Immutability or Omniscience?

Christians have for centuries argued over whether the God of the (Greek) Philosophers is coterminous with the God of the Bible, and this argument recently spilled into the comment threads of two posts here at the Orthosphere. There we were asked whether we could provide an account of how the classical Greek – and Orthodox Catholic – doctrine of Divine simplicity could be reconciled with the Biblical testimony that God loves us and hates sin, can change his mind in response to prayer or argument (e.g., the arguments of Abraham with YHWH over the fate of Sodom), and so forth. [We were also asked to provide an account of how simplicity could be reconciled with the Orthodox Catholic doctrine of the Trinity. A worthy project, but one that will take up a whole post of its own.]

The nub of the issue is that the classical doctrine of God’s simplicity, which follows from his eternality, entails his immutability; for if God could change, then there would be parts of his life that were different than others, which would make him complex – composed of different moments of experience. But if God cannot experience anything, then it is hard to see how we can really understand him as knowing anything about what his creatures have done, let alone caring about them or their doings. And if God has no knowledge of the free contingent acts of creatures, he can hardly be called omniscient. Both the Bible and classical philosophical theism say that God never changes; and both say he knows everything perfectly. Can these two notions be reconciled?

It is important to clarify a few points at the outset. First, in talking about the God of the Philosophers or of the Bible, we should remember that we are not talking about God Himself, but rather about two understandings of God. They refer to God, but only as inditia. God cannot be understood by concepts, or by any other sort of thing that stands under him. The Bible is indeed the word of God, to be sure; but it is not the whole Word, any more than a particular bit of consecrated eucharistic host – or even all such bits as ever were – is the whole Word. The Bible, the Torah and the consecrated Host – and, for that matter, the Church and the body of Jesus – do embody the whole Word, but they do not wholly embody the Word. As the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes concretely showed, the infinite cannot be exhausted, or a fortiori comprehended, by any of His works of creation, or by any number thereof, howsoever great. And this is so even though each creation of the Word is infused ab initio, and as the forecondition of its very being, with the whole of that Word; for creatures embody the Word by virtue of their participation therein (the human body and soul have the same relation), and not vice versa. Paul did not say that God lives in us – although to the extent that we live, he certainly does – but we in him.

What we are doing, then, in talking about these understandings of God, is just getting our own thinking straight. Specifically, when we ask whether the God of the Philosophers and the God of the Bible are coterminous, we are asking whether these two concepts indicate, and so terminate upon, the same concrete reality.

Second, we must remember that the God of the Philosophers is an austere and parsimonious thing, as compared with the much more specific and detailed, fuller and livelier God revealed in the Bible. While the two notions do not contradict each other, they are not the same. To draw an analogy, we could indicate a glass of beer by calling it “an alcoholic beverage” or by calling it “Nosferatu, that dense hoppy deep red ale from Great Lakes Brewing.” The two terms don’t contradict, but the latter is richer than the former. So with the God of the Philosophers versus the God of the Bible. And, to reiterate the point of the previous paragraph in a different way, our references to the actual beer in question would not be comprehensive descriptions or explanations thereof, however long they went on in detailing its character and properties; nor would they at all touch the ale they denoted; nor, of course, would they compare at all to actually drinking it. Theology and philosophy are talking about drink, and drinking; worship is drinking.

Third, however, it should be noted that contemplating the God either of Athens or of Zion can become an act of worship. Either notion can by ordering our minds toward God furnish occasions for an influx of his Grace. Saying the Creed, for example, with an understanding of the philosophical terms in which it is composed, can ravish us with joy (singing the Credo multiplies the intensity of this experience by three). Thinking *about* God can elide quite naturally into praying *to* him, rejoicing *in* him, and glorifying his Holy Name. How could it be otherwise? A proper concept of God then can operate in history as a means of influx to the created order of sanctification. As with a curse, an argument is a prayer, whether or not we intend it as such. Arguments have concrete ontological consequences in history, and can help or harm immortal souls. This is but one of the many good reasons to get our arguments right, and use them properly.

So much, then, for the preliminaries.

Simplicity, as has been said, is entailed in eternality. The life of an eternal being cannot consist in a set of disparate moments, for being limitless it would have to consist in an infinity of such moments; and no procedure can traverse an infinite extent by a series of finite steps. If God had an infinite life of finite moments such as those in which our lives consist, he would never have finished traversing the infinite number of moments leading up to any one of them. An eternal life composed of discrete moments would never get around to experiencing any particular one of those moments. Nothing would then ever manage to come into existence.

So if God is eternal – and, being necessary, he must ipso facto be eternal – his life must consist in a single moment of experience. And this is just what classical theism has always insisted. Under classical theism, God is a single immense act – of knowledge, love, creative power, etc. In the singularity of this act consists the Divine simplicity.

