The Speculated God of Roger Olson

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.

(Return to first article)

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19 Responses to The Speculated God of Roger Olson

  1. RVW says:

    Spot on.

    It is a strange thing to say that God being outside of time does not appear in the Scripturea, as the creation of time is found in Genesis 1. When the Word creates the luminaries (sun, moon, and stars), they are appointed the task of marking off seasons, times, etc. Since our concept of time, even in the industrial world, is based on the movement of these luminaries, it can be successfully argued that time didn’t exist until this set of commands. Of course, this makes “evening and morning” on the first couple of days difficult to understand — but they were difficult anyway, as nothing existed to demarcate their distinction except the Divine Logos.

    For me, once we grasp — at that apophatic level — that God is eternal, it changes how we read, for example, the concept of predestination. St Paul tells us to pray for the salvation of all men, which means we are asking the timeless God to determine to save all men, past, present, and future. In that moment, paradoxically, predestination becomes in the worship of the Church an universalist hope.

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    • I wish the metaphysics of time were that simple. We spent the first few weeks in my metaphysics class covering that issue. According to one philosopher, time requires change and if there is no change, then time does not exist. Since there seems to be no apparent change, time therefore does not exist. To counter, we conducted a thought experiment–there are three regions: Region A, B, and C. Every three years, Region A freezes, every four years, Region B freezes, every five years, Region C freezes. Every 12 years, Regions A and B freeze, every 15 years, Regions A and C freeze, and every 20 years, Regions B and C freeze. Every 60 years, they all freeze. They freeze for a year each. On the 60th year, did they actually all freeze? Did time still pass?

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  2. Michael Bauman says:

    May be simplistic but it seems that Olsen misses the biggest Biblical challenge to his argument: “I am.”

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  3. I think much of the problem for the Evangelicals here is the concept of syncretism. Of course there is nothing wrong with Greek philosophical concepts. For the Evangelicals, it just doesn’t fit into their view of the Bible as containing the full truth of God though. In other words, anything Buddhist, Hindu, Greek, Confucian, Islamic, etc., must be thrown out of theology. Not Jewish concepts because the Jews at least have the Old Testament. But within syncretism, there is truth that can be taken from all religions though still acknowledging that Christianity contains the fullness of the truth.

    Fr. Kimel, you do this well here on your blog with syncretism. Of course you are convinced that Orthodoxy is the one true version of the Christian faith and that Christianity is the absolute truth and yet you take thoughts from all different people within Christianity who aren’t Orthodox and collect that into your eclectic Orthodox theology.

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    • newenglandsun, I agree with the idea it seems you intend to present in your comment here and which is also consistent with the Fathers’ view that hints of the fullness of the gospel existed in all the pre-Christian philosophical and religious traditions and were pointers to Christ. I don’t believe “syncretism” is properly the term an Orthodox would want to use to describe the Fathers’ making use of ideas and concepts from God’s general revelation within pre-Christian philosophy to communicate the gospel, however. This is because the term syncretism means the combination of two or more religions or philosophies to form a new hybrid faith. It is the erroneous belief of some modern non-Orthodox that this is exactly what the early Greek Fathers were doing with Greek philosophy, which is being refuted in this post. By definition, the fullness of Christ cannot be combined with any other faith to form a hybrid of Christ-plus-something else, or you just have heresy. What is true within every culture and religion can, however, find its full expression in Christ and in His Church. Have I properly understood the intended meaning of your comment?

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  4. Nathaniel McCallum says:

    “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’”

    YHWH. Oops…

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    • Nathaniel McCallum says:

      And in case the temporal nature of this revelation isn’t obvious (it really is), Jesus clarifies it for us: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Hi, Nathaniel. Could you expand a bit on your argument.

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      • At the burning bush, Moses asks God for His name. God says his name is “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). This name is explicitly tied to temporality in the very next verse (Exodus 3:15; לְעֹלָם; LXX: αἰώνιον).

        Olson probably doesn’t find this satisfactory (in the same way you don’t find the eternality of punishment satisfactory). But nonetheless, this verbiage of the name and its eternality began centuries of reflection on being and timelessness. The earliest exponent of this interpretation is Philo. Certainly this becomes intertwined with Greek thought; but I would argue that there is a natural sympathy here between Exodus 3 and the classical (timeless) vision of God.

        I think the most obvious example of this thought within scripture is in Christ himself: John 8:58. This is seen in the grammatical oddity of the shift from the aorist infinitive middle (πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι) to the present active indicative (ἐγὼ εἰμί). This strange grammatical construction may, in fact, be borrowing from Philo and Exodus 3:14-15. Certainly the ἐγὼ εἰμί hints at this. But the different verb tenses highlight a different sense of time. And while this isn’t explicitly “timelessness” I think it is pretty close; especially given John 1:1. Note too that this is the same language Irenaeus uses to express timelessness: a perpetual “being” of the Son with the Father.

        Any ambiguity on this point of timelessness is clearly resolved in the Arian controversy. So you are right that to reject timelessness is to reject ὁμοούσιος as well.

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  5. tgbelt says:

    I try to think a bit about this over on our blog. But I wanted to say, again, what a rock star you are Fr Aidan.

