Is God timeless or temporal apart from creation?

One of the factors that makes up a person’s model of providence is their understanding of God’s relationship to time. Accordingly, when I constructed a comparative chart of the eleven models of divine providence which I had unpacked in Providence and Prayer, I included a line for “God’s experience of time” (363-64). When I  wrote that book I was convinced that, when God created, he enters into time, though he experiences it differently than we do (as Alan Padgett nicely proposes in God, Eternity and the Nature of Time). But I was uncertain about God’s experience of time apart from (“before”) creation, and so I stated that God’s experience was “probably temporal” (364).

William Lane Craig’s book, Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time had not yet been written when my book on divine providence came out, but when Craig’s book came out, he almost persuaded me that God was timelessly eternal before creation and everlasting afterwards. (He recognizes, of course, that, in that case, to speak of  God as  existing “before” creation is metaphorical, since we are using the language of time to speak of the experience of the timeless God.) There was one factor, however, that still made me slightly agnostic about God’s relationship to time apart from creation, and that was God’s triune personhood. It seemed to me that if God were absolutely timeless when he had not “yet” created anything, his experience would be too static to account for the love that exists eternally in the relationships between the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Consequently, I have continued to be agnostic on this point, although leaning strongly in favour of Craig’s proposal.

William Lane Craig

A few days ago, I became aware of a lecture which Craig had given at the Oxbridge conference, on July 23, 2002. It is quite probable that, in his book published in 2001, he had already made the point he made in that lecture but, if he had, it had apparently not satisfied my mind on the one issue that nagged at me. As I read Craig’s lecture now, however, I concluded that he has adequately addressed the problem, and so I can now identify myself as in agreement with his proposal that God’s eternity was a timelessness apart from creation, but became an everlastingness in relationship to creation, since then. That is to say, that God had no experience of past, present and future when there was nothing else, but that he entered into that experience when he created space and time. For the benefit of anyone else who is pondering this issue, I’ll clip in to this post the section of Craig’s lecture in which he speaks to the problem that had left me agnostic for some time.

What objections, then, might be raised against divine timelessness? Well, one of the most popular objections that has been raised in the literature is that timelessness and personhood are incompatible. Persons engage in activities such as anticipation of the future and recollection of the past; in deliberation and discursive thinking; in experiencing conscious feelings. All of these are temporal activities. Therefore, the idea of a timeless person is said to be incoherent.

Well, is this a good argument? I’m not persuaded that it is a good objection. Let’s conduct a thought experiment: imagine that God had refrained from creating the world. Imagine God existing without creation. We can think of a possible world in which God alone exists, solitary, alone, without any universe or created order whatsoever. Would God, in such a world, be temporal? Well, if He had a stream of consciousness, clearly He would be temporal because there would be a temporal series of mental events going on in His mind. But let’s suppose that God exists changelessly in such a state, that He has a single state of consciousness. Would He, in that case, be temporal? Well, I think that’s far from obvious. On the contrary, on a relational view of time in which time is a concomitant of events, such a changeless state would be a state of timelessness. So God existing in such a state would, I think, plausibly be timeless.

Someone might say, “A personal being cannot exist in a timeless way.” Well, why not? What are the conditions sufficient for personhood? Well, it seems to me that the condition which is necessary and sufficient for personhood is self-consciousness. To know oneself as a self, to have self-awareness and self-consciousness and, hence, intentionality and freedom of the will is sufficient for personhood. But self-consciousness is not an inherently temporal notion. God can simply know all truth in a single intuition of truth without having to learn it or having to come by it through a process. As long as His consciousness does not change, there is no reason to ascribe to God temporality. So there is nothing about a self-conscious life that entails temporality as long as it is a changeless self-consciousness.

As for these other properties we mentioned, I would say that while these are common properties of human persons (who are, after all, temporal), these are not essential properties of personhood. For example, take deliberation and discursive thinking; this is excluded from God not so much because of His timelessness but because of His omniscience. An omniscient being doesn’t need to deliberate because he already knows the conclusions to anything that he might think about. And therefore God’s thought life cannot be discursive if He’s an omniscient being. He simply knows all truth in a single intuition at a single moment. Similarly, memory and anticipation are not essential to a timeless person because he has nothing to forget and nothing to anticipate if he simply exists timelessly. There is no past and future. So these qualities, though common to human persons, are not essential to personhood, and therefore it seems to me that there is no incoherence in speaking of God as a timeless, personal being.

In fact, I think that the doctrine of the Trinity can help us out here, because the doctrine of the Trinity provides a useful model for God’s timeless existence. Very often, people will say that persons have to exist in interpersonal relationships, and therefore God would have to be temporal. But what that assumes is that the persons to whom God is related would have to be human persons. But according to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, that is not true. God, in His own being, is tri-personal, and in the unity of His own being God can enjoy the fullness of interpersonal relationships within the Godhead itself in a timeless and changeless way. Everything the Father knows, the Son and the Spirit know; what the Father loves, the Spirit and the Son love; what the Son wills, the Father and the Spirit will. This is the doctrine of perichoresis, according to which the three persons of the Godhead are completely transparent to one another and interpenetrate one another. And just as we sometimes speak metaphorically of two lovers who sit just staring into each other’s eyes, not speaking a word, as “lost in that timeless moment,” so, in a literal way, God in the interpersonal relationships of the Trinity, can exist in a timeless moment of complete love, fulfillment, and blissfulness in the self-sufficiency of his own being. Thus I am not at all persuaded that timelessness and personhood are incompatible; it seems to me quite possible, and plausible, that God can exist timelessly while being personal.

