God “in” time? A Historical Note

This is a bit outside my area, but I thought it would be worthwhile to repeat some chestnuts from the history of philosophy in light of discussions about God and time. I will draw morals at the end.

Aristotle defined time in relational terms: time is the measure of change. If there are no changing objects, there is no time. Aquinas (and all the Reformed scholastics) adopted this definition and argued that since God is immutable, he is not temporal in his duration; he coexists with all temporal, changing objects but is not himself temporal.

The major challenge to this view of time (and God) came from Isaac Newton in the 17th century, who asserted absolute time and space. Time and space are a big container which exist independently of objects; objects are temporal and spatial just insofar as they are inside the (infinitely) big container. Famously, Samuel Clarke defended this view against Leibniz and propounded it in his Boyle Lectures on the existence and attributes of God. Clarke argued that time and space, since they are infinite, must be identical with God’s attributes of eternity and immensity (see Richard Muller, volume 3 of Post-Reformation Reformed Scholasticism (pp. 147-148). Traditional theologians all opposed Clarke.

Kant held to Newton’s view as well; in the “Transcendental Aesthetic” in Critique of Pure Reason he argues that we can conceive of space and time without objects, but not of objects without space and time. Newtonian space and time (absolute) are pure intuitions of the sensibility. Space is described by Euclidean geometry. One of the major challenges to Kant’s system was the development of non-Euclidean geometries in the 19th century and their deployment in relativity theory in the 20th. What Kant took to be transcendental necessities turned out to be not even actually true (or so the story goes).

A while back I read a theologian who said, “I don’t know anything about the philosophy of time, I only want to deal with biblical data to talk about God and time.” I’ve also heard of philosophical theologians who assume that exegetical theology cannot settle any issues about God and time; only philosophy and conceptual analysis can do the trick. I think both approaches are wrong. You can’t actually dispense with a theory of time when you talk about God’s eternity; you will only assume an unexamined folk theory. On the other hand, Scripture must remain authoritative in settling the major questions pertaining to God’s relation to time.

When we affirm that God is or is not temporal or “in” time, we need to define what we mean by “temporal” and what it means to be “in” time. Is space-time a big box? If so, then God is either in the box with us, spatiotemporal, or outside the box and far from us (atemporal and non-spatial). That’s an unattractive dilemma. I’m not sure that the Aristotelian view is correct, but it at least undergirds the classical view whereby God is non-temporal and non-spatial but still fully coexists with all spatial and temporal things.

Mark Garcia on the Oliphint/Helm Discussion

Mark Garcia gives his take on the interchange between Helm and Oliphint in an excellent piece called “A Matter of Trust, Or, What’s God’s Middle Name?

God in Time: YES – Temporal God: NO

Reformation 21 has posted a revised version of my (sort of) response to Paul Helm’s interaction with Oliphint’s God with Us (here). Specifically, what I do in the piece is compare Oliphint’s proposal with Thomistic so-called ‘natural theology’.

I also make an effort to place historical precedent in its proper methodological role: it is a revered but normed norm, compared to the authoritative norming norm of Scripture. My point is that if “Reformed tradition” means anything it means commitment to semper reformanda: always reforming doctrine, with the aid of normed norms (historical sources), under the authority of Scripture as norming norm. (Concerning the reforming of traditional sources, see this post by Oliphint.) And anyway, I’ve noticed that many of the fiercest defenders of our Reformed forebears read the tradition selectively: the divines did write WCF 7.1, didn’t they?

Some worry that the Chalcedonian theology Oliphint has proposed leads to ‘God in time’. My response is: Of course God is in time. That’s not a problem—unless you’re committed to Thomistic simplicism, in which case you face an unbiblical Creator/creature utter-divide, in place of a C/c distinction. On the other hand, it would indeed be a problem if I said that God was only in time—that God is essentially temporal, which I deny.

God is in time because there is no time unless God is in it. That’s a little Vos-Van Til talk, but we could infer the same from omnipresence and eternity. Eternity does not mean that God as God cannot touch temporality (again, unless you are entangled in Thomistic simplicism; but then you have created your own problems). It means that he fills all time, just as omnipresence doesn’t mean that God cannot be in places (spatially located); it means that he fills all places. This is an unbiblical non sequitur: He fills all time, therefore he cannot be in time. So is this: He fills all space, therefore he cannot be in a place.

So if we affirm, say, omnipresence, what then is condescension (which the divines worked into the confession—WCF 7.1)? If God fills all space, what does it mean that he ‘comes down’? To where does he come down? Well, to the top of Mt. Sinai (Ex 19), for example—even though being omnipresent, he was already there. He ‘comes down’ to covenant with Israel. Mt. Sinai is a particular place; and Ex 19 records the Lord’s presence there at a particular time. And so: if God fills all time, we may say that he condescends in order to covenant with his people at Mt. Sinai, at that time. The Lord speaks to Moses, then and there. And this presence of God with his people is no innovation; it is the telos of covenant history:

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” Rev 21:3

Augustine on Trinity, and Some Worried People

Augustine says:

Yet this statement of faith worries some people, when they hear that the Father is God and the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet this threesome is not three gods but one God. They wonder how they are to understand this, especially when it is said that the trinity works inseparably in everything that God works, and yet that an utterance of the Father was heard which is not the Son’s utterance, and that on the other hand only the Son was born in the flesh and suffered and rose again and ascended; and that only the Holy Spirit came in the form of a dove. They want to understand how that utterance which was only the Father’s was caused by the three; and how that flesh in which only the Son was born of the virgin was created by the same three; and how that form of the dove in which only the Holy Spirit appeared was fashioned by the trinity itself. Otherwise the trinity does not work inseparably, but the Father does some things, the Son others and the Holy Spirit yet others; or if they do some things together and some without each other, then the trinity is no longer inseparable.

