Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Above and Below

ABOVE AND BELOW.1. As cosmological terms. Like all similar expressions (ascent, descent, etc.), they presented to early ages a clear-cut image, which has disappeared with the rise of modern astronomy. But this is rather a gain than a loss. Here, as in so many other cases, the later knowledge is an aid to faith. At the beginning of the Christian era the earth was still regarded as a fixed body placed at the centre of the Universe, with the heavens surrounding it as vast spheres. But we know now that it is only a small planet revolving round the sun, which also has a ‘solar way,’ so immense and obscure that it is not yet determined: while the whole sidereal system—of which our constellation forms a ‘mere speck’—is ‘alive with movements’ too complex to be understood. While, therefore, ‘above and below’ (like ‘east,’ ‘west,’ ‘north,’ ‘south’) would have for the ancients an absolute and cosmic, they can have for us only a relative and phenomenal, significance. We still use the old terms, just as we still speak of the rising sun, but we do so with a new interpretation. They have no meaning in a boundless Universe save in relation to our observation, and appearances are misleading. But these wider views of the Universe should help us to realize that all language involving conceptions of time and space is utterly inadequate to express spiritual realities.

2. For the spiritual significance of these and kindred terms we turn first of all to John 8:23; John 8:42; John 8:44. Manifestly, ‘I am from above’ (ἐκ τῶν ἄνω) = ‘I came forth and am come from God’; and clearly also, ‘Ye are from beneath’ (ἐκ τῶν κάτω) = ‘Ye are of this world,’ ‘Ye are of your father, the devil.’ ‘The source of My life is above, i.e. in My Father; ye draw your inspiration from below, i.e. from a malign spirit of darkness.’ This is the spiritual significance of ‘above and below.’ To be ‘born again,’ or ‘born from above’ (ἄνωθεν) (John 3:3), is to be ‘born of God’ (John 1:13). To receive power ‘from above’ (ἄνωθεν), as in the case of Pilate (John 19:11), is to receive it from God (Romans 13:1). The wisdom which is from beneath is ‘earthly, sensual, devilish’ (James 3:15); while the wisdom which is ‘from above’ ‘is of God’ (cf. James 1:5, James 3:17). The following passages may also be consulted: John 3:13; John 3:31; John 6:38; John 16:28; John 20:17, Romans 10:6-8, Colossians 3:1, Colossians 3:2.

3. But, as has been already suggested, in using these and all similar terms, it is important to bear in mind their inadequacy and limitations. Not merely has theology suffered to an extent that is little realized, but the spiritual life of thousands has been impoverished through a tenacious clinging to an order of ideas in a region where they no longer apply. The difficulty, of course, is that we must employ such categories of thought even though we are compelled to recognize their inadequacy. ‘A danger besets us in the gravest shape when we endeavour to give distinctness to the unseen world. We transfer, and we must transfer, the language of earth, the imagery of succession in time and space, to an order of being to which, as far as we know, it is wholly inapplicable. We cannot properly employ such terms as “before” and “after,” “here” and “there,” of God or of Spirit. All is, is at once, is present, to Him; and the revelations of the Risen Lord seem to be designed in part to teach us that, though He resumed all that belongs to the perfection of man’s nature, He was not bound by the conditions which we are forced to connect with it’ (Westcott, The Historic Faith, p. 74). We invoke ‘our Father in heaven,’ not as One who is divided from us by immeasurable tracts of space, but as far beyond our ignorance and sin—infinitely above us, yet unspeakably near.

‘Speak to Him thou for He hears, and Spirit with Spirit, can meet,—

Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.’

So, when the Apostle bids us ‘seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God’ (Colossians 3:1), we must shake off the incumbent thought of immeasurable distances to be crossed. And when we think of Christ’s Ascension into heaven, we must not conceive of it as a flight into some far-off region, but as His passing into a state of existence (of which we gain hints during the great forty days) which we can describe only by employing words which, in the very act of using them, we see to be utterly inadequate. He has gone into a state which we cannot even imaginatively picture to ourselves without robbing it of much of its truth.

Literature.—Westcott, Gospel of St. John; F. D. Maurice, The Gospel of St. John [especially valuable]. If the reader wishes to pursue the subject of the inadequacy of the categories of the understanding, and of the concepts of time and space in relation to spiritual realities, he will find an ample field of investigation by beginning with Kant’s Critique of the Pure Reason, and then, if he cares to, following the discussion into more recent works of Philosophy. He will find two valuable chapters (vi. and vii.) in Caird’s Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, dealing with the subject.

Arthur Jenkinson.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Above and Below'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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