Different understandings of divine transcendence

It is common to believe that God “transcends” the sorts of limitations that we creatures have. We tend to think of God as above or beyond the created realm. The words “above” and “beyond” are common human spatial terms and are used to “elevate” the divine majesty. Some theologians use above and beyond to argue that God is completely different in all respects from creatures. It is instructive to note that some biblical writers speak of God as “above” humans but when they use this schema they still think of God in relation to us. For example, God’s ways, says Isaiah (55), are higher than our ways because God forgives Israel when a human typically would not. God is the higher moral exemplar that we should emulate. Another spatial term for divine transcendence used in the Bible is that God is “ahead” of the people of God as they journey. This term has definite relational implications since God and humans are understood to be on the same path or road and God is leading the way. Some contemporary theologians such as Karl Barth and Jurgen Moltmann suggest we should understand divine transcendence more dynamically with God in relation to creatures (as did the biblical writers) instead of construing transcendence solely as the way in which God is separated from creatures. Moltmann prefers to say God is ahead of us on the journey rather than that God is beyond us and unknowable.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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