Book Reviews, Christian Doctrines, God and Time, philosophy, theology

Book Review: “Eternal God: A Study of God Without Time” by Paul Helm

Paul Helm is, in my opinion, one of the most lucid thinkers on the topic of God and Time. His Eternal God defends two extremely unpopular positions within Christian philosophical theology: 1) that God is timeless; and 2) that time is static (the B-Theory of time).

Helm points out early in his book that the issue of divine temporality/atemporality is “underdetermined” in Scripture (7). This means it’s one of those fun issues that lies most squarely in philosophy of religion.

And that is where Helm excels. Chapter-by-chapter he outlines a cohesive case for divine atemporality. Where Paul is most successful, I think, is in his rebuttals of arguments for temporality. For example, a well-known argument for temporality is that if God interacts in time, he must be temporal. Helm counters by pointing out that a precisely parallel argument could be constructed for God and space. Yet few Christian philosophers accept that God is spatial (49ff). While this doesn’t rebut the argument, it does point out something important: it doesn’t seem as though the conclusion (God is temporal) follows from the premise (God interacts in time) any more than it would if it were spatial (God is spatial/God interacts with space).

There are many different accounts of divine timelessness, from Brian Leftow’s spaceless timelessness (see his work Time and Eternity) to relative timelessness, and beyond. Helm takes the much less popular route and takes the tough pill of saying that God created spacetime as a static bloc. This allows Helm to easily deny many of the arguments for temporality which stem from a-theory or dynamic time. But it also raises many problems. Foremost among these (in my opinion) is human freedom. For, on the B-Theory of time (static theory), everything which will ever happen, has happened, and in a sense exists. As we go from moment to moment, we’re really just passing through a bloc of spacetime, we aren’t literally moving through a present. Presentness is a subjective phenomenon, given static/B-theory. It’s just our perspective. So where does human responsibility and freedom come in?

Helm here turns to compatibilism. He freely admits that timeless creation entails determinism (170). Thus, he denies that humans have free will in the libertarian sense. But this, he argues, does not undermine human responsibility. I don’t think I can do justice to the nuances of his argument, but the basic idea is that Helm argues that just because past actions/events determine our actions in the future, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t responsible for what we do. As I said, this is a really, really watered down version of his argument, but I think this is one of the weaker points of his work.

Why? Because the idea of responsibility simply does not make sense on determinism, particularly when it is theistic determinism. For consider the idea proposed here. God has created all of time and space as one bloc. Thus, everything I do or have ever done was created by God once he brought the universe into being. Literally, everything I did, I do because God created the universe such that I would do x. So how could it be that I am responsible for doing x, if I never chose to do x. I simply do x because I have to, I have “already” done it, on the static theory. If I could create a time travel device, I could travel forward in time and see myself doing x, and could not prevent it, because God created the world such that I would do x. But the core of responsibility is that I chose to do x. While we punish people for things they do by accident (vehicular manslaughter, for example, or accidentally breaking a window), these things still resulted from prior choices (playing baseball near breakable window/driving carelessly). I simply do not see how any account of responsibility could make sense unless someone can choose to do what they do.

There are several different positions about divine temporality/atemporality. Helm swallows the hard pill of going with the static theory of time to ground his divine atemporality. This, I believe, grants his account extreme philosophical plausibility. If God created the entire universe as a space-time continuum (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase from Star Trek!), then there’s no reason to suppose God would be affected by time. It’s ontologically outside of God, and all of his interactions already have taken place. While I’ve already pointed out some of the problems with this view, these problems are not with the coherence of the view but with the theological nature of it. Thus, I think it possible to say that Helm has adequately defended a position of divine eternity.

It would be impossible to cover everything of interest in such a comprehensive look at the topic of divine timelessness. Helm analyzes an extraordinary number of arguments in great detail. I cannot recommend the book more highly. Although I ultimately reject Helm’s second contention (B-theory), I believe his view is extremely coherent, and I can find little fault in it. Anyone interested in the issue of God’s relationship to time must read this book. It’s a book I think I shall re-read so that I can better grasp his arguments.

(Note: This review is based on the recently published second edition of this text, which includes several new chapters with much of interest, including a rebuttal of William Lane Craig’s arguments against timelessness. I recommend interested readers get their hands on the newer edition.)

SDG.

Source:

Paul Helm, Eternal God (New York, NY: Oxford, 2010).

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “Book Review: “Eternal God: A Study of God Without Time” by Paul Helm

  1. A few notes, with only a slight familiarity with the source material:

    1. Helm is consistent in his philosophy and theology. A timeless God requires a B-theory of time, which in turn requires compatibilism. I think you can have this and avoid theological determinism, but it is quite a dance. When he “bites the bullet,” I think he is just following his reasoning to its conclusion. This is to his credit only in comparison to the large number of Christian thinkers who fail to do so, given the widespread belief in God’s atemporality and a corresponding scarcity of belief in compatibilistic freedom.

