God’s Omnipresence: Some insights from the nineteenth century


I am currently carrying out research into the whole area of what we call divine immanence and divine transcendence. I found that the way most nineteenth century evangelical theologians spoke on these issues gave a slightly different perspective and below I share a few examples of this.

Omnipresence and immensity.
When the idea of immanence was advanced many writers said it was an improvement on the old doctrine of omnipresence, immanence was perceived as articulating a more intimate connection between God and his creation. In 1930 W H Griffith Thomas made this rather tantalizing statement,

So that the Divine attributes are Omnipotence, Omniscience, Transcendence, and Immanence, the last named being perhaps somewhat more than the old Omnipresence.

This statement by Thomas shows that by his time there was still an acknowledgement of the old omnipresence, but the new categories are seen as a better way to explain things. This statement is typical of others that I have read by other authors who do not explain why they think it is an improvement on the old language, other than the reasons noted above. It will be helpful to see how a number of theologians used the old category. What is striking is that in the Evangelical Systematic Theologies from the nineteenth century that I have consulted both Reformed and Arminian Scholars speak in terms of omnipresence and in some cases are aware of work done by those they normally oppose on other issues.
Charles Hodge (1797-1878). Hodge was one of the most influential Reformed theologians in the nineteenth century and His Systematic Theology was published towards the end of his life, the three volumes were published from 1871-1873. The way Hodge articulated the doctrine of omnipresence was affirmed not only by reformed Scholars but also by A M Hills the Wesleyan Theologian. It should be noted that Hodge articulated his view of omnipresence in the period when more and more were speaking in terms of immanence. Hodge was very carefully in the way he articulated his theology and was highly respected in his day. It is also important to look at Hodge because of the lasting impact that his theology has had on Reformed theology up until today. Hodge says in volume 1 of his Systematic Theology,

The Bible teaches the infinitude of God, as involving his immensity and his omnipresence, in the clearest terms. He is said to fill all in all, i.e., the universe in all its parts. (Eph 1.23) “Am I a God at hand saith the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? Saith the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth? Saith the Lord (Jerxxiii.23.24) “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or wither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.” (Psalm cxxxix.7-12) It is “in Him we (i.e all creatures) live, and move, and have our being.” (Actsxvii.28) everywhere in the Old and New Testaments, god is represented as a spiritual being, without form, invisible, whom no man has seen or can see; dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto, and full of glory; as not only the creator, and preserver, but as the governor of all things; as everywhere present, and everywhere imparting life, and securing order, present in every blade of grass, yet guiding Areturus in his course , marshalling the stars in a host, calling them by their names; present also in every human soul, giving it understanding, endowing it with gifts, working in it both to will and to do. The human heart is in his hands; and He turneth it even as the rivers of water are turned. Wherever, throughout the universe, there is evidence of mind in material causes, there, according to the Scriptures, is God controlling and guiding those causes to the accomplishment of his wise designs. He is in all, and over all things; yet essentially different from all, being over all independent, and infinitely exalted. This immensity and omnipresence of God, is the ubiquity of the divine essence, and consequently of the divine power, wisdom, and goodness. As the birds in the air and the fish in the sea, so also are we always surrounded and sustained by God. It is thus that He is infinite in his being, without absorbing, all created beings into his own essence, but sustaining all in their individual subsistence, and in the exercise of their own powers.  ( Systematic Theology, Volume 1, pages 884-885)

Hodge here clearly shows how he and most earlier nineteenth century theologians believed about the omnipresence of God and yet he seems to able to clearly define his subject because he sees both immensity and omnipresence as being aspects of the infinity of God as a result he does not speak of paradox or being balanced as people often do with the immanent/transcendent terminology. His view articulates closeness to creation by the creator yet always maintaining the creator/creation distinctive. I think that those who speak of radical transcendence would have or should have fewer problems with the way Hodge articulates the subject.

J L Dagg (1794-1884). J L Dagg was an influential Baptist theologian; he published his “Manual of Theology” in 1857 which was to have a great influence in Southern Baptist Circles. His comments on God’s omnipresence are helpful and constructive, yet Dagg is quick to remind us of the limitations of our own understanding. He is very aware of the greatness of God and he wants to honour that, at the same time he tries to make his teaching as clear as possible, the following quotation illustrates this.

