Divine Presence and the Room of Grace

 In a disenchanted world, we all too often experience the felt absence of God. God is not present with us, it seems. Worse, for many today, we tend to think that there is the earth and then there is God. And separating the two is vast regions of empty space. God is a Wizard-of-Oz kind of being sitting at a location very remote from us.

But, the Christian view of God’s real presence is that God is right here with us—that he is near; he is here. The Kingdom of heaven is at hand, as Jesus proclaimed as he inaugurates his ministry. Consider this line from Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy:

“Roughly speaking, God relates to space as we do to our body. He occupies and overflows it but cannot be localized in it.” (p. 76)

I think that Willard’s way of thinking of God and space is a better, more biblically grounded way of thinking about God’s omnipresence. So, how can we make sense of what is often called the ubiquitous presence of God?

To begin to understand God’s ubiquitous presence, we need to back up a bit, and retrieve an attribute of God that has largely fallen off the radar in contemporary discussions of omnipresence. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of this divine attribute until my good friend, Dr. Ross Inman began to share about it with me. And so we’ll interact today with Ross’s discussion of this attribute and his excellent essay on divine omnipresence in the T&T Clark Handbook of Analytic Theology, published in 2022. The title of Ross’s essay is a good place to start. His essay is entitled, “Retrieving Divine Immensity and Omnipresence.”[1] The attribute in need of retrieval is divine immensity. What is this attribute?

To say that God is immense then is to say that the divine nature is without limitation, particularly as it pertains to the limitations of space; the divine nature is uncircumscribable and incapable of being contained or bound by space. And this also helps us understand the attribute of divine omnipresence. God’s omnipresence entails that he is everywhere present throughout space, he is ubiquitous.

Thus, God is essentially immense and only contingently omnipresent. Omnipresence isn’t part of the divine essence, rather it is an attribute that he takes on, in virtue of being the creator of the universe. Given his immensity, in any universe God creates, he will be everywhere present throughout space.

How should we understand the idea that God, given omnipresence is “everywhere present throughout space”?

This is where I think things get really interesting: As Ross points out, regarding the way that God can be present at every place in space, the Christian tradition distinguish three ways in which a being could be in or present at a place, whether a material (e.g., body) or immaterial being:[3]

  • First, there is what is called circumscriptive presence. This is a mode of presence pertaining exclusively to material beings. So, think about your car. Or think about your body. These are examples of material objects that are extended throughout space and that have parts.  What does it mean then, for material objects like cars and human bodies to be circumscriptively present? An object is circumscriptively present at a place by being circumscribed by and contained in the place in question. As Inman describes, my body, is circumscriptively present at a place P in virtue of its having distinct proper parts (head, hand, heart, etc.) that are themselves present at the distinct sub-places, ps, of P. My body is wholly present at P, and partly present at distinct places (ps: left arm, right arm, etc.) at the same time.[4] 
  • Second, for finite immaterial beings such as angels and souls, there is what is called definitive presence. Here, the idea (as Ross describes) is that a soul or angel is wholly present at a place P as well as wholly present at every distinct sub-places, ps, of P.[5] Whereas material beings can only be wholly present at a single place at a time, immaterial beings are able to be wholly present at distinct places at the same time. But as finite and limited creatures, souls and angels are bound and contained by the places where they are present.
  • Finally, there is a kind of presence that only God—and infinite spiritual being—possesses. God is said to be repletively present in this way: God is wholly present at each and every place at the same time.[6]Notice on this view, there is no sense in which God is spatially extended, as if he has parts in different places. God has no physical parts, of course, and thus is not extended through space, rather he is wholly present at each point in space.

With this, we can now provide a definition of omnipresence that captures Willard’s central insight.

Is this account of omnipresence inconsistent with the biblical idea of God’s manifest presence?

 It is true that many passages in Scripture portray God as speciallypresent in a particular place and to particular people. We can add to these Scripture passages the common theme that God is specially present in the temple and now the church and in individual believers.So, our question: How can God be specially present at a place if he is also wholly present at every place? (and also keeping in mind the fact that God, given immensity, cannot be contained in any place!). This gets tricky!

I think it is possible to maintain that God is both wholly present everywhere and specially present at distinct places at distinct times.

The key move to make sense of this is to say that these two kinds of presence (wholly present and specially present) are distinct senses or kinds of presence. Here is one possible way to make sense of these two kinds of presence.[8]

First, God is wholly present at every point in space. This is simply the doctrine of divine omnipresence (where omnipresence is understood as a fundamental kind of attribute).

Second, God is specially present at particular places and to particular people in virtue of one or possibly two factors. First, God is specially present at a place by exercising his power in a special way at that place (e.g., by causing a bush to burn, or by manifesting his presence in a powerful way in church or something). Second, God’s special presence is partly up to us: we need to be willing and able to receive (what is called) God’s significant personal presence.

Why does God’s ubiquitous presence matter to me, to us?

Let’s end with two ideas.

First, recall that God is wholly located at every point in space. This truth should shape our view of nature and the natural world. Since God is everywhere, there is nothing that is purely material or physical. God is with, located at, every point in space and so we live in a “grace-infused” nature, as some put it.  The material world neither runs by itself nor exists on its own. As A. W. Tozer puts it, the doctrine of omnipresence “declares positively that the world is spiritual: it originated in spirit, flows out of spirit, is spiritual in its essence, and is meaningless apart from the Spirit that inhabits it.”[9]This grace-infused cosmos helps us see the universe as sacramental.

Second, consider Paul’s words in Romans 5:1-2. There he writes:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we[b] boast in the hope of the glory of God.

Notice, because of our faith in Christ, we now stand in the room of grace. This is our place in the universe. We are with God and God is with us, and graciously with us, because of Christ. When we sin or do things that are ugly, God is graciously present. When we suffer or cause others to suffer. God is graciously present. When God removes our sense of his presence (called divine hiddenness), God is graciously present, even when we don’t feel his presence. And when God makes his presence manifest in powerful ways, God is graciously present. As Christians our place in this sacramental universe, this grace-infused reality, is the room of grace. This is where we stand and God stands there with us. This is part of the good news of the gospel.

[1] Ross D. Inman, “Retrieving Divine Immensity and Omnipresence,” in T & T Clark Handbook of Analytic Theology, eds. James M. Arcadi & James T. Turner, Jr. (New York: T & T Clark, 2022), 127–139.

[3] Summarizing Inman’s discussion in “Retrieving Divine Immensity and Omnipresence,” 130–131.

[4] Inman, “Retrieving Divine Immensity and Omnipresence,” 130.

[5] Inman, “Retrieving Divine Immensity and Omnipresence,” 130.

[6] Inman, “Retrieving Divine Immensity and Omnipresence,” 131.

[8] The discussion below is indebted to Peckham, Divine Attributes, 88–89.

[9] A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 75.

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