God as a timeless substance

GOD AS A TIMELESS SUBSTANCE

This idea can be traced back to Plato. Plato believed that matter imperfectly resembled the perfect heavenly Forms which existed outside time and space. For example, if someone or something was good, beautiful or just, they shared or represented the perfect Form of Goodness, Beauty or Truth. Plato maintained that the Forms were eternal and uncreated. They were timeless (outside time, so that time did not pass for them), spaceless (outside space, so that they could not be visited) and immutable (unchanging in every respect). For Plato, therefore, ultimate reality was timeless and spaceless, beyond any sort of change. The Forms were perfect, as they simply existed.

The church fathers (ie theologians of the early Christian centuries) followed Plato when they tried to understand the God of the Bible. They thought of God as timeless and spaceless, like Plato’s Forms. If God had been within time, then there would be a problem of something (ie time itself) existing outside God, which he had not created. God could not be the Creator of everything if he were subject to time. Moreover, timeless existence must be of a different quality from human life, and a timeless, perfect God could be said to be eternal. So a God outside time would be omnipotent, eternal (not subject to time as human beings are) and omniscient (able to see everything, past, present and future).

Augustine (354-430) suggested that the difficult idea of a timeless God might be approached thus:

Take time and extend it without limit in both directions. We then have time that is everlasting – without beginning and without end.

Now take this whole time series and roll it into one, so that God has “the complete possession of eternal life all at once” (Augustine) or “the whole, simultaneous and complete possession of eternal life all at once”. (Boethius, c. 480-524)

So all times are simultaneously present to the timeless God. The problem with a God like this, however, is that he would be very different indeed from any creature found in the known universe: he is Creator, they are created; he is infinite, they are infinite; he is outside space, they are within space; he is timeless, they are within time. What sort of language, then, can be used of a God who is uncreated, infinite, spaceless and timeless?

One answer came from Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a highly influential theologian. Among other things, Aquinas wanted to deal with the question of whether God can in any way, be known and talked about. Some Christian and Muslim writers prior to Aquinas said it was impossible to arrive at any knowledge of God at all. One could only make negative statements about him (“God is not this, God is not that …”). How can we possibly know what God is like if he is “wholly other”? How can we use language of him which we use quite differently of other beings? For example, verbs like “to love, to act, to think, to know, to exist” all involve the concept of time. They are performed within time. But if God is timeless and radically different from us, what do these verbs mean when applied to him?

Aquinas began by suggesting that language could be used in one of three ways:

  1. UNIVOCAL LANGUAGE – Words are used in broadly the same sense in two different situations: eg “Simon is a good boy” and “Rover is a good dog” – the word “good” is being used in much the same way. But the timeless and spaceless God cannot be described as “good” in the same way as Simon or Rover. So univocal language is not an available option when speaking about God.
  2. EQUIVOCAL LANGUAGE – The same word is used I two totally different situations with two totally different meanings: eg “bats are used in cricket” and “bats are small flying creatures” – the word “bats” is being given two quite different meanings. If language about God were equivocal, it would mean nothing. For example, if “good” when applied to God meant something completely different from “good” when applied to man we would have no idea what God’s “goodness” meant. It might be bad!
  3. ANALOGICAL LANGUAGE – There is some connection between the way words are used in one sense and the way they are used in another: eg “God is good” and “Jo is good” – we know what “Jo is good” means and we can say that since God must gave made a good Jo, he must share, in some way, some of her goodness. So a God can be said to be “good”, but only in a sense that is appropriate to him, just as “Jo is good” in a sense that is appropriate to him, just as “Jo is good” in a sense that applies to her and “Rover is good” in a sense that applies to him/it.

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