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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29 Responses to Prisoner of Time: The Temporal Deity of Analytic Theology

  1. It seems to me the ultimate objection to a temporal God is that it reduces God himself to a process – one more species of becoming. But becoming as such is conditioned. The process is a *particular* process that does this rather than that. As such it demands an explanation for why it goes the way it does. If God’s being is essentially becoming it cannot be such an explanation. Thus the process as a whole – just like Aquinas’ argument for an infinite series of contingent causes – exists inexplicably. Therefore there is no reason why it should exist rather than not. But it does exist. Therefore there must needs be some further back reality that itself is not one more species of becoming, but rather grounds it – an ultimate conditioner that gives rise to all conditioned processes. Thus we come to actus purus, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      That’s precisely the problem of a fully (irreducibly) temporal God, yes. it’s not that he’s a “prison” of time. “Time” is a grace and a good. It’s unhelpful to describe being ‘temporal’ as ‘being in a prison’. Time is God’s blessing and gift, not a prison. The problem is that IF God is temporal, problems arise in his case (given the unique claims we make about him) that do not arise for us as temporal–namely. If temporal, then God’s self-constituting triune act (the Father’s begetting of the Son, the proceeding of the Spirit, the triune fullness and beatitude of this knowing and loving) is itself subject to temporal becoming; that is, it supervenes upon a process that prehends ‘past’ data from which God’s ‘present’ is determined in light of some desire to become in the ‘future’ what he is not ‘now’ (or to ‘continue to maintain’ what he is).

      We possess our life as “becoming,” as an ever-moving process in which we determine ourselves in the present by relating our perceived past (the data of past experience; i.e., memory) to perceived possibilities at which we aim ourselves in the hope of becoming what we are not (i.e., more than we are). We just are this ever-moving act of becoming, a perpetual negotiation between the perceived effects of the past and the perceived possibilities of the future.

      I don’t see how God can be reduced to such “becoming” even if the process is qualified by saying it occurs “necessarily” or by saying that what God anticipates becoming is not something he is not, but simply the act of “continuing to maintain” what he has always continued to maintain (the necessity of his identity and being).


      • Tom says:

        *…not that he’s a prisonER of time*


      • Robert Fortuin says:

        ‘I don’t see how God can be reduced to such “becoming” even if the process is qualified’

        Precisely why divine epistemic openness (and open theism in general) is objectionable as one cannot conceive of a distinction between God’s act of knowing and His act of being.


        • Tom says:

          So, conceive of a distinction between God’s essential (non-contingent) act of being and his contingent acts of knowing what exists contingently; Bulgakov managed it. But I agree that to the extent that distinction is impossible to conceive, divine epistemic openness isn’t an option. I just seem to be able to conceive of it (though I suck at articulating it).


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            I think you misunderstand me. It’s not a matter of whether my imagination is not up to the task – I can conceive of all kinds of things, it is just that it doesn’t hold up 🙂

            ‘Contingent acts of knowing’ is meaningless if there’s no distinction between God’s act of knowing and His act of being. Divine knowing is divine essence. Or put another way, there’s nothing about God that is not essential.


          • Tom says:

            Robert: There’s nothing about God that is not essential.

            Tom: Right, that’s how I was taking you. And this is as helpful and succinct a restatement of actus purus as any I’ve read.

            It’s conceiving things otherwise as ‘holding up’ that I was suggesting. The distinction (between actually ‘necessary’ and actually ‘contingent’ in God, between ‘essentially self-constituting’ and ‘contingently self-expressive’ knowing) seems to hold up in my mind. But I’ve exhausted my abilities to articulate it.


          • Robert Fortuin says:

            The problem is conflation of modes of existence, i.e. ascribing temporal, contingent psychologisms of ‘epistemic openness’ to absolute divinity. As the truly transcendent, the God who-is-utterly-not-like-the-creature, is more intimate to each creature in every moment than a god becoming ever could be.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Tom says:

            Since I’m older and grayer, I’ll be seeing Bulgakov before you (depending on how long my purgation lasts!), and I’ll ask him how he managed it.


  2. I suppose one could ask if God’s “relation”to the world, or his conscious states, or his experiences, could themselves be species of becoming which he has determined so to be. Like saying “God is naturally actus purus, but wills to subject himself to a process of becoming.” But this to me is impossible. For what a thing essentially is, it must be, or else it is not itself but something else. Thus if we are led by argument to say that there must be a being who is itself Being and not just a process of becoming, it could not become other than Being, or else it would cease being itself. What one could say I think is that the *particular relations in the created things* come to be and pass away in a process of becoming. This is what led Aquinas to say things like the change (i.e. becoming) is not in God but only in the creature, and therefore God is “logically” related to the creature rather than “really” related to it as if the two existed in some common medium.

    Has anyone read Thomas Weinandy’s Does God Change? Best book on the notion of “become” as it relates to the incarnation and God’s relation to creation that I’ve come across.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anyway your post led to this one of my own, where I argue my point a little more:


  4. Edward I G Lovejoy says:

    What of the problem that time itself is not absolute? Time moves at different rates according to the relative speeds of objects, such that the passage of time varies according to ones location within the universe, and indeed from some perspectives the same events can have a different order than from another. If time is an inherent property of God, which time and where are we talking about?

    Liked by 4 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Edward, you raise an interesting question. How can there be a debate between philosophers if they do not agree on the nature of time? Won’t they end up just talking past each other?


