Systematic Theology I - Lesson 16

Attributes of God: Incommunicable (Part 1)

God's incommunicable attributes are those that he does not share with us: self-existence; self-sufficiency; infinity; omnipresence; eternity

Bruce Ware
Systematic Theology I
Lesson 16
Watching Now
Attributes of God: Incommunicable (Part 1)

Doctrine of God

Part 6

V. Attributes of God (part 3)

A. Methodology and the Doctrine of God


B. Incommunicable Attributes

1. Self-Existence (Aseity)

2. Self-Sufficiency

3. Infinity

4. Omnipresence

5. Eternity

  • An introduction to theology, answering the questions of what is EST (Evangelical Systematic Theology), why study EST, and how it relates to other theological disciplines.

  • Introductory issues of how to do EST and the criteria for assessing theological formulations.

  • Issues of cultural Christianity, and the evangelical position of "contextualized normativity."

  • Begins with a discussion of the background to the discussion (Pelagius, Augustine, Council of Carthage, and semi-Pelagianism), and then a discussion of Luther, Calvin, Arminius, the Synod of Dort and the Five Points of Calvinism.

  • Covenant Theology, Dispensationalism, and their views of Israel and the church

  • A discussion of these three positions and the key figures in each (Schleiermacher, Ritschl, von Harnack; Barth, Brunner, Niebuhr; Carnell, Henry, Graham)

  • The beginning discussion of revelation and the specifics of General Revelation

  • A continuation of the discussion of revelation with an emphasis on Special Revelation, moving into the topic of Inspiration (definition and key passages).

  • A survey of the recent debate, defining inerrancy (including the relationship of hermeneutics and inerrancy), and its relationship to authority.

  • The definition of illumination, why it is necessary, and how we come to know truth. The critceria for canonicity is then discussed and why the canon is now closed (i.e., why no more books would be accepted into the Bible).

  • Why there is a need to know God, and "theism" (arguments as to whether there is a God or not).

  • Can God be known? The Doctrine of the Trinity (Scriptural basis; historical background; Monarchian heresies)

  • Continuation of the discussion of the Trinity and the church's rejection of Monarchianism

  • Beginning of the discussion of the attributes of God's character, and how the discussion is organized.

  • The related doctrines of God's self-sufficiency and his love. (The lecture begins in the middle of a sentence but not much content is missing. Point V., subpoints 1 and 2 were covered in lecture 14. See Outline tab.)

  • God's incommunicable attributes are those that he does not share with us: self-existence; self-sufficiency; infinity; omnipresence; eternity

  • Completes the discussion of God's incommunicable attributes by discussing immutability, the doctrine that God does not change.

  • Discussion of those attributes of God's character that he shares (to some degee) with his creation, beginning with his intellectual attributes (omniscience).

  • A continuing discussion of God communicable attributes, both intellectual (Omnisapience; truth) and moral (goodness; love).

  • Continuation of the discussion of God's communicable moral attributes (love, grace, mercy; holiness, righteousness, justice) and the attributes of God's rulership (freedom; omnipotence).

  • The Scriptural teaching and issues related to this central question

  • Hyper-Calvinism, Process Theology, Arminianism, and Calvinism

  • Concluding discussion on Calvinism

  • An introduction to the doctrine of humanity and the doctrine of humanity's origin (Adam and Eve)

  • Theories on the structure of the human soul (Monism, Dichotomy, Trichotomy) and the transmission of the soul (Creationism, Traducianism).

  • Sin is one of the most foundational and significant topics in Scripture. The doctrines of salvation and sanctification are meaningless without an accurate understanding of sin. The Old Testament teaches both the personal and corporate aspects of sin. New Testament teachings include the essence of sin and total depravity.

  • The facets of the Fall, theories of Original Sin, and God's triumph over sin

What value is there to attempt to know the unknowable or to try to understand someone that, by their own description, is beyond our understanding?

Even though we cannot know everything there is to know about God, there are some things you can know because he has revealed them to you. You can develop a systematic theology as you contemplate what you experience in nature, what you can read in the Bible and what you can know from history. This will give you insights into who God is, how you can have a relationship with him, and how you will live your life differently. Dr. Ware begins by giving you a systematic theology definition and explains systematic theology teachings and concepts that you will find in systematic theology books. He also helps you to learn both the inductive and deductive approaches in assessing various criteria so you can determine for yourself the validity of any theological position.

Some of the first lectures in Dr. Ware’s Systematic Theology I give you the core theological positions of major movements like Calvinism, Arminianism, Covenant, Liberalism and Neo Orthodoxy and help you compare and contrast their different perspectives. Also, since the Bible is the primary source for determining your systematic theology, Dr. Ware defines and explains key terms like inspiration, revelation, inerrancy, illumination and canonicity. God’s existence and attributes make up a major part of this class. The final lectures in Systematic Theology I focus on what the Bible teaches us about humans and sin.

