King's Evangelical Divinity School

5 November 2009

God and Time (continued)

Further to my recent post asking whether God knows the future without having predetermined it beforehand, several people (friends and family included) have argued that because God is outside time He can see the whole of the future before Him, regardless of whether or not He determined it. An analogy sometimes employed to explain this linear view of time is that of a book which sets out the whole of human history, a kind of timeline of humanity, in story format. As someone who has read this book God can see everything that is going to happen before it actually happens, so the argument goes, without having predetermined it, because He stands outside of time and can at once see the beginning, middle and end of the book.

At first glance this seems a helpful way of understanding a God who is truly omniscient. I especially like the idea that events from long ago, from the deepest recesses of human history, are as fresh in God’s mind today as when they happened. It certainly gives an insight into a God who can forgive people now on the basis of events at Calvary then, which are just as fresh in God’s mind today.

But upon further reflection this book analogy begs, at least for me, two – related – questions. Firstly, aren’t the mechanics of this notion of a God who stands outside time quite different when comparing His being out of past time and future time? After all, the past has taken place, it has occurred and cannot be reversed (isn't this what movies and theoretical discussions about time travel always come back to? Remember Christopher Lloyd and the "space-time continuum" in Back to the Future? Pure class!). So for written time (the past) it is quite easy to conceive of a God outside time who revisits the past at His choosing (a bit like replaying a DVD). But isn’t the idea of a God outside of time visiting the future a somewhat different kettle of fish? How would this work? Those events haven’t happened yet, so how can God (excuse the analogy) fast forward the DVD player or read the second half of a book which is simply composed of blank pages? A “God outside of time” sounds profound, but unless someone explains how this works in practice, they are simply clever words which explain very little. 

Of course, there is a way to explain how a God outside of time can visit and know the future: if it has been predetermined already. In other words, if the book (or DVD) has been produced in full already, then God – viewing from outside of time – can go back and forth and visit the various parts of the book or DVD as He pleases. But then this leads us to the second question which the book analogy raises, namely, who wrote the book? Conceivably only God could author the whole of human history, but then this raises another problem: if God is the Author of the Book, this means He has predetermined absolutely everything, which in turn means there is no such thing as genuine free will and we bear no responsibility for our actions. As such, we are guiltless of all that happens and the sole blame for the failings of all humans and humanity's history is the book’s author. Naturally, as a Christian I cannot accept this, believing that all the horrible evil which exists in the world is man's doing, not God's.

Another alternative is not to postulate one book but rather millions, “zillions” even, to take into account the myriad of possible permutations the future might take, as suggested in my previous post. Is this the only alternative to a history that has already been pre-written: the possibility of billions upon billions of routes linear time might take and which, naturally speaking, cannot be known until they have occurred? This is the logical outworking of open theism which argues that God does not plan the future, rather, we do (or at the least play a major role in shaping it). If God has not determined the future and works with us, adjusting and adapting His plans in light of the decisions we make, the future can take any one of a trillion forms, none of which can be known until it actually and finally occurs.

Actually, I do find the book analogy helpful, or rather a possible modified version. Let me say first, though, that I am no open theist. I greatly appreciate its focus on genuine free will and a God who works with and relates to His creation, but I baulk at the notion of a God who permits us to shape proactively the future while He passively follows behind in our wake, patiently picking up the pieces and readjusting His plans accordingly. Such a view clashes with my understanding of Heilsgeschichte (salvation history) which has been predetermined from the foundation of the world. Neither is the Heilsgeschichte metanarrative yet complete, with the parousia (Second Coming) and events leading up to it still yet to come about. But neither am I a supralapsarian Calvinist (in fact, I rather think many Calvinists are not either), stating God has foreordained everything. Once we take that route where do we draw the line? Do we seek to interpret every stubbed toe, every trip over the doorstep, every word we utter, as God's doing? You may laugh or regard such talk as bizarre, but there are people (Christians) who really think this way. I assure you once one becomes enslaved to such a view one can go quite mad seeking God's purpose in the most insignificant of events.

The key, it seems, is to find an analogy which reconciles both free will and God's will. So instead of a single book written in its entirely (no free will), or a book which is only half-written and the second half of which consists of blank pages (full, unfettered free will), or else zillions of books, only one of which is the correct book (i.e. that one which lists the correct sequence of the billions upon billions of possible permutations which can only become evident at the end of time), instead I propose the following modified book analogy for consideration.

