God to engage, interact with, and even enter this fallen world and its people? My hope is to use this chapter to address these important questions by showing that God’s free decision to be with his people finds its source in his transcendence, and most fundamentally in his self-sufficiency. That which makes the Lord distinct from creation is what leads him to draw near to creation.
But our questions do not end here. Trying to understand the presence of God confronts us with the most fundamental question: what is the presence of God? In fact, our story will only go as far as our definition of the presence of God will allow it to go. We need a biblical definition of God’s presence to ground our understanding not in the thin air of today’s mystical-spiritual conceptions but in the bedrock of Scripture’s story. As a result, we will devote the second part of this chapter to the advancement of such a biblical definition. I will attempt to excavate our definition directly from Scripture’s own emphases, specifically that the Lord’s presence is redemptive and eschatological. The presence of God is the reward of redemptive history and the way God secures this reward for us. The answer to the question will play out organically in our analysis of the story of Scripture in the chapters ahead, but offering this definition from the outset will help organize our thinking and pave the way for a proper discussion of God’s presence that is to come.
Who Is This God Who Becomes Present?
Let us begin with the doctrine of God: specifically, how we can account for his relational nature. When we pull back to see the big picture, we quickly realize that the personal nature of God grounds our salvation and makes the gospel possible. It is only because of his relational nature that we—his reliant and finite creations—have life, delight, hope, grace, mercy, and love available to us.2 It is only because he has chosen to be present that we are afforded the opportunity to experience the glories of his presence.
Transcendence and Immanence
To understand the relational nature of God in a biblically faithful manner demands that we first come to grips with what theologians call God’s divine transcendence (the attribute that describes God as the one who is distinct and separate from his creation) and God’s immanence (the attribute that describes him as the one who freely draws near to and is involved in his creation).3 In maintaining the balance between these dual realities, we see one of the emphases that makes Christian theology explicitly Christian, especially within the doctrine of God.4
I am sure that for some of us, the entry point to our understanding of the Lord is his transcendence. God is “other than.” He is distinct from his creation in nature, action, and being. He is greater than all that is not God. We surmise that, at a fundamental level, God’s transcendence is a corollary of other attributes, such as his majesty, holiness, and infinitude.
This transcendence has huge implications for God’s relationship with his creation, for it is his transcendence that gives rise to his self-sufficiency and self-existence. God is self-sufficient in that he is reliant upon nothing outside of himself, out of his own being, and is in no way dependent on what he has made. Similarly, he is eternally self-existing, meaning that he draws his existence solely from himself; or, to put it another way, God is because God is God. In describing the transcendent God who is wholly other, Scripture articulates a Lord who is distinct from creation, existing solely in himself eternally, absolute in nature, without nonintrinsic limitations, and fully infinite.
Interestingly, Scripture most often depicts God’s transcendence in spatial terms.5 The biblical authors time and time again put physical, albeit metaphorical, distance between God and his creation. As the psalmists describe, God is the “most high” (Ps. 97:9), the God “above the heavens” (Ps. 8:1), and the one “over all the earth” (Ps. 57:5). This distance, though, is much more than physical or spatial; it is first and foremost moral. It is true that God is transcendent in his essence, but Scripture places its primary emphasis on his holiness. This is why biblical authors periodically describe God as a far off, elusive, and hidden.
We see this especially when sin enters the picture. The prophet Isaiah categorizes God’s righteous response to mankind’s sin as divine-human separation when he announces,
Because of the iniquity of his unjust gain I was angry,
I struck him; I hid my face and was angry. (Isa. 57:17)6
Probably the most famous example of this moral focus of God’s transcendence is found in Eden. What is the culminating consequence of Adam’s sin? God removes the first man from the garden-sanctuary of his presence, a theme we will return to in the next few chapters (cf. Gen. 4:14).7
The God who is gloriously separate from and over all things is the same God who has freely chosen in his grace to be with humanity. He is not constrained by his own creation, loneliness, or need to draw near to the world; rather, the divine-human relationship germinates out of the sheer beauty of his grace and the relational nature of the Trinity. This is the delicate and necessary balance struck in Scripture: God is transcendently self-sufficient and self-satisfied while simultaneously free to be relationally immanent. As one scholar observes:
The OT never conceives of God’s transcendence in opposition to his immanence, as if that which makes God wholly other is different from that which allows him to be a personal God who lovingly acts in time and history. For the Bible, transcendence and immanence do not describe two divine modes of being or two sets of distinguished qualities.8
The Lord is one who is simultaneously transcendent and immanent, separate and yet personal.9 As Scripture helps us see, “He is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11). But we must be reminded that his immanence stems from his transcendence, rather than vice versa. As Colin Gunton puts it:
Transcendence cannot be won at the expense of God’s immanence precisely because it is the ground of immanence. . . . God is transcendent in that he is able to become immanent. . . . The happening of God in time is not a negation of what God really is. It is his affirmation. . . . If God were not so supremely transcendent of reality that is other than he, he would not be the God who does the things that he does.10
It is his nature that provokes God’s relational manifestation, not some internal or external deficiency. He is wholly other and he entered history and acted among his people.11 Almost every word of Scripture (including the very fact that we have the words of God in written form), exhibits God’s desire to reveal himself and relate personally to his creation in redemption and judgment.12
Numerous passages substantiate the importance of holding the dual realities of divine transcendence and immanence in concert.13 Take Psalm 113 for example. Here the psalmist writes:
The LORD is high above all the nations,
and his glory is above the heavens!
Who is like the LORD our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the LORD! (Ps. 113:4–9)
Here the complementary truths of the Lord’s transcendent otherness and immanent closeness bring joy to the psalmist. The Lord is “high above,” and yet he is also the one who stoops low and “raises the poor from the dust.”
Similarly, the prophet Isaiah captures both of these divine realities:
Thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isa. 57:15)
According to the prophet, where should Israel find its comfort? It is found in the God who “is high and lifted up,” “inhabits eternity,” and “dwell[s] in the high and holy place,” the One who comes to restore the broken, needy, and repentant.14 For Isaiah, the Lord’s transcendence is the source of healing for broken humanity because only the Holy One who is greater than this world can placate the anxieties and despair of this fallen world.
