Time Out, Time In: The Divine Transcendence of Time (Part 4)

Alarm clock on wooden table

This is the 4th and final Part of a series discussing God’s relationship to time. The question at hand is, “Is God inside of time, outside of time, or both?”

In Part 1, I introduced the topic and underscored its importance for Christian theology.

In Part 2, I looked at Wolterstorff’s Open Theism argument that suggests that God is inside of time, that is, God is everlasting. I concluded that this is least plausible among the three options.

In Part 3, I looked at Boethius’ traditional and widely held argument that suggests that God is outside of time, that is, God is timeless. I concluded that this too is quite implausible.

Now here in Part 4, I am putting forth my own new position – God is transcendent of time yet immanent in it – which sees this issue as both-and instead of either-or like the other two. 

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The Transcendent Argument: Why It Is Most Plausible

Now that I have shown how the arguments of Wolterstorff (God is everlasting/inside time) and Boethius (God is timeless/outside time) are quite implausible and that there is need for a new position, I will now put forth my own new argument that the biblical God both transcends time as its Creator, and yet still acts immanently within it. As one can infer, this view is somewhat a middle ground between Wolterstorff and Boethius’ arguments. So, let me now lay out my reasons for holding such a view of God’s relationship to time.

First, the transcendent view upholds the attributes of God as espoused by classical theologians such as the omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence of God. Concerning God’s omnipotence (all powerful), if he is all-powerful, then he must therefore have power over time, not being subjected to it. In addition, this would imply that God cannot be bound within the constraints of time and be fundamentally temporal as Wolterstorff purports. Furthermore, presupposing God’s omnipotence, his Lordship over time also leads one to believe that he is not finite, but rather infinite. It is the finite world that he created that is bound to temporality. But since he is infinite, he does not need time to exist and cannot fundamentally be temporal (although his actions in the world can be temporal). Thus, God’s transcendence of and actions in time aligns with his omnipotence.

With regard to God’s omniscience (all knowing), if he knows all things, how does one account for his relation to time? On the one hand, if one holds that God is fundamentally inside time and experiencing temporality moment by moment, then he could not know what the future holds and therefore not know all things. On the other hand, if one holds that God is outside of time, then it is possible for God to know the past, present, and future, thus knowing all things (particularly with regard to what transpires in the temporal world). In addition, if God transcends all things (including time), then it is therefore possible for him to know all things. Thus, God transcending time and acting in time aligns with God’s omniscience.

Regarding God’s omnipresence (all present), if he is present everywhere then that would include temporality and non-temporality, both in and outside of time. Thus, to put God strictly in one time-frame or another would contradict his omnipresence. God is present outside of time because he transcends it. Nevertheless, he is present inside of time because he interacts with the temporal world. In other words, if God is not in time, then he is not omnipresent and if God is not outside of time, then he is not omnipresent. Only the transcendent argument can account for God’s omnipresence.

All these things lead one to seek an alternative to the traditional views of God as either timeless or everlasting because these arguments have unfortunately fallen prey to the “either-or” fallacy. However, when accounting for the attributes of God, it seems clear that the issue is one of both-and rather than either-or, at least according to classical theology which rests upon a biblical theology. God transcends time and exists outside of it, yet he is present and interacts in the temporal universe which he created. Because of this, the transcendent argument is the most plausible resolution to the inquiry about God’s relationship to time.

POSSIBLE OBJECTIONS TO THE TRANSCENDENT ARGUMENT

            However, one may object to this view in that I have not used any Scripture to argue this position. In response, I would have used much Scripture to give evidence of the transcendent argument. The main reason I chose not to is because I am Bible scholar and would write a thirty page exegesis paper on each Bible passage I would use to support the claims that God is omnipotence, omniscient, and omnipresent, and that is not my purpose in the series. So, I have made use of widely accepted biblical doctrines concerning the attributes of God instead of providing exhaustive explanations of biblical texts. Overall, I believe these doctrines give sufficient evidence in and of themselves.

THE UPSHOTS OF THE TRANSCENDENT ARGUMENT

            In conclusion, one upshot of the transcendent argument is that one does not lose certain attributes of God which have been established throughout two millennia of church history at the expense of others, whereas the everlasting and timeless arguments do. In this regard, it seems to maintain the biblical view of God as the Creator (of time) who is infinitely not subject to time, yet chooses to interact with his creation within time. In addition, it refocuses the issue of God’s eternity off of an either-or scenario onto the possibility of both-and, thus avoiding the pitfall of ascribing God as only outside of time or only inside of time. Lastly, it implies that the transcendent God of the Bible deserves worship from his creatures because he is both transcendent and immanent; both beyond and near them. This mystery and paradox is one that we could happily meditate upon for the next two millennia to come.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Peterson, Michael, ed. Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings. 4th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Peterson, Michael, ed. Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. 4th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Wood, Laurence. God and History. Lexington: Emeth Press, 2005.

