God always the same


Aidan Nichols, O.P. has the wonderful ability to condense the complex works of brilliant thinkers into simpler terms that make those works accessible to non-experts like me. Besides his primer on Bulgakov from which I quote below, Nichols has similar introductions on von Balthasar, Aquinas, Pope Benedict (to name a few) as well as primers on the Catholic Church, the Byzantine Church, Anglicanism, and other helpful guides. Thank God for original, pioneering thinkers who stretch tradition in new ways, but thank God also for gifted people who can re-present that thinking in more accessible terms for the rest of us.

In light of conversations about God and time we’ve been enjoying, I wanted to share a passage from Nichols’ primer on Bulgakov. Bulgakov (1871-1944) was a brilliant Orthodox priest-scholar whose career began in Russia and, after a short stint in Prague, ended in Paris. Anathematized by some Orthodox and tolerated by others, Bulgakov continues to be a controversial figure within Orthodox circles. Some offer high praise of aspects of his work. David Bentley Hart, for example, praises the Christoloy of The Lamb of God as “the most remarkable and impressive work of Christology produced in the twentieth century.” I think of Bulgakov as an example of the kind of synthesis Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) recommended when he wrote:

Orthodox theology must keep its patristic foundation, but it must also go ‘beyond’ the Fathers if it is to respond to a new situation created by centuries of philosophical development. And in this new synthesis or reconstruction, the Western philosophical tradition…rather than the Hellenic, must supply theology with its conceptual framework. An attempt is thus made to ‘transpose’ theology into a new ‘key’….

Among Bulgakov’s more controversial speculations are his thoughts on God and time. Consider this Nichols passage (from his primer):

Eternity and time
Time is not of course eternity. In one sense, it is opposed to eternity, and this is how we commonly think of it. But in another sense time is put in place by eternity, has eternity as its foundation and its final cause, the goal to which it is moving. And in this second sense, time only has coherence because it reflects eternity. Bulgakov compares it to a mosaic, where individual moments are like so many individual pieces of coloured glass that, taken together, nonetheless make up a whole. It becomes easier to grasp this this is we realize that what we are talking about is creaturely wisdom—which is in time—on the one hand, and divine Wisdom—which is eternal—on the other. Time is full of eternity, and tends to approach eternity while never becoming eternity, precisely because these two wisdoms are one. They have one content.

Of the two, however, only divine Wisdom exists in God. Shall we say, then, that for God time has no reality, that he is not engaged with temporal realities as such? Is it true to say that for God only eternity exists? Bulgakov answers with a resounding ‘No’.

The entire Christian religion presupposes for its truth-value the reality of time not only for the world but also for God, and the one conditions the other.

To treat God’s relations with the temporal as merely a human way of speaking would be to “shake the entire content of our faith.” It would mean transforming the biblical God, the “Creator, all-might, living, merciful, saving,” into the “immobile Absolute of Hinduism in which all concrete being is snuffed out and the whole world becomes illusion.” It would make nonsense of the Incarnation where earthly events happen to One who was God. But what about the way that Scripture and the doctrinal tradition speak of God’s immutability, his unchangingness? Bulgakov replies by drawing a distinction which we also find in such modern Western Catholic theologians as the German Jesuit Karl Rahner (1904-1984). He [Bulgakov, not Rahner] distinguishes between God as he who is changeless in himself, in eternity, and he who can be involved in change in another, in time. He writes:

In himself, God is eternal by virtue of the divine everlastingness, the plenitude of his life, by virtue of immutability, and total happiness. In himself, God is eternal by virtue of the divine everlastingness of his tri-personhood which is the eternal act of love of the Three in their reciprocal relations.

