Lydia McGrew on Divine Timelessness (Part 3 of 3)

By | July 5, 2014

The Creation, "in the beginning ..."

This is the final installment in a three-part commentary on philosopher Lydia McGrew’s essay on divine timelessness published in the latest volume of The Christendom Review. In part 1 of this series, I critiqued three of her arguments in favor of divine timelessness. In part 2 I looked at her responses to two categories of objections against divine timelessness and argued that the problems are deeper and more serious than she realizes.

In this, part 3, I engage with the final sections of her essay in which she aims to show that the major competing views face serious unresolved problems of their own. The first of these, which McGrew calls “Craig’s view” because it has been championed chiefly by philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig, holds that God is atemporal without creation and temporal since creation. The second, which McGrew calls “sempiternalism”, is defended by various thinkers and holds that God is temporally everlasting and so has an infinite past.

I will argue that, when rightly understood and stripped of unnecessary baggage, Craig’s view emerges virtually unscathed from McGrew’s criticisms. As for sempiternalism, I agree with McGrew that an objection based on the Kalam cosmological argument counts rather strongly against the view.

McGrew contra Craig

Craig’s view, recall, is that God is timeless sans or without creation and temporal since creation. So far, so good. McGrew glosses this, however, by saying that, on Craig’s view, “God would not be in time at all had He not chosen to create the universe”; hence, “[c]reation was a free act of self-limitation on the part of God.” Now, maybe Craig has stated his view this way—I don’t know. But Craig shouldn’t, for McGrew’s gloss is problematic in three ways.

First, no theistic temporalist should ever say that God is “in” time for reasons I gave in part 1.

Second, as I argued in part 2, God’s very act of deciding whether to create (or which sort of world to create) constitutes a real change in God. And since this is (to use William James’s term) a “forced” choice on God’s part, God cannot avoid undergoing at least one real change. So even if God had “not chosen to create the universe” it doesn’t follow that God would be timeless.

At this point one might ask how God could still be timeless without creation. What I think Craig should say here is that God’s moment of decision is the first moment of time. That moment is bounded on one side by God and God alone and on the other side by God plus creation. Since God’s decision is the beginning of time, God’s initial not-having-yet-decided state of contemplating His options is strictly timeless until the decision is made. Once God makes a decision, this not-having-yet-decided state is succeeded by a having-decided state giving us a before—after sequence marking the first change and the first moment of time. Time, on this view, is not a created thing but rather a necessary concomitant of creation, or rather, of God’s decision concerning creation.

Third and finally, how exactly is it that in virtue of creating and thereby entering into temporal relations with creation God is “limiting” Himself. In one sense making a decision is a self-limitation in that one thereby limits oneself to the option that was chosen. But this sort of limitation would apply even if God chose not to create, so I’m not sure why it matters. Perhaps McGrew thinks God would be limiting Himself by placing Himself “in” time, but as this trades on the time-as-container metaphor that I criticized in part 1, we can set this aside too. As McGrew rightly notes, “it is a theologically problematic conclusion that creation itself is to be treated as an act of divine limitation and humbling.”

Unfortunately Craig opens himself up to criticism at this point by introducing needless baggage. McGrew quotes Craig making an explicit tie between creation and the Incarnation:

Like the incarnation, the creation of the world is an act of condescension on God’s part for the sake of His creatures …. He stooped to take on a mode of existence inessential to His being or happiness in order that we might have being and find supreme happiness in Him (Craig, Time and Eternity, p. 241).

Citing Colossians 1:16-17 and Revelation 1:4, McGrew counters that the Bible always “portrays creation as an act of divine power and a declaration of God’s transcendence over nature” and never, as in the Incarnation (Philippians 2:3-8), as “an act of divine submission to finite limitations.” I think McGrew’s criticism here is correct, but since it’s tangential to the core of Craig’s view we can safely set it aside.

McGrew continues:

Because Craig’s view is that God humbled Himself and in some sense entered our universe’s time in the act of creating it, his view seems to preclude God’s making other parallel universes that have separate timestreams. … Given this consequence, it does not seem extreme to say that on Craig’s view God trapped Himself in our time by creating.