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  6. brian says:

    There seems to be a kind of implicit positivism in Olson’s hermeneutic.
    Many evangelicals do not recognize that they are ‘always already’ reading scripture through a prism that carries a quasi-tradition and also metaphysical assumptions about the nature of God, will, nature, etc. They read Occam’s nominalism or voluntarism into Scripture and then complain that the patristics were infected with Hellenism.

    The older ecclesial traditions are less shaped by the modern quest to provide a simple and uniform presentation of truth. There is something akin to rationalism here. Counter-Reformation Catholicism and scholasticism often make similar mistakes, but the Tradition is older, broader, and deeper, so it is possible to find the remedy, where Reformation thought is often still fixated by modernist assumptions and proclivities. In any event, interpretation with greater awareness of the pluriform nature of theological practice and the necessary apophatic cautions when thinking and talking about God is less likely to consider “basic theology” as somehow true in a manner that is “univocal, geometric, a kind of revelation reduced to simple facts for simple minds.” One can read the Bible that way; it doesn’t mean that doing so produces sound theology.

    The best theologies are generally more daring and speculative.
    If one understands that “speculation” is a matter of prayerful seeking and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, one will not automatically use the term as a pejorative for “sketchy and rooted in purely individual assertions drawn from psychology and imagination apart from the divine.”

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  7. tgbelt says:

    Fr Aidan, great post.

    Nathan,

    If I’m following you, your point is that Ex 3.14 settles the question of the temporal status of God’s being—i.e., God is timeless. God is always “I am” (never “I was” or “I shall be”). And you feel this is bolstered by Ex 3.15’s “…this is my name ‘forever’.”

    I don’t see an exegetical case here for any particular conclusion re: God and time. I think pretty much everybody overplays their hand in this passage in trying to find something of deep ontological significance re: time. I think those concerns are beside the point (of Moses’ or Israel’s concerns). Never mind the fact that in Rev. 1.8 God is “the one who is, who was, and who is to come” which is extremely difficult to turn into an assertion of divine timelessness. Given your logic, God is “the one who is, and who is and who is.” Equally, if there’s a “natural sympathy here between Ex 3 and the classical timeless vision of God,” surely there’s an equally natural sympathy between Rev. 1.8 and the temporal view of God. Even so, I think it’s very difficult to establish “a” biblical view of God’s relationship to time. “Views” (plural), maybe.

    In John 8 then, it seems you’re saying that if God (or if Jesus or John believed God) was temporal, Jesus would have said, “Before Abraham was, I was” not “Before Abraham, I am.” The shift in tenses, you feel, is best explained by Jesus’ belief in the difference between created time (Abraham ‘was’) and divine timelessness (I ‘am’) and since Jesus said the latter, we’ve got him believing God is timeless. I’m struggling to see the logic here. Jesus could simply intend to identify himself with Israel’s God whose personal name was linked with Ex 3 as the ‘I am’ without any implicit assumptions about underlying questions of God’s being timeless/temporal. The “before Abraham” was provided by the Jews he was arguing with anyhow. They questioned Jesus’ claim to enjoy some special status with God, certainly nothing equal to “our father Abraham.” Jesus seems to just be asserting his abiding identity with YHWH (not his timelessness per se) in terms of the name he was known by. It just doesn’t follow that if God is temporal (in some qualified sense) that he couldn’t self-identify in covenant with Israel as “I am” all the time in all situations. He wouldn’t be bound to change his name to “I was” or “I will be.” Never mind the fact that God does in fact speak of himself in the past and future tense.

    I think it’s really tough to squeeze a definitive “biblical” view on God and time out of the texts. It’s pretty hard to see Jesus or John even having a developed view of divine timelessness. If they did, it’s even more difficult to account for their not clearly stating so. Timelessness is an easy view of God to make explicit. There are easy ways to assert it. And those who convince themselves it’s true typically hold it to be extremely important. And yet the NT authors aren’t explicit about it (at least not as the later Fathers, who repeat and stress its importance). I just find that curious.

    How rejecting divine timelessness is to reject the ‘homoousios’ as well is beyond me. I can see the incompatibility in saying the Father and Son are essentially different (with respect to their nature) in some way. That would make the ‘homoousios’ impossible. But that’s not what contemporary advocates of divine temporality assert.

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    • I am not arguing that Ex. 3:14-15 itself within its original context and authorial intent settles the question. I’m arguing that:
      1. the grammar of Ex. 3:14-15 is sympathetic to a “timeless” reading
      2. a “timeless” reading of Ex. 3:14-15 already exists by the time of Jesus (certainly by Philo)
      3. that John 8:58 is already integrating the “timeless” reading of Ex. 3:14-15

      Olson’s main objection is that Hellenic categories are imposed on the scriptures by the Church Fathers. My refutation of his objection is that Hellenic categories are *already* being “imposed” on the OT by the NT. This fact is now well established and Olson represents a view that is now out of date. Specifically, the “timeless” reading of YHWH is evidenced in the grammatical shift in John 8:58, a verse which is already trying, in the context of Johannine emphasis, to establish the full divinity of Christ which would later be summarized as “homoousias.” The historicity of whether or not Christ said this or what his thought process was when saying is rather irrelevant to the question; especially given a source-critical reading of John. The influence of Philo on John, and indeed numerous portions of the NT, is now well established.

