What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Some philosophy of religion for your week

I've been doing a little debating over on Facebook recently regarding divine timelessness, and it seemed that W4 readers might like to get in on the discussion. My own position is the Boethian position--namely, that God is timeless, except insofar as God the Son was made man.

I've always been a Boethian, ever since I understood the issue. It seems to fit well with much of Scripture, though not to be absolutely necessitated by Scripture. The position fits exceptionally well with the Einsteinian intertwining of space and time, since obviously God, as a spirit, is not essentially a spatial being. It provides a good way to comprehend divine omniscience regarding the future, and it is consonant with the general idea that God transcends all created things. The position has a lot of advantages.

However, I know that not everyone agrees. William Lane Craig, for example, holds that God has been timeless aside from creation, but that with the creation of the world God came to be "in time," a position that I admit I don't really understand.

One argument for divine temporality, at least "since" creation, goes approximately like this:

1. Any cause must either precede or be simultaneous with its effect.
2. The act of God's will that brings about a miracle is a cause of the miracle.
3. God sometimes does miracles.


4. The act of God's will that brings about a miracle must either precede or be simultaneous with the miracle.


5. The act of God's will that brings about a miracle must be in time.
6. If an act of God's will is in time, then God is in time.


7. God is in time.

I can think of a couple of places at which one could question this argument. Here is an analogy that seems to me to raise doubts about premise 1.

Suppose that I am writing a story that includes a car accident. Thinking about my car accident scene one evening, I decide that I will add to the story and have one of my characters, Joe, get a sudden craving for Starbucks coffee, which will motivate him to go to a certain part of town, thus bringing him to the accident scene in time to be a witness of the accident. I get up, go to my computer, and write in this addition to the story.

I have just caused Joe, in my story, to come to the Starbucks and be a witness of the accident. Did my causal act precede or come simultaneously with Joe's sudden urge to buy a Starbucks coffee? It seems to me that the obvious answer is that it did neither. To say that it did would be to put me in the story and to put my acts into the timeline of the story. In terms of my timelessness vis a vis the story, that would be to assume what is to be proved. But it also simply seems an incorrect analysis. I, as author, am not carrying out my authorial acts within the world of the story at all but rather within my own world. Hence it is meaningless to say that my act of causing Joe to have a desire for coffee came before or didn't come before his desire, as that desire is imagined to occur in the story. The question simply makes no sense, because my acts in my own mind and even my acts on the computer are strictly non-comparable to the timeline of events in Joe's story.

Premise 1 seems to be intended to rule out backwards causation in time, which I'm quite willing to grant is impossible. But if we revised premise 1 to say instead merely, "No cause may come after its effect," we wouldn't be able to get the argument off the ground, for the Boethian isn't claiming that God's causal acts come after their effects in the created world.

So it seems to me that the possibility remains open that acts from an infinite, transcendent being upon a finite universe are an exception to the usual rule expressed in premise 1, though that rule may well be correct for finite-finite causal events.

Have fun, chaps.

Comments (26)

Interesting points, Lydia, but are they not mere verbal gymnastics, and I'm not saying there's any harm in them, when one considers that perhaps humble Man, limited in intellect as he is, may not be capable of understanding his Creator, whatever about His creation?

If they are verbal gymnastics, does that mean that God _is_ in time? Or are you implying that the original argument against Boethianism is _itself_ merely "verbal gymnastics"?

It's been years since I've thought about these issues in philosophically theology, but it seems that Bill is assuming that for God to be an actor in time he must be in time in the same sense that you and I are in time. But why suppose that's true?

There seem to be many timeless truths that have causal efficacy in my actions. When I am on Quicken and trying to figure out what I owe the government, the numbers and mathematical and logical rules I employ contribute to the effects that I type out on my computer screen. These numbers and rules don't seem at all to be "in time." They are, in a sense, timeless truths, true in every possible world. But a truth that is true in every possible world is true in a world in which God has not created time, which Bill admits is a possible world. Thus, because these timeless truths have causal efficacy in time, it does not seem implausible at all for God to have causal efficacy in time and still be timeless.

Again, I'm kinda rusty on this stuff. But those are some initial thoughts.

Lydia, I think DeGaulle is basically suggesting that, as mere mortal men incapable of understanding everything about God, we ought to just shrug our shoulders at the question.

