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).

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