The New Testament holds the same tension. One clear example is Acts 17, where Paul delivers his theological treatise before the pagan Greeks.15 God’s transcendental self-sufficiency is on full display in Paul’s argument: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (17:24–25). At times overlooked is the emphasis on immanence that follows. Paul does not stop with God’s self-existence but links it to God’s relational pursuit of his creation. Paul challenges the misconceptions of an aloof, selfish, and reliant deity within the Greco-Roman world by portraying the God of Scripture to be a holy and separate God who graciously draws near to his people.16 He advises his listeners to “seek God” in the hope that they might “feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27a). The Lord is near and can be found. Paul deepens the relational closeness of God, testifying that God
is actually not far from each one of us, for
“In him we live and move and have our being”;
as even some of [the Greek] poets have said,
“For we are indeed his offspring.” (Acts 17:27b–28)
So Paul’s God is transcendently immanent. The Lord is beyond creation and distinct from it, while he has also chosen, on his own volition, to be intimately involved in creation and active in human history.17
God in Himself, God in Relationship
So if this is the case, why does God enter into his creation? If he is completely self-sufficient and requires nothing outside himself, then why create and relate? As hinted above, the answer to this question lies in his divine self-sufficiency. Though at first glance this may appear contradictory, the Lord’s self-satisfaction is, in fact, the seedbed for the God-world relationship. Rooted in the Lord’s transcendence, the doctrine of divine aseity describes God as “independent, self-existent, and fully self-sufficient.”18 So when we say that God is a se,
we say that (as manifest and eternally actual in the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) He is the One who already has and is in Himself everything which would have to be the object of His creation and causation if He were not He, God. Because He is God, as such He already has His own being. Therefore this being does not need origination and constitution.19
In other words, the Lord is ontologically “uncaused, without beginning, not dependent on an external person, principle, or metaphysical reality for his existence.”20 Moreover, as Yahweh is ontologically (in his being) a se, he is also internally a se, indicating that he is in himself completely self-satisfied, for neither his happiness nor his fulfillment is contingent upon anything external to himself, since he does not need anything outside himself to be content or satisfied.21
This doctrine has obvious ramifications for God’s relationship with the world. Because Yahweh requires nothing “outside of himself to exist, be satisfied, [or] be fulfilled,”22 he in no way needs creation for anything, either for some deficiency within himself or for his own personal satisfaction. As a result, God’s aseity emphasizes that his decision to create and relate to that creation does not come from a specific need or insufficiency within himself but derives from his nature instead. In other words, it is out of an abundance of his self-sufficient and independent nature that the desire and means to relate to the world arises.23 The doctrine of divine aseity clarifies that the source of the God-world relationship is the independent, self-sufficient, self-existing, and transcendent nature of God.
So, we see that God’s transcendence grounds his immanence, but we still need to understand how this “other than” God can, in any real sense, also be the God who is with us without contradicting his transcendent nature. Thus George Eldon Ladd asks, “How can the Infinite be known in the finite, the Eternal in the temporal, the Absolute in the relativities of history?”24 His answer helps: “From a purely human perspective, this seems impossible; but at precisely this point is found perhaps the greatest miracle of biblical faith. God is the living God, and he, the Eternal, the Unchangeable, has communicated knowledge of himself through the ebb and flow of historical experience.”25
Ladd shows us that the testimony of Scripture reveals that the infinite can work beyond the “normal” and conventional ways of “everyday” experience—the ways and experiences humans understand—because God in his transcendence is beyond our limitations. In other words, the contradictions of a transcendent God becoming immanent are not contradictions, because God’s infinite nature transcends our finite limitations—the limitations that lead to contradictions for us. Again, Ladd, pointing to God’s acts in his creation, helps us see that
the Lord of history is transcendent over history yet is not aloof from history. He is therefore able to bring to pass in time and space events that are genuine events yet are “supra-historical” in their character. This merely means that such revelatory events are not produced by history but that the Lord of history, who stands above history, acts within history for the redemption of historical creatures.26
Ladd helps us see the very evident and very important doctrine of the Creator-creature distinction. This distinction reminds us that God is the ruler of time and space. He is able to act in his creation and history in ways that surpass typical procedures of such events—the typical procedures and laws that God established. God stands above history but also uses history to bring about his redemptive purposes. John Frame explains:
God (the Son, as well as the Father and the Spirit) has an experience that transcends all physical limitations. God is not, therefore, to be defined as a physical being. (Even the incarnate Son of God had a divine sovereignty over space and time.) But as Lord of all things that are material and physical, he is supremely able to understand the world from the perspective of every physical being, to reveal himself in any physical form that he chooses, and even to take human flesh, so that he has his own body, without abandoning his transcendent existence. I argued that it is better to say that God is Lord of time and Lord of space than to say merely that God is atemporal and nonspatial. Although he does have atemporal and nonspatial existence, he is also temporally and spatially omnipresent. His sovereignty does not mean that he is excluded from time and space; rather it means that he acts toward them as Lord, not as the one who is limited by them. The same point can be made about God’s incorporeality. This doctrine does not exclude God from physical reality. Rather, it teaches that he relates himself to physical reality as the Lord, transcending it and using it as he chooses.27
Because the transcendent “Lord of history” created, rules, and sustains time and space, he is not limited in his nature from being immanently present in that time and space. The aseity of God shows us that the restrictions we feel are not restrictions for him. He is free to be distinct from his creation while simultaneously drawing near to his creation. Simply put, it is precisely his transcendence that leads to his immanence.
Solomon speaks to this very idea at the dedication of the temple. The king of Israel, fully anticipating the glory of God to enter the physical building he, Solomon, has built, calls upon the king of heaven to come and be present in the new temple (1 Kings 8:10–21, 28–30). Yet, even in full expectancy, Solomon qualifies the residence of God in the temple, announcing the utter inability to limit God to one location (8:27). God enters the temple because he can. He is not limited by his transcendence to remain distant; rather his transcendence is what allows him to fill the temple with his glory while simultaneously transcending the physical walls of the temple, the national borders of Israel, and any other finite limitation to his presence.
Like Solomon, we should recognize Scripture’s need to strike a balance between God’s transcendence and his immanence and apply this balance within our own doctrinal formulations. Yes, God chooses to be immanent in history, but clearly transcends history as well. Likewise, he draws near to people in time and space but still transcends any sense of literal and physical manifestation of the incorporeal God.
