What Does God Know and When Did He Know It?

To be God is to know … everything. He is the Creator who brings beings into being from out of nothing. If something, anything, exists, God knows it; and he knows it completely, exhaustively, immediately. He knows the world from the inside, as a singer knows the song she holds on her breath. It’s not as if God creates the world, at which point it then becomes available for his inspection and study. Divine creation and divine knowing are one eternal act. David Burrell states the fundamental theorem: “God knows what God does,” and what God does is makes things be (Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions, p. 108). There can be no more intimate and comprehensive form of knowledge than the infinite Creator’s knowledge of his finite creatures.

Standing in the analytic philosophical tradition, Hugh McCann prefers to formulate divine omniscience in terms of propositional knowledge: “An omniscient God should know of every true proposition that it is true, and of every false proposition that it is false” (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 62). Perhaps this is the most helpful way to think about divine omniscience, but its seeming anthropomorphism makes me uncomfortable. What is this but the projection of the human mode of rationality upon the screen of eternity. Are we to think of the divine Creator as a being who thinks discursively, forms concepts, has beliefs and assents to propositions? But perhaps I protest too much. Let us assume that divine omniscience is properly defined as the timeless knowing of true propositions.

Christians have traditionally confessed the omniscience of God. It’s part of the job description for divinity. The problem arises when we speak of God’s knowledge of future events. How can God cognize what hasn’t happened yet? Does he peer into a crystal ball? The theory of atemporal eternity provides a nifty solution: God does not foreknow future events; he apprehends them in his timeless present. Boethius advanced the classic formulation in the sixth century:

Since then all judgment apprehends the subjects of its thought according to its own nature, and God has a condition of ever-present eternity, His knowledge, which passes over every change of time, embracing infinite lengths of past and future, views in its own direct comprehension everything as though it were taking place in the present. If you would weigh the foreknowledge by which God distinguishes all things, you will more rightly hold it to be a knowledge of a never-failing constancy in the present, than a foreknowledge of the future. (The Consolation of Philosophy V.6; cf. Lydia McGrew, “Before the Mountains Were Brought Forth“)

Consider the following proposition: John is going to mow the lawn next Saturday. You and I might have every reason to believe that John will mow his lawn. We have witnessed him doing it every Saturday for the past two months and know this is habit and rule. He has specifically informed us that he intends to mow his lawn this coming Saturday. The weather bureau is predicting fair weather. But any number of things might happen that could prevent him from mowing his lawn. Perhaps the mower will break down. Perhaps John will come down with a bad case of the flu. Perhaps his kids will prevail upon him to take them to the county fair. We therefore cannot know that the proposition is true. It thus qualifies as a future contingent.

Now the interesting thing is that if God enjoys a temporal mode of existence, as Richard Swinburne, Alan Rhoda, and many other philosophers claim, then God may well be in the same predicament as the rest of us. What’s going to happen tomorrow is as future to him as it is to us. Yes, the sempiternal Deity knows a lot and is therefore in a great position to make super-accurate predictions, but unless he causally determines human decisions and actions, he cannot predict with 100% accuracy what John is going to do. John may well surprise him and go out of town on Saturday. Nor need this ignorance be seen as compromising the divine omniscience. Just as God cannot do the logically impossible, so he cannot infallibly know the logically impossible. Swinburne proposes a revision of divine omniscience—“not as knowledge at each period of time, of all true propositions, but as knowledge of all propositions that it is logically possible that he entertain then and that, if entertained by God then, are true, and that it is logically possible for God to know then without the possibility of error” (The Christian God, p. 133). Omniscience only guarantees the knowing of that which can be known. The future is not something that can be known, and at the point it can be known, it won’t be future anymore. When will then be now? Soon.

But the situation is different if God enjoys an atemporal mode of existence, transcending space and time:

By contrast, a timelessly eternal God would, as the creator of time, have equal access to all events—past, present, and future. Thus, the atemporalist reasons, a timelessly eternal God would have no difficulty knowing about John’s mowing his lawn, since he is eternally aware of that very action. And, of course, this does not compromise John’s freedom, any more than it would if next Saturday had already arrived and you and I were watching him mow his lawn. (McCann, p. 62)

It’s not as if God knows the future before it happens; he knows it in the same way he knows past and present, in timeless apprehension. Burrell states the position clearly:

God, who knows eternally and who knows by a practical knowing what God is doing, knows all and only what is, that is, what God brings into being. Yet by that knowledge, like an artist, God also knows what could be, although this knowing remains penumbral and general, since nonexistent “things” are explicitly not constituted as entities. By definition, an eternal God does not know contingent events before they happen; although God certainly knows all that may or might happen, God does not know what will happen. God knows all and only what is happening (and as a consequence, what has happened). That is, God does not already know what will happen, since what “will happen” has not yet happened and so does not yet exist. God knows what God is bringing about. Yet since our discourse is temporal, we must remind ourselves not to read such a statement as saying that God is now bringing about what will happen, even though what will have happened is the result of God’s action. (p. 105)

But the atemporalist is not out of the woods. Contemporary philosophers have raised the question whether a being who surpasses time can know what William Lane Craig calls “tensed facts.” Consider, for example, this statement: John is mowing his lawn. This is not a report of a timeless state of affairs. As McCann notes, its full force is “that John’s act of mowing his lawn is occurring now, that it is actually present” (p. 63). The same situation obtains with other tenses. If I assert, “John will mow his lawn again next Saturday,” then I am saying that it will occur after the mowing that is presently occurring. If I assert, “John mowed his lawn last Saturday,” then I am saying that it occurred before the present. “Always, then, tensed statements display a perspective that respects temporal transition,” explains McCann. “They are not just indexed to a certain temporal location, but indexed to it as present” (p. 63). This means that in order to know whether a given tensed statement is true, one needs to know its temporal location; one needs to know what the present moment is.

