ReThink everything you thought you Knew

What is your perspective on the classical view that God is above time?

In a major strand of hellenistic (Greek) philosophy, change was seen as being an imperfection. This idea was adopted by many early Church fathers and eventually became almost an assumed dogma of the Church. It was thus assumed that, since God is perfect, he must be above all change. Not only does his character and being not change, but even his experience of the world cannot change. This is known as “the immutability of God.” Since time is the measurement of change, it was assumed that God must be “above time.” Thus, classical theology has historically held that God experiences the whole of time in a single eternal instant. For God, everything is eternally simultaneous. It seems to me there are major problems with this view.

To begin, if we understand that all of our thinking about God must be centered on Jesus, who alone is the perfect revelation of God’s very being (Heb 1:3), it’s not clear how anyone could conclude that God is timeless. Jesus is God incarnated in time. He is the Word made flesh in time. To claim that God is really “above” time is simply to deny that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. In fact, to claim that God is really “above” time is to allow hellenistic philosophy to be, on this matter, the ultimate revelation of God.

Not only this, but the timeless view of God is hard to reconcile with the general biblical revelation that God acts in time. How are we to conceive of an action occurring in time unless there is a time “before” the action takes place and a time “after” the action takes place? Action requires sequence.

The Bible says “the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14), for example. This was an action God took. But to say the Word became flesh entails the Word wasn’t always flesh. Before Jesus appeared on the scene, the Word was not flesh. I’d argue the same logic applies to every verb applied to God in the Bible. To say God sent a flood implies there was a time before he sent the flood and a time after he sent the flood.

God isn’t eternally sending a flood. Nor is God eternally incarnate in the world.

The entire biblical narrative is woven around verbs applied to God, and every one of them suggests that God experiences a before and after.

The problem with timelessness is compounded further if we grant that God not only acts in time, but that God acts freely—viz. God possesses self-determination. (I don’t know any Christian theists who deny that God is free).

Self-determining freedom entails a sequence of events in which an agent transitions several possible courses of action into one actual course of action. For example, right now I’m considering whether I want to eat a veggie pizza, a salad, or a veggie burger for lunch. If I’m truly free in relation to these options, then it is ultimately up to me to collapse these three possibilities into the one actual meal I will eat. All free actions are like this. A free agent first faces possibilities x, y and z and then chooses to actualize (say) possibility z. Without the sequence of moving from several possibilities to one actuality, it’s not at all clear how an agent could be said to self-determine anything.

But this means that, if God engages in any free actions, his experience must be sequential.

To make the same point another way, if God experiences all of history as “an eternal now,” as the classical view holds, then there is no real (“ontological”) possibility that anything in history could be different than it in fact is from God’s perspective. Every fact is eternally settled. So there can be no possible courses of action for God to freely resolve into an actual course of action. So, if we want to say God is free, then we must deny that God experiences all of history as “an eternal now.”

The problem with timelessness is compounded still further if we claim that God not only acts freely, but that God interacts with creatures in time. Interaction implies two or more agents reciprocally influencing each other and responding to each other. But how can God respond to us if there is no “before” and “after” with God?

So, to return to an earlier example, the Bible depicts God as sending the flood in response to human sin. God regretted making humans (Gen. 6:6), so he decided to start the whole human project over. But this presupposes that God first saw humans falling into irredeemable sin, then responded with regret, then responded by sending the flood.

On top of all this, it seems to me the hellenistic assumption that all change implies imperfection was misguided from the start. While change that implies improvement or decay certainly signifies imperfection, not all change occurs for this reason. A perfect being may change in response to changing circumstances simply because it’s appropriate to change in this way, not as a way of improving or worsening.

Consider this illustration. When confronted with tragedy, a perfect human being would allow himself to be impacted by this and would respond by changing his otherwise happy disposition. If he refused or was unable to change in response to the changing circumstances, this would indicate that he was not perfect. Since God is a perfect personal being, and since humans are always changing, we must conceive of God as the most perfectly changing being. His character of course never changes, for he’s always perfect. But precisely because his character is unchanging and is pure love, his experience of the world is always changing.

I thus see no reason to accept the classical assumption that God is above all change and therefore above time.

Now, having said all this there is an important qualification that needs to be made. Aristotle was right in arguing that what we call “time” is simply the measurement of change. And God obviously can’t be subjected to our measurements. As Scripture says, a day to God is like a thousand years to us. The way God experiences sequence, therefore, is radically different from the way we experience sequence. In this sense, it’s meaningful to affirm that God is “above time.” But this doesn’t at all entail that God is above sequence.” As the Incarnation and entire biblical narrative indicate, there is a “before” and “after” in God’s experiences. He’d be less than perfect if this wasn’t the case.

It’s just that he doesn’t wear a watch.

What is your perspective on the classical view that God is above time?
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