Metrical Time: where does it come from?

The relation of God and time has been a study of renewed interest in the last couple decades. Most writers have moved toward weakening or abandoning the traditional orthodox view that God dwells in a non-temporal eternity. Motion in this direction could already be detected in Hodge and Dabney. Between then and now came process theology, which has God completely enmeshed in time. So, the trend in this direction has lasted for about a century and a half.

Here are some reflections on the measurability or metric quality of time. A second now is thought to have the same duration as a second yesterday or tomorrow. That time is measurable is an inescapable presupposition for the possibility of science. But how do we explain what it means to say that time is measurable, without simply assuming the thing itself?

God and Time: Survey of Christian Opinion

Augustine originated the thought that time and the world arrived together, so that the question, “what was God doing before he created the world,” is nonsensical. The adverb “before” presupposes the succession of time, which does not pertain to the situation before there was a world, and thus time.

Augustine also puzzled over what I am calling the metric of time. Unlike measuring spatial length, in which simultaneous comparison of the endpoints of the object and the rule can be made, how to measure duration? We can’t “hold down” the temporal endpoints to compare “simultaneously.” J. Smart (Encyclopedia of Philosophy vol. 8, p. 126) complains that Augustine is stuck with a false analogy: we can compare events to positions of a clock. However, it seems to me that Smart, not Augustine, is guilty of question-begging—how do we know the successive ticks of the clock are equal? If he answers “by convention” then this is a huge concession to Augustine: he would basically be admitting that a universal and necessary definition of equal durations is not possible.

Augustine’s view of God’s eternity was later framed by Boethius in what became a classic statement: “Eternity, then, is the complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life.” Bavinck claims “with this agree all the theologians, not only the RC but the Lutheran and the Reformed as well.” (Doctrine of God, p. 156)

The challenge to the traditional orthodox view has come along several lines:

  1. Already Hodge (vol. 1, p.388) pondered whether succession makes sense if God does not experience it. “So far as thinking and acting involve succession, succession must belong to God.”
  2. There is the problem of the Now: Does God know what time it is NOW? If so, then it would seem that God is “in time.” If not, then it would seem that he is not omniscient.
  3. There is the problem of temporal transitivity. If God is present at the Battle of Waterloo, and God is present as you read this essay, and he experiences no succession, then it would seem that the Battle of Waterloo is simultaneous with your reading this essay.

Here are some examples of how the moderns want to modify the orthodox position. (1) The so-called Oxford school (see my review of representative Alan G. Padgett) proposes that God lives in “amorphous time,” that is, time that has succession but not measurability. There is no clock measuring elapsed time in God’s amorphous time. (2) William Lane Craig (see this review) proposes that God used to be eternal in the Augustinian sense, but became temporal by the act of creation. Now, he is “in” the same time that we are. (3) Among those thought by many to be orthodox and reformed, Robert Reymond (New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith pp. 173-176) applies a Clarkian view of proposition and reason to reject the timeless eternity of God.

I submit that none of these problems or solutions will stand against the Augustinian view. Hodge’s problem is merely psychological; as even he says, “if unable to comprehend ourselves, we should not pretend to be able to comprehend God.”

The problem of the Now is shown to be false by Einstein’s theory of Relativity. It is not even the case that the “now” is univocal for all creatures. Indeed, as Einstein argued, simultaneity is not even a meaningful concept without specifying the operation by which it will be determined. Thus, “now” should be taken as a personal indexical that is not a proper part of a universal proposition.

The problem of transitivity may be a conundrum, but it is no worse than spatial transitivity; and no one has used this line of thinking to say that God is spatial. (God is here; God is there; therefore, here is there.) Paul Helm has a good discussion along these lines in his Eternal God.

As I indicated in the above-referenced review, the Oxford school errs by failing to see that there are other aspects of time than just measurability that must be different for Creator and creature. The real attribute of temporal being that brings home our temporality is the inexorability of change and succession. It is going to happen whether I want it to or not. The exercise of my will has no effect whatsoever on time. For God, this is clearly not the case. What is the concept of God implied by saying he is in “amorphous time”? Suppose a and b are adjacent intervals. Suppose God is enjoying his blessed life in interval a. Does he suffer the transition from a to b? Does he feel that the moment of truth is approaching—fast approaching, inexorably approaching? Or perhaps he feels he has a long time yet before needing to cross that transition. Is not this whole train of thought pagan?