      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        Exactly, if time is an absolute or constant, operating independently of particular circumstances, then it at least makes it potentially sensible to talk of the universe participating in God’s time, indeed of there being “God’s time” at all. If, however, time is relative (Einsteinian pun intended) and contingent, and specific to particular circumstances within the universe in the way that e.g. location is, it is difficult to see how it is something that can be a characteristic of God.


  5. Note X Note says:

    I feel God created time as a protector,which makes prison a fine analogy. However, since God needs not protecting neither does God need time except as an operator.


  6. James Goetz says:

    Hi Al,

    I appreciate your recent series on open theism. Perhaps I could interest you in my recently published analytic theology of God and time that is also a model of open theism and creation from nothing. Here’s the abstract; “This paper models God and time in the framework of modern physics. God bridges and simultaneously exists in (1) a universe with infinite tenseless time and (2) a created parallel universe with tensed time and a point origin. The primary attributes of God are inexhaustible love, inexhaustible perception, and inexhaustible force. The model also incorporates modern physics theories that include relativity, the conservation of energy, quantum mechanics, and multiverse geometry. For example, creation out of nothing and divine intervention are subject to physical processes and likewise nomological possibility. I will call this model semiclassical theism.” If you want to see more, here’s the preprint (



  7. Patrick Halferty says:

    Father Aidan,
    Pardon me for asking an unrelated question, but I’m trying to understand how Orthodox read OT stories that portray God as violent, e.g. the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the wilderness wandering judgments?
    Comments are also welcome from those who participate in your blog.
    God bless,


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Patrick, it all depends on whom you talk to. There’s a wide diversity of interpretations within Orthodoxy on these matters.


      • Patrick Halferty says:

        May I ask how you understand it?


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Given my belief in the absolute love of God, I tend toward a metaphorical reading of some of the difficult texts. If that doesn’t work, I chalk them up to God’s progressive self-revelation. But if I were preaching these texts, I might take a different tack, as I think it’s important for all of us to wrestle with the hard Scriptures.


  8. brian says:

    These kind of issues always draw one into the thicket of the limits of language, the nature of analogy, the theological usefulness of apophaticism and its own limits. It can become a mare’s nest. I admire the analytic bent towards clear language and logic, whilst carrying a conviction that such “geometric” forms of philosophy always fall short of a necessary “finesse.” My own gifts are more intuitive and attempt to follow a more elusive theo-logic. I do think that classical theism is key to biblical interpretation, not a Greek virus that produces a counterfeit. It’s a mistake to think of eternity as time or a lot of time as the common person is apt to. It is also a mistake to think of eternity as a kind of static timelessness as Parmenides appears to do.

    For the moment, let us think not about God, but about human persons and what might be meant by a resurrected body. This has often puzzled theologians and ordinary people of faith. Here, the resurrected body stands in as a concrete “place” where the mystery of eternity beckons. A finite, bodily, temporal being is dispersed over space and time. We cannot fully disclose ourselves without sequence. We cannot imagine events except within the limits of created time. We can understand that the “child is father to the man,” but we can only understand the particular virtues of each stage of human life: the infant, the child, the youth, the man or woman in prime, the years of maturity and reflection, the dual oncoming of weakness, shadow, wisdom, and blessing of age, each is serially experienced, its own unique insight and loss separate from the others. Yet our being in its eternal giftedness contains all these excellences. I suggest that eternity is not a kind of uniform, static “maximized potential” in the manner say, of a young athlete in peak condition with superior intellect and moral probity. It is a more subtle, paradoxical, excellence that contains the kind of unique, complicated goods that we experience throughout complex time, only in a unified, simple manner. A resurrected body would hence be capable of disclosing “at once” the depths of riches that in time we can only acquire and manifest “over time.”

    Alright, so that is an analogy that one may or may not find useful. If we think about our own temporal lives, of memory, and love, and creativity, we find that the “event” quality of our experience is complicated indeed. If we were the kind of punctiliar beings that Locke invites us to consider, our choices would be spontaneous, lacking memory and intellect, a circumscribed sense of reason, etc. But we are not such beings . . . though our witness is imperfect, memory can degrade and distort, our loves are weak and mixed with egotism, i.e. the tares and the wheat are inextricably bound. If “event” is disclosure of the real, something like a winnowing of time is needed for a divine, eternal healing to manifest. And then one may say that time and created reality has always come from nothing, but is also been a gift from God to God. The eternal is not a dull, static Now, nor a perfection of surfeit in which nothing ever happens. Go look at 1 Cor. 2:10. Adrienne von Speyr will go so far as to suggest that God “prays” to God, i.e. is open to discoveries, to gift, to novelty. She does not intend to falsely import the narrativity of time into the divine. On the contrary, the point is that divine eternity is itself a richness of event that founds the possibility of temporal stories. God’s revelation of Triune Being demonstrates an aseity that is love. All creaturely differences from essences to time are participations in an eternal richness that necessarily transcends both our conceptual capacities and our existential experiences. And such is the basis for Nyssa’s understanding of eternity as an ever deepening possession of the mysterious Good.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. nathaniel drake carlson says:

    Very glad to see you reference Mullins here. He seems pretty significant to me. If you have not yet read it I would recommend his The End of the Timeless God. Would be very interested to see what you think of that.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Haha! I sure ain’t interested enough in this topic to spend a hundred bucks on it. But Tom Belt loves this stuff and he loves to buy expensive books.🙂


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