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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Omnipresence

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OMNIPRESENCE.—The distinctive conception of omnipresence which meets us in the Gospels may briefly be expressed thus: God is able to exert His activity anywhere. God’s children cannot be where He is not. He is spiritually present with all earnest, seeking souls everywhere.

1. If this be so, it is evident that Christ’s distinctive teaching on this subject was not metaphysical. He does not speak of God in terms of philosophy. Such terms as ‘the Absolute,’ or ‘the Infinite,’ or ‘the Unconditioned’ are never found on Christ’s lips, and, what is more, the ideas implied by these terms are absent from His horizon. We do not find in Christ’s discourses any disquisition on the nature and attributes of God. With the exception of the solitary phrase ‘God is Spirit’ (John 4:24), which is certainly rich in implications, but, when originally uttered, was meant merely to check material and local conceptions of the Deity, we have no instance in which Jesus expounded the nature or even the attributes of God as such. His method was rather to reveal the character of God by portraying His activities in relation to the lives of men, and especially of Christian men. Not only so, but Christ’s starting-point was different from that of the metaphysician. To the latter, God is a postulate of the Reason. God is a necessary assumption to explain the origination and continuance of the world. Reason claims satisfaction; and therefore insists that God must essentially be that which will subsume mind and nature under the unity of an intelligible notion. The metaphysician seeks for proofs of the existence of God—for indications of the real behind the phenomenal, the great First Cause behind the congeries of events which seem to be effects. In the teaching of the Lord Jesus, God is the postulate of the religious consciousness. When religious experiences are reduced to terms of thought, and the religious consciousness of the individual and the community is expressed in terms which are intelligible to the intellect, it is at once recognized that the God who is so real to His people, wherever they may be,—who is the source of strength and joy and light to His people everywhere,—must have the attribute of omnipresence predicated concerning Him. Christ’s conception of the presence of God is thoroughly religious. It is always a presence to the religious consciousness, trust, prayer, and fellowship.

2. The Lord Jesus never associated omnipresence with infinitude. Hebrew philosophy, in the person of its supposed founder, might exclaim: ‘Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee’ (1 Kings 8:27); but no such thought ever came from the lips of Jesus. To Him the distinctive conception of omnipresence was: The child of God cannot go where his Father is not. He did not associate omnipresence with the infinitely great, but rather with the infinitely little. He was chiefly concerned to show that in the minute events of life God is present and observant; and that there is nothing so trivial as to elude the vigilance of our Father in heaven. The Lord Jesus left it for philosophers to lash their weary imaginations so as to trace the ubiquity of God in the infinite recesses of space, and to prove that everywhere there are indications of the same law and order as in the world around us, and that the indications of the presence of a supreme Mind are as apparent in the sidereal heavens as here. If we may so say, Christ’s conception was microscopic rather than telescopic. To trace the tokens of the presence of God’s workmanship in the colours of the lily, or in the provision God has made for feeding the ravens, yielded great joy to the Saviour’s heart because it suggested so strikingly that God is ‘round about us,’ and enabled Him the better to impress on the hearts of His disciples, when their faith was so feeble, that God was very near to them, to sympathize, to succour, and to bless, as well as to further the interests of His Kingdom.

3. It is probable that Christ’s teaching on this subject was intended to be a corrective to much of the current Jewish theology of that period. An outstanding peculiarity of the religious thought of Christ’s time was the emphasis placed on the doctrine of God’s aloofness. The Jews had imported, probably from Persia, the belief that matter is essentially evil. Hence it was considered to be beneath the dignity of the Divine nature that God should be supposed to have direct contact with inert matter, or immediate intercourse with sinful men; and under the influence of this belief God was gradually pushed further away from His world. This conception was operative in two ways: (a) To the Palestinian Jews God was conceived of as enjoying the otiose majesty of an Oriental monarch, who is kept informed of the deeds of men and the events of the world by the ‘angels of the Presence,’ who ‘at His bidding speed o’er land and sea,’ and report what they have seen and heard. (b) The Alexandrian Jews, of whose beliefs Philo was the chief exponent, treated the matter more philosophically, and they pushed the doctrine of God’s ‘separateness’ from all that is material, earthly, and human, to such an extent as to deny that God has any qualities at all. Philo maintained, as some moderns have done, that to assign any quality or attribute to God is to limit Him: which is inadmissible, since God is the absolutely unlimited, eternal, unchangeable, simple substance. ‘Of God,’ said Philo, ‘we can only know that He is, not what He is’ (Drummond, Philo Judœus, ii. 23–30). Knowing as we do that this was the trend of Jewish thought in Christ’s day, it is difficult to believe that Christ’s teaching as to the Divine omnipresence and fatherly care, in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, was not meant to be a corrective of the current theology, which in its endeavour to de-humanize God was in danger of un-deifying Him.