Let’s say there is a book which sets out the whole course of human history and God’s dealings with humans, both collectively and with us as individuals (so it’s quite a massive book, then). The author of this book is God. He has determined the book’s beginning and has also written the final chapter. There are also various bits in between He has written and nothing can change these, as God’s plans cannot be thwarted. Heilsgeschichte is on track. Half this book has already been written in full. (Actually, we don’t know the exact fraction as we have no knowledge how far into the book we actually are; it all depends when Christ returns. We might be halfway through, three-quarters, nine tenths, even only a hundredth of the way through – only God knows). Now the remainder of this book – the future – has not yet been written. However, neither are these pages blank. After all, God has a plan that encompasses the whole of human history, having for example planned events leading up to His Second Coming. So let's say the chapter titles, subheadings, even the basic plan for each page, have all been predetermined by God. Meanwhile, He has also predetermined the milestones in each of our personal lives (eg Prov 16:9).

But in between are the paragraphs, the bits where free will comes in, that is, the minutiae of our lives, or even perhaps something more significant than the minutiae, quite important bits from our own perspective but which God permits us to determine and shape ourselves. To be sure, as Christians we can submit our wills to God (Rom 12:1-2) and allow Him to write those paragraphs. Thus we can make the Lord’s Prayer our own: “Your kingdom come, your will be done”, or we can rebel, so that the final version of that particular paragraph in our lives can look quite different, far less literate, from how God would have written it. Thus, from various proof texts we recognise God determines our path (eg Ps 37:23, Prov 19:21), but that doesn’t stop us making wrong choices and paying the consequence (which is, after all, the price of genuine free will). For example, we know from Scripture that God does not want Christians to marry unbelievers, but let's face it, many Christians do, often paying the price for disobeying this aspect of Scripture throughout their lifetimes. Hence, regardless of God’s master plan (Heilsgeschichte, chapter headings, subtitles, the milestones in our lives as children of God, or whatever), nonetheless we have been given free will to shape those parts of the future insofar as they pertains to us. So might the analogy of a partially-written book, with a second half consisting of broad brush strokes (excuse my mixing of metaphors) be a useful one? While the chapter titles and headings, indeed the plot and final chapter, have all been determined by God, conceivably the paragraphs are yet to be written by both us and also God’s chastisement and/or response to our actions. I wonder if such an analogy helps to explain how we might reconcile predestination and free will, a God who knows the future but one who also allows us to shape it too.

I like the book analogy for another reason. In the book of Revelation we are told at the Judgement that the books were opened (20:11-15 cf Dan 7:10). Twice we are told that in light of the contents of these books each person was judged according to their works. I don’t know if we are to take this passage literally or if it simply a metaphor (apocalyptic literature is known for drawing strongly on symbolic and pictorial language, and God certainly doesn't need physical books to record the whole of human history). Nonetheless there emerges in Scripture pictorial language of recorded time in book format.

Why It Matters
Actually, after I wrote much of this I asked my good friend Chris Lazenby, who dwells far more eloquently on philosophical issues, to have a quick read through my comments before posting them to make sure I hadn't dropped a clanger. He kindly said I hadn't, but as we chatted back and forth for an hour about what exactly time, omniscience, the future, and various other related issues actually mean, and the ramifications of each, I was struck by how in some cases we might never provide satisfactory answers. At that stage I decided it was worthwhile ending this rather abstract comment on a practical note (yes, you've read this far and have found out I now wonder if the whole thing is a waste of time!). In short, why does this issue matter? Well, the first thing it requires us to do is give some serious thought to the sovereignty of God and what that actually means. If God is truly sovereign, then that surely means everything He wants will come about. But of course it hasn't and won't. For example, in 1 Peter 3:9 we learn He does not want any to perish, but for all to come to repentance. Yet Scripture quite clearly indicates not all will be saved (universalists would argue otherwise, but that is for another time!). So maybe we need to reconsider our human understanding of what a sovereign God is. I'm quite sure God could be the sovereign God we've all envisaged at some time or other, the God who determines absolutely everything. I just no longer think He is. I think, maybe, that by giving humans free will to obey Him or sin, bad things happen which are our fault, not God's. In short, a sovereign God has relinquished some of His sovereignty so that we can have free will. This merits further thought, because if it's true it has a massive bearing on how we view and relate with God, and how He has made us and views us and the trust He places in us. Second, the concept of an only partial predetermined future and genuine free will, whereby we will give an account of what is written in those books about us, ought to make us think very carefully about our actions. There are divine expectations of us, much like the servants were required to given an account of how they used the money entrusted to them by the Master in the Parable of the Talents. In short, free will comes at a price.

18 comments:

Chris said...

