Omnipresence

OMNIPRESENCE (ŏm'nĭ-prĕz'ĕns). The attribute of God by virtue of which he fills the universe in all its parts and is present everywhere at once. Not a part, but the whole of God is present in every place. The Bible teaches the omnipresence of God (Ps.139.7-Ps.139.12; Jer.23.23-Jer.23.24; Acts.17.27-Acts.17.28). This is true of all three members of the Trinity. They are so closely related that where one is the others can be said to be also (John.14.9-John.14.11).


OMNIPRESENCE. Neither the noun “omnipresence” nor the adjective “omnipresent” occurs anywhere in Scripture, but the idea is a Scriptural necessity: God’s presence everywhere not only is assumed in Scripture, but is frequently explicitly formulated. “Do not say in your heart ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead)” (Rom 10:6, 7), or “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” (Ps 139:7). Or, more inclusively, if possible, “Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord” (Jer 23:24).

It follows from the above that the omnipresence of God is of His very essence, truly an attribute. As a spiritual rather than a material being, He is able to penetrate and fill the universe in all its parts. Part of the miracle of creation is that God’s omnipresence does not exclude the existence of persons and things, but rather is the “ground of being” (Tillich) which makes all other existence possible because of His Being. Although the idea of omnipresence seems inconceivable to finite minds, the fact of it must be steadily maintained. It opposes the earlier Socinian view and the later Deistic view or any other approach that would put God in His heaven running the universe by setting it in motion and then removing Himself from it.

By the same token, it must be steadily maintained that God is not by His omnipresence bound by the universe that He has brought into existence. Although He penetrates and fills all its parts, He is not a part of it. He “inbreathes” it and “inspires” it, but His spiritual presence is not bound but free. He wills to uphold the existence of all things, and He could, by the same token, will not to uphold all things, and existence would end. Not so with His own Being, for this is of the essence. What one observes as the uniformity of nature and the reign of law are nothing but the steady will of the omnipresent God. This leaves the door open to miracles, for He is in and through all things as He wills to be.

Against all finite logic it must be held also that at every point in the universe it is God’s whole presence which is present. All of Him is everywhere because His omnipresence is of His essence. There can be no parts at work here and there. His nature cannot be multiplied at various points where it is operating, nor is His nature diffused. This is the intellectual problem and the theological support for the full deity of Christ who in Pal. was fully God while at the same time God who filled and governed the universe. In the same way or, better, for the same reason, Christ may be fully united to each believer as if that single believer were the only one to receive His presence. Thus the Christian does walk with God, not with a part of God.

Philosophically, the difficulty implicit in the description of omnipresence arises out of the fact that whereas man is limited by space, God is not. In order to grasp the idea of omnipresence, one must imagine from our finite viewpoint at least the possibility of an entirely different order where the human forms of space and time are in no way necessary. “Everywhere” and “presence,” both of which ideas are bound up in the single term “omnipresence,” are spatial, and therefore human concepts, and are thus inadequate as descriptive of God. This is why the Bible record, which is more anthropomorphic than abstract, describes God’s omnipresence in action rather than in definition.

The closest definition is God’s definition of Himself to Moses at the burning bush. In response to Moses’ request for a name for the God whom he is to represent, “God said to Moses ‘I am who I am’” which may be tr. also as “I am what I am,” which is simply another way of describing the ever-present tense of the verb “to be,” or another way of saying that God is eternal “isness” or “Being.” Significantly, God immediately describes Himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He is not only Being, but a person who enters into covenant relationships with people.

The repeated coming and going of God (esp. in the OT) is not an argument against His omnipresence, but is rather descriptive of theophanies where the Spirit who is everywhere present condescends to appear in ways which are grasped by men who are limited by space and time forms (cf. Kant) and sets no such limits on the presence and operation of God.

Omnipresence is closely related to omnipotence and omniscience, that is, God who is everywhere is able to act everywhere, and He acts in infinite wisdom at every point because He knows all things. He has access to all places and all secrets. The omnipresence of God, therefore, is a source of comfort and strength to the believer.

In the 20th cent. and, in particular, early in the second half of the 20th cent., the omnipresence of God has been emphasized primarily in terms of His immanence rather than in His transcendence. Instead of the sharp opposition between God and nature, God and the world, God and man, God and history, there is the acceptance of what is surely true, that He sustains and informs nature, and the world and man and history. The so-called “new theology” of the latter half of the 20th cent. has rejoiced in tracing God in the things of this world to the point where it even can be said that God is found primarily and basically where “cross the crowded ways of life.” The “social gospel” becomes an easy corollary of this emphasis.

The true theist, however, and the monotheist, specifically, holds to a transcendent as well as an immanent God, and insist that God’s being can be, as it certainly was before the universe, a total, personal experience in Himself. God’s resources and acts are not dependent upon, nor in any way acted upon, by the ongoing existence of the universe. One must not slight the distinction between the infinite God of being and the finite universe of existence. One evades, therefore, the deism which would banish God from the universe and at the same time any form of pantheism that would imprison Him in it.

