On the Problem with a Temporal God

“Further, why should there always be becoming, and what is the cause of becoming?-this no one tells us.” Aristotle Metaphysics Book 12

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.

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.

God cannot “become” a process because he is essentially not a process. Were he to undergo such becoming he would cease to be God – in fact he never would have been God, since in order to become anything one must first be able to be moved in some sense. And this implies some lack of being somewhere. It is not that movement or change are necessarily good or bad. This is the error of Process theology, which thinks that Classical theology believes that God is actus purus because it holds that all change must be either for the better or the worse. No. The insight of Classical theology is not that all change must be for the better or worse, but that all change implies a state of incompletion or lack of fullness. A thing takes on some new reality which it did not in the past have. But then the thing must have been in some way incomplete and able to be more and other than it was. It must have had some limitation such that it could not “be” unless it were subject to some process of sequential becoming. But who or what imposed such a metaphysical law? As Aristotle asked, “what is the cause of such becoming?” In short, change implies not necessarily good or bad (though it may). Rather, it implies a limit, which in the change is either now assumed, or now done away with, which the changing thing conforms to and is conditioned by. But then God would have some existing metaphysical limit or law imposed on him from outside himself, and where would that come from? So in either case we come up against some purely unmoved mover, some unconditioned conditioner, itself changeless which gives rise to changing things.

I will end by mentioning briefly in passing the straw man – or rather the misunderstanding – that often attends the idea that God is outside of time and becoming. I mean the idea that if he is so he is “frozen” or “inert.” Such words are merely abstractions from our sensual experience of what a “still” or “motionless” thing is like. But if God is actus purus, then in fact nothing can be further from the truth. Far from being lifeless or stagnant, God is literally pure act, supremely active and dynamic. He literally could not be more intimately involved, more connected, more careful about the world he has made. So let us not be misled by a mere metaphor when we are wondering about if God is outside of time.


6 thoughts on “On the Problem with a Temporal God

  1. Tom

    I haven’t read Mullins arguments for divine temporality, but you have. What would he say to your post? I’m sure he’s familiar with the classical argument you summarize, so how’s he avoid the pitfalls in reducing God to temporal becoming?


    1. malcolmsnotes Post author

      I think Mullins would make some move involving the idea that “time can exist without change.” Prior to creation (or as God ad intra) God exists in time but does not change. How he cashes this out is the problem. For wouldn’t that make God essentially changeless? If yes, then he can’t change even in light of creation. If no and he is contingently changeless, what is it that makes this the case? And is *that* thing (say it’s God’s will) necessarily changeless? And so on. Suffice it to say it seems to me metaphysically unavoidable that you arrive at a being necessarily changeless in every respect.


      1. Tom

        I’ll have to read Mullins. I think there’s great promise in the idea of ‘duration without loss’.

        It depends on whether one understands God’s unity as entailing there being nothing about God that is not essential. I think that implies the necessity of creation (creation would be as necessary-essential to God as God’s determination to create is necessary-essential to himself). After all, creation is only as contingent as God wills it to be. And if God’s willing creation to be is convertible with his will to be the God he is—well, you know the rest.

        In my own view (infinite specious present), God remains essentially changeless with respect to his self-constituting act (Father begetting the Son, procession of the Spirit, triune beatitude), which I agree cannot ‘become’ (i.e., God doesn’t determine himself in the present by relating some perceived past to the perceived possibilities at which he aims himself in order to become what he is not). God doesn’t ‘take time’ to be the triune God who doesn’t need to create. But I do think God takes time to sustain the world in its temporal becoming IF that sustaining work is immediate.

        So I don’t think everything God does constitutes himself essentially. God creates contingently, and I don’t know how to make sense of that as essentially self-constituting. And yet God creates (freely). Hence, I think there is that about God which is not essential in a necessary, self-constituting way.


        Liked by 1 person

      2. malcolmsnotes Post author

        Mullins would agre with a lot of what you say – particularly the point about modal collapse. If all of Gods acts are identical with Gods essence, then creation becomes as necessary as Gods existence. Also, if God knows contingencies then God contains at least in his intellect possibilties – he could have known a different contingency or possible world. Matthews Grant – a Thomist – has been doing work in his area. I believe i sent you a couple paper so of his. I could send em again?


  2. Tom

    As you know, I think it’s a mistake to reduce our options to either a wholesale temporal Deity (God as processu operis) or actus purus that cannot accommodate any conceivable unrealized potential in God. I suspect the truth is a reality inclusive of the best of both and exceeding their limits. I may be just another worshipper of some ‘god’, but I agree with Swinburne that changing states of mind in God (by which I just mean his actual knowledge of the word’s contingent actualities) do not threaten the plenitude of God’s necessary triune actuality. We have in our own experience an analogue, via the ‘specious present’, that makes it at least conceivable that an experience whose existential present (whose ‘specious present’) can itself contain moments of experience that come and go without compromising the undivided, epochal unity of that larger, all-encompassing specious present. For me—personally—this debate is over. I’m momentarily (pun intended!) satisfied, even if I want to continue to explore and push things are hard as I can. But I no longer bother with having to choose between the two standard models.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tom

    Crap. Typos. Try: “…at least conceivable that an ‘existential present’ (i.e., ‘specious present’) can itself contain moments of experience that…”



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