It is the absolute nature of God that allows him the freedom to be personal with the world.28 In other words, “that which makes [God] divine, and thus wholly other and so transcendent, is that which equally allows him to be active within the created order and so be immanent.”29 To deny God’s self-existence would, then, be what denies the very foundation for his immanent activity in human history. It is because of his being “high above all nations” that the Lord is able to raise the poor from the dust (Ps. 113:4–9). It is because the Lord dwells in the high and holy places that he is able to bring respite to the contrite and lowly spirit (Isa. 57:15). Through the knowledge of the transcendent realities of God’s nature we appreciate what it means for God to be in relationship with the world, and, in particular, his people.30 When we see that our holy and righteous God extends himself relationally, not out of need, but out of his transcendent nature, we are compelled to worship and bring glory to the transcendent and immanent one. Yet when we fail to do so, God quickly becomes an idol made in our image.
The Trinity and God’s Relational Nature
God’s transcendence and immanence both exist because of his Trinitarian nature. The eternal intra-Trinitarian relationship that exists between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reveals that God is self-fulfilled relationally and needs nothing outside of this fellowship (e.g., John 3:35; 5:20; 10:38; 14:10–20, 31; 15:9; 17:20–26). Here there is a perfect relationship between the persons of the Godhead. It can be said that “not only is the personal reality of each member of the Trinity discernable, but the divine persons also appear in unique relationship to one another.”31 Biblically, the interrelations between the persons of the Godhead are exemplified in the Son and the Spirit being with the Father by way of “seeing,” “hearing,” and “doing,” as well as their “knowing” and “testifying” of each other.32
This intimacy between the members of the Trinity forms the basis of God’s immanent relationship with the created order.33 This relational nature of God in himself, first expressed and established in his transcendent self-fulfillment among the persons of the Trinity, is graciously conferred—in a limited sense—to the world. So just as “the three divine persons act in freedom to create and relate, they likewise manifest in their economic dealings with the world what is true of their logically prior and intrinsic relations.”34 In other words, the relations between God and the world emanate directly from the relations between the persons of the Trinity.
In Scripture, Jesus models his love for the world after his relationship with the Father (John 17:24–26). When Christ declares, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you” (John 15:9), we catch a glimpse into the source and origin of the spiritual intimacy available to believers. Clearly, any relationship with God (as well as Christ and the Holy Spirit) derives from the perfect fellowship and communion that typifies the union between the first and second persons of the Trinity. It would seem, then, that our relationship with God is based on, or born out of, the interrelationship that exists between Father, Son, and Spirit (see, e.g., John 13:34–35; 14:10; 17:5, 21–26).
The Presence of God Defined
Based on his transcendent lordship and intra-Trinitarian relationality, God most high has chosen to be God most near. God covenants with fallen man precisely because he is transcendent (and gracious) and has the authority and control to do so. God is a “personal, powerful, self-existent being who is creator of the world and of humankind, and who is concerned about humanity.”35 He is the one who “commits himself to us, to be our God and to make us his people. He delivers us by his grace and rules us by his law, and he rules not only from above, but also with us and within us.”36 Emanating from God’s transcendence is his immanence, and in particular, the manifest and relational presence of God in the midst of his creation. The immanence of God as expressed through his divine presence is certainly emphasized in Scripture, is imperative for the Bible’s own theological message, and is personally applicable for our salvation and sanctification. In order to set the stage for our consideration of the power and purpose of God’s manifest immanence, let us first define what Scripture means by the presence of God.
The Difference between “God Is Everywhere” and “God Is Here”
We begin with what the presence of God is not. There is a difference between God’s relational nearness and his being everywhere. This latter idea is what theologians call divine omnipresence (or immensity) and is, no doubt, the default category for the way many of us conceptualize God’s presence. And though these concepts are by no means at odds, it is important to clarify the differences between them.
To be sure, divine omnipresence is evident throughout Scripture (1 Kings 8:27; Ps. 139:5–12; Prov. 15:3; Jer. 23:23–24; Ezek. 8:12; Amos 9:2–4; Acts 17:27–28; Rom. 10:6–8). God reveals himself to be one who “transcends spatial limitations and so is present at all places at once in his total being.”37 The Lord is ontologically everywhere at once along with each point in space in the totality of his being. More specifically, Yahweh’s omnipresence, or what John Feinberg calls his “ontological presence” (meaning the presence of his being/nature), allows him to be “actually present at a given place in space”; yet, because of his immaterial nature, God “can still actually be somewhere (ontological presence) but [not] present physically.”38 God in his omnipresence, therefore, “is not limited to being present in just one place at a time . . . he is simultaneously everywhere ontologically.”39 Scripture describes God’s omnipresence as an “essential universal generality of divine presence,”40 an attribute that reveals God to be nonphysical, beyond localization, and seemingly impersonal.
While it is true that God is unlimited spatially and that he also fills all space, biblical revelation focuses more on his being relationally and redemptively present with man. The biblical text shows us that there is consistent tension between these two realities of God’s presence. Along with the philosophical details of his immensity, Scripture more often than not stresses the special and specific manifestation of God as he reveals himself to his people for communion and salvation. It is this particular presence that is detailed in God’s being in the midst of his people in Eden (e.g., Gen. 3:8, 10; cf. Revelation 21–22), in the tabernacle/temple (e.g., Ex. 25:8; 1 Kings 8:1–13), in the incarnation of Christ (e.g., Matt. 1:23; John 1:14; 2:21), and, ultimately, in the new heaven and the new earth (e.g., Isa. 66:22–23; Rev. 21:1–5, 22–27).
Scripture does not highlight “the divine presence as a general immanence” but rather as “the special realization of his presence in salvation and the final acceptance of the justified believer in his eternal presence.”41 The presence of God detailed in Scripture, therefore, expresses not only the classical doctrine of divine omnipresence—in no way are we wanting to undermine this biblical truth—but also, and I would argue more centrally, a relational-redemptive presence of God.42 As the Canon of Scripture will show in the chapters ahead, this type of divine presence receives most of the attention because, as I will contend, it is the relational-redemptive presence of God that is both a goal of redemptive history and the means to that goal.
