Science in Christian Perspective



Time and The Timeless God
The King's College, Briarcliff Manor, N. Y.

From JASA 8 (September 1956): 15-17.                                     Response: William Paul
Time is the shadow of eternity upon the wall of existence. Time is the island of man's opportunity in the ocean of God's eternity. The relationship between time and man (a creature of time) is essential, but the relationship which exists between God and time and time and God is even more essential; both theologically and practically speaking. Does God know time? Is God aware of time? Does the passage of time affect the Deity? Is He in time, with time, from time, or above time? No less a serious scholar than Archbishop Temple has devoted himself to this question in his work, "Nature, Man and God." While Samuel Alexander gives a penetrating, though far from conservative analysis of the phenomenon of time in his work "Space, Time and Deity".

A rather prosaic concept of time is that it is a measuring stick for the sequence of events, as when a student half complainingly says to his instructor, "I want you to know Sir, that it took me two and a half hours to do this assignment". But time has a philosophical, theological, and religious aspect as well as a mere practical one. We shall therefore divide this discussion as follows: 1) The Greek concept of time, 2) The Kantian concept, and 3) The Biblical concept of time.

Time for the Greeks

Perhaps the first Greek philosopher who ever dealt seriously, though not directly, with time was the thinker Heraclitus, For him the most pronounced feature of nature was that comprehending change. Everything flows and nothing is permanent. You cannot step into the same river twice; we are an

are not; everything passes into something else; from One is everything and everything is from One. "God is day and night, summer and winter, war and peace, repletion and hunger". (l)

Now in order for there to be change there must be, according to the above philosopher, the accompaniment of time. We also clearly recognize that God, in Heraclitus, is contingent upon time, and in a way is bound to it. This is so because time is not here considered as a part of the creation. In fact it is doubtful if Heraclitus took any stock in a doctrine of the creation, but rather conceived of the universe as both eternal and dualistic in its nature.

Passing into Plato and Platonism we observe that time belongs to "number" which implies limitation, which timelessness belongs to that which can not be numbered and thus implies infinitude. In fact, the problem of time did not directly interest Plato because he conceived it to be strictly a feature of the world of sense perception, as divorced from the immutable eternal world of ideas. Man's body for him was indeed a thing of time. According to his best biographers he himself occupied the prison house of the body for some eighty odd years. But the soul of man was of an eternal and hence a timeless nature, free from the dialectic of time itself.

Aristotle following Plato is more precise as to his concept of time. He says in "The Physics" that man cannot say of any given second it is right here now, for by the time that the concept is vocalized it is no longer precisely that second. For example, I may observe as I write these lines that it is now exactly twenty and one-half minutes after five in the evening; but in the amount of time that it takes my typewriter to record that datum it is no longer precisely that time. The movement of the dialectic has progressed however slightly sufficiently beyond that point to make my assertion not completely true. Of course, for the business of life it is so but philosophically speaking it is not quite to the point. Aristotle's concept of motion from which through a series of retrogressions he adduces the argument for the Unmoved Mover, is based on the legitimacy of the chronological concept. Naught can be moved without a mover to effect its motion. But motion can not go on forever. No matter how many intermediary movers there may be, one must at last come to the end of the ladder of ascent. When one does so, he reaches the Unmoved Mover who is by very definition timeless and therefore eternal.

That the Greeks also held in general to the theory of cycles is a well-known fact. The idea of an eternal succession of existence-of alternating periods of dissolution and renovation-of the destruction of worlds and the continual rebirth of new ones upon their old ruins is at the bottom of these circular theories of existence,

Cicero, the Roman lawyer, makes mention of his belief that there is a recurring cycle not only for the universe itself but for individuals within the universe. Parmenides thought that he remembered distinctly the various phases of his former lives; when he was a rose, a tree, a bush, a boy. Another philosopher apparently sincerely told his followers that he had taken part in the siege of Troy, although, he actually lived centuries thereafter.. That these conclusions were erroneous need scarcely be said.