But can a God who lives outside of time apprehend time in this way? Is he capable of distinguishing past and future and therefore of identifying the relevant “present moment,” thus enabling him to judge whether a tensed statement is true or false? Temporal eternalists think not. In order to make the proper determination, God would need to be active in time at the relevant moment, but the atemporal God transcends all such moments. It would appear, therefore, that timeless Deity is unable to grasp what John did, is doing, and will do. So much for omniscience.

How does God tell what time it is? The answer is simple. He looks at his infinity wristwatch. But apparently it doesn’t tell time because, so the argument goes, it isn’t in time. Quite honestly, this has all the feel of a pseudo-problem generated by a failure to properly appreciate the divine transcendence. God knows reality not in the mode of a created being but in the mode of infinite Being who knows all creatures as their transcendent source and ground. As St Thomas Aquinas writes: “Since God is the cause of things by his knowledge, his knowledge extends as far as His causality extends” (ST I.14.11). It sure doesn’t sound like a tensed fact would be a problem for the holy Omniscience—he is, after all, the Creator of tensed facts. But the temporalists tell me it’s a genuine problem that demands resolution. I’m not convinced and neither is McCann.

McCann believes there is an error lurking in the argument somewhere. A tensed proposition, he notes, “is tied to the perspective of the speaker who asserts it and to the moment of its assertion, so that a unique set of conditions determines its truth or falsehood” (p. 65).  If yesterday I had said, “John is mowing his lawn,” I would have meant that he was mowing it then. If he was not mowing his lawn at that time, then the proposition is false. It would not become true if John mows his lawn the next day. I could not acclaim, “Aha, my statement was true after all.” I would need to make a new statement, perhaps verbally identical, to cover the situation. The truth conditions of a tensed proposition, McCann further explains, “are defined by a perspective localized to a single point in time, and so must simply either be satisfied or not. They cannot change within the instant that determines them, and nothing that occurs at any other instant matters” (p. 65).

Where does this leave us on the issue of whether an atemporal God can know tensed propositions? If what is said above is correct, the truth or falsity of a tensed proposition is not an elusive thing at all. It is, rather, a timeless and unchanging state of affairs, just like the truth or falsity of a statement in mathematics. But then it cannot be a difficult assignment for a timeless God to know such propositions. What would be required is the same thing such knowledge requires in our own case—namely direct experience of the world of change. If the account of God’s action as creator developed here is correct, that is precisely what he has. Simply by being aware of his own activity in creating the world, God has direct and unchanging awareness of the entire sweep of history, of which time is merely an aspect. It seems clear, therefore, that God can know tensed propositions without difficulty. (p. 65)

Philosophers can argue this out.  I keep coming back to Burrell’s maxim: “God knows what God does.” God isn’t an observer to historical and cosmic events, limited by his atemporal perspective. God is the doer of space and time, the doer of history, the doer of change, process, activity, and event, and thus the doer of every propositional statement ever uttered. As the doer of time, he is present in all tensed nows in their nowness and thus uniquely qualified to distinguish between this present now and all other nows. He knows the time now and knows that other nows are not the time now. He doesn’t even need a watch.

“Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite” (Ps 147:5).

(Return to first article)

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“To be restored to health and cured of the leprosy of sin, we also must cry out: ‘Jesus, master, take pity on us.'”

“On the way to Jerusalem Jesus passed along the border between Samaria and Galilee, and when he entered one of the villages ten lepers came to meet him.”

What do these ten lepers stand for if not the sum total of all sinners? When Christ the Lord came not all men and women were leprous in body, but in soul they were, and to have a soul full of leprosy is much worse than to have a leprous body.

But let us see what happened next. “Standing a long way off they called out to him: ‘Jesus, Master, take pity on us.'” They stood a long way off because no one in their condition dared come too close. We stand a long way off too while we continue to sin.

To be really converted one must be converted inwardly. To be restored to health and cured of the leprosy of sin, we also must cry out: “Jesus, master, take pity on us.” That cry, however, must come not from our lips but from our heart, for the cry of the heart is louder: it pierces the heavens, rising up to the very throne of God.

“When Jesus saw the lepers he told them to go and show themselves to the priests.” God has only to look at people to be filled with compassion. He pitied these lepers as soon as he saw them, and sent them to the priests not to be cleansed by them, but to be pronounced clean. “And as they went they were cleansed.” Let all sinners listen to this and try to understand it. It is easy for the Lord to forgive sins. Sinners have often been forgiven before they came to a priest. In fact, their repentance and healing occur simultaneously: at the very moment of their conversion they pass from death to life. Let them understand, however, what this conversion means; let them heed the Lord’s words: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”

To be really converted one must be converted inwardly, in one’s heart, for “a humbled, contrite heart God will not spurn.”