Time Out, Time In: The Divine Transcendence of Time (Part 2)

Alarm clock on wooden table

Wolterstorff’s Everlasting Argument: Why It Is Least Plausible

            In the 20th century, Nicholas Wolterstorff argued a different view from that of classical theologians concerning the eternity of God. He purported that God’s relationship to time and eternity should be understood as everlasting rather than timeless, that is, that God lives within rather than outside of time. Throughout his work God and the Good, Wolterstorff states his primary point and conclusion several times, namely, that God’s “own life and existence is temporal.”[1] While his work has several strengths to it such as (1) a critique of early Christian theologians relying too heavily upon Greek philosophy, (2) noting that God indeed does act in human history, (3) attempted fidelity to the Bible, (4) excellent biblical exegesis, (5) interaction with possible objections to his view, (6) unveiling the classic timeless view of God as “an impassive factor in reality” rather than an actively involved God in human affairs, and (7) recognizing that change in human history does not necessarily mean a change in God, Wolterstorff’s argument and logic has several problems.

First, his whole argument rests upon the assumption that if God is a redeeming God as the Bible portrays him to be, he therefore must be temporal because a redeeming God changes. He states, “If we shall accept this picture of God as acting for the renewal of human life, we must conceive of him as everlasting rather than eternal [timeless]. God the Redeemer cannot be a God eternal [timeless].”[2] His major premise here seems to be false. Just because God is a Redeeming God does not necessarily infer that he is everlasting no more than it would necessarily infer that he is timeless. Rather, it could imply several things. One alternative possibility which Wolterstorff ignores is that God foreknew the fall of humanity and planned beforehand their salvation and redemption. This seems to be the consensus among many biblical writers.[3] All in all, whether one accepts the doctrine of divine foreknowledge or not, the point is that Wolterstorff ignores this possibility assuming that the only conclusion to his premise is that God must therefore be everlasting. However, I maintain that God indeed has foreknowledge and because he had foreknowledge of the fall, he was therefore able to plan beforehand his plan of redemption for all creation. In this way, then, Wolterstorff’s premises and conclusion are logically inconsistent and unwarranted.

Second, he asserts that God’s acts have beginnings and ends and concludes that God is therefore fundamentally noneternal (i.e. God is temporal/everlasting). However, again this is fallacious logic. The proper inference of the premise “God’s acts have beginnings and ends” is that God’s actions are fundamentally temporal or everlasting, not that God himself is fundamentally temporal or everlasting. For all we know God could fundamentally be timeless. Regardless, the proper inference from Wolterstorff’s premise should be directed at God’s acts not God himself.

Thirdly, while Wolterstorff recognizes Heilsgeschichte (“salvation history”), also known as God’s acts in the history of salvation, he fails to see the possibility for the Redeeming God of Heilsgeschichte to exist outside of time. Again, he is basing his argument upon the presupposition that a Redeeming God must necessarily exist within time, not outside time. However, it is possible that the Redeeming God of Heilsgeschichte who transcends time could have planned out their redemption before time began, knowing beforehand that humanity would sin. It is not an absolute fact as he suggests that a Redeeming God must be bound to time planning out the redemption of humanity as time is transpiring and history unfolds. What he misses from Scripture is that the biblical God had a plan to redeem the human race before he even created the human race. Wolterstorff unfortunately ignores this important alternative.

Lastly, the most contradictory part of Wolterstorff’s argument comes at the end of his discussion. He states, “Though God is within time, yet he is Lord of time. The whole array of contingent temporal events is within his power. He is Lord of what occurs.”[4] However, it is contradictory to purport that God is fundamentally bound under the sway of temporality, and yet Lord over it. Is a king both a poor beggar and the wealthiest man in his kingdom? Of course not. Why then could one hold that God is subject to time yet in control of it? For if God is subject to time, then time has control over God, not vice versa. Only if God subjects time can he therefore be Lord of time.[5]

For these reasons, then, I think Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Open Theism view of God as everlasting is least plausible. In Part 3, we will consider why Boethius’ view is more plausible than Wolterstorff but still inadequate.



[1]Michael Peterson, Philosophy of Religion, 153.

[2] Peterson, Philosophy of Religion, 154.

[3] See Ps 139:4, 16b; Jer 1:5; Rom 8:28-30; Eph 1:4-5, 11; Rev 13:8. These all share the commonality of God’s foreknowledge, some about certain people and groups of people, while others concerning the salvation and redemption of humanity. This list is not exhaustive by any means, but Wolterstorff cannot ignore the biblical language of divine foreknowledge. How one understands God’s foreknowledge will certainly play a significant role in how one understands God’s relationship to time. As a side note, knowing all possibilities is not the same as knowing all things. If I apply for 4 Ph.D. programs (and I did) and am still waiting to hear back from them, just because I know all of the possibilities (1 of the 4 schools) does not mean that I will know where I will end up. So then I am in the dark about knowing the future. This example goes to show that just because someone knows all possibilities does not mean that they will know what will happen. So for God to have foreknowledge cannot simply mean that he knows all possibilities, foreknowledge means that God actually knows what will happen. And this of course does not mean that he causes it to happen (determinism). That discussion is for another time.

[4] Peterson, Philosophy of Religion, 159.

[5] I must briefly note here the contribution of Albert Einstein’s theory of general and special relativity which concludes that space and time are a unified entity (for an in depth analysis of this, see Laurence Wood’s God and History pp. 259-208). Thus, if God transcends space, as most theologians would assert, then God must also transcend time. If Wolterstorff wants to argue that God does not transcend time, then he must also argue that God does not transcend space. Once one moves into the realm of describing God as not transcending space, then one’s theological framework shifts from classical theism to pantheism. This is another logical inconsistency of Wolterstorff and others who espouse the Openness of God theology (Open Theism).