Craig A. Carter · December 28, 2021

What does the word “transcendence” mean? The answer is complicated because the concept expresses a relation between two metaphysical spheres or levels of reality and there is no agreement on what these spheres or levels are. One thing can be transcendent to another without being transcendent to a third thing. Perhaps an example will clarify things.

Take a materialist as an example. A materialist believes by faith that nothing exists beyond the reach of the five senses. All reality, for the materialist, consists of that which we can see, hear, feel, smell or taste. All reality is matter. It may be fine matter that is inaccessible to our eyes, yet it is still empirically detectable indirectly. A materialist is quick to dismiss the existence of angels, demons and heaven because such entities are beyond the reach of our senses and so their existence can neither be proven or disproven by empirical science. Agnostics are more skeptical in that they just shrug and say that no one can know whether or not supra-sensible entities exist or not. But atheists are driven by faith in the non-existence of what is inaccessible to their five senses.

An angel would be transcendent to a materialist. An angel could be called transcendent because it transcends, that it, in not contained in or part of or an existing thing in the material world.

Anything supernatural would be transcendent in a materialistic worldview. This explains the loose and popular use of the word “transcendent” in many areas of contemporary culture. Something extremely beautiful may be said to be “transcendent.” The visions we have in dreams may be said to be hints of transcendence. This is not, however, what Christian theology has historically meant by “transcendent.”

The Visible and Invisible

For Christian theology, created reality has two elements: the visible and the invisible, as Hebrews 11:1-3 makes clear. The visible universe was created by the Word of God, which is invisible. So, faith consists of believing in the invisible, originating power of the creation. But creation does not consist only of the visible world, that is, the world accessible to the five senses that can be investigated by empirical science. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible presumes and talks about the invisible sphere of creation, which is populated by angels and demons, principalities and powers, and so on. Heaven is seen as a place where the presence of God dwells in special intensity and where no opposition to his rule exists. (The earth, by contrast, is the place where the rebellion is underway.) Quite frequently, the prophets and apostles are given glimpses into the invisible realm of heaven as special revelation. For example, Isaiah has a vision of the heavenly throne room in Isaiah 6 and John the Seer has a vision of the same heavenly throne room in Revelation 4. The reader of Scripture is expected to assume that the parallel sphere of reality known as heaven has existed all along in between Isaiah and John. The material creation is good and it is real, but there is more to creation than just the visible part.

The question for Christian theology is what it means to say that God is transcendent and the traditional answer has been that God is transcendent of creation because he is the Creator of creation. As the first lines of the Nicene Creed put it:

We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

The creed follows the pattern of Scriptural language. “Heaven and earth” (Gen. 1:1) is a Hebrew idiom for “the totality of reality” and “visible and invisible” is taken from Hebrews 11:1-3, as discussed above. God is transcendent of creation, that is, transcendent of all creation.

This is one major factor that differentiates the Christian Platonism of Augustine from the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. Both agree (against the materialists) that the cosmos has both a material part and an immaterial part and both agree that being is arranged hierarchically. Both agree that the cause of things is to be sought in the higher parts of the hierarchy. But for Plotinus the Divine Mind that works on matter to make the universe into what it is now is not really transcendent. And even the One, which is beyond the Divine Mind, is nevertheless the source of all other being and at the top of the hierarchy. Whether the One is truly transcendent or not is a debated and complex issue within Neoplatonism.

Later Neoplatonic philosophers apparently were moving in the direction of affirming the utter transcendence of the One. The problem is that the more they moved in this direction the more the One became unknowable. Lacking special revelation, the Neoplatonists faced the dilemma of making the One a particularly refined and perfect part of the being of the cosmos, in which case it could be known, or making the One different in kind and thus utterly transcendent, in which case we can say nothing about it. The first option seemed more true, but to the extent that option was chosen it seemed that philosophy had come to a dead end.

Christianity and Philosophy

This is why Christianity was the fulfillment of the philosophical quest. Augustine’s Christian Platonism superseded Plotinus’s Neoplatonism because it had a way to avoid this dead end.

Augustinian theology understood that the One had revealed himself to Israel as Yahweh and supremely in the person of Jesus Christ. So the revealed Triune God of Scripture was the transcendent Creator of all things other than himself. In Neoplatonism, the being of the One, the Divine Mind, Soul and the visible cosmos all differ by degree of purity, but not in kind. This is where the specially revealed doctrine of creatio ex nihilo made Christian theology utterly unique in world history. The orthodox doctrine of God sees God as transcendent of both the material and immaterial spheres of creation and so divine being is qualitatively different from created being. Yet, by means of special revelation and a working concept of analogical language, we can speak of the being of God in himself truly, although of course not exhaustively.

This distinction between Divine and created being is fundamental to all of Christian theology. But there are two ways it can be compromised. The first is that it can be compromised by eliding the radical difference in kind between the being of God and created being. In this case, God becomes a projection of creaturely being and Feuerbach’s criticism of Christian theology is vindicated. The “god” spoken of in this case is either a pantheistic conception, that is, “god” becomes another name for the cosmos considered as a whole, or else the “god” spoken of is understood in terms of theistic personalism, that is, “god” becomes a being among beings within the cosmos. Either god becomes Nature or a god-like the gods of paganism – usually the high god of the pantheon.

The second way the Creator-created being distinction can be compromised is by affirming Divine transcendence in such a way as to place the being of God beyond being altogether. This is done in certain strands of postmodern theology with the result that God comes to seem unreal. If such a One has no being and nothing can be said about him (it?) then how is such a One decisive for understanding reality? How is God the cause of the world? Does the cosmos not become functionally autonomous? Have we not reached the goal of modernity by another route than atheism?

Three Options

So three basic options present themselves logically for a post-Christian modernity that rejects the biblical and orthodox idea of Divine transcendence: (1) pantheism, (2) theistic personalism, and (3) God without being. Liberal Protestantism and liberal Roman Catholicism tend to adopt variations of the first option. 

Conservative Protestantism and Evangelicalism lean toward a version of the second option. Postmodernists of all sorts gravitate toward the third option, although they do not really represent an ecclesial base; it is the philosophical speculation of isolated individuals in academic settings. 

Churches that adopt the first option will gradually sink back into the paganism that characterized the world before God spoke to Abraham four thousand years ago. Churches that adopt the second option need to be reformed if they are to maintain continuity with the Bible and the Great Tradition and hand on the faith intact to another generation. Otherwise, they will gradually sink into paganism too.

The uniqueness of Christianity among all the theologies and philosophies of the world rests on the foundation of the transcendence of God as the Creator of all that is not God and on the qualitative difference between Divine and created being. Only the special revelation given in Scripture as articulated in the trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy of the Great Tradition is a sufficient basis for maintaining the uniquely Christian faith. Only this doctrine can undergird a living and powerful gospel and ensure that the church worships the one, true, living, God and not idols created out of the vain imagination of fallen human beings.

Craig A. Carter