Volume 36 - Issue 2
Eternal God: A Study of God without Timeby Paul Helm
Helm’s second edition of Eternal God contains four new chapters. The original eleven chapters of Helm’s treatise on the unchanging God remain entirely unchanged from the first edition. Three of the new chapters have previously been published. Since Themelios already contains a review of the first edition, most of my attention focuses on the four new chapters.
Helm is known for his clarity and argumentation, and the Eternal God lives up to that reputation. His thesis is to defend the traditional doctrine of divine timelessness. Divine temporalists and atemporalist agree that God’s eternality consists in existing without beginning and without end. The atemporalist further holds that God exists without succession. A timeless God has no before and after in his life and lacks all temporal properties including simultaneity and duration. A timeless God is immutable in the strongest possible sense: He cannot suffer any intrinsic or extrinsic change. Helm never claims that this is the biblical understanding of eternity. The Bible never gives us a clear theory on the metaphysics of time or eternity. Helm notes that any doctrine of time and eternity will be underdetermined by the biblical evidence. How can Helm argue that God is timeless if the Bible does not explicitly endorse this view? Helm’s strategy is that timelessness coheres with scripture and Christian doctrine in ways that divine temporality cannot.
One of the significant weaknesses of the first edition was a complete lack of discussion on the philosophy of time. It makes little sense to weigh in on God’s relationship to time and not answer crucial questions about time. What is time? What moments of time exist? Unfortunately, the second edition does not contain any significant discussion on time either. Based on his doctrine of divine immutability and creation, I assume that Helm holds to a relational theory of time where time is change. In regards to what moments of time exist, Helm endorses the B-theory of time. On the A-theory of time, the present is the only moment of time that exists. The past no longer exists, and the future does not yet exist. On the B-theory, the past, present, and future all exist.
Helm employs the B-theory to solve some problems related to creation. Chapter 12 deals with William Lane Craig’s objection to divine timelessness based on creation ex nihilo. Craig holds the A-theory, which is the traditional view of time. Craig’s objection goes as follows. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo holds that there is a state of affairs where God exists without creation. Then there is a state of affairs where God exists with creation. Once God creates He causally sustains each present moment of creation. As such, God undergoes a change and is temporal. Helm adopts the B-theory of time to avoid this problem since, on the B-theory, creation is coeternal with God. There is no state of affairs where God exists without creation. Oddly, Helm neglects the way change is understood on the B-theory of time. The B-theory is still a theory of time and change, and Helm offers little by way of exposition as to how God relates to this type of temporal world.
Chapter 13 deals with some objections from Richard Swinburne. Swinburne’s arguments against timelessness are technical, but Helm explains them well. The basic thrust is that atemporal causation is impossible. How can a timeless God cause temporal effects without himself being temporal? This is a serious question that Christians have examined for centuries and have failed to offer any satisfying explanation. Unfortunately, Helm continues this tradition of unsatisfying answers. He asserts that a timeless cause can have temporal affects. How is this possible? We can define “cause” in a non-temporal way. What does this look like? Helm claims we can be agnostic on this point and use “cause” equivocally.
Chapter 14 attempts to flesh out the doctrine of creation on the B-theory of time. Helm explains that we should look at things from two standpoints: the eternal and the temporal. From the temporal standpoint, it appears that the present moment is the only moment that exists. From the eternal standpoint, the past, present, and future all exist. From the temporal standpoint, there is a first moment of creation, but there is not one from the eternal standpoint since the entire space-time universe is coeternal with God. What Helm does not fully appreciate is that on the B-theory of time our belief that the past and future do not exist is mistaken. Further, our experience of change and the passage of time are complete illusions. From the temporal standpoint, things appear as Helm says they do, but in reality this is all false. The only standpoint that generates true beliefs is the eternal standpoint. Helm should instead say that there is the mistaken standpoint and the real standpoint.
In an attempt to justify Helm’s two standpoints, he anachronistically interprets Augustine. Augustine held that the present is the only moment of time that exists. He also holds, like most in the ancient and medieval world, that God’s knowledge is in no way based upon creation because God’s knowledge is identical to himself. God has a perfect knowledge of himself and thus knows all things. On Helm’s reading Augustine believes the exact opposite of this. Augustine turns out to be a closet B-theorist who holds that God knows all things because all things eternally exist.
Chapter 15 may be the thing that justifies a second edition of the book. Helm offers some serious objections to divine temporality based on the doctrine of the Trinity. Temporalism may entail Arianism. If atemporal causation is impossible, then the Father cannot atemporally generate the Son. As such, there would be a time when the Son was not. Interestingly, Helm notes that if the begottenness of the Son is understood as causation conceptual difficulties abound for everyone. It is difficult to see how the Son could have the same aseity as the Father. After noting the conceptual difficulties for eternal generation, Helm asks if the doctrine is something read back into the NT. He concludes by asking why we cannot hold simply that the divine persons are all equal and coeternal and be done with eternal generation.
Overall, Helm’s defense of divine timelessness is modest. His articulation of the God-world relationship is significantly underdeveloped due in part to a lack of exposition on the nature of time. If one is searching for a solid exposition and defense of divine timelessness one would be better served by Katherin Roger’s Perfect Being Theology.
University of St Andrews
St Andrews, Scotland, UK
Other Articles in this Issue
The relatively recent interest among evangelicals in engaging ancient Christian tradition is without question a welcome development...