Definition of the Presence of God
This leads us to the definition of the presence of God that will guide the rest of our journey through Scripture together. To really understand the meaning of the presence of God in Scripture, I have tried to excavate our definition from the Bible’s own structure and substance. When we listen to the rhythms of Scripture regarding this biblical theme, we hear the biblical writers accent two emphases: the eschatological presence of God and the redemptive presence of God.
Regarding the first, we find an unmediated and fully relational manifestation of God’s presence at the beginning and end of redemptive history. As we will see in detail in the next chapter, God is relationally present to Adam and Eve in ways that those this side of the fall cannot comprehend. Interestingly, John the Seer appropriates this same Edenic presence to describe the new creation available to the redeemed in Christ. John goes as far as to depict our new heavenly/earthly home as a place similar to, yet still surpassing, the first garden, with the future reality of the presence of God, unmediated and fully relational, at its center (Revelation 21–22). This is the eschatological presence of God that bookends the biblical story and formulates a central goal for all of God’s redemptive purposes.43
It is the getting to this wondrous future experience of God’s relational presence that is the hard part. To do this, God’s eschatological presence gives rise to the redemptive function of his presence. In his providence and for his glory, Yahweh becomes present to restore and re-create his broken world and a broken people. We see that the redemptive aspect of God’s presence differs from the relational aspect of God’s presence in that it is mediated (thereby limiting the experience of divine-human relations in a way that the eschatological presence does not) and is predominantly defined by its purpose to enter time and space to redeem and reconcile. The redemptive presence of God serves the Lord’s own eschatological agenda by saving and preparing a people for the full experience of God’s presence that is to come.44 The redemptive presence of God is the means to the goal of God’s eschatological presence.
With this in mind, I want to provide a convenient and succinct definition of the presence of God. Through the excavation of Scripture, we find that the presence of God is the manifestation of God in time and space—mediated in some sense—working to bring forth redemption and redemption’s objectives and, simultaneously, the unmediated, fully relational, and eschatological manifestation of God first experienced in Eden and awaiting the elect in the new creation.
THE PRESENCE OF GOD: MANIFEST AND RELATIONAL
Let us think through the individual elements of our definition above. Fundamental to both aspects of divine presence is the reality that God has made himself known. Even though our fallen nature as culpable sinners restrains our knowledge, God’s free decision to reveal himself in word and mighty acts has nevertheless blessed us with an understanding of his presence. In a particular aspect of his revelation, the Lord chose to manifest himself and enter human history in order to disclose himself to humanity progressively over time in a logical and comprehensible way. As Frame summarizes, “God’s presence is temporal; he is present ‘now’” and “he is also ‘here.’ God is present in space as well as in time.”45 The Lord of heaven is also the Lord of earth, and he is manifest in his creation.
From Genesis 3:8, where the Lord is said to “walk” among his people in the garden, to the culminating reality of Revelation 21:1–5, where believers finally enter into the dwelling place of God for all eternity, the biblical authors centrally concern themselves with the special revelation of God in time and space. In harmony with the opening and closing books of the Canon, the rest of Scripture also underscores the manifest presence of the Lord within space and time.46 God is said to “come” and “go” (e.g., Gen. 17:22; 20:3; 31:24; 35:14; Num. 20:9; 2 Sam. 7:23; cf. Mark 1:14, Acts 1:9–10). He is described as being in the midst of his people and near to creation. We see him come down to evaluate the evil plots of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:5–7) and Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:2). We hear that he inhabits Sinai to covenant with Moses and Israel (Exodus 19; 33). We know that he “tabernacles” in flesh in the coming of Christ (John 1:14).47
The Lord manifests his presence in physical and/or audible appearances (e.g., Gen. 32:23; Ex. 3:1–15; 33:18–23; Isa. 49:3). This is evident in the theophanic and prophetic revelations of God detailed in the Old Testament (e.g., Gen. 18:1–15; Josh. 5:13–15; Dan. 3:19–26). More perfectly, it is expressed in the New Testament’s disclosure of divine presence in the person of Christ (John 1:1–17; 14:9; Col. 1:15; cf. 1 Thess. 5:16). We also see that God is manifest spiritually, which is most explicitly communicated in the person of the Holy Spirit and his indwelling believers (e.g. John 14:17).
The biblical expressions of God’s presence revealed in time and space are diverse and, at times, abstract. Even in its physical expression, God’s presence is often obscured by the earthly elements of fire48 and cloud49 (e.g., Gen. 15:17; Ex. 13:21–22; Deut. 1:33; 4:11–12, 24; 1 Kings 8:10–12; Ezek. 1:27; cf. Heb. 12:29; Rev. 4:5). When God’s presence is made visible, whether through fire, cloud, or some other manifestation, it means there has been a human encounter with the transcendent God. The arrival of the Shekinah glory testifies that the Lord has entered his earthly dwelling place to be present with his people (e.g., Ex. 40:34–38; 2 Chron. 7:1–3)—and yet its description is one of nearness and separation. Thus understood, the glorious presence of God is “an image of divine transcendence as it makes itself known to people. It combines awe and terror and simultaneously invites approach and distance.”50 God’s glory reveals that the transcendent Lord is near, in a locative sense, to his people and working in history for his redemptive purposes while also declaring his holiness and distinction.
We must remember that “Yahweh is God-with-his people.”51 God becomes present in such ways for the purpose of relationship. As Frame rightfully contends, “[Yahweh] is the one who calls people into fellowship with himself and therefore becomes intimately present to them.”52 This divine-human relationship was foundational to the experience of Eden.53 From the beginning of creation, God was relationally present with Adam. He communed and even “walked” with the first man in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). Paradise was paradise because it was where God’s presence was; Eden was where his perfect and full relationship with creation and his relational presence with man began.54
Such a beginning suggests that God has always intended to be relationally present with his people. Moreover, the rest of Scripture details that the recovery and even expansion of this Edenic experience are central to the Lord’s redemptive mission.55 For this reason, the divine-human experience of Adam in the garden provides a paradigm for what will be the even fuller experience of the eschatological presence of God in the new heaven and new earth. For instance, in the New Jerusalem—where there is no temple and, therefore, no limitation to the dwelling of God as there was following Adam’s rebellion—we find that God’s presence is freely accessed as it has never been before. It is a relationship where the believer is able to bask in the unending and unquenchable light of the divine presence while simultaneously being fully cognizant of God’s grace, his own need for and provision of divine mercy, and his desire to glorify the one in whose presence he shall eternally stand.
