God at War in Ithilien, Part 4

Following on our previous comments regarding time, we’ll draw our series on Tait’s review of Greg’s warfare theodicy to an end with two concluding comments. They have to do with (a) the supposed providential use of God’s (timeless) (fore)knowledge and (b) how we’re to understand providence in general.

The providential uselessness of simple foreknowledge
In his Post 5 on Greg’s open theism, Tait acknowledges the force of the argument Greg and other open theists make for the providential uselessness of simple foreknowledge (of the sort defended by David Hunt and Bruce Reichenbach). This view of foreknowledge claims God “simply” (i.e., without the complication of qualifications, exceptions, speculations, etc.) knows the future. Such knowledge would be of no providential use. Hunt attempts (unsuccessfully) to avoid this consequence. I won’t repeat the arguments here.

A view not (in our opinion) significantly different is divine timelessness (and so the timelessness of God’s knowing), the view Tait prefers. But the same criticism of simple foreknowledge applies. A timeless God, i.e., a God whose knowledge of the world is eternal/timeless, would of course be timelessly, not temporally, related to all created events in their actuality. Leaving aside the question of whether this is even coherent and the implications this might have for the question of the temporal nature of creation (A-Series vs B-Series, presentism vs a block universe), it nevertheless follows that timeless knowledge of created events is also providentially useless to God. A timeless God would be eternally and unchangingly present to all events within the created order. What could providentially be done on the basis of such knowledge which is not already timelessly known? To act “on the basis of” some knowledge is to act in an “informed” way. But this presupposes an order in knowing and acting precluded by timeless existence. All events in creation would be (if I could risk using the word) simultaneously present to God and by definition already the result of whatever God did or didn’t do to prevent or bring them about.

One Orthodox attempt to defend the providential use of such timeless knowledge is Gregory of Nyssa’s On Infants’ Early Deaths in which Gregory argues that infants who die are brought to death by divine mercy based on God’s (timeless) (fore)knowledge of the great evil these infants commit in adulthood. So (and the “so” is important; it expresses the sense in which Gregory holds God’s foreknowledge of their evils to inform his providential choice to foreclose upon these infants reaching adulthood) God determines to prevent their actualizing such evil. Don’t rush by Gregory’s arguments. Let them soak in.

Timeless knowledge of the world would already eternally be knowledge of a world in which the infants in question die (not live to do great evil). How is the death of infants the providential outcomes of God acting in response to foreknown evil those same infants do in adulthood? In what world do they commit their evils? A Molinist might be interested in exploring Gregory’s proposal, but it doesn’t seem compatible with timeless knowledge.

However, Fr Aidan and I were chatting about this recently, and he brought up a point he makes via McCabe re: God and time. The point is that divine transcendence of the world means that God transcends both contradictory positions—temporality and atemporality. To say God is ‘timeless’ (used apophatically) is just a way to say, “Look, God’s reality can’t be reduced to these contradictory positions, as if God is either one or the other.” So not only should we not conclude God is ‘temporal’, we ought also to avoid saying God is ‘timeless’. God transcends the contradiction; i.e., the reality we call ‘God’ isn’t reducible to a single option among contradictories within the scope of our categories.

We tried to explore this here, here and here.

I think there’s something importantly true in saying God isn’t exhausted by the truth of a single of contradictory options. At the same time, we’ve suggested that while this apophatic qualification may be true, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t cataphatic truths we ought to affirm and their contradictories we ought to deny. For example, cataphatically speaking “God exists” is true and “God does not exist” is false. But God, we’d like to say as well, transcends the disjunct. God’s existence isn’t just a grand instance of our existence, as if he is another being alongside all the other instances of being, just a very large and perfect occasion of it. But he also transcends the falsehood of “God does not exist” since the sense in which God doesn’t exist is not just another instance of the failure of some created being to exist.

I’ve wondered for some time whether this strategy wouldn’t apply equally to the sense in which we use temporal/atemporal language of God. That is, there is a truth to be affirmed cataphatically here which marks God’s positive reflection in the created order (e.g., “God is temporal”). And the contradictory of this (“God is timeless”) would in this sense be false. However, God isn’t an instance of temporal becoming in the way created entities have their being temporally. Nor is his ‘not being timeless’ just an instance of what atemporality is on our scale of being (which is what I tend to hear from advocates of divine timelessness). In this sense, God’s reality would transcend the disjunct between ‘temporal’ and ‘timeless’ by virtue of necessary being, infinite beatitude, etc.