And now we are prepared to consider in detail the intimations of omnipresence which meet us in the Gospels; and we may conveniently arrange them in three groups, according as they refer to the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit.

4. Passages which teach or imply the omnipresence of God the Father. We know what kind of intimations to expect. We shall not meet with much that will satisfy our intellectual, philosophical nature, but with much that will appeal deeply to our religious nature.

As Dr. Stevens says: ‘He (Jesus) aims to rescue the idea of God from the realm of cold and powerless abstraction, and to make it a practical, living power in the heart. He sought to inspire in men an intense and constant sense of God’s presence and care’ (Theol. of NT, 66). Similarly, Dr. Orr teaches that ‘Christ’s doctrine of the Father is entirely unmetaphysical.… He takes up into His teaching all the natural truth about God. He also takes up all the truth about God’s being, character, perfections, and relation to the world and man, already given in the OT.’ But ‘the attributes of God … are never made by Christ the subject of formal discourse, are never treated of for their own sake, or in their metaphysical relations. They come into view solely in their religious relations’ (Christian View, 77 f.)

The distinctive feature as to the omnipresence of God in the Sermon on the Mount is to be found in the words, ‘Thy Father who is in secret’ (Matthew 6:18). Others may expatiate on the fact that God transcends the heaven of heavens, our Lord was concerned to bring home to the religious consciousness of His disciples, that God is in the secret place of their lowly dwelling, where no other eye can see them. To use the words of Beyschlag—Christ taught that—

‘God is as present and operative in the world as He can be, without denying His absolute goodness, and without interfering with the freedom of the creature, which is the fundamental condition of all development of good in the world. The world is … His work and workshop. If the Judaism of the time separated God and the world from each other almost deistically, … Jesus, on the other hand, conceives the relation of His Father to the world as one instinct with life. God has by no means withdrawn Himself from the world He once created’ (NT Theol. i. 95 f.).

‘Presence’ and ‘activity’ are equivalent with God, and therefore He ‘who is in secret’ must also ‘see in secret’ (Matthew 6:18). He is actively present with those who ‘give alms’ in secret (Matthew 6:4), who ‘pray’ in secret (Matthew 6:6), and who ‘fast’ in secret (Matthew 6:18). The omnipresent activity of God is evidenced also in His unceasing care and fatherly solicitude over His creatures. His children are encouraged to rely on His care from the fact that the Heavenly Father feeds the fowls of heaven (Matthew 6:26), and clothes the grass of the field and the beautiful lilies (Matthew 6:30); notices the fall of every sparrow, and numbers the very hairs of our heads (Matthew 10:29 f.). Wherever God’s children may be, He knows what things they have need of (Matthew 6:8; Matthew 6:32), gives good things to them that ask Him (Matthew 7:11), and reveals the truth to earnest souls (Matthew 16:17). We learn from these passages that wherever God’s children are, there God is, without any need of moving from place to place. All the activities of God are available everywhere at the same time. ‘Whatever God can do, whether by way of knowing, loving, creating, or controlling, He can do anywhere, and everywhere at once’ (W. N. Clarke, Outline of Chr. Theol. 79).

5. We turn now to the profound and really inexhaustible words which Jesus let fall in His conversation with the woman of Samaria: ‘God is Spirit’ (John 4:24), not ‘a spirit,’ which might mean that God belongs to the class of spiritual beings. Jesus wished simply to describe what the essential nature of God is; it is spiritual. This declaration of Christ, which, as Westcott says, is ‘unique in its majestic simplicity,’ has many implications. It certainly implies omnipresence. This is the very fact which the words were employed by our Lord to teach—that God’s presence is not confined to any temple, Judaean or Samaritan; and that therefore in the new dispensation His presence is everywhere operative, and equally real and near to men wheresoever they may be.

