Love and the Timeless God

January 28th, 2022 / No Comments

Philosophy always plays a role in Christian theology. This isn’t a bad thing; philosophy isn’t inherently evil. We’re all philosophers, in the general sense of thinking about things, and all theologies have philosophical assumptions. In fact, every statement about love – scholarly or not – incorporates philosophy, at least in the broad sense.

Some philosophies do better than others at elucidating love. Some better fit the way biblical writers portray God’s love and creation. Some better fit our experience of the world, aligning better with contemporary science, personal experiences, art, and culture. Some philosophies are more plausible, in the sense of cohering with what we know about life. And some are more internally consistent.

We should avoid philosophies that cannot help us talk coherently about love.

Augustine and Classical Theism

The influential medieval theologian Augustine read widely in philosophy, including the works of Aristotle, the Neoplatonists (e.g., Plotinus, Porphyry), the Stoics, and others. Many scholars note the influence these philosophies had on his theology.

Adolf Harnack (1851-1930) is often cited as the first to decry Greek philosophy’s influence upon Augustine and Christian theology. Harnack called it “the Hellenic spirit” and many today call this the “Hellenization” of Christian thought.[1] These philosophical traditions still influence Christian theologians and philosophers today.

Many today use the label “classical theism” to describe ideas endorsed by Augustine and theologians he influenced, such as Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Martin Luther. “Classical” doesn’t necessarily mean old. Nor do only theologians who lived long ago embrace these ideas; some scholars embrace them today.[2] And not every theologian of yesteryear embraced so-called classical theism. Theological diversity existed then as it does now.

Augustine and classical theism affirm at least four unique ideas about God, ideas intricately connected to Platonic and Neo-Platonic views about the superiority of what is changeless. They say God is 1) timeless, 2) immutable, 3) impassible, and 4) simple.[3] To a great extent, these four ideas are mutually reinforcing, and each has implications for a theology of love.

In this essay, I explore a problem that comes when believing God is timeless. In my book Pluriform Love, I explore the other three aspects of classical theism’s particular view of God. And in the book, I offer alternative philosophical ideas meant to replace the ones in classical theism I find inadequate.

God and Time

Just about every Christian believes God had no beginning and will have no end. But classical theism understands this belief in a particular way. It says God experiences no succession of moments. God is timeless. There is no “before” or “after” in God because God is nontemporal. Deity does not experience moment by moment.

Augustine affirms this divine timelessness view.[4] “In the sublimity of an eternity which is always in the present,” he says, God is “before all things past and transcends all things future.”[5] In fact, God created time, according to Augustine. “What time could there be that you had not created?” he asks rhetorically of God. “You are the Maker of all times… No time is co-eternal with you.”[6]

Because time had a beginning, Augustine says, we should not ask what God was doing before creating.[7] That question is nonsensical, because there was no time before God created it. In fact, Augustine admits he can’t really talk about time at all. “If I wish to explain it to one who asks,” Augustine says, “I know not [how].”[8]

Scholars propose various ways God might relate to time. Two proposals dominate. The divine timelessness view we find in Augustine says God experiences no succession of moments. God has no experience. Many use the word “eternal” to identify this view, although in popular vernacular, some say God is “outside time.”

The other dominant way to think about God and time is often called the “everlasting” view.[9] It says God experiences a succession of moments, and this succession had no beginning and will have no end. But God experiences the ongoing flow of time. Past moments preceded each moment of God’s everlasting life, and God will experience moment by moment everlastingly into the future. The everlasting God is the “living God,” to use a common biblical phrase, in the sense of experiencing time’s ongoing succession.

In short, to say God is “eternal” means God is timeless or nontemporal. To say God is “everlasting” means God continually experiences and is pantemporal.

My Response to a Timeless God

It is difficult to align the dominant portrait of God in scripture with Augustine’s and classical theism’s portrait. The God described in the Old and New Testaments interacts with creatures, moment by moment. This involves time sequences. The living God of interactive love has “befores” and “afters,” making promises about what God will do and responding to what creatures have done. In the Bible, God plans for the future, talks about past events, and acts alongside creatures in the present. Biblical writers typically describe God as one who experiences time’s flow.