Lane’s view suffers from the same objection as the kenosis theory of the person of Christ. God’s attributes are inherent and simple, and cannot be abdicated. Such is his eternity. The multi-world reflections below are also fatal to Lane’s theory.

Reymond’s method must be rejected as rationalistic. Contrary to Reymond, tensed verbs and indexical markers have greater than “zero significance,” since they describe true relationships within the creation.

Reflection on many worlds as to inter-temporality

So, we take the orthodox view of God’s eternity as a given. Since God is the self-given starting point, it is the temporality of the world that should be clarified as to its meaning. The moderns erred by taking worldly phenomena such as metrical time as a “given”, then ask how to fit God into that. We now take the opposite tack.

I define a world or universe to be the totality of all creatures that have free access to one another, plus transitivity.

Thus, Mars is part of the same world as us, because we can see it through a telescope, and might one day even travel there. I don’t have access to your private thoughts, but you do, and I have access to you (transitivity).

God is not part of the world in this sense; he is the creator of the world.

Given this definition, and the reflections on God’s eternity above, it follows that there could be many worlds. Start with two. Each is created by God, but the creatures in A do not have free access to the creatures in B; they are not the same world therefore.

But specifying the access as “free,” I want to allow the possibility of inter-world communication or interaction as and when permitted by God.

A beautiful illustration of this concept is Narnia. Ordinarily, there is no possibility of interaction between Narnia and Earth; they are completely separate universes. But once in a while, God open up a window between them for the purpose of transferring children from one world to the other to accomplish some specific purpose.

Spatially, are the two worlds near to each other or far? A bit of reflection will indicate that this is a meaningless question. If the distance between them could be measured, then there would be mutual free access, and they would be the same world. They both “rest in God,” and God is not spatial. The earth-side of the window might be a wardrobe or a mirror; the Narnia side might be a woods or a castle.

Temporally, do the worlds march along in temporal lock-step? If a year goes by in one, has a year gone by in the other?

Clearly not. To say so, it would be necessary to correlate events at each end of the year between the two worlds, and note that a year has elapsed in each case. But there are two problems with this. First, events cannot be correlated between the worlds. How could they be? What would be the principle of mutual simultaneity? Second, even if they could be, what would be the criterion to say that in each case, the interval was the same (e.g. a year)? This would imply a third standard “measuring stick” to which each conformed – say, a cosmic clock. But the worlds do not have free access to a mutual third object. If they did, they would be part of the same world by the definition given above.

Indeed, we cannot even say that succession is the same between the worlds. One could just as well say that one was “running backwards” as “running forwards.”

Implications for Metrical Time

Now let’s return to a single world and ask if metrical time necessarily governs that world in the nature of the case. To be sure, it would seem to be a logical necessity that succession should be invariant between creatures within the same world. That is, if I experience A then B, it seems impossible that A should follow B for someone else. At least, it would seem to be impossible whenever a causal relation obtains between A, B.

People commonly think duration is also the same between creatures. But is this so?

Subjectively, it does not seem to be so. Between two episodes of the grandfather clock chiming, I close my eyes and open them again, while Peggy Lee, she claims, can

scoop up a great big dipper of lard from the drippin’s can
throw it in the skillet,
go out and do my shoppin’,
be back before it melts in the pan…

“We know an hour has gone by for each because that’s what the clock shows.”

Granted, we know that the pendulum has completed sixty oscillations: that’s a matter of counting. But what is this thing called “an hour” or “a second” that we think is common?

Of course we could say that by definition, one swing of the Grandfather clock’s pendulum is “one second”. But then, “one second” simply means “one count.” Why invent a new word for “count”?

Moreover, shouldn’t we then say that “one second” is by definition one tick of this particular clock? Why should the ticks of this clock have anything to do with any other clock?

It is only meaningful if we already know that there is something universally measurable about temporal succession. But what would that measurable thing be, and how could we possibly know that it exists?


There is nothing inherently metrical about temporal existence.

There is no natural entity known as “time” that can be represented by “t” in the equations of physics.

The metricality of time is the ordering of all events in the decree of God, so that plans can be made and executed; music made; investigation possible. Indeed, not just divine decree in bare form, but decree involving ongoing personal commitment: otherwise, there would be no reason to think successive intervals could be compared for equality. Metrical time presupposes the covenant-keeping God.

We should add metrical time to our apologetical arsenal of “natural phenomena” that are not natural or even coherent at all without presupposing God and his covenantal, decretal ordering of all things.

