A Review of “The Presence of God” by J. Ryan Lister

lister“Talk of God’s presence is part of the white noise of evangelicalism,” says J. Ryan Lister (21). The language itself is common parlance in Christian churches, yet a robust theological understanding of it is rare. Lister offers a comprehensive Biblical theological treatment of this sadly neglected doctrine in The Presence of God.

The work is broken down into four parts, each progressively building up the concept across the storyline of Scripture. Two introductory chapters set the context for the work. The first establishes the need to consider this subject afresh. There is a “theological dissonance surrounding this Biblical reality” (20). The ubiquity of the language has not helped our understanding of the importance of the concept. In fact, the importance mandates a fresh discussion of it. For Lister, the presence of God is a central feature of the storyline of Scripture. His thesis makes as strong a case for its value as can be made. He writes:

I want to make one major argument in this book that rests on two very simple but very significant biblical truths. The first truth is this: the presence of God is a central goal in God’s redemptive mission. The second truth follows: the presence of God is the agent by which the Lord accomplishes his redemptive mission. God’s presence, then, is both eschatological (it is the end-of-time aim of the Lord’s mission) and instrumental (it is ultimately what fulfills the Lord’s mission). So to put our argument in its simplest terms, the presence of God is a fundamental objective in our redemption and, simultaneously, the means by which God completes this objective. (23-24)

We very much need to reconsider the importance, meaning, and depth of this “forgotten storyline.”

Chapter two focuses on setting the theological foundations necessary to rightly place this truth within the storyline of the Bible. Here Lister gives us a brief introduction to the doctrine of God, to the major concepts of transcendence and immanence, and to God’s relational self. He sets the working definitions of his monograph, particularly noting the difference between God’s “omnipresence” and His covenantal presence. It’s the difference between saying “God is everywhere,” and saying “God is here.”

Part one of the book focuses on eschatology. “We will begin with the end of the story so that we can understand the story’s purpose,” (59).  Taking his cue from John’s Revelation, Lister notes that God has three redemptive goals: dominion, dynasty, and dwelling. That is to say God is looking for a place and a people for His presence to dwell in and among. With this in mind Lister walks readers through how the New Creation is intended to complete what the original creation started. “The end,” he says, “is a climactic return to the beginning; it fulfills and surpasses the purposes of Eden” (78).

The Fall of Adam and the outworking of sin, of course, has had a significant impact on all three of those key goals of redemption: place, people, and presence. Sin has created separation between man and God, and between man and the Garden. Yet it is God’s presence, offered through the various covenants of the Old Testament, that seeks to restore all three elements of God’s plan. “By his own initiative, God promises to restore his presence through the covenantal provision of land (dominion) and kingdom of priests (dynasty)” (96). The Covenants play a significant role in understanding God’s redemptive plan. Lister walks readers through each major covenant of the Old Testament showing both their unique details and contributions to the eschatological goal. Each has something to say about dominion, dynasty, and dwelling. It is the New Covenant, however, that has the greatest bearing on the realization of these redemptive goals. As the New Adam, Jesus is most fit to fulfill the promises of the Garden of Eden.

Yet, God’s presence with His people is not only the goal of God’s redemptive plan; it is the means for achieving that redemptive plan. Part two shifts our focus to this second aspect of Lister’s thesis. Lister writes:

This is what we call the functional reality of the redemptive presence of God: to attain his eschatological goals, the Lord enters time and space to ensure, through his own gracious power, a place for his people filled with his unrestricted presence. Divine presence, then, is more than the goal of salvation; it is also the means by which God secures everything he set out to accomplish. God becomes present to make a way to his presence. (143)

The aim of part two, then, is to help readers see how the whole Bible, indeed its very structure, points to this reality of God’s presence as the means of redemption. In fact Lister goes so far as to suggest that the original structure of the Hebrew Bible, the original arrangement of the books in the Tanakh, revolve around this idea. This arrangement is not haphazard or random, it is intentional to communicate a theological understanding: the redemptive work of God’s presence. Part two, then, instead of walking readers through the individual covenants, actually walks us through the major developments in the storyline of the Bible, showing at each stage how crucial God’s presence is to this storyline. Part three does this same thing, but shifts the focus from the Old Testament storyline to the New. God is present in the person of His Son to redeem.

Part four applies this deep and rich story to our own lives, seeking to understand what God’s presence means for our Christian walk. Lister closes out the book with a wonderful eye towards the application of theology. He explores what God’s presence means for our salvation, our churches, and the future.

This is a phenomenal and comprehensive treatment of a much neglected concept. Though it’s content is weighty and its development is theologically robust, Lister writes in a way that will be accessible to many. As such, this is a book that is fit for the church, and I am pleased to recommend The Presence of God.

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