THE PRESENCE OF GOD: REDEMPTIVE AND MEDIATED
Though it is true that God is manifest and relational throughout all of redemptive history, there is a distinct change in the experience of his presence following Adam’s rebellion. After the fall, God becomes present to restore the relationship lost in sin; God is present to redeem. In a sense, this is the storyline of redemption: the Lord time after time extends himself redemptively to a person (e.g., Abraham and the patriarchs) or a people (Israel and the church). He does so in order to redeem this people and reestablish the Edenic-type unmediated, eschatological presence of God found in the new creation. God’s presence after Adam’s transgression is best understood as an agent of redemption rather than pure relationship.56
With this shift in function, there is a shift in the overall experience of God’s presence. Sin separates the unrighteous from the righteous, and the relationship that was once free and unrestricted prior to the fall now demands mediation.57 We see repeatedly in Scripture that the Lord shrouds his presence in symbol, image, and/or physical barriers because of his holiness and for the protection of humanity.58 Bavinck explains that the mediated presence of God, particularly in the Old Testament,
does not exhaustively coincide with his being. It does indeed furnish true and reliable knowledge of God, but not a knowledge that exhaustively corresponds to his being. The stone at Bethel, the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire in the wilderness, the thunder on Mount Sinai, the clouds in the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant (etc.) are signs and pledges of his presence, but do not encompass and confine him. Moses, with whom God spoke as with a friend, only saw God after he had passed by him (Ex. 33:23). One cannot see God and live (Ex. 33:20; Lev. 16:2). He is without form (Deut. 4:12, 15). One cannot make an image of him (Ex. 20:4). He dwells in darkness: clouds and darkness are the signs of his presence (Ex. 20:21; Deut. 4:11; 5:22; 1 Kings 8:12; 2 Chron. 6:1).59
The moral and epistemic deficiencies marking mankind in the fallen state require this type of mediation.
This veiling allows God to be manifest with his people while, at the same time, protecting the people from his holy and consuming presence. Mediation, therefore, is for both the sanctity of God and the security and furtherance of man (e.g., Num. 4:15; 2 Sam. 6:6–7). Even in God’s merciful manifestations, fallen humanity is laid bare before a transcendent, holy, and infinite being.60 There is always the stricture of unrighteousness and finitude that separates God from humanity, even in the Lord’s decision to draw near to his people. If not, sinners would be consumed, for the unholy cannot stand in the presence of the holy. As the testimony of Scripture reveals, when Yahweh draws near for redemption, the biblical pattern is that his presence is almost always revealed in a restricted and mediated sense.
God is present because he wants to be; he is present because it brings him glory. There is nothing forcing him to draw near other than his very character. We see that the transcendence of God is the source of his immanent presence with and for creation. His nature—typified by holiness, control, and authority—is free to relate to a broken world in the ways he deems fit and in ways that exalt him. It is only in this understanding of God that we can truly grasp what the presence of God really is. Out of the Lord’s transcendence and freedom emerges his decision to draw near—to redeem us and to be our hope. God enters this world to establish a covenant relationship with us, to redeem us, and to usher us into new creation filled with his presence. Understanding who God is and what his presence means, then, gives us a vision of its importance for Scripture’s own theological message. We know that God’s presence is both eschatological—it is our future hope—and redemptive—it is our means of salvation. So with our “location scouting” completed and “storyboards” in place, we turn our attention fully to the divine script. In the next chapter we will begin at the most strategic place to understand a story: the story’s end.
Excerpt from The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives, Copyright © 2015 by J. Ryan Lister, Published by Crossway
J. Ryan Lister (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate professor of theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of The Presence of God. He and his wife, Chase Elizabeth, have three children.
1 Understanding God completely is an unattainable goal. As Bavinck rightfully concludes: “Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics. . . . The knowledge that God has revealed of himself in nature and Scripture far surpasses human imagination and understanding. . . . For it does not deal with finite creatures, but from beginning to end looks past all creatures and focuses on the eternal and infinite One himself. From the very start of its labors, it faces the incomprehensible One.” Still, this should not deter us from pursuing God in any way. The gift of revelation, through which the Lord has disclosed himself to creation using speech and words that can be studied and parsed, shows us that God has made a knowledge of him available, which, when pursued, often results in worship and his being glorified. Again, Bavinck sums this up well: “While Holy Scripture affirms [the qualitative difference between God and man] in the strongest terms, it nevertheless sets forth a doctrine of God that fully upholds his knowability.” Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 30.
2 It is safe to say that most religions outside of the Judeo-Christian worldview, if not all, do not maintain that their divinity, “power,” or god is simultaneously personal and absolute. In contrast, one characteristic is usually overemphasized to the denial or neglect of the other. For example, D. A. Carson catalogs the difference between the Christian claim and other religions when he writes: “The transcendent and the personal are separated in most of the world’s religions. In animism and polytheism there are many personal spirits or gods, but none is absolute. Sometimes these religions supplement their gods as it were by appealing to fate—an impersonal absolute. Pantheistic religions adopt an absolute, but it is not personal. World religions are sometimes so internally diverse that they fit into more than one of these categories. At one level Hinduism is clearly polytheistic, but much of Hindu outlook is finally pantheistic. Buddhism in its various branches is particularly difficult to label, but at no point does it adopt a vision of God as both absolute and personal. Contemporary science, with a frequent balance toward philosophical materialism, constantly tilts toward an impersonal absolute. In other words, persons are finally explained on an impersonal basis—bouncing molecules, statistically organized motion, chemical reactions in one’s brain, and so forth.” D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 223–24. To be fair though, in recent Christian theology, Christianity’s distinct approach, in several cases, has been overshadowed by theological trends that allow a lack of balance and accuracy to creep into its own doctrine. This has resulted in theological error and, in some cases, new religious perspectives or even systems (e.g., process theology and open theism). Again, Carson goes on to argue that many of modern-day theological problems arise out of those within Christian circles who have divided God’s absolute and personal nature. He contends that contemporary religious thought leaves us with “a God not clearly personal, and if absolute, sufficiently remote to be of little threat and of little use.” He goes on to show the work of process theologians and their attempt to “emphasize God’s personhood while dismissing his absoluteness. Process theology, in its plethora of forms, argues that God may be personal, but is certainly mutable and changing, himself (or itself) in process” (ibid., 224–25). This same critique applies to open theism, a theological movement that underscores God’s relationality to the point that it undermines his control. Needless to say, there is much confusion surrounding the nature of God’s relationality and much to be sifted through before a biblical conceptualization of divine presence can be proposed.
