Does God Know What Hasn’t Happened Yet?

In my article on Molinism, I quoted a lengthy passage on divine foreknowledge from David Burrell’s book Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions.  Several people found Burrell’s analysis confusing. While the passage is a tad clearer when when read within the context of the chapter in which it is embedded, I admit that I too find it difficult to parse. Fortunately, Burrell also addresses the topic in his book Faith and Freedom.

Burrell believes that contemporary Christian philosophers have lost the rich understanding of divine eternity as understood by the older tradition.  Too many have understood the older understanding of eternity as an abstract timelessness, and on the basis of this misunderstanding have wondered how such a timeless Deity can be involved in a world of time and process. Burrell proposes that we should understand eternity as a formal feature of divinity, rather than an attribute or property.  The identification of the formal features of God precede the identification of his attributes, for they enable us to distinguish divinity from the world and thus assure us that we are speaking rightly of God and not of something else.  “Formal features,” he explains, “concern our manner of locating the subject for characterization, and hence belong to a stage prior to considering attributes as such—a stage which will in part determine which attributes are relevant and certainly how they are to be attributed to the subject in question” (p. 5).  Following Aquinas, Burrell lists the following as formal features of God: simpleness, eternity, limitlessness, immutability, oneness.  These features, we might say, specify the modality of the divine existence.

What then does it mean to speak of God as eternal? Burrell first turns to the classic definition of Boethius: “the possession all-at-once (tota simul) of unending life.” He comments:

Whatever is eternal, in the full-blooded sense in which that is intended when claimed as a formal feature of divinity, must be alive—existing or actual, if you will—and not merely the sort of thing to which temporal becoming is irrelevant, as it is to mathematics. God’s eternity, then, specifies the modality proper to an activity which is not a movement, and it is this dimension which the variant “timeless” omits. If God’s eternity entails timelessness, as derived via the argument that divinity lies beyond becoming, it remains the case that the timelessness entailed is not what we associate with mathematical entities or truths. And since “timeless” is inevitably closely connected with such things as these, to which becoming is irrelevant, it seems at least rhetorically misleading to speak of God as timeless, as it is certainly inaccurate to equate eternity with timelessness. (p. 9)

If eternity cannot be reduced to timelessness, what are its implications for our understanding of God? Speaking of God as timeless rightly directs us to think of God as “outside of time,” but because God is the ontological source of time, it is better to think of him as “inside the becoming which time measures than outside it” (p. 10). Hence we may immediately discard any notion that time poses a problem for God. As Creator the eternal God is intimately present to and involved with the life, activities, and processes of the world of time.  He knows what happens in time not by observing it but by creating it, by bringing it to-be, as the potter knows the pot. God knows what God does.

But the divine eternity does pose a problem for our discourse about God. Human language is ineradicably shaped by time.  It is tensed—past, present, and future.  It’s not designed to express the apophatic interval between the uncreated and created.  Creating an untensed language appropriate to the divine eternity is impossible, nor could we speak it. All we can do is “draw attention to strategic disanalogies with our tensed discourse” (p. 11).

One of the most perplexing and difficult problems is how God knows future contingent events.  From our perspective in time, future events have not happened yet and therefore do not yet exist and therefore cannot be known. So how do we speak of the divine foreknowledge. The first thing we do, says Burrell, is to “take care to translate every phrase containing ‘future’ as an adjective into a tensed verb phrase—so ‘my future job’ becomes ‘the job I will take’—and never ever let the adjective transform itself into a free-standing noun: ‘the future'” (p. 54). Not even God, says Aquinas, can know “the future in itself,” i.e., “what will be the case.”  Yet Aquinas also affirms that God knows what-will-happen, but he knows them, in Burrell’s words, “not as what-will-happen but as happening” (p. 55). Aquinas’s words: “Everything taking place in time is present to God in eternity, and not only to the extent that the essences (rationes) of things are present to God, but because his insight comprises all things from eternity, according as each thing is in its presentness” (ST 1.14.13).

This analysis immediately raises the question: “But how can we speak of something in so far as it exists, and of the same something in so far as it does not?” (p. 55).  And of course we really can’t.  We cannot comprehend how God knows the world in causing it to be, and our tensed language breaks down when we try to speak about it. But Burrell offers the following guidance, building on the analysis of Peter Geach:

For us: what has happened or what is happening ≠ what-will-happen. Thus we cannot say “what-will-happen is happening.” What has happened can be named and hence “does exist in the sense of ‘exist’ expressed in formal logic by the existential qualifier,’ whereas what-will happen does not. Thus we can speak of what has happened, or of what is happening, but not of what will happen. Here we must keep the context opaque: what-will-happen; or imaginary: what-(I believe)-will-have-happened.

