transcendent, sovereign, personal

(Following a line of thought thrown up by the discussion on providence.)

Don Carson says:

“God is transcendent, sovereign, and personal.

By transcendent I mean that God exists apart from the creation that he made, and thus above space and time. Thus he is not in any way dependent upon his creation; he is self-existing – that is, he draws his own existence only from himself. He is absolute.

By sovereign, I mean that his power and rule are so extensive that, whatever the difficulties bound up with notions like ‘secondary causality,’ there is nothing whatsoever that takes place apart from his providential reign.

By personal, I mean that God is not an impersonal force or power, but a being who interacts with other persons (whom he has made) as a person – with interchange, speech, ‘personality’.

That theologians and philosophers have difficulty drawing precise boundaries and definitions for some of these words (eg, transcendence, person), and that God cannot be a person in exactly the same way that human beings are persons (since our personhood is inextricably linked to our finitude) does not diminish the biblical evidence that points in these directions.

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. … Pantheistic religions adopt an absolute, but it is not personal. … Contemporary science, with a frequent bias towards philosophical materialism, constantly tilts toward the impersonal absolute. … The result [of much contemporary religious thought] is a God not clearly personal, and, if absolute, sufficiently remote to be of little threat and of little use. Another strand in contemporary thought, however, wants to emphasise God’s personhood while dismissing his absoluteness. … [Yet there is] biblical evidence that supports the traditional Christian insistence that God is both transcendent and personal.”

DA Carson (1996), The Gagging of God. (Quote from p223)

32 thoughts on “transcendent, sovereign, personal

  1. I found this quote very helpful, not least for tracing some of my own not necessarily intentional theological inclinations. Thanks!

    Also, I didn’t take this as re-inventing the wheel but rather a great summary of the tension between transcendence and person in contemporary thinking. For me, it’d be re-inventing the wheel if I had to read through hundreds of tomes written over the past two millenia … ;-)


  2. I was mostly teasing.


    “a great summary of the tension between transcendence and person in contemporary thinking”

    Mmm. But why should we give a drat about the tension in contemporary thinking? Most of this sort of thing is because Contemporary Thinkers either don’t know what was said over the past two millennia, don’t understand it, and/or want to have something distinctive of their own because they need to publish.

    Cardinal Schonborn said to a theological institute some years back “there are kilometres of theological prose published every year. Who has time to read all this stuff?”[only a slight paraphrase] – read the masters of theology, and that means the saints, on the whole, and of the rest only where it helps you read the masters. Life is short!


    • (the whole of that last bit para is paraphrasing Cardinal Schoenborn. And obviously there are new masters as well as old ones. He spoke about acquiring a “taste”, which is done by reading the masters, and which then guides you in other reading. Sentire cum ecclesia, sort of thing.)


    • Well i certainly wouldn’t relish the task of grappling with Contemporary Thought so as to publish the kind of wide-ranging critique/rebuttal that is Carson’s tome. It’s an intelligent contribution to the debate, I’m sure, for people whose business somehow involves processing unhelpful doses of ‘Honest to God’ and ‘The Myth of God Incarnate’ but my sympathies are def on the ‘life is too short’ side.


  3. Christians worry about this type of thing way too much.
    Its like we want to know God before our time in ways he never intended for us before our time. The bible makes it clear we can neither be God’s councillor (depending which ward we are in of course :-) ) and that his ways are miles above our ways. Who can understand? Yet we still try. We build another tower of Babel on every single aspect of I AM.

    To be honest, I just wish somebody had the courage to put a stop to it all and take a wholly biblical position which is, “we dont have a clue”. We have faith. Its a mystery. Forget the rest. But then would that be the end of theology? It might. That would be nice.

    There. Said it now. First time. Im outed.


    • Right, but there’s mystery and mystery and we’ve got to be, um, clear.

      Theology of the speculative & irreverent kind, if it came to an end the world would undoubtedly be a much happier place :)

      But every Christian should be the kind of theologian who wants to know God the Lord better. The wholly biblical position is not so much we don’t have a clue, as, we don’t have a clue apart from what the bible reveals. Faith’s work is not to bypass or ignore the revelation, but rather the complete opposite – to grasp with both hands what has been revealed and stake everything on it.

      Not that we can know God comprehensively. But we can know him truly.


      • “The wholly biblical position is not so much we don’t have a clue, as, we don’t have a clue apart from what the bible reveals. ”

        St Paul disagrees with you, of course.

        “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness, because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse …”

        This is why pagans and paynims and protestants (or, if you’re a protestant, papists) can philosophize truly, even about “his eternal power and Godhead”, and discern good and evil.


        • Quoth Jean Cauvin:

          “[God has] revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe. As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him. Indeed his essence is incomprehensible; hence his divineness far escapes all human perception. But upon his individual works he has engraved unmistakeable marks of his glory, so clear and so prominent that even unlettered and stupid folk cannot plead the excuse of ignorance.” (Institutes)


      • Ok but that’s a different issue. Natural revelation reveals his power and Godhead, everything bears his hallmarks, sufficient to leave denial/ignorance of his being inexcusable. But that revelation is not in much detail and is not adequate to save anyone (does not include a revelation of the way of salvation). So should have been clearer: to know God savingly you need to have the revelation of scripture. You can’t even rightly interpret the true revelation provided in creation/providence independent of the written revelation.
        But the point here wrt CT’s was on incomprehensibility: whether being ‘unable to find out the Almighty to perfection’ means that all theological enquiry should cease; it doesn’t & it shouldn’t.


        • “You can’t even rightly interpret the true revelation provided in creation/providence independent of the written revelation.”

          Yes you can. Like you said earlier, fuzzy or incomplete knowledge is still knowledge, and by definition true.

