God and Time (Pt. 2)

Part One

Carl Henry proposes the following view of God’s relationship to time:

The biblical view it seems to me, implies that God is not in time, that there is no succession of ideas in the divine mind, that time is a divine creation concomitant with the origin of the universe, that God internally knows all things including all space-time contingencies, and that this knowledge includes knowledge of the temporal succession prevalent in the created universe.  Although God’s nature, including His knowledge, is not in time, nonetheless, because He is omniscient He cognitively distinguishes between what I did in the past, what I’m doing now, and what I shall do tomorrow.  God includes time not as a constituent aspect of His being or knowing, but as a conceptual aspect of His knowledge of created realities.

God’s time-transcending knowledge in Himself does not cancel out distinctive space-time relationships to His created universe.  God is not limited to simply one track of relationships to the temporal order. He knows all historical factualities and contingencies through His eternal decree and He knows them in personal presence in the historical order.  It is therefore one thing to say that God simultaneously knows all things, past, present, and future, and quite another to insist that He knows them only in an eternal now that makes all time distinctions wholly irrelevant. – Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, Vol. 5. 276 (My emphasis)

In this quotation Henry has said that God transcends time, so he is obviously a B Theory or Tenseless time advocate.  But he claims that that view does not mean God cannot know the ‘I’ in the now or the ‘I’ in any sentence (this is called the problem of indexical reference).

The reason that Henry gives for this is that God does not have time or include time as part of his nature.  It is not, as he says, “a constituent aspect of his being or knowing, instead it is a conceptual aspect of his knowledge of created realities.”

In other words, it is part of His decree; part of His foreknowledge, and therefore it is not something that impacts God’s being and attributes.  So God does not have to change from an atemporal to a temporal being, as William Lane Craig says.  Such a change would of course impact His immutability.

The way Henry has formulated the issue means that God is both atemporal in His being, but temporal in His knowing (at least within creation).  Henry adds to what he has said by giving the example of the Incarnation of the divine Logos (Ibid, 257).  He asserts the eternality of the Logos, Jesus Christ as the “I am” (John 8:58), yet He enters into time.

Now, if that is possible without any contradiction in the divine essence as far as the second person is concerned, why can’t it be true of the Father and the Spirit, even if they do not take on physicality?

Theologically, one has to start with what the Bible says, and the Bible certainly does seem too intimate in John 1:1-18 that the One who was the Beginner, the One who created all things, was before time.  You see the same thing in Genesis 1:1:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Time is shown as coterminous with creation.

James Barr, in his book on Biblical Words for Time, agrees with this.  He says that is certainly the biblical teaching.  Now if time didn’t start until creation, we can say that God was at least supratemporal or atemporal before He created (the preexistence of Christ plays in to this too).  That being the case, the only issue that has to be resolved is whether God has now confined Himself to time.

John Frame has said that the biblical view reflects God’s immanence, which includes temporality, and His transcendence, which includes atemporality (The Doctrine of God, 551).  It should be recalled that God’s immanence and transcendence in the true biblical view, are part of each another.  Therefore, it is no contradiction to say that God is immanent in time (and therefore temporal in His working), and yet in His actual being He transcends time (and is atemporal, just as He transcends all other things).

Frame writes,

Too little attention has been paid to God’s temporal omnipresence (the term he uses, in the discussion of His relationship to time).  Much of what some writers want to gain by a temporalist view, other than of course libertarian freedom, can be easily secured through sufficient recognition of God’s temporal covenant presence.  In other words His immanence. 

For example a covenantally present God, like a temporalist God, can know and assert temporarily indexed expressions like “the sun is rising now”…  He can feel with human beings the flow of time from one moment to the next.  He can react to events in a significant sense, events which to be sure, He has foreordained. He can mourn one moment and rejoice the next.  He can hear and respond to prayer in time.  Since God dwells in time, therefore, there is give-and-take between him and human beings.  But God’s temporal immanence does not contradict his Lordship over time or the exhaustiveness of His decree.  These temporal categories are merely aspects of God’s general transcendence and immanence as the Lord.  The give-and-take between God and the creation requires, not a reduced, but an enhanced view of His sovereignty.  God is the Lord in time, as well as the Lord above time.  So God is temporal after all, but not merely temporal.  He really exists in time, but He also transcends time in such a way as to exist outside of it.  He is both inside and outside of the temporal box; a box that can never confine Him nor keep Him out. This is the model that does the most justice to the biblical data. – John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, 558-559†

Frame’s account is on a par with Carl Henry’s view; and that is, I believe, the biblical view.††  We should look at the problem of God’s working in time through the theological categories of God’s immanence in transcendence.  God is temporal through his “covenant presence.”††† He is atemporal in his transcendence or Lordship.