For God: what-will-happen = what-is-happening (sub specie aeternitatis) = what-is (eternally)-happening = what-eternally-happens; since it is present to God after God’s mode of being. But there is no what (for us) here, any more than there is a what (for us) in what-will-happen. Thus two unknowns are said to be identical. We respect the fact that they are unknowns by reminding ourselves that it is not proper to say: what (in time) will happen is the same as what (in eternity) is happening. For as there is no what removable from the ‘… -will happen’ context, so there is no what removable from the ‘… -eternally happens’ context. (p. 65)

All clear now? (tongue firmly set in cheek)

Or as Dennis the Menace once asked his father: “Isn’t it always now?”

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6 Responses to Does God Know What Hasn’t Happened Yet?

  1. Ron Murphy says:

    This all seems like theological “hairsplitting”. How can anyone say that God is eternal, yet not be above time (His creation of time or Ages). What is logical about saying that our Creator God doesn’t dwell in timelessness. Before anything that was created (including time measurements), God without beginning or end, eternally was and eternally will be!


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Ron, I do not disagree that the kind of analysis that Burrell offers comes close to hair-splitting, but I don’t think it is excessive. I think that he is simply trying to clarify the limits of language when speaking of the Creator who is beyond our comprehension.

      Regarding the divine timelessness: I think Burrell would remind us that timelessness is simply a negative, or I would prefer apophatic, term that in itself doesn’t tell us anything positive about divinity. It’s one of those basic terms that we use to distinguish God from his creation. If you reread the post, you’ll see that Burrell doesn’t reject the term “timeless” outright. He prefers the term “eternity” because it is less vulnerable to the kind of static interpretations that have become common among philosophical theologians. As you recall, many reject the traditional understandings of divine eternity because they interpret it as meaning that God is uninvolved in creation, etc.

      Nor does Burrell reject the assertion that God is “above” time. “Above,” after all, is a spatial metaphor: it cannot be literally the case that God is above the world. This is why we also need to use other figurative terms to point to the unique relationship that exists between the Creator and the world he creates (present case)—terms like “under” and “within.” Precisely because he is the transcendent origin of temporal reality, he must also be said to be the ontological “ground” (another figurative term) of creation.


  2. njacacia says:

    If you look at Einstein’s Theory of Relativity he has shown that it is possible for all things…past, present, and future to be occurring simultaneously, it is just that we do not perceive it from our one vantage point in space. Google “time dilation” for a better explanation, and also “Time dilation would make it possible for passengers in a fast-moving vehicle to travel further into the future while aging very little, in that their great speed slows down the passage of on-board time relative to that of an observer. That is, the ship’s clock (and according to relativity, any human traveling with it) shows less elapsed time than the clocks of observers on earth. For sufficiently high speeds the effect is dramatic.[2] For example, one year of travel might correspond to ten years at home.” So, because God is everywhere at once, he has always known all things.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      If we are thinking in terms of time-space and of an expanding universe, can the expanded be known as expanded before it is expanded, ‘when’ there is no ‘so-far-expanded’ to be known but only the ‘not(-yet)-so-far-expanded’?

      What are the knowabilities of the non-existent and the not(-yet)-actualized?


      • njacacia says:

        Knowabilities to whom? Us or God? If you are talking about us, then there are no knowabilities, only postulations based on what we know or think at the moment, and these change or grow or evolve continuously. And, you must remember that time is an artificial construct devised by man, a way to define life in a linear way. If you are talking about God, He is the Alpha and the Omega “points” in “time” and although we are co-creators with Him, meaning we have always had free will to go in any direction, His is the all seeing eye.


  3. malcolmsnotes says:

    It seems to me that a doctrine of pre-temporal existence of the soul can solve the problem of reconciling God’s foreknowledge and predestination. For if God has really “given” us free will (implying there is a logical moment in which we did not yet exist nor have or exercise our freedom), there must be some sense in which he “waits” and adapts to our free response. However, if God waits to adapt to our freedom once we are already “within” time, then he cannot be properly said to be provident or predestining, and a functional Deism/Open theism ensues. Thus it seems to me God must possess “extra-temporal” foreknowledge: i.e. knowledge of our free souls in act, before they are delineated in time and united to a body. Here is a pictorial of what I mean. (This theory also, by the way, allows us to explain how we are all “in” Adam – i.e. pre temporal existence of the soul allows us to reconcile how all human beings are free and yet unable to keep from sinning at some point in their moral development. God, “seeing” our extra-temporal expression of freedom, has consigned all such souls the solidarity of “human nature”.)

    I’ve written quite a bit more about this on my blog, see the following link, and further explore the categories if desired (labeled Molinism, pre-existence, time and before time, etc.):


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