The Doctrine of Proximity: An Introduction

by Austin Thompson

What is the most important aspect of Christian living? If a survey were conducted among theologians, pastors, and church members from every denomination associated with Christianity there can be no doubt that a wide variety of answers would be given. For example, Pentecostal Christians might select the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit as the most important aspect of the Christian life. Reformed Christians, following in the steps of Martin Luther, might choose the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works as the central pillar by which the church stands or falls. Liberal Christians may highlight the doctrine of sanctification or the process of ethical improvement as the main thrust of following after Christ. If you took the time right now to write in the margin the top five essential elements of the Christian life, what would you choose?

A biblical topic that I would be surprised to see on anyone’s list is the doctrine of proximity. That might be a surprise to you initially, causing you to ask, “What is the doctrine of proximity?” Simply explained, the doctrine of proximity focuses on an individual’s location and its impact on their daily lives. A more complete definition would be: a biblically informed awareness of and submission to God’s providential placement of individual persons in specific places on His earth for His sovereign purposes.

Upon first glance, that might seem like a lot to handle. But after some reflection, it should be clear that proximity plays an important part in almost every decision we make. How do family members seated at the dinner table choose between using the bathroom adjacent to the living room or using the upstairs bathroom next to the bedroom? The determination of which bathroom to use depends on various factors, such as the degree of urgency or nature of the need for a bathroom. In the same way, various factors related to our location become motivating influences in why and how we make decisions.

However, the most important reason that proximity must be considered as a crucial part of daily Christian living is because the Bible has a great deal to say on the topic.

In addition to those factors, modern advances have fundamentally changed how humans made in the image of God view their location. The difficulty of getting from one place to another has kept humanity grounded in a central location for almost six thousand years. It would be foolish to compare my high school mission trip to Slovakia with William Carey’s voyages to India or Hudson Taylor’s countless trips to China. What took me a day and a half to travel by airplane and bus took them many months of rigorous sailing in far less comfortable conditions. However, the most important reason that proximity must be considered as a crucial part of daily Christian living is because the Bible has a great deal to say on the topic. This article will highlight the importance of the doctrine of proximity and God’s instruction on the matter for the purpose of helping believers gain wisdom in the decisions they make as stewards of the mysteries of God and as servants of Christ (1 Cor 4:1).

Proximity — A Corollary of Finiteness
The best place to begin when considering the doctrine of proximity is with the Creator. God’s existence prior to the creation of the world has dramatic implications for our understanding and experience of proximity. God eternally exists as an infinite being (Psalm 90:2). He cannot be measured or contained, whether spatially or temporally. This is clear in Solomon’s proclamation that even the highest heavens cannot contain His essence (1 Kings 8:27). He transcends His creation and exists outside of it.

God’s existence prior to the creation of the world has dramatic implications for our understanding and experience of proximity.

In stark contrast to the infinite Creator, the creation is in its very essence, ‘finite.’ It has a definite beginning. It has a limited scope. While human beings are considered to be the apex of God’s creation—creatures fashioned in His very image—they are finite. That means that their existence is by nature a limited one. They are limited to a definite time within redemptive history, a definite space, consisting of their body, and a definite location on the earth, where their body resides at any given moment.

One of the greatest treatments on the doctrine of proximity was given by the apostle Paul in his proclamation of the living God to the people of Athens:

The God who made the world and everything in it ​— ​he is Lord of heaven and earth ​— ​does not live in shrines made by hands. Neither is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives everyone life and breath and all things. From one man he has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. He did this so that they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.

Acts 17:24-27

What an incredible statement! It is possible to draw at least four significant truths from this passage for our purposes.

First, as the infinite Creator of all things, God does not derive any essential benefit from His finite creation. He does not need houses made by human hands or the service of humanity to continue to exist as He has for all eternity.

Second, God made every person to live on the earth at an appointed time and in an appointed location. The reason that anyone is where they currently are throughout the course of their life is inseparably linked to His providential placement.

Third, God had a definite purpose for ordering the creation this way—that individuals may come to know Him as the living God and Creator of all things. In His sovereign wisdom, God chose to save sinners through the proclamation of the gospel by sinful messengers. A crucial element of how this is accomplished is through the providential placement and movement of people so that the elect will be exposed to the gospel message and be redeemed through faith in His Son.

Finally, despite being transcendent from the creation, God is also imminent. He is near to His creation and to those creatures made in his image as he meticulously brings every moment of redemptive history into perfect alignment with His purposes. We can be sure that the definite plan outlined in these verses also indicates that it was the wisest way that God could have structured the Creation and ordered redemptive history. Therefore, the natural limitations of location that we experience is a crucial element of God’s eternal plan for His creation.

The Pastoral Benefits of Proximity
The truth that God has ordered creation in this way has immense pastoral benefits. It affirms that at any moment, whether the present circumstances of our existence appear favorable or bleak, God has a definite plan and purpose that cannot be thwarted. How comforting to behold with clear eyes His providential care of His creatures! This is a tremendous sense of comfort that most people blindly overlook in their daily lives and, as a result, fail to derive from it any true benefit. However, it is important to note that the comfort inherent in God’s sovereign design does not exhaust the vastness of God’s purposes for their placement in time and space. In His perfect wisdom, God has intricately woven our location, or proximity, into what He daily expects from His creatures.

In my next article on this topic, we will learn how proximity helps us determine our responsibilities.

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