Taking in our hand this clue that ‘God is Spirit,’ we shall find it useful to guide us in regions which lie beyond the immediate purview of our Lord in His conversation with the woman of Samaria. For instance, it is a disputed point whether we ought to say that’ God fills all space.’ Martensen expresses, himself thus: ‘All is filled with God. The omnipresent God is the inmost fundamental being of everything that exists,—the life of all that lives—the Spirit of all spirits’ (Chr. Dogmatics, 93). Dr. Strong says: ‘By omnipresence we mean that God in, the totality of His essence, without diffusion or expansion, penetrates and fills the universe in all its parts. Like birds in the air, like fish in the sea, we are surrounded still with God’ (Man. Theol. 132). Whereas, on the other hand, W. N. Clarke teaches: ‘By omnipresence we do not mean a presence of God that fills all space in the manner in which we think of matter as Ailing certain parts of space. It is not a universal diffusion of the essence of God, like diffusion of the atmosphere’ (Outline, 79). Following the analogy of ‘spirit,’ we learn that we must be very careful lest we fall into any statements that are strictly applicable to matter only. Spirit is in every respect the antithesis of matter. Every quality which belongs to matter is, ipso facto, to be excluded from spirit. Matter fills space, and on that very account we may not say that ‘spirit fills space,’ or that ‘God fills all things.’ To introduce the idea of God’s filling space is at once inevitably to suggest materialist analogies, as air fills the atmosphere, or the luminiferous ether fills all space; and all such analogies are misleading. The saving clause introduced by Dr. Strong and others, that God fills the universe ‘without diffusion or expansion,’ does not help us; it merely makes the definition self-contradictory. It is well that we should avoid all metaphors which suggest that which is extended and materialistic, and adhere closely to dynamical analogies. It is not a substantial, but an operative presence of God in creation which is suggested to us by the word ‘spirit.’ It is God’s almighty energy that is present everywhere. If we could penetrate into the realm of ontology, doubtless God is somewhat which infinitely transcends our thought, but what that is we lack the capacity even to imagine.

While thus maintaining the Divine omnipresence, we must try to find room for those numerous passages which speak of God as dwelling in heaven. In the First Gospel we have the frequently recurring phrase ‘Your Father which is in heaven’ (Matthew 5:16; Matthew 5:45; Matthew 6:1; Matthew 6:9; Matthew 7:11; Matthew 7:21; Matthew 10:32; Matthew 12:50; Matthew 18:14; Matthew 18:19). In the prohibition of oaths in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ speaks of heaven as ‘God’s throne’ and the earth as His ‘footstool’ (Matthew 5:34). In the Fourth Gospel Jesus says that He ‘came down from heaven’ (John 3:13; John 6:33), and also that He ‘came forth from God’ (John 16:27; John 16:32). And in looking forward to His death, He says: ‘I came forth from the Father, and am in the world: again I leave the world and go unto the Father’ (John 16:28). So also in John 16:10 ‘I go to the Father, and ye behold me no more’; and in John 20:17 ‘I ascend unto my Father and your Father.’ How in the light of the present article are we to conceive of God’s being thus connected with heaven so much more than with earth? and of other passages which assure us that ‘in heaven the angels do always behold the face of our Father who is in heaven’? How are we to reconcile the statement that God’s throne, or God’s face, is in heaven, with the doctrine of Divine omnipresence? The following seems to be the line along which we must seek for light:—While it is true that God’s presence is everywhere, it does not follow that His presence is manifested everywhere alike. He is most fully manifested to those who are most like Him; and if we may believe in a home where there are assembled the spirits of just men made perfect, and also the varying gradations of angels—the holiest intelligences whom God has created, vastly superior to man in purity and capacity for knowledge—that will be the home where God is most fully manifested, because those who can best understand Him are there. There are ‘the pure in heart’ who ‘see God.’ But it will be said: ‘Is heaven, then, a place?’ Perhaps not; but so long as we are here, and endowed with our present faculties, we are compelled to think of it as a place; and it must ever seem to us probable that created spirits are possessed of some enswathement which enables us, more or less accurately, to assign locality to them. This is our justification for believing that heaven is a region in which, in a manner more glorious than we can conceive, God manifests His natural and moral attributes, and reveals tokens of His loving favour to pure and holy intelligences. ‘In thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore’ (Psalms 16:11).