3 Millard Erickson reveals the consequent errors that arise when the proper tension between these two qualities of God is lost: “Where either is overemphasized at the expense of the other, the orthodox theistic conception is lost. Where immanence is overemphasized, we lose the conception of a personal God. Where transcendence is overemphasized, we lose the conception of an active God.” Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 328–29. By this he means that when the balance is gone, divine immanence can be assimilated into a form of pantheism, and the divine becomes less personal and more a part of creation. With transcendence, the issue of separation arises. Excessive emphasis on God’s transcendence ultimately conforms Christian theism into some degree of deism. Grenz and Olson, in their book on contemporary theology, describe our current theological crisis as stemming from “instability introduced when transcendence and immanence are not properly balanced.” They continue, “As if in the ongoing course of theological history the twin truths of the divine transcendence and divine immanence are seeking their own proper equilibrium, twentieth-century theology illustrates how a lopsided emphasis on one or the other eventually engenders an opposing movement that attempts to redress the imbalance and actually moves too far in the opposing direction.” Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olsen, Twentieth-Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 12.
4 Historically speaking, the failure to balance these characteristics has resulted in many, if not most, of the doctrinal predicaments over the past century and beyond. In fact, Grenz and Olson use the distinction of transcendence and immanence to organize and structure their whole study of twentieth-century theology. They argue that the back-and-forth shifts in emphasis between these two aspects of God’s nature are responsible for the drastic theological changes defining modern theology. The goal of our discussion is to maintain a proper theological symmetry between the Lord’s transcendence and his immanence. Thus Bruce Ware holds that God is “both transcendent, as existing in the fullness of his infinitely glorious tri-Person unity and apart from the finite spatio-temporal created reality he freely brings into existence, but also as one who chooses to relate immanently, as he freely enters into the realm of the creaturely existence that he designed and made.” Bruce A. Ware, God’s Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 35, emphasis original.
5 I agree with John Frame, who argues that the biblical references to divine transcendence in spatial terms are not tied exclusively to heaven but instead point to a much larger reality. Frame asserts: “It is not biblical, therefore, to interpret God’s transcendence to mean merely that he is located somewhere far away, in heaven. That may be part of the thrust of the terms ‘Most High,’ ‘exalted,’ and ‘lifted up,’ but there must be more to it. . . . We should, I think, see these expressions primarily as describing God’s royal dignity. He is ‘exalted,’ not mainly as someone living far beyond the earth but as one who sits on a throne. The expressions of transcendence refer to God’s rule, his kingship, his lordship.” Frame’s critique of many theological positions on divine transcendence sees this characteristic of God in light of the genre and purposes of Scripture itself. The imagery of Scripture is duly noted, and the focus of the spatial requirements is brought under the intent of the author. John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 105.
6 God’s elusiveness can also describe his providential ways. We see this when the prophet declares, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, / O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa. 45:15). The context of this verse is the Gentiles’ entering Jerusalem with great goods and treasures. God has seemingly reversed the fortunes of Israel by bringing beauty out of the conquering work of King Cyrus. God works in ways that finite man cannot foresee or understand. So although we know him, we do not know him in full. For further discussion, see J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 364.
7 Cain acknowledges his guilt when he announces: “Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (Gen. 4:14). What is illuminating in this passage is that Cain understands the weight of his actions and what it means to sin before a holy and transcendent God; yet, even in these bloody circumstances, Yahweh is graciously immanent, as is evidenced in his provision of the city of refuge, vengeance upon the people who stand against his purposes and his people, and the reestablishment of a dynastic line in Seth. Other examples of this tension include God’s decision to be present in the temple but still be hidden behind the veil, the separation established in Adam’s first sin, the allowance of judgment during the time of the judges and the prophets, and his concealment during the whole exilic period. The most important biblical example, though, is the person of Christ, who is himself both fully God yet veiled in human flesh. In Christ, the balance of transcendence and immanence is perfectly expressed (Phil. 2:5–11).
8 Thomas G. Weinandy, Does God Suffer? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), 56.
9 God’s personal and relational character extends from the intra-Trinitarian relationship that characterizes the immanent Trinity, a topic that will be developed later in this chapter.
10 Colin E. Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 56.
11 As the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck states, “Not only does Scripture ascribe to God . . . an array of human organs and attributes; but also it even says that he walked in the Garden (Gen. 3.8), came down to see Babel’s construction of a tower (Gen. 11:5, 7), appeared to Jacob at Bethel (Gen. 28:10ff.), gave his law on Mount Sinai (Ex. 19ff.), dwelt between the cherubim on Zion in Jerusalem (1 Sam. 4:4; 1 Kings 8:7, 10–11). Scripture also therefore calls him the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the king of Zion, the God of the Hebrews, the God of Israel.” Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:30.
12 Cf. James M. Hamilton Jr., “The Glory of God in Salvation through Judgment: The Centre of Biblical Theology?,” TynBul 57 (2006): 57–84.
13 In a broader sense, each of these verses should be understood to be what Ware terms a “spectrum text.” By this we mean that these passages proclaim two truths about the nature of God that are often assumed to be contradictory in some way. These texts, however, reveal them not to be in conflict but rather to be harmonious realities in the doctrine of God. For our purposes here we find that these texts show that God’s transcendence and immanence are to be held in equilibrium. For more on “spectrum texts” and their theological impact, see Bruce A. Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000), 150, 191–216.
14 Notice how both verses (Ps. 113:4–9 and Isa. 57:15) have used the transcendence of God to heal and comfort the weak and oppressed. This shows that in order for the immanence of God to mean anything and/or affect our lives it must have his transcendence as its origin. If not, then the Lord is not able to affect our standing in the world. But if he is over all things, then he is over everything including our hardships and all our circumstances and worthy of faith, trust, love, and hope.