But this is a non sequitur, even given Craig’s Incarnational view of creation. First, as I’ve noted several times already, time isn’t a container, so God can’t literally be “in” time much less “trapped” in time. Second, even if we grant the “in” time language, the word “trapped” suggests that God’s being “in” time is an unfortunate and undesired consequence of creating. But since God would have known prior to creation exactly what He was getting Himself into, His choice to be “in” time would have been deliberate and desired. This isn’t aptly described as being “trapped” in time any more than a couple’s deliberate choice to marry is aptly described as being “trapped” in marriage. Third, a timestream need not be conceived as being strictly internal to a specific, causally isolated universe such that if God is “in” one timestream He cannot also be “in” others as well. Suppose we think of God’s timestream as the one all-inclusive timestream in which there are multiple causally isolated timestreams running in parallel. We can imagine God’s timestream as a large river that is subdivided into many smaller channels all carrying water in the same direction at the same rate. Eventually, perhaps at the Eschaton, these channels could reconverge. Hence, God could simultaneously be “in” all of the timestreams (they all belong to the same large river) and yet not be “trapped” “in” any one of them.

McGrew’s next objection against Craig’s view is a tu quoque. Recall that in part 2 I discussed an objection against divine timelessness according to which a timeless God cannot causally interact with a temporal creation. With that objection in mind, McGrew challenges Craig: If that objection is sound, then how can a God who is timeless without creation create a temporal creation? Or, as she puts it, “Why should the Boethian [i.e., the proponent of divine timelessness] not be allowed to posit a causal relationship between a timeless God and temporal events, since Craig appears to be doing so himself for the beginning of the universe?”

This is a fair question, but one that is readily answered, for the objection wasn’t that a timeless God couldn’t create, it was that a timeless God couldn’t create while remaining timeless. There is a significant disanalogy between Craig’s view and the timelessness advocate’s view. From a timeless God’s perspective (that is, from the perspective of a God who always remains timeless), creation (if there is a creation) must be always timelessly there, alongside God. And while this creation may be ontologically dependent on God, I argued in part 2 that this dependence should not be thought of as causal because it does not involve the production or bringing about of anything—on the timelessness model, the ontological inventory is static. Now, whatever the merits of that argument, Craig’s view does not suffer from it. On his view there is a real production of a universe, a real change in the ontological inventory, for first we have God alone, and then we have God-plus-universe. So Craig can say that the production of the universe is genuinely causal and, moreover, that it constitutes a moment of time and brings about a temporal relation between God and a universe that wasn’t there before.

This brings us to McGrew’s final criticism of Craig. She charges that the very idea of God’s changing from timeless to temporal in creating the universe is incoherent:

Craig … asserts … that God Himself underwent a change but that that change did not occur in any timestream whatsoever, since it was a change from not being in time to being in time. What could this mean? At a minimum, a change seems to require that an entity has existed at two different points in some timestream and has had one set of properties … at one point and a different set of properties at a different point. But the change from being timeless to being in time cannot be of this sort, so what is the meaning of “change” as Craig is using it here?

The problem here is McGrew’s tacit assumption that initial and final terms of the change must both already be “in some timestream” in order for the transition between them to constitute a change. But this is false. What’s required is that the terms be temporally related as a result of the change. Succinctly put, you can’t have a before–after relationship until the “after” term in in place. This is why Craig can literally say that God without creation is timeless and that God with creation is not: Without an “after” term to complete the before–after pair, God without creation isn’t before anything and so is timeless. The coming to be of creation, however, completes the pair giving God’s existence without creation something to stand in a before—after relation with.

In sum, I find McGrew’s criticisms of Craig’s view to be unsuccessful except with respect to Craig’s Incarnational view of creation which is an unforced error on his part.

McGrew contra Sempiternalism

Finally we come to McGrew’s critique of sempiternalism, the view that God is always temporal and has an infinite past, or, as McGrew puts it, the view that “time itself is co-eternal with God.”

McGrew begins her treatment by identifying what she takes to be a couple advantages over Craig’s view, namely, that it isn’t subject to the tu quoque and incoherence charges, as explained above. I won’t dwell over this because I’ve already responded to the charges. Both rest on a confused understanding of Craig’s view and on questionable assumptions about causation and change.

Turning to the topic of divine transcendence, McGrew thinks that sempiternalism in some ways fares better than Craig’s view and in some ways worse. Again, I won’t dwell on this issue because I think the transcendence issue is a red herring, for reasons I gave in part 1.

It is at this point that McGrew presents what she claims is “more decisive” problem with sempiternalism. The problem relates to the Kalam cosmological argument, which claims that there must be a first temporal moment and hence that the universe has not always existed and so needs to have a Creator. A major line of reasoning supporting the Kalam is that it is impossible to traverse, complete, or run through and infinite series in successive finite steps. If the past were infinite, then, since the passage of time occurs in successive finite steps, the impossible would have had to have happened. Hence, the past cannot be infinite. And, we might add, God’s past cannot be infinite, contra sempiternalism.

