This week we are entering a new phase in our series on divine attributes. We will turn our attention from the NOTs to the OMNIs. This shift is not only verbal (from im- to omni-), but also methodological. To discover the NOT attributes, we travel along the via negativa (way of negation), removing from God creaturely characteristics that do not befit him. To discover the OMNI attributes, we travel along the via eminentia (way of eminence), attributing to God creaturely characteristics which do befit him -- with the significant difference that they apply to him eminently (in the greatest possible degree). Hence the prefix omni, which means "all." So, by travelling along this path we will speak of God as omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent.
We begin with omnipresence. To say that God is all-present is to say that God is present to all times and places. We know what it means for us to be present in one particular place at one particular time. But the creator's presence to his creation is not limited to this place at this time. God is present to this place and that place, at this time and at that time. God is all-present: present-to-all.
As the above description shows, the term "present" is conveniently ambiguous. It refers to both time and place. Present means here rather than there. But present also means now rather than then. This should not surprise us, considering time and space go together: we can measure one by the other, and our awareness of one carries with it an awareness of the other. When a teacher takes attendance and a student says, "Present," it refers to both their presence in the room and their presence at this time. They are here-and-now. That's what presence means. So by virtue of his omnipresence, God is here and there, now and then.
Of course, this raises an obvious problem: What does it mean to say that God is present at a particular time and place? Is it really so special to say that God was present with his people Israel? Is it really so special to say that God is immanuel in Jesus Christ? Is it really so special to say that God is present in a sacred time and space? It seems like the significance of God's particular covenant history with his people is undermined by this notion of omnipresence.
This problem is far from insolvable. The key is to think of omnipresence as trans-presence. God is not simply everywhere in the way that we are somewhere. God is not just a human being writ large. Rather, God transcends space and time, and so in his freedom may engage with time and place as he wills. So God may be present-to his creation in a multiplicity of forms. Omnipresence doesn't set a limit on God, making it necessary that be "everywhere" in a strict sense. Omnipresence bears witness to God's freedom from such limitation (either the limitation of being only here or the limitation of being everywhere). God is so omnipresent that he is even capable of being present to this time and place in a way that he is not present to that time and place.
This modification seems necessary for those who believe in Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God. But one may rightfully ask whether such a modification of omnipresence twists the term beyond its plain sense. Would it be better to just drop omnipresence? I don't think so (though I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter), because I am still affirming the point of the term: God's transcendence of time and space.
Furthermore, we can avoid an outright rejection of the term by turning the meaning of omnipresence on its head. Omnipresence focuses on God being present to all. But I am a bit more interested in saying that all are present to God. In other words, all things are laid before God. The term usually used for this God's eternity: God simultaneously engages all of time. Omnipresence also points to this divine reality, just from a different angle. I personally prefer the language of eternity, but see no reason to eliminate omnipresence from my vocabulary -- provided it is understood in terms of God's history with us.
Which way do you prefer: the way of negation or the way of eminence? Why?
Does my description of omnipresence make sense?
Do you think omnipresence is rightfully attributed to God?
How else might the attribute of omnipresence be reconciled with God's history?