God is 'Timeless'?


#41

If one thinks that an overly anthropomorphized god of the pantheon can be argued to be on the same level as the Judeo-Christian God, I have a bridge for sale. Try the apophatic approach to hermeneutics with respect to Zeus and what do you have? Nothing.


#42

Do you really think that God gets angry? That is, that He has moods and passions? No – this is just a description that helps us, as humans; these types of descriptions are anthropomorphisms that describe God in terms that we’d understand. So, no – God doesn’t change He mind, although, for the sake of the mode of expression that the inspired writer uses, it’s described that way.


#43

None of this is relevant to a discussion of the timelessness or otherwise of whatever God you choose.


#44

Hi, Appears so, just circular passing conversation that surely won’t solve our dilemma. What are your thoughts anyway?


#45

When you make the assertion that Zeus “had a beginning” and then conflate him with the God of Judeo-Christianity, you make any discussion of time meaningless. Assuming an equivalence between your “collection of deities” makes no more sense than arguing that fish can climb trees with the same skill as squirrels. There is no basis for discussion.


#46

Talking about time eternally would be like asking what is left of left or right of right and north of north and south of south. It kinda avoids and reference point of anything.


#47

My apologies, I sometimes forget how opaque this all may be when it is not familiar. It would have helped, however, had you read Aquinas as mentioned earlier (1.9, and 1.10, and 1.7, too), because he covers this.

So, the much-abbreviated version:

  1. God is omnipotent (“with God all things are possible” Matthew 19:26, Mark 10:27).
  2. Knowing is a power. Thus, God is omniscient (“Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them." Psalm 139:16; “Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.” Psalm 147:5).
  3. Thus, “time”, the linear sequence of cause and effect which we experience, collapses for God into a singular, all-encompassing moment (because God “experiences” the totality of it “simultaneously”), and so God “acts” outside of the sequence (“his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” 2 Timothy 1:9; “eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began” Titus 1:2), i.e., God is timeless.

Really rather straightforward.

The honest answer about God’s temporality should therefore be ‘we don’t know’.

Oh, my yes. The most accurate answer about everything to do with God is “We don’t know”. As St. Gregory of Nyssa said sixteen centuries ago, “every concept which comes from some comprehensible image by an approximate understanding and by guessing at the divine nature constitutes an idol of God and does not proclaim God” (Life of Moses, 165, trans. Abraham J Malherbe and Everett Ferguson). That is what transcendence is all about, really.


#48

Mystophilus, I have read quite a lot by and about Aquinas, but I find his assertions and conclusions contradictory and unconvincing. (Don’t tell Linusthe2nd I said that. It would be heresy to him!) For example, there are powerful philosophical arguments that it’s not possible to be omnipotent and omniscient at the same time. Similarly, I don’t find the arguments for God experiencing time as a ‘singularity’ convincing either.

My purpose in starting this thread was to try to find out where the notion of God’s timelessness and unchanging nature is to be found in Scripture and/or in the doctrine of the Church. I think that those who have kindly contributed their posts have answered this question. It seems to me that it’s not clearly stated in Scripture, and that it appears in doctrine as an assumption based, at least in part, on Aquinas’ works.

Personally, I don’t think that the available evidence supports the assumption of God’s timelessness or unchanging nature. So I’m quite content to conclude that we don’t know and let philosophers continue to debate the issue.


#49

[quote=Gorgias]Do you really think that God gets angry? That is, that He has moods and passions? No – this is just a description that helps us, as humans; these types of descriptions are anthropomorphisms that describe God in terms that we’d understand.
[/quote]

Gorgias, I don’t know for sure what God’s nature is like. The only evidence I have is in the Bible. You describe certain sections of the Bible as ‘modes of expression’ using anthropomorphism to explain what God did in terms that the intended readers would understand. It may be anthropomorphism, but humans are allegedly created in God’s image. We have emotions, Can we be so sure that God does not?

I am not convinced that the writer of these Bible verses was just using a literary device to explain God’s nature. The verses attempt to explain God’s actions as perceived by those humans with whom He interacted. I don’t think any literary device is needed to describe what those humans thought God was saying and doing. Consequently I think it at least possible that the Bible is describing a God that did become angry and did change his mind.


#50

Really, and which arguments are these, exactly? You keep making vague assertions about a lack of sufficient demonstration, but failing to demonstrate where the alleged lack lies.

Similarly, I don’t find the arguments for God experiencing time as a ‘singularity’ convincing either.

Why not? Where *precisely *do you consider the flaw in their reasoning to be?

