Thursday, March 23, 2006

Padgett versus Wood on time and eternity

I've been trying to clear out my journal backfile, and so took the Spring 2005 edition of the Asbury Theological Journal on the plane to ETS last weekend. Here are a few thoughts.

First, the level of detail necessary to make any reasonable guess at the time/eternity question of God's existence is just overwhelming. More informed than I, Alan G. Padgett (Luther Seminary) and Laurence Wood (Asbury) go after it in the first two articles: "Is God Timeless? A Reply to Laurence Wood" and "Reply to Alan Padgett".

I like the way that Padgett lays out the territory. He writes, "There are at least three theories of divine eternity, and four main views of divine foreknowledge." But, lest one get too confident: "Even these do not exhaust all the options." Oh well, let's slog on. "The three main doctrines of eternity are the traditional doctrine of absolute timelessness (re: Augustine, Aquinas); the biblical view of everlasting eternity; and the view I have defended called "relative timelessness." (But, lest one get too confident:) "The third view is difficult to understand."

"Turning to the doctrine of omniscience, (Aha!) the theories of divine foreknowledge are divided into two camps. . . . limited divine foreknowledge [so that] even God cannot know the full reality of future free and contingent events, [and] all those who believe God does have full foreknowledge." But, lest one get too confident: "[The latter] differ as to how God knows the future [namely in] the mode of divine foreknowledge. For some theologians, God's foreknowledge is based upon his timeless eternity (re: Boethius, Brian Leftow). For others, God's foreknowledge is based upon God's [predestinating] will (re: Calvin). Finally, some philosophers argue for scientia media, a "middle knowledge" (Molinism, re: Luis de Molina; William Lane Craig).

Turning, then, to modern physics, Padgett writes, "there are still two main camps with respect to the reality of past, present, and future. One camp, known as the B-theory "tenseless" time, or the stasis theory of time, argues that past, present, and future are purely subjective or mind-dependent (re: Einstein) . . . temporal process is not part of objective reality. On the other hand [others argue for a ] dynamic or process theory of time. [So that] even while the measure of time is relative, there is a genuine ontological distinction between past, present, and future. The flow of time is not merely subjective." Padgett concludes, "Both of these theories are consistent with modern physics," and quotes Oxford physicist Peter E. Hodgson saying, "It does make sense to talk of absolute time, and it may be possible to identify an absolute frame of reference. There is a real difference between past and future." Of course, you can't hold both simultaneously, "they contradict each other with respect to the ontological reality of temporal process (past, present, and future).

Padgett then explains his own view of relative timelessness. "According to this theory God is temporal in some sense, yet also transcends in some ways our space-time universe." Concluding, "I reject the traditional view of timeless eternity [because it is] incoherent with a theology of a living God, and a philosophy of time in which time is dynamic (that is, a process theory of time)."

Wood finds Padgett’s concept of relative timelessness “awkward.” Raising the flag of Boethius, Wood cries out: Keep a holy God, don’t compromise human freedom! Down with determinism! He finds a connection between divine eternity and omniscience, a connection, he says, that Padgett minimizes.

Wood cites Padgett’s Doktorvater at Oxford, Richard Swinburne, as the source of Padgett’s minimization of the connection between eternity and omniscience. Swinburne maintained that eternity means one of two things, “That God is everlasting life (i.e. God exists at each period of time past and time future) or that he is timeless (he exists outside time.) They forgot the third option, that of Boethius (and the Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and the Cappadocians) that God transcends and embraces time simultaneously.