“One of them, when he saw that he was cured, went back again, praising God at the top of his voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. Now this man was a Samaritan.” He stands for all those who, after their cleansing by the waters of baptism or healing by the sacrament of penance, renounce the devil and take Christ as their model, following him with praise, adoration, and thanksgiving, and nevermore abandoning his service. “And Jesus said to him: Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you.” Great, therefore, is the power of faith. Without it, as the apostle says, “it is impossible to please God. Abraham believed God and because of this God regarded him as righteous.” Faith saves, faith justifies, faith heals both body and soul.

St Bruno of Segni

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The Eternal Now That is Not Now

In his book Creation and the Sovereignty of God, Catholic philosopher Hugh McCann seeks to vigorously defend the traditional understanding of timeless, or atemporal, eternity. If this world of becoming, mutability, and temporal succession has been created from nothing, then the Creator must exist outside the world and therefore outside of time. “Time is not a necessary existent,” he explains. “It is an aspect of the world of change and as much in need of explanation for its being as the world itself. So only if God created time could he justly be called the creator of heaven and earth” (p. 46). Following the author’s usage, I have not put quotation marks around the word “outside,” but it’s important to remember that in this context it does not indicate a spatial relationship between Creator and world. It points us, rather, to the transcendence that belongs to the One who speaks the world into being, not just in the past but at every moment of its continuing existence. The universe as a whole, and every entity within it, depends upon the creative activity of God for its being. God is the painter whose vision comes to reality in color and shape, the writer who tells that one great story that has long burned in his heart. But the analogy should not be pushed too hard. Once created the artistic object acquires independent subsistence. Construing the relation between Creator and cosmos requires a bit more nuance:

But then how should we think of creation, and what does it mean to say that God creates the world outright, or directly? It means, I think, what the Genesis narrative implies: that the existence of creatures belongs to God’s act of creating them, rather than being a consequence of it. One good model for this is the relation between acts of will and their content. Consider, for example, the case of deciding. When I decide to do something—say, to go to Europe next summer—the intention thereby formed does not appear as a consequence of my act of decision making. It is, rather, the content of my decision, so that by the time the decision is over, I already hold the intention to go to Europe. The intention, which can be expressed as, “I shall go to Europe next summer,” is intrinsic to my act of deciding to go there. It belongs to it, in the peculiar way that content always belongs to acts of thinking. What I want to suggest is that the relation between God’s activity as creator and the entities he creates is analogous to this. It is not, of course, the same: the content of mental acts has only mental existence, whereas the things God creates are quite real. Nevertheless, I want to say, creatures belong to God’s act of creation in much the same way. We are not products of God’s creative willing, but the very expression of it.

If something like this is correct, the gap between creation and creature is closed. There is no distance whatever between us and God, hence we need not invent a causative process or nexus to fill the imagined void. Yet we are not made parts of God, or descriptive modifications of him—any more than the content of a thought would be a part of a predicate of a thinker. Rather, the relation is analogous to that between a story and its author or a song and its composer. The world has its existence in God, but God is in no way composed or constituted by the world. A second upshot of this view is that any remaining vestiges of conflict between God’s activity as creator and the operation of secondary causes is wiped away. They are not even the same sort of process. God’s creative activity is not a determining condition of the being of the world, but an endeavor in which he himself serves as the foundation of reality, the source in which we live, and move, and have our being. That, of course, is as it should be, and it is in keeping with the idea that God is completely involved with his creatures, that his providential care extends immediately and comprehensively to all that exists. (pp. 44-45)

I have quoted McCann on divine creation at length, because his understanding of the creatio ex nihilo undergirds everything he says about divine eternity. Banish from your imagination all deistic ghosts. God is not a watchmaker who gets things started and then steps back to watch how things work out. He wills into being every being in their energetic, causative, and temporal states. When God commands “Let their be light,” we should not think of the light as subsequently appearing in serial fashion, like an effect following its cause. The light is the content of the divine fiat. “In the very command itself,” McCann explains, “the appearance of light was achieved” (p. 43). Hence even the notions of God observing or perceiving the world are excluded. God does not observe, he creates; and in this eternal act he knows all he is making. The union between Creator and creature is more intimate than we can conceive.