As the forecondition and basis of any creaturely existence, God’s eternal act is prior to any and all other acts. This does not mean that God’s act happens *before* creaturely acts, so that, say, he acted a long long time ago and everything since then has been an outworking of his act (albeit there is a sense in which this is so, for every creaturely act presupposes the facticity of the Divine act, and its primordiality). Nor is God’s eternal act completed before those of his creatures (although, because he acts upon their past, his act is indeed in their past, qua theirs). Eternality is not before or after anything, because “before” and “after” are terms inapposite to eternality. The closest we could get to locating God’s eternal act in temporal terms is to say that it is contemporaneous or simultaneous with every other act whatsoever – and with the moments of each act’s past and future. For every now, God’s act has always happened, is happening right now, and will always act; and so far as God is concerned, all creaturely events are happening in his own life as aspects of the singular moment of that life. As God is prior to creatures, then, and forms their environment and context – in him we live, move and have our being – so temporal events (of our own world, and any others) are happening in eternity. Time is a derivate of eternity, as Plato saw: a mere image or shadow of eternity, a process of and participation therein. Time itself, then, is timeless.[1]

But God is not. Time is of and from God. As eternal, God is not *less* than time, or somehow lacking in such virtues and powers as are in temporality, but *greater* than time, and includes all times. He is timeful. God then is in time, as much as we are. Nay, more. For times are all in him.

There is nothing contradictory in this. After all, if temporal existence contradicted eternal existence, then – eternity being “before” all worlds and their temporal orders, so far as the creatures and denizens thereof are concerned – there would be no such things as temporal existences. You can’t contradict necessity without undoing yourself. So there is no contradiction between being temporal and being eternal – no contradiction between being the Ancient of Days and Jesus of Nazareth.

The life of the man Jesus is the key that unlocks our problem. For, as the eternal act of an eternal being, the Incarnation means that God is incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth eternally. If it happens once anywhere, it happens always for God. And if it happens always for God, ipso facto it has happened already for any of his creatures. So God is eternally both the discarnate Logos, a mysterious being far transcending our powers of apprehension, and the Jesus whose wounds we can touch, and with whom we may share a picnic, or a joke. The Fathers suggested – I’m sorry, but I can’t remember where I read this – that when YHWH appeared in the form of a man to the patriarchs, as to Abraham at Mamre, or to Adam in Eden, he appeared in the body of Jesus; and that when he made man in his image, he made him in the image of Jesus. When we consider that if God is Jesus once he is Jesus eternally, this is just obvious. For an eternal being, there is no paradox in time travel, because there is for such a being no travel involved in the procedure, nor any limiting causal system under which a paradox might arise.

Thus it is for God not paradoxical to learn what I will do next Saturday as I then do it, *and* to intervene in my childhood in such a way as to put me in the position to do it – and moreover to provide that I should will, freely, to do it, so that his eternal purpose for us in creation might be eventually fulfilled. In so doing, God is not seeing or determining what I do “before” I do it, but *as* I do it. From our point of view, it looks like God knows what will happen “before” it happens. But our point of view is, precisely, imperfect. God is perfect, and knows perfectly; i.e., he knows per, “completely,” facere “to do or make or perform;” he knows the fact of my doing completely, by virtue of that my doing, by which what I have done is made a fact that may only then be known, by any being. And he does this by being present at all my doings, and apprehending them perfectly.[2]

God’s single act then comprehends all creaturely acts, no matter what their temporal loci. His response to our prayers, and to our sins, is just as real and concrete as if he were in time like us … because he *is* in time like us, albeit that he is more. For we, and all our times, and all times of all beings in all worlds, are one in him. Thus is he not only in time like us, but he is also “before” all time, and “after:” Alpha and Omega, source and end.

While it is not inaccurate then to say of God that he is immutable, or that he is therefore impassible, we must be sure not to think that he is either dead, or impervious to us. After all, he carries five wounds from us, eternally (not counting the thorns and the lash). He is unchanged from day to day; he has always been thus wounded. Only thus could the knowledge of his suffering have been disclosed to us through Isaiah, long before it had yet happened in the order of history. What we do to him, then, is not other than what has forever been done to him; and what he does for us, and by us, at each moment of our lives, is not other that what he forever does.


[1] This may be easier to encompass if one reflects that the universe is not itself located anywhere. Times and places are internal to worlds.

[2] We could say of a perfect apprehension that it “overstands” its object.

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17 thoughts on “Immutability or Omniscience?

  1. “God of the Bible” is that a Christian expression?
    The Old Testament speaks numerous times that the LORD thy God is one.
    The Gospel of John speaks of a Word that is with God and is God.
    What do we make of it, if we were to rely on Bible alone?.