To be clear, the numbered argument in the main post is *my reconstruction* based on some conversations I've had with someone who questions divine timelessness. Those are not the exact words of Dr. Craig or anyone else other than me.

Frank, it's usually assumed that abstracta such as mathematical entities are causally powerless. I'm not sure I would say that the mathematical truths are having a causal effect on you so much as that your _knowledge_ of the mathematical truths is having a causal effect. But even if abstracta lack causal power, God is not an abstract entity like a number.

To say that it did would be to put me in the story and to put my acts into the timeline of the story.

As an author your writing reflects on you as a story guide. Innumerable authors have told about their characters having a "life of their own" and being compelled by the narrative to go in one direction or another, so there is a sense in which your acts are dependent on your own expectations and explorations of characters and plots. That is the part of you in the story, the part that gives a glimpse to the reader of what you seek in creating another world.

A-Can logic reason about every input?

B-No, indeed, logic can only reason about input that satisfies input requirements: for example, inputs must be well-formed formulas.

A-Can logic's universe-of-discourse be stretched to cover everything?

B-There is no reason to think so. Advances in logic show that our new universes-of-discourse are better than our old ones.

A-Are logic's rules of derivation infallible and perfect?

B-They do what they can do, but they are not guaranteed to do whatever we want. Consider the difference between Frege's logic and Russell's.

A-But Christianity tells me that God is knowable, so I must be able to use my mortal logic to reason about God.

B-I'm sorry that someone promised you the Christianity has a special get-out-of-logic-free card, but neither my logic nor your Gospels support that claim. Most Christians are reasoning loosely, without bothering to formalize their rules of derivation for their universe of discourse.

A-What do you mean, "Most Christians"?

B-Kurt Godel already proved the existence of God - you can just use his proof if you're too busy to read Berkeley.

-Excerpted from Platonic Dialogues With A Mathematical Logician

(P.S.: Italic/underline formatting doesn't work for me)

That doesn't seem to contribute much to the discussion, to put it mildly.

By the way, in case anyone is interested, I also think Premise 6 of the argument as laid out in the main post is questionable.

If your theory is correct, what possible use could intercessory prayer have?

God eternally takes into account the fact that I pray at time T and he eternally works that into his plans for the universe. That's always been the Boethian response to that question.

Dr. Beckwith's first statement does the best work, here, I think, even if his analogy about math is not quite apt.

God clearly transcends time. He neither experiences its passing, except via the Son following the Incarnation and perhaps concluding with the Resurrection or the Ascension (that is me thinking out loud, not me repeating St. Thomas or the Fathers, whose thoughts on the subject I do not know), nor is He limited by its rules. He sees all events, from the "beginning" through all eternity, simultaneously.

That is not, to say, of course, that He does not act in time. Certainly the creation of the world, the Flood, the Incarnation, the creation of Step2 in his mother's womb, and the series of atmospheric events that resulted in this gray cloud outside my window all took place at some specific, identifiable (even if presently unknown) point in time. With enough data, we could describe the timing of those events as precisely as we describe that of any other event.

But this does not demonstrate that God is "in" time, in the sense that He experiences its passing and that some things are in the past, such that God remembers them, and some things are in the future, such that He anticipates but does not yet experience them. Rather, we might say that God "passes through" or affects time from outside. For instance, if you stand in front of a waterfall, or a body of standing water, and throw a rock through the falling (or standing) water, you change the flow of the water, even though you are not yourself in the water or part of the water. The analogy is weak, because God not only stands outside of and affects time, he governs its unfolding in a way that you and I cannot govern the flow of water. One might analogize to a tapestry, but a weaver starts with nothing and experiences the progression of the work, whereas flowing water does not appear, to the naked eye, to have a beginning or an end: you witness the entire flow at once (weak again, because we don't really see all of the water at once, we simply can't distinguish between molecules).

As for how intercessory prayer works, that's not at all clear. We're simply told that it does.

The Bible often speaks of God's sending forth his Word. Hebrews says that the worlds were made by the word of God. I would think of God as sending his word, his effectual will, into time in something analogous to my sending a message to China. Naturally, I send a message to China via physical means. But the thing is, if we are not physicalists and not reductivists, we already know that the molecules-bumping-molecules view of causation is wrong. This is especially true of a Cartesian dualist who is quite unmoved by the "how can" objection to dualism. "How can" is not an argument. So if, "How can you affect your body if you are not physical?" is not an argument, it also seems to me that, "How can God affect finite, temporal entities if he is not himself temporal?" is not a good argument. Indeed, there is something slightly mysterious even about the meaning of the statement that we are in time, and if I were to try to parse it out I should be much inclined to explain it in terms of limitation--e.g., the limitation of our knowledge and causal powers to law-governed means related to a specific body that is one's own body, and so forth. So there is something fairly odd about holding, as an orthodox Christian must hold, that God is not limited in such ways while also holding that God is in time.

