“God takes time in his time for us” – A Theology of Time

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Russian Orthodox Icon, “Creation of the World”

I’ve owned Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theologies for quite some time now, and have just gotten into them! I am currently reading his second volume, which is a fascinating survey of God’s works. Volume 1 is about God in himself, volume 2 is God as he relates and works outside of himself.

In his third section, Jenson considers God’s relationship to space and time. For Jenson, God’s triune nature, time and space, and creation are not competitive concepts. God, in Jenson’s mind, is not to be considered separate from creation and vice versa. Instead, creation is something included in God’s being. God makes “room” in himself for creation to live.

However, much of Western theology considers creation as necessarily separated from God. There is God in his eternity, and then there is creation in its time and space. They are related of course, but nevertheless separate. Jenson takes issue with just this construal. He traces this concept of God and time back to Augustine:

For Augustine, Jenson says, God’s eternity is conceived as his bare presence. To be present is to be eternally there. Thus Augustine conceived of God as an ever-present being, ontologically unchanging and completely realized.

But what is time then, if eternity is presence? For Augustine, time is the passing of presence to non-presence. “Past or future things, according to Augustine, have no being as they are past or future, but only insofar as they are somehow present.” (kindle loc 393). What this means for Augustine is that time is less of a thing, and more of an absence. If eternity is presence, time-past or future is non-presence. “Thus throughout his discussion Augustine is pressed to the verge of answering ‘What is time?’ with a flatly Neoplatonic ‘Nothingness'”. (loc 405) Of course there is a past, and there is a future. But how can we conceive of it? Augustine answers with the concept of memory. Past and future are present in terms of our presence stretching back or forward. Thus, eternity is presence, and time is the passing of presence.

For Jenson, however, this is problematic not simply because it verges on making nothingness out of history, but because of what it does to God’s being. God, in Augustine’s mind, is sheer ontological presence. He is considered in Augustine’s mind as one infinite Being. Humanity, on the other hand, is the passing of being into non-being. Thus the world and God are at odds.

Jenson proceeds by first saying, “God is not sheer presence” (loc 459). For Jenson, it is a category error to consider God ontologically. God is not the eternity of presence. Rather, God must always be considered within his trinitarian relations. God is a “life among persons” (ibid). God is a life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And therefore, say Jenson, “creation’s temporality is not awkwardly related to God’s eternity, and its sequentiality imposes no strain on its participation in being” (ibid). The world’s being temporal and God’s being eternal are not at odds if God is understood in terms of relationship.

But how so?

Jenson gives a long but helpful answer:

The life of God is constituted in a structure of relations whose referents are narrative. This narrative structure is enabled by a difference between whence and whither, which on cannot finally refrain from calling past and future, and which is identical with the distinction between the Father and the Spirit. This difference is not measurable; nothing is God recedes into the past or approaches from the future. But the difference is also absolute: there are whence and whither in God that are not like right and left or up and down, that do not reverse with the point of view. Since now we find that which we know as time is located within and enabled by this structure, the last inhibition is surely removed. It indeed better suits the gospel’s God to speak of “God’s time” and “created time”, taking “time” as an analogous concept, than to think of God as not having time and then resort to such circumlocutions as Barth’s “sheer duration”.

God takes time in his time for us. That is his act of creation. (loc 464)

This is a fascinating passage. God is a narrative event of Father, Son and Spirit. Yet this is certainly not measurable within our conceptions of time. There is not past in God or future. And yet, there is a narrative of relations. There is the Father and Son and Spirit who relate as a family of love. Thus, it would be better in Jenson’s mind to understand creation as an event in which God includes us within these “eternal” relations. In his act of creation, God makes space for his creatures.

To take another metaphor, God is a great exchange or conversation. Creation is thus the expansion of this triune conversation to include things that are not God. Jenson says this in his A Large Catechism:

The [God] creates something new, means that he expands the field of his conversation: he refers, e.g., to an earth, and how could God lie? Indeed, God as the triune God is in himself a great Conversation. That he creates, means that the Father, Son an Spirit among themselves mention others than themselves: they speak together of, e.g., the great sea beasts, and so there are the great sea beasts, god converses the world into being (loc 394)

This is a conception of time and space as participatory. We participate in God’s very life through his expansion of his triune relations. This is of course not to say that we become “part of God”. And yet, we subsist in him. We find our very existence within him.

This, I think, is a better construal of time and history.

 

 

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The Incarnation and the Physical

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One of the most central doctrines of the Christian faith is the doctrine of the incarnation. The claim that God the Son not only came into our world, but united himself with our world. The claim that God not only revealed himself to us, as he had already done in the OT, but that God became one of us. That God became truly human. That he came here physically. That he was born of a woman (Gal 4:4), that he lived and breathed, that he worked, that he walked and talked, that he ate and drank, that he slept, that God was truly human in every sense of the word.

The incarnation tells us that God not only came into our physical universe, but put on the physical. That he put on flesh. 

But what is so important about this fact? What is so important about God becoming truly man, being physical and material? Certainly the realness of Jesus’ humanity was important to the cross. Jesus had to literally (not spiritually) die and rise for our salvation. Had he not truly died, then we would not be saved. And had he not truly risen, we would have no hope.