A fitting word on the “new theology” of the 20th cent. is this: “If the Eternal Spirit only ‘realizes Himself’ in finite spirits, and the Absolute only ‘comes to consciousness’ in the facts of history, the essential meaning of the word ‘God,’ the significance of evil, and the nature of religion are alike completely altered.” (W. T. Dawson, HERE, [1922], vol. 6, p. 268, to whom I am indebted for material in the closing paragraphs above.)

Bibliography

Flint, Theism (1878); I. A. Dorner, Systems of Christian Doctrine (1880-1882); J. Orr, Christian View of God and the World (1893); W. T. Dawson, HERE (1922), vol. 6, 268ff.; A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (1947), 279-282.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

om-ni-prez’-ens:

1. Non-Occurrence of the Term in Scripture:

Neither the noun "omnipresence" nor adjective "omnipresent" occurs in Scripture, but the idea that God is everywhere present is throughout presupposed and sometimes explicitly formulated. God’s omnipresence is closely related to His omnipotence and omniscience: that He is everywhere enables Him to act everywhere and to know all things, and, conversely, through omnipotent action and omniscient knowledge He has access to all places and all secrets (compare Ps 139). Thus conceived, the attribute is but the correlate of the monotheistic conception of God as the Infinite Creator, Preserver and Governor of the universe, immanent in His works as well as transcendent above them.

2. Philosophical and Popular Ideas of Omnipresence:

The philosophical idea of omnipresence is that of exemption from the limitations of space, subjectively as well as objectively; subjectively, in so far as space, which is a necessary form of all created consciousness in the sphere of sense-perception, is not thus constitutionally inherent in the mind of God; objectively, in so far as the actuality of space-relations in the created world imposes no limit upon the presence and operation of God. This metaphysical conception of transcendence above all space is, of course, foreign to the Bible, which in regard to this, as in regard to the other transcendent attributes, clothes the truth of revelation in popular language, and speaks of exemption from the limitations of space in terms and figures derived from space itself. Thus, the very term "omnipresence" in its two component parts "everywhere" and "present" contains a double inadequacy of expression, both the notion of "everywhere" and that of "presence" being spacial concepts. Another point, in regard to which the popular nature of the Scriptural teaching on this subject must be kept in mind, concerns the mode of the divine omnipresence. In treating the concept philosophically, it is of importance to distinguish between its application to the essence, to the activity, and to the knowledge of God. The Bible does not draw these distinctions in the abstract. Although sometimes it speaks of God’s omnipresence with reference to the pervasive immanence of His being, it frequently contents itself with affirming the universal extent of God’s power and knowledge (De 4:39; 10:14; Ps 139:6-16; Pr 15:3; Jer 23:23,24; Am 9:2).

3. Theories Denying Omnipresence of Being:

This observation has given rise to theories of a mere omnipresence of power or omnipresence by an act of will, as distinct from an omnipresence of being. But it is plain that in this antithetical form such a distinction is foreign to the intent of the Biblical statements in question. The writers in these passages content themselves with describing the practical effects of the attribute without reflecting upon the difference between this and its ontological aspect; the latter is neither affirmed nor denied. That no denial of the omnipresence of being is intended may be seen from Jer 23:24, where in the former half of the verse the omnipresence of 23:23 is expressed in terms of omniscience, while in the latter half the idea finds ontological expression. Similarly, in Ps 139, compare verse 2 with verses 7 ff, and verses 13 ff. As here, so in other passages the presence of God with His being in all space is explicitly affirmed (1Ki 8:27; 2Ch 2:6; Isa 66:1; Ac 17:28).

4. Denial of the Presence of the Idea in the Earlier Parts of the Old Testament:

Omnipresence being the correlate of monotheism, the presence of the idea in the earlier parts of the Old Testament is denied by all those who assign the development of monotheism in the Old Testament religion to the prophetic period from the 8th century onward. It is undoubtedly true that the earliest narratives speak very anthropomorphically of God’s relation to space; they describe Him as coming and going in language such as might be used of a human person. But it does not follow from this that the writers who do so conceive of God’s being as circumscribed by space. Where such forms of statement occur, not the presence of God in general, but His visible presence in theophany is referred to. If from the local element entering into the description God’s subjection to the limitations of space were inferred, then one might with equal warrant, on the basis of the physical, sensual elements entering into the representation, impute to the writers the view that the divine nature is corporeal.

5. The Special Redemptive and Revelatory Presence of God:


6. Religious Significance:

Both from a generally religious and from a specifically soteriological point of view the omnipresence of God is of great practical importance for the religious life. In the former respect it contains the guaranty that the actual nearness of God and a real communion with Him may be enjoyed everywhere, even apart from the places hallowed for such purpose by a specific gracious self-manifestation (Ps 139:5-10). In the other respect the divine omnipresence assures the believer that God is at hand to save in every place where from any danger or foe His people need salvation (Isa 43:2).

LITERATURE.

Oehler, Theologie des A T (3), 174 ff; Riehm, Alttestamentliche Theologie, 262 ff; Dillmann, Handbuch der alttestamentlichen Theologie, 246 ff; Davidson, Old Testament Theology, 180 ff; Konig, Geschichte der alttestamentlichen Religion, 197 ff.