White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

The Divine Presence: Systematic Considerations, part I

Published Wednesday, August 5, 2020 By Ryan M. Hurd

Under the attribute of divine presence, we unfold how God is interior to each and every creature. A systematic articulation of this, aimed at some understanding, departs from the dogmatic assertion that God is in every thing, a truth not only demonstrated in natural theology but likewise revealed in Scripture: God, with his identity and totality, lies within creation, in its plurality and entirety. The whole God truly is internal to the whole of a creature, every and all; and what is more, this presence is the deepest intimacy any creature can have with an other. If the attribute of divine presence went by another name, it would be “intimacy.”

Articulating this usually incorporates two concerns: an explanation of how God is in all things, and of how he is everywhere (these are not the same). The first expounds how God sits within every creature no matter its weight or station—rocks and angels, men and beasts. The second pursues this further and underlines how God is present to every place—not that he is defined or circumscribed, not that he is localized or contained, but that he pervades, contains, and gives being to every creature and so also (in the material order) locative power. Creation is awash with God, charged, lit, filled.

Presence Follows the Divine Life and Maintains God’s Distinction from Creation

An entry upon the divine presence should have two points firmly in hand. One, the divine presence is cast in the light of prior systematic treatment of the divine life; antecedent to this attribute, we articulate the replete perfection of divine fullness within God himself eternally, that is not exercised much less exhausted because it is present to the creature as other temporally. In short, we say God is present, using words that reinforce the truth that God is who he is without this presence if there were no world. His filling a creature follows his free act of creation, which itself does not constitute the divine life or activate it in some perfection. God, immediately upon there being a creature, is fully within that creature, containing but not contained. Thus, we say that God is “outside” the world, not in the sense that such is his location or position, as though he occupied a supercelestial space; not in the sense that he is present to himself; but only in the sense of his excess and immensity such that, for God, being without a creature or being within a creature are utterly and really the same. Upon creation, no more reality has been adduced for God to be present to; he is precisely God in himself, and now present to what he has made. For this reason, God’s being outside of all things does not exclude him from them, nor does being inside of all things contract him into them.

Two, and of similar importance, there is the need to preserve and safeguard the real distinction of God and creature. The shock that the reality of the world adds nothing at all to God, that God plus the world does not yield an increased sum, that creation does not add to the pot of being, but is already included in God’s own totality, that it is not “more,” cannot give way and bury the real distinction of God and the other than him. In like manner, we cannot lose this real distinction in the face of the sheer intensity of divine presence, particularly the feature that its immediacy is closer than we can ever quite catch and pin down. For a creature, there is no more intimate presence than God’s: it has arrived quicker than one can engage an act of self-consciousness, and of course is before the presence of any creature pressing in upon us.

Nonetheless, the divine presence does not put God in the mix with creatures, much less render God identical to the creature or one of its internal, composing parts, even while it maintains he is internal, inside, and within all things. Resisting the collapse of the real distinction while articulating the sharp features of this presence requires care and attention. At the outset, it is useful to recall the simple fact that presence as such is possible only if there really is an other as other to be present to. As with all divine names, so it is for the presence to the other which we attribute to God: our point of departure is from the presence we experience sensorially in the material order, which among other things resists collapsing the two parties. They are really distinct. Presence is meaningfully such only if there is an other as other to be present to, and if this otherness remains: the two parties are not identical nor merely rationally distinct, but really distinct. Our idea of presence, taken from our being in the world, is intensified, purged of its material constraints, and emptied of its creaturely conditions. When attributed to God, presence is a way of being internal or within each and all creatures and “occupying” every place while not being localized. God sits within our depths, alive.

Presence Is Common to Divine Persons and Common to Creatures

We must thoroughly specify the way of divine presence under consideration here; tasked with understanding this perfection, we are not meant to pursue all the ways God is in the world, manners of divine presence that are distinct really from each other and not merely the outcome of distinguishing conceptually how God is with us. This attribute is the way of divine presence that is fundamental or principle to all others, which themselves presuppose and include it. It is, in a word, “common” presence: common to all divine persons, and common to all creatures.

