In R.E. exams at school, you have questions worth varying marks. The ‘easy’ questions usually involve a definition of a theological word and are worth two marks. Providing you have learnt the definition, these are considered ‘easy marks’.

Two of these words are ‘transcendence’ and ‘immanence’. Transcendence means ‘a state of being or existence above and beyond the limits of material experience’. When referring to God, it means that God is above and beyond the world, independent from the universe as we know it. One of God’s names is ‘God Most High’ (Ps 97:9). He sits enthroned on high (Ps 113:5). You only have to read Isaiah 40 to grasp something of the mightiness and transcendence of God. God is far above us, completely unlike us in holiness, majesty and power. Aristotle believed that God was transcendent, the ‘prime mover’ in the world, but not of the world.

Immanence is the opposite, ‘existing or remaining within’ and from a theological point of view refers to God’s presence and action within the world. According to the World Book Dictionary, the definition of immanence in a theological sense is ‘the pervading presence of God in His creation’ (seen, for example, in Ps 65:9-13).

The two attributes are opposite but complimentary, and need to be kept in the proper balance to understand God. He is both superior to, and absent from, His creation and yet very present and active within the universe. It’s relatively easy to give a definition of these words, much harder to grasp the mystery that is part of the divine revelation of the Godhead!

In exams, the questions worth more marks are those where pupils have to give longer, extended answers, often tackling some of these mysteries and giving their thoughts and understanding of Scripture. In the same way, we can understand definitions of God without really appreciating that these are meant to have a direct impact on our everyday living. Theology is not simply abstract knowledge or philosophical meditation. Our understanding of who God is and what He is like shapes our own thinking, reactions, values and way of life far more than we perhaps understand.

The fact of God’s immanence shows us that He is near to us (see Job 33:4, Phil 4:5), a tremendous encouragement to us when we feel alone and vulnerable. But we also need to know that God is unlike us (Is 55:8-9) and has all power and knowledge and wisdom if we are to live with confidence and without fear in a world where heartache can hit like a hurricane and all that seems secure can crumble in seconds. Eugene Peterson calls angels ‘witnesses to transcendence’. We need to have a balanced view of God’s transcendence and His immanence if we are to live confident, secure, trusting lives… which is of much greater value than any number of exam marks!