      I’m not arguing that we can find a purely “Biblical” (whatever that may mean) notion of “timelessness” explicit in the text. Rather, I’m pointing out that Olson’s main objection is flawed: the influence of Hellenistic Judaism on the NT text is so thorough that the project to find a Bible pure from Greek influence is impossible. De-Hellenization of the Bible is little more than Bultmann in a different context.

      The sense of “abiding identity” is precisely how the “timelessness” thesis is expressed in early Pre-Nicene Christian theology. I already gave the example of Irenaeus who uses this language. And the debate of the ambiguity of this language comes to a head in the Nicene debates where one of the central questions is whether Christ is eternal or sempiternal. It is here that the “abiding identity” language is interpreted as the former (eternal qua timelessness) rather than the latter. Christ does not have a beginning because he is timeless.

      The attempt to divorce the divinity of Christ from divine timelessness is an anachronistic reading of history. The same ambiguity that exists, historically, around Arianism is the same exact ambiguity that exists around timelessness. They are two ends of the same thread. No matter which side you pull, the sweater will unravel.

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      • brian says:

        Well stated. I think you are correct here. The notion that first century Jews operated in a vacuum or were uninformed or uninfluenced by surrounding Hellenic culture is unrealistic. Go back a few centuries. The Wisdom of Sirach never happens apart from the meeting of Jewish and Greek thought.

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  8. Tom writes: “Never mind the fact that in Rev. 1.8 God is “the one who is, who was, and who is to come” which is extremely difficult to turn into an assertion of divine timelessness.”

    This apparent contradiction is easily reconciled by checking the context of each statement. The first to Moses is a revelation of God’s Being as God, outside of time, and is reaffirmed in the first part of Rev. 1:8 (since Christ is God as well as Man). The second is a revelation of God in His incarnation, where God enters His creation and as a Human Being becomes subject for a time to time (and space) (since in Christ God became a Man). John identifies his prophecy as that of Jesus Christ in chap. 1, vs. 1. This is important it seems to me.

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  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Interesting discussion. I’ll throw in my two cents, FWIW, given my lack of both Hebrew and Greek.

    From a critical-historical perspective, I doubt that the divine Name revealed to Moses should be read as explicitly announcing God’s metaphysical self-existence. Would Moses have understood that? What use would that revelation have been to either Moses or the Hebrews. In his commentary on Exodus, Brevard Childs reads the name as God’s refusal to explain himself: “I am who I am.” Other commentators suggest a future tense reading: “I am who I will be.” Others suggest that God is announcing his faithfulness. In any case, this does not mean, in my opinion, that the metaphysical reading is wrong. On the contrary.

    I am dubious that the I AM, even when read metaphysically, directly supports the patristic understanding of divine timelessness. It seems, rather, to announce God’s metaphysical self-existence. He is! The divine self-existence may imply divine timelessness, as it implies God’s other metaphysical attributes, but this implication can only become clear at the point when the Church has grasped the creatio ex nihilo, and that doesn’t appear to have happened until the late second century. It would be interesting to see a survey of patristic exegesis of Ex 3:14.

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    • I agree with you here, Father. I was thinking of God’s revelation to Moses rather straightforwardly as that of His Self-existence, which for us, thanks to the theological work of the Fathers, implies timelessness as well. But, I still think there is a distinction to be made between statements in the Scriptures speaking about the Divine nature in itself and those which have to do with the economy of the Incarnation. It just struck me that Rev. 1:8 was in the context of the latter.

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    • As posted above, I’m arguing that:
      1. the grammar of Ex. 3:14-15 is sympathetic to a “timeless” reading
      2. a “timeless” reading of Ex. 3:14-15 already exists by the time of Jesus (certainly by Philo)
      3. that John 8:58 is already integrating the “timeless” reading of Ex. 3:14-15

      What Moses would have understood is irrelevant. Christians, not even Diodore, have never really cared that much about historical context or authorial intent.

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  10. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Here’s a passage from Eric Mascall that I quoted over at Tom’s blog. I thought folks who are wrestling with divine eternity and divine foreknowledge might find it of interest:

    It has frequently been alleged that a radical omniscience on the part of God is incompatible with human freedom. If God knows to-day what I shall decide to do to-morrow, how can my choice be free? And if my choice is genuinely free, how can God know now what I am going to do? The controversies around these questions raised by the Molinist doctrine of scientia media must surely represent one of the most elaborate and unnecessary discussions in the history of philosophy. And if the questions are posed in these terms it seems impossible to give a satisfactory answer, for the simple reason that the very posing of the questions introduces an error into the discussion. For, if God’s existence is outside time, it is strictly meaningless to talk about what God knows to-day, since God’s “to-day” is eternity. It is true to-day that God know what I shall do to-morrow, but it is not true that God knows it to-day. And so the question falls to the ground. (He Who Is, p. 119)

    Mascall seems to be making the same point that McCabe does in the passage quoted in the article.

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