What is God Really Like?
The Bible describes God as a rock, light, fire, eagle, father, king, judge, warrior, and shepherd. How can we have a biblical view of God?
The Applied Theology Series provides you accessible, affordable seminary-level courses designed to help you learn how to apply theology to your life and ministry in practical ways – with the goal of helping you better know, love, serve, and honor God as LORD in all of life.
In this Essentials Course, we’re explaining and applying the definition of theology as “a study of God in Scripture to know God as LORD in all areas of life.” In this fourth lesson, our focus is on helping you learn what the Bible teaches about God’s transcendent and immanent being.
In this lesson, you’ll be equipped to:
- Describe the meaning of God’s transcendent being
- Explain the concept of God’s revealed immanence
- Summarize how to reconcile these views of God
- Recognize how the Bible uses analogies for God
- Illustrate two major errors in explaining God’s being
- Contrast limited knowledge with true knowledge of God
Knowing God’s Being
By Steve Childers and John Frame
1. God’s Transcendent and Immanent Being
In our last session we learned one of the ways God chooses to reveal what he is like is through the meaning of the names he gives himself. By referring to himself with the general Hebrew name for God, Elohim, he was revealing his nature as a divine, powerful being whose essence is high and lifted up from humanity and the world he created. Theologians often refer to this revelation of God as his transcendence, emphasizing that God’s being is wholly independent and separate from his creation. But later we saw that God revealed his name to Moses as YHWH, or LORD, whose essence is near to the world he created and present with his people. Theologians often refer to this revelation of God as his immanence, emphasizing that God is also a very personal, faithful, covenant-keeping God of grace who promises to deliver his people by his great power.
To have a biblical understanding of God requires a diligent effort to maintain both a transcendent and an immanent understanding of his attributes revealed in Scripture. It’s been said that “The challenge to theology is to do justice to all the attributes of God revealed in Scripture.”
The Bible clearly presents the fullness of God’s being and attributes as both transcendent and immanent. In fact, one of the great dangers in the history of Christianity is when followers of Christ fall prey to sacrificing the biblical teaching of God’s transcendence on the altar of God’s immanence, or sacrificing the biblical teaching of God’s immanence on the altar of God’s transcendence.
Herman Bavinck writes,
“If God is not held to be independent and unchangeable, eternal and omnipresent, simple and free from composition, he is pulled down to the level of the creature and is identified with the world in its totality or with one of its powers.”
Then he goes on to say,
“What good would it do us to know that God was independent and unchangeable, eternal and omnipresent, if we had to do without the knowledge that he was compassionate and gracious, and very merciful?”
If we deny the absolute transcendence of God’s being above all his creation and humanity, we are at risk of falling into forms of what we’ll study later called Pantheism, believing that everything is God, or Polytheism, believing there are many gods. The opposite is also true. If we deny the immanence and nearness of God’s being to his creation and humanity, we are at risk of falling into forms of what we’ll study later called Deism, believing that God does not intervene in the world, or Atheism, the denial of the existence of God in the world.
We will see that the bible presents God as not only a transcendent, eternal being who is high and lifted up, but also a very immanent being who has somehow mysteriously broken into time and revealed himself in astonishing “figures and images which sparkle with life:”
“It speaks of his eyes and ears, his hands and feet, his mouth and lips, his heart and bowels. It ascribes all kinds of attributes to him—of wisdom and knowledge, will and power, righteousness and mercy, and it ascribes to him also such emotions as joy and grief, fear and vexation, zeal and envy, remorse and wrath, hatred and anger. It speaks of his observing and thinking, his hearing and seeing, his remembering and forgetting, his smelling and tasting, his sitting and rising, his visiting and forsaking, his blessing and chastising, and the like…In short, all that can be found in the whole world in the way of support and shelter and aid is originally and perfectly to be found in overwhelming abundance in God.”
The big idea here is that the same bible that reveals God as incomparable and lifted up in his transcendent greatness and majesty, also speaks of him in all these, sometimes shocking, immanent “figures and images which sparkle with life.”
So, how do we reconcile the bible’s transcendent and imminent images and descriptions of God?
2. God’s Analogical Language
To help us do justice to all the attributes of God revealed in Scripture, theologians often refer to the concept of analogy; our human knowledge of God as being necessarily analogical in character. Calvin describes this adjustment like someone adjusting themselves to the limitations of a baby they’re caring for, talking in baby- talk to be understood. When God reveals himself to humans using human language he has to adjust himself to our limitations as his creatures by using some form of analogy to his creation.
Examples include the bible’s descriptions of God as a rock, a light, a fire, an eagle, a father, a king, a judge, a warrior, a shepherd, and many other analogies. It is good for us to understand God’s being in all these ways. But, in doing so, we must be very careful to realize that all biblical analogies, and descriptions, and words ultimately fall short and that’s because it is not possible to use analogies and words drawn from God’s finite creation to fully reveal the infinite, uncreated God.
Similar to the concepts of God’s transcendence and immanence, there are two common errors to avoid here as well. The first error is the false belief that the biblical descriptions of God mean the exact same thing as biblical descriptions of God’s creation or humanity. As an example, when the bible reveals to us that “God is good,” that is not exactly the same meaning of good as when the bible reveals to us that other aspects of God’s creation are good.
God’s goodness is infinitely greater than any goodness found in his creation or humanity, because his goodness is the source and criterion of all finite goodness. Many fail to understand this important distinction because the same Greek word used in the New Testament to describe God’s goodness, agathos, is also used to describe man (Matt. 5:45), gifts (Matt.7:11), trees (Matt. 7:17), conscience (Acts 23:1), God’s Law (Rom. 7:13), the will of God (Rom. 12:2), and even an unbeliever in authority (Acts 23:26).
A second common error is the false belief that God is so different from his creation and humanity that it is not even possible to understand what he is like. This is the opposite extreme view that there is no similarity between God’s goodness and man’s goodness. If such a view is believed, then meaningful speech about God is actually not even possible. This view is in direct contradiction with the Apostle Paul’s strong declaration that God’s attributes have been clearly understood by humans, when he writes these words, “For his (speaking of God’s) invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, (and then he uses the phrase) have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made (Rom 1:20-21).”
So what’s the solution to this dilemma?
It is to understand that, although the descriptions of God’s being revealed in Scripture are different and infinitely greater than what we mean by them, as mentioned above, there are still strong and true similarities in the meaning.
For example, it is good for you to see God like a father, but not exactly the way you think of a father. God is infinitely greater than that. He is the Father that measures all other fatherhood (Eph. 3:14-15).
And, it is good for you to see God like a judge, but God is more than that. When you see in Scripture that God is joyful, you should know that God’s joy is beyond the realm of human joy. And, when you read in the bible that God is angry you should not think of God’s anger being exactly the same as human anger, it’s not. And when you read in Scripture that God repents or changes his mind, you should not think of God changing his mind like you would.
But just because our knowledge of God is limited does not mean it is not true and good knowledge. Not knowing God as fully as he knows himself, doesn’t mean we can’t know him at all.8 Even though God must condescend to reveal himself to us, using words and analogies drawn from his creation, the good news is that the knowledge of himself that he does reveals to us is true, trustworthy, and perfectly adequate for us to “…proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pet 2:9).”
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