Hey Lydia,

You say "that God is timeless, except insofar as God the Son was made man"

Why isn't this a non-starter, because (1) "was made" - past tense, ergo "in" time, and (2) "man" - a being with soul and body, and plainly (at least in this case) both "in" time? I mean, it seems to amount to: that God is timeless, except insofar as he ain't.

There's a mystery here to be sure, but it's not a negative one (e.g. can't see how that might work) but a positive one (seems a contradiction).

Isn't the view better that given that God creates time, then necessarily, he's "in" it? I don't recall seeing any contradiction there.


Well, "and was made man" is biblical language. The idea is that the incarnate second person of the Trinity is in time, but only because and insofar as he is incarnate. The Father is not incarnate at all, the Holy Spirit is not incarnate at all, and the Son's incarnation itself has a temporal index--that is to say, it took place with the conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary in approximately 6 B.C.

Isn't the view better that given that God creates time, then necessarily, he's "in" it?

I cannot at all say that that is necessarily the case. To argue, "God creates x, therefore necessarily God is in x" would have many absurd consequences. "God creates a forest, therefore necessarily God is in the forest." Even more generally, "God creates space, therefore God is in space." Even those who assert that God is in time usually do _not_ assert that God is, generally, in space. This is particularly interesting, as I mentioned in the main post, from the Einsteinian intertwining of space and time into space-time. To separate these they must separate space and time and postulate something more like absolute time.

This becomes all the more important if we allow that God could have created more than one world, each having its own time-stream. In that case, the advocate of divine temporality must postulate a kind of God-time that bears some sort of translatable relationship to all the different times in the different worlds God has created (or that could do so had God created more than one world). This seems like quite a complication, and if the argument that God is in time is meant to be evidential as opposed to purely conceptual (which I believe it is for Craig), then the necessity to complexify things with a special God-time would seem another strike against the view that God is in time.

I'll tell you what, Lydia--I'm awfully glad you're on our side.

If one sees a necessary distinction between God and what God makes (as I recall WLC believes), then wouldn't it be true that if God creates x, therefore necessarily God is not in x."

DeGaulle, although we cannot know God fully and completely, we can know him imperfectly. So there is merit to investigating these things for the imperfect knowledge they lead us to. Secondly, even where something is a true mystery that we cannot penetrate as such, we can STILL disprove direct errors about the mysteries. (So, we can disprove the modern materialist philosophical error that miracles are impossible, even though we cannot penetrate the miraculous working of God in a miracle). In this case, it is possible to point out the errors of the so-called syllogism that Lydia put up for argument.

I think that St. Thomas makes a big point of understanding relation in God. Created things are in real relations to each other, such as the maker of a clock and the made clock: after the clock is made, the man is the subject in whom resides the relation "maker" and the clock is the subject in which resides the other end of the relation, "made". "Maker" becomes an accident of the man on whom the relation rests as in a subject. But created things and God do not enjoy mutually a real relation back and forth, inhering in both as in a subject. Creatures are related to God really because they are dependent on Him, but God is not the subject of a mutual real relation to creatures by His act of creation, at least not univocally. God being a creator is not a difference in God at all compared to God not being a creator - "creating" doesn't modify Him in any REAL sense, certainly doesn't constitute any sort of fulfillment of His power. (It can be said of God as a modifier only in a "logical sense, it is a logical relation rather than a real relation.)

I think this is an important part of understanding God acting on things without being in time. God's operation of creation is not the same kind of thing as our operation to make something. When we make things, we employ operative faculties that express our nature in particular ways: to see, to know, to move means to see a specific apple, to know a particular fact, to move your hand so far. God's so-called "natural" powers are those which are eternally expressed in the knowing Himself which is the procession of the Word and the love between the Father and the Son from which is the procession of the Holy Spirit. Fundamentally eternal, and leaving nothing "undone" or to be further anticipated. Creation is aside from that. God creating, even the greatest of the angels, isn't an instance of God expressing His nature in a particular way, there is an infinite gulf between His nature and the created angelic nature. (This is also why pantheism is false.) Everything God produces is real in a sense by participating in something of the TRUE REAL that is God, but in an analogical sense, not in an univocal sense: in the sense that God is the exemplar cause of all the natures of created things.