De Trinitate, bk. 1, ch. 2, 8.

The concern that Augustine expounds upon here seems to be entangled in a dichotomy of three and one, in which a particular notion of “inseparability” smuggles in a monism of being and action which clashes with true trinitarianism. In other words, it is evident that the monist notion of inseparability operative here is opposed to distinctions; and that is the principle problem: God operates inseparably, but Scripture reveals separate actions of the persons who are nonetheless equal and identical as to deity. But there ought to be no problem.

If God is triune, we ought rather to say that there is one triune God, and maintain without qualification unity of singularity—there being only one God, a radical theistic monism, if you like—but distinguish this from the unity of simplicity, requiring that this latter unity be a triune unity. For a triune inseparability (simplicity), in contrast to a monistic inseparability (simplicity), the difficulty Augustine describes here does not arise. In fact, where inseparability (simplicity) is triune, the distinct actions of the persons is revelation—or revelatory confirmation—of the triune essence of God, rather than a threat to a monistic essentialist theology. In this sense a triune inseparability prioritizes the actions of God revealed in Scripture, whereas a monistic inseparability prioritizes a divine monism foreign to Scripture, as demonstrated in the fact that the distinct actions of the persons presents something of a problem for it. In sum, there is one God who is one essence in three persons. There is a single triune God, not singularity and threeness in irresolvable tension.

Rachels on the Is-Ought Problem

     In a previous post I was puzzling over James Rachels’ metaethics as presented in his freshman-level textbook, The Elements of Moral Philosophy. I’ve now arrived at the final chapter, where he tells us his position all the issues he has discussed throughout the book. Here are the two paragraphs on metaethics:

“Human beings have evolved as rational beings. Because we are rational, we are able to take some facts as reasons for behaving one way rather than another. We can articulate those reasons and think about them. Thus, if an action would help satisfy our desires, needs, and so on—in short, if it would promote our interests—then we take that as a reason to do it.

“The origin of our concept of “ought” may be found in these facts. If we were incapable of considering reasons, we would have no use for such a notion. Like the other animals, we would act from instinct or habit. But the examination of reasons introduces a new factor. Now we find ourselves driven to act in certain ways as a result of deliberation—as a result of thinking about our behavior and its consequences. We use the word ought to mark this new element of the situation: We ought to do what there are the strongest reasons for doing” (James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, ed. Stuart Rachels, 174).


     The first paragraph seems to say: “If an action promotes our interests, then we have a reason to do it.” The second paragraph says, “We ought to perform the action for which we have the strongest reasons.” It seems that the second assertion is supposed to be analytically true; by definition, “ought” applies to the action with the strongest reasons. “Ought” means “supported by the strongest reasons.” “Reason” is already a normative, evaluative concept.

     So the point at which Rachels leaps the is/ought, fact/value chasm is in the first paragraph. The real question is this: Why is it that an action’s promoting our interests constitutes a reason for taking that action?

     On the one hand, if it is only contingently true that an action’s promoting our interests is a reason for doing it, then we have no account of the meaning of “practical reason” and no explanation of why reason requires us to promote human interests. Rachels has therefore given us no explanation of the meaning of “ought,” and hence no explanation of moral normativity.

     On the other hand, if it is necessarily true that an action’s promoting our interests is a reason for doing it, then it seems that human (or perhaps animal) interest-satisfaction is intrinsically, necessarily, essentially The Good, the summum bonum.

     Maybe that’s a defensible view (although I’d raise Moore’s Open Question), but it doesn’t seem to be Rachels’ view. On the same page, he rejects the view that human interests have “a kind of ultimate and objective value” (174). So I guess I don’t know what his metaethical position really is. I’m probably just confused—ethics is not my field. Help me out if you can.

Major Problems for Foundationalism (and Thomas Reid)?

In the last couple posts I said that Reid’s Common Sense Realism is basically just broad, moderate foundationalism. Some beliefs are justified by arguments, other beliefs (first principles) are justified without arguments. The problem Reid anticipates is, “What do we do when we disagree on first principles?” Reid proposes five criteria for authentic first principles.

But I don’t see any non-circular way for foundationalists to resolve disputes about first principles. Any criteria for first principles will themselves be either first principles, or inferences from first principles.  If they are inferences from first principles, then we may disagree about the first principles from which they are ultimately inferred. If they are themselves first principles, we may disagree about those first principles. So, if it is psychologically possible for us to disagree about first principles, it seems that we have no principled way of arriving at intersubjective agreement about our epistemic judgments.