That is certainly a plain statement. But there is another side to the question which also requires stating. Bulgakov says:

God is also the Creator, creating life outside himself and himself living there outside himself. The reality of this world is determined by God. The reality of this world is determined by God. The reality of the time of this world is also valid therefore for God, since it is his own work, and, taken as a whole, his own ‘placing’ of himself. Going out of himself in the kenosis of the creation of the world, the love of God puts time in position even for God himself. It brings it about that God also lives in history and shares in this sense in the world’s becoming, for the sake of the world.

…Bulgakov emphasizes that in no way does the Creator’s relation with time in the creation lessen or limit his eternity. Temporality—the time dimension—is on a different ontological level from eternity, so the two are not in any kind of conflict. Time has its roots in eternity, is nourished by eternity, and penetrated by it.


I’m no Bulgakov expert, but some who know him well agree that his position on the qualified sense in which God experiences and knows the temporal world is not merely a restatement or re-presentation of traditional Orthodox views. That is, Bulgakov makes novel and controversial claims about God and time. Personally, I think there is room here for the sort of qualified sense in which I think we can say God ‘temporally’ knows and experiences the world. And though I want to spend more time in Bulgakov before resolving on a firm opinion, I suspect I could agree to what Bulgakov is here describing. For example, I recently speculated with a friend:

There is neither ‘past’ nor ‘future’ to the Father’s begetting of the Son and the Spirit’s proceeding. It cannot “take time” for God to be the triune, self-existent, God. And without such a past and future, there can be no corresponding ‘present’ if by present we mean the metaphysical sibling of the sort of past and future just ruled out, an instant where the past as ‘what was’ and the future as ‘what might be’ meet and dialectically constitute God’s being as ever-becoming. With respect to God’s self-existent trine reality and beatitude, I don’t see how there can be beginning, end, or succession in God.

And I earlier suggested:

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 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 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. (emphasis mine)

Or again, more explicitly:

What would ‘past’ and ‘future’ be for [God] whose very existence is satisfied in every self-constituting way? The ‘past’ couldn’t be remembered with any sense of regret, longing, or pinning for what was or what might have been. The past would cast no shadow upon the present by suggesting a correction or alternative to it that would increase God…Likewise the future could not interpose itself into the satisfaction of the present by casting upon its bliss any expectation or desire for a satisfaction not present. The future (so far as it might be conceived in the present) would be entirely the product of present bliss, a realm of possibilities that express (but do not constitute an improvement upon) the present. (my emphasis)


daliThis all agrees, it seems to me, with Bulgakov’s concern that time not “lessen or limit his eternity.” God’s “eternity,” as Bulgakov describes it, is God’s self-constituting fullness. That fullness has neither beginning, end, nor succession. I not only have no problem (as one who advocates the ‘open view’) affirming this, I view it as essential. My problem is with thinking this precludes there being succession in God’s knowledge and experience of that which does not constitute God in this essential way, that all the world’s temporal realities are, in their actuality, eternally-immutably known by God. I think Bulgakov saw this problem as well and attempted to stretch our thinking in this regard. I could be wrong, but I don’t know how else to take his statements in this regard in The Bride of the Lamb.

Denys Turner suggests that our understanding of God can’t be reduced to the scope of the contradiction held out to us in the either/or of conventional ‘temporal’ vs ‘atemporal’ options. Both terms (David Bradshaw suggests) should reveal God, say something truthful about God, without either negating the other. An analogy of this, as I recently shared, is Moses’ encounter with God in the Burning Bush. We have established understanding of both ‘fire’ and ‘bush’. We know what they are and what the do. We know that fire depends upon what it consumes for fuel. We know that bushes are consumed by fire. But we have no concept of ‘fire’ or ‘bush’ or the possibilities of their meeting that explains bushes on fire without being consumed. And yet there before us is the burning bush.

