According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Confusing the Biblical God of Time with the Greek God of Time: Classic Theism & Divine Timelessness - What It Is and Isn't from a Non-Process Point of View


An Example of Unwarranted Theological Speculation: Divine Timelessness

by Roger Olson
[comments by R.E. Slater]
February 19, 2015

“The God of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
And it can have negative consequences for Christian practices such as prayer.

- Roger Olson

In my immediately preceding post [see next article below]  I argued that far too much Christian theology includes unwarranted speculation—especially about God. Under pressure from Greek ontology traditional, “classical theism” has generally agreed that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the Yahweh of the Bible) is somehow (i.e., differently expressed) “outside of time” such that temporal sequence, the passage of past into present into future (or future into present into past) is known to God but not experienced by God.

Put in other words, for this classical theistic view, God’s eternity means (in relation to time) “simultaneity with all times.” In other words, in this view, explained best (most scholars agree) by Boethius, God exists in an “eternal now.” For him, our future has already happened. In other words, this is not just a claim about God’s foreknowledge; it is a claim about God’s being. It is not merely epistemological; it is ontological.

I have taught Christian theology on both the undergraduate and graduate levels for thirty-four years. I can say without hesitation that the vast majority of my students think this is biblical theology and orthodoxy. They think this view of God’s eternity, timelessness, being “outside of time,” is part-and-parcel of Christianity, the Christian faith, even the gospel itself. Try questioning it and you will (I have) experience(d) strenuous push back.

I suspect many people think two things about this traditional view of God’s eternity and time:

1 - First, it is necessary for God’s transcendence; if God is somehow “within time” or if time is “real for God,” then (God forbid!) God must be limited.

2 - Second, it undermines God’s power and sovereignty and makes God unreliable. The future, scary to us, becomes scary to God, too. As one theologian expressed it, denial of the classical view makes God a “pathetic, hand wringing God who has to wait fearfully to see what will happen.

And yet…

Nowhere does the biblical story of God, the biblical narrative that identifies God for us, and upon which classical Christian theology claims to be based, say or even hint that God is “outside of time” or “timeless” or that all times are “simultaneously before the eyes of God.”


  • This view of God’s eternity entered into Christian theology from Greek philosophy which regarded time as imperfection.
  • Greek philosophy was notoriously negative with regard to time. Hebrew thought was not; it regarded time and history as the framework for God’s action.


Many Christian theologians, not all liberal, began to see this especially in the nineteenth century and began to deconstruct the Greek influences in Christian theology insofar as they were extra-biblical and tended to de-personalize God.

Among the earliest to begin this deconstruction project were Richard Watson (Methodist), I. A. Dorner (Lutheran-Reformed), and even Karl Barth (Reformed). (Barth’s belief about God’s relation to time was complex and ultimately ambiguous, but there can be no denying that he incorporated time into God even if he called God’s time “divine temporality.”) (Many conservative theologians “blame” liberal Adolph Harnack for this de-Hellenizing project, but he was not alone.)

And yet…

As Christian philosophers Nicholas Wolterstorff and Keith Ward (among others) have strenuously pointed out, a “timeless being” cannot interact with temporal beings. In fact, such a being, freed entirely of the flow of time, cannot “act” in time at all. In fact, he cannot even know that “today is February 18, 2015.” But most importantly, as Christian philosopher Dallas Willard pointed out most emphatically in The Divine Conspiracy, such a God cannot be affected by our prayers.

So how to preserve God’s transcendence together with denial of God’s timeless eternity?

This has been answered many times by many philosophers and theologians. The answer is “creation as kenosis.” This is explained in many books but is especially clear in The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis edited by theologian-scientist John Polkinghorne (Eerdmans, 2001). Polkinghorne’s own contribution to the book is best: “Kenotic Creation and Divine Action.” The point is that God’s entry into time with us (T. F. Torrance in Space, Time, and Incarnation) is voluntary.

Why would God do this? Out of love for the sake of having real relationships with temporal creatures made in his own image and likeness. A “timeless” God who is not temporal cannot be affected by anything temporal beings do. The great medieval scholastic theologians knew this and described all God’s relations with temporal creatures as external, not internal. In other words, God remains unchanged, unaltered in every way [sic, divine impassibility]. They drew the natural, reasonable conclusion that an eternal God, one for whom our past, present and future are all “now,” must be immutable and even impassible in the strongest senses possible. He can act but not react. (Whether he can even act within time is strongly questioned by Wolterstorff and Ward and other Christian philosophers.)

God’s transcendence lies in the fact that he remains self-sufficient in his eternal nature and character; time does not erode or add to God’s being. And the voluntarily temporal God remains omnipotent and everlasting. Time does not limit or threaten his being or power.