Calvin
An excellent and thought provoking piece. I don't know about my being more eloquent though! (But thanks for the compliment).

God has made us as rational, enquiring beings and it's natural that we ask these kinds of questions; but ultimately, as in this area, we sometimes hit mystery head on..

Much of the mystery surrounding time is due to our inability to 'unimagine' it. We are completely immersed in a world in which we see things age and decay, the sun sets and rises.. and so on; and onto these phenomena, we hang the label 'time'. We see ourselves in a world moving from left to right, in a linear fashion, as if we were viewing life from a railway carriage, moving along the tracks to the buffers (our death). But for God, time may not exist at all. He may look at the whole 'book' and see it 'now'.

My brain hurts so I'll stop there.

Chris Lazenby

arminianperspectives said...

Hello Chuck,

Nice post. Basically, you have described the Arminian position. The Arminian would say that God predetermines certain events and indeed makes certain things happen. At times, He will even override the will of His creatures to secure His plan. God is not a passive observer, but His foreknowledge encompasses not only those things that He will certainly do, but also our free will choices which are truly contingent, and His own interactions with us in time, which are no less real or genuine simply because He foreknows them.

There is no question that God transcends time and space (else how could He have created time and space?), but God is so great that He can interact within time and space as well. He can be outside of time and reach into time (kinda like I can stand over the bath tub and reach into the water, being both outside and inside at the same time- to use another limited analogy).

How God can foreknow the future is a question that should not much trouble us (just as we should not be troubled by how God was able to create the universe out of nothing, etc.). But there is nothing illogical in affirming that God can know our future free will choices and those choices still be free (since knowledge, even foreknowledge, is not causative). God foreknows contingencies as certain but the certainty of an event does not mean that it happens of necessity. An event or choice can be contingent and certain at the same time. Only when one conflates certainty with necessity and views foreknowledge as causative will one come to the conclusion that God cannot foreknow truly free decisions.

Regarding sovereignty, Arminians do not see sovereignty as exhaustive determinism. Truly, that is a very strange way to understand sovereignty. We do not understand sovereignty that way in any other context, so why should we understand it that way when describing God? We see God’s sovereignty as His divine right to do as He pleases. God certainly has the divine right to create free moral agents and hold them accountable for their actions. To say that He cannot do so is actually to limit His freedom and sovereignty. So I would contend that the Calvinist is the one who actually limits God’s sovereignty as Biblically defined. To say that God can create free agents and hold them accountable for their actions is not to limit God’s sovereignty or to say that God limits His own sovereignty. Rather, it upholds and establishes God’s sovereignty and freedom.

God Bless,
Ben

arminianperspectives said...

My apologies for calling you Chuck. I got confused. If you can, please edit that in my comments before posting them (assuming you do post them).

God Bless,
Ben

Calvin L. Smith said...

Ben, thank you for your comments, several of which were interesting and helpful. Alas, I couldn't edit the Chuck reference as the application only permits me to publish or delete comments. Sorry.

It was surprising to be linked so firmly with Arminianism. Still, I admit my comment did not dwell on the soteriological aspect of free will, because had it done so you would see on that I find both Arminianism and Calvinism equally problematic on that front.

Anyway, thanks again for the comment. If you get the chance, perhaps you might elaborate on your point that knowledge, including foreknowledge, is not causative. If you mean what I think you mean, this goes to the heart of the issue.

arminianperspectives said...

Calvin,

I guess I just mean that knowledge has no causative force. To know something does not make something happen, even if we have knowledge of an event or choice in the future.

I am curious about your issue with Arminian free will from a soteriological view point. I assume you know that Arminians believe the will is unable to turn to God unless God graciously enables it to do so. Many do not realize that Arminianism holds to total depravity and the need for God's prevenient and enabling grace for anyone to come to Christ in saving faith. Certainly, there are many non-Calvinists who call themselves (or get called) Arminians by default, who do not hold to depravity or the need for God’s prevenient and enabling grace in the process of conversion. However, this is not the view of Arminius’ and true Arminian theology. But maybe you are referring to something else.

God Bless,
Ben

Calvin L. Smith said...

No, that is not what I was referring to. But rather than build a straw man and knock him down, explain to me first your view of what happens to the unevangelised.

On another note my good friend Chris sent me a link to a useful article on time, which can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A3577241 . The only thing is, after reading it I couldn't help but feel it supported my view somewhat (i.e. that the future cannot be known except it has been pre-determined). What do others think of this article?

arminianperspectives said...

Calvin,

The question about the unevagelized is a strange direction to go considering the Bible doesn't give us much information on it and it is therefore largely a matter of speculation.

