Tag Archives: Incarnation

IS GOD EVERYWHERE?

We have tackled the weighty questions of ‘Does God Know Everything?’ and ‘Can God Do Anything?’ Now we turn our attention to ‘Is God Everywhere?’

I have procrastinated a long time in writing this post. The concept of omnipresence is very abstract and complicated. We must delve into the brain-teasing subject of the spatial relationships of spiritual beings, objects, and places. While this is a favorite area of inquiry for me, we can quickly spiral off into tangents with no practical value to our day-to-day lives as Christians. On the surface, it does not seem that omnipresence is even a doctrine worth spending time on. Omniscience and omnipotence have immediate implications for Christian belief and life whereas whether or not God is “present in all places at all times” (Merriam-Webster) or ‘spatially infinite’ appears to be rather academic. Why did early theologians even bother themselves with this infinite attribute?

Allow me to share a perspective that will hopefully illuminate why this discussion is both helpful and relevant. Some people may assume a religion like Hinduism is polytheistic. Polytheism, in contrast to monotheism, means belief in multiple gods. However, Hinduism is more accurately defined by pantheism or even perhaps panentheism. In a pantheistic system, the divine penetrates and permeates all things: a rock is divine; a tree is divine; a mosquito is divine, the West Nile virus that mosquito is carrying is divine… Now, I do not pretend to be an expert on the incredibly diverse religion of Hinduism, but this concept of pantheism is also found in Taoism, the New Age movement, as well as in the fictional Jedi religion of the Star Wars series. Pantheism is today, in its many forms, an influential worldview.

In contrast, Christianity presents a worldview with a clear distinction between Creator and Creation. God is eternally pre-existent and qualitatively different from everything that came after him. The ‘creature’ (e.g., you and me) is closer in essence to the nothingness from whence it was called into being than to the infinite God that transcends the physical cosmos. Christians can categorically say “this is God” and “this is not God.” So, how do we reconcile this theological proposition of God being “present in all places at all times” with the clear Creator / Creation distinction? How could anything not be divine if God is fully present throughout all creation? Or, perhaps the common perception of omnipresence is off base.

Our discussion will necessitate an examination of the Transcendence and Immanence attributes of God, a look at the Biblical data where language depicting proximity and presence of the divine is used, and a discussion of how the doctrine of omnipresence radically differs between the different persons of the so-called Trinity.

To save time, I will go ahead and share my hypothesis upfront and then examine each member of the Trinity in more depth in subsequent posts:

Current Hypothesis:

God the Father is, by his nature, transcendent and necessarily separate from the physical universe. It would be more accurate to say that the cosmos exists within God rather than to think of God the Father as being present within the cosmos. “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you, how much less this house which I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). “… in him we live and move and exist.” (Acts 17:28a)

God the Son, especially post-Incarnation as Jesus Christ, has a physical body and, although he can go anywhere he wants, cannot be in more than one location at a time. “Behold, I have told you in advance. So if they say to you, ‘Behold, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them.” (Matthew 24:25-16) Jesus has a physical form by choice (albeit now glorified) that precludes omnipresence. “… Christ Jesus, who although he existed in the form of God … emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” (see: Philippians 2:5-6)

God the Spirit is who we would most consider to represent the classic depiction of omnipresence. The Holy Spirit can fill the entire universe and be everywhere at all times, although it does not necessarily follow that he IS everywhere at all times. Although the Spirit of Yahweh has operated throughout Biblical history, Jesus specifically mentions asking for the Father to send the Spirit. Elsewhere we read about the Spirit being poured out on all flesh at a future point in time. So spiritual-spatially, this Spirit did not seem to be everywhere at once at all times in the past. Today, Christians can experience the Holy Spirit simultaneously on opposite sides of the planet. A key is this: most descriptions of God being near or distant seem to speak to relational closeness and distance, rather than physical proximity. In the most well-known passage that is used as evidence of the doctrine of omnipresence, the psalmist poetically intones, Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand will lay hold of me.” (Psalm 139:7-10, emphasis added)

To be continued…

HOW THE REFORMATION NEGLECTED THE HOLY SPIRIT

The following are excerpts from a chapter on pneumatology from Timothy C. Tennent’s excellent book, Theology in the Context of World Christianity:

“The Reformation’s emphasis on the authority of Scripture, ecclesiology, and Christology are clearly reflected in the post-Reformation attempt to systematize the theological deposit of the Reformers. However, this meant that, as was the case during the patristic period, a full development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was delayed and several vital aspects of his person and work were neglected in post-Reformation Protestant theology in the West. Over time, several major theological traditions developed that either denied completely or extremely limited the active role of the Holy Spirit in performing miracles, divine healing, demonic deliverance, prophecy, tongue-speaking, and other elements that later became central features of the Pentecostal doctrine of the Holy Spirit. For example, this tendency is evident in many expressions of Reformed theology as well as in the later nineteenth-century emergence of dispensationalism …” (Tennent 2007, 171).