But is the significance of the incarnation limited only to salvation? I would answer “no”. In fact, I would say that the incarnation speaks volumes about who God is and what he cares about. Let me explain.

I think that incarnation says something very important about God’s attitude toward the physical; toward the material. Namely, that God loves his material creation; that he thinks it “is good”; that his interest in our universe isn’t simply to get us out, or to remove us from the world. God doesn’t want to “rapture” us out of the world, in other words.

Actually, what the incarnation explains is that God wants to come into this world, not to get us out of it, but to transform it into a dwelling place for himself and for his creation. The reality of the incarnation tells us that God and the physical aren’t enemies, and that the great goal of God is that he would dwell on the earth, with his people.

In other words, the very reality that Jesus is the God-man, tells us that God has created the physical universe as a home for both him and man. He created the cosmos, that “the dwelling place of God…[would be] with man” (Rev 21:3). And so the incarnation tells us that the physical is inherently “good”, and that God doesn’t desire to remove us from it, but to enhance and beautify it! It tells us that God doesn’t want to do away with our physical bodies, but he wants to glorify them.

In short, God loves material, and we should too! That, is the beauty of the incarnation; the beauty of the God-man.

Theologian Robert Barron has much to add to this thought. He sees the incarnation as the central tenet of Christianity. Barron says this about the incarnation:

The incarnation tells central truths about God and us. If God became human without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature that he became, God must not be a competitor with his creation… God… enters into our creation, [and] the world is thereby enhanced and elevated. The God capable of the incarnation is not a competitive supreme being but rather, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, the sheer act of being itself, that which grounds and sustains all of creation, the way a singer sustains a song.

And the incarnation tells us the most important truth about ourselves: we are destined for divinization. The church fathers never tired of repeating this phrase as a sort of summary of Christian belief: Deus fit homo ut homo fieret Dues (God became human so that humans might become God). God condescended to enter into flesh that our flesh might partake of the divine life, that we might participate in the love that holds the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in communion. And this is why Christianity is the greatest humanism that has ever appeared, indeed that could ever appear.

God became a man, that his entire creation might be redeemed. This is the truth of the incarnation: that God cares about his creation, and means to bring us into the “divine life”.

Did God need to create the world to get more glory?

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Did God need to create us to get glory? In one way, this question is very simple: no he didn’t. But in another way, it’s a little more complicated.

The reason it’s complicated is because the Bible tells us why God created the world: He created it for his glory. In Isaiah 43:6-7, God says, “Bring My sons from far away, and My daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone called by My name and created for My glory”. Psalm 19:1 tells us that even creation and “the heavens declare the glory of God”. Contrastly, Paul explains that sin at its root is failing to bring glory to God — for though mankind “knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude…Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles” (Rom 1:22-23). And “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). So we were created to glorify God, and humanity fell because we all failed to do this. 

But there is another side to this question that we need to address; because we must assume that God did not have to create anything to be anymore glorious than he already is. Jesus, while praying before his death, says in John 17:5, “Father, glorify Me in Your presence with that glory I had with You before the world existed“. Jesus makes an important clarification, that the Godhead already had glory before the creation of the world. The Trinitarian community had eternal, infinite, unceasing glory before any of us ever existed. Paul says in Acts 17:24-25, “the God who made the world and everything in it—He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. Neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything”. So God is not served by human hands, and he does not need us. This means that creation couldn’t possibly add to God’s eternal glory even if we wanted it to. God’s glory is totally self-sustained within his triune existence. 

So while the Bible affirms that God created all things for his glory, it also affirms that God has sufficient glory within his Trinitarian being to never create a single thing! How do we reconcile these two truths?

I think the key here is to see creation is an overflow and expression of God’s glory. What I mean is that because God had such perfect love within himself, such infinite fellowship, and such eternal greatness, that it brimmed over. And the triune God wanted to create a world through which to further express and share this glory. So when the Bible tells us that we were created for God’s glory, it means that we were created to express and reveal this triune joy. We were created to be God’s icons, and to manifest the love so infinitely and perfectly expressed in the Godhead. In a very real way, all of creation is an overflow of the perfect triune life within God. That’s why we are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27). We were created to further manifest, display, and reveal the glory so greatly displayed in the triune God. This also makes sense when we consider God’s first act with Adam, which was to give him a person with which to share love and unity (Gen 2:24). Is not marriage a display of the unity and love found between the Father, Son, and Spirit? I think so. So creation then is an overflow, a brimming over, an expression and revelation of the glory already found in the Godhead.

John Owen explains this well, saying, “The Father’s love for the Son is the fountain and the prototype of all love…and all love in the creation was introduced from this fountain to give a shadow and resemblance of it”. Richard Sibbes also says, “the Father so enjoyed his fellowship with his Son that he wanted to have the goodness of it spread out and communicated or shared with others.  The creation was a free choice borne out of nothing but love”.

For a more expansive view of how this affects our view of the gospel, and the purpose of the Christian life, I’d invite you to listen to this sermon I gave on God’s glory, The Purpose of the Christian Life.

John Piper also has a good small series of videos on this concept over at Desiring God: http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/the-devotional-on-glory