This post could have been titled, “Taking the Mystery Out of God.” It also must be prefaced with the admission that I am not familiar with analytic philosophy, and that the concept of God as a temporal deity by Christian philosophers is new to me. I first became aware of this a few months ago over at Fr. Aidan Kimel’s very fine blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy. Fr. Aidan has begun yet another series of thought-provoking posts. The first post of the series is Prisoner of Time: The Temporal Deity of Analytic Philosophy. Background: God being a prisoner of time is an objection raised by classical theists against the notion of a temporal deity. While Fr. Aidan does not hold to this particular idea of God, he does say that to show that it reduces God to a prisoner of time one must show how it inhibits God’s providence and the accomplishing of His purposes. As Fr. Aidan puts it, “Divine sovereignty can hardly be said to be compromised if God is still able to execute his omnipotent will in history and bring the world to eschatological glory.” The purpose of my post is to jump into the deep end (and perhaps drown) to meet this challenge of Fr. Aidan’s. All arguments for and explanations of a temporal god come from the post linked above.
In response to the objection that God is a prisoner of time, Richard Swinburne, a proponent of God being temporal and mutable, makes two points. The first is that God freely chose such a limitation. This free act maintains God’s sovereignty so that it is He, “not time, who calls the shots.” In other words, God is a prisoner of time to a degree. For example, He must wait for future events to arrive before He can act in them. His knowledge is also of a completely different kind. His knowledge of past events are only a memory and of future events He has no perfect knowledge because they have not yet happened. His second point is that God, being the one who calls the shots, maintains His sovereignty in creation. Whether one voluntarily becomes a prisoner or not is a mute point, either way, they are still a prisoner. It is also irrelevant that God may “step out” at His pleasure and completely change things or wipe all creation away if He chooses. While He is in the system, He works according to the system. In this way, a constraint from without is put upon Him and is one shared with us mere creatures. His sovereignty is not perfect; He is limited in what He may do and when He may do it by the system to which He has submitted Himself.
R.T. Mullins, in his support for a temporal god, takes into account the above objections. He says,
God is completely in control of the physical time associated with creation, and He can begin it or end it whenever He desires. True, He cannot undo the succession that He freely brought upon Himself, nor can He retrieve His lost moments, but so what? He cannot do anything that is logically and metaphysically impossible, and He is no less sovereign for all that. What is needed for God to be sovereign is for God to be able to achieve His ultimate purposes for creation, and the temporalist holds that God cannot create a temporal universe without undergoing succession.
Here Mullins reduces God’s sovereignty to a telos. This, however, fails to take into account that God is sovereign in and of Himself. God is only perfectly sovereign in that He possesses perfect freedom. Had there been no creation God would still be sovereign. If one is going to speak of the sovereignty of God, they must do so in such a way as to take into account the whole, not just a part, and creation is just a part of the whole. Whereas in the temporalist view there is a constraint on God (again, whether it is voluntary or not is irrelevant), God knows no constraint. Mullins is correct when he asserts that God “cannot do anything that is logically and metaphysically impossible.” However, this is not a constraint, it is acting in perfect freedom. Freedom is not just the ability to choose. It is the ability to choose in accordance with the good. For God, this means to choose in accordance with the truth of Himself. This is markedly different from creating a system and then constraining yourself by way of subjection to that system.
One could argue that even understanding God as eternal, we can properly speak of His constraining and subjecting Himself simply because He created us. There are certain “demands” placed on a person when they enter into a relationship, and in this God is no different. There is an important difference between this reality and the temporalist perspective though. In the temporalist perspective time is part of a structure; it is impersonal. Better put, time is something without rather than being within. In regards to the relationship entered into with man, we once again come to acts of freedom rightly understood, acts that are in accord with what is within. God here acts in accordance with Himself, not under the constraint of an external property.
Finally, Mullins says, “the temporalist holds that God cannot create a temporal universe without undergoing succession.” Why? There are perfectly cogent explanations of how God relates to temporal creation without any loss of being eternal. (You can read another post by Fr. Kimel that touches on this. I found it immensely helpful). Eternity, however, is shrouded in mystery. Nothing truly positive can be said of it. It is beyond our comprehension, and this seems to me to be the difficulty for the temporalist. When we make God temporal, we aim to make Him comprehensible and take the mystery out of the One who is Mystery.
Postscript: In the end, the argument against a temporalist understanding of God is not, I think, dependent on the objection that it makes God a prisoner of time. I think temporalists know they cannot argue He is not because both Swinburne and Mullins admit that He is; they just say it doesn’t matter and that the limitations are not unwelcome. A much greater problem with the temporalist position for me is its necessary connection to a belief that God is mutable. How can we speak of the perfections of God when perfection knows no change?