Skip to comments.Calvinism view of time
Posted on 06/05/2002 12:28:11 PM PDT by fortheDeclaration
CALVINISM -- TEN LITTLE CAVEATS
Calvinism's View Of Time
In the second chapter I tried to chronicle how wrong presuppositions about God were taken to explain some perplexing things in the Bible. I now intend to develop what further consequences will occur when the beginning assumptions are wrong. If God does not really change at all then notions that involve change may become slanted. If God does not change at all then things for Him like time, life, action, and response would be totally different than the way we ordinarily understand them. I don't mean "largely different"; I mean totally different.
Before Augustine's time the church traditionally believed that time was not foreign to what God is in Himself apart from creation. Just as God is the beginning and the end; the alpha and the omega, so He creates things that have an alphabetic-like sequence. He even takes time in doing it; six days! God lives through His own time (in some sense) and what He created He made to live through time. Time is a part of God's nature and our nature. If we were to paraphrase 2 Pet 3:8 we might say, "one of our short periods of time is with the Lord like a long period of time and one of our long periods of time is with the Lord like a short period of time." Nevertheless, in each case it is a period of time with the Lord.
God was seen to have been "the ancient of days in Daniel 7, which is to say that He has lived an infinitely long time or eternally (Ps. 102:27). The early church thought of God's eternality as His having always existed and the fact that He would continue to exist forever. During this existence He acts to become man. This is something that is not eternally true of God; His incarnation! It indicates a before and an after even in His own existence.
That's pretty simple. Augustine, however, seems to have introduced a different idea about God and time that defined God's eternity as time-less (not having time). Having defined God as totally changeless, a doctrine of timelessness was also adopted for support. A timeless God would be unchangeable. If God were timeless we would think of Him as existing outside the "stream" of time. His actions would be timeless; His thoughts, His reactions to things in time, His knowledge of things in time would all be timeless. We would have to think of God's knowledge, thoughts, and reactions as being had in only one instant since there would be no temporal succession of states with God. Everything which would ever be true of God would be true of Him at that instant. For example, His knowledge, although timeless, would include knowledge of things in time; His reactions, although timeless, would be the one instant reaction to things in time. His grief at having made man (Gen. 6:6,7), for example, would have been a timeless reaction (if possible) to something occurring in time. God would be seen as present to all times at once just as He is present to all places at once. Nothing would be able to occur to Him (in time).
Many church traditions these days, including many Calvinist churches have gone back to the earlier way of seeing God and time. This seems to be more in line with the way Bible writers presented God as doing first one thing and then another. Were it not for Augustine we would have thought of "the counsel of God's will" (Eph 1:11) as the result of an active mind, deliberating and considering possibilities. Augustine, however, promoted the view of "the counsel of God's will" as one in which God brings about in time all that He has chosen "from all eternity" to bring about. God has always meant, he would say, to bring about ,certain things at certain times. There was no time, for instance, when God did not intend to send Judah into captivity. Or, there was no time when God intended to punish Ninevah of Jonah's era.
DECISION AND TIME
If God were time-less, then nothing, including His own future activities would be indefinite to Him. But this would make it impossible for God to make "decisions". Richard Rice spells out the consequences:
Knowing the entire course of the future, God [would] also know the content of all His decisions. But to know exactly what one will decide is nothing other than to have made the decision already. Nothing is left to be decided. Indeed, since the very meaning of "decision" implies a transition from "undecided" to "decided" and thus requires a temporal distinction, the concept of "divine decision" is inherently contradictory according to the conventional view. If, however, God's experience is sequential in some sense, then we can think of God as really making decisions, as choosing between alternatives, as making definite something that was previously indefinite. 
OTHER CONSEQUENCES OF TIMELESSNESS
If God had actually fixed all His intentions "from all eternity" He would be a very lifeless thing as we know life. He would not be a person as we know persons. Granted that there are major differences between the persons of the trinity and other persons that we know, there is a lot else that we have in common. If God were life-less we would have nothing in common.
To be a person is to be one who goes through a process of relating to others (or to your own reasoning process, perhaps). It is to be one who reacts with joy (Zeph.3:17), grief (1 Sam. 15:11,35), pleasure (Heb. 11:6), sympathy (Jer 31:20), forgiveness (2 Sam 12-13), anger (Hos 13:11), flexibility (Ezk 4:15), or even astonishment (Is 59:16).
If God were outside of a temporal process (even if we are speaking of only His own temporal process), He would be lifeless. I am able to say this first of all because of Romans 1:20 which teaches that God made His nature to be clearly understood by us through what He has made. What He has made is the universe which is full of change. We observe some change to be mechanistic and other changes to be apparently free. Cosmic changes, chemical changes, etc. seem to be mechanical. Living beings, however seem to be in a process that we can't entirely explain mechanistically. The more complex the life; the more apparent freedom is involved. From this we would tend to "understand" that God would be much more alive, complex, and free than anything He has made.