However, it is not great wonder that early speculators should draw such conclusions as they thought upon the various problems relating to life and time.

The Kantian Concept of Time

Perhaps the next most significant contribution to the concept of time is that proposed by Immanuel Kant. There are those who question if the concept is really Kantian or if it stems from David Hume. Such quibbling all to one side, however the idea is simply that time arises not from nature or the things observed but has its origin in the mental processes of the observer. To use technical language, time is a "mental constitutive concept". That is to say that the very idea of time is derived "ab extra naturae", that is beyond the concept of that which we see in nature. It is we who carry the idea of time within our own make up. It is not something exterior,it is something interior.

Reality exists beyond the boundaries of space and time. If one will be permitted to employ an illustration that we have used in our own teaching: at the threshhold of each mind there stand, as it were two little gnome-like creatures called space and time. As reality, "X" passes over the threshhold of the mind, these two little gremlins converge slipping the spacial and chronological sack over the head of reality so that it can never be known in and of and by itself, but only as it appears to exist spacially and chronologically. In other words time, for Kant, has more or less spoiled reality, in that we are ignorant of reality simply because we only know it from where we are (space) and at a given moment (time).

The neo-supernaturalistic theologians are more indebted to Kant in his concept of time than they themselves perhaps would care to say. Their whole concept of God as the wholly Other is founded on a Kantian concept of time. The Divine human encounter can never be assessed accurately because it is the eternal breaking through the barrier of time in an effort to reveal itself to man. Time is thus really a hindrance to either revelation or salvation, as far as this type of theology is concerned. Though neo-orthodoxy is not without its insights into the problems of time, the orthodox preacher and teacher (as well as the reader) should carefully consider the implications underlying some of their figures of speech before being too prone to utilize them.

The Biblical Concept of Time

Though the Bible never furnishes a prolonged or sustained excursive on time, it nonetheless takes full knowledge thereof both directly and indirectly. The very first phrase of Scripture "in the beginning" indicates that we move in the realm of time. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, the pre-reformation thinker, addressing himself to this problem, points out: to ask the question, "What was God doing before the creation?" is a meaningless one. The words "before" and "after" have meaning only in the context of the time relationship.

Whatever may be one's view of the question of the "Days of creation" this much is beyond cavil, that the Genesis record is "time conscious". "And there was evening and there was morning, one day", (Genesis 1:5b). "And God called the firmament heaven. And there was evening and there was morning a second day." (Genesis 1:8b). "And God saw everything that he had made and behold it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning the sixth day." (Genesis 1:31). No matter what may be our particular view of the "age question", time is implied and inherent with the creation. Time is therefore a part and parcel of the creation. As the rocks, stars, mountains, etc., are part of the material creation, so likewise time is to be considered as one of the immaterial creative acts of God. Joseph, as the revealer of the purpose of God, could declare that there should come seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. (Genesis 40:29,30). It was given in prophetic vision to Abraham that the Children of Israel would sojourn in the land of Egypt for "four hundred years". (Genesis 15:14). The prophet Jeremiah predicted that the southern kingdom of Judah would remain in the land of their captivity for a period of seventy years. (Jer. 25:11, 12)

In the mysterious fiery writing upon the wall of the palace of Belshazzar, Daniel announced to the impious monarch, "God hath numbered the days of thy kingdom and finished them" (Daniel 5:25).

In the 90th Psalm, verse 10, the Divine Sovereignty has set the limits of the life of mankind in general at three score years and ten. The apostle Paul held the doctrine that the Incarnation occurred in the "fulness of time" (Galatians 4:4). Salvation is set forth in terms of "today" by the same Apostle in 11 Cor. 6:2.