If God is the ontological source and ground of the universe, and if time signifies a dimension of created reality, then it becomes clear why, for McCann, divine eternity is properly defined as timelessness: to describe God as temporal would be equivalent to saying that he is a creature. It would be a confusion of categories. (Regarding speculation on deity and absolute time, he comes close to suggesting that it’s mythology.) Following biblical usage, atemporalist preachers will continue to speak of God as enjoying an everlasting life—comprehending the past once lived, the present now being lived, and the future that will be lived—and continue to proclaim God’s datable acts in history; but if asked to explain themselves, they will provide the necessary qualifications:

The conception of God as timelessly eternal is altogether different. On this view God is not located in time, and tense and related temporal conceptions have no application to him whatever. Strictly speaking, therefore, it is false to say of God that he ever has existed, that he exists now, or that he ever will exist. At best, such claims are a clumsy way of indicating what we who are within time can always truthfully assert, which is simply that God exists—where the verb, though in the grammatical present, signifies nothing of temporal presentness, but rather a reality that stands completely outside of time, untouched by becoming or transition of any kind. God exists timelessly on this account, and his experience and action, while they may concern the world of change, are themselves unchanging. So it would also be wrong to say God has ever known or will know about your reading this or any other sentence; yet it would be true that he knows, timelessly, that you are reading this sentence—and even, if he is omniscient, that you are reading it now. God knows this in a single, timeless act of awareness that encompasses all of heaven and earth in their complete history. His action as creator is from the same vantage point; indeed, the traditional understanding was that God’s knowing the universe and his creating it constitute one and the same act. Thus, there is no time at which God’s act of creation occurs; rather, time itself is an aspect of the world of change, and that is what God creates. In a single fiat he produces the entire universe, in all of its history, all of it with equal directness, full comprehension, and absolute control. (pp. 47-48)

Strictly speaking, therefore, atemporalist description of the divine life and activity excludes all tenses. This poses a challenge for us, given that our language, designed as it were to speak of the changeable realities of the world, is shaped by tense. In many languages verbs have past, present, and future grammatical forms (though a few languages are grammatically tenseless, thus requiring the speaker to indicate time reference by other means). Tense inevitably sneaks into our discourse about the transcendent Creator. Consider, for example, the influential definition of eternity given by the sixth century philosopher Boethius: “Eternity is the complete possession all at once of illimitable life” (Consolation of Philosophy V.6). As McCann notes, “the phrase ‘all at once’ is inescapably temporal in its meaning and conveys the idea that God’s act of comprehending the world is itself tensed” (p. 52). If interpreted literally, it might suggest that God experiences time as compressed into a single instant. But this would be a mistake. “Timelessness is not equivalent to existing at an instant, for anything that exists at an instant is not timeless but ephemerally temporal” (p. 53). Though McCann does not invoke the methodology of negative theology, perhaps we should think of “timeless eternity” as an apophatic expression pointing to a reality that eludes creaturely comprehension and statement. The same problem arises when the Deity’s apprehension of history is described as an eternal “now,” as we find, for example, in The Catholic Encyclopedia:

We hope that our own life shall be endless; and materialists have accustomed us to the notion of a series stretching backward without limit in time, to the notion of a material universe that never came into being but was always there. The Divine existence is that and much more; excluding all succession, past and future time—indeed all time, which is succession—and to be conceived as an ever-enduring and unchanging “now.” (cf. Augustine, Confessions XI)

Characterizing divine eternity as an eternal now or present is perfectly acceptable, as long as we drain such expressions of their temporal significance and connotation. The metaphysical point is not the “now” but availability:

It is true, of course, that for a timeless and omniscient God to have an immediate cognitive and creative access to the world, all of its history must be present to him. But ‘present’ does not signify tense here; it signifies only immediate availability. God has to have access to all of creation in a single act of creative awareness, so that he can comprehend and direct the changes the world undergoes without having to change on his own part. It may not be obvious how this is possible, but neither is it obvious that it is impossible. (McCann, p. 52)

By this qualification McCann is able to attribute to God the kind of sovereignty that he believes God must have if he is the divine Creator. The disjunctions of past, present, and future do not pose a problem for his providential direction, as the entirety of history is available to him in the eternal act of creation.

McCann states the rule that must govern our reflection: “all tensed assertions about God are false” (p. 57).

(Go to “What Does God Know“)

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Prisoner of Time: The Temporal Deity of Analytic Theology

As a follow-up to my recent article on open theism, I thought I’d begin reading Creation and the Sovereignty of God by Hugh J. McCann. McCann stands in the analytic philosophical tradition and is known as a strong advocate of classical theism. I am particularly interested in seeing how he formulates the divine property of eternity. Two understandings of divine eternity have competed for philosophical dominance over the past century—sempiternity and timelessness. I will focus in this article on McCann’s critique of sempiternity and review his defense of timelessness in the sequel. Either before or after reading this article, do take a look at Gregory Gannsle’s helpful review of contemporary philosophical discussion: “God and Time.”

According to the sempiternalist view, God is understood as a “temporally persistent or enduring reality; he is, as we say, ‘located in time’ and subject to the restrictions of tense and temporal passage” (p. 47). He has a past and a future. He remembers what he has done and anticipates what he will do. His knowledge, experiences, and actions vary from moment to moment. In this sense God enjoys a temporal existence similar to our own; but unlike our own, his existence is unbounded. He is backwardly and forwardly everlasting, always possessing the essential qualities deemed necessary for divinity. Providentially directing the course of the universe, his career as Creator extends throughout history, which he experiences as temporal succession. Before he could become incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, he first had to lead the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt, and before that he first had to make covenant with Abraham. In the 10th century B.C. he enjoyed listening to the psalms of King David; in the 1st century A.D. he poured out his Holy Spirit upon the apostles; and on 20 January 2017 he will witness the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. No doubt he awaits this event with far less trepidation than I.