“Traditional Western theologies were written by scholars who received their education in respected universities that were deeply influenced by Enlightenment assumptions. The Enlightenment worldview creates a high wall separating the experiential world of the senses – governed by reason and subject to scientific inquiry – from the unseen world beyond the wall; such a world either does not exist (naturalism) or, if it does, we can know little about it (deism). The result has been essentially a two-tiered universe that separates the world of science from the world of religion.

Biblical evangelicalism has challenged this worldview by insisting that God has supernaturally broken through this wall in the incarnation and that knowledge of the unseen world has been provided by the certainty of divine revelation. Evangelicals argued that through prayer we can have sustained communication and fellowship with God. The problem with this approach is that the basic two-tiered universe of the Enlightenment worldview remains intact. It has merely been modified so that Christians punch a few holes in the wall to provide a framework whereby God can come into the empirical world through the incarnation and revelation and we, in turn, can have access to the unseen world through prayer. The basic separation is left unchallenged …” (Tennent, 178).

“The work of the Holy Spirit is to bring the “not yet” of the kingdom into the “already” of our fallen world. All the future realities of the kingdom are now fully available to all believers through the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Doctrines of cessationism or partial cessationism are, in the final analysis, detrimental concessions to an Enlightenment worldview that has unduly influenced the church with its naturalistic presuppositions…” (Tennent, 179).

BOOK REVIEW: BONHOEFFER

COVER-Bonhoeffer2I just finished listening to the audiobook version of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. I was originally interested in this biography by the John le Carré-esque subtitle, encouraged to get a copy by word-of-mouth, and further motivated by my recent interest in Lutheranism (having recently read Hammer of God by Bo Giertz and getting the Lutheran Concordia). Audiobooks are not my preferred medium, as authorial voice can be distorted by the narrator’s vocal emphases, attitude, and mannerisms. However, I spend an inordinate amount of time driving, with almost 200,000 miles on my 2007 Honda Fit.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who was ultimately executed in a concentration camp for his connection to the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He is perhaps best known to Americans for coining the term “costly grace” and writing The Cost of Discipleship. His story seems tragic in that: 1. He died at the too-young age of 39; 2. He was killed mere weeks before the end of World War II; 3. He spent the entirety of his engagement in prison and was never able to marry the woman he loved; and, 4. The direct reason for his demise was tied to a cause that failed.

Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer did not measure success by external or worldly criteria. Success for him was obedience to God, whatever the consequences. A model for him was the prophet Jeremiah who “failed” from a human perspective but was actually victorious, obeying God until the bitter end. Bonhoeffer spoke of the power of faith to “transform death” – that death is actually the final stage along the road of discipleship. And now, indeed, he is recognized and honored as a Christian martyr by several church bodies around the world.

Bonhoeffer never did take the easy path. He sought out pastoral work when he could have enjoyed a career as an academic. He became an outspoken critic and dissenter when he could have gone along with the political tides of the Reich Church. He returned into the dangerous jaws of Nazi Germany at the brink of WWII when he had abundant opportunities to remain and work safely in the United States. Through it all he saw himself as obeying God’s call on his life.

So how exactly does a Christian pastor reconcile himself to the idea of assassinating a Head of State? How does a theologian with a special love for the Sermon on the Mount ignore the biblical commands not to kill, to submit to governing authorities, to pray for one’s enemies, etc.? One of the interesting things about this book is context – how does environment and experience shape one’s theological outlook?

Bonhoeffer was a life-affirming Lutheran who warned against “excessive piety.” He emphasized the Incarnation of Christ. He was cultured, traveled, ecumenical, patriotic, and educated. He was able to both appreciate and criticize various mediums of fine and not-so-fine art. He spoke multiple languages and made numerous international contacts. He was far from anti-intellectual yet grew to be very conservative when it came to scripture. What happened in human affairs was important to Bonhoeffer, and he even referred to his engagement as a “yes to God’s earth.” It is this backdrop that I think helps explain his choice to attach himself to such an attempted coup / assassination plot.

If you watch your beloved country over the course of many years slipping into the hands of an unbalanced and dangerous madman who encourages atrocities and war crimes, deceives and manipulates both citizens and foreign powers, invades numerous neighboring countries, persecutes and kills an entire people group, and guts the Christian church, you too would likely feel compelled to act in some way. Through his contacts, Bonhoeffer received inside information of the barbarities that were taking place through the Nazi regime, far earlier than most. Germany itself was on a collision course with oblivion under Nazi rule. As Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

This reminds me of a favorite ethical brainteaser that I have often heard Christians use – if Nazis show up at your front door and ask if there are any Jews hiding in your house, is it a sin to lie to them?

My favorite part of this book is the inside look at the church struggle in Germany, with the so-called German Christians desecrating the scriptures, the rise of the Nazi-sanctioned Reich Church, and the breakaway Confessing Church movement. As I view Hitler as sort of a prototype to Antichrist, I likewise see the rise of Nazi Germany as a sneak preview of the end times. It is truly frightening to see how quickly the mainstream Protestant Church capitulated in the face of Nazism, but also encouraging to see those who are willing to take a stand for truth and Christ in the face of persecution.

“… it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved” (Matthew 10:22b).