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:
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.