Those who think they can “connect” with God walking in the woods on Sunday are wrong. While God is essentially present in the woods, He is not graciously present as He is among His people when they gather around His Word. God is present in His church through Christ. He is the One who walks “in the midst of his candlesticks.” The incommunicable attribute of omnipresence is clearly attributed to Christ.
“Mom, where is God?”
“Well, He’s everywhere sweetheart!”
That answer frequently given by mothers to their children is true, but what does that mean?
We do not give much thought to God’s omnipresence, do we? We take it for granted that God is “everywhere,” though we do not really understand what that means. Does omnipresence mean occupying all the space that exists, or is there more to it? Is God everywhere present in the same way? For example, how is He present when the church gathers? This can be a very practical question when we think about Sunday worship. It has become increasingly common for professing Christians in our Western world to neglect church meetings. Perhaps you have heard people reason along these lines: “I believe in God, but church isn’t really my thing. I’m not interested in singing, and I find sermons boring. Besides, I can connect with God just as well when I walk in the woods, in the mountains, or on the beach as I can in a church service. After all, God is everywhere.” How do we respond to that?
The issue of omnipresence also arises when we engage oriental spiritualities and their pantheistic vision of God. They claim that God is “everywhere,” but they mean something very different from what Christians mean. How is the biblical and Christian notion of divine omnipresence different from theirs?
When we try to answer these questions, we find that seventeenth-century Reformed theologians are very helpful because they drew careful distinctions that we often fail to draw, and they used helpful philosophical categories, while always subordinating them to Scripture. No one among them is more helpful than the English Puritan Stephen Charnock (1632–80) in his famous treatise on the existence and attributes of God.
Several biblical texts are traditionally used by orthodox theologians to argue for God’s omnipresence, in particular 1 Kings 8:27; Psalm 139; and Jeremiah 23:23–24. Charnock chose Jeremiah 23:23–24 as a starting point: “Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord.” Charnock helpfully set the text in its context (see vv. 16ff), namely, the denunciation of false prophets who prophesied to Israel when the Lord had not sent them. That allowed him to make an important distinction between God’s omniscience and His omnipresence. God knows and sees everything (“Can a man hide himself?”) because He is immediately present everywhere (“Do I not fill heaven and earth?”), so His omniscience can be inferred from His omnipresence. The verb “to fill” is key because it cannot properly refer to understanding, knowledge, or will. It must refer to what Charnock called the “essential presence” of God: “By filling heaven and earth is meant therefore a filling it with his essence. No place can be imagined that is deprived of the presence of God and therefore when the Scripture anywhere speaks of the presence of God, it joins heaven and earth together.”1
Charnock’s exegesis of these verses is significant for a number of reasons: it shows that God is essentially present everywhere, not only in heaven, as unorthodox teachers argued at that time.2 As Charnock said, “Heaven is the court of his majestical presence, but not the prison of his essence.”3 It is also very helpful to refute the pantheistic notion that God is identified with nature that Baruch Spinoza, the influential Dutch philosopher, famously expounded at that time4 and that is so prevalent today. God does “fill heaven and earth,” but, as a consequence, He is “at hand” and He “sees” us so that no one can hide from Him. He is therefore personal and distinct from nature.