          “to know God savingly you need to have the revelation of scripture.”

          Erm. Erm erm erm.


        • The problem is how to get this all out in a comment-size shape when i should be doing something else. Okay.

          Even assuming the best-case scenario, a well-intentioned heathen who considers creation and providence in the absence of scriptural revelation and comes to acknowledge God’s eternal power and Godhead. S/He acknowledges that without knowing what to make of it: the moral implications, the spiritual implications, the soteric implications can’t be established on the basis of natural revelation. You need the inscripturated revelation to know that the Creator/Preserver also graciously acts to be a Saviour to his sinful human creatures, and that this salvation of his is made available to sinners through faith in his Son, Christ, the God-man redeemer who died a vicarious atoning death and rose again.

          (But that’s the best-case scenario, because the reality of the majority of people post-Fall whether or not they have access to the scriptural revelation in addition to natural revelation is that they’re not at all well-intentioned – whatever revelation God proclaims is generally ignored, suppressed, distorted to the best of their/our ability, till the Holy Spirit works graciously. Which means further that it’s always inadequate to talk about the truths about God (sin, salvation, etc) in the abstract, ie without taking into consideration the moral/spiritual character of the people who are contemplating God as he is revealed either in creation/providence or in the scriptures. Fuzzy or incomplete knowledge is still knowledge, ok, but held in the context of an unregenerate character it isn’t adequate to save; hence, it isn’t adequate full stop.


          • Nothing saves us except grace, I don’t think we’re arguing over that :-)

            Nor over the necessity of revelation.

            I was erming over something else, but in the context it was a quibble, and I was erming because I couldn’t think how to explain the quibble neatly. It’s almost Holy Week so a good time to not quibble so nivver mind, if you don’t mind me rudely going “erm erm erm” in a meaningful way and then saying “oh, nothing, nothing”!


          • Here’s how to put it neatly!

            “to know God savingly you need to have the revelation of scripture”

            Is what you said. I say

            “to know God savingly, He must reveal Himself to you”.

            Can’t see you arguing with that.

            Nor with the fact that God could perfectly well reveal the truths of revelation to someone without Scripture if He wanted to.


            • Fair enough, I’m not arguing with most of these :)

              But – the “could” in “God could perfectly well reveal the truths of revelation to someone without Scripture if He wanted to” is so speculative that it’s impossible to either affirm or deny very effectively :) — point being that as a matter of fact he has given the scriptures which in the Spirit’s usual way of working have the function of making a man wise unto salvation.

              Ie, He could, but he doesn’t, would be my neatest way of putting it


            • Some second thoughts: I’m not sure how easily i can agree with the first point after all actually.

              “to know God savingly, He must reveal Himself to you”
              – granted that you can’t know him savingly without the gracious work of the Holy Spirit, still, what he uses when he reveals himself to us is the revelation made in the scriptures.

              Ie nobody is saved by engaging with the scriptures barely: without the aid of the Holy Spirit the scriptures themselves are insufficient to save (though not from any defect in the scriptures, rather for lack of spiritual eyesight in fallen humans to perceive its light). But what the Spirit does when he reveals himself, or when he reveals God, to us is to take the truths of the scriptures and make them living and effectual in the individual case.

              So, to that extent/in that sense I’m afraid i am arguing after all :)


          • What should we make of occasions like the following? Someone in a 100% non-Christian environment is earnestly searching for the one true God and receives a revelation about Christ and the arrival of translated Scriptures in a dream, a revelation s/he faithfully passes on to the next generation until it is fulfilled. That person would still be saved through Christ even though s/he never saw the Scriptures. Hebrews 11:39 comes to mind. And there are a couple of modern-day people groups where such a thing actually happened.


          • Hm, come to think of it, even that example probably falls into the category “exceptions which prove the rule” …

            A final thought for Holy Week: For contemplating the passion of Christ and/or the loneliness of the disciples on Easter Saturday, Hebrews 11:39 may actually not be such a bad verse …


  4. Which harks back to my recent comment that it wasn’t all that bad to be simultaneously a Christian and an agnostic. I like it!

    Life is actually *so* short that I won’t even read most of the masters / saints / heroes. Wrt acquiring a “taste”, give me Tolkien or C.S.Lewis any time … apart from linguistics … and some weird eclectic writings which to list would far extend this comment …

    Come to think of it: Why read tomes and tomes of theology if I can much easier right an (unbeknownst to me) heretical comment here and get my musings straightened out by you lot :D


  5. (The airing of a general thought: )

    need to avoid both extremes – the anti-intellectualism that embraces uncertainty &/or ignorance as a virtue, and the over-valuing of abstract theological learning divorced from piety and sanctification.
    As long as a person knows God (as) the Lord in reality, their little knowledge can be perfectly consistent with great holiness; holiness tends to increase in proportion as God is known experientially rather than intellectually. In-depth perusal of even reverent & orthodox theological writings is often simply not to the taste of genuine believers and nobody needs to feel bad for not having yet digested the 23 volumes of the works of John Owen or Charnock on the Attributes. (I haven’t!)
    Yet little knowledge is not something to be satisfied with – if sanctification is ‘by thy truth’ then the more immersed we are in the truth & the more deeply, the better.
    The balance surely has to be struck in ‘knowing God in Christ’. Knowing personally by acquaintance – the safest, most beneficial, most God-honouring kind of knowledge. Theological learning is an added bonus, but it is often quite frighteningly far away from equipping you with the root of the matter.


    • Amen to that. And: preach it, sister!

      I certainly wouldn’t want to trade for anything the deep encounters with Jesus (e.g. when contemplating a Biblical scene) where I get to know him better. Even though they are neither a theological nor an intellectual endeavour (both if which I like very much – otherwise, I probably wouldn’t be commenting here :) ).


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