15 See also Ephesians 4:6, where Paul describes the Lord as “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” This verse and its appeal to the spatial location of God being both “over” as well as “through” and “in” is another example of Paul’s tying together the transcendent and immanent divine qualities. See also Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 267.
16 This is theologically significant because Paul is speaking to a polytheistic culture that divided divine power throughout a panoply of gods. It is to this ignorance that the apostle speaks. He shows the foolishness of these deities by revealing the all-encompassing realities of God’s transcendence and immanence.
17 Again, Bavinck summarizes this balance when he writes: “The same God who in his revelation limits himself, as it were, to certain specific places, times, and persons is at the same time infinitely exalted above the whole realm of nature and every creature. Even in the parts of Scripture stressing this temporal and local manifestation, the sense of his sublimity and omnipotence is not lacking. The Lord who walks in the garden is the Creator of heaven and earth. The God who appears to Jacob is in control of the future. Although the God of Israel dwells in the midst of his people in the house that Solomon built for him, he cannot even be contained by the heavens (1 Kings 8:27). He manifests himself in nature and sympathizes, as it were, with his people, but he is simultaneously the incomprehensible One (Job 26:14; 36:26; 37:5), the incomparable One (Isa. 40:18, 25; 46:5), the one who is infinitely exalted above time, space, and every creature (Isa. 40:12ff.; 41:4; 44:6; 48:12), the one true God (Ex. 20:3, 11; Deut. 4:35, 39; 32:19; 1 Sam. 2:2; Isa. 44:8).” Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:33–34.
18 James Beilby, “Divine Aseity, Divine Freedom: A Conceptual Problem for Edwardsian Calvinism,” JETS 47 (2004): 648.
19 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, vol. 2, The Doctrine of God, pt. 1, trans. T. H. L. Parker et al. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 306. Through this type of being, Barth affirms God’s freedom from (transcendence) and freedom for (immanence). He writes, “Freedom in its positive and proper qualities means to be grounded in one’s being, to be determined and moved by oneself” (ibid., 302). In short, out of his aseity, God has the freedom to be transcendent and immanent, separate and near. For citations and further interaction, see Michael S. Horton, Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 28–52.
20 Beilby, “Divine Aseity,” 649.
23 See John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998), 165.
24 George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed., ed. Donald Hagner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 23.
25 Ibid., 25.
27 Frame, Doctrine of God, 587.
28 Among biblical texts that express the corresponding truths of transcendence and immanence, there is a consistent pattern. The transcendence of God is habitually mentioned first and is then followed by an expression of immanence. This order in no way eradicates the necessary balance between God’s personal and absolute nature. Instead, I argue, it discloses that the source of divine immanence is in fact the transcendence of the Lord. Or, to say it another way, divine immanence is a result of transcendence. God’s transcendence provides the possibility of his being relational with his creation in the first place, especially for the purpose of redemption.
29 Weinandy, Does God Suffer?, 56.
30 Bruce Ware argues, “Divine transcendence must be conceived first in order for the beauty and glory of the divine immanence likewise to be apprehended correctly.” Ware continues to express the importance of transcendence for immanence when he maintains that “yes God is both transcendent and immanent. But marvel that the God who is fully and infinitely transcendent would choose to become immanent. Marvel that the One who stands eternally independent of the world should choose to relate so intimately with those of this world.” Ware, God’s Greater Glory, 46.
31 J. Scott Horrell, “Toward a Biblical Model of the Social Trinity: Avoiding Equivocation of Nature and Order,” JETS 47 (2004): 405.
32 Ibid., 407. For examples of the Son’s and the Spirit’s being with the Father, see John 1:18; 3:11, 32; 5:19–20, 30; 6:38; 8:38; 12:49–50; 16:13–15; 1 Cor. 2:10–13. Also their knowledge and testimony of each other is seen biblically in John 1:32–33; 3:11, 34; 5:36–37; 7:29; 10:15; 14:26; 15:26; 16:7–11; 17:6; 18:37; 20:22; Rom. 8:9; Gal. 4:6; Eph. 2:18.
33 I hold to differences of roles and positions among the persons of the Godhead as well. I also believe that God is singular in nature and plural in person. As Bruce Ware contends: “The Father is supreme in authority, the Son is under the Father, and the Spirit is under the Father and the Son. Yet there is also full harmony in their work, with no jealousy, bitterness, strife, or discord.” Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 131.
34 Bruce A. Ware, “How Shall We Think about the Trinity?,” in God Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents God, ed. Douglas S. Huffman and Eric L. Johnson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 257. It is important to show that God’s relation to his created order is not required for his existence, because that would ultimately deteriorate the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity. If this distinction were erased and the aseity of God abandoned, then our only option would be something consistent with Rahner’s rule, which argues that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity. To avoid this problematic supposition, John Frame clarifies that “there is a difference between what God is necessarily and what he freely chooses to do in his plan for creation,” which includes his choice to be relational with humanity. Frame, Doctrine of God, 629.
35 Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 21, emphasis added.
36 Frame, Doctrine of God, 96.
37 John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 249.
39 Ibid., 250.
40 Daniel Strange, “A Little Dwelling on the Divine Presence: Towards a ‘Whereness’ of the Triune God,” in Heaven on Earth: The Temple in Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Simon Gathercole (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2004), 212.
41 G. W. Bromiley, “Divine Presence,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 873.
42 Jim Hamilton provides a helpful example of the distinction between the general immanence of God and his relational presence extended to his people. Hamilton writes: “Consider, for instance, the statement that God was with Ishmael (Gen. 21:20), which immediately follows God’s assertion to Abraham that the covenant would be kept through the line of Isaac (21:12; cp. Rom. 9:7). This shows that God’s presence with Ishmael did not carry the same benefits as His presence with Isaac (Gen. 26:3).” James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Indwelling Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 161.
43 In the next chapter (chap. 3) we will trace out how the presence of God is central to the covenant/redemptive promises that drive the advancement of salvation history to the completion of these blessings. For his people’s pleasure and his glory, God promises a genealogy and a geography or, to put it another way, a people and a place among which his perfect, unmediated eschatological presence will dwell.