However, my view is that God's prevenient grace works through various means, though ultimately through the gospel message. So God draws people through the revelation of nature and holds them accountable for how they respond to that grace. If they respond positively, God continues to work in them and will eventually reveal the gospel to them (either through missionary work or through visions, as is often the case among Muslims and Hindus, etc.).

Ultimately, God holds us accountable for how we respond to His gracious movements and revelation. If men resist His grace and reject His revelation, they will be held responsible. In the case of those who never hear the gospel, they will be held accountable for rejecting the lesser revelation of God in nature, etc. that if it had not been resisted would have eventually led them to an opportunity to embrace Christ.

Those who hear the gospel will likewise be held responsible for how they respond to God's revelation, though in that case it will be God's perfect revelation in Jesus Christ, rather than the lesser revelation of creation, etc.

I haven't read the article yet, but I assure you that there are plenty of voices on the other side of the issue as well. I am a little surprised that you now say that you think man's choices cannot be foreknown unless God predetermines them.

God Bless,
Ben

arminianperspectives said...

Calvin,

I must admit to being a little confused. I just read the article and can't imagine what impressed you about it that it supported the view that choices can only be foreknown if predetermined. Was it the two little paragraphs under "Time and Determinism"?
The impression I came away with was that we simply do not know enough about time and how it works to draw any solid conclusions (hence the number of “theories”). Certainly we should be careful to limit God's ability to foreknow truly free and contingent human choices, especially since He created space and time. I found nothing in the article that would threaten the idea that human choices can be free and foreknown by God as certain, without rendering them necessitated.

God Bless,
Ben

Calvin L. Smith said...

Ben

"I am a little surprised that you now say that you think man's choices cannot be foreknown unless God predetermines them."

I think you may have misunderstood my original post, which questions foreknowledge without predeterminism. The conclusion I offered was that either God has predetermined the whole future (which means He is to blame for eveything, which I reject), or else parts of the future are as yet unwritten and unknown (which I argued for). That's why I wanted you to elaborate more on knowledge as causative (but it transpired you were not referring to what I thought you were).

"The question about the unevagelized is a strange direction to go..."

Yes, by this stage we had moved on from the time discussion. This is what happened. You'll recall I expressed surprise to find myself in the Arminian camp after your first comment, to which I said soteriologically I wasn't so sure. You then asked why, and rather than parodying your position I asked for clarification on something first.

This said, you are quite right. The discussion is moving away from what the original post was about, so I will explain my soteriological problems with Arminianism, Calvinism and other systems in another post. We can discuss that issue more then.

arminianperspectives said...

Calvin,

Please forgive me but I am confused again. In your post you said that you thought much of the future was predetermined, but some was not. Yet in your last comment that I responded to it seemed that you were saying that nothing could be foreknown that was not predetermined (e.g. "The only thing is, after reading it I couldn't help but feel it supported my view somewhat (i.e. that the future cannot be known except it has been pre-determined"). That would make it impossible to view the future as a book that God allows us to fill in part of the material with our own choices, etc.

So if you admit that some of the future is not predetermined by God, then how can you also say that God can only foreknow what He predetermined (unless you are taking the OT approach that God would simply have no prior knowledge of those free will choices that He allows us to fill in).

I am having a hard time reconciling your post with your further comments. Am I misunderstanding something here?

I look forward to your post on soteriology.

God Bless,
Ben

Calvin L. Smith said...

Yes, old boy, re-reading your first comment I rather think you've assumed I support foreknowledge, whereas the original post suggested the opposite: that only those bits (the broad brush strokes) which are predetermined by God Himself and part of His eternal plan are written in the book and therefore can be foreknown (this is why I asked you to clarify what you meant by knowledge not being causative, but you clearly were referring to something else).

The rest (the minutiae, the bits left to us) is blank and and I am suggesting unknowable (how can somehow watch a DVD if it hasn't been made yet?).

It is a general suggestion, but of course I recognise God’s knowledge of us means He has miraculous insight into the decisions we may make. But remember, my post was not just about human free will and their decisions, it also referred specifically to everyday events and random occurrences outside our control, the permutations which take time down one of a billion parallel routes.

Hope this helps.

arminianperspectives said...

So you are basically an open theist?

Calvin L. Smith said...

Of course not. I wrote...

"I am no open theist. I greatly appreciate its focus on genuine free will and a God who works with and relates to His creation, but I baulk at the notion of a God who permits us to shape proactively the future while He passively follows behind in our wake, patiently picking up the pieces and readjusting His plans accordingly. Such a view clashes with my understanding of Heilsgeschichte (salvation history) which has been predetermined from the foundation of the world."