My purpose in starting this thread was to try to find out where the notion of God’s timelessness and unchanging nature is to be found in Scripture and/or in the doctrine of the Church. I think that those who have kindly contributed their posts have answered this question. It seems to me that it’s not clearly stated in Scripture, and that it appears in doctrine as an assumption based, at least in part, on Aquinas’ works.

To be honest, I am rather perplexed as to how you are having such difficulty with this.

As I mentioned in my very first common, the statement “God is timeless” does not, in so far as I am aware, occur in any foundational Christian statement of doctrine. That, however, is irrelevant, because the principle of immutability (which, since you have read Aquinas, I will trust you can understand in its relation to timelessness) is expressed in Malachi 3:6 (at least 1400 years before Aquinas was born) and further in Matthew 5:48 (at least 1100 years before Aquinas was born), as well as in the logical process already mentioned. It is then repeated by Justin Martyr, Origen, Augustine, Maximos the Confessor, Anselm, and eventually Aquinas.

It is orthodox Christian doctrine precisely because it is a natural reading of the Bible and thus has been read out of (and not into) the Bible for two thousand years. Placing the *origin *of the doctrine with Aquinas requires both an enthusiastic misreading of the Bible and a creative reinvention of the history of Christianity.


#51

[quote=Mystophilus]Really, and which arguments are these, exactly?
[/quote]

Quite apart from the difficulty in defining exactly what ‘omnipotence’ means (Can God create an unstoppable force? If so, He cannot stop it. If not, He cannot create it.), and the difficulty of defining what ‘omniscience’ means (Can God know all future free choices?), there is the difficulty of having both properties at once. If an omniscient God knows all the decisions He will make in the future, then how can He act in a way He has not foreseen? He is constrained to act in the way He knows He foresaw, and so cannot be omnipotent, or else he cannot be omniscient.

I realise that these arguments rely upon temporality. Nevertheless, as I said, I find them to be powerful philosophical arguments for the belief that being omnipotent and omniscient is a logical impossibility, at least in a being that exists in, or interacts with, a temporal world.

[quote=Mystophilus]Why not? Where precisely do you consider the flaw in their reasoning to be?
[/quote]

I did not say that I found a flaw in the argument for God experiencing time as a singularity, I said I found the arguments unconvincing. It’s not quite the same thing. I will try to summarise why I find this assertion unconvincing:

There is a difficulty in explaining how a timeless God can relate to temporal events. A timeless God would have cognition of all temporal events simultaneously. To God, both the eruption of Vesuvius and the Chernobyl accident happen in the ‘now’ of His timeless singularity. But they are not simultaneous temporal events. Some reference frame is needed by God to understand sequence and duration. The suggested explanations that I have seen that try to resolve this issue fall foul of the fact that there can be no ordering and hence no events in the existence of a timeless God. The possible explanations seem to argue against Divine simplicity. The debate also strays into relativity theory. I freely admit that I’m confused by the complexity of this notion and consequently I’m not convinced by it.

[quote=Mystophilus]I am rather perplexed as to how you are having such difficulty with this.
[/quote]

Please don’t be perplexed on my account. I have difficulties with many things, especially philosophical and metaphysical concepts. As regards the Bible verses that you mentioned:

Malachi 3:6: “For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” I agree that this could be a statement about the immutability of God. But that seems to be reading a lot into just three words. I would have expected this to be a principal theme of a text about the nature of God, rather than being tucked away in the last book of the Old Testament in a text written to admonish the Israelites for their wayward religious and social behaviour. Could it be that this was intended to be a more specific statement that God has not changed his mind about the laws that should be followed in order to maintain the covenant between God and his chosen people?

Matthew 5:48: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” I don’t see how use of the word ‘perfect’ here necessarily means the same as ‘unchanging’. I don’t know Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek so I cannot offer any insight into the original meaning beyond what is presented here in English.

In conclusion, let me say that my difficulty with this topic is that so many people assume that God’s timelessness and unchanging nature is a certainty. I don’t assert that it is not true, just that I don’t think that it’s beyond question. Time is a subject that interests me, although I have no special expertise in its study. Perhaps I just need more convincing than most religious people.


#52

Sure we do: God is Love. And, we know what St Paul tells us about love, right? And what John tells us in his letters?

humans are allegedly created in God’s image.

yep – “image and likeness”: we are created for eternal life.

We have emotions, Can we be so sure that God does not?

Yes, since it would imply that God is mutable, which He is not. (I could quote Aquinas to you, too… but I know that you don’t like Aquinas. :shrug:)

The verses attempt to explain God’s actions as perceived by those humans with whom He interacted.

Precisely; and therefore, they ascribed human emotions – which they knew well! – to God’s actions…!