I find this argument persuasive and close to a knock-down refutation of sempiternalism. McGrew does mention, though, that some proponents of sempiternalism have responded by claiming that God’s time prior to creation was an “immeasurable” or non-metric time of “nonfinite temporal duration”. Frankly, I’m not sure what to make of this. I suppose that if one has a substantivalist view of time (like Newton did) then time could stretch infinitely in the absence of any changes, and thus there might be no periodic cycle of changes by which a hypothetical observer could measure the elapse of time. But it just seems gratuitous to me to think that there could be any time in the absence of change. Why call changelessness “time”. And if, as I believe, time requires change, then I don’t see why God’s time wouldn’t be measurable, at least for God. So I don’t think there’s any easy way around the Kalam objection to sempiternalism and for that reason I prefer a version of Craig’s view.

14 thoughts on “Lydia McGrew on Divine Timelessness (Part 3 of 3)

  1. Roy Lane

    I am a little confused..And why not? In an attempt to actually understand both Craig and McGrew your own views kind of get wrapped up in theirs..Or maybe better said their views get wrapped up in yours..I found it difficult to separate what they were saying from your overview. Who actually thinks that God was not infinity in time past ? And that Time only becomes real for God when he creates? My final question would be . What difference does any of it make to any real purpose and meaning of living? I thought philosophy had some intent to make sense of life and give direction to life’s meaning?

    1. Alan Rhoda Post author

      I’m sorry you found things confusing, Roy. I was pretty much just trying to follow the order of McGrew’s presentation. Part of what might be confusing is that both Craig and McGrew think of God as timeless without creation, but McGrew thinks of God as *essentially* timeless (God, on her view, *cannot* change, in any respects), whereas Craig thinks of God as only *contingently* timeless without creation. My own view is close to Craig’s, but I think it is *necessary* that God become temporal (since God must *decide* and decisions are inherently temporal).

      As to who actually thinks that God “was not infinity in time past”, quite a lot of people believe that. McGrew for one. Craig for another. And nearly everyone from Augustine to Calvin.

      What difference does it make? Well, I think this is easiest to see in contrasting McGrew’s position with the temporalist’s position (whether Craig’s view or sempiternalism). As I argued in Part 2, if God is (essentially) atemporal, then God cannot genuinely *respond* to temporal creatures. To my mind that is a *huge* liability of McGrew’s view.

  2. Tom

    Thanks much for sharing your thoughts, Alan. Always so helpful.

    I’m frustrated and divided between competing views. The arguments against sempiternalism are more significant to me today than they used to be. I appreciate their force. At the same time I’m struggling to conceive of how a timeless God could get off the dime to begin with. Here I wonder if the change between timeless existence to temporal existence is really possible. I suspect that only temporal being can be in the possession of unrealized potential, but I wouldn’t know how to argue that metaphysically at all. Greg may address it in his work on Hartshorne. Can’t recall.

    And then, even if God is temporal since creation (I agree he is), I think there are some important qualifications we ought to keep in mind about ways temporal experience would be unique for a necessary being like God (as opposed to us) so that we don’t make the mistake of relating God to time precisely the way we relate to time (i.e., most importantly (a) where time is a kind of ontological precondition for our existing at all, and (b) where temporal becoming is for us [as opposed to God] the mode of achieving or realizing the telos and perfection of our existence) where for God time isn’t this ‘kind’ of becoming. Perhaps I’d like to say that where time is a metaphysical precondition for our existing, it isn’t for God even if he’s temporal in the sense that time flows from him.


    1. Alan Rhoda Post author

      Thanks for the comments, Tom. I appreciate your input.

      Tom: I’m struggling to conceive of how a timeless God could get off the dime to begin with.

      Alan: I addressed this issue in my post. I guess you didn’t find that part very clear or convincing. I’m not sure what more I can say to persuade you that there really isn’t a problem here. Perhaps this will help a bit: All God needs to do to “get off the dime” is *make a decision*, which He can’t avoid doing because deciding not to decide is itself a decision.

      Tom: We ought to keep in mind about ways temporal experience would be unique for a necessary being like God … so that we don’t make the mistake of relating God to time precisely the way we relate to time.

      Alan: Agreed. I like the distinction you make between time for us being necessary for our “realizing the telos of our existence” and time not being necessary in that way for God.