Boethius, he says, “was concerned to show how God is omniscient and yet humans have freedom. He found spiritual consolation in the faith that an all-knowing God who is the instant moment of all times allows humans to exercise freedom, and hence bad things happen to good people without God foreordaining them. God doesn’t pre-cast (he says “literally foreknow”) the future—that’s determinism. Rather, “God knows all things in our future because our real future is already present to God. To speak in literal terms, God knows (not foreknows) our future, but not before it has happened . . . all temporal things exist instantly in God. So eternity does not exclude time, but includes it.” He cites Wesley:

“He [God] does not know one thing before another, or one thing after another, but sees all things in one point of view, from everlasting to everlasting. As all time, with everything that exists therein, is present with him at once, so he sees at once whatever was, is, or will be to the end of time. But observe: we must not think they are because he knows them. No; he knows them because they are. . . . his knowledge supposes our sin, but does not in any wise cause it. God looking on all ages . . . knows everyone that does nor does not believe [so that] men are as free in believing, or not believing, as if he did not know it at all.”

Wood continues, “All time is present to God as a single whole, but this does not erase the reality of temporal developments.”

Wood wants to adjust the usual idea of eternity, introduced by Augustine. Augustine’s view of eternity as timelessness cannot be held for “powerful philosophical reasons.” “I agreed with Barth and Pannenberg that it is not possible to deal biblically with the concept of the incarnation if God is merely timeless.” Augustine’s eternity-as-sheer-timelessness is the foundation for predestination. “It is impossible to affirm human freedom and sheer divine timelessness.” Picking up on John McTaggart’s A-and-B theory of time, Wood ascribes to the A-theory. “I view spacetime (=creation) as the framework of salvation history, and it is important to recognize the progressive development of revelation in history if the history of salvation is to be the centerpiece of theological method. Unless the temporal process is objective, and not just a state of mind, the realism of salvation history would be called into question. I believe Eleonore Stump, Norman Kretzman, and Brian Leftow (who is Richard Swinburne’s successor at Oxford) have shown the consistency and coherence of the Boethian view . . . Also the writings of Barth and Pannenberg have demonstrated (to my satisfaction) that this view is required in order to have a proper understanding of the biblical revelation of the Triune God.”

Wood suggests that Padgett’s either-or between time and eternity is wrongheaded and overly rationalistic (he even calls it a “pantheistic need for the perfect harmony of the universe”). Citing Michael Polanyi, Richard Rorty, Paul Ricoeur and postmodern science, he says “the paradoxical ideas of eternity—that God transcends time and yet time is real to the essence of God—seem to be incoherent from the standpoint of the intuitive logic of our ordinary experience. Yet if that is the way God is revealed in the history of salvation” then so be it!

Wood concludes his article with a meditation on the nature of the speed of light. Time or “tense” cannot be applied to time. Past, present and future are all the same to the speed of light. The three tenses represent speeds slower than light. Light speed is absolute, yet “time emerges as a result of objects going slower than the speed of light.” This proves nothing, save that there is room for a Boethian view.

And the acceptance of temporal relativity does not fundamentally unseat truth itself. “This worry results from a confusion of philosophical relativism with scientific reality.” A doctrine of “absolute truth” is problematic. “Theology is based primarily on the interrelated events of salvation history, not on the discoveries of reason, and it assumes that God is related to all things and all things are included within the divine being. . . . If truth is not absolute, but relational, as revealed in the doctrine of the Trinitarian Persons, then concerns about Einsteinian relativity is muted. The idea of absolute truth is more pantheistic than Trinitarian. . . . this relational theory is not a theory about absolutism and relativism, but a recognition that what we know grows out of our connectedness and contingency of life. We do not live in a world of absolutes, but in a world of probabilities. That is why we Christian live by faith. . . . one can be more modest about what one claims to know without falling into skepticism.”

Wood’s argument, then, is that Padgett, Craig and Swinburne are victims of old science, and he urges them to embrace Einsteinian relativity. This theory allows for a Boethian understanding of eternity, and best explains the biblical data: “the real future of our world is already present for God because the past, present and future exist as an instant moment in eternity.” Indeed, “the basis for accepting Boethius’ view of eternity is rooted I the theological exegesis of Scripture, but the philosophy of contemporary science illustrates that it is also a coherent view.”

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