Now, some Orthodox urge such transcendence upon me as a reason to hold that God cannot change in his knowledge of and relationship to the changing world. They might take the ‘burning bush’ to be the analogical equivalent to God eternally-immutably knowing the world’s actualities in their temporal, free, self-determined becoming. As far as I can tell, this is indistinguishable from the sort of negating ‘timelessness’ one gets with the either/or option thinking. But why should transcendence not as obviously incline us to suppose God may change in his knowledge of and relationship to the world without compromising his essential, immutable beatitude and triune identity? That is, we are not only to suppose God is not reduced to the world; we also suppose that the world is not reduced to God; nor that God’s knowledge of and intimacy to the world undermines the world’s becoming. It seems to me that to think that any change in God’s knowledge of the changing world would turn God into a temporal, finite ‘being among beings’ is perhaps to forget that God is transcendent; i.e., perhaps transcendence can embrace such change without undermining God’s ‘eternity’ (as triune fullness of beatitude).

Motivation for creation


Nobody emphasizes the doctrine of ‘creation from nothing’ (creatio ex nihilo) more passionately than the Orthodox. However, while exploring this beautiful and frustrating doctrine through reading and in conversation with Orthodox friends, I have moments of confusion about the consistency with which they articulate the position.

One of the best pieces I read last year was David Bentley Hart’s Notre Dame (July, 2015) paper “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of the creation ex nihilho [sic].” Getting into his introduction, Hart says:

“…while one has to avoid the pathetic anthropomorphism of imagining God’s decision to create as an arbitrary choice made after a deliberation among options, one still has to affirm that it’s free; that creation can add nothing to God, that God’s being is not dependent upon the world, and that the only necessity in the divine act of creation is in the impossibility of any hindrance upon the ability of God’s expression of his goodness.”

Everything but that God is actually free to refrain from creating. I may be nit-picking, sorry. I’ve expressed my concerns over how it is to be consistently maintained that God’s determination to create is both free and an eternal and unchanging aspect of his nature. Today I had one of those moments of confusion while reading Fr Aidan Nichols (Wisdom from Above: A Primer in the Theology of Father Sergei Bulgakov, pp. 33f) on Bulgakov’s view of God’s “motivation to create.” Nichols summarizes:

“Bulgakov begins his account by pointing out that the God who creates from nothing does not do so because he needs the world – meaning by that, through some hypostatic or natural necessity to complete himself in thus creating. God does not need the world in order to be the Trinity. He does not need the world in order to be divine. As we have seen, he is already the fullness of personhood by being the tri-hypostatic God who in his existence as Father, Son and Holy Spirit exhausts all the modes of personhood there are – I, thou, he, we, you. And in his divine nature he is already plenitude, than which nothing greater is possible. No, the world issues from God’s creative freedom.”

So far so good. Nichols continues:

“This said, however, Bulgakov is very keen to emphasize that the world’s creation was in no sense an arbitrary act, the result of a vast divine caprice. The creation is not just a manifestation of God’s power. He calls such an idea blasphemous, an impiety. And the reason is that the God who in no ordinary sense needed the world still in his love longed for it, desired to bring it about from nothing. Here the love of God is the key.”

Not arbitrary. Not the result of caprice. Not just a manifestation of power. No complaint here. Even “longed for and desired,” yes. At this point, however, a slight transition is made to a more positive articulation of God’s motivation to create. Nichol’s quotes Bulgakov (Lamb of God) directly:

“God is love and it is the property of love to love, and to enlarge oneself by love. It is proper to the divine love not only to realise itself within the limits of divinity but to overflow those limits … It is proper to the ocean of divine love to spread beyond its shores….”

This becomes for Bulgakov the motivation in God for creation, that which makes it not arbitrary. The problem, of course, is that God’s being “free” in creating presumably means that it is as proper for God not to create as it is proper that he create. So arguing for a divine motivation to create from its being proper to God’s loving nature is problematic. Otherwise we are in the very difficult position of asserting God’s freedom to do what is not proper to him, i.e., refrain from creating. As it stands, the Bulgakov quote could be construed in Process terms, which I’m guessing the Orthodox don’t want to do. And while it is indeed “the property of love to love,” Bulgakov has already insisted that all the ‘proper’ modes of love are fulfilled in the plenitude of the divine relations. So in grounding God’s creating over not creating in what is proper to his nature as love, Bulgakov implicitly renders the notion of God’s not creating improper, and that’s a problem.

