We ought to recover the doctrine of the transcendence of God and discover how it plays out in our corporate worship services.
A. W. Tozer, that quotable pastor-theologian of the mid-20th century, once wrote: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Our mindset when considering God shapes our worship, namely the songs we sing and the prayers we pray. As Christians, though we worship privately and in our homes, we worship most visibly in the weekly gathered, corporate worship service in local churches. We hope to rightly worship God in the manner that he has laid forth in Scripture. We seek to worship God by the book, being sure not to worship in vain, singing praise with our lips but having hearts far from God (Matthew 15:8-9). In the corporate worship gathering, we sing praises to God with other saints. Often we will sing songs that have to do with certain attributes, actions, or truths revealed of God. Whether it be his salvation of his people through Christ, his future new creation in the new heavens and the new earth, or his overflowing love, we often sing of what God has done or who God is. With that in mind, we shall embark on recovering transcendence in corporate worship.
What is the transcendence of God?
Wayne Grudem helpfully defines transcendent as: “The term used to describe God as being greater than the creation and independent of it.” So God’s transcendence confirms his other-ness from humanity. God’s transcendence concretizes the well-known Creator-creature distinction. God is distinct from his creatures, though he has given humanity the imago Dei. We are not God, and nothing created by God is God. Apart from what God has revealed to us, through both general and special revelation, we cannot know God. He is both unknown and unknowable. Surely Paul was reflecting on this when he penned the famous doxology in Romans 11:33-36:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.
The beauty of God’s transcendence is that this self-existing, unknowable God has revealed himself to his own creatures. God has done this generally to every person through creation, in which we can know his “eternal power and divine nature” (see Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:18-32; Acts 17:22-34). God has also revealed himself supernaturally in his own Scripture, which is fully inspired (breathed-out) by God. God, in his utter transcendence, has given us knowledge of himself and ourselves, providing this knowledge of himself, his holiness, his plan of salvation through Christ, and so much more. When we reflect on this, that such an expansive, fully transcendent God has revealed the knowledge of salvation through Christ to us through Scripture, we ought to react as Paul. God’s transcendence is worth celebrating and singing!
Where did this doctrine go?
I’m writing this because I believe we’ve lost this doctrine in our liturgies. Many modern songs focus on God’s immanence but never seem to capture God’s transcendence. We, and rightly so, love to sing of God’s nearness and relational qualities, but we seem to have forgotten this other transcendent aspect of God. For the reasons explained above, God’s transcendence deserves consideration in our corporate worship and in our liturgies. As we examine the Scriptures, we find a pattern of God’s people writing of God’s transcendence, praising the unknowable God. In Isaiah 55:8-9, the prophet writes: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” We’ve already seen Paul’s doxological response to God’s transcendence. We see the theme of God’s transcendence carried throughout the Pentateuch (The creation narrative in Genesis 1-2; The burning bush in Exodus 3), the Prophets (Jeremiah 23:23; Isaiah 40:22; 57:15), and the Poetic books (Job 26:7; Psalm 19:1-6; 93:3-5). The Israelites grasped what they could grasp about God’s transcendence and it played a key role in their worship.
So what happened? The doctrine of divine transcendence seems nonexistent in today’s music and corporate worship services. The current church has placed God’s immanence as the primary attribute on which to focus during worship services, and this often happens at the exclusion of a focus on divine transcendence. Divine immanence is a beautiful doctrine, and ought to astound us weekly, that God came near to us to save us from sin, but it ought not to push away and replace the doctrine of divine transcendence.
The dawning age of individualism is much to blame in the loss of divine transcendence. As individualism grew in individuals, it grew in Christians, then in Christian communities. Individualism is fueled by social media, consumerism, and affluence. Social media, consumerism, and affluence are not inherently bad things, and when stewarded properly, they can be great tools for the gospel. However, these three things have been given primacy in our culture and have taken root in the church, as well. Worship services and churches have always been tempted to model themselves after the culture rather than Scripture, and our times are no different. In this individualistic age where the consumer is king, the potential congregant is king in the life of the church. “If the congregant wants songs focused on himself, then that’s what we’ll provide.” “If people love social media, consumerism, and affluence, let’s create a worship service and write songs that speak to that love.”
The result was a period in which the churches started with the consumer, the seeker who wasn’t necessarily worried about the transcendence of God. But the idea of a personal, immanent relationship with God was appealing because it spoke to personal, individualistic concerns, preferences, and affinities. But we must root divine immanence in divine transcendence. Immanence doesn’t mean as much if the divine was not transcendent to begin with. There was no need to sing about the Transcendent God because there was no knowledge of his transcendence! Transcendence went out the door of the corporate service and was replaced with a personal individualism that isn’t rooted in any divine otherness. Churches often now begin with man instead of God, creating man-centered theologies and liturgies. Man-centered theology results in man-centered worship.
What does this have to do with corporate worship?
The visible, local church gathers weekly to worship. This only really happens once every week for 1-2 hours. Therefore, how the church structures its corporate worship services matters a great deal. And what happens on Sunday in the corporate gathering influences the lives of worshipers. John Piper says, “And when we have completed our corporate exaltation of the glories of God, we continue that worship in a thousand daily tasks where the supreme worth of Christ governs our lives. This is what it means to be a Christian.” The goal of weekly Christian worship is to help that worship carry over to congregants as they live their lives. The doctrines focused upon in the corporate worship service will be the doctrines focused upon the lives of that church’s members. The contents of the elements of the liturgy heavily influence the doctrinal diet of people.
We should want our people to marvel at the transcendent God. May our liturgies and weekly gatherings cause our people to sing of God’s otherness throughout the week. May the songs we sing and the prayers we pray stir up the affections of our people so they sing with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”