So what about divine foreknowledge then? Well, if God is (qualifiedly) temporal he would relate to the world’s past as past and to its future as future—but not in anything like the derivative, dependent sense in which created things lose something of themselves to the past or in which they derive something of themselves in a future becoming. None of that kind of experience could be the case with God. And that’s different enough in my book to use these terms very carefully. But what typically happens is this apophatic qualified sense of temporal language gets used as a means of defending God’s eternal knowledge of all events within the temporal world. I see this as problematic. If it’s transcendence, why assume the knowledge of the world would be unchanging knowledge of the world’s actualities? Why should transcendence default to the assumption of timelessness? If God creates freely, and if the scope of all creaturely choice remains within the embrace of providence, and if there’s no providential advantage to be gained from simple or timeless knowledge, then there’s nothing a timeless God (traditionally conceived) can do that a qualifiedly temporal God cannot also do with respect to bringing about his final ends for creation.

If God truly foreknows future possibilities as possibilities, the sense in which this is different from our foreknowing is as important as is the sense in which it’s similar. Future possibilities aren’t apprehended by God via third party mediation (as with us). God is the sustaining ground of all possibility. God can foreknow creation’s possibilities by knowing himself. There’s no guess work per se. No unforeseen surprises. No shocks. God doesn’t “learn” truths he was formerly “ignorant” of. My point is, there are ways to articulate a temporal apprehension of the world’s actualities and becoming that don’t assume God is just another temporal item on the inventory of things that have their being temporally.

Providence as God-given desire
Over time I’ve been drawn to aspects of the Orthodox tradition. I’m still in process on a lot of things, but I tend presently to view providence first and fundamentally as the scope of possibilities for created beings established by our God-give, natural desire for the Good. That is, God can know that humanity will reach its end because the dispositional essence of human beings is irreducibly oriented in an appetite for the Good, even if only implicitly (as Hart describes). The same is true of Boyd’s metaphysics in Trinity & Process which we’ve discussed at great length on this site.

We suspect this can be integrated as well with Maximus’ own view of the logoi of created things (minus timeless actus purus of course). The logoi of created things can be viewed as God’s providential governance of creation. Providence, I’m suggesting, is hardwired into our dispositions (grounded in our logoi as divine subjective aims) by virtue of their aesthetic orientation. We may have freedom to contradict our telos on occasion. We do not have freedom to redefine our telos or dispose ourselves out of all possibility of achieving it. Ultimately, that’s the providence that matters, because it means nothing God creates and invites into union with himself can possibly find a permanent end anywhere else. There are no other teloi (ends) which created beings can land in irrevocably. That’s providence enough to guarantee the final end of things.

And as far as we may stray from God’s good intentions for us (from our logoi) we nevertheless remain in God, grounded in the inescapable gravity which both grants us a measure of say-so and defines itself into all our options. As David Bentley Hart says (“Providence and Causality: On Divine Innocence”), “Nothing the creature does exceeds those potentialities God has created….” We may contradict our dispositional essences on occasions or for a season. That essence is just the God-defined limits of desire which, like magnetic north, attract all things toward it—not with irresistibly Calvinistic force, but as the inescapable truth of our ground. True, there is more to discuss about God’s action within the world to prevent or bring about specific outcomes and that’s to be conceived alongside creaturely agency. For now, however, we thought the question of ultimate ends might provide a way to back into the question of more immediate actions.

(Picture here.)

9 comments on “God at War in Ithilien, Part 4

  1. Excellent discussion on God’s temporality. It’s a breath of fresh air to see it developed in the way you’re doing. My favorite blog yet.

    I’d love to see you outline the ways in which we lose parts of ourselves to the past and gain parts of ourselves in the future, and how it is that God doesn’t run into this.


    • tgbelt says:

      Jacob: I’d love to see you outline the ways in which we lose parts of ourselves to the past and gain parts of ourselves in the future, and how it is that God doesn’t run into this.

      Tom: So would I !


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Very interesting and provocative article, Tom. I don’t have the philosophical chops to engage you (wish I did). All I can say is that I do not know how one can make God temporal, in the sense that you want him to be (i.e., able to experience the future as future) without making him a being within the universe. That, of course, is precisely what God did in the Incarnation, but clearly that is insufficient for your purposes.

    I honestly do not see the evangelical need for what you call a “temporal apprehension of the world.” What is lost by sticking with an apophatic understanding of divine eternity?