    2. Alan Rhoda Post author

      Here’s a further thought that may help explain how God “gets off the dime”: As I see it, God’s timeless, pre-decision state sans creation is inherently *unstable*. If God has any options at all, then He must make some decision or other. Given that God does have options, it follows that His making some decision is forced. Further, since an infinitely intelligent being needs no time to deliberate, the decision must be immediate.

      1. Tom

        I think you suggested that even if God’s decision were not to create, this choice would also entail God’s being (or becoming) temporal (because the choice to resolve the options and settle on one is a temporal one?). So either way God’s temporal (?). And the choice is ‘forced’ (in the sense of being unavoidable by definition; and, you might agree, the options as possibilities flow from God’s own nature or creative disposition). It just leaves me wondering in what sense God is ever ‘actually’ atempoal or sans creation? I’m expressing myself poorly. God’s nature entails options which it is God’s nature to resolve, the resolving of which entails temporal existence. It looks (not sure) as if God’s “atemporal existence sans creation” is an abstraction while God’s ‘actual’ concrete existence is exclusively temporal. The “sans creation” part is just a theoretical way to posit God’s freedom from creation. Am I making sense?

        1. Alan Rhoda Post author

          Tom: It looks (not sure) as if God’s “atemporal existence sans creation” is an abstraction while God’s ‘actual’ concrete existence is exclusively temporal. The “sans creation” part is just a theoretical way to posit God’s freedom from creation. Am I making sense?

          Alan: I think you express it pretty well, and I basically agree with you. God’s timeless, predecisional state is an abstraction–one grasps it by focusing on half of the concrete decision event. And you’re right that it serves to “posit God’s freedom from creation,” though I think a bit more fundamentally it serves to posit God’s freedom *simpliciter*. Either God initially has open options from among which He must choose, or He doesn’t. If the latter, then everything God does is merely a consequence of the divine nature, and thus how God relates to us can never be subject to contingency, not even creaturely contingencies–which means that God cannot respond differently to us based on what we do. That’s a very non-open and non-relational view of God. Hence, I opt for the former, namely, that God does have open options.

          1. Tom

            Thanks Alan. I wasn’t sure I was following you, but I’m glad I wasn’t too far off.

            I think the problem I have with this is that it makes abstract what I think ought to be concrete, namely, God’s freedom (simpliciter or, as I had said, his freedom from creation). I may just be wrong of course. It seems to me that that freedom by which God resolves on creational options ought to be God’s actual-concrete freedom, i.e., the freedom of God’s actual, concrete experience/existence. This was part of Greg’s critique of Hartshorne (forgive me for not having the specs on hand), namely, that an abstract freedom (or an abstract anything) isn’t really capable of acting or moving volitionally. How does God’s being abstractly free mediate actuality from this to that state? It seems like in addition to God’s freedom simpliter (or his freedom from creation) being an abstraction, God’s “atemporal sans creation existence” itself would be merely an abstraction, but I must be off there. I’m just struggling to appreciate the sense in which God is free—i.e., concretely free—from creation if this freedom is merely (if I’m right that it is ‘merely’) an abstraction and God is never actually free from creation, i.e., God never experiences Godself as free from creation.

            Thanks again for the help. A lot to think on.

  3. Alan Rhoda Post author

    Tom: I think the problem I have with this is that it makes abstract what I think ought to be concrete.

    Alan: I understand, Tom, and I agree with your concern. As you put it, the “freedom by which God resolves on creational options ought to be God’s actual-concrete freedom.” I don’t think I’ve said anything that implies the contrary.

    We need to distinguish between two different notions of “abstract”. In one sense, it means not *not concrete* and thus, in itself, causally inert. This is the sense in which we would say that the number Five or the concept Beauty are abstract. In another sense, it means *considering part of a larger whole while bracketing or prescinding from the rest*. This is the sense in which I mean to say that God’s pre-decisional state is “abstract”—one grasps it by considering *part* of the act of decision-making while prescinding from the rest. It is important to point out that the part, so considered, may still be *concrete*.

    For example, I can abstractively consider my left arm while prescinding from the rest of my body. So considered it would no longer be *my* arm, nor would it functionally an *arm*, but it would still be concrete, as it would contain muscles and bones and so forth. Likewise, when abstractively considering God’s pre-decisional state, it loses its character of being “pre” anything and so is *timeless*. But it’s concrete because it includes a personal being of infinite power.

    Does that help?

  4. Jeff

    Alan: All God needs to do to “get off the dime” is *make a decision*, which He can’t avoid doing because deciding not to decide is itself a decision.

