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.