16 thoughts on “Metrical Time: where does it come from?

  1. This is a fantastic post!

    I have just a few comments:

    1. Not that government opinions are helpful in every case but standard measurements (weights, lengths, et cetera) have long been a regulated endeavor of governments. The NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) webstire about metrology acknowledges the undefinablility of time. Remember these are guys charged with safeguarding the standard second as well as making sure that our national time is synched. As far as I can tell what is called time in physical science is actually the measurement of distance whether the hands of a stopwatch or the radiation measured from a source deep inside an atomic clock.

    2. Many people who speak of time actually mean history. Time is a loose inclusive word but a tight definition seems to be elusive at best.

    3. Thanks for those remarks about Reymond’s views. Reymond’s deviations from orthodoxy have always been evidence to me that some in the Reformed world get an automatic pass while others get castigated for the smallest difference. This is icing.

    I hope to reread everything and post some questions but for now you’ll have to settle for some half-baked ones… Alas I’ve got a wife I’ve got to go kiss.

  2. hi tim,
    question if you do not mind.
    re the Now problem as far as: does God know what time it is now? is that as problematic as has been stated? By that i mean: God knows what gravity is; that does not mean he is in gravity. Can God “know” what time it is because it is His “tool” to use, yet not be affected by it in a restricting sense?  As far as the third part goes (transitivity) I also think can be summed up in that God being eternal, all knowing, all present, all powerful, he can handle things happening all at once. I have a quote somewhere about time, that “time is a gift from God to keep everything happening to us at once.” We are finite and temporal; limits may equal succession. God limited to only Himself/attributes may be able to deal without succession. or maybe i just dug too many holes with my backhoe this week and off on some fuzzy idea…

    steve h.

  3. God knows what time it is now because he knows that I know what time it is now. If I know what time it is now, then God knowing what I know, knows what time it is now.

    If S knows that P, and if S1 knows that S knows P, then S1 knows P.

    Or something like that.

    I may be wrong, but I think Casteneda argued thus.

  4. A well-written post, and a strong defense of atemporalism. A few comments from a temporalist. Calvin, let me plug in a few particulars into your equation.

    John knows the second law of thermodynamics.
    And if Larry knows that John knows the second law of thermodynamics, then Larry also knows the second law of thermodynamics.

    I don’t think so. By this account If only this were true. I’d know botany, latin, chinese, who shot JFK (so long as I knew the person who knows who shot JFK). I’d know how Lost will end, and above all my education would be a lot easier since I’d know everything my profs know simply because I know that they know it.

    On the matter of the Special Theory of Relativity (STR), I find it strange that you use it to argue for God’s timelessness. I grant that there is no univocal now, but “now” can still be shared by two subjects. The theory does not mean that everyone has a different “now”, but that “now” is perspectival.

    If metric time changes relative to a certain object, then what is “now” for one object cannot be “now” for a different object moving at, say, 0.8c. As Richard Wolfson says, “Events that are simultaneous in one reference frame may not be simultaneous in another reference frame moving relative to the first.” Thus, in your view, since there is no absolute “now” in the universe, God cannot be temporal because he would have to exist in many different “nows” which are at different times.

    Given that I’ve understood you correctly, your argument misunderstands STR. The theory does not say that there are many different “nows,” any more than it says that there is one, absolute “now.” To say that there are many different “nows” implies that there is objectivity, instead of relativity, in STR. The “nows” are only different relative to another “now.” They cannot be said to be absolutely different “nows.” Someone’s “now” would only be affected by her speed (by which I mean, speed relative to another object). Thus, someone’s travel through space affects their measurement of time not relative to themselves, but only relative to an object not traveling at the same speed. If I was traveling 0.8c, time would not appear to me to be moving any slower, but my time would appear slower to everyone else back on earth. Even given that God is spatial, he still would not travel through space like we do, and neither could he be said to be stationary. God can relate to all “nows” because he is unaffected by space in this way. The point is that “nows” only need to be said to appear different to us because of our relative motion. There is no reason to think that what seem to be different “nows” for us, would be different for God.

    Your argument depends on spatial travel and God does not travel at speeds of light. There’s a lot more I want to say on this subject but I’m afraid I’ve already tested the patience of any who’s read this far. I’ve written several papers on this subject. Here’s a paper that addresses the issues you raise:

  5. I’m madly preparing for a two-week trip, but look forward to studying your paper when I get back. But just very briefly: my point was that STR means the A-theory is not possible. It is not sensible to say that a temporal God and the universe only exists “now.” Instead, propositions with “now” are indexical, not expressing a universal truth except in relation to the asserting subject (analogous to propositions containing “here.”)

