This book (see bibliog. at end) is a discussion of the philosophy of time, with specific attention to the question of the relation between God and time.
The view of God and time that was held by all orthodox Christians until the late 19th century, was that God inhabits a timeless eternity. As Boethius put it, “eternity, then, is the complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life.”
Different ways of explaining how God (as timeless) relates to the temporal world have been proposed historically. Steven Charnock, for example, accepted the temporal world of common sense, which only has existence “now.” (This view of time is known in philosophical literature as the “A theory,” or the dynamic theory of time.) The world is always present before the eternal God: Charnock argued it can change without implying change in God, by appealing to abstract duration. An analogy to understand this is a rock lying beside a river. Imagine the rock is not eroding or decaying in any way. The rock exists timelessly in that it does not change; the river changes in relation to the rock.
The main alternative explanation is that the world itself in its entire history exists “simultaneously” in a higher dimension or higher reality. This view was favored, for example, by C. S. Lewis. It is called the “B theory,” or static or stasis view of time.
Padgett proposes a new theory of God’s eternity, such that God experiences temporal succession, though without beginning or end, and not subject to our measurement of time.
The main argument for God being “in time” is this. In order for God to be the immediate cause of every state of affairs in the history of the universe, it must be that either God is temporal, or the stasis view of time is true (chap. 4). It must be that God is the immediate cause of every state of affairs in the history of the universe (chap 4). But the stasis view cannot be true (chap 5). Therefore, God must be temporal (chap 6). Moreover, Scripture does not rule out that God is temporal (chap 2).
On the other hand, Padgett wants to preserve as much of the traditional view as possible: “As the infinite Creator of all things, including time itself, God should in some way transcend time” (122). Padgett’s dual purpose leads him to propose that God grounds the necessity of our worldly time by a choice made outside of time, remaining throughout the Lord of Time (chap. 6):
God has chosen eternally to live the kind of life he does, and has chosen eternally to have a temporal universe in which to live. This choice is an eternal one, in that it must have always been made. There is no time before which this choice was made.
Moreover, the measure of God’s time (if there is any measure) is unrelated to the measure of our time, for being temporal does not mean having the same or even any metric of time (chap 1). Therefore, God is temporal and in the “same time” as us, but is “relatively timeless,” in that the measure of his time does not correlate to the measure of our time.
Philosophy of Science
Chapter 5 takes the burden of refuting B-theories of time; but Padgett does not thereby establish the A-theory. In a future post, I hope to show that both A- and B-theories give valid but partial perspectives on the nature of time, but neither is the whole story, and thus they are not simple contradictories.
Along this same line, the burden of chapter 5 when addressing Relativity Theory seems to grant the claim of some that Relativity Theory establishes a stasis view of time, to which Padgett raises metaphysical objections. However, a modified A/B theory rooted in the decree of God can also account for Relativity Theory, as I will show, if God permits. But in any case, Relativity is a serious problem for an A-theory that wishes the indexical “now” to be univocal, and Padgett’s discussion of this is inadequate if not simply wrong.
Though highlighting the problem of the measurability of time, his solution — “that the laws of nature, or better the law-like regularities of nature, are essential to the measurement of time” — is question-begging, in that the regularities of nature presuppose the existence and recognition of measurable time just as much as vice-versa.
“There is no time before which this choice was made.” But earlier Padgett had argued “necessarily, if time does not go by, then a change cannot occur.” (15). Is not a choice a kind of change? Then Padgett has either made a mistake in saying there was “no time before which this choice was made,” or he must say that “time has gone by” yet there was “no time before” in the “moment” of the choice. It is not at all clear how time must go by in the act of making a choice, yet not exist prior to the choice. If it is possible for at least one event to occur with no time before it, then by symmetry, why couldn’t there also be no time after that event?
On this same point, Padgett says “necessarily, if a change occurs then a duration occurs.” (15) He goes on to say that that statement “is verified all the time in our world, in fact every time a duration is measured by a changing thing” but of course an empirical observation cannot prove the necessity of anything.
