Is Time a Co-Creator with God?


Over the years, I have published a wide network of arguments against the model of God known as classical theism. Some people find the arguments persuasive and jump ship to another model of God. Others try to respond to the arguments with rationality and care. A few will fabricate premises in their opponent’s arguments in order to destroy them with “facts and logic.” Yet many will hide behind silly slogans that prevent rational discourse. You have probably heard slogans like, “divine simplicity or atheism,” or “but the doctrine of analogy!” There are many such slogans that prevent people from rationally considering opposing viewpoints. This is nothing unique to classical theism, of course. I have encountered open theists who love to spout, “If you believe God knows the future, then you believe that God loves genocide!” Yes, yes. We have all been on the internet, and we all know that anyone who disagrees with such people is literally Hitler.

What I want to do over the next few blog posts is tackle a series of silly slogans that I hear. These are slogans that prevent people from rationally considering rival models of God. These will primarily be slogans from internet classical theists—that group of people who really don’t know the classical tradition very well, but exhibit a stunning degree of confidence in classical theism. Here is the slogan for today. “If you believe in divine temporality, then time is a co-creator alongside God.” This slogan is a head scratcher for me. I don’t really understand where it is coming from, nor do I understand exactly what it could mean. This is because I have been corrupted by actual philosophy of time, and I know that this slogan is misguided. But before getting to this slogan, it will be helpful to clear the ground by defining some terms.

First, let me talk about the difference between the concept of God and a model of God. The concept of God is that of a perfect being which is the single, ultimate foundation of reality. A model of God is an extension, or an unpacking, of that concept into a thicker claim. A model of God will give you a unique story about which attributes explain why God is perfect. A model of God will also tell you what exactly it means for God to be the ultimate foundation of reality (e.g. emanation, eternal creation, or creation ex nihilo). For example, lots of people think that a perfect being must have maximal power. That is not terribly interesting because every model of God affirms maximal power. I know, I know. Nothing could be more boring than omnipotence. Things only get interesting when people start defining what the logical, metaphysical, and moral limits are of God’s maximal power, but hardly anyone wants to deny that God has maximal power.

Now consider an attribute like divine simplicity. Divine simplicity is not built into the very concept of God. By no means! Divine simplicity is an extremely controversial attribute. It is something that rival models of God disagree over. Classical theists think that this attribute is essential to perfection. You know, that attribute which denies that God has any attributes. It is somehow essential for divine perfection. Who knew? Well, not everyone knows this. There is a long line of Muslim thinkers throughout the Middle Ages who deny the doctrine of divine simplicity. They are called attributionists because they believe that God actually has distinct attributes. But let’s save that conversation for another day when I address slogans related to simplicity. My point is that some divine attributes are controversial, and these are things that rival models of God disagree over. So-called classical theists affirm the doctrine of divine simplicity. So do the majority of Western panentheists throughout history prior to the contemporary era. (Various Eastern panentheists like Rāmānuja reject divine simplicity, but again, that is a story for another day.) Yet other models of God reject the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Let me give you another example—eternality. I don’t know of any plausible model of God that denies that God is an eternal being. (Notice that I said plausible because I have read a lot of bad theology in my life.) What does the word eternity mean? Many contemporary internet classical theists define eternity as “my preferred model of God.” That is not helpful, nor historically accurate, so let’s look for some better definitions grounded in the actual history of ideas. Thankfully, Oxford University Press put out some killer books on eternity and God in the year 2016. These books are very helpful for finding historically grounded definitions of basic terms. Consider Yitzhak Melamed’s book, Eternity: A History. According to Melamed, there are two different conceptions of eternity throughout history—temporal and timeless. Yes, I know, that is shocking. Many of you have probably heard that everyone and their mother always used eternity to mean timeless, but the history of philosophical theology says otherwise. If eternity does not mean timeless, then what does it mean? To be eternal is to exist without beginning and without end.

To repeat myself, every plausible model of God says that God is eternal. Every sane model of God affirms that God exists without beginning and without end. People disagree over whether or not God is timeless or temporal. If you want to say that God is timeless, you will need to make some additional claims. You will need to add that God exists without succession, without temporal location, and without any temporal relations. A timeless God exists all at once in a timeless present that lacks a before and after. A temporal God is different. A temporal God can exist with succession, temporal location, and can stand in temporal relations. Notice something important before moving on. Both views affirm that God is eternal because both views agree that God exists without beginning and without end. Sorry to repeat that point so much, but internet classical theists consistently gloss over basic facts like this.