I’m coming to see the Orthodox position on God’s “freedom from creation” as God’s freedom merely from any external constraint of necessity preventing God from doing what God wants. But this is perfectly consistent with a Process view of God and creation as necessarily related where the necessity is construed as the inherent necessity of God’s being as love and not as an outward compulsion. Tom Oord claims that much. But surely the Orthodox want to say something more about God that Process theologians would disagree with, namely, that God’s freedom is a freedom from an internal disposition or orientation of nature that makes creating any more proper than not creating.

But the passage isn’t done. Immediately after the above quote from Bulgakov, Nichols continues:

“Granted the possibility of creation, the divine love by its own inner character must take up that possibility. God’s ‘insatiable’ love moves him to go out of himself, to love elsewhere than himself, to love beyond himself, in the world. So there is a sense in which God ‘had to’ create, after all. But this is an altogether sui generis kind of necessity and freedom.” (emphasis mine)


Sui generis. It’s hard to argue against someone’s position when what they say about God appeals for its intelligibility to the terms applying sui generis. I suppose one could push back here and posit the sort of libertarian choice Hart feels is a “pathetic anthropomorphism” and then save the notion by qualifying it as a sui generis kind of libertarianism, a sui generis kind of deliberation, a sui generis kind of power to the contrary, etc.

Let me finish with Nichols’ summary of Bulgakov at this point:

“The ‘necessity’ of love is really, writes Bulgakov, a ‘fusion of necessity and freedom’. The Absolute need have no relations. But in fact as we know from revelation, the Absolute is God. And God can only be understood not in himself alone, but in his relation with the world as well. If God were simply the Absolute all our theology would be negative theology, saying what God is not. But God is not just the Absolute. He is God, related by his love to the world. And so our theology can be affirmative theology, saying what God is. God is the Absolute who is also the relative or relational, and this makes him a mystery of whom we can only speak in apparent contradictions, statements with two sides either of which, if pressed to its conclusion, would tend to contradict the other. For Bulgakov the most important of these ‘antinomies’ or seeming contradictions is found in the very statement of what the word ‘God’ means. It means ‘the Absolute existing for another: existing for the world’.”

I’m both inspired and troubled.

Prayer: Needing nothing, you create me. Wanting nothing, you desire me. Full beyond measure, you pursue me. Absolute, you invite me into relationship, that you may be all in all. Be all in all in me today.

Creatio ex nihilo

“Creation out of nothing.” I love this doctrine and I think the hope of the gospel requires it, for the gratuity of creation is the grace of the gospel. But, as we’ve argued here a lot, you only get that kind of absolute gratuity (and grace) if God is, correspondingly, absolutely full. So far so good.

But we also think this is true only because the corresponding divine fullness is a concrete, lived, experienced fullness, an existential fullness (to use what words we have). That is, what grounds creation’s gratuity is what God actually is apart from creation (or any determination to create). But such an actuality is ruled out by Protestants and classical theists for whom God isn’t actually anything apart from creating because there is no actual God who has not determined to create. On the Orthodox side this is gotten at by viewing God as absolutely, timelessly immutable (in terms of God’s being actus purus or ‘pure act’). But in this case the freedom and fullness of God’s life independent of creation (which actual freedom ought to ground creation’s own freedom) reduces to mere abstraction. And that’s the problem, because no abstraction has the power to save. On the Protestant side this is gotten at (variously by Jenson or some readings of Barth’s actualism) by barring the door to speculating what God is or isn’t independent of his determination to create.