We should criticize his semantics here as well. What does “a change occurs” say but “an occurrence occurs” or “a change changes”? What does “a duration occurs” mean? He introduced the thought by saying “”if time does not go by, then a change cannot occur” but “time going by” is problematic as he acknowledges later in the book.
Padgett attacks the traditional exegesis along several lines. First, he observes that the Hebrew word ‘olam is given by BDB as “long duration, antiquity, futurity.” His thesis in examining texts regarding divine eternity will, predictably, be to argue that “when this word is applied to God, the meaning is clearly not an absolute timeless eternity” (24). However, in listing examples in the OT qualified by this word (temple, earth, singing, slavery), he shifts to the meaning perpetual. This is a subtle and portentous shift, and the motivation is plain: based on a definition of (mere) long duration, the same Scripture passages that Padgett claims do not teach eternity, also do not teach endless succession; but Padgett wants to retain infinite succession. So he subtly shifts from the long duration definition in BDB to perpetual.
Without this semantic shift, one could just as well claim that the OT teaches a God that came to be at some time in the distant past.
The second problem is too quickly inferring from the prepositions before and after in Ps. 90:2:
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou are God.
The expression min ‘olam ‘ad ‘olam (AV: from everlasting to everlasting) is taken by Padgett to assert everlasting (not eternal) divine life. The problem is that min and ‘ad are fundamentally spatial relations, or at least that seems to be their originary reference; from which the temporal relationship came to be by metaphor. So the use of language itself points to a metaphorical sense that must be coaxed out.
Instead, the proper way to understand the OT texts is to bear in mind two principles:
- In the nature of the case, God’s temporal character, or lack thereof, is sui generis. There could not be a free-standing word whose meaning could be inferred from usage in an array of broad mundane contexts, from which one could ever say the primary denotation of the word was eternity. In this, the same mistake is made as those who argue against creatio ex nihilo on the basis that bara’ in Gen. 1:1 means to form.
- Language is inherently metaphorical, analogical, and figured. What is needed is to ponder the intended meaning of the speaker, which includes how the meaning would be received by the reader of his own day. (Saying this is not to deny the possibility of “hidden meanings” that could become evident as the church continues to ponder revelation in history.) The need for ratiocination cannot be ignored, even for the original audience. As we listen to Psalm 90, along with the original audience we would reflect along these lines:
- Everything that we know and conceive about time is in reference to our own being and history, or that of the world. But the text points beyond all that: before the mountains ever were brought forth. The natural trajectory of thought is that God is beyond time.
- The verb to be is missing in the Hebrew which A.V. renders “thou art God.” This would lead the reader in one of two directions. Either (a) it is an instance of typical compression of Hebrew poetry, with an implied are as in the A.V. But then something like an eternal now is predicated of God, since the implied to be in a single tense spans both the indefinite past and future; or (b) the difficulty of assigning a tense in this context indicates the need to speak tenselessly when speaking of God’s presence in the ancient past and indefinite future, and this is brought out by the lack of an explicit verb. The same trajectory as (a) is then established.
Padgett claims that John 8:58 (Before Abraham was, I AM”) contains “some notion of eternity,” but does not resolve “between everlastingness and timelessness” (34). But again, the present tense points to timelessness. Otherwise, one would be tempted down the path of Arianism.
Padgett cites 2 Enoch 65:6-7 as proof that the environment of the NT writers was quite capable of an explicit description of eternity, so that the absence of such a description in the canonical NT is a legitimate argument from silence in favor of saying Scripture “knows nothing of an absolute timeless divine eternity” (35). But the 2 Enoch passage also shows how it is plausible that the biblical community regarded the canonical teaching received to that point as implying timelessness!
Theological implications of Padgett’s View of God and Time
We need to emphasize that when Padgett grants that God is (relatively) timeless, he only means God is not in any Measured Time; he is still temporal. This means there is no absolute time reference by which His succession can be measured. Does this bring Padgett closer to the traditional orthodoxy?
1. The absence of an outside measure is also true of our time!
2. 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 (perhaps a potentially infinite amount of time) yet before needing to cross that transition. But is not this whole train of thought pagan?
Alan G. Padgett. God, Eternity, and the Nature of Time (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, reprint n/d [St. Martin’s Press, 1992]).