Category Archives: Timelessness

Aquinas on God being everlasting rather than timeless

Interesting reading here. Lately through my reading of Aquinas I’ve become concerned that he did not fully understand or positively think through the idea of God being “timeless.” Certainly he says the divine nature is immutable and unchangeable, and he certainly argues that God’s eternity is “simultaneously whole.” But all these things can be held by someone who holds that God is everlasting rather than timeless. (Interestingly, this idea of God’s “everlastingness” over and against his “timelessness” is something lots of current analytic theologians hold.)

Anyway, this post is to show that Aquinas actually gives, not an argument for timelessness, but for everlastingness, in his commentary on John. Now, the difference between the two is that a timeless being cannot have any sequence in its existence. This makes difficult (impossible?) to understand many basic truths – such as God’s real relation to the world, creaturely freedom, and the Incarnation. (If anyone wants to see a post on these problems, comment and I’ll explore them.) But if God is everlasting then God can still have sequence in his life – he can do one thing and then another – and these problems disappear.

Anyway, here are Aquinas’ quotes. I’ll let the reader decide what he thinks Aquinas’ argument demonstrates (everlastingness vs timelessness). Of particular note is Aquinas saying that God “endures.” A timeless being, however, cannot endure through time (as Craig as argued), for then he would know tensed facts. I’ll be quoting two different paragraphs, both from his commentary on John 1.

“Now we should consider that it says that the Word was (erat), which is stated in the past imperfect tense. This tense is most appropriate for designating eternal things if we consider the nature of time and of the things that exist in time. For what is future is not yet in act; but what is at present is in act, and by the fact that it is in act what is present is not described as having been. Now the past perfect tense indicates that something has existed, has already come to an end, and has now ceased to be. The past imperfect tense, on the other hand, indicates that something has been, has not yet come to an end, nor has ceased to be, but still endures. Thus, whenever John mentions eternal things he expressly says “was” (erat, past imperfect tense), but when he refers to anything temporal he says “has been” (fuit, past perfect tense), as will be clear later.”

“We should note with respect to the first that, as soon as the Evangelist begins speaking of something temporal, he changes his manner of speech. When speaking above of eternal things, he used the word “was” (erat), which is the past imperfect tense; and this indicates that eternal things are without end. But now, when he is speaking of temporal things, he uses “was” (fuit, i.e., “has been”); this indicates temporal things as having taken place in the past and coming to an end there.”

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Divine Mathematics: Molinism’s Three Logical Moments and Divine Timelessness

God has three “logical moments” in his knowledge according to Molinism: knowledge of what could occur, what would occur, and what will occur. Now, this last moment (God’s “free knowledge”) seems to require that God be temporal. But Molina could not have thought this, since he was a Catholic (I think timelessness was de fide in the 16th century?)

Anyway, maybe he could have said this.

The three logical moments of knowledge in God exist simultaneously, as sort of three premises that he deduces in one timeless act. If this is true, it seems God’s free knowledge of what “will” occur would more correctly be called his knowledge of what “is occurring at such and such a time.” For “will” occur imports temporal passage into God’s knowledge, which wouldn’t exist if he were timeless.

Or you could look the creation of the world like an equation. 1 + 2 = 3, where 1 is God’s natural knowledge, 2 is his middle, and 3 his free. Now, God being timelessly omniscient could know all possible permutations and equations, and he could timelessly choose to actualize whichever equation he thought best. Thus God timelessly contemplates a particular equation as actually existing, and timelessly contemplates an infinite number of other equations as not existing, but as possibly able to exist were he to will their existence.

Maybe I should buy part IV of the Concordia and see if he addresses this issue specifically.

Does God’s Contingent Action Imply He Has Accidents (and Conflict with Simplicity?)

“As in God “what is” and “whereby it is” are the same, so likewise in Him “what acts” and “whereby it acts” are the same, since everything acts, inasmuch as it is a being. Hence the Divine Nature is both that whereby God acts, and the very God Who acts.” Aquinas, ST III q. 3 a. 2

It seems to me the question of God’s knowledge of creation is similar to the question of the second person assuming a human nature. In each case, something is true of God that need not necessarily be true of him – i.e. he has this particular knowledge of creation or he assumes this particular created nature. Presumably God could have different knowledge or could have assumed a different nature.

Open theists say this means God cannot be simple, since such things appear accidental to God. And if a thing is accidental to something else, it can be added to it. But if something can be added to God, he is temporal and composed, and can at one time have “this” property and at another “that.”

But what if we think about it like this. God is the same across all possible worlds because in all possible worlds God knows his one act, which is his existing and his doing. But this means that we can only arrive at a sort of analogical predication of God, insofar as in every possible world we say that God has both a necessary existence (willing his own goodness) and a contingent existence (willing it in this way – say with a creation – rather than that way – say without one.)