I don’t think any literary device is needed to describe what those humans thought God was saying and doing.

You misunderstand, I think. I’m not saying that the author said, “let me utilize the device of ‘anthropomorphism’ to describe God to people,” I’m saying that the author simply used that technique. Not as a ‘technique’, per se, but literally and honestly.

Consequently I think it at least possible that the Bible is describing a God that did become angry and did change his mind.

Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.” Christ – the 2nd Person of the Trinity – is God. God doesn’t change.


#53

In Greek, the word comes from word ‘telos’, which speaks to one’s ‘goal’ or ‘purpose.’ God fully manifests His purpose (as God), and we’re called to fulfill our goal (that is, union with God in heaven).

I’ll go back to my “God is Love” argument: if God is pure love – that is, not just that He is ‘loving’, or that He ‘loves’, but that He is love itself – how do anthropomorphic descriptions of God (such as anger, or jealousy, or intent to do evil) describe that God? The answer is that they don’t. Therefore, they’re just human attempts to describe God in terms that humans would understand.

In conclusion, let me say that my difficulty with this topic is that so many people assume that God’s timelessness and unchanging nature is a certainty.

It’s the long-standing teaching of the Church – that is, of the Church Jesus founded and protects against error. Not that hard to see why it’s believed, don’t you think?

Perhaps I just need more convincing than most religious people.

Perhaps. For a Catholic, the approach would be to assent to the teaching, and work towards understanding it…


#54

First, you need to establish which ideological framework you are using. If you are using a purely abstract philosophical one, then establishing the definitions of terms is a primary step. If, on the other hand, you are using a Christian theological one (whether because you believe it or because you want to understand how the ideas work within Christianity), much of this comes pre-defined.

In a Christian context (given the OP), Aquinas deals with the “unstoppable force” question, saying, “God is called omnipotent because He can do all things that are possible absolutely …] everything that does not imply a contradiction in terms”. This is the most common developed theological view of “omnipotence”, and it also addresses God’s inability to be evil (2 Timothy 2:13), since that would be a double contradiction of God’s own nature, in both immutability and holiness. Likewise, God does know all future free choices, both those which exist in potentia and those which are actually chosen: Ps 147:5, God’s understanding is infinite.

If an omniscient God knows all the decisions He will make in the future, then how can He act in a way He has not foreseen?

In Christian theology, this is covered by the “no contradiction” rule above, as well as being entirely obviated by the timelessness of God: God does not actually foresee, because, to God, all events are co-existent. There is no decision made “in the future”, all instead being made together.

You mentioned relativity, which I had planned on bringing up next anyway. While time was widely (but not universally) considered to be absolute (affecting everyone everywhere in the same way), relativity effectively buried that idea by demonstrating that the operation of time depends upon the perspective, position, and velocity of the subject (if the notions become too boggling, just look at the graphics on the right side). Sequence is a function of our limited consciousness.

God as described in Christian theology is operating from an omniscient perspective, seeing all events from all “angles” all together, thus not experiencing sequentiality; however, having a complete comprehension of us, God understands and evidently caters for our experience of it.

Unfortunately, Dawkins’ arguments above do suffer from some basic logical problems themselves. If omnipotence is absolute (i.e., it means ‘can do absolutely anything, even logically impossible things’), then any contradiction is not a problem because the allowance of contradiction is actually within the allowed scope for the term: logic ceases to apply.

If, on the other hand, omnipotence works as in the Christian theological sense, for anything non-contradictory, it is still not a problem. If time were absolute, God would experience sequentiality, and could thus only have contemporary/past omniscience (knowing what can be known at that moment in the timeline), not future omniscience, and so the alleged contradiction is irrelevant. Since time is not absolute, God knows all of it, does not experience sequentiality, and thus is not going to make a decision later: all of God’s actions occur together because God is equally conscious of all of them.

Some reference frame is needed by God to understand sequence and duration. …] The possible explanations seem to argue against Divine simplicity.

Singularity is very simple (in its nature, if not as an idea): it is actually more of an argument for divine simplicity for God to be timeless than to be subject to time.

As for God understanding sequence and duration, that is a separate issue from God experiencing them personally. Imagine watching an ant cross the floor. From your perspective, the terrain is already laid out; from the ant’s, the terrain is a sequence of forms which appear sequentially. It does not take much effort for you to comprehend its view, and your mind, unlike God’s, is not infinite.

Malachi 3:6: “For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” I agree that this could be a statement about the immutability of God. But that seems to be reading a lot into just three words.

The Bible is not arranged by topic. Read that verse in parallel with all of the others already mentioned about God’s unchanging nature, God’s different perspective on time, God’s acting out of sequence. Themes run *through *texts like this, rather than being addressed separately as they are in encyclopaedias.