In making God absolutely timeless and immutable, everything that is ever true of God in relationship to creation is timelessly/eternally true of God, and everything God ever experiences in relationship to creation is timelessly/eternally known to (and thus experienced by) God, in which case God has no experience of himself that doesn’t include us (via his determination to create). For us this poses a real problem, because it forces us (to borrow a phrase from Robert Jenson, though not to engage his related arguments for the same conclusion) to “perform an abstraction upon the living/biblical God.” Jenson doesn’t perform the abstraction. For us, however, the grace of the gospel just is the concrete, lived/experienced fullness of God’s triune being as God, and this grace (in turn) is grounded in the gratuity of creation, which is what CEN is about. But this life is never an actuality for God classically understood, nor as understood by many Protestants who reject classical metaphysics, because in either case God never knows himself without knowing himself as the God determined to create. God has no knowledge of himself, no actual experience of himself as God, in terms of any concrete freedom from the determination to create (which determination is one and the same with creation’s ‘actual being’). In classical theism, the wonderful truth of ‘divine aseity’ (understood as the fullness of God’s triune life sans creation) thus reduces to mere abstraction. There’s no ‘actual’ God who is ever free ‘in his actuality’ from the determination to create. God doesn’t know what it’s like to be God apart from having determined to create. We think this is bad news precisely because it offers us a God who has no experience of being actually free and infinitely full apart from being determined to create us. And what he is not he cannot offer.

One last thought. David Hart (representing the Orthodox tradition) rejects understanding God’s freedom from creation in any crude libertarian manner, conceived as God being free to choose from among a menu of “possible words” given to him. But whatever crudeness needs to be avoided can be avoided without depriving God’s self-sufficient fullness of its actuality as ground of the gratuity of creation and the grace of the gospel. If we need to, let’s not suppose there to be an infinite number of ‘possible worlds’ that God deliberates over to finally settle on this world. Let this world, or the initial created state from which this world evolves, be the only contingent creation conceivable. Fine. Just conceive this one possibility as contingent, grounded in the fullness of God’s life as actual apart from any determination to create. This is no abstraction performed upon the living God. It is the truth of God’s actual freedom and our freedom in God.

(Picture here.)

Naming God

7burning bushI’m always intrigued by readings of Exodus 3 that see the divine name “I am” as revealing God to be timeless. God, so I’m told, didn’t reveal himself as “I was” or “I will be.” He is the “I am,” meaning, among other things, the timeless One. That God is self-existent can’t be reasonably doubted. That God is the source, ground and sustainer of all things is, also, just the Christian view of things. But that Scripture offers us a ‘timeless’ God seems much less certain. That said, I’d like to offer a couple of comments on Ex 3.

You know the context. Moses. Burning bush. God commissions Moses to return to Egypt. Moses is disinclined to accept the job offer. He wants to know who he’s working for, so he asks (Ex 3.13-15):

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you’. Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you’. This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.”

Precisely what does the name “I am” tell us about God? What’s it tell us about God that he gives himself to us to be named? And what specifically is revealed about God in his answer (“I am”)? I confess I simply don’t see what exegetical or other contextual clues the Orthodox and other advocates of divine timelessness see here that convince them we here have the timelessness of God being revealed in the name “I am.”

Moses: “If they ask me ‘What is his name?’ what shall I tell them?”
God: Tell them, “I’m timeless” sent you.
Moses: “What?”

I don’t see it. And contextually I don’t know how others see it. It looks like a classic case of eisogesis, but I could be wrong. In one recent conversation it was suggested that Ex 3.14 settles the question of the temporal status of God’s existence (as timeless) since God is always “I am” (never “I was” or “I shall be”). And this is bolstered by Ex 3.15’s “…this is my name ‘forever’ (the Hebrew supposedly implying timeless eternity). The logic escapes me, that is, if we’re just attempting at this point to understand the text on its own terms. “I am” is as ‘temporal’ as “I was” and “I will be.” The Hebrews ‘olam’ doesn’t inherently imply timeless eternity. Things that come into being and pass out of being are called ‘olam’.

