Human Freedom and the God-Time Relation

Dear Friends,

There has developed in the past few days a rousing discussion in the comments section of my most recent post, which was itself a response to a comment left in another post. This debate has ranged widely, but has centered upon a few distinct notions, namely, (1) human freedom and (2) the relation between God and time. It seemed to me that the best way to respond would not be to post a series of refutations and clarifications on things already said; rather, I decided to make a positive statement concerning these two points. I sincerely hope that it will be helpful.

1. Human Freedom

There are three kinds of freedom: (a) philosophical freedom (b) conditional freedom (c) theological freedom. These will be discussed in sequence.

a. Philosophical Freedom

Philosophical freedom is that freedom which human persons possess that establishes their phenomenological ability to, when faced with a choice between A and B, chose A and not B, or vice versa. This freedom means that human persons as acting agents are not fatalistically determined. There is a reservoir of spontaneity in the human will that remains a function of the human person’s will. In no case will I have “have to” (in the sense of necessity) choose A and not B, for no matter what the consequences, it is still my choice. I may be shot if I chose A and not B, but it is still my decision in that I weigh the consequences and make a choice. All of this is to say that coercion is not necessity. I may be coerced into a particular decision, that is, forced by an external condition to finally choose that which I would not have chosen in the absence of that external condition. But this is not necessity.

I would argue that humans posses this freedom.

b. Conditional Freedom

Shane did a fine job of laying out this position. If I may reformulate his work, this freedom means that just because God (or anyone else) knows certainly about a spatial-temporal condition of my being, does not mean that this condition is necessary. This is an important thing to get a hold of. That I know with certainty that someone is sitting in a chair means that it is necessarily true that this person is sitting in a chair at the moment that this knowledge applies to. But, the manner in which this person comes to sit in the chair is totally up to them. I simply know that it is the case. Thus, just because God knows with certainty what will be does not mean that this is determined without our input. It is not that God wills that every moment be disposed a certain way and therefore it is so and therefore he knows it. Rather, his will and our will operate in a relation of concursus, each conditioning the other, and concluding non-coercively in a future disposition.

God knows things in the future with certainty because he is privy to the entirety of the knowledge of the concursus of his and our wills that are involved in disposing the future. Thus, we have a part in the disposition of the world, and even in God’s certain foreknowledge. This does not have to take place only in time, but can take place in eternity. The future is certain, but even in pre-temporal eternity God’s foreknowledge of the temporal future is condition by our philosophical freedom.

It should be noted that conditional freedom is an elaboration on philosophical freedom. They are complimentary, not mutually exclusive.

c. Theological Freedom and Human Being

Theological freedom operates on a level other than philosophical freedom (and conditional freedom as a subset of philosophical freedom). Theological freedom has to do with a value judgment. It is concerned with the value differential between possibilities A and B, and not with whether or not there is philosophical freedom in choosing between A and B. It also deals with the freedom that comes with a state of salvation. We will discuss it under three further sub-points: (i) obedience, (ii) disobedience, and (iii) “for” not “from.”

i. Obedience

The telos of human being is obedience to God. We were created to be covenant partners with God, to live in a relationship of obedience with him, and to live lives of free correspondence to his will. This correspondence is to be “free” in the sense that it is a willed activity. It is not an unthinking or animal expression of nature. There is philosophical freedom here. Clearly, humanity could chose to sin because all persons throughout time have sinned. But, sin is not what we were created for. It exists only as something that we should reject in obedience to God. Thus, given choice A or B between obedience or sin, we should choose obedience and not sin as an expression of the freedom to be covenant partners with God, for which we were created. Thus, although we posses philosophical freedom to choose between A and B, there is a positive value attached to one choice and a negative value attached to the other.

ii. Disobedience

Disobedience, as has already been suggested, is the negative side of the telos of human being. It is what we were created to be against. And, while we retain the philosophical freedom to choose for disobedience, there is a negative value attached to that choice. It is this negative value that breaks our relationship with God and gives rise to the need for reconciliation. Traditionally, this notion has been expressed by understanding sin as the “privation” of God’s good creation, following Augustine.

iii. Theological Freedom “For” not “From”

The theological freedom that was in some degree experienced before the Fall is eschatological re-established and exceeded in the wake of Christ’s work of reconciliation. It is re-established in so far as through the power of the Spirit certain people are awakened to the love of God and not desire to obey God out of love and not simply out of fear. It is exceeded because it points to a future condition where there will be no further possibility of choosing disobedience (though philosophical freedom will remain – there is more than one way to obey).