The conclusion of many modern Christian thinkers (and here I am excluding process theologians such as Nelson Pike whose 1970 book God and Timelessness is a devastating logical critique of the traditional view) is that the classical view of God’s eternity (“outside of time,” “eternal now-ness”) is pure philosophical-theological speculation unrelated to the God of the Bible and alien to any religion that values an interactive God. It tends to make God remote, uninvolved, inaccessible and non-relational (except within himself).

---

I often wonder about the possible connection between this classical view of God’s eternity (viz., “outside of time”) and many Christians’ view of prayer. When I ask my students if they have heard the saying that “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me” almost all confess that they heard it in church or home or somewhere among Christians. That prayer changes me is not contested; that prayer can change the mind of God is clearly biblical. To say otherwise is to reduce numerous passages of Scripture to mere imagery, “anthropomorphism,” and guts petitionary prayer [into a nothingness, meaningless, worrisome task]. I suspect that the idea of God as “outside of time,” “eternal now,” “non-temporal,” contributes to and supports that false idea of prayer.

---

So why did this traditional view of God’s eternity (“timelessness”) invade Christian theology which claims to be based on the Bible or at least governed by the Bible? I suspect the Greek “logic of perfection” contributed to it—the idea that God is perfect, time is imperfect, therefore God must be timeless.

A more biblical way of looking at the subject would be that God is perfect, love is perfect, love between God and created beings requires freedom-in-and-for relationship, freedom-in-and-for relationship (between God and created beings) requires time, it is more perfect for God to enter into time than to remain outside time.

---

At this point in a conversation about this subject many Christians will ask “Why can’t God enter into time and be outside of time also?” But think about that language. How can a non-temporal being “enter into time” while also remaining outside of time? If what has been said is true, then only “part of God” would be in real relationship with free creatures. There would still be “part of God” for whom the future has already happened. If the future has already happened at all, for anyone, even for a “part of God,” then history’s unfolding including our ability to affect God (e.g., with prayer) is a charade. The idea that this problem can be solved by positing that God both enters into time and remains outside of time is simply another way of saying God is timeless. It doesn’t solve anything.

But more importantly, the logic of the Bible, the flow of the biblical narrative, God’s story with us, never says or even hints that God is “outside of time.” It only says that God is everlasting and hints (very strongly) that God is the Lord of time. All that the biblical narrative requires is that God be omnipotent within time and able to guarantee his victory over whatever forces oppose him.

If there is some aspect of God that remains above or outside of time, I do not know how to speak of that, how even to imagine that, how to make that consistent with God within time (and God in real relation with creatures in time). Therefore, I leave that aside, simply lay it down, and ignore it. It doesn’t function in a truly biblical theology except as a metaphysical compliment some people feel compelled to pay to God. But I don’t feel so compelled by the Bible or by reason.

I realize that the temporal view of God goes against the bulk of Christian tradition, but the traditional, classical view is derived from alien [(non-biblical, non-Jewish)] sources. It is a foreign body within biblical theology. “The God of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” And it can have negative consequences for Christian practices such as prayer.

Theologian Robert Jenson is widely considered one of the most astute contemporary Christian theologians. Many of his books (such as God after God: The God of the Past and the Future as Seen in the Work of Karl Barth [1969] and The Triune Identity: God According to the Gospel [1982]) strongly point toward a temporal view of God. Page 4 of The Triune Identity powerfully expresses what I (and other non-process theologians who embrace a temporal view of God) believe:

“God may be God because in him all that will be is already realized,
so that the novelties of the future are only apparent and its threats
therefore not overwhelming. Or God may be God because in him
all that has been is opened to transformation, so that the guilts of
the past and immobilities of the present are rightly to be
 interpreted as opportunities of creation.”

 - Robert Jenson


* * * * * * * * *


Theology and Speculation

by Roger Olson
February 17, 2015

The issue here is the legitimacy of speculation in theology. What is speculation? In this context, if not in all contexts, “speculation” is making truth claims without clear warrant—reasonable grounding in relevant data. In theology “relevant data” are revelation/Scripture, tradition, reason (logic) and experience. “Experience” is intersubjective experience, not private experience.

Some years ago I came to the conclusion that much Christian theology, truth claims made by Christian theologians, is speculation—as opposed to clear exegesis of Scripture and tradition using reason and experience as guidance mechanisms and tools of interpretation.

Now I need to give examples. It seems to me that calling the Holy Spirit “the bond of love between Father and Son” in the immanent Trinity (like much talk about the immanent Trinity) is speculation. And yet, probably due to the influence of Augustine (De Trinitate) it has become commonplace in especially Western Christian theology.