  6. To be precise, I would quibble over your phrasing it as: “God dwells in a non-temporal eternity.” God does exist eternally, but also exists in time.

    That God exists in time is a logical consequent of the Orthodox doctrine of divine omnipresence. That the doctrine of omnipresence is orthodox can be seen from the words of the spirit in the mouth of the Psalmist:

    Psa 139:7 Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
    Psa 139:8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.

    Thus, it is conventional to say that God “transcends time.” He does exist outside of time, but He also exists within time, for time (like all of Creation) depends on Him.

    As it is written:

    Act 17:28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.

    And again:

    Rom 11:36 For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.


  7. Fraiser,

    Let’s clean it up:

    If S knows that it is 12pm and I *know* that S knows that it is 12pm, then I know that it is 12pm.

    Thermodynamics is ambiguous. So, let’s get “particular:”

    If S knows that entropy is increasing, and I know that S knows that entropy is increasing, then I know that entropy is increasing.

    You say, “By this account If only this were true. I’d know botany, latin, chinese, who shot JFK (so long as I knew the person who knows who shot JFK). I’d know how Lost will end, and above all my education would be a lot easier since I’d know everything my profs know simply because I know that they know it.”

    I said “knows that.”

    So, if S knows that “et tu” means “and you,” and if S1 knows that S knows that “et tu” means “and you,” then S1 knows that “et tu” means “and you.”

    I never said that if S knows how to play chess, then is S1 klnows that S knows how to play chess, then S1 knows how to play chess.

    Rather, it would run thus:

    If S knows that the king can castle to either his side or the queen’s, and if S1 knows that S knows that the king can castle to either his side or the queen’s, then S1 knows that the king can castle to either his side or the queen’s.

    Likewise, if S knows that 說文解字/说文解字 means that Hector-Neri Castañeda was right, and if S1 knows that S knows that 說文解字/说文解字 means that Hector-Neri Castañeda was right, then S1 knows that 說文解字/说文解字 means that Hector-Neri Castañeda was right.


    John Calvin

  8. JC,

    How interesting that John Calvin has internet access, spends his time on this blog, and is…alive. I wonder how he came to learn about symbolic logic…hmmm.

    You did not use “knows that…” consistently throughout your argument so I did not know that you intended it to mean knowledge of propositions only.

    But I don’t think that this rescues the argument anyway.

    Consider, that John knows that Cheryl likes chocolate and that Larry knows that John knows that Cheryl likes chocolate. It doesn’t necessarily follow that Larry knows that Cheryl likes chocolate.

    Perhaps Larry suffers from some cognitive defect that prevents him from knowing what John knows but not from knowing that John knows that Cheryl likes chocolate. Perhaps there is a reliable belief producing process that gives Larry knowledge that John knows that Cheryl likes chocolate but does not give him knowledge that Cheryl likes chocolate.

    I realize that your argument is in the context of God’s knowledge and that therefore God does not suffer from cognitive defects making my counterexample irrelevant. But on an atemporalist view he lacks the indexical awareness that temporal creatures possess, and in this way he could suffer from some sort of indexical defect. So it’s possible that because God is timeless he could know that John knows that it is now 2:15pm but not know that it is now 2:15pm because of an indexical inability (or defect if you so choose).

    But I’m curious, even if God knows that P because I know that P, how do you escape the problem that God’s knowledge of temporality is limited to my knowledge of it and dependent upon my knowledge of it? It seems that this would threaten his aseity.

    Furthermore, humans are not aware of all temporal events. Does this mean that God’s knowledge of temporality is limited to only those temporal events that humans know?

    Lastly, you restricted your argument to propositional knowledge. What about knowledge of temporal non-propositional realities? Do you think that God can know them, and if so, how does he know them?

  9. TF– There are two questions to your comment #6 as I see it. First, if you grant that creation was free, not necessary, then the question is whether you believe that God is “in time” necessarily, that is, essentially? Second, we should unpack what is connoted by saying “x is in time.” I claim that this implies an external inexorability of succession, and that this is therefore not properly predicated of God. I would rather say that God is fully present in all of his creation, in both its spatial and temporal aspects. This would be true regardless of whether we concluded for the A- or B-theory (or neither).