One, it is common or essential to divine persons in the sense that it is an absolute attribute predicated of the divine essence commonly considered, insofar as God absolutely speaking is in this world. This is set across from the really distinct way of divine presence that is the new, additional, gracious presence of the Trinity of persons together or some one of the persons as really distinct. Such presence does not result from the common divine presence itself or by virtue of creation, by virtue of giving being; it comes about after the gift of grace which is the effect of an act of God acting with a freedom specifically indexed to a prior effect already set up in being.

The fact that it is “essential” presence does not mean that God is somehow present as an abstract essence, rather than as a person. It is not impersonal “divinity” that is present, somewhat in want of being “hypostasized.” The presence is that of the person of God, intelligent, loving, conscious, with a face: equally personal should there be or not the Trinity of persons. God is not relieved of goodness or perfection, does not suffer impoverishment, because of the absolute simplicity of divine essence, or because we abstract from the Trinity of persons. Being uncomfortable with this simple truth indicates one suffers from significant misunderstanding not only of the mystery of Trinity, but likewise of the divine essence. The divine presence is not inflected due to our knowledge of the trinitarian mystery, albeit a new way of divine presence does come about thanks to the new way of having God in grace as Father, Son, Spirit.

Two, this presence is absolutely common to every creature: every creature in its singularity and all creation in its universality enjoys the whole presence of God wholly. And as already noted, this presence is really distinct from the new or special way of God’s “being-in” that arises only within creaturely persons, and only as those persons are the recipients of grace. This last is not given with natural being as such but is the presence of an object within a person engaged in an intelligible operation, in accord with his intellect or will in their respective acts: i.e., the presence of the known in the knower, the loved in the lover.

It is instead the presence of God within his effect by virtue of its natural being, or what follows upon its being created. Thus, such a presence follows the operation of an effect, for it is the presence of an agent operating without means the effect as such—in this case, the effect is being as being. Giving being gives with it the giver himself; having being has with it having him who works it. The fact that God is present to a creature in its being created does not entail divine presence is somehow sectioned off only to the creature’s “start” in the world; God does not sit at our margins. His transitive act is a giving of being, within which the creature is englobed, in the present of its life. Creatures do not become distant from God, nor can they. Comings and goings are the features of creaturely experience, in all ways subject to rending vicissitudes; but when and while there is a creature, God is present with an utmost intimacy that is solid and in no way ever absent. The creature is the permanent object of divine presence for the length of his own entire being.

As noted, the distinction of the way of divine presence into common and special is a real distinction, due to the fact the creature is ordered to God in a different way in each. But to articulate what the common divine presence is, to gain some understanding of it, we unfold it in a threefold way: God truly is in every thing “through essence, presence, and power.” These are not arbitrary designations; it is not as though other things might serve. Yet critically, here the distinction of these ways of being present is merely rational, not at all real; under each distinct concept, we intensify our understanding of divine presence to account for how God as God is present, which is in sharp distinction to the various imperfections associated with all ways of a creature being present to another creature. These three distinctions articulate the common divine presence by comparison to creaturely persons in relation to an external effect that they operate; this of course is without the attendant imperfections proper to the material order, and it is an intensifying of what has already been deduced as a spiritual or intelligent presence. The reason for this need to purify our idea of presence by distilling away all imperfections, which we perform under these three affirmations of “essence, presence, power,” is simply because God is present as he is. He is not present to creatures as a god who is dead; he has a face, and is facing them.

Future parts will articulate how divine presence follows from God’s operation; what it means for him to be present through his essence, presence, and power; and what it means for God to be everywhere.

RM Hurd is a systematic theologian whose area of expertise is doctrine of God, specifically the Trinity. His primary training is in the high medievals and early modern scholastics as well as the twentieth-century ressourcement movement. His main project is writing a robust systematics of the Trinity; he also teaches systematics on God as a teaching fellow with The Davenant Institute.

Blog Banner Image: Landscape with Moses and the Burning Bush, painted by Domenichino between 1610 and 1616. Public Domain by CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Resized by MR.

  • Ryan M. Hurd