Open theism says the WHOLE of the future is open to being written, whereas predeterminists say it has ALL been written ALREADY. I am suggesting SOME of the future has been predetermined, and SOME hasn't (brush strokes vs minutiae). And even away from God's masterplan for the cosmos, there are broad brush strokes within our own lives (I referred to these as the milestones in our lives).

Ben, do you see I am postulating not an either-or (ie either predeterminism or free will) but rather a nuanced (I hope) BOTH: Predeterminism at the macro level, and free will at the micro level.

arminianperspectives said...

Calvin,

I think you are mistaken concerning Open Theism. Open Theists do believe that God predetermines certain things so that they will infallibly come to pass. They only maintain that truly free choices cannot be foreknown by God. You may want to check out Greg Boyd’s website for more on that:

http://www.gregboyd.org/category/essays/essays-open-theism/

Here is an interesting post that deals with the subject and points out that Open Theism essentially makes God the author of sin just as Calvinism does (and of course both OTs and Calvinists would deny that their doctrines make God the author of sin, though they can't really show that their doctrines truly avoid these logical implications).

http://wesleyanarminian.blogspot.com/2009/10/problem-for-open-theism.html

It seems to me (unless I am misunderstanding you yet again) that your middle of the road approach is no different than the classic Open Theist approach and probably falls to the same objections as outlined in the post above.

God Bless,
Ben

arminianperspectives said...

Here is a quote from Greg Boyd, a leading advocate of Open Theism, concerning what Open Theism teaches (bold emphasis mine),

The issue concerning the “openness of the future” is not about the infallibility or fallibility of God’s foreknowledge, but rather about the nature of the future which God infallibly foreknows. Is it exclusively foreknown and predetermined by God, or does God determine some aspects of the future and sovereignly allow other aspects to remain open?

Calvin L. Smith said...

Ben, as I maintained from the outset I appreciate how open theists postulate genuine free will, but taken to its logical conclusion OT can present God as someone who is not in control. You should also note OT is far from homogenous, Boyd's is not the only voice, and varieties within OT are highly diverse. So I respectfully decline to be labelled or put in a box.

As far as your comment about there being problems with open futurism, of course there are, much like there are with foreknowledge, predestination, and many other systems. It is precisely because there are flaws with such systems that various systems exist. In the end, then, we are faced with either accepting the one we consider most persuasive and least problematic, or else trying to manage a new middle of the road route between two or more systems.

arminianperspectives said...

So I respectfully decline to be labelled or put in a box.

I understand not wanting to be labeled but if your beliefs are exactly the same as those of Open Theists on the most basic distinction of Open Theism (God determines some of the future but cannot foreknow truly free will choices), then why resist the label?

To be an Open Theist doesn't mean that you agree with everything every Open Theist ever wrote. It just means that you basically agree that God cannot foreknow true contingencies. That seems to be your position. So you can deny that you are an Open Theist, but it doesn't change the fact that you hold the same view as Open Theists with regards t the limitations of God's foreknowledge.

Boyd's is not the only voice, and varieties within OT are highly diverse.

That is certainly true, but I think that the other voices are in agreement on this basic point. That point being that Open Theism advocates the view that while God determines some future events, He leaves other events "open", most specifically those free will choices that cannot be foreknown. If there is an Open Theist voice that does not agree with this then I would like to know who that is. I certainly do not want to misrepresent anyone.

It doesn't really matter to me if people resist labels. It just seems strange to me that some people shun a label when that theological perspective is no different than their perspective. In other words, I don't see what the big deal is with labels. It just gives us a quick reference to basic beliefs. Just my opinion.

God Bless,
Ben

arminianperspectives said...

BTW, I am having a hard time reconciling these two statements of yours:

Open theism says the WHOLE of the future is open to being written, whereas predeterminists say it has ALL been written ALREADY. I am suggesting SOME of the future has been predetermined, and SOME hasn't (brush strokes vs minutiae).

and...

You should also note OT is far from homogenous, Boyd's is not the only voice, and varieties within OT are highly diverse.

First you seem to put all of Open Theism in a box in order to point out that I was wrong to see your view as Open Theism (i.e. your view is not Open Theism because Open Theists see all of the future as open while you see only some of it as open). Then when I point out that your view is basically the same as an Open Theist view (i.e. OTs do indeed see some of the future being predetermined) you say that the view is very diverse and not homogenous, etc.

I am not trying to be a pain, but I don't see how you can have it both ways. Again, I don't want to misrepresent anyone or their views.