Why couldn’t a (qualifiedly) temporal God always be “I am”? And what of Rev. 1.8’s “the one who is [“ho on”], who was, and who is to come.” I’m told this is easily reconciled to divine timelessness because in context, Ex 3 is describing God’s being as God (and thus timeless), while in Rev 1 we have Jesus who is God in his incarnate (and thus temporal) state as the subject of “is, was, is to come.”

I still don’t see it. I can see how somebody already committed to the belief that God is timeless can construe these passages to confirm a view they already hold. But to argue these passages inform such a belief? That’s my struggle.

However, it doesn’t seem a stretch to me to read Ex 3 as having nothing whatsoever to do with an ontology of time or the temporal status of God’s being/existence per se. Indeed, it’s hard to see how the ‘timeless’ interpretation of the name “I am” would be a relevant piece of information to share with Moses and Israel given their context. Names in ancient Israel weren’t just place-holders or means of commanding someone’s attention. I’m “Tom” because that’s just what you ‘say’ when you want to get my attention. In English that’s all names are. We don’t really invest names with any significance beyond that minimal utility.

In ancient Israel a name was more than just a thing to say to get somebody’s attention (though undoubtedly in non-religious contexts names take on that function too). And when it came to God, names were all the more important. But what’s evident from looking at the names themselves is that they describe an event or an experience that reveals who God is and what his character and intentions are. The divine names name a place and a time where God acted on someone’s behalf. It makes perfect contextual sense to read “I am” simply as God declaring this truth about himself, namely (no pun intended): God gives himself to us to be named as the one who is _______, and the blank is God’s invitation (and promise) to discover him in the specific terms of our finite needs. This truth stands behind a dozen or so extensions of the name in such terms: Jehovah-Heals, Jehovah-Hears, Jehovah-Sees, Jehovah-Justifies, Jehovah-Provides, Jehovah-Defends Us, Jehovah-Our Banner. These all describe our experience of God.

One can go through the “Jehovah-Present-tense verb” names and discover who God is and what kind of God God is. The names of God name the place and conditions upon which God is experienced. That makes sense of the function of names in Israel’s ancient Semitic culture and the more specific context of Moses’s question and Israel’s needs. But the divine names also reveal us within that relationship. When we learn something about God we see the truth about ourselves. When we get clear on who he is, we see ourselves in proper perspective. If God is Jehovah-Provides, for example, what’s that make me? It makes me dependent upon him, in need of him. I come to see the truth of my finitude and need. If God’s name is Jehovah-Sees, what’s that make us? It means we are not alone. We are known to God. We’re not abandoned, not forsaken.

Another interesting way to approach the “I am” of Ex 3 is to consider the religious Canaanite and Egyptian context. It helps us understand why Moses even asks God what his name is. The Canaanites had Anat (virgin goddess of war), Dagon (god of crop fertility), Molech (god of fire), Resheph (god of plagues/healing), Baal-Haddad (storm god), and a dozen others, including El (the most high god) who is shared by Israel. The same thing can be said for the Egyptian gods. The function of naming among pagans identified finite deities with limited responsibilities within the cosmos. You might say pagan deities derived their identities from the cosmos through their roles in maintaining it. This undoubtedly lies behind Moses’ question. “What’s your name?” essentially means “Which god are you? Where do you fit in the scale of deities? What’s your rank? Which part of the cycle of life and death are you responsible for?” That, I suggest, is what’s going on in Ex 3, and it has nothing to do with speculations about God and time. “I am that I am” is well-suited as an answer to Moses’ question as revealing the categorical difference between the One who is addressing Moses and all the other pagan deities. That difference isn’t that they’re all temporal while this One is timeless. What is Moses supposed to do with that? But there’s great benefit in being told that this One does not derive his identity from any earthly function, or even all of them together, that this One isn’t to be found in a police-like line-up of local deities who just are their relationship with the world’s cycle of seasons, births, deaths, marriages, fertility, etc. Unlike these deities, this One’s identity is not reducible to a function within the finitude of the world. That, I suggest, is grounds for a covenant relationship to build a nation upon. But “I’m timeless”?