Is God the same in a world that is different than this one? Yes, just like we would be the same person even if we did otherwise. For in any possible world God is still knowing his own existence and his own action. That action is different in terms of how it terminates (he actualizes this creature rather than that, or he even fails to actualize any creature at all.) But the action, in terms of the way it is performed, is the same (a necessary end attained through a contingent means.) In other words, God is the same in all possible worlds because God justin st is an instance of free act. In any world that could exist, God would be freely acting to bring it about. That is, he would always know the extent of his own free action. Therefore, God’s action would not be essentially different in any possible world even if the world was different, or if no world existed at all (God would know that he is freely actualizing his own goodness without bringing about a world, for instance.)

Interestingly in the question in the ST that asks whether God’s will is the cause of things Aquinas says “the divine being is undetermined.” And he also says in the previous question that the divine will “determines itself” to things which it has no necessary connection to. These thoughts lead me to believe that we can attribute both necessary and contingent existence, analogously, to God’s single act of being. We can consider these attributes under certain respects: God’s necessity in terms of him wiling his own goodness and his contingency in terms of the way in which he wills that goodness. This saves us from having to say that God’s knowledge (and will) are things “outside” or “extrinsic” to God himself, but still allows us to speak truly about God’s necessary existence.

Norris Clarke’s Explanation of God’s Way of Knowing

Clarke was a Thomist. As such he was committed to the idea of God as pure actuality and timeless. Yet, as most Catholics do (which separates them from Calvinists) Clarke also believed in true libertarian freedom. But then how can God know free choices, since they would seem to “actualize” God’s own knowledge? (The absolute determinist option – that God knows by determining – is not open to Clarke.)

In previous posts I’ve laid out many of the problems in various models of a timeless God’s way of knowing free willed acts. They all break down insofar as God becomes an eternally passive receiver of information, to which he must “react.” But “reaction” (and reception) is something a timeless, changeless God cannot do. Thus, while certain models may explain how God eternally knows free acts (by eternally passively receiving knowledge of them), these models make God unable to actually respond to or act on what he knows. For that creates sequence in God’s acts, which consequently makes him temporal.

Now, Norris Clarke had an interesting take on this problem. He supposed that God knows free choices, not by unilaterally determining them, nor by passively receiving knowledge of them, but by synergistically and actively doing them with the creature itself. As he says, “God knows not by being acted upon, but through his own action in us.” (A Philosophical Approach to God.)

Now this approach deserves some attention. Can it solve the problems that the traditional divine reception model creates (where God is passively receiving knowledge, e.g. on a watchtower)? For one, if Clarke is correct here, it would follow that God’s creative act – his granting of free will – would be radically different from what is normally supposed in the classic literature. God’s bringing into being free beings would be the same thing as, or logically connected to, the opening up of himself to various determinate actions in and through these beings themselves. Thus God’s act of creating would simultaneously also be a divine self-limitation or vulnerability, insofar as God really allows his creative powers to flow through channels which may or may not be pleasing to him. This would not make God “dependent on” creatures to actualize his own nature against his will on creatures. But it would entail that God has so chosen in accordance with his will to be able to be actualized in his nature by free creatures. (There is a world of difference here.) If this makes God’s will dependent on creatures for the fulfillment of a desire it is only because he has so freely chosen to allow his desire to be dependent on something outside himself. And so again we come to a divine emptying, a divine humility, inherent in the very act of creating and relating to the world.

But perhaps this isn’t so radical a view after all. For have not theists for thousands of years believed at least in some rudimentary form that God in granting free will has also limited his own omnipotence and power in the world?

What is perhaps more interesting – at least to me – is whether or not Clarke’s view can save us from the Causal Loop objection. (You can see that objection fully laid out here: https://notesonthefoothills.wordpress.com/category/causal-loop-objection/) In short, the objection shows that if God receives a particular free willed act at time 1 into his knowledge by passively receiving it, then he cannot use that knowledge to interact with the creation, for that would imply a) God being temporal; and b) a causal loop, since each moment of time would already be present to a timeless God.

But if Clarke is right, then God is not passively receiving moments of time or free willed act, either one by one, or in a single divine moment of reception. Rather, God is in a single timeless act atively acting in and through free beings. This may be unimaginable – i.e. it may posit a mode of causation that we cannot form adequate mental pictures of – but does it involve a contradiction? It’s hard to see that it does. For, from God’s point of view, his one act of creation is single. Ergo, each separate thing in creation is, from this creative perspective, inseparably connected. We can get a grasp of this even a little bit by thinking about how each bit of matter must, if we could but follow out the connection of all physical objects, be affected by every other bit of matter. The idea that one star on this side of the universe is impacted by one star on another side is really only a magnified example of the fact that my skin is somewhat impacted by the space heater that is humming a few feet away from me. For each occasion in the universe has a definite affect on something else, and that, on something else, and so on, throughout the entire cosmos. In fact the word “universe” itself attests to this: for it is that thing which contains everything else and thus unites all separate and finite realities into a single causally connected plane.

Now, could something like this be the case with God and his knowledge of free events? If God is actively working at every moment of time, then every moment of time is connected in a particular way to every other. There would of course be a “forward” connection, as time moves from left to right. But there would also be a “backward” one, insofar as the providential God brings meaning to future events based on past actions.

Does this notion of God, timelessly “acting through” every free act throughout all time, avoid the Causal Loop objection? To say yes, one would have to show that no “single” free act in time is the “result” of God’s doing such and such at another point in time. For once you have the temporal stuff determining God you make God temporal.