I confess that I am finding the notion of temporal eternity difficult to grasp, which may surprise some of my friends and colleagues. After all, I cut my theological eye teeth on the eschatological construal of triune divinity propounded by Robert W. Jenson. Jens taught me that God’s eternity is not his abstraction from time but his faithfulness through time. Though I parroted the formula, I suppose I never really overcame the earlier catechesis passed on to me by C. S. Lewis: “Almost certainly God is not in Time. His life does not consist of moments following one another. If a million people are praying to him at 10:30 tonight, he need not listen to them in that one little snippet which we call 10:30. 10:30—and every other moment from the beginning of the world—is always the Present for Him.” When I read folks like Richard Swinburne talking about divine temporality, I find myself wondering how his Deity can possibly be the transcendent Creator of heaven and earth. This wonderment has increased exponentially over the past several years. It’s one thing to identify God by the telling of biblical stories. It’s quite another thing to think that he actually swims along in time like the rest of us. As opaque as I find the notion of divine timelessness to be, I find the notion of divine temporality even more so. This is my problem, of course, not Swinburne’s; but I thought you needed to be aware of it. Back now to sempiternity.

The sempiternalist claims for his position the plain meaning of Scripture. Throughout the Bible the Lord Almighty is described in temporal terms. He creates the world over a period of six days and then rests on the seventh. He speaks to patriarchs and prophets at specific times and places. He makes covenantal promises that bind him to the future and good of his people (Ex 2:24; Lev 26:45). He acts in history to bless and to  judge, to save and to punish. “Above all,” McCann continues, “he is portrayed as reacting to the behavior of humankind; God adjusts his behavior to our own, as when he abandons his threat to destroy Nineveh (Jonah 3.10) or answers Hezekiah’s prayer for longer life (2 Kings 20.5)” (p. 48). The God of the Bible is everlasting. He always has more time. “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8).

McCann cautions about accepting this portrayal of the Creator at face value. The Bible also speaks of God as occupying space, “as having a head, hands, and feet, as dwelling in cities and tabernacles, as moving from place to place,” yet we do not infer that he is a spatial being (p. 48). If the spatial texts can be interpreted figuratively, why not the temporal texts? Consider, for example, the problems posed by a literal interpretation of those verses that speak of God as changing his mind. “Among action theorists,” McCann notes, “it is widely accepted that it is irrational at least in most cases to hold an intention if one knows one will not carry it out” (p. 242, n. 7). When God told Jonah to proclaim to the people of Nineveh that he was going to destroy them in forty days, did he actually intend to do so, or did he simply forget to mention to Jonah that he also intended to forgive the Ninevites if they repented? Jonah’s response of anger suggests that he believed that the Lord had been less than forthright with him, perhaps even capricious. If God’s omniscience comprehends the future, it would be irrational for him to intend, even momentarily, to destroy Nineveh. This objection, I suppose, does not obtain if the future is truly open for him. If even God can be surprised by future events (like the repentance of incorrigible sinners “who do not know their right hand from their left” [Jonah 4:11]), then his intentions will be conditioned accordingly.

McCann objects to the temporal understanding of divine eternity because it undermines the sovereignty of the Creator:

In scripture and in cosmological proofs for the existence of God, he is portrayed as the creator of everything but himself, and as ruling the universe with complete power and authority; but if God is a temporal being, both views are endangered. There appears to be something other than himself that God did not create—namely, time itself. And if God is subject to the limitations of time, his sovereignty is restricted: his experience and action must inevitably be subject to the limitations of opportunity. It would be better then, if possible, to have a God who in creating the world creates time, but whose own being lies beyond it. (p. 49)

Unfortunately, McCann does not elaborate on his criticisms, at least not to my satisfaction. “Time is not a necessary existent,” he writes. “It is an aspect of the world of change and as much in need of an explanation for its being as the world itself” (p. 46). Granted—but how does the assertion of divine temporality suggest that time is something that God has not created? I did not appreciate McCann’s concern until I read a bit more about the temporalist position. Richard Swinburne, for example, proposes that temporality is an essential property of God. This seems counter-intuitive, as we commonsensically think of time as a function of creaturely change; but this Swinburne denies. If we ask him, “If God had not created the universe, would he still be temporal?” he offers this answer:

I ask the reader first to think of God, the temporal being, existing by himself, not having created a universe in which there are laws of nature. There would then … be no ‘cosmic clock’ which ticked unstoppably away—that is, there would be no temporal intervals of any definite length. There would just be an event or sequence of events in the divine consciousness. Think of him too as the subject of just one mental event, a conscious act which does not have qualitatively distinguishable temporal parts (e.g. it does not consist of one thought followed by a different thought). … Any event has to take some time, but there would not be a truth that this event (this act) had lasted any particular length of time rather than any other. There would be no difference between a divine act of self-awareness which lasted a millisecond and one which lasted a million years. That is hard for us to grasp, for two reasons. The first is that our conscious acts are distinguished by the different intervals of public clocks which tick away while the acts occur (and we can usually recognize roughly how long that interval is for a given act). But that difference would not be there with this divine act. The second is that any acts of ours that are qualitatively identical throughout are usually immediately followed and preceded by acts of different kinds. But that too is a contingent matter, and I am supposing otherwise with respect to this divine act. (The Christian Doctrine of God, p. 140; also see R. T. Mullins, “Time and the Everlasting God,” Pittsburgh Theological Journal 3 [2011-2012]: 38-56)

Swinburne thus invites us to distinguish between the absolute or metaphysical time in which God lives, or perhaps is, and the physical time in which inhabitants of the universe live and change. If God had never created the universe, he would have eternally apprehended himself in a single, indivisible act of consciousness, free from the segmentation of time into periods of duration. He only becomes subject to the metric of physical time when he creates a universe filled with substances and personal agents. In that event he freely chooses “to have a succession of qualitatively distinct mental acts” (p. 143). I have no idea what to make of this line of reasoning. As one of my seminary professors liked to say, “Interesting, if true.”