    There is also a point, made by CS Lewis, that the Bible is directed to conscience and will and not primarily to intellectual curiosity. He says it specifically about Dominical sayings but the point can be generalized.

    Thus if the text says that God is suffering or God is reconsidering something, we are not to take it literally.

    • “Thus if the text says that God is suffering or God is reconsidering something, we are not to take it literally.”

      The impression struck me in the last thread that much of this discussion comes down, as it often does, to differing attitudes between Catholics and Protestants regarding the liceity of certain Scriptural exegeses.

  2. Thanks, Kristor. This is very good.

    Let me summarize in my own words:

    God is eternal. But you can’t get eternality from a vast series of temporal steps. Therefore God has always had the attributes He does, done what He does, and thought what He thinks. Since it has always been there, God never changes, even when he changes His mind about wiping out Israel in the desert, or when He responds to our prayers.

    [As a Calvinist, I can’t help pointing out how this also vindicates election and predestination.]

    • I’m sure Kristor can give a more theologically erudite response than I can, but it seems to me that Catholics don’t dispute predestination, just the Calvinist amputation of human action from it. Since time is in eternity, my choice to cooperate with grace or to reject it is also in eternity, along with God’s judgment of me on that basis. So if it can be said that I am “predestined” for Heaven or Hell, it’s only because I have, in eternity, already made the decisions that land me there.

      • Proph, you said

        Since time is in eternity, my choice to cooperate with grace or to reject it is also in eternity, along with God’s judgment of me on that basis. So if it can be said that I am “predestined” for Heaven or Hell, it’s only because I have, in eternity, already made the decisions that land me there.

        Calvinism would, with one adjustment, agree with what you said. The adjusted statement would read

        Since time is in eternity, my choice either to respond to the gospel message with true faith in Christ or to reject it is also in eternity, along with God’s judgment of me on that basis. So if it can be said that I am “predestined” for Heaven or Hell, it’s only because I have, in eternity, already made the decisions that land me there.

        As the Calvinistic apologist Greg Koukl has said, “Calvinism [on this issue] describes what happens behind the scenes.” Taken at face value, human action determines our eternal destination. But behind the scenes, in a way that we cannot comprehend, the result is predestined. And since we don’t know the predestined result, we have at least de facto free will.

        [By the way: A Calvinist would say that this is biblical doctrine, and it has fallen to the Reformed—and, to be fair, the Lutherans—to defend it.]

      • Man is not predestined to Hell since Hell was not made for man.
        Father Reardon (Daily Reflections at Touchstone website) has given careful attention to the usage of this word in Bible and in the particular contexts it appears.

    • The thing we must remember is that behind the scenes – i.e., sub specie aeternitatis – there is no “pre” to our destination. God does not know or determine our actions before we enact them, for there is in eternity no before or after. Neither, a fortiori, does he cause us to act as we do. Were that the case, our actions would not be ours at all, and neither therefore would our righteousness or our sins, or our punishments, or our election, or our destination really be ours. They would all be credited to someone else’s moral account. We would then be mere epiphenomena of that moral operation, contributing nothing thereto. We would not have any true causal effect. We would not, that is to say, actually exist. Our existence would be an illusion; and Christ would have suffered and died for the sake of nonexistent entities.

      Which is all nonsense. So, it must be the case that God does not simply cause us to do what we do; it must, i.e., be the case that our acts determine our destiny, de facto and de jure, and not just speciously.

      Not, of course, that we can metamorphose ourselves into gods by a mere act of the will. This ain’t Pelagianism, or sorcery. The act in question is precisely our “choice either to respond to the gospel message with true faith in Christ or to reject it.” In practical economic terms, our choice to respond to the gospel message with faith in Christ is to cease from our proud magical attempts to fix ourselves, and rely instead upon the simple fact that Christ is the only one with power to repair evil, and he has already completed that reparation, so that aside from our cooperation with him there is nothing more we need to do.

    • “[As a Calvinist, I can’t help pointing out how this also vindicates election and predestination.]”

      As an Arminian, I had always understood these things about God and time/eternity.

      Modern-day internet Calvinists tend to make essentially the same mistake about God and time and agent freedom that the “open theists” do. Where they differ is that, having made and committed to the misunderstanding, the Calvinists want to preserve some recognizable view of God’s glory and sovereignty, whereas the “open theists” want to make God into a Pocket Monster.

    • As the Calvinistic apologist Greg Koukl has said, “Calvinism [on this issue] describes what happens behind the scenes.” Taken at face value, human action determines our eternal destination. But behind the scenes, in a way that we cannot comprehend, the result is predestined. And since we don’t know the predestined result, we have at least de facto free will.

      It isn’t our ingorance that gives us ‘free will’ — it is simply that we *are* free wills, for that is how God created us. Nor could he have created us any other way and we still be made in his image.

