From Everlasting to Everlasting, Thou Art God

Like “O God, Why Did You Let Esther Die?” and “God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom,” this article is based on a paper that I wrote in the summer of 1984 while working on a M.A. in Humanities with California State University Dominguez Hills. However unlike them, it is substantially different from the original paper. The reason is that I’ve omitted both of the long quotations and some of the numerous footnotes that the paper contained. I’ve referred to the quotations and given or referred to some of the footnotes in square brackets.

In Psalm 90:2, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God,” Moses [Psalm 90 is traditionally ascribed to Moses] expresses his faith that God is from eternity to eternity. Traditionally theists have followed his belief that not only does God exist and, as creator, has He existed longer than created things, but also that God is eternal.

But what does it mean to say that God is eternal? Stephen Charnock, following the generally accepted view of God’s eternity, answers the question by stating that God is eternal in that He is without beginning, without end, and without succession or change [Stephen Charnock, Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God, “Discourse V: on the Eternity of God, I. How God is eternal or in what respects he is so]. It is on the third of his qualifying phrases, “without succession or change,” a concept originating in Greek philosophy rather than in the Bible [in my paper I supported this claim with a quotation from Ronald H. Nash, The Concept of God (Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), p. 73], that I shall focus my attention on in this article. I shall consider reasons why the view that God is timelessly (outside of time, and thus without succession or change as well as without beginning and without end) eternal is widely supported, arguments that have been set forth against it, and the suitability of the alternate view that God is temporally (within time) eternal [The terms “timelessly eternal” and “temporarily eternal” are from Stephen T. Davis, Logic and the Nature of God (William B. Eerdmans, 1983), p. 8. In this article, the two views will generally be referred to as “the doctrine of divine timelessness” and “the doctrine of divine everlastingness.”]

The best-known exposition of the doctrine of divine timelessness occurs in the The Consolation of Philosophy of the sixth-century Christian philosopher Boethius. He defines “eternity” as “the whole, perfect, and simultaneous possession of endless life” and claims that God sees all things, including things past and future, as if they were taking place in the present [Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, V, 6. In my paper I included the lengthy summary of Boethius’s exposition given by Richard Swinburne in his The Coherence of Theism (Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 216-217.] An analogy given by various writers is of a traveller on a road seeing only the neighbourhood where he is but someone in a high place above the road seeing the whole road at once. Boethius made the claim in arguing that God’s foreknowing the future and people’s having free will are compatible. However I concluded in “God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom” that God’s omniscience does not include knowledge of future things that are dependent upon the operation of human will. Thus the doctrine of divine timelessness’s supporting the general Christian tradition that God’s omniscience includes knowledge of future free human acts does not motivate me to accept the view that God is timeless.

In arguing that God is timelessly eternal, Thomas Aquinas claims that “the notion of eternity follows immutability, as the notion of time follows movement” [Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, 1, X, 2]. However I do not believe that God is totally immutable or changeless, my thinking that to describe Him as immutable is just to say that He remains fixed in His character. [In my paper I quoted from the section on God’s immutability in Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism (Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 211-215.] Thus the doctrine of divine timelessness’s following from or explaining the traditional Christian belief that God is totally immutable does not motivate me to accept the view that God is timeless.

Two more reasons for a Christian’s being tempted by the doctrine of divine timelessness are that it emphasizes the transcendence of God and that it seems analogous to the doctrine of divine spacelessness, which are generally recognized by Christians. Regarding the latter I don’t understand the relationships between God and space and between time and space well enough for it to influence me at this time. And regarding the former I don’t see the need to exalt God’s transcendence in every possible way but just in the ways that the Bible does and that are essential to theism. However I don’t believe that the Bible teaches that God is timeless or feel any theological need to accept divine timelessness. [In my paper I quoted from or referred to the books by Stephen T. Davis and Ronald H. Nash that I named earlier in this article.]

In fact I am repelled by the doctrine of divine timelessness because I think that it has an inner incoherence and because I think that it is incompatible with the Biblical picture of God. The inner incoherence can be seen by considering Boethius’s claim that God is present to all times at once. According to this view God is simultaneously present at my birth, my present, and my death. This would seem to imply that my birth, my present, and my death are simultaneous times–which is false. A defender of timelessness would probably reply that I am failing to distinguish between viewing an event from the divine perspective and from the human perspective and would refer to an analogy such as the one I gave earlier. Although the defender’s claim might be true, I am stuck with my limited mind and, if I want to be rational, must reject what it judges to be incoherent. [In my paper I quoted from the book by Stephen Davis that I named earlier in this article.]

Both Davis and Nash refer to Nelson Pike’s argument in his God and Timelessness [Nelson Pike, God and Timelessness (Shocken Books, 1970). Not having access to that book when I wrote my paper, in it I quoted the summary of Pike’s argument given in Ronald H. Nash, The Concept of God  (Zondervan, 1983), pp. 79-80). Since then I’ve gotten Wipf and Stock Publishers’ 2002 republication of God and Timelessness.] It does not seem to me that a timeless being can be the creator and sustainer of the world or a personal being who acts in history, both of which the Bible pictures God as being.

What is the alternative to a timeless God? A temporal God. But can a temporal God be everything that the Christian God is supposed to be? I believe so. He can still be eternal, in the Biblical sense of being everlasting or without beginning and without end. He can still be omniscient, in the voluntarily limited sense that I argued for in “God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom.” He can still be immutable, in the sense of remaining fixed in His essential nature. And He can act in time, as creator and sustainer of the world and as a personal God involved in human history. Thus to Him I can say, as did Moses, “THOU ART GOD!” [in Psalm 90:2, quoted in full at the beginning of this article].

In my next post I’ll begin a series of posts on the advantages claimed for open theism that I identified in the first post at Open Theism, “An Introduction to Open Theism.”

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