Paul Helm When Paul Helm and I were in conversation about the validity of my attributing God’s knowledge of counterfactuals to “middle knowledge,” he commented on my regular use of temporal language in speaking of the moments of God’s knowledge, which I then identified as three: necessary/natural, middle, and free. I eventually concurred with Paul that God knows counterfactuals as part of his necessary knowledge, and that such knowledge would only need to be “middle” if he had given creatures libertarian freedom. But, with regard to my “temporal” language with regard to the “moments” in God’s knowledge, I observed that the theologians who had formulated a Christian understanding of God’s knowledge relative to his decision (decree) to create a universe had also spoken about an order. Reformed scholastics also debated at length the “order” of God’s decrees, even though they believed that God was absolutely timeless. So, whether God’s decrees, and his knowledge relative to those decrees, came about in temporal succession or whether the “order” of which we speak is purely logical, is not critical in our conversation about these things. At the time of my conversation with Paul regarding the feasibility of God having middle knowledge, I leaned slightly towards divine temporality apart from creation, but none of my statements about “order” are dependent on God’s being temporal. Now that I am more convinced that God is timeless apart from creation, I can clearly assert that the order of God’s decrees and the relationship of his kinds of knowledge to those decrees, is purely logical.

(My conversation with Paul Helm was later published in the Westminster Theological Journal 71/2 (Fall 2009): 437-54. I have also described my slight change with regard to the “moment” of God’s knowledge of counterfactuals, in a blog post entitled “Nuancing my view of providence.”  Incidentally, Helm’s book, Eternal God: A Study of God Without Time, is the finest case for divine timelessness that I have read, even though I now think that Craig’s perspective is more likely to be true. We are in deep waters here, so whatever I say has a measure of tentativeness.)

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4 Responses to Is God timeless or temporal apart from creation?

  1. R.C. Dozier says:

    Terrance,

    I enjoy your blog. Just stumbled upon this post.

    Here (at the link below) is my take on the issue as I continue to wrestle with it.:

    http://www.rcdozier.blogspot.com/2013/12/critique-of-craigs-model.html

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Thank you R. C., I found your thoughts interesting and thought provoking. I’ll need to ponder your analysis more carefully to grasp the full effect of your critique of Craig’s view of God’s relationship to time, but it looks helpful.

  2. Kirk says:

    Enjoyed your article.
    Problematic to atemporalism is creation, which Craig (at least on the surface) appears to solve. Honestly, though, Craig’s whole argument hangs on an idea for which the only examples he can provide are in the form of statements requiring acceptance of their relationship to events he propounds to prove them out. However, these always require taking a post hoc, ergo protor hoc to the event. That’s not a very sound footing.

    That said, atemporalists simply can here (the created universe), from an atemporalism that does not even accept “Cambridge change” (ref. several excellent articles by R. T. Mullins, available online for free). As you know, an entirely atemporal God simply can’t do anything since, in the doing, he takes on temporality. Traditional Reformed theology has stood for atemporalism. But more than this, they really can’t deal with statements such as 2 Kings 19:25, Is 37:26.

    If God planned in ancient TIMES, then he didn’t predetermine everything before he created; and could not, therefore, have foreknown it (and was not omniscient). If these statements are taken poetically or metaphorically for his planning before creation, then prior to creation, God planned. That would mean before creation he was both atemporal, and not omniscient (in the classical sense). If “planned” is taken as poetical language for “foreknown,” then we are stuck with a deterministic God who is not free, as in Ps. 115:3. He cannot even choose between two good options. He can only do whatever he has foreknown himself to do (and can’t do it at all, if he is atemporal). All else are known unavailable options which he simply cannot do, otherwise, he could not have foreknown himself to do what he has done, does, and will do. Naturally, the argument that God knows the future based on being outside of time is problematic, since an atemporal God cannot have created a temporal world to be “outside of,” without taking on temporality (and creating all times at once, thus creating both good and evil).

    It is humorous how difficult passages always become explained as poetical and metaphorical if they do not fit one’s theology. This is not always a problem when the context is poetic. But often the claim is made when those asserting the claim are actually asserting the metaphor means the exact opposite of what the text indicates, or nothing at all (“It’s just poetical language”).

    Naturally, there is great comfort in holding traditional views, even if they were likely originally influenced by an idealism about God formed in Greek philosophy (which may well have touched Judaism, and not just Christianity). There is great irony in Protestantism which allegedly rejects tradition as a cause for theological doctrine and dogma, and alleges clinging to sound reason and logic,…until one questions it, due to the logical and biblical problems it creates on fundamental theological levels.

  3. mstair says:

    “The Hebrew word acronym meaning God, YHWH, Comes from a verb that means, “to exist, be.” It is in the continual present tense, imparting a sense of timelessness–without past or future–a fundamental state of “is.” The Bible says that all that is required for this infinite being to act is to give word. God created the universe by speaking.
    Genesis 1:3 (NIV)
    And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.”

    New study into the quantum understanding of matter and time can resolve the issue in that there need not be an either/or when considering temporality. We humans, residing in an entropic reality, must use temporal language, but quantum physics reveals that energy (and God Himself) is not limited to any temporal restrictions.

    Excerpt From: Mike Stair. “Be Attitudinal.”

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