Going back to the attempted syllogism, statements 4 and 5 are mistakes. 4 can only be said equivocally, God's "will" that brings about a miracle is the same will that created the world at the beginning of time. It is one will whole and unified, with many effects outside of it in time. It is not comprised of many distinct acts of will about the many events. 5 is even worse, it hiddenly assumes that God operates ON the world by means of the sort of operations that take place WITHIN the world between created causes. No such assumption is necessary, or even valid.

I'm not sure that our creating something modifies us in a real sense either, though, Tony. I mean, if I write a paper, that doesn't make any difference to my essence. I would be the same "me" even if I never wrote that paper.

Stephen, I don't think that follows, because I suppose God could be in x (in some sense) even if there were some important and absolutely objective distinction between God and x. For example, there is an objective and extremely important distinction between a human being swimming in water and the water, yet the swimmer still is in the water.

Nonetheless, I think you are getting at something that does concern me about what I understand of Craig's view, which is how it models or whether it is at all able to model divine transcendence. On any orthodox Christian view, God transcends his creation. What, then, does it mean on Craig's view to say that God is in time because and just insofar as God has created a temporal universe? To my mind that has a whiff of making God cease to be transcendent and coming to be part of the created order because he creates.

"To argue, "God creates x, therefore necessarily God is in x" would have many absurd consequences"

Well sure, but I wasn't arguing like that. Time is no ordinary thing! I have this intuition - many but not all do - that if there is time, there isn't anywhere else for things to be, even abstract objects (if there are such), even non-physical beings. I buy Craig's arguments distinguishing metaphysical from physical time, and have always been skeptical about talk of different time-series.

But never mind that. Consider this argument:

1. The Son is God.
2. The Son (from 6 BC on) is in time.
3. Therefore, God is in time. (1,2)
4. Therefore, it is false that God is timeless. (3, def of "timeless")

I'm guessing that you accept 1 & 2. But then, how do you avoid 4?

It won't do to just claim that God-qua-Son is in time, because it seems to follow from that that God is in time, right? I mean, if you say that the above qua-claim only follows, and not 3 above, well, 3 is going to be implied anyway by the qua-claim.

I'm saying that the incarnation isn't what is at issue between Craig or other non-Boethians and me. Therefore, we should set aside the incarnation when we discuss the issue on which we disagree. The issue between us rather focuses on claims like the one you made to the effect that if time exists there is nowhere else for things to be, which would apply to God the Father at all times and would also apply even in a hypothetical world in which the incarnation did not occur.

By the way, if there is a difference between physical and metaphysical time, then why connect God's allegedly being in time to the creation of the world? Or why be skeptical about different time series? Presumably the creation of the world, or of a world, was the creation of intertwined physical space-time. It seems obvious that _that_ should not be the kind of thing that sort of "captures" the very transcendent Being who created it. And if God had some sort of metaphysical time, it would seem to be metaphysically independent of the existence of a particular space-time continuum, aka, a created world.

It seems to fit well with much of Scripture, though not to be absolutely necessitated by Scripture.

Do you know how a "God is in time" position is reconciled with, say, John 8:58, or Rev 1:4, or even Ex 3:14? Somehow the passage of time would have to apply differently to God.

Jane, I would say that the use of "I am" by God for himself is some biblical evidence in favor of divine timelessness. Even more important is the general difficulty that it seems to me one has with making God experience temporal sequence and see our universe in a temporally sequenced way while retaining the notion--which is of course supported by numerous Bible verses--that God transcends his creation and is not a part of creation. You can't have God experiencing the history of our universe just as if he were another creature _within_ the universe, simply "watching what comes along" and experiencing the past as in some way lost and the future as in some way not yet on-line, or you would definitely be degrading God in a theologically troubling way. On the other hand, the more one tries to make God's experience truly different from our own and not subject to the finite limitations of our experience--e.g., not experiencing the past and future any less vividly than the present--the more one's view resembles the Boethian view in any case.

All that is to say that I don't think there is a single silver bullet verse that proves divine timelessness but that I think there are general Scriptural concepts that tend in that direction.