Considerable controversy hag been waged around the passage we have quoted from Matthew 5:34, which affirms that heaven is ‘God’s throne’ and the earth is ‘his footstool.’ The early Socinians interpreted it to mean that God’s essential or substantial presence is in heaven, and that elsewhere He is present by His efficacy only. To this it has been objected that ‘it includes God in the heavenly space and excludes Him from the earthly space, and thus tends to Deism’ (Macpherson, Chr. Dogmatics, 131); and that ‘such limitation in the Divine essence manifestly abrogates the Divine absoluteness’ (Dorner, System, i. 241). The Socinian interpretation is a fair illustration of the way in which we become entangled when we introduce terms of space into our descriptions of God’s attributes. God’s spiritual nature refuses to be compared with terms of space, and hence it is incongruous to say that God is existent in one part of space and not in another. He does not, being purely spiritual, occupy space at all; but for fuller knowledge of Him we must be content to wait till we have emerged from this state of existence, where all our perceptions are conditioned by space and time, and have entered into that state where we shall see our Lord ‘as he is,’ and ‘shall know’ in the same manner as now ‘we are known’ (1 Corinthians 13:12).

6. We have now to speak of those passages in which the Lord Jesus speaks of Himself as ubiquitous.—In John 3:13 our Lord says: ‘No man hath ascended into heaven but he that descended out of heaven, even the Son of Man who is in heaven.’ It must be noted that the words ὁ ὢν ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ are omitted in A B L Tb 33, Cyril, Origen, and several Fathers. WH [Note: H Westcott and Hort’s text.] consider them ‘a Western gloss, suggested perhaps by John 1:18’; but our Revisers retain the words in the text, remarking in the margin that ‘many ancient authorities omit them.’ If genuine, as is very probable, they are important, but not unique. They do but cause Jesus to say of Himself what the Evangelist says of Him in John 1:18 ‘The only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.’ They teach us that Jesus was conscious of a state of glory which from eternity He had with the Father—was conscious of it not as a past memory, but as a continued reality. His earthly life had not severed the intimacy of His fellowship with His Father; and ontologically His presence as Son of Man on earth did not remove the presence of the Son of Man from heaven.

Beyschlag interprets the passage differently: ‘Jesus thinks of Himself as pre-existent, not because He knows Himself to be a second God, and remembered a former life in heaven, but because He recognized Himself in Daniel’s image as the bearer of the kingdom of heaven, and because this Son of Man, as well as the kingdom which He brings to earth, must spring from heaven. That the ideal man existed from eternity in God is the truth which He grasped, and to which He gave concrete intellectual form’ (NT Theol. i. 253).

Another important passage is Matthew 18:20 ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ The genuineness of this passage has been denied, not because it is lacking in any Greek Manuscripts , but for a priori reasons. Starting from a humanitarian conception of Christ, some hold it to be improbable, if not impossible, that He should, as is here affirmed, foresee the development of His Church, legislate for its management, and promise His spiritual presence, wherever the members of the Church were assembled, however few in number they might be. Our purpose is not critical, but exegetical. If we assume the genuineness of the words above cited, they seem to show that Christ’s Messianic consciousness included the ability to fulfil such OT predictions as Joel 2:27 ‘Ye shall know that I am in the midst of Israel’; Zephaniah 3:17 ‘The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty.’ As He was conscious of His identity as Son of Man before His advent, so He is confident that such powers as He has heretofore possessed will be continued to Him in the days which He foresees shall intervene, before the Son of Man shall come in His glory. Whatever the community of disciples shall bind or loose, make binding or leave optional, shall receive Divine ratification, because the presence of the Christ will be with them guiding and controlling them.

If we have followed this interpretation—and surely, unless St. John and St. Paul have misunderstood and misinterpreted Jesus Christ, there is nothing improbable in the interpretation—we are quite prepared to expect that the Lord Jesus after His resurrection should say to His disciples, ‘Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world’ (Matthew 28:20). This passage is also regarded by Wendt and others as a product of the developing Catholicism and Christology of the Church; but it is surely a blunder to ascribe so much to developing Christology, unless there were some germinal utterances of Jesus which the Church proceeded to develop. The eagerness of the primitive Christians to disseminate the gospel most probably rests on a command of the Master, and the readiness with which they assume the presence of Christ with them wherever they are, implies as its background some such promise and declaration as that before us. Christ’s Messianic consciousness could hardly fail to include the conceptions involved in Isaiah 42:1; Isa_49:6 as well as Joel 2:27. If Jesus could appropriate to Himself the statements of Isaiah 61:1-2 (cf. Luke 4:18 f.), it follows most naturally—and this is precisely what the Gospels presuppose—that He applied to Himself all the OT predictions of the Messiah, and was conscious that He possessed the properties and attributes which the OT assigns to Him who was to come—King, Servant, Prophet, and Messiah in one. It is perfectly in accordance with this conception that Jesus, in contemplating the spread of His Kingdom in ‘all nations,’ ‘to the ends of the earth,’ should say, ‘Lo, I am with you alway.’