44 To see how the redemptive presence of God is the means to the eternally relational presence of God, we will survey the redemptive work of the presence of God in both the Old and New Testaments, highlighting the manifest work of the Lord in the exodus, his promises in the Prophets, the fulfillment of these promises in Christ our Immanuel, the glorious indwelling presence of God in the Holy Spirit, and the divine presence in the new temple of the church.
45 Frame, Doctrine of God, 97.
46 There are, of course, dissimilarities between the pre- and post-lapsarian experiences of God’s presence owing to sin, which we will cover later in this section.
47 The rest of this volume will flesh out the specifics of God’s redemptive relational presence as it is revealed across the Canon. To avoid redundancy, I will save the specific description and evaluation of the examples listed here and others for chaps. 3–5.
48 The symbol of fire to reveal the presence of God is significant for many reasons. This imagery pictures God in a certain way. As “fire purifies and destroys so does God purify the righteous and destroy the wicked (‘for our God is a consuming fire,’ Heb. 12:29 RSV). Just as fire lights up the blackness of night, so does God overcome the dark powers of evil. Just as fire is mysterious and immaterial, so too is God enigmatic and incorporeal.” “Fire,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, ed. Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), 287.
49 The cloud, as seen in the exodus narrative, is a symbol of God’s presence mediated to his people. In Exodus 16:10 we see that the cloud in the wilderness is a representation of divine glory amid the chosen nation of Israel. Symbolically, the cloud “represents God’s presence but also his hiddenness (see Lam. 2:2). No one can see God and live, so the cloud shields people from actually seeing the form of God. It reveals God but also preserves the mystery that surrounds him.” “Cloud,” in Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 157.
50 “Glory,” in Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, 330.
51 Peter Toon, Our Triune God (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1996), 89. Toon notes that God’s self-disclosure in the name Yahweh tells that he is a God with and for his people. In his own name God has shown himself to be present and relational.
52 Frame, Doctrine of God, 94.
53 More specifically, God’s presence is covenantally relational. The basis of any redemptive relationship with God is established in covenant. When we assess the Scriptures, the purpose of the covenant is clear: God will be with a people to be their God and to make them his people (e.g., Gen. 17:7; Ex. 6:7; 29:45; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; Ezek. 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; 37:27; Heb. 11:16; Rev. 21:3). Thus understood, “God is not merely present in the world; he is covenantally present. He is with his creatures to bless and judge them in accordance with the terms of the covenant.” Frame, Doctrine of God, 94, emphasis his. This promise reveals the relational basis that undergirds each aspect of the covenant the Lord establishes with man. Building on the relational nature of God’s presence, the Lord manifests himself in redemptive history for the purpose of salvation. The presence of God centers on redemption. The Lord does not simply want to relate with the unrighteous; he wants to redeem them so that the relationship can be made right and he can be glorified in full. So God becomes manifest in time and space to deliver blessings to the faithful or curses to those who reject him.
54 Though classifying the experience of God’s presence in a sinless context is difficult and can lead to conjecture, Scripture does indicate that Adam’s relationship with God was free and full. This will be fleshed out in more detail in chap. 3.
55 See also the more universal reality of God’s presence in the Spirit of God dwelling within creation since its origin (Gen. 1:2).
56 The decision to classify God’s manifestation after the fall as his redemptive presence is meant to distinguish this function of the Lord’s presence from the relational presence associated with the beginning and end of salvation history. Still, I acknowledge that even as God’s presence is an agent of redemption, some form of relationship is implied—a form, however, that is distinct from the relationships known in Eden and the new creation.
57 As will be shown in detail in the chapters that follow, mediation and God’s redemptive presence go hand in hand. The Old Testament is replete with institutions and practices pointing to the mediation of God’s presence. For instance, God introduces the temple as his dwelling place among his chosen people. This location is where he has chosen to manifest himself to his people, but at the same time, he has also ensured separation from them through the concentric structure of the building and the partitioning veil of the Most Holy Place. The sacrificial system as a whole was established to address the problem of sin and provide a means by which the Lord could remain in the midst of a sinful people. Sacrifices are offered perennially, and, as with the climactic Day of Atonement, this constant repetition and recurrence reveals that the atonement and forgiveness the faithful remnant seek so diligently will, in all actuality, never be finished in their own power. This requisite distance that stands between God and man is also the basis for the role of mediator evidenced in the persons of Moses, David, and, most importantly, Jesus the Christ. He is the one who rends the veil of the temple from top to bottom and secures the atonement for sin once and for all. Christ’s death and resurrection deal sin its death blow (Heb. 10:1–14). He is the final Mediator. Christ stands before the presence of God on behalf of his people, taking their punishment upon himself (Heb. 9:24–28) in order to secure eternal access to the presence of God (Heb. 7:25; 10:18–22; cf. Rev. 21–22).
58 One of the most famous examples of this mediated divine presence is Moses’s encounter with Yahweh on Mount Sinai. In this familiar story, Moses, hoping to know God more intimately, pleads with the Lord to see the fullness of his glory-presence (Ex. 33:17–18). The Lord graciously responds, allowing his presence to be revealed, but only in a restricted way so as not to consume his prophet. Before passing in front of Moses, the Lord hides him in the cleft of the mountain for his own protection, permitting his prophet to see the “back” of Yahweh but not Yahweh’s “face” (Ex. 33:18–23). If it were not for the Lord’s gracious protection of Moses and humanity from himself, Yahweh’s holiness would consume those exposed to his presence (Ex. 33:20). Thus, because of his transcendent holiness, the immanence of God requires mediation.
59 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:35.
60 Even the presence of God in Christ, the fullest manifestation of the Lord, is mediated through the incarnation. In agreement with Chalcedonian christology, we correctly affirm that Christ is fully God. However, as the transfiguration clearly disclosed, Christ’s divinity was veiled in his humanity. Furthermore, in his second coming we will see a fuller revelation of such attributes as his justice, wrath, and conquering. In the fulfillment of this eschatological promise, the restrictions and limitations of God’s presence will no longer be required. The division between the general ontological presence of God and the special particular presence of God will be removed with the coming of the new creation. With Christ’s final work there is a “‘specializing’ of the ‘general’ as there will be no distinction between God’s general presence and special presence as he will be specially present to all in the holy city.” Strange, “A Little Dwelling,” 229.