Matthew 5:48: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” I don’t see how use of the word ‘perfect’ here necessarily means the same as ‘unchanging’.

English “perfect” is from Latin perfectus, which, like Greek τελειος, is “finished”, “completed”, “fully achieved”, “no longer changing”.

let me say that my difficulty with this topic is that so many people assume that God’s timelessness and unchanging nature is a certainty. I don’t assert that it is not true, just that I don’t think that it’s beyond question.

As mentioned earlier, you do need to discriminate between ideological frameworks. You asked about the doctrine, and so I have been dealing with this in terms of Christian theology.

The question “How do we know whether the doctrine accurately reflects metaphysical reality” is an entirely distinct one, with its own set of complications.


#55

Gorgias, thanks for your response. Let me quickly address the key points you raised.

I don’t know what God’s nature is like. The Bible contains information about this, but to me it’s incomplete, confusing and contradictory. It’s often repeated that ‘God is love’. That statement is not meaningful to me. ‘God’ and ‘love’ are not synonymous.

You assert that God cannot have emotions because he is immutable. But that is what we are debating. I suggested that God may have emotions, based on evidence from the Bible, and so may not be immutable. Your rebuttal seems to be circular reasoning to me.

I didn’t misunderstand about the use of anthropomorphism. I can quite understand that the author just naturally used that technique. Where I disagree is that I don’t think that the author needed to use anthropomorphism to explain the nature of God. By doing so she or he made it open to misinterpretation.

I’m glad that you mentioned the verse from the Epistle to the Hebrews. This scriptural evidence was just what I was looking for when I started this thread. But I don’t agree with your conclusion. Verse 13:8 talks about Jesus Christ and you claim that he did not change. Yet he started as a baby, grew to adulthood, became angry at the moneylenders in the temple, etc. These are all changes, as far as I’m concerned, and evidence of emotion too. By His only Son becoming human, a temporal being, God inevitably became subject to change. So I don’t think that citing verses about Jesus Christ gets us anywhere.

Regarding Matthew 5:48, you suggest that it means “God fully manifests His purpose (as God)”. Fair enough. But to me, that’s not saying the same as ‘God is unchanging’, which was my criticism. Mt Everest fully manifests it’s ‘purpose’ of being the highest mountain on Earth. Is it unchanging? No. It may not change in its ‘purpose’, but it does change in numerous other ways.

I understand that God’s timeless, unchanging nature is part of the long-standing teaching of the Church. I’m just not convinced that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that it’s true. Perhaps better Catholics than me can assent to believe something and then seek to understand it. But I can’t believe something that I don’t believe to be true. For me it requires the understanding to come first.


#56

Mystophilus, thank you again for taking the time to respond.

If I correctly understand the definition of terms that you outlined, God is omnipotent inasmuch as He can do anything that is possible and that does not violate His nature. But we don’t know in detail what his nature is. Or, at least, we would be hard-pressed to define God’s nature to the extent that we can define precisely what He can and cannot do. And God’s omniscience means that He knows all future free choices, all the possible ones and the ones that were/are/will be made. In Christian theology, God can be both omnipotent and omniscient, using the slimmed down definitions above, only if he is also timeless (not subject to temporality).

With regard to God being able, from his timeless state, to determine sequence and duration in the temporal world, I admit that I start to get a headache. It seems to me that there is some difficulty here, but I don’t think that I can put it into words.

As for “Sequence is a function of our limited consciousness.”, I think that sequence is more a function of our temporality. With a greatly expanded consciousness perhaps we could understand things in a different way. But inasmuch as sequence defines events in a temporal framework, we would still experience events in a sequence as long as we were temporal beings.

I liked your analogy of watching the ant walk across the floor. Unfortunately the viewer can understand the sequence of the terrain that the ant will encounter only to the extent that she or he can foresee the route that the ant will take. Having watched the ant for a while, the viewer can appreciate the past sequence, and might be able to anticipate some of the future sequence. But if the ant, using it’s free will, suddenly does a U-turn then the actual sequence deviates from the anticipated one. Also, the viewer can only understand duration from watching the ant for a while and judging how fast it is moving, which requires the viewer to be subject to the same time-frame as the ant. Thus, to understand both sequence and duration, the viewer is required to be subject to the same time as the thing being viewed.

I take your point about the order of the Books of the Bible. It still seems to me that God’s timeless unchanging nature is something that is alluded to incidentally rather than being addressed explicitly in direct terms. This seems to me to be out of proportion to the potential importance of the information.


#57

There are quite a few themes in the Bible which I would describe similarly, but that is a common feature of religious texts.