Some Scriptural Representations of God, Eternity, and Time

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. – Psalm 90:2

Many have noted here the duplication of the word olam which should be recognized as a way of speaking of eternity.

I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. – Revelation 1:8

Although these references to the “Alpha and the Omega” seem to be temporal references, they are explained as atemporal by the description that is appended to them.  The text describes the Lord thus: He “is and was and is to come.”  It does not say that God “was and is and is to come.”  That would imply a temporal existence always.  The presence of God in the ‘now’ situation (“is”) is placed first, therefore putting emphasis on God’s atemporality.

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. – Romans 11:36

By “all things” this passage must mean all things in time and space.  Creation and its time are from God.  By saying all things are of God, through Him, and to Him Paul is not claiming creation is an emanation from God.  They are created separate from Him.  Only He is eternal.


†  My quotations here come from lecture transcripts.  Though I own these books, I do not have them in front of me as I write this.

††  In saying this I am not claiming to have answered every objection or read every counter-proposal.  This is my opinion so far as I can give one.

†††  By speaking of ‘covenant presence’ Frame (if I understand him rightly) is invoking the theological covenant(s), not those clearly found in the Bible.  However, one can use the term ‘covenant presence’ just so long as it is understood more as a figure of speech than as a reference to the biblical covenants.

 

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4 comments

  1. I appreciate your essays on God and Time and that in this one, part 2, there is a bringing together of sorts of the “Tensed” Theory A and “Tenseless” Theory B. Or said another way, that preserves both transcendence and immanence which I agree are necessary.

    The Carl Henry and Frame views seem to fit neatly with the Block universe view of time which in turn fits neatly with the reformed/Calvinistic deterministic God. Did the Einstein science help shape the deterministic view I wonder?

    I have the greatest difficulty believing the future already exists and is determined (Block Universe view of time and perfect foreknowledge view in theology). The Einstein science says time is physical but I don’t think so (and neither do some contemporary physicists). I rather believe time to be a, “a non-spacial continuum that is measured in terms of events which succeed one another from past through present to future” and is therefore perhaps not necessarily only a feature of the created material universe. This view is intuitive I might add.

    There were “events” in heaven before creation that couldn’t occur if there was no continuum. God emphasized “who is” because he is in “now” too; the past is done and can’t be changed (there is no revelation in scripture, nor revelation in human history that God, or anyone else, has or could or can change the past). God doesn’t change the past because it would violate freedom (even of angels). We are all in now…now…now and the future is not created because it isn’t here yet. The future is partly determined by God’s prophetic decree (the things He will do no matter what) and is certainly bound by the laws He’s put in place but we experience it’s unfolding (or creation) even as He does.

    I believe the transcendence of God is revealed to us in His Lordship over duration (the length of my days, the duration of this old earth, the length of the church age, the length of the tolerance of the “accuser of the brethren” in heaven). If God is sovereign over time then I believe he has Lordship over the speed of duration as well (I wonder if some of the miracles Jesus performed involved speeding up the duration of something that would normally occur over a longer duration i.e. water into wine, withering of the fig tree, multiplying of the loaves and fish).

    Lastly, the statement that, “there is no succession of ideas in the divine mind” seems so untrue to me. How can we say such a thing about our Creator God who can surely take all that he knows, coupled with love and great power, to create those things that eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor even entered into the heart of man as we enjoy Him forever (and that He didn’t know until he knew you)!

    Thank you Dr. Reluctant for letting me post my thoughts and for caring so much for the lambs and sheep of the Lord’s pasture who benefit greatly from your scholarship. God bless you and yours!

    1. Bonnie,

      Thanks for your kind words and for your interest in this blog. You are clearly a thoughtful student. I am going to simply leave your comment up, preferring not to engage it because there is too much to engage and I am busy. It is so nice to hear from readers of this blog who I did not know of before they commented!

      God bless you and yours,

      Paul H.

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