Furthermore, it seems as though peer disagreement about first principles should rationally decrease everyone’s confidence in their own first principles. Which presents us with a radical skeptical challenge.

I don’t at all think this is the end of the story–I’m not a radical skeptic, and I’m pretty sympathetic to foundationalism–but I don’t know how foundationalists propose to resolve these problems. Suggestions?

Thomas Reid on Common Sense and the Criteria for First Principles

Image    In order to answer my own question in the previous post, and prepare for a conference paper on Hume and Reid, I’ve been spending some time in Thomas Reid’s Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, particularly “Of Common Sense” (Essay 6, Chapter 2) and “Of First Principles in General” (Essay 6, Chapter 4). I’m delighted to report that my initial sketch of Common Sense Realism was exactly right. Common sense, according to Reid, is that aspect of reason whereby we form judgment on self-evident matters, which are first principles, foundational beliefs which form the basis of all inference chains. Reid’s goal is to revive the sort of broad foundationalism that characterized pre-Cartesian philosophy and to repudiate the too-narrow foundationalism of Cartesian and post-Cartesian philosophy which led to skepticism. (I think Reid egregiously misrepresents Hume’s epistemology and his skepticism, as I will argue at aforementioned conference). Not only does Reid take himself to be a broader foundationalist than other post-Cartesian philosophers, but he is also a moderate foundationalist. Some first principles are absolutely certain, while others have varying degrees of probability (EIPM 6.4, 435b-436a).[1]

     At first glance, foundationalism looks much more plausible than the alternatives (coherentism and infinitism). But if we are going to take certain beliefs as justified without argument (as foundationalism must), then the big question is, which beliefs get to occupy that privileged position? Which beliefs really are “properly basic”?

     Reid lists five criteria for distinguishing genuine first principles from the spurious.[2]

  1. “It is a good argument ad hominem, if it can be shewn that a first principle which a man rejects, stands upon the same footing with others which he admits: for, when this is the case, he must be guilty of an inconsistency who holds the one and rejects the other” (EIPM 6.4, 439a). Reid mentions “the faculties of consciousness, of memory, of external sense, and of reason” as “all equally the gifts of nature” which stand on a par with one another (EIPM 6.4, 439b). If one be accepted, all must be accepted.
  2. If an alleged first principle leads by necessary consequence to a self-evidently false conclusion, then it is spurious (EIPM 6.4, 439b).
  3. “The consent of ages and nations, of the learned and unlearned” counts as evidence in support of the authenticity of a first principle (EIPM 6.4, 439b-441a).

In a matter of common sense,…there must be a great presumption that the judgment of mankind, in such a matter, is the natural issue of those faculties which God hath given them. Such a judgment can be erroneous only when there is some cause of the error, as general as the error is (EIPM 6.4, 440b).

Reid thinks that we can have a pretty good idea for the general beliefs of mankind from our experience of human conduct and from the ideas imbedded in human languages (EIPM 6.4, 440b-441a).

  1. “Opinions that appear so early in the minds of men that they cannot be the effect of education or of false reasoning, have a good claim to be considered first principles” (EIPM 6.4, 441a).
  2. Beliefs which are necessary presuppositions of practical life are probably first principles (EIPM 6.4, 441a).

     Note that Reid is not giving criteria for the truth or falsity of these alleged first principles, but for whether or not they really are first principles. Many true beliefs are not first principles, and some first principles turn out to be false. But if a belief is a self-evident first principle, then it is justified even in the absence of a supporting argument, unless and until we encounter a defeater for it. Without a criterion for distinguishing real first principles from spurious ones, the credulous could defend any unargued opinion they have as “a self-evident first principle” which needs no proof. On the other hand, the skeptics could demand arguments for beliefs which in fact need none.

     If we were going to critique Reid’s version of Common Sense Realism, it seems to me that we would need to critique one of the following tenets:

  1. Foundationalism as such (the claim that some beliefs are “properly basic”).
  2. Moderate foundationalism (the claim that not all properly basic beliefs are infallible, indefeasible, or incorrigible).
  3. Reid’s criteria for properly basic beliefs.
  4. Reid’s account of which beliefs actually meet his criteria.


So what do you think? CSR, yea or nay?


[Postscript: Readers of this blog might be interested to know that Reid, so far as I’ve heard or read, does not believe in a sensus divinitatis, and does not believe that belief in God is properly basic. I think he uses the traditional evidentialist arguments (correct me here if I’m wrong, Reid peoples—I actually don’t even know where he addresses this). There are several historical ironies to be noted here…]

[1] I’m using the William Hamilton edition Reid’s works, which has two columns on each page. I refer to the left-hand column as “a,” and the right-hand column as “b.” So “EIPM 6.4, 435b” refers to Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, Essay 6, Chapter 4, page 435, right-hand column.

[2] “although it is contrary to the nature of first principles to admit of direct of apodictical proof; yet there are certain ways of reasoning even about them, by which those that are just and solid may be confirmed, and those that are false may be detected” (EIPM 6.4, 439a).


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