Another example is theories of atonement: how exactly Christ’s death on the cross made possible human salvation. All theories of the atonement seem speculative to me.

Of course, my examples reveal that I think much “tradition” is itself speculative compared with Scripture itself. Most Protestants, anyway, claim to believe that Scripture trumps tradition and where tradition departs from Scripture it is to be held more lightly and with less authority.

Over the years I have gotten in the habit of reading every book of theology with a kind of critical principle about speculation: “Is this truth claim made by this theologian actually warranted by revelation/Scripture?”

I would guess that as much as half or more of all that I read in books of theology is speculation.

Now, having said all that, let me also say that speculation is not always bad. The human mind seeks answers and it is naturally for theologians to guess at possible answers when revelation/Scripture is not clear. I don’t blame theologians for attempting to answer the question “Why did Jesus have to die in order for us to be saved?” but I recognize much of most theological answers as speculation.

Some years ago I was at a banquet honoring a world class theologian’s sixtieth birthday. During his talk after the toasts he reminisced about his life and career and specifically referred to a falling out he had with another theologian who was present. He said directly to the other theologian “Let’s all just remember: It’s only guesswork anyway.”

Naturally I was a bit shocked as I had spent much time and effort studying that theologian’s work. And yet I was somewhat relieved at the same time because I had come to suspect that much of his theology was, indeed, “guesswork” or what I am calling here speculation.

Again, to me that does not nullify the value of that theologian’s contributions to theology. I only wish he and others labeled their prescriptive truth claims “speculation” rather than putting them forward as “truth.”

As I said, speculation is not bad or wrong, but it should not carry the weight, authority, that truth grounded directly in revelation/Scripture carries. And yet what often happens is people adopt an entire theological project as truth and are reluctant or unwilling to recognize much of it as speculation when, in fact, that is what it is.

Theologians (and others) should be more open and transparent about this. They should label their truth claims with degrees of speculation—from that which is closer to the data (“justified speculation”) to that which is farther from the data (“guesswork only”). My own reading of Christian theology has led me to believe that most theologians (other than fundamentalists) actually know these differences between truth claims but, for whatever reasons, are reluctant to label them.

What difference does all this make? Well, it should be obvious to people involved in theological work. It is very common for graduate students, for example, to latch on to a theologian and his or her system and treat it as truth itself. Arguments break out and people are demeaned, insulted, marginalized, even excluded because they don’t buy into the “truth system” that, in fact, is half or more speculation.

The twentieth century saw a renaissance of the doctrine of the Trinity in Christian theology—from Barth to Boff theologians (almost) all piled on the Trinity bandwagon offering their own contributions. I have read much of that literature and concluded that at least half of what is said about the Trinity in those numerous tomes of modern theology is speculation. Some of it I would consider warranted speculation but much of it is sheer guesswork. Who can really know the inner workings of the Trinity?

Now don’t get me wrong; I love theological speculation. I’m sure I do it! But a greater degree of humility ought to accompany speculation in theology (than is usually the case).

A case in point is the debates about the so-called “decrees of God.” Supralapsarians, infralapsarians, Amyrauldians, Arminians. So much of what went on in Protestant scholasticism was sheer speculation and yet it led to numerous divisions among Christians. Another case is, as already mentioned, theories of the atonement. The Bible overflows with images and metaphors. Attempting to develop a model that explains why Jesus had to die is natural, but elevating one model to dogma or rejecting others as wrong amounts to elevating to speculation to timeless truth.

There are minds attracted to speculation. When a theological question seems important to someone (or a group) and yet revelation/Scripture is not as clear as they wish it were (often the case) they often look around for a “Bible teacher” or theologian who “has the answer” and then latch onto that person as if he or she thought God’s thoughts after him. They then treat that Bible teacher’s or theologian’s “teachings” as God’s truth itself. They do not want to hear “This is my opinion,” or “This is how it seems to me.” So often the favored Bible teacher or theologian treats his or her doctrinal formulations just like the proverbial fundamentalist preacher who pounds the pulpit saying “The Bible saaaayyyys…” when, in fact, the Bible doesn’t say that at all!

These people have trouble distinguishing between revelation/Scripture and a theologian’s speculative answers to their pressing questions. I have seen this happen with students (and theologians) enamored with the theology of Karl Barth; they become upset when anyone questions Barth’s veracity on a subject. “That’s just Barth’s speculation” invites a glare and an argument—as if Barth’s Church Dogmatics were dropped down out of heaven. I have seen the same happen with people devoted to Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology.

In fact, both Barth and Tillich were prone to speculation. I suspect they knew it. But too often they did not couch their truth claims in such a way as to indicate “this is speculation.”

I favor theological works that admit speculation is just that—speculation. Unfortunately, they are too few.


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