Once Upon a Time(less Eternity)? On God and Time
Daniel Kirk (Storied Theology) raises “one of those discussions,” the one of God and time. He is inclined to the idea that . . .
. . . by creating a time-bound creation God became bound to time. The past for us is past for God as well. God patiently waits, and waits in the present, as the word God sends forth goes out and becomes effective in the world.
Although Daniel has a knack for generating good discussion on his blog, the comment thread on this particular post demonstrates that this is an interesting topic to a number of readers and thinkers from various backgrounds and with various commitments. Back in May of 2009, I endorsed an argument made by Nicholas Wolterstorff in the volume God and Time: Four Views that essentially argues that the historically located God of Scripture is true to reality—God exists within time. Wolterstorff’s argument is summarized in the following quote from the book:
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.
God has a history, and in this history there are changes in God’s actions, responses and knowledge. The God of Scripture is One of whom a narrative can be told; we know that not because Scripture tells us that but because it offers such a narrative. I hold that an implication of this is that God is in time. If something has a history, then perforce that being is in time. (188)
Back in 2009, I was rather enthusiastic about this argument, perhaps more so than I would be today. I still find myself largely in agreement with the trajectory of his argument, but some of his terminology (e.g. “literally true”) is problematic. Moreover, two things in my own thinking have changed since I endorsed his argument that bear upon my consideration of the topic of God and time.
First, I want to approach the subject with greater sensitivity to a scientific understanding time. In the comments to Daniel’s post, Thom (in-fraction) is the first to raise the possibility that time is nothing more than a “phenomenological adjective we use to describe entropy and change.” Bill Heroman (NT/History Blog), who is in agreement with Thom’s evaluation of the physics of time, also raises the phenomenological concept of distance. That the concept of space should arise in a discussion about time is no accident. Most people are aware, even if only through science fiction movies like Back to the Future, that Science understands space and time as woven together in the fabric of our universe, a fabric known as the space-time continuum.
In a book I picked up at this year’s SBL meeting, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, William Brown explores the “virtual parallels” (and collisions) of the Bible and science. Those familiar with Brown’s work will know of his erudition as a biblical interpreter, but they may be unaware (as I was) of his scientific literacy and ability to engage in such a deeply complex interdisciplinary dialogue. Regarding the science of time and space, he says,
From the quantum perspective, “space must only emerge as a kind of statistical or averaged description, like temperature.” On the smallest, most fundamental level, distance bears no relevance; space is an “illusion” that arises from a system of networks, “bundles of string” knotted together at the Planck level, or a “foam-like topology of bubbles connected by tunnels.” Regardless of the metaphor, only at a larger scale does space seem “smooth and featureless.” Similar for time: if time is fundamentally grounded in change and change is meaningless both at the quantum level, where correlated moments do not exist, and at the largest scale, where uniformity reigns, then time too is an illusion. Like space, “time is an approximate concept.” The non-fundamental nature of time and space would suggest that “creation” itself marks a radical shift in scale whereby space and time became dynamically interrelated as they emerged together. The universe literally took time and space to develop. (55-56)
Brown’s point is to highlight the fact that “both Genesis and science regard space and time as fundamentally related” (55). And this brings me to the second development in my thinking since my last blog post on this subject. I first encountered the idea that time is a created reality in Genesis in reading John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. He argues that days 1-3 of Genesis are concerned with functions, not substance, and that days 4-6 concerns functionaries. If you consider the functional significance of the separation of light and darkness on day 1, you arrive at the conclusion that what is being created is the function of a period of light, i.e. time (see his discussion on page 180). This is further reinforced by what the text states of the functionaries of day 4: “And let them be for signs, for appointed feasts, for days, and for years” (Gen 1:14). They mark time, even religious time. If one is not persuaded by Walton’s thesis regarding function over substance, one could argue as many have that days 1-3 represent domains, and days 4-6 represent their respective inhabitants. If the light of day 1, understood as a domain, is inhabited by the markers of time, then you have in Genesis 1 no less than the creation of a space-time continuum. Either way of looking at it, space and time are integrally related in the theology of creation in Genesis 1.
So how does this bear on our discussion of God and time? Since both science and Scripture discourage us from drawing too great a distinction between space and time, albeit according to their own respective canons of thought, one cannot address the question of God in relation to space without addressing God’s relation to time. Moreover, if we want to speak scientifically, we must not speak of time as a fundamental reality. Just as space is rooted in relationality, time is rooted in mutability. The question is not properly, “Does God exist in time” but “Does God change?” Bill, therefore, is absolutely right to see the motivation for a timeless deity to be that of an immutable God.
If you want people to be frozen participants, unmoving, content with their place, with their caste, with the status quo… if you want to support the view that change is bad and the authorities are to be left in control… if you want to suggest to the peons of your city that all their hopes for justice are best served not today or even tomorrow, but in the life yet to come… if you want to cover over the obvious fact (even) that God doesn’t seem to work much (or often) among your citizenry… and if you want to prevent God from creating change in your perfect world, also…
Then promote a view of a purely immutable God, free from anything resembling dynamic activity or change instigation. What he willed, he willed long ago. What he did is all done. What he wants is for you to accept this (oh yes, and to behave well). What is coming has already happened.
Larry Hurtado (Larry Hurtado’s Blog) writes in his recent book God in New Testament Theology about the discourse of God in the New Testament. The word “God,” he recognizes, contains no “intrinsic meaning but acquires meaning in particular discourses.” In the conclusion of the book, he says something very relevant to this discussion.
The NT texts offer a body of discourse that presents a more dynamic view of “God,” with the focus on divine actions rather than the more static categories of philosophically influenced theology of later centuries. For example, the emphasis in the NT on the resurrected and exalted Jesus might have profound implications for traditional views of divine immutability. If, as the NT texts seem to insist, discourse about “God” now must include reference to Jesus, then this marks a significant alteration from the way that “God” was understood previously. In particular, Jesus’ resurrection constitutes the emphatic reaffirmation of Jesus (and precisely as the embodied human figure) as thereafter uniquely to be included in the understanding and divine purposes and even (per traditional trinitarian faith) in what is meant by “God.” To use trinitarian language, “God the Son” is eternal, without beginning or end. But in the incarnation “the Son” became genuinely an embodied human, and in Jesus’ resurrection this incarnate move was irrevocably reaffirmed by “God.” In short, from Jesus’ resurrection onward, “God” in some profound way now includes a glorified human. That, I believe, represents quite a significant alteration! (112-113)
Much the same could be said regarding discourse about God in the Old Testament, especially texts concerning God’s repentance! Nevertheless, I turn to Hurtado’s evaluation of discourse concerning “God” as it relates to Jesus because it strikes at the heart of those who argue for a timeless/immutable God, and it meets a double criteria. The incarnation places God in physical proximity to the world in which we live. God exists (or if you prefer, existed) in space. Moreover, it represents a genuine change in God, and insofar as it entails some kind of change, it implies that God exists in time, or as Wolterstorff would say, “God has a history.”
So while Daniel asks if this question regarding God and time matters, I want to pose a corollary question, “Does incarnation matter?” To answer that question is to answer both!