I’m suggesting that in Ex 3 God grounds future covenant with Israel by stepping out and away from membership in the rank and file deities of Canaan and Egypt and how people related to deity per se. God (“I am that I am”) names the place and time where he is experienced and worshiped and is categorically unique in possessing the fullness and freedom of his own existence and identity in himself, not deriving from nor reduced to any function within the cosmos—unlike the competition. But none of this says anything about time.

But if the covenant name of God just means “I’m timeless,” I don’t see any easy way to connect this meaning to how the name is actually used in Scripture to describe God acting in concrete ways to speak, call, heal, save, etc. I don’t doubt that advocates of divine timeless believe God acts on our behalf. I’m saying I can’t see the logic that requires us to understand the name as asserting ‘timeless existence’ to get into the concrete world of the names.

(Picture here.)

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).

God at War in Ithilien, Part 1

sistine-chapelLove the name of Edwin Tait’s blog. Isn’t Ithilien a province within the Kingdom of Gondor? Some hidden meaning there I’m guessing. If you understand it, do tell.

As we said, Tait is in a series on Greg’s warfare worldview which we won’t be able to avoid engaging, not because of any misunderstanding on Tait’s part. His review is spot on. Our issues are with the substance of Greg’s proposals. What we’d like to do is offer a few comments on Tait’s posts. If you haven’t read through them, we encourage you to do so. I think the way Tait is attracted to a consideration of open theism through Greg’s warfare worldview as opposed to John Sanders’ emphasis upon divine relationality or Bill Hasker’s philosophical/logical arguments is very interesting. He makes great points about a proposal which, he agrees, deserved more debate than it received. We totally agree. What’s surprising is that while Greg’s warfare worldview initially appealed to Tait over against Sanders’ or Hasker’s different approaches, the deeper metaphysical underpinnings of Greg’s cosmology (not the more benign claim that there are malevolent beings who oppose God’s purposes on earth, something we agree with) are, we think, completely unworkable. We’re grateful for Tait’s series because it’s a perfect meeting place to explore the strengths and weakness of Greg’s cosmology.

I love Tait’s clear and concise style. To the point and doesn’t miss anything. He doesn’t get into the ‘warfare worldview’ specifically until Part 2. His opening post is more about defining open theism and explaining why Greg’s warfare worldview is for Tait a better starting point that Sanders’ divine relationality and Hasker’s logical coherence as. He gets into summarizing the warfare worldview in his Posts 2 and 3 about which we’ll have something to say in an upcoming post.

Tait begins by summarizing:

“Open theism is the view that God does not know future free actions with certainty. God knows everything that exists, but the future does not exist yet, so God only knows the future insofar as it follows necessarily from what exists already.”

This is fair enough, though a few important qualifications might be helpful. From the beginning of his involvement in the open theism debate, Greg preferred to describe God’s knowledge of the future in positive terms as what God knows, not negatively in terms of what God doesn’t know. (Though the latter expression is found, it’s not where or how the chief argument is made.) The positive mode of expressing things far better isolates the issues, because as soon as you say the words “God doesn’t know ____” it doesn’t much matter what you follow with. Many minds will start shutting down. Why? Because there’s nothing that God doesn’t know. His knowledge is limitless, infinite, etc. Of course, upon further inspection what this means is there’s nothing which is the case, nothing that is true which God doesn’t know to be the case or know to be true, etc. But the open view of the future has no problem agreeing with this. And stating things positively in terms of what God knows helps expose the relevant question which is ‘What is the temporal nature of the created order and its truth?’ and not ‘Are there ‘things’ God doesn’t know?’ We’re not saying Tait doesn’t see this. We just want to emphasize the point.