Swinburne’s view implies (I think) that in the act of creation God shares with his creatures his own mode of existence. It’s as if he brings them into his time, with inevitable consequences for them and himself. Given that Swinburne also denies the classical attribute of divine immutability, this introduction of temporal succession into the divine awareness does not pose a metaphysical problem. Why shouldn’t God be free to alter his consciousness and experience reality in new ways, thus adding to his already infinitely rich interior life? For the first time he is able to experience genuine drama, with all of its uncertainties, surprises, disappointments, and thrills. If this is beginning to sound like an episode from Star Trek, that is the point. Needless to say, Swinburne’s anthropomorphic conception of deity represents a drastic break with both the Latin and Eastern theological traditions.

Why, I would like to ask McCann, must it be the case that if God should freely embrace the constraints of time—and therefore “must await the opportunities afforded by temporal passage in order to cause events to occur at particular times” (p. 66)—his power to effect his ultimate and penultimate purposes is necessarily compromised? This is not clear to me. Here is McCann’s explanation:

Although an everlasting God may freely choose when to create, once embarked on the enterprise he must busy himself with whatever tasks are at hand. If he has goals to achieve by his action, then like us he must await his opportunities, which are now limited by the stern taskmaster of gradual and irreversible becoming. Also like us, God’s experience of his creation must be hemmed in by time: limited, in the case of the past, to memories that, however vivid, are of events that can never be retrieved; limited, in the case of the future, to anticipations each of whose fulfillment takes literally forever to come, only to vanish like smoke. Such a God may be the master of much—but of time he is a slave. (p. 62)

Swinburne has titled this objection, “God as time’s prisoner” (p. 138). He formulates the objection this way:

Why should any theist find [the temporalist] view unsatisfactory?  Because it seems to make God less than sovereign over the universe. It seems to imply that time stands outside God who is caught in its stream. The cosmic clock ticks inexorably away, and God can do nothing about it. More and more of history is becoming past, accessible to God only by remote memory, and unaffectible by any action of his. The future, however, God does not yet enjoy, but more and more of it is unavoidably looming up on God; and, as it keeps on appearing, if creatures have free will, it may contain some surprises for him. God can only act at the present period of time, and his lordship of the universe is ever confined to the time of his action. (p. 138)

Despite the ways created temporality impacts the divine life and activity, God’s sovereignty over creation, argues Swinburne, is not negatively affected: “although God and time exist together—God is a temporal being—those aspects of time which seem so threatening to his sovereignty only occur through his own voluntary choice. To the extent to which he is time’s prisoner, he has chosen to be so. It is God, not time, who calls the shots” (p. 140). It’s hard to know whether McCann would be satisfied with Swinburne’s rejoinder. I suspect not. Quite frankly, I find both philosophers unpersuasive on this point.

R. T. Mullins has recently offered a more cogent rejoinder to the prisoner of time objection:

The problem for God’s sovereignty that [Paul] Helm seems to be pointing to is not that God is temporal simpliciter, or that God would be a prisoner of His own essence. … Instead, the problem is that God has succession and change in His life subsequent to creation. As he puts it, “if God is in time, then he is not sovereign over time but is bound by it in precisely the same way as we are bound by it. The ever-rolling stream of time not only carries us along with it, it carries God along with it as well. This is surely a most unwelcome thought.” Is this really a problem for divine temporality? Is it a problem for God to have succession in His life? Does having succession diminish God’s sovereignty?

I should think not. An omniscient God would know what He is getting into by creating a physical universe and bringing succession into His life. A God who is perfectly free and omnipotent could decide to actualize a state of affairs like that if He wants. As Richard Swinburne points out, the unwelcome features of time come by God’s own free invitation. But the temporalist need not say that these features are unwelcome. It is not like time is an agent that forces itself upon God. Time is not God’s mom, it cannot tell Him what to do. Again, the divine temporalist believes that time is a necessary concomitant of God’s existence and essence. What is new for God on the Oxford school [Richard Swinburne, Alan Padgett, Garrett DeWeese] is that God takes on a continual, measurable change, and succession in His life by creating a physical universe with uniform laws of nature that can be used to develop a clock. God is completely in control of the physical time associated with creation, and He can begin it or end it whenever He desires. True, He cannot undo the succession that He freely brought upon Himself, nor can He retrieve His lost moments, but so what? He cannot do anything that is logically and metaphysically impossible, and He is no less sovereign for all that. What is needed for God to be sovereign is for God to be able to achieve His ultimate purposes for creation, and the temporalist holds that God cannot create a temporal universe without undergoing succession. (“Doing Hard Time,” Journal of Analytic Theology 2 [May 2014]: 174)

Those who advance the prisoner of time objection thus need to show the specific ways the temporalist view inhibits, perhaps even nullifies, the Creator’s providential ends and purposes. McCann has not done this. Divine sovereignty can hardly be said to be compromised if God is still able to execute his omnipotent will in history and bring the world to eschatological glory. McCann’s metaphysical intuitions tell him there’s a serious problem with the contemporary construals of divine temporality (I think he’s right), but his perfect being methodology constrains his critique.