Continuing with Romans 1:20, God has filled our earth with life. It is teeming with that which is in a process of multiplication, diversification, complexity, vicissitude, action, and reaction. These things that God has made help us to understand something of His divine nature. I am able to say, secondly, that "... the Father has life in Himself" (Jn. 5:26 & 6:57). From this and from Romans 1:20 we can "understand" and comprehend that a temporal process is of the essence of this life. From cover to cover the Bible reveals God as the "living God"; the acting God. Nothing that we know of that is living exists apart from involvement in processes (c.f. Deut. 5:26, Josh. 3:10, Ps. 42:2, Jer. 10:10, Matt. 16:16, Jn. 1:4, Jn. 14:6).
Now days; or at least since Einstein, people talk about the space-time continuum as being a created thing. I have no problem with that. It does not mean that God is timeless just because He created a space-time universe. The truth of this can be inferred from the reasoning that says God does not have to be lifeless just because our life is a created thing.
TIME OF INTENTIONS
Calvinists don't officially proclaim a timeless God but they do have a tendency to place all of His intentions as originating prior to our created space-time. This tends to make their understanding of God the same as timeless.
The Bible clearly reveals that some of God's intentions were made "before the foundation of the world" (Eph 1:4), but it begs the question to assume that His every single intention shares the same instant of origin. God forms intentions on some things during our lives. St. Paul, for example, was set apart from his mother's womb (Gal. 1:15); interestingly, not from the foundation of the world. God sometimes forms intentions in response to us (Ezk. 4:15). Other things He intends from the foundation of the world (Heb. 4:3), and still other things from before the foundation of the world. And, even if God decided a thing before the foundation of the world, it is not necessary to think that His decision was time-less. It may be merely that it was made before the time of our universe.
As I noted above (on the fault of Geocentrists) the Bible shows the earth as having been built as we would conceive of building a house; beginning with a foundation. We would picture the forming of the foundation as going through a process of time. Bible authors do not think that "from the foundation of the world" necessarily means from eternity past. To them it denotes a period of time when the earth and its structure is being established. Not only would it include the six days of creation, but it would also include the time it took for the trial period of human stewardship in Eden (the human structure). I cite as evidence Hebrews 9:26 (and 4:3). Offering is needed only where cleansing is needed (9:22,23), but we see that had Christ's offering been needed for each time man sinned, He would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world. Not from eternity past; not during the six days of creation; not during the trial period; but since the time of man's fall would Christ have had to be often offered were His one offering not sufficient.
The predetermined plan of God to deliver up His Son to crucifixion (Acts 2:23) may have been a determination of a contingent nature before man's fall into sin. In other words it is not explicit in the Bible that God from eternity past or from one timeless instant decided that man should fall into sin and that Christ should be crucified. The timeless way of looking at it, however, seems to be the Calvinist way.
GOD'S PURPOSE OF THE AGES
Ephesians 3:11 [interlinear version] does speak of God's "purpose of the ages." Whatever that purpose was, it has a "before-the-foundation-of-the-world" aspect and it has been accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 2 Timothy 1:9,10 reveals that what was accomplished in Christ was by reason of grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.
As I see it, God's before-the-foundation-of-the-world purpose is, through the work of His Son, to have a people for Himself who would be to the praise of His glory (Eph. 1), whom He would possess by means of His grace through faith. The Calvinist thinks that God's purpose necessitates man's fall since from all eternity God's "grace" is involved in His purpose. It is clear to me, however, that even though greater grace is necessary to achieve His purpose after the fall, that even if man had never fallen, it would still be by God's grace through man's faith, that man would continue in life with God. But, "where sin does abound grace does even more abound (Rom 5:20). " The fact that God's Son is the vehicle of this greater grace in lieu of our lapse into sin does not mean that there would be no gracious purpose for the Son had there been no fall. I believe that a spiritual husband/wife union was in view regardless (Eph 5:32) and a taking up of humanity into the Godhead. The Son's role, had there been no fall, may not have included the sacrifice of His life (as we know it), but it would have included the creation of the people of God. God's purpose would have been achieved through His Son even in that case.
God's will is characterized as "holy" which means set apart. If Adam was not originally holy, it would take the Son to teach him who alone it is who conforms to the holiness of God. Adam could not totally know or be brought into total conformity to God's will apart from the Son of God and His grace, because God's will is a holy (set apart) will.