Thinking about theological freedom from this vantage point helps us to understand true freedom, in the sense of being free to be truly human, is freedom “for” God, not freedom “from” obedience. It is freedom “from” the necessity to sin (for we cannot obey God out of love without his awakening us), but not “for” the possibility of sinning. Though the philosophical freedom to choose sin remains for the moment, it is not the expression of the true freedom. The expression of true, theological freedom is obedience.

2. God and Time

The question of how God relates to time has come up in multiple of the comments posted. It is a vital question, and simplistic answers abound on both the right and the left. To get at a solid way of thinking about this relation we must begin with thinking about (a) the knowledge of God, and conclude with thinking about (b) how God relates in time.

a. Knowledge of God

How is it that we know about God? Protestants take it for granted (and thus I will here do so) that our knowledge of God comes from God’s activity of revealing himself to us. We do not attain to knowledge of God through the exercise of any human possibilities because God is not to be found within the realm of spatial-temporal existence, i.e. the realm of human possibility. This is true also in light of the incarnation. While we are capable of coming to some knowledge of the human existence of Jesus of Nazareth on the basis of human possibility, this knowledge is not revelatory in itself because it has to do only with Jesus’ human nature, which is purely human, and not his divine nature. That divine nature remains hidden behind the human nature.

However, though the divine nature remains hidden behind the human nature within the hypostatic union, the divine nature is revealed to us through the human nature. There is in this case a dialectic of veiling and unveiling. On the basis of human possibility, there is only veiling. Yet, on the basis of divine possibility through the working Jesus through his Holy Spirit, there are also events of unveiling. In this unveiling, we see (on the basis of the work of the Holy Spirit) the ways in which the divine nature lies behind the human nature within the hypostatic union. Thus, God is revealed to us in the incarnation, not on the basis of human possibility even within the hypostatic union, but on the basis of divine possibility. Nonetheless, God is revealed truly.

Because God is revealed truly within spatial-temporal existence in the incarnation, God is known in time. We may also say that God is only known in time, because those who know God are found only in time. The danger here is thinking that, just because Jesus is bound by time in his mode of human existence, God is bound by time. However, to think in this way is to be insufficiently Trinitarian. The 2nd mode of existence in the Trinity, the eternal Son, the Logos, Jesus Christ, exists in time and has made all that has to do with human existence part of his existence, and therefore part of the existence of the Trinity as a whole. But, the 1st and 3rd modes of existence in the Trinity have no direct relation to spatial-temporal existence, even though the Holy Spirit does operate in spatial-temporal existence. Thus, though Jesus is bound to time, the Trinity is not. It is also helpful to remember in this regard that Jesus speaks in Scripture about his mission to reveal the Father (not to mention Jesus’ affirmation of the truth and value of the provisional revelation found in the Old Testament), that is, to make known in conditions of spatial-temporal existence that which transcends spatial-temporal existence, namely the Holy Trinity. In this way it is not true that, since our knowledge of God comes through Jesus Christ, God is bound to time or even that our knowledge of God is bound to time.

b. How God Relates to Time

We will now delve more deeply into this relation between God and time than we have yet done. This will be done through discussing three further points: (i) Creation, (ii) Pan-en-theism, and (iii) Karl Barth.

i. Creation

As TF Torrance points out with great clarity in Divine and Contingent Order, the notion of creatio ex nihilo is absolutely central to the Christian doctrine of Creation. The lynchpin of this conception is its rejection of a Platonic understanding of creation as emanation. In the Platonic conception (and I beg my philosopher friend to be kind), creation is a natural process of emanation whereby instantiations of things flow into existence out of the eternal forms. This relation is necessary, in that it is natural for this to take place. There is no volition in the fact that it takes place.