Ok. Where are we in the conversation? I have told you the difference between the concept of God and a model of God. I have also told you the difference between the concept of eternity, and the conceptions of timelessness and temporality. At this point, you should know that if there is a God, then God is a perfect being which is the single, ultimate foundation of reality. Also, if there is a God, that being is eternal. With that in mind, allow me to come back to the slogan of today’s post. If God is temporal, then time is a co-creator alongside God. This is an odd slogan to be sure. Normally it is a bald assertion without any rational thought to back it up, but I think I can develop this empty slogan into an argument on behalf of the internet classical theist. It can go a little something like this.

  1. God is the single, ultimate foundation of reality.
  2. If some being has a co-creator alongside it, then that being is not the single, ultimate foundation of reality.

    So far, so good. Any divine temporalist worth her salt should be happy to accept (1) in this argument. I think she should also be happy to accept (2). After all, a co-creator alongside your deity demonstrates that your deity is not the single, ultimate foundation of reality. Cool. Let’s continue with the argument.

  3. If God is temporal, then time is a co-creator alongside the temporal God.
  4. God is temporal.
  5. Thus, time is a co-creator alongside the temporal God.
  6. Thus, the temporal God is not the single, ultimate foundation of reality.

Whoa! Ok. That looks like a serious problem for divine temporality. Well, it looks serious until one reflects on (3). Premise (3) is not obvious, and I struggle to find a way to make it sound plausible. I find it implausible because every serious account of God and time that I know of does not even come close to entailing that time is a co-creator alongside God. Allow me to explain.

Let’s start with a relatively unknown philosopher named William Lane Craig. I’m assuming that most readers of this blog have not heard of Craig, but trust me, he really knows his stuff about God and time. Craig affirms that God is timeless without the universe, but temporal with the universe. Much like St Augustine, Craig affirms that time begins when the universe begins to exist. Logically prior to the existence of the universe (whatever that means), there was God timelessly hanging out by His triune self. Yet at the first moment of the universe, God is temporal, and remains temporal forever after. At the first moment of the universe, God exists at that moment, simultaneously causing the singularity to go Bang! Someone like Craig will reject premise (3) of the argument because it makes no sense. You see, people like Craig affirm a relational or reductive theory of time. Time is not a substance in Craig’s ontology. Time is merely the relationship between events (i.e. substances having properties and doing stuff). On a relational or reductive theory of time, what we call “time” is reduced to some more basic entities in our ontology. For Craig and most relationalists about time, time is reduced to events. Why do I bring this up? For people like Craig, time is not an actual entity, and thus it cannot have any causal power. Time is just not the sort of thing that could be a co-creator alongside God because time is not a thing at all. Hence, premise (3) makes no sense given the relational theory of time. Quick note before moving on, the relational theory of time is also affirmed by classical theists like Augustine, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas. So Craig cannot be accused of special pleading in his rejection of (3) because he is just employing the exact same theory of time as most classical theists.

Alright. Enough with unknown philosophers like Craig. Allow me to consider a philosopher who is very well known in contemporary Western analytic philosophy of religion—Raghunātha Śiromoṇi. He holds a view very similar to that of Isaac Newton, Samuel Clarke, and Henry More. These people reject the relational theory of time. Instead, they affirm the absolute theory of time. Further, these people affirm that time is to be identified with God as an essential divine attribute or mode. (For more on this, see Emily Thomas’s book, Absolute Time.) I call this the identification view because it says that time must be identified with God in some sense. Of course, you are probably wondering what all of this means. Many proponents of the absolute theory of time say that time is an eternal, uncaused substance that plays several roles. For example, time is the thing that makes change possible, it is the source of moments, it explains why certain things exist at the present, and it explains why a particular successive series of moments occurs. What people like Śiromoṇi, Newton, Clarke, and More say is that time is to be identified with God. How? Well, God is an eternal, uncaused substance that makes change possible, is the source of moments, sustains whatever presently exists, and providentially orders a successive series of moments into a coherent timeline. Hence, God is time, or time is a divine attribute or mode.

How would someone like Śiromoṇi or Clarke respond to the argument against divine temporality? They would reject premise (3) by saying that it is just confused. Time is not a co-creator alongside God. God is time! “Time am I, destroyer of worlds!” The suggestion that time is a co-creator alongside God is deeply confused given this absolute theory of time. This is because time is not some separate entity with causal power, bossing God around. God does not have to come up to time and say, “Hey, time. I need you to help me create this universe. It would be real cool of you if you could give me a hand.” That is like God saying to His omnipotence, “Hey, I know that you are my power, but could you please cooperate for a moment. I really want to create some cosmic stuff.” No. This makes no sense on the identification view. God having time as an essential attribute or mode does not magically make time a co-creator alongside God anymore than it makes God’s power or knowledge co-creators alongside God.

What are we to make of the slogan, “If God is temporal, then time is a co-creator alongside God”? Internet classical theists need to ditch this slogan, and find some arguments that address the actual views of their opponents.

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