When we deny a material omnipresence of God, as if his essence were divided and diffused; and when we maintain that the whole deity is everywhere present by his energy and operation, it is not to be understood that we deny the essential omnipresence of God. In whatever manner his essence is present anywhere it is present everywhere. What the mode of that presence is, we know not. We know not the essence of the human mind, nor the mode of its presence in the body; much less can we comprehend the essence of the infinite God, or the mode of his omnipresence. To that incomprehensible property of his nature, by which he is capable of being wholly present at the same moment, with every one of his creatures, without division of his essence, and without removal fromplace to place, the name immensity has been given. The essence of god is immense or unmeasured, because it is unmeasurable. It is unmeasurable because it is spiritual, and therefore, without such dimensions as be measured by feet and inches; and because in whatever sense dimensions may be ascribed to it, these dimensions are boundless.(A Manual of Theology pages 61-62 (Gano Books, Virginia 1982)

What is striking about the way Dagg presents the doctrine of omnipresence, is the way he sees omnipresence as demonstrating the immensity of God, God is omnipresent because of his immensity. Here there is no talk of a paradox as in the immanence and transcendence languagebut rather he clearly sees the relationship between the two. Omnipresence for Dagg is an aspect of God’s immensity. If Dagg is right at this point perhaps we need to revise our way of articulating any aspects of divine transcendence and divine immanence or perhaps we should abandon that terminology.

 

Miner Raymond (1811-1897): Raymond was the first American Methodist to write a systematic theology, it is interesting to see the continuity of thought between this Wesleyan theologian and his Reformed contemporaries. Here we see an insistence upon immensity and omnipresence being one aspect of that immensity. Once again we see a clear distinction between God and his creation. This is just a part of his stament of the doctrine of divine omnipresence,

It is useless to say that the infinite is incomprehensible; all know this, and clearly recognize it in thought. No one but God himself has an exhaustive conception of unlimited presence; no one has apprehension of the mode or manner of the divine existence—how it is, or how it is possible that a person should be every-where, no finite being can tell. To the finite the infinite is past finding out; and yet it is not to be conceded for a moment that the confidence and trust of piety in the ubiquity of God is unfounded, or that the apprehensions men have of the divine omnipresence are mere negations or nullities; as far as they go they are truthful concepts of a well-known reality. Such assumptions as are inconsistent with the Bible representations and the common apprehensions must be rejected. For example, if it be affirmed that God is every-where present by extension or diffusion, so that it may be said that a part of God is here and a part of God there; or if it be said that God is present every-where solely by his knowledge and his power, such views are to be rejected, since truth requires us to conceive that the divine essence is unlimited as fully and as perfectly as are the divine attributes. God, as to all that is God, is every-where always; the infinite essence is incapable of division and separation; essence and attribute, immutably inseparable, fill immensity; all of God every-where, is a truth cognized both by piety and sound philosophy.( Systematic Theology, Volume I (325–328). Cincinnati; New York: Hitchcock & Walden; Nelson and Phillips.)

Raymond clearly teaches that God is everywhere present and yet this does not in any way distract from the Greatness of God, rather it affirms that greatness in the strongest possible terms.

About pneumaandlogos

David Rollings was born in Luton in1949 and raised by my Christian parents in the Gospel Standard Strict Baptist denomination( Hyper-Calvinistic} in the sixties I rebelled against this background and got involved in left-wing politics. I became a Christian in 1969 and soon started reading Francis Schaeffer's books and came to embrace a Christian Worldview. I had the privilege of being on the staff of L'Abti Fellowship from1975 - 1979. After L'abri I studied at London School of Theology where I gained my BA.(1983) A few years later I studied for my MA by distance learning with The Nazarene Theological College Manchester (1999) For the last 22 years, I have been an elder of Shoreham-by-Sea Baptist Church. I also regularly attend the Christian Doctrine Study Group of the Tyndale Fellowship.
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