I would, however, say that there are _many_ silver bullet verses that rule out the _truly_ degrading view that God does not know the future because future tensed statements have no meaning and the like--a view known as open theism. Open theists are going to be very comfortable saying that God is in time, but not everyone who denies divine timelessness is an open theist. Craig, for example, is definitely _not_ an open theist and holds to a clear view that God is omniscient about the future.


Here's my take: the argument is either a non sequitur or it begs the question.

The fifth premise does not follow since there is a difference between before and after in causality (which is all one can speak of in 1-4) and before and after in time (which is posited in #5). Things can be simultaneous in time (like an action and its reaction, writing and being written) while still having a before and after in causality. To explain: actions have to happen before reactions since a reaction by definition can't be first. We could avoid this problem by saying that the "precedes" or "simultaneous" is used in a temporal sense, which makes the first premise simply "every cause is in time, either as simultaneous with its effect or preceding it." In this case, we are simply begging the question, which is precisely whether the First Cause is in time or not.

Yes, I do think that premise 1 is intended by the one who makes the argument to be read in a temporal sense. However, I don't think that this is begging the question so much as making a strong statement, allegedly about the necessary nature of causality and its relation to time, that the advocate of divine timelessness may very well deny. (Though as I mentioned above, the Boethian may also deny premise 6.) Where the anti-Boethian means to press his case is when it comes to God's revealing himself at _particular_ points in time, in miracles, rather than simply as First Cause of all things. So the argument intends to press the Boethian either to give up miracles as events genuinely caused by God or else to adopt what the anti-Boethian making the argument considers to be a wildly implausible view of causality--namely, that a cause may be a genuine cause while bearing no definite temporal relationship to its effect.

Speaking for myself, I don't consider that wildly implausible. I think causality is going to end up being a sui generis relationship in many respects anyway, and _that_ statement about temporality (in premise 1) does not strike me as a conceptual truth. (Though as I said in the main post, it does seem to me correct to say that a cause cannot definitely temporally follow its effect.)

1. Any cause must either precede or be simultaneous with its effect.

Or, as the philosophers put it, a cause is PRIOR TO its effect.

Now, prior to is not strictly a temporal relation, because we have lots of causes that cause simultaneously with the effects. What the statement says, though, is that there is still an ordering that is present in the cause-effect relationship, and that ordering is correctly understood with the effect being real on account of the cause, and therefore the cause precedes the effect in order of being. (Not necessarily in time.)

One of the consequences of this ordering, in temporal matters, is that the cause must always be before or simultaneous with the effect. But all that says is that if a cause is causing an its effect is being effectuated temporally, then the cause is TEMPORALLY before or simultaneous with the effect.

But logically there remains the scenarios where the cause is not operating temporally, and causing a non-temporal effect, and the scenarios where the cause is not operating temporally, and is causing a temporal effect. Why, you say, is there a logical possibility of these?

Because time is a reference to mobile being changing with respect to material condition. There are other sorts of causes and effects. It takes a man time to move an object, and the differences involved are differences in mobile being, which per se are temporal differences, before and after. (Likewise, it takes time for an apple to grow, for a sky to chnange from blue to rose, for an animal to die.) But it takes no change in mobile material being for a higher angel to inform a lower angel of a truth he formerly did not know. While there is a prior (in terms of causality) there is no necessity that the change take TIME. No part of an angel is material being, angels don't need (or have) bodies in any sense, and they don't have changes in any brain when they learn a truth. Not all cause and effect situations are temporal.

Much more so, then, when God creates: properly speaking we DON'T call creation a motion. Motion involves a prior substrate material undergoing a change from one state of affairs to another state of affairs. Creation doesn't involve any substrate material shedding one condition to take on a new condition, because there is no prior substrate material before the event happens. Thus God's act of creating simply is not a temporal act, certainly not in the normal sense. Yes, if he creates a material being the end effect of the operation is a temporal being, but the operation itself is not an operation on a prior substrate material. So even when He is creating a human or a planet or a universe, the act is not "in" time. Even less would God's creation of angels be in time, since nothing about angels is material even AFTER they are created.

Premise 1 (as used in later premises) utilizes an misconception about time and how cause and effect bear on time. Statement 5 simply draws on a completely unjustified sense of "in time" that is not properly grounded in the earlier statements, and is not valid anyway.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.