  10. Dear TJH,

    Creation (and Providence) was certainly free – no one is more free than the Potter. It was necessitated by the Divine Decree, but the Divine Decree was itself free, and, thus, with those caveats, I think we can agree that Creation is free.

    Time, like all creation, subsides in God. It rests on Him for its existence both original (think Creation) and continuing (think Providence). Without God’s presence, there could be no present (nor past nor future).

    As for whether God is “in time” in the sense of being subject to an external inexorability of succession, all the Orthodox would reject such an idea.

    We can reject it just as we reject the idea that God’s being “wherever two or three are gathered together” would imply that God is subject to an external inexorability of extension.

    God is not subject to any external inexorability. God is Holy.

    Nevertheless, it is God Who produces the inexorable succession of events, and who can suspend (Joshua 10:13) or reverse them (2 Kings 20:9-10), as He sovereignly sees fit. The law of time is, like all natural laws, the result of, and subject to, the divine decree. Thus, just as God decrees space, and mankind, God also decrees time, and the history of mankind.

    I think that places us in agreement, even if I have some small quibble over your phrasing.


  11. “A second now is thought to have the same duration as a second yesterday or tomorrow.”
    Well, maybe not. There appears to be reasonable scholarship now that the speed of light “c” is slowing down. Most of the work on this was collected by Dr. Chuck Missler ( Not widely accepted, but worth looking at.

  12. I’m not sure that the speed of light is capable of changing, given the 1983 definition. See my brief discussion here. No doubt, this only points to a deficiency of the definition. But it does point out a serious problem: to say the measure of some X is changing, one must assume that the measure itself is fixed.

    Consider that a speed is a ratio of a (spatial) length and a time. Thus, to measure a speed, you must be able to measure two things: space and time. To measure time requires that time be measurable. What does it mean, and what kind of universe is presupposed, for time to be measurable? It is at that point that my discussion enters.

    Missler fails to engage this discussion at a deep level. Instead, like most popular apologists, he actually takes the natural order as a given, then tries to backfit it to the Bible. Thus, the speed of light slowing down will be taken as a new discoverable “law” of light, which can then be worked backwards to show, say, young universe. But all of this still treats the law-like character of the universe as a given that is more basic than the word of God; something that God has to “work with” so to speak. His conscious goal may be commendable, but methodologically he is still enmeshed in natural law worldview. Anyhow, so it seems to me based on a few hours of audio and video tapes and scanning a few printed lectures of his. But perhaps I have misread him?

  13. Tim,
    You posit the many worlds theory but I’m not sure what you are using it for. If there can be no free access or transitivity then how do you ever bring them together? You cannot say that an angel in world B can have an effect on a person in world A. Once the angel has access to said person then are they not part of the same world by your definition?

    Furthermore, what is the relationship between God and the world in this sense? God has free acess to us and we (Christians at least) have acess to God (in some sense)… The only thing that keeps God from being in the world is the “creature” part of your definition. But what is the point of this limit?

  14. Jon — I’ll answer one small piece at a time.

    The purpose of the Narnia illustration in the first place is to show that the thesis of classical orthodoxy is intuitively acceptable. It never occurs to children reading those stories, “wait a minute, you can’t have two worlds that are not time-synchronized.” On the contrary, it is accepted naturally.

    Everyone, even the modern philosophers, accepts the analogous intuition about God and space. No one says,
    1. God is fully present here (pointing to spot A).
    2. God is also fully present there (pointing to spot B).
    3. Therefore, spot A must be the same as spot B.
    4. But that is not the case, therefore (1) and (2) cannot both be true.

    So my first salvo is that Narnia shows that we have an analogous intuition re the temporal situation.

  15. Tim,
    This much is clear, and I think the analogy of God and space is an excellent point.

  16. Jonathan, to continue with your questions (#13),

    An angel (nor any other creature) in World B could indeed not have an effect on a person in world A apart from “special commission” as it were.

    For now, I leave it as an open question whether the biblical angels are in our world. I can anticipate arguments in either direction.

    “If there can be no free access or transitivity then how do you ever bring them together?” You don’t; that’s just the point. But God can slide them around and pinch them together at an access point; like picking the point on each sphere that two bubbles will attach and merge for a time. The argument here is that the times can also be selected. (x, y, z, t) (world A) is attached to (x’, y’, z’, t’) of world B, for a specific purpose. But the attachment is not part of the “nature” of either world, nor is the access free to creatures on either side.

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