A central tension in Scripture, and thus a tension that has existed in the Church’s theological reflection from the beginning, is the negotiation between God’s nearness to the world, God’s filling of the world, and yet God’s otherness, God’s above-and-beyond-ness with respect to the world. In short: God’s simultaneous immanence and transcendence.

When we think about it, this really is the central “problem” that our theological discourse must wrestle with: God is near, with, and in us, and yet God is totally other than us and beyond us. So on the one hand, we are compelled to speak about this God who reveals himself (through human speech no less!) and who we experience and see at work in every dimension of our lives and reality, yet on the other hand we realize that our speech (and living) simply points to the transcendent and irreducible reality of the personal God we worship, with no hope of “capturing” that reality.

While we can’t wade into the question in any depth, both modernity and postmodernity, at least in certain sectors, represent answers to this “problem” that unacceptably collapse this tension in one direction or the other. We end up with either a God who is so transcendent as to be nearly unrelational, or we end up with a God who is so collapsed into our human horizon that God becomes a function of our construction rather than his self-revelation. As evangelicals have grown increasingly aware of these problems, evangelicals have also begun to look behind the modern/postmodern discussion to the wealth of resources and wisdom that exist in the Church’s tradition, such as the Church Fathers.

What we find in the Church Fathers is a “sacramental worldview” that affirms the very (biblical) tension we have spoken of, but yet sets it within an understanding of God’s relationship to the world in which the tension functions redemptively. Because God, through his Son and Spirit, fills all things (Jer 23.23-24; Psalm 139.7-12; Acts 17.27-28; Eph 1.23; 4.9-10; Col 1.17), creation, humans, our experiences, our languages, our cultures are never just “things” or “objects.” All of reality can function, by God’s grace, as a pointer to God and as a means, a medium, by which the triune God makes himself present to us, in revelatory and transformative ways.

And knowing this is central to participating in God’s mission in and to the world. As we go out into the world (in which we ourselves live), we encounter people who, though broken and sinful just we ourselves were and still are in some measure, have inherent value and a capacity to know God as creatures living, moving, and existing in God, whether they know it or not. Our mission is to meet them where they’re at, to realign their desires, their experiences, and categories of understanding through the gospel such that they can now function as pointers to the truth of the God who fills all things, the God who is revealed concretely in Jesus and the Spirit-empowered life of Christ’s body, the Church.

Our missional work, then, must walk a fine line between negation and affirmation. On the one hand, the gospel as the disclosure of God and reality will destroy all false gods, all false gospels, and their claims on us. Yet, on the other hand, our missional vocation is medicinal, offering the cure of the gospel that begins to kill the disease of death and sin and thus liberates the patient—an image-bearing human—to participate more fully in the Divine Image himself (2 Cor 4.4; Col 1.15). Certainly, this vocation requires tremendous humility and wisdom which can only from God as well.

What do you think? How do we negotiate these tensions, of God’s nearness and God’s otherness, of the gospel as affirmation/cure and as the gospel as destructive agent? Where do we turn for wisdom in discerning these matters?

Justin Gohl is an adjunct professor of theology at Biblical. He is married to Kate, his wife of 7 years, and is a full-time stay-at-home dad with two kids, Caleb (2) and Phoebe (1). He is ABD at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia where he is in the latter stages of writing his dissertation on the early church’s use of the Book of Proverbs. 

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