The grace of God in Christ is granted from eternity in at least three senses: First, it is grace that He created all things (Col 1:16). Second, it is grace that we could be united with Him and third, He is grace in reserve. By "grace in reserve" I mean to say that He is like money in escrow. Escrow money is a formalization that does not come into actual effect until some specified condition has been fulfilled. In God's purpose the sacrifice of His Son is granted on the condition that there is sin to be punished. In that it is granted in Christ, the "escrow account" has Christ's signature on it, so to speak. The account was signed before the foundation of the world.
Ephesians 1:4 speaks of the choosing of God's Son "before the foundation of the world" to be the vehicle of God's grace to all those united with Him. It says, "For He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight." Key to the "in Christ" passages is the understanding that the elect are viewed as the elect when they are seen in union with Christ. Just as individuals could join the chosen covenant community in the OT, so in the NT individuals can become united with the chosen One and also be considered chosen. 
It seems that Augustine's case for a totally changeless and timeless God is a case of special pleading to solve what otherwise seemed to him to threaten the "right view" of God.
We might well ask if God is subject to viewing His creation as we creatures view it; that is, the past and present only? I will urge in the next chapter that God does see more than we do by virtue of knowing all future possibilities and all possible responses to them. He thus is able to bring about His designs.
THE ERROR OF PROCESS THEOLOGY One modern day reaction to the Calvinist's adoption of the Greek ideas of God's unchangeable and uninfluenced nature has been called "process theology".  Process theology, however, reacted in a non Bible-based way. Its promoters apparently thought that the Calvinist God was made to be too external to the world. This God, they thought, had been conceived of as too arbitrary in His methods of determining and foreseeing all future events; too unfeeling and unresponsive. Instead of believing that the Bible gives satisfying answers to these conceptions, the process theologians derived explanations for a life-view that were very similar to Darwinist explanations for life. In their theology, God does change and grow or become something that He was not before. Instead of presupposing the God revealed by the Bible, their founding presupposition became "change". Change or process becomes a god. It is the basic rule or principle for their view of reality. There seems to be two gods in their thinking: an acting agent and process itself. Regardless, God, in their view, has an aim to make novelty and enjoyment increase forever through the involvement of self-determinism influenced by the past.
once again wrong presuppositions result in bad consequences. For us, the Bible teaches that God controls the process of things He has created; for process theology both God and man are subject to the phenomenon of process. For us, the Bible speaks of God upholding His righteousness and as having an unchanging law with judgment to which we must be accountable; for process theology, enjoyment becomes the main principle which ends up re-defining righteousness and making sin not serious for our destiny.
CHANGING OR CHANGELESS?
In the Bible we learn of God's unchangeableness. It is revealed, for instance, that " ... the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind" (I Sam. 15:29).
From this we learn that God can be counted on to be faithful. He does not change in the sense that men do. Men may promise one thing and even though external conditions remain the same they may arbitrarily change their minds. God is not like that. He remains faithful to His nature even when responding to the faith (or lack thereof) of His creatures.
Numbers 23:19,20 is another example that shows God's changelessness to be superior to man's. Balaam is being tempted to change his oracle but cannot due to the fact that God, unlike men, cannot be bribed to change.
Augustine and Aquinas taught that God was without time. This gave support to their belief that He is totally changeless. The Bible, however, portrays God as One who acts. If everything that is true about God has been true, is true, and always will be true about Him, then God becoming man would make this teaching not coherent. Being without time would rule out having life; time being of the essence of life. Since the Father has life in Himself, we must conclude that God has some of those things that are associated with life; including time and process in a certain sense. The Bible shows that God's very broad intentions are, from our point of view, always intended. But, when it comes to the particulars involved in achieving those broad intentions, the Bible shows more narrow intentions emerging in time. St. Paul, for instance, does not tell us that God set him apart from before the foundation of the world even though he uses this language for some of God's other intentions. God's eternal purpose as it relates to us is made explicit in Ephesians 1; 2 Timothy 1:9,10; and elsewhere in the Bible. If we were to give it definition it might read something like this: God's eternal purpose is to have, through the work of His Son, a people for Himself who would be to the praise of His glory, whom He would possess by means of His grace through faith.
This intention of God could apparently have been achieved without the fall of man, but in lieu of his fall is achieved by further grace.
It is important to be scrupulously accurate about God's unchangeable essence to avoid the errors of unbiblical "process theology " God does not, nor does His law (which is a transcription of His will and character), become different than what they were as their existences proceed.
I have not joined the Calvinists nor the "process" theologians because of their views of time and change.
Richard Rice, _God's Foreknowledge and Man's Free Will_ (Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, pp.44,45)
c.f. Robert Shank's _Elect in the Son_ (Westcott Publishers, Springfield, MO)
For an assessment of it c.f. Langdon Gilkey's _Reaping the Whirlwind_ (NY: Seabury 1976)