It’s that time again

god-in-time-3-001Tait’s series on Greg and Fr Aidan’s recent post prompted some thoughts on God and time. I can’t think of a more mind-bending and frustrating topic. My thoughts are entirely those of a novice. I am neither professional philosopher nor professional theologian, but here are my musings nevertheless. I’ll present these in the form of conclusions, though there is reasoning behind them, much of it discussed on our blog over the past three years. But for brevity’s sake I’d like to offer them as is.

Let’s start with something non-controversial: God is uncreated and as such exists necessarily. By necessary I don’t mean that God’s existing is the ‘product of necessity’ or even that God ‘fulfills’ or ‘conforms to’ some metaphysical principle of necessity that ‘prescribes’ existence for God. I simply mean God is self-existent. He did not come into existence, cannot fail to exist, and alone is that without which nothing else would exist.

If God were temporal (in some sense—not speculating right now), what might that not mean? Well, God would certainly be unlike created-temporal beings in that God wouldn’t suffer the ravages of time as we do. God would not age or forget. In addition, we’ve argued here that God cannot suffer ‘existential loss’ in the sense of pining for the good of some ‘past’ experience or, for that matter, with respect to some future good. Why not? Because “every good and perfect gift comes from God.” Whatever past goods there may be to God (on the assumption the creation’s past is past in some sense for God as well), God remains the goodness they were, and whatever good is to be redeemed for the created bearer of such goodness, God is always already the source and fullness of it. Hence, there can be no loss of experienced goodness for him whose necessary life is the fullness of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. In short, the passage of time (assuming for the moment some such passage for God) could mean nothing to the existential fullness or beatitude of God’s being. Here I don’t mind Boethius’ phrase: “Eternity is the simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life” by which all I would mean is a fullness of life which is not a temporal achievement. That is, I wouldn’t historicize the fullness of God’s triune being as if that fullness is ‘temporally derived’. That just seems to follow from necessary existence.

I also don’t see how God could relate to time (as we must) as an ontological presupposition for his existence. Indeed, I don’t see how in the case of necessary existence there can be any ontological presuppositions at all. God’s existence doesn’t require time as we do. God is the presupposition for all else. So I’m happy to say God transcends time in this sense.

I don’t know this with any certainty, but I suspect that if just this much were contemplatively engaged by open theists, they might have built more bridges and be enjoying fruitful conversation with folks on the Orthodox side of things. And let me just say that if there’s any desire to employ ‘timeless’ language apophatically to prevent uncritical, crude, or extravagant projections onto God of whatever we find to be the case with our own existence, to encourage us to a greater humility and epistemic reservation—count me in.

That said, however, I disagree that any of this implies that God is actus purus (pure act) in the classical sense, i.e., absolutely void of all potential. Obviously it would rule out the potential of aesthetic or existential improvement achieved or derived temporally. God’s self-constituting beatitude as such is infinite and unsurpassable. But it doesn’t follow so far as I can tell that this implies God cannot be a subject of temporal experience in ways that are not self-constituting (but which are, for example, contingently self-expressive).

How then might we say God is temporal (in a qualified sense that doesn’t hold him to “becoming” in any of the objectionable ways referred to above)? One simple way we might begin thinking of God as temporal would be to consider what it means to say God knows (indeed, God sustains) the distinction between possibility and actuality within creation. How would a God who is pure actuality (in whom there is no potentiality even in states of knowledge) know when something merely possible becomes actual? And wouldn’t knowing things in their temporal becoming at least suggest a temporal knowing? On the assumption that the world’s temporal becoming is real (in an A-Series sense), the distinction between merely possible-Tom and actual-Tom would be objective. Surely an omniscient God would know the difference between the two. But while the former (possible-Tom) can arguably be said to be eternal (as a possibility grounded in and always known by God), the latter cannot be said to be so. Actual-Tom is an irreducibly temporal actuality. How is God’s knowledge ‘that Tom is actual’ eternal? I don’t want to suggest that just because I don’t get it, it can’t be true, but to suggest that contingencies which “become actual” are eternally known to God “as actual” (i.e., God does not “come to know” as they “come to be”) is, as far as I can tell, just self-contradictory. And I further suspect this is not the sort of apophatic mystery that God’s being uncreated and necessary asks us to embrace.

Why cannot God experience changing states of knowledge of contingent events and truths without jeopardizing his self-constituting perfections and fullness? This is not to make God an ‘item’ within the inventory of created things, to uncritically project anthropomorphism onto God or to trap God “within time” (any more than it is to trap God “outside of time” by denying his temporal experience of the world). It is simply to say that the truth of the world’s non-eternal/temporal actualities are known to God in their non-eternal/temporal truth. Things don’t become other than they are just because God is the one knowing them.

(Picture here).

11 comments on “It’s that time again

  1. Great stuff. I’ve wanted to say myself what you said in the last [two] paragraphs. Open Theists need to do more exploring of OTs relationship to closely related ideas, like you do here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. malcolmsnotes says:

    It seems to me any account of God and creation that upholds the true distinction between the creature and the creator must posit some act of divine self-limitation on the part of God. The eternalist position, in which God is eternally beholding all moments of time “at once,” is to me incoherent. You can imagine a God who SEES all moments of time at once, but this God can’t INTERACT with what he sees, since that would require “waiting” on his free creation, if such a creation is free within time. On the other hand you can imagine an eternal God unilaterally DETERMINING all moments of time, but this, of course, destroys the freedom of the creation. So the two realities – an eternal God and a temporal creation – cannot be explained by a timeless God.

    However, if we say that God is changeless/eternal before creation and changing/temporal since creation, and if we say that this “change in being” in God was brought about by God’s own act of self-limitation, then I see no such contradiction involved. Yes – God’s knowledge changes: he goes from knowing only his own being to knowing his own being PLUS created beings. But this change is only “allowed” because God has subjected part of his being (his knowledge) such that what it is depends on what his free creation does.

    The key, I think, is to uphold the idea that God is not NECESSARILY “trapped” by time or moved along its flow against his will. But rather by a free act of his own he has subjected himself – he has made himself vulnerable ontologically – to what his creation does. Someone who is sitting comfortably by the fire may choose, if he so wills, to step outside into the snowstorm and thus lose his present comfort, for example. Perhaps God has made himself vulnerable in such a way? (It is also interesting to ask whether God really “knew” the full experiential potential in creating a world with evil. After all, prior to creation itself existing WHERE would God have known evil? Certainly not in his own nature.)

    The next question then obviously is “how vulnerable is God?” Does he “suffer” in his Godhead? And what does that even mean? I.e. if God has a single consciousness, or locus, focal awareness, how does he experience his relation to all the INDIVIDUAL consciousnesses of his creatures? All good questions.


    • Tom says:

      Yes, all good questions! How good must the answers be when they finally show up?! ;o)

      Thanks Malcolm. I’m very uncomfortable with eternalism as well (at least as I understand it).



  3. Tom Torbeyns says:

    Actually the Bible teaches that God ages in the Psalms if I’m not mistaken and He is called the Ancient of Days 🙂


  4. Tom Torbeyns says:

    “but to suggest that contingencies which “become actual” are eternally known to God “as actual” (i.e., God does not “come to know” as they “come to be”) is, as far as I can tell, just self-contradictory”. Why? 🙂


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