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 witnessed 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.

(28 November 2016)

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

  1. sybrandmac says:

    Since Einstein’s special theory of relativity, we know that time is a physical quantity directly linked to space. I don’t understand how Swinburne’s notion of God-time has any connection with the normal human understanding of time.


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      If my very amateur understanding is right, time is also dependent on location and speed – for God to be subject to time would require him to have a specific physical location within the universe as well.


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