(Go to “Eternal Now”)

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“Is the law then broken when God shows mercy even on the Sabbath day?”

Behold there was a woman, who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years. [Lk. 13:11]

Now there was in the synagogue a woman who for eighteen years was bowed down by infirmity. And her case may prove of no little benefit to those who have understanding; for we must gather what is to our advantage from every quarter-since by what happened to her we may see that Satan often receives authority over certain persons, such, namely, as fall into sin, and have grown lax in their efforts after piety. Whomsoever, therefore, he gets into his power, he involves, it may be, in bodily diseases, since he delights in punishment and is merciless. And the opportunity for this the all-seeing God most wisely grants him, that being sore vexed by the burden of their misery, men may set themselves upon changing to a better course. For which reason St. Paul also delivered over to Satan a certain person at Corinth accused of fornication, for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit might be saved [1 Cor. 5:5]. The woman, therefore, who was bowed down is said to have suffered this from the cruelty of the devil, according to our Master’s words, Whom Satan hath bound for eighteen years; God, as I said, so permitting it, either for her own sins, or rather by the operation of a universal and general law. For the accursed Satan is the cause of disease to the bodies of men, inasmuch as Adam’s transgression was, we affirm, his doing, and by means of it our human frames have become liable to infirmity and decay. But when this was the state of men, God, Who by His very nature is good, did not abandon us when suffering under the punishment of a protracted and incurable malady, but freed us from our bonds, revealing as the glorious remedy for the sufferings of mankind His own presence and manifestation in the world. For He came to fashion our state again to what it was originally; for as it is written, God made not death: neither hath He pleasure in the destruction of the living. For He created all things that they might have their being; and healthful were the generations of the world; and there is in them no poison of destruction-but by the envy of the devil death entered into the world [Wis. 1:13, 2:24].

The Incarnation of the Word, and His assumption of human nature took place for the overthrow of death and destruction, and of that envy nourished against us by the wicked serpent, who was the first cause of evil. This is plainly proved to us by facts themselves. And so He set free the daughter of Abraham from her protracted sickness, calling out and saying, Woman, thou art loosed from thy infirmity. A speech most worthy of God, and full of supernatural power; for with the kingly inclination of His will He drives away the disease. And He also lays His hands upon her; and immediately, it says, she was made straight. And hence, too, it is possible to see that His holy flesh bore in it the power and activity of God. For it was His own flesh, and not that of some other Son beside Him, distinct and separate from Him, as some most impiously imagine.

And the ruler of the synagogue answered, being indignant, that Jesus had healed on the sabbath day, and said unto the people, there are six days in which men ought to work in them, therefore, come and be healed, and not on the sabbath day. [Lk. 13:14]

And yet how ought he not rather to have wondered at Christ’s having freed from her bonds this daughter of Abraham? Thou hast seen her unexpectedly delivered from her misfortune; thou wast an eyewitness that the Physician prayed not, nor received as a boon from another the healing of the sick woman; but that He wrought it as a deed of power. As being the ruler of a synagogue, thou knowest, I suppose, the writings of Moses. Thou sawest him praying upon every occasion, and working nothing whatsoever by his own power. For when Mariam was struck with leprosy, for having merely spoken something against him in the way of reproach, and that true, for he had taken, she says, unto himself an Ethiopian wife [Num. 12:1], Moses could not overcome the disease, but, on the contrary, fell down before God, saying, “O God, I beseech Thee, heal her.” And not even so, though he besought it, was the penalty of her sin remitted her. And each of the holy prophets, if anywhere at all they wrought any miracle, is seen to have done it by the power of God. But here observe, I pray, that Christ, the Savior of all, offers no prayer, but refers the accomplishment of the matter to His own power, healing her by a word and the touch of the hand. For being Lord and God, He manifested His own flesh as of equal efficacy with Himself for the deliverance of men from their diseases. And hence it was intended that men should understand the purport of the mystery concerning Him. Had, therefore, the ruler of the synagogue been a man of understanding, he would have perceived Who and how great the Savior was from so wonderful a miracle; nor would he have talked in the same ignorant manner as the multitudes, nor have accused those occupied with healing, of a breach of the law respecting the traditional abstinence from labor on the sabbath day.

