Most theology books, suggests Roger Olson, should probably come with a warning label on the front cover: “Nothing but guesswork inside.” Whenever theologians depart from the clear teaching of Scripture, they are engaging in speculation. They probably know this, but rarely are they open and transparent about the speculative nature of their reflections. Hence Olson’s proposal: “They should label their truth claims with degrees of speculation—from that which is closer to the data (‘justified speculation’) to that which is farther from the data (‘guesswork only’).” And the greater the distance from Scripture, the higher the odds that the speculation is unwarranted.
Olson cites the classical Christian teaching on divine eternity as a prime example of unwarranted theological speculation. He describes the teaching as follows:
Under pressure from Greek ontology traditional, “classical theism” has generally agreed that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the Yahweh of the Bible) is somehow (i.e., differently expressed) “outside of time” such that temporal sequence, the passage of past into present into future (or future into present into past) is known to God but not experienced by God. Put in other words, for this classical theistic view, God’s eternity means (in relation to time) “simultaneity with all times.” In other words, in this view, explained best (most scholars agree) by Boethius, God exists in an “eternal now.” For him, our future has already happened. In other words, this is not just a claim about God’s foreknowledge; it is a claim about God’s being. It is not merely epistemological; it is ontological.
As Olson notes, Boethius’s construal of divine eternity has exercised powerful influence upon Western theology. I thought it might be helpful, therefore, to quote the relevant passage from the Consolation of Philosophy:
Eternity is the simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life. This will appear more clearly if we compare it with temporal things. All that lives under the conditions of time moves through the present from the past to the future; there is nothing set in time which can at one moment grasp the whole space of its lifetime. It cannot yet comprehend to-morrow; yesterday it has already lost. And in this life of to-day your life is no more than a changing, passing moment. And as Aristotle said of the universe, so it is of all that is subject to time; though it never began to be, nor will ever cease, and its life is co-extensive with the infinity of time, yet it is not such as can be held to be eternal. For though it apprehends and grasps a space of infinite lifetime, it does not embrace the whole simultaneously; it has not yet experienced the future. What we should rightly call eternal is that which grasps and possesses wholly and simultaneously the fulness of unending life, which lacks naught of the future, and has lost naught of the fleeting past; and such an existence must be ever present in itself to control and aid itself, and also must keep present with itself the infinity of changing time. Therefore, people who hear that Plato thought that this universe had no beginning of time and will have no end, are not right in thinking that in this way the created world is co-eternal with its creator. For to pass through unending life, the attribute which Plato ascribes to the universe is one thing; but it is another thing to grasp simultaneously the whole of unending life in the present; this is plainly a peculiar property of the mind of God.
According to Boethius, therefore, God transcends time, which properly belongs to the world he has created. He possesses his life in all of its infinite fullness. God does not pass through time, as do creatures, nor can he be said to exist within time. As Paul Helm explains: “So it is not that God has always existed, for as long as time has existed, and that he always will exist, but that God does not exist in time at all. He is apart from his creation, transcendent over it. Eternalists such as Augustine and Boethius deliberately reject the idea that God is everlasting, or sempiternal, that for any time t God exists at that time” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Hence God does not experience creaturely history as we do, as movement into the future, with the past left behind. He apprehends temporal events immediately and atemporally, not by observing them but by causing them (see John H. Boyer, “Eternal God“).
It is admittedly tricky, indeed perhaps impossible, to understand what is here being said. First and foremost the eternalist position is a piece of negative theology. We can say what divine eternity is not but we really cannot say what it is. Even for accomplished scholars it is difficult to express the eternalist position without slipping into temporal language. Take a look again at the long Olson quotation above. Did any sentence jump out at you as odd? Consider this one: “For him [God], our future has already happened”? (If you think you know what is wrong with this sentence, please share your thoughts in the comments below.) Here’s a clue from Herbert McCabe:
There can be no succession in the eternal God, no change. Eternity is not, of course, a very long time; it is not time at all. Eternity is not timeless in the sense that an instant is timeless—for an instant is timeless simply in being the limit of a stretch of time, just as a point has no length not because it is very very short but because it is the limit of a length. No: eternity is timeless because it totally transcends time. To be eternal is just to be God. God’s life is neither past nor present, nor even simultaneous with any event, any clock, any history. (God Matters, p. 49)
We speak nonsense when say things like “the future has already happened for God” or “the future already exists for God.” By definition, the future does not exist. Even using the word “now”—as in, for example, “God experiences time as an eternal now”—can be misleading, for what is “now” but the moment between past and future? Inevitably we seem to find ways to pull the Creator into the world and idolatrously reduce him to a temporal being.
