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