“But plainly to heal is to labor.” Is the law then broken when God shows mercy even on the Sabbath day? Whom did He command to desist from labor? Himself? or was it not rather thee? If Himself, let His providence over us cease on the sabbath; let the sun rest from his daily course; let the rains not fall; let the springs of waters, and the streams of overflowing rivers, and the winds be still; but if He commanded thee to rest, blame not God because with power He has shown mercy on any even on the sabbath. And why did He command men at all to rest upon the sabbath? It was, thou art told, that thy manservant, and thy ox, and thy horse, and all thy cattle might rest [Deut. 5:14]. When, therefore, He gives men rest by freeing them from their diseases, and thou forbiddest it, plainly thou breakest the law of the sabbath, in not permitting those to rest who are suffering under sickness and disease, and whom Satan had bound.

But the ruler of the unthankful synagogue, when he saw the woman whose limbs were crippled, with her body bent and crooked even to the ground, receiving mercy from Christ, and made perfectly upright by the touch alone of His hand, and walking with that erect gait which becometh man, and magnifying God for her deliverance, is vexed thereat, and burning with rage against the glory of the Lord, is entangled in envy, and calumniates the miracle; nevertheless he passes by our Lord, Who would have exposed his hypocrisy, and rebukes the multitudes, that his indignation might seem to be aroused for the sake of the sabbath day. But his object really was to prevail upon those who were dispersed throughout the week, and occupied with their labors, not to be spectators and admirers of the miracles of the Lord upon the sabbath, lest even they also should believe.

But tell me, O thou slave of envy, what kind of work did the law forbid in commanding thee to abstain on the sabbath day from all manual labor? Does it forbid the labor of the mouth and speaking? Abstain then from eating and drinking, and conversing, and singing psalms on the sabbath. But if thou abstainest from these things, and dost not even read the law, what good is the sabbath to thee? If, however, thou confinest the prohibition to manual labor, how is the healing of a woman by a word a manual labor? But if thou callest it an act because the woman was actually healed, thou also performest an act in blaming her healing. “But”, says he,” He said, “thou art loosed from thy infirmity” and she is loosed.” Well! dost not thou also unloose thy girdle on the sabbath? Dost not thou put off thy shoes, and make thy bed, and cleanse thy hands when dirtied with eating? Why then art thou so angry at the single word a “thou art loosed”? And at what work did the woman labor after the word was spoken? Did she set about the craft of the brazier, or the carpenter, or the mason? Did she that very day begin weaving or working at the loom? “No. She was made straight”, he says. “It was the healing absolutely that is a labor.” But no! thou art not really angry on account of the sabbath; but because thou seest Christ honored, and worshipped as God, thou art frantic and choked with rage, and pinest with envy. Thou hast one thing concealed in thy heart, and professest and makest pretext of another; for which reason thou art most excellently convicted by the Lord, Who knoweth thy vain reasonings, and receivest the title which befits thee, in being called hypocrite and dissembler and insincere.

Thou hypocrite! does not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? [Lk. 13:15]

Thou wonderest, He says, at Me, Who have loosed a daughter of Abraham; and yet thou givest rest to thy ox and thy ass, loosing them from their labors, and leading them away to watering; but when a human being suffering from sickness is marvellously healed, and God has shown mercy, thou blamest both as transgressors; the One for having healed, and the other for being delivered from her malady.

Behold, I pray, the ruler of the synagogue, how a human being is of less account in his sight than a beast, since at least he counts his ox and his ass worthy of care on the sabbath, but in his envy would not have Christ deliver from infirmity the woman who was bowed down, or see her recover her natural form.

But the envious ruler of the synagogue would have preferred the woman who was made straight to be bowed down after the manner of four-footed beasts, rather than that she should recover the form fitting for man; having no other view than that Christ might not be magnified, nor be proclaimed as God by His deeds. But he is convicted of being a hypocrite, if at least he leads his dumb cattle upon the sabbath to watering, but is indignant that this woman, who was a daughter of Abraham by descent, and still more by her faith, should be freed from the chain of her infirmity. For he considers her deliverance from sickness as a transgression of the sabbath.

All His adversaries were ashamed: and all the people rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him. [Lk. 13:17]

Shame fell then on those who had uttered these corrupt opinions; who had stumbled against the chief corner-stone, and been broken; who had resisted the Physician, who had clashed against the wise Potter, when busied in straightening His crooked vessels; and there was no reply which they could make. They had unanswerably convicted themselves, and were put to silence, and in doubt what they should say. So had the Lord closed their audacious mouth. But the multitudes, who reaped the benefit of the miracles, were glad. For the glory and splendor of His works solved all inquiry and doubt in those who sought Him without malice.

St Cyril of Alexandria

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Was St Nicholas a Klingon?

Almost 70,000 impressions (the number of times people on Twitter have seen the tweet)! Star Trek and the Saints—a powerful combination!

Needless to say, St Nicholas’s possible Klingon origin helps to explain the zealous violence he expressed toward Arius at the Council of Nicaea. Before he threw the punch heard around the Church, the Bishop of Myra was heard to exclaim, “It is a good day to die!” Historians still debate the precise meaning of the exclamation.

Some have speculated that St Nicholas was in fact the famous Star Fleet commander, Worf, son of Mogh, who is alleged to have traveled back in time in the USS Defiant. No evidence, however, has been advanced to substantiate this wild suggestion.

[The side-by-side photo itself is not original to me. I stole it fair and square.🙂 ]

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Incomprehension of Deity: Aquinas vs Swinburne

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