In general, though, it seems that you have a fair idea of how this all works in Christian theology, and your next step is to decide how that theology works for you, i.e., how true you believe it to be, which is closely connected to whom you believe on such matters, since we cannot actually experiment upon God directly.


#58

We are taught that God is the Alpha and the Omega. The beginning and the end. When people say that God is outside of time, that means eternity.

Let me give a small analogy.

When we look at the sun, we are witnessing it as it was about 8 minutes ago. This is because it takes light about 8 minutes to reach us from ~93million miles away. If my being was hypothetically huge, such that my left eye was by the sun and my right eye was by the earth, I could see every solar event experienced by humans from beginning to end. I could simultaneously see the sun as it was 8 minutes ago and as it is now. In that microcosm i described, I would be the Alpha and the Omega.

Now picture a God who is omnipresent and not bound by his own creation of spacetime. He can see the beginning and end of every event in the created universe.


#59

So, the only rational conclusions are either that the Bible is flawed (which, in a Christian context is a difficult case to make, right?) or that it isn’t – and your interpretation (which reaches the conclusion “incomplete, confusing, and contradictory”) is flawed. Right?

You assert that God cannot have emotions because he is immutable. But that is what we are debating. I suggested that God may have emotions, based on evidence from the Bible, and so may not be immutable. Your rebuttal seems to be circular reasoning to me.

Fair enough. And yet, your interpretation based on the Bible leads you to the conclusion ‘contradictory’. Isn’t there room, then, for you to conclude that your interpretation is what needs work?

Where I disagree is that I don’t think that the author needed to use anthropomorphism to explain the nature of God.

Hmm… how, then, does the ancient inspired writer describe God, if not by comparing Him to things he knows, and describing Him in terms that he can relate to?

I’m glad that you mentioned the verse from the Epistle to the Hebrews. This scriptural evidence was just what I was looking for when I started this thread. But I don’t agree with your conclusion. Verse 13:8 talks about Jesus Christ and you claim that he did not change. Yet he started as a baby, grew to adulthood, became angry at the moneylenders in the temple, etc. These are all changes, as far as I’m concerned, and evidence of emotion too. By His only Son becoming human, a temporal being, God inevitably became subject to change. So I don’t think that citing verses about Jesus Christ gets us anywhere.

This is important, I think. When we talk about the immutability of God, we’re not talking about the Incarnation – after all, as you point out, Jesus was born in time, grew up, etc, etc.

Now, the attempt to ‘separate’ Jesus into ‘divine’ and ‘human’ is difficult – after all, He’s a person, and so we can’t really separate Him as if He’s constructed of Lego blocks. So, the discussion very naturally becomes an academic one.

The critique you make of Hebrews is obvious and clear on the surface. So, again, two conclusions: either the writer of Hebrews is a bumbling idiot… or you’re missing his meaning. I think it’s the latter. Jesus – as the second person of God, the Logos – is unchanging, as is the Trinity. The nature of God, after all, didn’t change with the Incarnation.

Therefore, if we say that Jesus (the Logos) is the same, yesterday, today, and forever, then we have a clear Scriptural assertion about the immutability of God. Does that not seem to hold water for you?

Regarding Matthew 5:48, you suggest that it means “God fully manifests His purpose (as God)”. Fair enough. But to me, that’s not saying the same as ‘God is unchanging’, which was my criticism. Mt Everest fully manifests it’s ‘purpose’ of being the highest mountain on Earth. Is it unchanging? No. It may not change in its ‘purpose’, but it does change in numerous other ways.

Everest might change, but what if it changes in a way that makes it become not the highest mountain on earth? That is, at one point it did not exist; we can even posit that at one point, as a mountain, it wasn’t the highest, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest the possibility that something might happen to it in the future that lops off a few thousand feet from its peak. In other words, Everest manifests its purpose now, but we can’t say that it does so always. God, on the other hand, always manifests His ‘purpose’.

More to the point, He is outside time, so there is no possibility of ‘change’ in Him.

Perhaps better Catholics than me can assent to believe something and then seek to understand it. But I can’t believe something that I don’t believe to be true. For me it requires the understanding to come first.

‘Assent’ is not belief, though. Assent is like walking into a classroom at the beginning of the semester – you don’t know any of the material, so you can’t really say that you believe any of what the professor is going to teach. However, you’re open to learning, and your belief is in your professor (although not yet the material) – you believe that he’s telling the truth and will teach you accurately. I’m not saying “go ahead and just fake it”, only “be willing to accept that the Church is teaching the truth, and work from there”…


#60

Logically, one must also include the possibility that both are flawed.


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