Thus, time is in and under the directive will of its Creator. Time issues from Him who is the Alpha and the Omega of time. Thus, on the terms of the Biblical revelation, God is neither in or subservient to time, but supra-temporal. However, this does not imply that the Deity does not know time, though He transcends it. Transcendency however, can not be forced to mean an impervious Deity, or an unmoved Mover nor a "Deus Absconditus". Time is thus set forth in the categories of Scripture as God's creation, Man's probation, and the stage of revelation.

Time is the processional from eternity to eternity. "Time is the reduction of future possibilities into present actuality." Time is like the river flowing from out the future into the present, and at length into the past, deep, wide, mysterious. Time, the burden of boyhood, the opportunity of virile manhood, the mockery of old age, the vestibule to eternity. The shadow of eternity grows long on the wall of existence. The trumpet sounds! Time recedes. The timeless remains forever. Blessed be He!

(1) Zeller, Eduard: Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy, New York: The Noonday Press, 1955 Pg 62.

Comments On Dr. Gates' "Time and the Timeless God"


Shelton College, Ringwood, N. J.

I admire the rhetoric with which Dr. Gates opens and closes his paper. In between the author has undertaken the rather large task of summarizing three historical viewpoints on time (Greek, Kantian, and Biblical) in what may be too brief a space, especially if one wishes to relate the analysis adequately to the concept of a "Timeless God". We are not told specifically what bearing it would have for our view of God were we to hold to the ancient cyclical theory or to Kant's Theory that time like space is a mode or form of thinking in terms of which I experience or intuitively conceive reality. Professor Gates' handling of his own (Biblical) perspective is admirable (with the exception that I question whether he meant to imply that time is a thing like "rocks, stars, mountains" that God creates or destroys). His historical survey is not without importance in that it reminds us that there have been many views of time, and that we cannot decide whether to refer to the Creator God as timeless until we have formulated a definition and philosophy of this crucial concept. Perhaps my few remarks may best be directed toward this end.

We may start with the definition which Mr. Gates calls "prosaic" and "merely practical," namely, that "time is a measuring stick for the sequence of events." Man, living as he does in this solar system, has come to divide up this "stick" into various units: minutes, days, seasons, years, epochs, light years. These, like time itself, are relational concepts-relating my experience in some meaningful way and with varying degrees of precision to the succession of some designated or tacitly understood events. The complexity of this relational aspect of time is indicated when we say, "He did his assignment in two and a half hours" (work time) ; "He ran the mile in four minutes", and "A light year is the distance light travels in a year" (time relative to motion in space) ; "The King James Version of the Bible was produced in the age of Shakespeare," and "Fossiliferous strata appear in the Cambrian period" (era of time) ; "It seems ages since I've seen you," and "I thought that class would never end!" (psychological time) ; "I am pressed for time" (the dialectic of time reflecting the tensions of life); "Christ was born in 4 or 5 B.C." (chronos, or clock time); "In the fulness of times God will put all things under the headship of Christ" (kairos, at the right or appointed time), and "When time shall be no more" (poetic ? time).

With such an array of usage before us it would seen questionable whether the question as to God's timelessness is subject to an easy yes or no answer. Time is the category or context of this wide range of events some of which are susceptible to quantitative measurement and others are definitely qualitative. The main point to be emphasized is that the God of the Bible who created and gave us the universe as well as who saves and shows His active providence toward men is not unrelated to or unconcerned about any aspect of the context of event-relationships. Hence He is not timeless or wholly Other. But God is not dependent as are finite beings upon that which He has created with its temporal aspect. God is sovereign and eternal. In this sense, as Dr. Gates says, He is supratemporal and transcendent.

May I conclude by calling attention to Dr. J. Oliver Buswell's profitable discussion of Aristotle's influence upon Augustine's and Thomas' conceptions of God as timeless in his Thomas and the Bible (Shelton College, 1953). Dr. Buswell offers an abstract mathematical definition of time as, "the mere abstract possibility of relationships in sequence" pp. 68-9). "Abstract time," he says, "is not necessarily an aspect of finite things or of actual movables or movements. Abstract time is abstract truth, and so is an aspect of the character of God."