But my head hurts too much right now to try to parse this out if God is in fact by his own free choice timelessly working in and through all active free causes in time. Maybe better minds can come along behind me and do that.

God’s Timelessness, Permissive Decree, and Omnicausality

What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction…” Romans 9:22

There is a nest of problems that come with thinking of God’s causal relation to human’s free will. One of the views that I’ve been interested in lately (and that has been made popular in the blog world lately – see Eclectic Orthodoxy) is that of Hugh McCann’s. His position is not something entirely new, although he has perhaps done the best recently at most clearly articulating such a view. In short, McCann thinks that God causes absolutely all things that come to pass in time, but not in such a way that destroys free will. God “creates us willing.” He does not create “us” and then go on from there to make us will a certain way. Rather, his creation of us immediate. There is nothing between his willing that we exist in a certain way and our subsequent existing in that way. That would entail determinism – i.e. that God forces us to be something other than what we are. The way McCann sees it, and I tend to agree with him, is that God’s creating us just is his making us what we are in the first place.

Now this position is able to preserve human freedom because of God’s timeless causality. That is, because God transcends time, there is nothing out there in the world that comes “before” our free action such that since it exists therefore our free action must also exist. In other words, it’s not because at the beginning of the universe the particular atoms were arranged in just such a way that they necessarily arranged to produce our brains, and that those brains, themselves being governed by the laws of physics, had to give rise to the free choices that they did. Since God is really the ultimate cause and explanation of every movement in time whatsoever, the case is quite different. He operates on a different plane of causality altogether. The classic example is of his causal power being like that of an author to a novel. No one would accuse the author of “determining” the nature of his characters such that their freedom was violated when he makes them doing different things.

The whole question of a “violation” of freedom presupposes that there is some person already there – some creature that is just “given” – that God then acts on to make it do such and such. But again, if God is timeless, and if he is the source of all reality, there is no such character already “there” just existing by its own necessary existence. For it to exist at all God must first cause it to be. But in that case, we already have a fully created character.

One more thing that follows from saying that God is timeless is that asking whether or not he could have done otherwise becomes a meaningless question. I think it is true to say that God’s creation is contingent and that it need not exist. I also think it true to say that given God’s existence (which is necessary), the existence of the world does not necessarily follow. But, at the same time, since we know that God in fact has freely chosen to create (we do exist after all), God cannot not create. Since God is timeless there is no sequence to his acts (for sequence implies temporality and movement.) Therefore, since what he does he does changelessly, there is no sense in asking if he “could have” not created. For “could have” implies some past state of affairs when God could have actually acted differently. It’s not that God “had” to or “must” have created. Nor is it that he at one point just freely chose to do something he didn’t have to do. Both points put God in time. I would rather say that, given Gods necessary existence, a creation does not necessarily follow, but only if he freely wills to create the world does its existence follow. Putting the situation in a tenseless (and therefore timeless) conditional upholds both Gods necessity and the creation and contingency but avoids the “could have” problems.

Now, one apparent problem with McCann’s view is that it seems to fall victim to the critique against Calvinism insofar as it makes God the cause of sin and evil. It also seems to divide his will: God creates the very beings who he is wrathful with and who he commands to be otherwise, even though they have no real ability to do otherwise.

A couple things can be said here. The first is that the ability to do otherwise may not actually be necessary to secure moral responsibility. It may be that all that is required is a) a rational motive by the intellect; and b) the perception that acting on that motive is wrong. The second quick thing that can be said is that there may be nothing either logically incompatible or theologically problematic in saying that God has caused or created all sin and evil. You see, what we want to specifically avoid is making God out to be evil or of having him do or commit evil himself. But to create evil, or to make a universe in which sin exists, is not necessarily to commit an evil act. That would be a sort of fallacy of transfer: if God makes a red apple exist, he himself must be a red apple; or if God makes a man riding a bike, he himself must be riding a bike. Is it not possible that God, in creating evil and sinful actions, does not do evil insofar as all that he is causing he is doing with perfectly wise, pure, and good motives?

Now, this leads me to the last point of this post, which is about God’s permission of sin and evil. It’s easy to think that if God causes all that comes to pass, he is delighted or gleeful whenever sin occurs. After all, if people sin, they only do so because he has willed that they sin. And since God’s will is always fulfilled – since, indeed, according to this scheme all things that happen do so by God’s decree – how could he ever be upset about anything? Furthermore, how could he even “permit” a thing in the first place? If he is omnicausing all, just what could he be permitting, besides his own causal power?

This is where I think the question of God’s timeless relation to creation becomes really interesting. Sam Storms has suggested that God “is pleased to ordain his own displeasure” and John Piper has talked about the “complex emotional life” of God. Could it be that in willing sinners, God is revealing that which is in himself analogous to our experience of “permission” and “longsuffering”?

Think about it like this. What if God’s very causal, timeless relation is to the reprobate just such a species of permissiveness? What we mean by permission automatically presupposes some resistant object over and against which we exert a sort of causal allowance. What if God’s causal relation between sinners is this same sort of thing, just taken up timelessly?

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.