Once Upon a Time(less Eternity)? On God and Time

Posted in Biblical Theology by Joseph Kelly on December 8, 2010

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!


10 Responses

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  1. Bill said, on December 8, 2010 at 7:56 am

    Yes, yes, yes. Wonderful. Thanks for all this. I’ll come back to explore the rest of your references soon…

  2. Will said, on December 8, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    Yes, to answer. Enjoyed reading…always look to you for the deep and meaty.

  3. Robert said, on December 9, 2010 at 7:36 am

    I always try to humble myself when I involve myself in discussion about God. Who am I to even approach the subject. I am human however and curious so here I am once again. Larry Hurtado’s view of the Jesus existance representing a change in God or Daniel Kirk’s assertion that God is time-bound is nothing more than another work of Satan in my humble opinion. It’s like go ahead Eve and eat the apple and you will be like God, you will know what he knows. Oops, there I am, unpopular again :)

    In my humble opinion God has no boundaries.

    Time however is a phenomina, a God given gift to us and a tool we can use to measure God’s movements, be what they may. Praise God, Alleluia.

    • Joseph Kelly said, on December 9, 2010 at 9:28 am

      Robert, the issue is not about whether one is or is not concerned about humbling oneself in discussions about God, but in precisely *how* one humbles oneself in such discussions. In your opinion, one humbles oneself when they adhere to a particular preconceived notion of God, that God “has no boundaries.” According to your framework, to speak of divine boundaries (self-imposed or otherwise) demonstrates a lack of humility. But this assumes that your opinion regarding a boundless God is correct, and unless you can establish why this should be the operating framework for discussing God, you really haven’t addressed the real issue.

  4. Robert said, on December 9, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Thank you Joseph but I believe I misled you.

    By humbling myself I meant basically to shut up. I believe voicing my opinions about how I think God operates and/or thinks is nothing short of blasphemy. In short, I think my opinion has no chance of being correct because I base it on proof. My faith needs no opinion.

    I read the bible and try to understand what it means to me. When I try to understand what God means by it in hopes I am right, it’s more desire than good judgement. Then voicing my opinion is again crossing the line. I thank Jesus for forgiveness and resort back to prayer. I believe it’s what God wants me to be doing in the short time I have here but as you can see, I’m here being human.

    • Joseph Kelly said, on December 9, 2010 at 9:57 pm

      It is good that you recognize that by promoting a “boundless God,” you are doing the very same thing for which you criticize me, Kirk, and Hurtado–you are talking about God. However, if you believe that Scripture is in some way normative for living, then I would challenge you on the assumption that humbling oneself before God means “shutting up” when it comes to God. In Matthew, Jesus commands that his disciples teach people to observe Jesus’ commandments. Matthew records one of those commands as “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Thus, there is a sense in which the identity of God is woven together with the normative values of the Church. If this teaching in Matthew possess any normative value for modern day readers, then “shutting up” about God is not an act of humility, but something else. This doesn’t mean that discourse on God should be unbounded. On the contrary, humility may mean recognizing those boundaries where they exist. But who is to say that God and change or God and time exist beyond those boundaries? Those are things that must be argued, not assumed.

      • Robert said, on December 10, 2010 at 7:26 pm

        I agree there is a sense of God woven together with the normative values of the Church as when we obey those commandments Christ says we will be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

        Again though I think I am misleading you with my lack of talent with the English language. I’m not saying I think I should shut up when concerning discussion or debating about God. I think it’s perfectly fine to tell you what the word means to me. However I think I should shut up when I start thinking I can tell you what it means in and of itself, in other words what God means by it.

        To me, the word has a special relationship with each person that shares in it and God tells us everything he wants us to know about him in the Bible. The words there to me are like a turnstyle but everyone walking through it will find themselves in a different place.

  5. John Hobbins said, on February 26, 2011 at 12:25 am


    This is a very fine discussion you have put on the table. Still, I can’t help but think that in place of a dialectic of eternity and history (in which, regrettably, history has not been given its due), the new fashion is to replace that dualism with a historical monism.

    Historical monism creates more problems than it solves. It is just as inadequate as the timeless monism it means to replace.

  6. Bill said, on February 26, 2011 at 9:18 am

    John – after looking up monism, I admit – I’m (still) not sure as to what you mean by historical monism. I can think of one or two ways of thinking, or approaching history, that you might be referring to. But I’m not sure which you might mean.

    Can you say a bit more, please?

  7. Joseph Kelly said, on February 26, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    I think what John is saying falls in line with Alan Padgett and/or William Lane Craig in the God and Time: Four Views book. Both individuals argued that there was some sphere or plain of existence in which God exist(ed?) timelessly, but that in creating the word God enters into created time. This duality is, I believe, what John is calling a dialectic of eternity and history.

    To this, Wolterstorff simply shrugged (in a literary fashion) and admitted he didn’t know anything about God’s existence outside of God’s activity within creation. Wolterstorff restricted himself to the presentation of God in Scripture, which he took to testify to a God who experiences created time. This narrow vision, I believe, is John’s historical monism. I’m sympathetic to Wolterstorff, but I’m curious how John would express the dialectic in a way that would give each their due.

    Also, correct me if I have misunderstood your dialectical distinction between eternity and history.

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