Providence as Improv, Jazz, or Family

July 12th, 2019 / 7 Comments

Most Christian theologies assume God is essentially timeless. This timeless God foreordains or foreknows all that will ever occur. For these theologies, “divine providence” means God acting with the end already settled.

Open and relational theology thinks God is timefull, not timeless. How we think about God’s relation to time makes a big difference in how we might think about God’s providence.

A Timeless God

When I say some Christian theologies see God as ‘essentially timeless,’ I mean they do not think God experiences in relationship with others, moment by moment. Many assume God ‘sees’ history – beginning to end – from an eternal now.

Scholars offer various theories for how this timeless God allegedly acts. Many think God only acts once. But each theory shares the view God is fundamentally nontemporal. The timeless God is ‘outside,’ ‘beyond,’ or ‘above’ time.

A Timefull God

Open and relational theologies believe God experiences time similar to how we do: sequentially — moment by moment — in relation with others. God’s experience is in process.

God experienced the actual past, experiences in the present, and faces an open, yet-to-be-experienced future. God’s experience is essentially timefull not timeless, pantemporal not nontemporal.

In a recent chapter I wrote for a book, I explore many of the differences thinking God is timefull has for understanding providence. There are many Ways to Think about Divine Providence. In this essay, I want to address one difference among the many.

God’s experience is essentially timefull not timeless, pantemporal not nontemporal. Click To Tweet

Plans but No Blueprint

Many timeless theologies assume the God outside time predetermined creation’s current events and future outcomes. Or they assume this timeless God foreknows – in some mysterious way – precisely how history plays out.

Because God either foreordains or foreknows every occurrence, timeless God theologies typically think of providence like a detailed divine blueprint. This blueprint portrays all events in advance.

Theologies that believe God and creation are in process deny God foreordains or foreknows exhaustively. The future is open, they say, and the present becomes what a timefull God and creation decide. There is not detailed divine blueprint.

The Future is Yet to be Decided

A God of uncontrolling love cannot guarantee or foreknow all outcomes. Giving-and-receiving relationships of love make a real difference, because the future is yet to be decided. (See “What Does God’s Love Do?“)

The timefull God has general plans and desires, however. God is present to us and all creation, and God leads creation toward fulfilling those plans.

A timefull God is not watching us from a distance. This is not an aloof and detached divine being. The God of open and relational theology makes plans for love to win and empowers creatures to cooperate. God works in each situation to call, persuade, or command creatures to choose well-being.

The God of open and relational theology makes plans for love to win and empowers creatures to cooperate. Click To Tweet

Improv, Jazz, or Family

Instead of a blueprint, God-in-process models might think of providence like an improvisational play. The play has a Director and general direction. But creaturely actors play essential roles in deciding how the plot unfolds. The play and its conclusion are neither predetermined nor preknown.

Timefull God models might also think of providence like a jazz session. Each musician contributes, and there’s a general movement toward the possibility of beautiful art. But the artists determine together how the music develops. The musical piece is yet to be expressed.

These models might also think of providence like a family. A perfectly loving Parent nurtures and instructs children trying to direct the whole family toward well-being. But the family’s health and vitality depend on the decisions of all members, not just the Parent. A healthy family does not emerge from a dictatorial parent!


I could list a dozen other positive differences timefull God views of providence have over timeless God views. And I do so in the essay I’ve just completed.

What positive differences do you find attractive?

A healthy family does not emerge from a dictatorial parent, divine or otherwise! Click To Tweet
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George Hermanson

Imagine a jazz group. God sets down the melody. It is passed on to the others in the group, and they get the feel for it. Each listens closely to what the others are saying. Each, in turn, adds originality, colour and difference, tweaking the piece to offer it back to God. God now has to work with what was created by the subjective experiences of the players. God has to feel the offering to give it more feeling. The piece is transformed, to arrive at some satisfaction, which then becomes the ground for the next moments of improvisation. God with us. Alive. Creating. Transforming. Visioning. Maturing. It is within our experience of the world that we vividly experience the presence of God.

Daniel K Held

I’m pretty rusty in the area of “systems theory” but while systems have hierarchies, each part has agency or power to change the system from below. All levels in the hierarchy have influence and none have control. That’s how systems function as moving parts to determine the whole.

Don Ross

Are you sure “timeless” and “timeful” are alternatives? In Eastern Christian theology, God’s essence is beyond anything we can conceive of, including space and time, whereas God’s energies are present in the spatio-temporal world. God is both.

I like the jazz analogy, though. And perhaps it fits the “timeless and timeful” paradigm better than the “timeful-only” one. Because jazz is also both: it’s both directed and spontaneous.


I’m with you, Don. I often explain the timefull and timeless dimensions just the way you do. In fact, a new essay published in a book on divine impassibility makes this point.


Thanks, Dan. That’s how I think of it also.


Beautiful stuff, George! Katherine Ross, David Ewart, Beth Hayward, and Steven Chambers talked about you last night at dinner. Katherine brought up you and the jazz analogy!

Todd Holden

Thank you Tom!
Once again you are helping us to see the need to actually think through what and why we believe what we believe. Far too many followers of Christ do not think through what they say they believe. I was guilty and sometimes still am guilty of that myself. I grew up in a church where it was believed that God had it all figured out and all we essentially had to do was stay in the boat. When I was taking classes from you, you, as a good teacher should, helped me think through all that that could and does mean. I wholeheartedly embrace the fact that we all need to be in relationship with God. It is what we were all created for and we should not short change ourselves! The realization that God has a very real desire to be in a moment by moment relationship with His creation is wondrous and life changing. For me it lets me know that my God, yes I said my God, loves me and is interested in the moment by moment and even sometimes seemingly boring details of my life. God enjoys being with each one of us. God enjoys holding our hands and sometimes even lifting us up in His arms as we walk together this journey with our God. I think in the 21st century we are losing or maybe have lost the sense that God is ours and we are His. The beautiful relationship that our God intended for each of us from the moment of our birth. That is one thing I believe that God predetermined, that He wants nothing less than a daily relationship with all of us.

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