    Jeff: Alan, do you conceive of God as conscious sans creation? And if so, 1) how can God be conceived of as conscious with no duration of consciousness, and 2) how could a positive duration of consciousness, if it is entailed in what it means to be conscious, not kick in a continual accumulation of conscience, divine memories per your view? It seems to me you have to either say God, sans creation, has no consciousness with duration > 0 or no memory. It seems to me that a conscious state is not a state at all if its duration isn’t > 0. What am I misunderstanding?

    1. Jeff

      Well, I guess my last sentence is the real issue for me. If a state of any kind, even an unchanging state, is conceivable in terms of 0 duration, then I don’t see how it can be called a conscious state as opposed to an unconscious state. Let me say it like this:

      1) There seem to be either both conscious and unconscious states or only conscious states.

      2) If there are both conscious and unconscious states, how could we distinguish them if, consistent with the definition of both, they could both “occur” with zero duration?

      3) If there are only conscious states, what does it mean to say something is conscious for zero duration?

      In short, states seem to have positive duration to even be distinguished from one another in any conceivable sense.

      1. Alan Rhoda Post author

        Hi Jeff,

        I don’t know if you read my full exchange with Tom above, but my comments about abstraction on July 14, 2014 are, I think, relevant to your question. God’s pre-decisional state is something we can only grasp by abstraction.

        As for your proposed distinction between conscious and unconscious states in terms of duration, I don’t think that’s the right way to slice the pie. States, simply qua *states*, are static. As such, they do not require duration, whether conscious or otherwise. States are to be distinguished from *processes*, which are inherently dynamic and thus require duration—at the very least, infinitesimal duration. What makes a conscious state conscious as opposed to unconscious isn’t its duration, but its intrinsic quality of self-awareness. I suspect that your real question is whether consciousness isn’t inherently processual. If it is, then the very notion of a static conscious state would be incoherent. I don’t think it is incoherent because I think we can grasp the notion by abstraction (this is where my above comment to Tom about abstraction is relevant), but I understand and appreciate the worry.

        One final thought that may help alleviate that worry is that, unlike us, an infinitely intelligent and essentially omniscient being wouldn’t need *time* to deliberate. We do because our intelligence and knowledge are finite and so we can only contemplate *part* of the space of options available to us at a time. But God contemplates the *whole* space of possibilities all at once. So it’s not clear why God’s pre-decisional state would have to have duration. If it does, then we face the awkward question of how much duration. Any positive durational answer to that is going to imply that God is not infinitely intelligent. My Anselmian scruples push me strongly away from that idea.



  5. Jeff

    Thanks for the greater detail, Alan. I would agree that we can abstract the notion of a mere point of time on a time-line that corresponds to an exact state at that time, just as we can seemingly abstract the notion of a mere point in space where the center of a moving sphere supposedly has some single, specific value of “velocity” at that time. But to my mind, that abstraction is accomplished “from” what has positive duration/distance “to” the point in time/space. I.e., it doesn’t seem to me that we start with a concept of a point and then construct positive durations and durations, but rather that we analyze positive durations and distances “down to” points.

    As my favorite philosopher Noah Porter put it:

    “An act that is literally instantaneous, a psychical state beginning and occupying no time at all, is absolutely inconceivable. What we call instants are not timeless, but the least knowable or appreciable portions of time.”

    What Porter seems to be saying is that to the extent that God is conceived of as explanatory of events in terms of conscious action, we (as humans) have to think of God as being conscious for some duration. Analogously, that a moving sphere “has” a specific “velocity” when its center is at some specific point in space doesn’t mean I can conceive of what I mean by “velocity” in terms of only that one point in space. To do that, I have to conceive of motion which involves some positive duration of time and some positive distance.

    The only way I can make sense of it, then, is if the “point” in time or space that I seem to analyze from positive duration/distance is, in that sense, correlative with the conception of positive distance and duration, just as finite seems to be correlative with infinite.

    As for God having infinite intelligence, I don’t know what that explains on the one hand. On the other hand, I’ve never been able to see how an ontological argument for the existence of God works. Nor do I see a problem with a God who has always existed with conscious activity of some kind or another. I don’t see how that renders God non-explanatory of the world we infer and its rationality.

    I get the idea that an infinity can’t be “traversed.” I’m not sure if that’s the idea behind the Kalam argument or not. But I’m not sure the word “traversed” in that case doesn’t include the notion of a “beginning” of the traversal. Because if a traversal has no beginning, then all it can mean to me is what folks seem to mean when they say God has “always existed,” where “always” is seemingly meant to have true temporal import. But I suspect people who say this suppose that God is psychically active from eternity, anyway. And in that sense, I’m not sure you’d see that as problematic.


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