Creatio ex nihilo rejects this necessity. God created volitionally. He did not have to do so; rather, he chose to do so. It is not a natural process, but a function of divine power being exercised by divine will. This means that creation is contingent in two senses (again, based on TFT): first, it could have not happened; second, it is dependent upon God. This is a two-fold affirmation of God’s transcendence and freedom from necessity imposed upon him by the world. God did not have to create but did so out of a free act of will. Creation thus has no independent existence, but is dependent upon God (even if God grants it a certain “contingent,” that is, dependent, freedom). The inverse of this claim is that God is not dependent upon creation.

ii. Pan-en-theism and Process Theology

Pan-en-theism is the belief that all is in God. The imagery is that the entirety of creation is somehow “within” God or is somehow “part” of God. This is the result of binding God to time, whether you do so on the basis of a volitional act or on the basis of necessity makes no difference. Once you say in any sense that God ultimately needs creation to “be” or to “become” God in the most complete sense of the term, then – I would argue – you are a pan-en-theist.

Pan-en-theism is the metaphysic of choice for process theologians precisely because it binds God and the world together in a symbiotic relation. Creation is a part of God and therefore necessary to God in some sense, and vice versa. God is dependent upon creation and creation is dependent upon God. Why doesn’t this work? It fails in that it removes the possibility for salvation because it makes God in some sense finally dependent upon the work of human beings, and because it removes God’s resources for triumph over sin (his transcendence) from the picture. There is some aspect of the work of defeating sin that we have to do if sin is to be defeated. But, you might argue, this is a false distinction since we are all just metaphysically part of God anyway. In which case I can only reply that to follow this line of argument through is to find oneself with an even more mechanistic, deterministic and fatalistic view of things than you will find anywhere (excepting perhaps in Zwingli).

Now, you can try to get some of the same benefits with a kenotic notion. There are two ways to do this: actual divestment or willed non-use. That God actually divests himself of his divine attributes is silly on two counts: first, God ceases to be God, which also means, second, that God undergoes ontological change. Willed non-use is far subtler in that it argues that God does not actually divest himself but decides not to use his transcendent divine attributes. As nice as this may sound, it ultimately leads nowhere. Just because God freely enters into dependence upon creation and binds himself to not exercising his transcendence, then we still have a major downside. God is not in a position to save because he has bound himself to not use those attributes that can overcome the corruption that humanity has brought into the world.

There are numerous variations on all this, but the basic notion fails. To bind God to creation in a symbiotic relation is no solution. God must be transcendent in some respect in order for sin to be overcome, which means that God must exist in ultimate freedom, which means that God created ex nihilo and without necessity, which means that creation is contingent in the two-fold sense discussed above. We might sum up by saying that neither God’s being nor God’s attributes are contingent upon creation.

iii. Karl Barth’s Position on the Relation Between Time and Eternity

George Hunsinger has done some excellent work on Barth’s understanding of time and eternity in a chapter entitled “Mysterium Trinitatis: Karl Barth’s Conception of Eternity” found in his volume entitled Disruptive Grace. I highly recommend it as he will give a much more careful and thoroughgoing account of many thinks that I can only gesture towards here.

Karl Barth’s understands time as three-fold. Time exists as past, present and future. Because God became incarnate, he has experienced these three forms of temporality. We must then understand how God relates to these three forms of temporality. Barth’s solution is to understand eternity in light of the same structure. God has, within his own being, an experience analogous to these three forms of temporality. Thus, eternity has its own past, present and future. The eternal past, present and future grounds and envelops the temporal past, present and future. This is a clear analogy to how creation relates to God; just as God’s being grounds and envelops the being of creation, so God’s three-fold eternity grounds and envelops three-fold temporality.

One benefit of this view is found in the spatial metaphor. God is said to ground and enclose the created reality. There is a sense, then, that the created reality occupies “space.” However, that “space” is brought into being and is hedged in on all sides by God. Thus, this “space” does not exist independently or outside the limits given to it by God. Yet, at the same time, it is “space.” In this way, created reality, and created time, have a “space” within which to exercise freedom. But this “space” is brought into being and is hedged in on all sides by God. That God gives us this “space” is a tribute to his patience. God gives time to the creature, and especially to his human covenant partner. This time is given for obedience or, after the Fall, repentance and renewed movement towards obedience. The human being, whether in the past, present or future, is always within the hand of the Father.

