by R.T. Mullins
In The Uncontrolling Love of God, Tom Oord rejects the traditional claim that God is timeless, and instead, affirms that God is in time or temporal. Oord refers to this as God’s time-full existence. To more traditional Christian ears, this will sound incredible. I believe that the incredulity arises from a misunderstanding of several issues related to the nature of time, and God’s eternal nature. In this short essay, I shall seek to clear up some of these issues so that readers can more fully engage with Oord’s model of God.
The Nature of Time
The notion of time is a notoriously difficult philosophical issue. For the purposes of this essay, I shall note two traditional claims about the nature of time (what is time?) and the ontology of time (what moments of time exist?).
What is time? Time has traditionally been understood to have a close relationship to change. The idea here is: if there is a change, there is time. Change creates a before and an after in the world. Part of the nature of time is its constant flow of one moment after another. Christian theologians and philosophers have overwhelmingly affirmed this close relationship between time and change. There has been dissent from this opinion, which I discuss in my book The End of the Timeless God. For the sake of brevity, I will not discuss that dissent here. What matters for our purposes is the way Christians have traditionally understood this connection between time and change. For traditional Christian theologians, a being is in time if it undergoes change. A being is timeless if it does not change in any way, shape, or form.
What moments of time exist? Traditionally, Christians have affirmed a position called presentism. Presentism says that only the present moment of time exists. The past no longer exists, and the future does not yet exist. This can be contrasted with a view called eternalism, which says that the past, present, and future moments of time all equally exist. On presentism, the present exhausts all of reality. All that exists, exists at the present. Whereas on eternalism, things exist at other times, and those times are just as real as any other moment.
Eternalism is fairly new in Christian history. Most Christians did not consider it a live option for theology until after Einstein’s theory of relativity became mainstream. In fact, I am not aware of any major Christian theologian who denies presentism prior to the 1800’s. Presentism has a long track-record in Christian history, and has had a major influence on the way Christians have articulated their theology. This influence continues today with the rise of relational and open theism.
What is a Timeless God?
With the brief statement on time above, we can start to understand a bit about God’s relation to time. As I said before, Christians have traditionally claimed that God is timeless. What did they mean by this? Christians have traditionally said that God exists in a timeless present that lacks a before and after. What does this mean? Well, recall the close connection between time and change. Christians have traditionally wished to say that God cannot change in any way, shape, or form. As such, God cannot have a before and after in His life. God experiences His life all at once in a present that is sort of like ours, but in a timeless present that lacks a before and after.
Here is another traditional way to state divine timelessness. God is timeless if and only if God a) never begins to exist, b) never ceases to exist, and c) lacks succession. The “lacks succession” claim is essential to God being timeless. Beings that exist in time experience a succession of moments. We experience one moment after another. If God is timeless, God does not experience one moment after another. Instead, He enjoys all of His life at once in a timeless present that lacks a before and after.
What is a Temporal God?
The claim that God is in time has caused some controversy in the 20th and 21st Century. I think most, though not all, of this controversy is due to a basic misunderstanding of the claim that God is in time. For instance, some theologians worry that if God is in time, then God is not really eternal. This is false. Those who affirm that God is temporal, affirm that God is eternal. What they deny is that God is timelessly eternal. All it takes for a being to be eternal is for that being to have a life that never begins to exist and a life that never ceases to exist.
Recall from above that for God to be timeless is to say that God a) never begins to exist, b) never ceases to exist, and c) lacks succession. Those who say that God is temporal affirm (a) and (b), thus affirming that God is eternal. However, temporalists deny (c). To say that God is temporally eternal is to say that God never began to exist and can never cease to exist. God is an eternal being, from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 90). However, God does have succession in His life. God experiences one thing after another. For example, God the Son was not always incarnate. At one point in time, God the Son took on human flesh to redeem a lost humanity. The incarnation is a new moment in the life of God. God does not experience His life all at once in a timeless present. Instead, God experiences a succession of moments just like we do. This is the temporal God that Oord wishes to affirm.
R.T. Mullins (PhD, University of St Andrews) specializes in philosophical theology. He has published on topics such as God and time, the Trinity, the Incarnation, disability theology, and the problem of evil. His book, The End of the Timeless God was released in 2016 by Oxford University Press. He has previously held research and teaching fellowships at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Cambridge. When not engaging in philosophical theology, he is often found at a metal show. For more on his research and writing, check out his page. For a recent series of podcast interviews about his book, check out the Trinities podcast.