God and Time (Pt.1)

The well-known biblical scholar James Barr, in his book Biblical Words for Time, wrote that the dispute about whether God is timelessly eternal or eternally time-bound cannot be decided by going to a Hebrew and Greek lexicon and looking at the terms.  The evangelical scholar Carl Henry claimed that “The Bible’s explicit teaching about the nature of divine eternity is inconclusive.”

This is an important subject.  There has been a lot of debate about whether God is necessarily in time Himself or whether He transcends time.

Two Basic Theories of Time: they are called the A Theory and the B Theory.

The A Theory of Time, also called the Tensed Theory, teaches that the ‘now’ exists, but that the past did exist and the future doesn’t yet exist; so only the ‘now’ exists.  In this view God is thought of as being a ‘temporal’ being; most modern philosophers of religion hold to a tensed theory of time.  Some of these advocates hold that this means that God is, in some sense acquiring new facts as He experiences passages of time.

The A Theory teaches that the future doesn’t yet exist, so if the future doesn’t exist then it doesn’t exist for God either.  This means God must be receiving facts; at least the fact that the future is coming into existence.  Naturally, Open Theists, Process Theists, and some Arminians like this view, because it appears to protect their belief in forms of libertarian free will.  But this view does have knock on effects for the attributes of God.

If God is experiencing the passage of time, as this view teaches, then He cannot be omniscient in the sense that men like Augustine and Calvin have insisted on.  Moreover, He cannot transcend time.  And if that is so then it seems hard to believe that God is immutable, since He would experience changes in time with all that would appear to imply.

Most of the Reformed Epistemology school (e.g. Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga) accept this A Theory view of time.  So does John Feinberg, who in his book No One Like Him, embraces the view of a temporal God.  For Feinberg, divine timelessness is both incomprehensible and undermining to God.  He writes:

For if God knows all things intuitively at the same moment and these thoughts don’t change, then that means that God has always been thinking the exact same thing. Added to this, it surely implies that the communal fellowship between the persons of the Trinity is ruled out, since all three have always had the same thought. – John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him, 429-430

Feinberg thinks this completely nullifies any kind of intercommunication between the three persons.  How can they communicate, he reasons, if they know all things about each other, and know them intuitively all at the same time?

Sempi-Temporality

A derivation of the A Theory is called Sempi Temporality, whereby God was eternal prior to creating, but when He created He entered into time so as to have a relationship with his creatures.  This is the view of William Lane Craig, although it is also attractive to men like Feinberg.

A Major Problem with the A Theory of Time (and Sempi Temporality theory)

A major problem of this view relates to the Doctrine of Creation.  John Frame explains:

Some have claimed that the God who exists in time without beginning or end would embody an ‘actual infinite,’ that is, an infinity of actual events in temporal sequence, past and future. If God is temporal, then time is not created. If time is not created, then it extends infinitely far into the past. In that case, an infinity of days would have elapsed before God’s creation of the world.  But if an infinity of days elapsed before creation, then creation never took place. But since creation did take place, God must not embody an actual infinite, and so He exists outside of time.

I cannot detect a flaw in this argument, but I would hesitate to give it doctrinal weight, in the absence of biblical teaching.  William Lane Craig, in his book Time and Eternity argues that God was originally supra-temporal, which is beyond time, but became exclusively temporal when He created the world.  This view would avoid the problem I mentioned here, but I don’t believe it is consistent with the biblical data I discuss later. – John Frame, The Doctrine of God, 552

So we should look at the alternative.

The B Theory or Tenseless Theory of Time.

In the B Theory of Time the ‘now’ exists in the same way that the past and future exists, at least to God’s mind.  The main argument against this view is neatly expressed by Gregory Ganssle in the book God in Time: Four Views, which he edited.