  3. I read this post while wrestling with a book by Stein on the concept of object as the foundation of physics. He arrived at the (partial) conclusion that space and time, like mass, are intrinsic properties of ‘classical objects;’ which made concrete that ‘where’ and ‘when’ are not defined under all conditions. In short, an ‘intrinsic’ was added to my (poor man’s Leibniz) understanding of ‘classical space’ as something conjured between objects. And with that, your centric distinction between ‘God in me’ and ‘me within God’ made sense: I am intrinsic to God and do not know it….Ah, so that’s what they [Christian’s] mean…. I had not distinguished between intrinsic and extrinsic ‘theo-stuff’. It later occurred to me that many expositions of God that I find (personally) unsatisfactory have an eccentricity to them. As if ‘a spirit’ of eccentric origin enters. Yet, if space, time and mass are intrinsic properties of a ‘classical universe’, they cannot enter; and, if space, time, mass and spirit are intrinsic properties of a ‘theo-universe’, spirit cannot enter. Were I to wake to it, however, ‘spirit’ may well be experienced as entering, in the manner that Stein’s notion of space and time intrinsic to objects entered my ambit. The concept ‘enter’ is not defined over all domains (dominions). And so on.

    I have taken from your post (primed by Stein) an appreciation that ‘theo-ness’ as a man may comprehend it, is ‘undefined’ when the universe does not exist, and, if I am not mistaken, that spiritual parsing has no foundation in absentia. Somehow I obtained the conviction that I had never had a real intimation of the absence of the universe, which to my surprise, made the concept of God’s suffering concrete. I was not sure there was such a concept and a quick search directed me to much dubiousness. Be that as it may, some notion of universal suffrage remains. I derive a better sense of what a man must do to think straight (as indeed you put it) from reading your posts. For which I am grateful. It is no easier to think straight than walk tall. Walking requires a real earth and pondering requires real ‘stuff’ – whether or not if what is real is said to originate with ‘bang’ or ‘let there be light.’ Strange as it may sound, I did not know that ‘theo-pondering’, warts and all, is based on what is real.

  4. As usual, excellent post!

    Regarding your patristics reference to the Lord’s appearing as Jesus to Adam, Orthodox icons of the creation and of Eden show the Word as the incarnate Christ. Who else? Here is a medieval (12th c.) mosaic from the cathedral in Monreale, Italy that shows Christ’s taking Adam into the garden: http://www.medievalists.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Adam_comes_to_Eden.jpg . There is a series of these mosaics there showing the creation of Adam and Eve and their story. Search images for “Monreale Adam” to see others. On Google, that will also show you a lovely 13th c. French illustration of Jesus as a cosmic geometer. Medieval Masonic conspiracy? :)

  5. The Greek philosophers weren’t concerned with prayer, so its no surprise their system messes up the whole concept of prayer. In a system where God is “immutable” in the most absurdly absolute sense, or in other words, God predetermined everything that would happen billions of years ago, or worse, never made a decision at all but the ‘simple’ knowledge of what he would do was always part of his ‘simple’ makeup…in such a system, prayer is nonsense. The idea that God hears our prayer and then decides whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when he hears it requires a God who is in time in some sense and able to change his mind, and the God presented by Jesus in Luke 18 in the parable of the persistent widow requires a God who can change his mind in response to the persistence of our prayers. The God of the Greek philosophers is NOT the God of the Bible, period.

    • Based on what you say, it seems as though you didn’t read the post at all. To begin with, I never argued, or even asked, whether the God of the Philosophers is the God of Israel. Indeed, I said explicitly that the two notions are different. I asked whether those notions are irreconcilable.

      Maybe you should go back and read it more carefully.

      • And, of course, that the two notions are different does not mean in itself mean that they are contradictory or incompatible. Nevertheless, they are contradictory and incompatible: for, as I mentioned at the start, the ‘God of the Philosophers’ is not a person and is wholly impassive; It “contemplates” (how does a not-person contemplate anything?) only Itself.

        There is a reason that when Anthony Flew could no longer pretend to himself that his life-long God-denial was rational he latched upon the ‘God of the Philospohers': that so-called God is not a person and is not concerned with us, neither with what happens to us nor with what we do to one another.

      • The Demiurge is not a person? The God of the Philosophers knows only itself, and ergo is not omniscient?

        Simplicity and eternity do not contradict personality or omniscience, any more than sphericity and redness contradict bounciness.

      • I’m not sure I grasp the “not a person” objection. Does it mean “lacks personality”? The god of the philosophers does not lack personality, though. That would imply a deficiency of the sort sufficient to disqualify Him as the actus purus of their speculations. Indeed God is so personal that we cannot fully comprehend it; in its plenitude it radically transcends our comparatively meager personality.

        But if something else is meant, than what?

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