This tri-fold form shows up again when Barth discusses providence and concursus. Again, God has established for creation a field of operation. This field of operation is intended for cooperation with God. God is described as relating to our cooperation through preceding, accompanying and following. God precedes our act in that he creates time and space for us to act. God accompanies our act in that he provides us with power to accomplish our act. God follows our act in that he determines what the meaning of our act will finally be and puts it to use as time moves on toward its consummation. But, lest we think that this ties God’s action too greatly to spatial-temporal existence, let us not forget that eternity has three forms. God’s preceding might be located in the eternal form of the past, God’s accompanying might be located in the eternal form of the present, and God’s following might be located in the eternal form of the future. Thus, God acts in these ways eternally, but not in an eternity that is simply the negation of time, but in an eternity that establishes time, makes a place for time, and consummates time.

I know that I have opened many cans of worms in this post. But, 3000 words, while impressive for a blog post, are entirely inadequate for this subject matter. This is a sketch of the directions in which I would move in dealing with these questions. Many other theological loci are waved at in passing and deserve better treatment, but this will have to wait for future elaboration. I hope that this offering will stimulate your thinking.

Selected Bibliography
  • T.F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order
  • .
  • Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, volumes 1.1, 2.1, 3.3, et al
  • .
  • George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace
  • .


Unknown said…
wow Travis, this is a tome. Thanks for laying all this out for us. Give me some time to think about it and I may have questions though.
Shane said…
"Thus, Shane, I think you are basically right in your formulation of God's eternality that allows for a proper kind of necessary knowledge."

Thanks David. To be clear, i'm just insinuating against Barth at this point. It will be a while before I'm ready to make my full-scale deconstruction of Barth . . . but i'm working my way there. . .
Well done Travis. You've highlighted some important themes.
Just a couple of questions?

"though philosophical freedom will remain – there is more than one way to obey." Interesting notion. Care to elaborate a bit more on why this would be the case?

"We may also say that God is only known in time, because those who know God are found only in time." How would you relate the reality of God's self-knowledge in eternity to this statement?

Good questions, particularly the first, but I’ll answer the second anyway. :-)

(1) More than one way to obey? Let us assume for the moment that my calling is to serve God through writing novels. Do you think there is an obedience-value place on writing on my Mac laptop or my PC desktop, or – to go back in time – in using a pen as opposed to a pencil? This example is so simple that it is absurd, but it gets the point across.

(2) God’s self-knowledge in eternity. This is precisely the knowledge that is mediated to us through the incarnation. I was not thinking in terms of God’s self-knowledge when I wrote the sentence in question. It could be modified to say that “we only know God in time because we are bound by time.”
Just to clarify, the first question has to do with our obedience after the second coming of our Lord. I fail to conceive any picture of our obedience in heaven, given my limited perspective. Thus, I'm wondering how you can even ponder that philosophical freedom (i.e. a plurality of obediences) exists in heaven. Your answer brings up a more outlandish question: does "my calling to write novels" have any continuity with my eternal being with God?

Your answer to my second question is satisfactory, and thus I will take it "off the table" in Pelosian fashion.
Anonymous said…
"God knows things in the future with certainty because he is privy to the entirety of the knowledge of the concursus of his and our wills that are involved in disposing the future. Thus, we have a part in the disposition of the world, and even in God’s certain foreknowledge. This does not have to take place only in time, but can take place in eternity. The future is certain, but even in pre-temporal eternity God’s foreknowledge of the temporal future is condition by our philosophical freedom."

Here is where the theory is only fanciful. God's foreknowledge in pre-temporal eternity. Before He created. (2+2=4 not 2+3=4) It is impossible to claim we are free when your presupposition of God's attributes which says God's foreknowledge is based on seeing our future actions before He created. That is fatalistic, determinism, and makes God responsible for sin. It is a presupposition based on holding onto the classical definition of omniscience with the branch of compatbilism growing out. While trying to integrate the biblical revelation. It doesn't work and any thinking human can either see the claim is false or turn a blind eye and religate that part to mystery. Talk about blind faith.

Drop the pre-temporal eternity divine foreknowledge and replace it with love that risks and overcomes for love and you see the image of God in Jesus Christ.

By the way, great post WTM. You could flesh that out a bit and have a great primer for Christians interested in doctrinal history.

Work calls.


Thank you for your continued engagement. I believe that if you read the statement of mine which you quote in the context of my discussion of Barth’s understanding of eternality, the problems that you identify are removed. This is especially true when understood in light of my critique of panentheism and process theology. To bind God to creation such that one of the transcendent attributes that the tradition has understood him to possess is undermined is to undermine them all. This is true even if God is willingly bound. To eradicate omniscience is to eradicate omnipotence, which is to eradicate our hope in God finally triumphing over sin.