Old Testament writers use the word olam to describe God’s relation to time. This Hebrew word connotes long duration, antiquity, and futurity rather than timelessness. Olam describes the remote past or future, but also the notion of perpetuity.[10] When used with reference to God, olam better describes God as everlastingly experiencing rather than as timelessly not experiencing. Many scholars also say the timeless view of God is absent in the New Testament.[11]

According to this reasoning, passages that appear to support divine timelessness are better interpreted as identifying God’s faithfulness. God is lovingly faithful through time, not outside it. C. R. Schoonhoven states the case bluntly: “In the understanding of the writers of the Old Testament and New Testament, eternity is not timelessness but endless time.”[12] The God of the Bible “lives in time,” says John Goldingay.[13] “Neither timelessness nor the simultaneity of past, present, and future,” says Terence Fretheim, “would represent the view of any biblical tradition.”[14]

An everlastingly time-full God interacts with time-full creatures in a time-full universe.

Divine Timelessness and Love

The timeless view presents problems for a theology of love. From everything we know, love requires time-full giving and receiving. Love is interactive and experiential, which implies influencing and being influenced moment by moment. The love of a timeless God would be nondurational, which makes no sense with love as we know it.

If the divine timelessness view is true, many biblical passages would be meaningless. John’s claim that we love because God first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19), for instance, would be incomprehensible. A timeless God doesn’t act prior to our actions. If God is nontemporal, John should have said we and God love simultaneously. Creatures would not need a timeless God to act first on their behalf.

Or take the biblical view that God redeems.[15] To say God, in love, redemptively responds to sin makes no sense if God is timeless. A timeless God has no time to redeem, because an eternal God does not respond to what occurs in time’s flow. Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it nicely: “God the Redeemer cannot be a God eternal.”[16] A redeeming God must be everlasting, which means responding moment-by-moment to creation.

One of the most profound expressions of divine love is forgiveness. God responds to sin by forgiving the offender. “If we confess our sins,” writes John, “he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins” (1 Jn. 1:9). But forgiving love makes no sense if God is timeless, because a nontemporal God cannot respond. Forgiveness is a time-oriented form of love.

Love requires time, and Augustine’s God doesn’t have any.

Love requires time, and Augustine’s God doesn’t have any. Click To Tweet

[1] Adolf Harnack, History of Dogma, Neil Buchanan, trans. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1897). Many others have made this argument. See Hubertus R. Drobner, “Christian Philosophy,” in The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). 672–90; Helmut Koester, History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age in Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1995). Sometimes the Hellenism thesis is taken too broadly, as Paul Gavrilyuk has argued (The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought[Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004]).

[2] For examples, see James E. Dolezal, God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011);H. J. McCann, Creation and the Sovereignty of God (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 20212).

[3] On this designation for classical theism, see Ryan T. Mullins, “Classical Theism,” in T & T Clark Handbook of Analytic Theology, James M. Arcadi and James T. Turner, Jr., eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), 85-100; T. Williams, “Introduction to Classical Theism,” in J. Dillerand A. Kasher, eds., Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities (New York: Springer, 2013), 95–7.

[4] Augustine, On the Trinity, 5, 17; Confessions, 13, 38, 53; City of God, 11, 8; 22, 30.

[5] Augustine, Confessions, XI. xiii (16).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Translations of scripture rarely indicate what view of time the writer holds. Biblical translators sometimes use the word “eternal” to describe what is likely the “everlasting” view and vice versa. Note, for instance, various translations of the conclusion to John 3:16. Some say God gives “eternal” life and other say “everlasting” life.

[10] F. Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon (London: Oxford University Press, 1906), 761.

[11] Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time, F. V. Filson, trans. (London:SCM, 1951[rev. ed. 1962]), 69-80. This is the conclusion of many New Testament scholars, including Eldon G. Ladd (A Theology of the New Testament [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974], 47).

[12] C.R. Schoonhoven, “Eternity” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, ed. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982), 162-164.

[13] John Goldingay, Israel’s Gospel, Vol. 1 of Old Testament Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2003), 64.

[14] Terence E. Fretheim, God and the World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 303.

[15] Richard Holland Jr. offers a strong argument for why a timeless God cannot be incarnate. See God, Time, and the Incarnation (Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock, 2012).

[16] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “God Everlasting,” in God and the Good, ed. Clifton J. Orlebeke and Lewis B. Smedes (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1975), 182.

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