God and Time: Four Views (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  September 14, 2011 — 2 Comments

God and Time: Four Views
Contributors: Paul Helm, Alan Padgett, William Lane Craig and Nicholas Wolterstorff
4 Stars (out of 5)

In a book in which the expert contributors seem to have a difficult time grasping and understanding each other’s positions it should be no demerit on the part of the reader if the finer points of each argument is not fully grasped. Yet in general I think I have a modest understanding of each position.

Divine Timeless Eternity

Paul Helm – whose chapter is titled “Divine Timeless Eternity” – advocates what he refers to as the “traditional” view of God and Time. The idea that God is absolutely Timeless without qualification (stasis-theory). I think the fact that this view is traditional is verifiably true in that throughout my Christian life people have always referred to God as being “timeless”. Yet William Lane Craig observes that Paul Helm may be the last (or among the last) scholarly experts on the subject of God and Time to hold to this traditional view.

One thing about Helm that I appreciate in all of his works is his commitment to logical consistency no matter where it leads (which is why he holds to supralapsarianism – I think!). In this book Helm boldly embraces the logical conclusions of a Timelessly Divine Being. Some of these conclusions are:

  1. God is static in that he does not move, think, feel, act, respond or anything else of the sort since any of the such would suggest duration which suggests a Being that experiences time.
  2. That God did not actually create the universe because to create something is an act that requires duration. A timeless God cannot create. Period. (Though he does use the term “create”, he qualifies it heavily. See below.)
  3. That the universe (and you and me) are as old (to use a temporal designation) as God himself. If a timeless God cannot create the universe and if the universe is imagined as a static “brick” sustained by a timeless God, than this “brick” (and everything else) must exist for infinity, just like God.

This last point (#3) is interesting because God “created” the universe in a “sense” (though that “sense” is not explained except to say it was a timeless “decree” – though I’m not sure what that would look like) but God is still “before” the creation, not in the sense of being “earlier” (because that would be a temporal designation), but rather in the “sense” that “the queen exists before the prime minister” (p.51). In other words, God is not temporally before the creation, but hierarchically.

What this means for you and I – and one of the reasons why I reject this view – is that nothing ever comes into or goes out of existence. The Holocaust, Jesus’ birth, the Exodus and my grade 9 math exam are all happening right “now”, only at different “places” on the “brick”. One of the many theological problems here is that evil never goes out of existence. God never “deals” with evil. It always was, always is, and always will be. Furthermore reality seems to be conceived of similarly as to the original Walt Disney cartoons that were hand drawn with each moment being lifeless, but when “flapped together” give the illusion of life. That is yours and my reality: “life” for us and God is but an illusion. I cannot accept this view of reality. So I’m going to put aside Helms theory (the stasis-theory – unqualified Divine Timelessness) as something that ought to be rightly rejected.

Eternity as Relative Timelessness

Alan Padgett‘s chapter is titled “Eternity as Relative Timelessness”. But I think Craig is right in suggesting that “True Temporality” would be a more fitting title (p.116), though I don’t even thing “True Temporality” effectively captures Padgett’s view!

Padgett essentially believes that since the scriptures portray God as a Being who interacts with a temporal creation, that God must be a temporal Being. The crux of this view asks: what about before God created the space-time continuum? Alan believes that prior to creation God experienced “pure duration”. “Pure duration” seems to be a temporal state that does not experience sequential moments, thus it is “infinite, but it is also immeasurable”. God’s existence as pure duration (that is, as a Temporal Being who, before creation, did not experience sequential moments) means that logically God may experience sequential moments: from the single moment of pure duration to the moment “before the first change” (whenever that change occurred). In fact according to the scriptures God did experience sequential moments at the moment of first change evident in the creation of the universe. Alan essentially sees “two times”, a created time that is our time and “pure duration” which is God’s time. So Alan believes that God is “timeless relative” to the creation – since before the first change He did not experience sequential moments (thus the title of the chapter), but in reality God is a temporal Being (thus Craig’s suggested title).

Timelessness & Omnitemporality

William Lane Craig‘s chapter is titled “Timelessness & Omnitemporality” and it is certainly the most difficult chapter often misunderstood by even the other experts. It seems that Craig’s view is similar to Alan’s in that God is seen as “timeless” BFC (before the first change) and temporal in relation to the creation. At other times it seems that Craig’s view is similar to Helm’s in that it sounds like he is saying that there is no “before” creation suggesting that creation has existed into infinity past.

Craig believes that God is “omnitemporal” in that God has always existed at every “time” that has ever been. But he believes that “time” has not always been since it was created in conjunction with the universe and thus asks: “Did God exist literally before creation, or is he timeless without the world”. But this question is actually more confusing than it looks at first glace because the question I (along with the other contributors!) took Craig to be asking is this: did God exist temporally before creation, or timelessly before creation?” When Craig summarizes his view by suggesting that we consider the alternative (between Alan and Helm), he suggests “that God is simply timeless without creation and temporal subsequent to creation” (p.159). Again, it sounds like Craig is suggesting two phases to God’s life: a timeless phase before creation and a temporal phase after creation. In fact, when the other writers critique Craig’s view it is this very point that they attack, and I agreed with them, it didn’t make any sense. It appears that we all misunderstood Craig’s position (of no fault of our own!).