    2. The nonspatial-atemporal analogy, I believe, fails. First, there are several features of space (e.g., omnidirectionality, relative location, etc.) which are different enough from time to give us prima facie reason to doubt that the analogy holds at the ontological level. Second, time (as we experience it: i.e., A-series) has the unique quality of succession which sharpens the problem of temporal action for an atemporal God in a way which material composition does not. Third, I think that while the Christian community or theologians en masse might not have a problem with an immaterial God acting on material creation, one could argue that this is just a different version of the mind-body problem. Thus, philosophical theologians and philosophers of religion do not see the issue as that cut and dried. In short, I would argue that there is in fact a nonspatial-spatial “problem” to be overcome in much the same way that there is a temporal-atemporal problem. However, the solutions which exist for the former do not work for the latter, due to significant differences between the two mediums.

    3. I have spent much time in the freedom/determinism discussion, and I think I can say quite confidently that it ultimately comes down to some moral-ideological gene that one either has or doesn’t have. In conversations with compatibilists, they more or less concede all the objections libertarians raise, then add, “But we’re still responsible.”. The only explanations for this are obstinate belief or they “get” something which we don’t. The mindset which finds moral culpability in determinism is something I simply cannot comprehend, and since all my arguing accomplishes is frustration and a headache I have simply let the issue go.

    4. Helm is an excellent thinker and his book is a seminal work on the relationship of God to time. That being said, I found it lacking. Helm fails to convince that time is like space so we shouldn’t be confused by God’s action in either, he fails to convince that an atemporal being can experience a succession of internal states, and he fails to coherently explain the Incarnation. I would still follow you in recommending it as required reading on the subject, however.

    Posted by Spencer | July 4, 2011, 7:53 PM
    • The reason I think Helm is “biting the bullet” is because there is a tradition within Christianity, as you pointed out, of those who are atemporalists and libertarians. I believe this is also perfectly coherent, though Helm’s deterministic account allows him to avoid some of the problems with the other position.

      I don’t buy the arguments trying to distance space from time. While I don’t think we exist in a kind of spacetime bloc, I do think that space and time are analogous enough to maintain the argument Helm proposes. Consider relative location; there is also relative time, as we know through relativity theory (one could argue for absolute time, as Craig et al. do in Einstein, Relativity, and Absolute Simultaneity, but this would not eliminate relativity theory, it would only introduce the concept of an absolute perspective–and this, I think, would lend credence to atemporalism, because one could argue that this absolute perspective is, itself, “eternal” in the classical atemporalist sense). The case for disanalogies, I believe, must be very strong indeed, for it seems intuitively true that if “If x acts in time, then x is temporal.” works, then so would “If x acts in space, x is spatial.”

      Compatibilism is simply incoherent, in my opinion. Van Inwagen, for example, raises some insurmountable problems for the position. I think the only reason it has gained the prominence it has is because materialists pretty much have to be determinists, and many theists who aren’t open theists have chosen theistic determinism. But that’s an issue for another day.

      As regarding 4, I don’t think it’s fair to centralize Helm’s space/time analogy in the book. It’s only a small part of a huge argument. But hey, I think we disagree on almost everything related to these issues ;). That’s what can make these things interesting.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 5, 2011, 8:52 AM
      • Not true! We do agree about the failure of compatibilism! :)

        I would be extremely interested in a treatment of divine atemporality which also argues for the A-series. To me, the former entails denial of the latter, especially in light of the ontological status of the future on the A-series. I see some fairly straightforward logical contradictions down that road, so I am intrigued by the possibility that it may be defended by some philosophical theologians.

        Posted by Spencer | July 5, 2011, 8:43 PM
      • Brian Leftow is one who defends A theory with timelessness. I have my own account which I’m trying to get published in a journal (in the process of refining it right now).

        Anyway, another thing to point out about Helm’s timeless/spaceless argument is the point I tried to bring home: it doesn’t seem like it’s true.

        The argument for temporality is:
        1) If something interacts with time, it is temporal
        2) God interacts with time.
        3) therefore God is temporal.

        Yet I have not seen any serious argument for P1. Why should I accept P1 and not simply assert that God is unaffected by time?

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 6, 2011, 6:48 PM
  2. The arguments for P1 are quite numerous. They take the form of an indirect proof wherein one assumes God is atemporal and then deduce a contradiction from that fact, thus denying the assumed premise (God’s atemporality).

    There are many different elements of a personal Go that seem to be (broadly) logically contradictory with an atemporal God. I would also note, however, that there are a few different varieties of atemporality, and then some in-betweens (I.e., sempiternality). So that term even needs to be defined further.

    Since this is a book review post and the issue is rather large, in-depth, and multiple-faceted, I don’t want to wade into it here. I’ll just point to a series of articles written by William Lane Craig about the issue that I have found instructive: http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/menus/eternity.html

    Posted by Spencer | July 9, 2011, 8:17 AM

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