If God is atemporal , His relation to each event is the same.  He knows them all in His eternal now.  How does He know which of them occurs now and which of them has already occurred?  Since every event is present to Him, He cannot know which is actually present. – Gregory Ganssle, God in Time: Four Views, 15-16

 In another book Ganssle comments,

If the traditional view is correct then God cannot be and at your ‘now’.  He knows everything that happens at the time you say your sentence, but he does not experience it as ‘now’ in the way you do.  He experiences every point in time all at once, so to speak.  If God were to use a word ‘now’ literally, He could not point precisely to one point in time, as opposed to another point.  For Him all times are ‘now’ just as each point in space is here for Him. – Gregory Ganssle, Thinking About God, 172

So God cannot really use the same sentence we use to express what He knows; He has to use a different sentence.  For example, He could only say “Fred is reading on the couch in his living room at 4 pm on Tuesday,” as opposed to “I am reading on this couch at 4 pm on Tuesday.”  The referent changes for God, so He cannot experience what you are doing.  He only knows what you’re doing.

How does one surmount this hurdle?  Does one go with the modern Christian philosophers of religion, and opt for the A Theory of Time where God is a temporal being?  Do we go for Craig’s Sempi Temporality, where God was supratemporal / atemporal before He created, and now He has created He is bound to time for the rest of eternity (i.e. for the rest of the passage of moments)?  Or do we hold to a B Theory, a Tenseless Theory, with men like Paul Helm, and in fact all the classical expressions of theology?

Buswell rejected the traditional position, but most reformed and dispensational scholars held to the B Theory.  In which case do we have to say that God doesn’t know or experience the ‘I’ in the same way we do, and does that therefore limit His knowledge?

Ones view of time will have knock on effects to the way that you formulate the attributes of God.

8 comments

  1. What if time is an attribute of God (that He experiences succession or duration) and is part of who He is like it is for us? Also doesn’t the immutability of God relate to His character and nature and not to other aspects of who He is like the ability to think and create (which does involve change and if change then succession)?

    1. Bonnie,

      Thanks for your good questions. Here are a couple of thoughts:

      1. If time is a “part” or property of God then time either itself is an eternal property or God would not be eternal. It would also mean that God’s involvement with creation (time, space and matter) would verge on pantheism, since these are necessary properties of our world but they would reside in God. I cannot see how one could hold to the integrity of creation-in-itself with such a view.

      2. I do not know how God thinks and whether that involves succession, so I would rather not speculate. But it would seem that His thinking and His knowledge cannot easily be separated. Neither can His knowledge be disconnected from His primary attributes.

      1. I appreciate your reply to my question – thank you! I certainly do not hold to pantheism and is not at all what I intended to convey. I meant more like Romans 1:20 “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made…” which is why I think time is an attribute of God (and yes eternally so). So the things made are not God but only “like God” so we can know and understand God. With time being such a significant aspect of our created order (without time there would be no creation, no freewill, no love or virtue or even God incarnate). In eternity past there was no universe, no heavenly host (until they were made) and no God incarnate. When we see time (duration and change) in scripture and time in general revelation it’s not hard to believe that time is an attribute of God.

        I look forward to your next installment – this is a fascinating subject to me. Thank you for your forum…I’ve been visiting for years!

      2. Thanks Bonnie,

        I know that you are not pushing pantheism. My concern is that by including time as an attribute of God it is hard not to go there (or to panentheism). A thought experiment: we would have to say that time is both “in” God and out of God, so that our time is ours (to maintain the integrity of creation apart from God). But trying to explain time AS both in God (and eternal) and out of God (as temporal) blurs the distinction between the Creator and the creature. It may be argues that in such a case time must be an emanation of God. Do you see?

        Your reference to Rom. 1 and the invisible things is well taken, but whereas time is a necessary constituent of creation, I do not see that in the case of God’s a se or being. Aren’t you reasoning backward from cause to effect and concluding that time must be first a divine attribute (in the same way that love or logic is) and is therefore part of our experience because it is part of God’s? That only in this way can time be revelational?

        I am not saying this is your position. I’m trying to think this through with you.

        Anyway, Pt.2 posts soon. It will not answer all your questions, but I hope it will help.

        God bless you and yours,

        Paul H

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