Secondly (and Tait acknowledges this in a subsequent post), the open theist affirms God knows all possibilities and probabilities. I meet non-open theists who agree. This is good news because again it encourages us to describe God’s knowledge of the world in terms of the nature of the things known and not just as something God doesn’t know. However, to agree that God knows the relevant probabilities of what might/might not be is just to affirm something about the open nature of the future and to invite further questions regarding the temporal status of God’s knowing the temporal world. Perhaps a better way to begin to define the open view of the future would be to state positively the open/indeterminate nature of the world’s temporal becoming, then to affirm God’s perfect knowledge of it, and only lastly to explore what God would then know (and not know) about such a world.

Thirdly, as Tait points out, for the open view “time is a reality for God as well as for us, so that the future really is future for God.” This is a crucial point of difference with classical theists, and it would take more time than a closing paragraph here to explore the issues. Open theists, being presentists with respect to the ontology of time, have made this a central point, and so they must. For open theists, God isn’t absolutely timeless actus purus, timelessly knowing creation in all its temporal becoming in a single, timeless unchanging act of knowing, an act of knowing which is one with God’s own essential self-knowledge. There’s just no getting around the difference with classical theism on this point. However, open theists could have, and perhaps should have, explored the ways in which God — on the assumption that he knows the world in its actuality by experiencing it (don’t read a ton of anthropomorphic assumption into the word “experience”) in its actuality — remains unlike us, however his experience/knowledge of the world may rightly be said to be temporal. But this would require a richer appreciation of God’s transcendence of the world than open theists have thus sought. It’s still worth exploring. As we’ve suggested, we think it’s possible to affirm the essential divine freedom and triune fullness as well as creation’s absolute gratuity and the temporal nature of God’s experience of the world without historicizing that transcendent fullness by assuming God becomes God in all the objectionable ways process theology (on the one hand) and Jenson or McCormack (on the other) advocate.

(Picture here.)

Is actus purus believed in by the Orthodox?

DSC_3153 copy 2We’d like to describe what we feel are the main objections to the two defining claims of two contrary theistic worldviews we’ve introduced, “classical” theism’s defining and non-negotiable claim that God is actus purus (a God in whom there is no unfulfilled potential) and Process theism’s belief in a God who is, if we may coin the phrase, processu operis, a “work in process” (whose existence and perfections are constituted in and as the ever changing process of God’s ongoing relationship with the universe).

Before we jump into the objections of these two understandings of God, I want first to clarify our earlier question about whether the Orthodox affirm actus purus. It is after all a well-known axiom of scholastic (Western) theology embodied in Aquinas, and the Orthodox are on record as criticizing scholasticism in general and the failure of the West to make a key Orthodox distinction between God’s essence and his energies. Fr Aidan also earlier registered some reservation about our suggestion that the Orthodox believe in actus purus. So before we describe the objections to both ‘classical’ and ‘process’ views, we’d like to offer a clarification.

All we mean by actus purus is what we understand Orthodox theologian David Hart to refer to as the denial of all potentiality in God. If that’s not an Orthodox belief, that would be great news to us. Besides Hart, I also remember discussing this over lunch with Paul Gavrilyuk a couple of years ago. He had mentioned what a promising work he thought Richard Creel’s Divine Impassibility (1986) was. “But Creel is an open theist,” I thought to myself. So when I asked Paul about open theism and what the main Orthodox objection(s) to it would be, he slightly shook his head and said that it goes too far by placing God “in time,” and that this wasn’t compatible with Orthodoxy. I get this sort of reminder that the Orthodox do share the fundamental tenet of actus purus (viz., that there is no potentiality in God) even though they don’t use the phrase and can criticize what the West does with it. But we’re open to the Orthodox clarifying this for us.