Sunday, December 25, 2011

Donne, Piper, and Oliphint on Immensity

A Christmas Day tweet by John Piper, who you can follow at @JohnPiper, gave me direction for today's post. Piper tweeted the following:

"Immensity cloystered in thy deare wombe." John Donne

Though I do not know the context of this quote, it clearly points to the Incarnation of Christ. And I don't know a whole lot about Donne, but I think I can guess at a few things about this quote. The word immensity is worth some consideration. Many of us would see in this word nothing more than a synonym of the word "big". However, immensity is a theological term that has a specific meaning in regards to theology proper. My guess is that Donne, a member of the clergy, was using the word in its technical sense. K. Scott Oliphint, in his book of the year (according to me), God With Us, explains,
Given God's independence, it follows that he is not limited by anything, nor is he to abide by the boundaries of creation. One way to articulate this truth is to affirm that God is infinite. In line with traditional terminology, we can discuss God's infinity under two primary headings: eternity and immensity ... In terms of God's relationship to space, immensity is a good word to use. It comes from the Latin immensus, which means immeasurable. This is the best way to think about God's "where-ness." (71-80)
Thus, the word immensity characterizes God as intrinsically immeasurable which points us toward the fact that God is everywhere. Keep in mind, however, that God is not everywhere like air on earth. He is not spread thinly across the whole expanse of creation. Rather, he is "completely present everywhere. There is, therefore, a ubiquity of God's essence in which he is always and everywhere wholly and completely present." (81)

Thus, Donne was saying something more profound than there is someone really big in Mary's womb. He was articulating something more important than a figurative reference to Mary's baby being someone who would do something "big". He was pointing to a paradox of the Incarnation; the God who is immense-he is everywhere present in all of his being-has taken on flesh and now resides in a woman's womb. In using the word immensity, Donne draws our attention to the Son of God who took on a human nature and took on human flesh. Donne directs our grateful gaze to the God who condescended to save us. This is a wonderful, though somewhat mysterious, truth that we rightly focus on at this time of year.

Take some time to marvel, along with Donne and Piper and Oliphint, at the second person of the Trinity who became a man so that he might rescue, redeem, and reconcile his people.

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