In the Reformation period there was bitter controversy as to the ubiquity of Christ’s body. It arose chiefly from Luther’s interpretation of the words of Jesus at the Supper, ‘This is my body’ (Matthew 26:26). Luther was persuaded that the word ‘is’ denotes real and essential existence. In vain did Zwingli point out to him that Jesus also said, ‘I am the door’; ‘I am the true vine.’ Luther was immovable in his belief that the consecrated bread is in some sense the body of Christ. He had repudiated the Romanist dogma that the particles of the bread are transmuted into substantial particles of the veritable flesh and blood of Christ, and therefore it remained to him to contend that the body and blood of Christ are ‘in, with, and under’ the bread and the wine. In order to show that this is compatible with Christ’s ascension, Luther fell back on the Scholastic distinction as to the three ways in which a body can be in a place, localiter, definitivé, and repletivé. Locally, when the contents exactly fill the vessel. Definitively, when that which fills has the power of occupying a larger or a smaller space. Repletively (or, to use Luther’s word, illocally), when a thing is everywhere, and yet measured or contained by no place. Luther maintained the ubiquity of the body of Christ illocally. Then, in order to explain how we may without self-contradiction ascribe omnipresence to body, he adopted the theory known to theologians as communicatio idiomatum. In other words, he maintained that the Deity of Christ imparted all its essential attributes to Christ’s humanity. And in this way Christ’s body received the attributes of omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience. The body of Christ is present everywhere, especially in the consecrated bread, and thus can be literally manducated by those who partake of the Lord’s Supper. (For further extreme and unreasonable positions of Luther’s followers, one should consult Bruce, Humiliation of Christ, Lecture iii.).

7. We have now merely to adduce the few expressions in the Gospels which imply the ubiquity of the Holy Spirit. We do not find any explicit statement in the Gospels of the absolute omnipresence of the Spirit. His attributes are disclosed in connexion with His activities in the spread of the Kingdom. Wherever believers are found, there ‘the Comforter, who is the Holy Ghost,’ is present with His benign power over human hearts. He will ‘teach’ the disciples ‘all things, and call all things to their remembrance’ (John 14:26); and will guide them into all truth, and show them things to come (John 16:13). But the activity of the Spirit is not limited to those who have believed and have become disciples: it is exerted also on those who are still in ‘the world.’ Our Lord declares, ‘He shall convict the world in respect of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment’ (John 16:8). To those who believe and are thus ‘chosen out of the world’ the Spirit ‘testifies of, Christ (John 15:26); He ‘dwells with, them and is ‘in them’ (John 14:17); and they know Him, ‘though the world seeth him not, neither knoweth him’ (John 14:17).

Ritschl maintains that our Lord limited the doctrine of God to its relation to the Kingdom of God. This is not quite true with regard to the Divine omnipresence any more than to the other natural attributes of God; for did not Jesus say that God ‘causeth his sun to rise,’ and ‘sendeth rain’ (Matthew 5:45), and ‘clothes the grass of the field and the lilies’ (6:30)? Still it is only a slight exaggeration of an important truth. The distinctive teaching of Jesus on the subject before us is that God is with His people everywhere. They cannot go where He is not present, to succour and to bless.

Literature.—In addition to the references given in the course of the article, various points of view are presented in Charnock, Existence and Attributes of God; Fairbairn, Philos. of the Chr. Religion, 58 ff.; Martineau, Scat of Authority, 30 f.; D’Arcy, Idealism and Theology, 157 f., 269 ff.; and all treatises on NT Theology and Dogmatics.

J. T. Marshall.

 

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Omnipresence'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/o/omnipresence.html. 1906-1918.

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