Monday, February 09, 2015

God, Time, and Divine Immutability (Duncan)

The Old Testament appears to depict God as a dynamic being within time:

"The everlasting (or at best relatively timeless) nature of God's eternity has been clearly implied in Ps. 90:2,Isa. 40:28, 41:4; 43:10, and 44:6; while Isa. 48:3 allows any view. Eccl. 3:11, too, will not support an absolute timelessness. Thus Schmidt's thesis that the OT supports a Boethian understanding of non-durational timeless eternity cannot be maintained. We can conclude with the vast majority of scholars that Yahweh is understood by OT writers to be everlasting, or at best 'timeless' in a relative sense" (A. Padgett, God, Eternity, and the Nature of Time, page 29).

Like Stephen T. Davis, Padgett also concludes that Boethius' theory of divine timelessness in The Consolation of Philosophy 5 does not seem to be in accord with the Old Testament account of a God who is depicted in temporal language. Moreover, William Hasker considers the scriptural accounts that Davis references. While he concludes that it is intelligible to speak of a timeless God acting in history, he nonetheless concedes that there is a problem envisioning an atemporal God bringing about distinct events that take place "at different points in time." For example, Hasker wonders how it is metaphysically possible for God to split the Red Sea (by an eternal act of will) and (by an eternal act of will) to ordain that the wheels of the Egyptian chariots loosen? Additionally, Hasker believes that God's responsiveness concerning prayer is also a potential difficulty for the timeless view of divinity: "For in responding to another it is of the essence that one first acts, then waits for the other to react, then acts responsively, and so on. There seems to be no way this sequence could be collapsed, as it were, into a single timeless moment."

If one construes the scriptural language of prayer literally, it is potentially difficult to reconcile God's atemporality with the deity of Scripture who hears and answers prayers (Psalm 65:2). So the biblical accounts that depict God responding to the prayers of His creatures appear to undermine the notion of divine atemporality--even the advocates of divine atemporality have admitted that reconciling prayer with divine timelessness is not an easy task. Maybe the solution is to understand the response language of Scripture in anthropomorphic terms. On the other hand, it is possible that the God of Scripture is sempiternal (God has neither beginning nor end, but still exists temporally).

From a consideration of the biblical and logical evidence, I submit that God is not a timeless being existing in an eternal now. Of course, if God is sempiternal, it is fitting to ask how he keeps from being conditioned by the accidents of time. Terence Fretheim has written that the God of the Old Testament is temporal, but he is not touched by the vicissitudes of time. It could also be posited that God is not adversely conditioned by his temporality: Jehovah does not age or grow decrepit with the passage of time. Nor does the divine essence undergo change (James 1:17). If God is a temporal being, there could be a sense in which He changes but still remains God.

John Sanders posits relational changes in God: he suggests that God willingly chooses to enter into an ever-changing relationship with rational creatures. The biblical scholar James Barr has been critical of theories that assert God is temporal based on lexical studies of olam or aiwn. But one might legitimately wonder what significance the Bible has if one cannot infer, deduce or learn about theo-ontological concepts pertaining to God's nature from the very book that declares Him to be either atemporal or sempiternal.

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