The account of the Doctrine of the Trinity that is running beneath the surface of my account, especially in the knowledge of God section, is also important precisely because it affirms that God is both transcendent in his eternal being and immanent through the incarnation. Both are necessary.

To sum up: (1) Trinity means transcendence and immanence (2) to compromise one of God’s transcendent attributes in any way is to compromise them all and surrender the hope of salvation (3) if eternity has a past / present / future structure, and if God acts with us in a mode of preceding / accompanying / following through which time and space are given to us on the basis of God’s patience, then we are not dealing with fatalism.

Elaboration of point 3: Too often eternity is misunderstood as itself being linear in the following sense; we think of eternity as that which is before (and sometimes after) time. Thus, we think of God’s foreknowledge as being temporally prior to temporality. This is what gives us the impression that if God foreknows everything, it must just be unfolding in the present in some fatalistic way. But, if God in eternity has his own eternal form of past / present / future, and if he interacts with us in keeping with that form by preceding / accompanying / following, then this “linear” understanding of the relation between time and eternity is undermined. For, it makes it clear that even in his eternity God anticipates us and, on the basis of our contingent freedom which is grounded in his transcendent freedom, works with us. Eternity is not simply “before” temporality, nor is it simply a simultaneity that encompasses all created time in a single eternal moment. Rather, it is God’s own form of life, possessing a past / present / future within the relations of the Triune life, that makes time and space for our lives. It does not simply encompass temporality as a whole with an eternal form of past / present / future, but it encompasses every moment of time with an eternal form of past / present / future.

Granted, there is a fair dose of mystery here. But, that is unavoidable in any account. I am convinced, however, that this is the most cogent account. Your own account, Ron, is still tied to a linear relation between eternity and time.
Your argument shows the logic of the gospel message, overgainst that of the more classical accounts of omniscience, and thus exemplifies the emphasis of God's risk and love that Ron is trying to bring out.

The language in (2) about "hope for salvation" strikes me as a lynchpin for your argument - that anything that could destroy it (such as the removal of transcendent attributes) is to be thrown away. In fact it reminds me of Athanasius. Care to elaborate on why "actual" salvation is so central (and non-negotiable) to your account? Furthermore, are the immanent attributes equally non-negotiable for the sake of salvation? Or, more generally, are the immanent and transcendent attributes interdependent?

By the way, if you know anyone who's going to AAR and coming back Saturday, let me know. Right now David and I might be stranded in D.C.
Anonymous said…
"To eradicate omniscience is to eradicate omnipotence, which is to eradicate our hope in God finally triumphing over sin."

"To sum up: (1) Trinity means transcendence and immanence (2) to compromise one of God’s transcendent attributes in any way is to compromise them all and surrender the hope of salvation (3) if eternity has a past / present / future structure, and if God acts with us in a mode of preceding / accompanying / following through which time and space are given to us on the basis of God’s patience, then we are not dealing with fatalism."

We are not eradicating omniscience or omnipotence but only classical understanding of what entails omiscience and omipotence. It is a classical definition of words you are defending and not God. Man has attributed to God the classical definition of these words and uses them as a template to overlay what they think God should be like in his attributes. I believe God knows all truths. The state of reality may be different than the classical metaphysical construct has labeled it. God knows no lies. What if presentism is the reality? You say, if, when using the structure you imagine exists past/present/future and seem to understand them as coexisting simultaneously. At least where the classical definition of God supposedly exists. The past is gone and the future does not exist. The present is what is real. Of course out minds can play in an imagined past or an imagined future but neither exist except in the mind.
You hope isn't found anchored in thought patterns of an imagined God but in the risen Jesus Christ, right. You salvation is not lost because you think reality is one way and another think reality is another way. Salvation is secured by the death, buriel, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I always thought Trinity meant the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I agree God is with us and He saves us.
God nor salvation is diminished the least with open theism. It is only perceived to lessen the image of the classical construct of what God would be like if the classical definitions of the attributes of God were real. But the story of the Trinitarian love for created beings is not marred in the least.

I do love the way you presented the space and time God has given us. It fits nicely with the biblical statements of God's longsuffering.

Back to work


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