So why did the theologians of the patristic and medieval periods develop this apophatic understanding of divine eternity? Olson tenders what has now become the stock modernist explanation—because of Christianity’s tragic captivity to Hellenistic philosophy. Instead of remaining within the “biblical” worldview, patristic and medieval theologians uncritically embraced the Greek understanding of divine timelessness, with disastrous consequences for both belief and practice. “The classical view of God’s eternity (‘outside of time,’ ‘eternal now-ness’),” Olson bluntly states, “is pure philosophical-theological speculation unrelated to the God of the Bible and alien to any religion that values an interactive God.”
But what does Olson mean by “the God of the Bible”? He cannot mean the God depicted in the Bible as read by the Church, because the Church ostensibly got God all wrong as early as the mid-second century.
Lest my readers misunderstand, I am not taking Olson to task because of his proposal of divine temporality. I used to hold a similar position back in my Jensonian period. It’s a position that needs to be seriously evaluated. I have become, however, increasingly skeptical of the metanarrative of Christianity’s theological corruption by its contact with Greek philosophy. As Robert Wilken remarks: “The notion that the development of early Christian thought represented a hellenization of Christianity has outlived its usefulness” (The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. xvi). It would be more accurate, he submits, to speak of the “Christianization of Hellenism.” My complaint is directed against Olson’s biblicistic, nonecclesial reading of the Bible. Olson states that “the logic of the Bible, the flow of the biblical narrative, God’s story with us, never says or even hints that God is ‘outside of time'”—but … so what‽ When a god, any god—even the God of Israel—is narratively portrayed, he will inevitably be presented as an everlasting, sempiternal agent; for that is what he is within the dramatic structure of the story. Temporal, anthropomorphic, even corporeal renderings of deity are thus inescapable; they are intrinsic to the narrative genre. But the mere fact that the divine Creator has appropriated the genre for the purpose of self-revelation does not entail the consequence that he is defined and limited by the genre. The Church Fathers came to recognize this very early in the life of the Church, as they reflected on divine transcendence and the meaning of creation (see, e.g., Georges Florovsky, “Creation and Creaturehood“). Who is the God of the Bible? He is, they declared, the timeless, impassible, immutable, omnipotent, omniscient Maker of heaven and earth who has become Man and died on a tree. We should not think of the Fathers as merely carpentering together two incompatible construals of divinity, the biblical and the Hellenistic. Such a caricature distorts their revolutionary accomplishment:
It is certainly true that the Gospel was translated into Greek from the very start and it was largely in Greek thought-forms that the early Church gave public expression to its preaching and teaching. However, far from a radical Hellenisation having taken place something very different happened, for in making use of Greek thought-forms Christian theology radically transformed them in making them vehicles of fundamental doctrines and ideas quite alien to Hellenism. In fact, the mission of the Church had the effect of altering the basic ideas of classical Hellenism … through its formulation of a distinctively Christian doctrine as one, as Creator of the universe out of nothing, and as triune in his eternal being, and not least through the doctrine of the incarnation as the personal and saving intervention of God himself in the affairs of mankind, together with the attendant conceptions of providence, judgment and resurrection. This was one of the most significant features of Nicene theology: not the Hellenising of Christianity but the Christianising of Hellenism. (Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, p. 68)
Fidelity to the preaching of the gospel to a Greek world compelled the theologians of the Church to move beyond the surface, literal meaning of Scripture into a deeper and more profound apprehension of the mystery of the living God. Without such theological exegesis and contemplative reflection, they would have been unable to clarify the figurative nature of the biblical language and thus prevent the mythological importation of the structures of creation into the Godhead. Without such theological exegesis and contemplative reflection, they would have been unable to meet the challenges of Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, and Arianism.
Consider the drastic consequences if we were to accept Olson’s strictures on “unwarranted speculation.” Out goes the creatio ex nihilo. Out goes the homoousion and the dogma of the Holy Trinity. Out goes the Incarnation and the ecumenical doctrine of the two natures of the one Christ. Out goes, in other words, the Christian God—all in the name of a reconstructed “biblical” God.