In an exasperated response to his critics, Craig makes a point of emphasizing the difference between what we think he is saying and what he is actually saying. To suggest that God is timeless before creation – which is what we all think he is say – he says “is not my position but is closer to Alan’s, which I mean to reject. My position is that God is timeless sans creation and temporal since creation” (p.186). At this point the confusion only compounds itself!

God is not timeless “before” creation, rather God is timeless “without” creation. But what does that mean? It seems that Craig does believe in a “before” creation because he uses the phrase “since creation”, yet he explicitly rejects the idea that God is timeless before creation and yet still he believes that God is temporal since creation. So if God was neither timeless nor temporal before creation, than what was he? Craig doesn’t say. Perhaps he shares Helm’s view that creation has in some sense existed since infinity. But this cannot be so because Craig explicitly rejects that view too! (p.65) Craig believes that his view is the most “plausible” and that may be true but since no body knows what he’s saying, its difficult to agree.

Unqualified Divine Temporality

Nicholas Wolterstorff – whose chapter is titled “Unqualified Divine Temporality” – argues that God is ontologically a temporal Being. His essay is the most biblically based of the contributors of this book, and by “biblically based” I mean that Wolterstorff does not venture far from the scriptures when philosophizing about the nature of God and Time. In short, his philosophy is that the Bible depicts God as temporal and so we should not suppose otherwise without “good reason”. In fact, that is Nick’s primary interpretive principle:

“An implication of one’s accepting Scripture as canonical is that one will affirm as literally true Scripture’s representation of God unless one has good reason not to do so.” (p.188)

He goes on to say that since the scriptures represent God as temporal, “the burden of proof is on those who hold that God is outside of time.”

While it certainly is true that Nick spends more time in the scriptures than the other contributors of this volume, he certainly does not stay there throughout. In fact he spends quite a bit of time developing a philosophy of God and Time that is very similar to both Alan and Bill. This is not surprising since all three (Nick, Alan and Bill) believe that at least since the creation of time God has been temporal. What makes Nick’s essay questionable is not what he says, but what he doesn’t say:

“The really important shortcoming in Nick’s essay lies not what he says but in what he leaves out: the implications of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo for God’s relationship to time.” (Craig, p.224)

Alan presses Nick with the same critique: “some weight should be give to the intuition that time is created and finite, not a part of the divine being” (p.219). Nick responds, “I have saved for last the point on which Alan and Bill both press me hardest: does God create time or is time an inherent feature of God’s own life?” to which he responds, “I don’t know” (p.233). To be clear, what Nick is agnostic about is whether or not Alan is right in his “pure duration” theory or if Bill is right in his “timeless without creation” theory. In other words Nick cannot decide between Alan’s view or Bill’s, so he sticks predominantly to God’s revelation in the scriptures and does not explore too deeply beyond that.

To be sure, Nick does not ignore the question of God’s temporality prior to creation. In responding to Craig’s point that the Bible writers talk about time having a beginning (a point Craig appeals to in defense of his notion that God is only temporal “since” time began) in passages that say “before all time” (Jude 1:25 et al.), Nick makes the point that

“if God existed before time and issued his decrees before the ages, then it appears that the writers were thinking of God as temporally preceding this present age, or something like that.” (p.237)

Thus it appears, by Nick’s hermeneutic, not only that the Bible reveals God as temporal since the creation of the space-time continuum, but before. During his final response to his critics, he writes:

“Possibly it was a mistake on my part not to have been emphatic on this in the first place. But it never occurred to me to make a point of saying that God created the cyclic processes that we find in our world; I took it for granted.” (p.236)

So it seems, without being dogmatic about it, that Nick holds to the view that God is neither timeless now or before the creation of the “cyclic processes that we find in our world” which probably is a reference to “metric” time. But I can’t be sure.

In conclusion: I’ll offer some concluding thoughts in the post after this one (see what I did there? It appears that quite intuitively I reject the stasis-theory since I believe that my next post will be temporally after this one and not that I am writing both posts at the same time, only at different spots along this “brick” we may call a Walt Disney illusion.)

Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Jon Sellers

    Nice review, Derek. I am with Alan Padgett on this one. I think he holds together the ontological priority of God’s being above temporality and maintains God’s immutability. Furthermore, I like that he is faithful to scripture and accounts for modern scientific understandings of time in the light of special relativity.

    He has another very interesting essay on “Does Heisenberg Uncertainty Apply to God? A Reliable Model of Divine Foreknowledge” in Creation Made Free ed. by Thomas Jay Oord. You would find that one interesting as well.

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