The Rhythm of Transcendence and Immanence—
Reflections on Christian Worship of the God of Wonder(s):
Implications and Applications for Worship Planning and Design (Part 3)
(Blog Article Part 8)
When theology is appropriately superintending and informing doxology, the outcomes can be staggering. When theology is appropriately guiding worship service praxis and design and, specifically, when the biblical pattern of transcendence then immanence is applied to how worship elements are selected and sequenced, the following outcomes may be realized: a restoration of worship’s context, a recovery of worship’s biblical ethos, a reestablishment of theocentrism in the service of worship, and ultimately a reclamation of an appropriate view of God’s wholly otherness by Christians as they worship.
A Restoration of Context
When transcendence is returned as a primary goal, value, or objective of the worship service planner, the proper contextualization of the God we worship and indeed the proper contextualization of the act of worship itself is restored. Immanence must be contextualized within the “mysterious ultimate context” of God’s transcendent attributes. All biblical data about God and man point to God as being gloriously and ontologically distinct from his creation. The context in which man approaches God is that of a humble creature in the presence of one who is wholly other and infinitely above. The creature does not praise God on his own. He is allowed to thank God, glorify God, serve God, honor God, praise God, and worship God only by way of divine permission. On their own, creatures do not have the ability, possibility, or power to glorify and worship God. In the words of Karl Barth:
. . . [T]he creature is permitted to praise God. It is the permission which flows from the mercy of God to the creature in the fact that God befriends the creature, that He not only creates and claims and governs it, but that in all this He loves it, that He seeks it out in order that He may be God with it and not without it, and that in so doing He draws it to Himself, in order that it for its part can henceforth be a creature only with Him and not without Him. God gives Himself to the creature. This is His glory revealed in Jesus Christ, and this is therefore the sum of the whole doctrine of God. And the creature to whom God gives Himself may praise him. What can ability and obligation and necessity mean when everything depends on the gift of the divine love and therefore everything consists in this permission?
The context of worship, therefore, is one of great mystery and privilege granted by the holy and glorious God of the universe. Worshipers only come as a result of divine permission, a consent that was solely granted voluntarily through the gracious uncoerced condescension of God.
Once the amazing, sovereign King of the universe who calls and gives permission to enter his presence is understood as the appropriate context of worship, God’s immanence can begin to be properly comprehended and cherished; God’s tenderness can begin to be properly appreciated. God’s grace and mercy can begin to be most fully prized, God’s care and provision can begin to be most fully treasured, God’s love can begin to be most fully valued, and God’s redemptive act in Christ can begin to be most fully extoled.
A Recovery of a More Biblically Modeled Expression of Worship
As the appropriate contextualization of worship is established, a more biblically modeled expression of worship begins to be recovered. What is the biblically modeled expression of man’s worshiping response when in the presence of God? Scripture records a wide spectrum of mindsets, attitudes, and emotions that run the gamut from extreme awe to extreme celebration to extreme contrition. However, a sense of awe, wonder, brokenness, and gratitude comes to the fore as the most common responses of man to God—awe and wonder over who God is, brokenness over who man is, and gratitude for God’s gracious choice to repair man’s brokenness.
The prophet Ezekiel fell on his face when the glory of the Lord was revealed to him (Ezek 1:28; 44:4). The shepherds were overwhelmed with great fear when the glory of the Lord shone around them (Luke 2:9). Likewise, the disciples were in awe and wonder when a greater glory of Christ was revealed to them at the transfiguration; they fell on their faces and were terrified (Matt 17:6). As God is faithfully represented first in his transcendent, magnificent grandeur, splendor, power, glory, and holiness, the approach to God in worship and the response to God in modern worship will begin to reflect the ethos of those worshipers pictured in the pages of his Word rather than the cavalier and casual approach to worship that often characterizes the ethos of worship in many churches today.
A Reestablishment of Theocentrism
A reassertion of the transcendence of God enabled by the biblical ordering of transcendence then immanence in worship reestablishes a more theocentric expression of worship. Right theology will not allow God to be domesticated in the minds of humans nor in the worship of his people. When worship is appropriately contextualized with a foundation of transcendence, the expressions of worship will naturally be God-focused rather than man-centered. “I,” “me,” and “my” begin to grow dim and less prominently featured in the light of the glory of God’s transcendent otherness. As transcendence is reintroduced as a guiding principle to worship planning and design, the vision of the sublime that has faded from the consciousness of many Christians begins to be reclaimed as God is re-centered in his appropriate place of regal reign within the church and the life of the believer.
In addition, as worship becomes more theocentric and less anthropocentric, human individualism along with the unhealthy assertion of human preferences in worship will be repudiated. The idea that worship begins and ends with God will return, and the concept that God is both the infinitely glorious subject of worship and the infinitely holy object of worship will be in full view. In the realm of theocentric transcendence, there is no room for anyone else on the sovereign throne of glory except God and God alone.
A Reclamation of God’s Transcendence and Appropriately Interpreted Immanence
Ultimately, when theology is allowed to govern doxology, God’s transcendence is rescued from obscurity, and God’s immanence is rescued from abuse. God is re-centered in worship at his rightful place as the Sovereign King, Ruler, Lord of all, and Lord over all. Anthropocentricism is jettisoned. Man understands rightly who God is and falls in humble adoration of the great God of the Ages. Man’s own wretchedness is made crystal clear in the dazzling light of God’s utter holiness. Man bows in complete wonderment that the transcendent God of the universe would condescend to draw near and invite the finite into the presence of the infinite in the magnificent act of worship.
When theology governs doxology, man approaches God confidently but with fear, trembling, awe, and wonder. As theology governs doxology, worship is enlivened as worshipers understand rightly who the transcendent God of glory is first. Then, his gracious and magnificent immanence can be more fully understood, appreciated, valued, and cherished. Ultimately, when theology governs doxology, a greater expression of worship fueled by a more complete view of God may be offered to the Lord in humble adoration of both who he is and what he has done on behalf of his people.
John C. Robertson, Jr., The Loss and Recovery of Transcendence: The Will to Power and the Light of Heaven (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1995), 85.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2:671-72.
Susan J. White, Foundations of Christian Worship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 13.
This blog article is written by Chuck T. Lewis, Ph.D. Dr. Lewis serves as Assistant Professor of Church Music and Worship at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Lewis is also currently serving as Worship Associate at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky and has formerly served as Worship Pastor of the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Florida. Lewis’s complete research on the rhythm of transcendence and immense can be viewed under the “Complete Dissertation” tab found at worshipdesignproject.com. Also, worshipdesignproject.com features the findings of a nationwide survey of the largest Southern Baptist Churches in America designed to discover the prime influencers on how worship pastors select elements to be included in their worship services and how those elements are sequenced.