    FYI, I believe that Sergius Bulgakov does in fact speak of divine temporality. See his Bride of the Lamb.


    • tgbelt says:

      I have BL by Bulgakov. I started it. It beat me up. I don’t have the theological chops you have to engage him (wish I did!). ;o)

      Have you read David Bradshaw’s “Divine Freedom: The Greek Fathers and the Modern Debate” (Philosophical Theology and the Christian Tradition: Russian and Western Perspectives, 77-92) and his “Time and Eternity in the Greek Fathers,” The Thomist 70 (2006), 311-66? They’re free on the web.


    • tgbelt says:

      Fr Aidan: I honestly do not see the evangelical need for what you call a “temporal apprehension of the world.” What is lost by sticking with an apophatic understanding of divine eternity?

      Tom: I was thinking of replying by saying, “Open theism IS the perfect blend of the cataphatic/apophatic. Just embrace the mystery!” But I guess not. ;o)

      To the extent that people believe God is unconditionally loving and good, and that they are (so far as they’re sane!) responsible for their choices and response to God’s offers, etc.—I totally agree. The fact that folks also believe God eternally knows the entirety of the creation’s timeline in every detail doesn’t matter. I mean, if it doesn’t matter to them, it doesn’t matter. They (classical theists on the Orthodox side of things—not Calvinists) are what I call ‘pre-recorded open theists’. We pretty much agree down the line (on God, benevolence, providence, agency, divine purpose for creation, etc.). But the classical theist believes everything about the history of the God-world relationship is eternally known in every detail to God. Another thinks God sustains the world’s becoming (and knows it as he sustains it, thus ‘open’ future) while knowing all the possible ways it could unfold. No big difference really. It’s just a matter of consistency for some. For those who do perceive a problem with timeless/traditional foreknowledge and who can’t chalk that particular tension up to mystery, I’m glad there’s an option they can embrace instead of bailing on either or both the universal benevolence of God or the free agency of human beings.

      In the end, the difference between, say, you and I, may be just the level of consistency vs tension/mystery we’re prepared to live with.



      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        TB: “But the classical theist believes everything about the history of the God-world relationship is eternally known in every detail to God.”

        Of course God knows every detail, Tom, because every detail is caused and conserved by God.

        Three days ago I pulled off the shelf of the oldest theological books that I own: He Who Is by E. L. Mascall. I thought of you when I came across this passage:

        “It has frequently been alleged that a radical omniscience on the part of God is incompatible with human freedom. If God knows to-day what I shall decide to do to-morrow, how can my choice be free? And if my choice is genuinely free, how can God know now what I am going to do? The controversies around these questions raised by the Molinist doctrine of scientia media must surely represent one of the most elaborate and unnecessary discussions in the history of philosophy. And if the questions are posed in these terms it seems impossible to give a satisfactory answer, for the simple reason that the very posing of the questions introduces an error into the discussion. For, if God’s existence is outside time, it is strictly meaningless to talk about what God knows to-day, since God’s “to-day” is eternity. It is true to-day that God know what I shall do to-morrow, but it is not true that God knows it to-day. And so the question falls to the ground.” (p. 119)


      • tgbelt says:

        Yes, God does know every detail of what he actually sustains/conserves. The question is, Does he know every detail of what he’s not actually sustaining/conserving as though he was actually sustaining/conserving it? God (arguably) isn’t eternally sustaining/conserving finite, temporal beings (though I suppose you’d have to say he is). But we (our temporal, actual selves) aren’t eternal. God sustains what actually is, true. Our actually existing just IS his sustaining/conserving us. But what of things that don’t exist (things whose existence God is not sustaining, which is why they don’t exist)? They might/might not come to be, and God certainly sustains both those possibilities, but that God eternally sustains the ‘actualities’ in question?

        Mascall! If he’s really right—dude, I’d rejoice. I mean if it’s true that free agency isn’t undermined by saying the truth about what that agency does is eternally known to God—then maybe that’s good news. I have a headache from this anyhow. But like Mascall says, to be true God would have to be “outside time.” Ouch.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I had to chuckle, Tom, with your first question about God and his sustaining of possibilities. Do I look like a metaphysician?! Go talk to David Hart. 🙂


  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Why the “ouch” regarding the claim that God transcends time (is “outside” of time)? Is this any different than saying that God transcends space (is “outside” space)? This “outside” allows him to be radically present and active “inside.”


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