The study of systematic theology is a mixture of science, art and faith. Join Dr. Ware as he leads you in understanding the core teachings of Scripture in a way that help you articulate your systematic theology, deepen your relationship with God and live out your life as a changed person.

This is the first of a two semester class on systematic theology. We recommend the book Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem as a companion book for this class. Dr. Grudem also wrote an abridged version entitled Bible Doctrines that includes discussion questions that are helpful for using in a small group/classroom situation. 

Dr. Bruce Ware

Systematic Theology I


Attributes of God: Incommunicable (Part 1)

Lesson Transcript


V. Attributes of God

A. Methodology and the Doctrine of God

Last time we took a look at two attributes to illustrate the importance of understanding God holistically, that is, this kind of balance of both his transcendence and immanence. God who is transcendent, this self-sufficient God who exist in and of Himself complete sufficient, full, rich, infinitely possessing of every quality intrinsically an incredible concept , the self-sufficiency of God. This transcendent God is the same who has deemed it good and right to create and relate to a creation He doesn’t need. It is an awesome thing to realize that God was not this empty water trough and created a world so it would fill Him up but rather in creating overflows of the fullness of His own being and then breaths into existence and then sustains and for His people seeks to bring to us His own character in finite measure filling us up with Him. It is an amazing thing. So we become holy as He is holy. We take on His character bit by bit by bit. We are filled with Him. As we are filled, we then are able to minister.

In order to understand God correctly, my proposal to you is that we have got to see God’s transcendence and immanence in balance and do it in a way in which neither side jeopardizes or diminishes the reality of the other side. That is one of the points I was making.

The other one. We have got to go in the order of transcendence to immanence. You have got to start with the God who is in Himself independent of any world of anything else. From that, think about the fact that He has created this world and has chosen to relate to the world. So we have to go in the order of transcendence to immanence.

Now we are going to move ahead and do more of a formal study of the attributes of God and the categorization scheme which I prefer because I think it works better for analytic purposes, that is for understanding the attributes themselves. I find the distinction between incommunicable and communicable the most helpful one for this purpose. So that is the one I am going to invoke here.

B. Incommunicable Attributes

The term “incommunicable” they cannot be communicated or are not communicated doesn’t mean that God does not tell us these things. It isn’t communicated in that sense of passing onto us the truths. If God had not passed on the truths of these attributes we have nothing to talk about. Obviously, He has communicated truths that we will speak of. The term “Incommunicable” means attributes which are not communicated in the sense of passed on in substance to His finite creation. Or the other way to put it is these are attributed that are true of God alone. No creature, no created being has any share in these attributes. They are true of God alone. Whereas the “communicable” attributes are attributes in which God communicates these aspects of His being to us. Now again, not that He tells us about them but He actually passes on the substance of them. So for example, God is holy; He calls us to be holy as He is holy. God is love, He calls us to loving. God is merciful; He calls us to be merciful. There is a whole host of attributes in which in finite measure we are called to like God. But we are not called to be like God in being self-sufficient, that is an incommunicable attribute. We can’t be. It is impossible for a finite creature to have the incommunicable qualities of God. Basically attributes that are true of God alone is the first category. Then attributes which we share in, in some finite measure will be the second category.

1. Self-Existence (Aseity)

This attribute means that God has existence within Himself or it is His nature to exist. God is not caused to exist as is everything else. Everything else owes its existence to something else. In most cases that is true in both a direct and an indirect fashion. You owe your existence in a direct fashion to your parents who conceived you and brought you into this world; indirectly to how many others do you owe your existence? And ultimately to God who created the human race. It is true to anything else you point to in the universe that its existence is derivative upon an other. But God’s existence is intrinsic to Himself. It is His very nature to exist. He cannot not exist. In fact this is the intuition that drove Anselm to his ontological argument. It was this notion that there must be something whose existence is beyond the pale of dependence, whose existence is absolutely independent, not contingent upon something else. That is what lead him to this notion of imagining a being than which none greater can conceived. The being which none greater can be conceived is a being that exist. Because one that is just a thought in your mind compared to one that exists, the one that exists is going to be greater. He argued in the next step of the argument that necessary existence is greater than contingent existence. So the being which none greater can be conceived exists necessarily. It is really this intuition of self-existence of God that formed that argument.

We see it biblically. The very point of Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The beginning is not God because it doesn’t say, “In God’s beginning,” rather, “In the beginning God...” The point of Genesis 1:1 is that before the beginning there is God. Before the beginning of what? Creation, everything else that exists there is God. The implication of that is He has no beginning. He exists eternally. Eternity is actually an attribute we will come to in a moment that is very closely related to self-existence but it is not identical. Eternity has to do with the mode of God’s existence, visa vie time; we will talk about that in a moment. Self existence has to do with the fact of God’s existence. That is independence, not contingent, necessary, a part of God’s very essence is to exist, so God has life in Himself. His existence is part of His very nature. I think self-existence is also indicated in the very famous name of God given to Moses in Exodus 3. Moses asks God, “When I go back to the people of Israel in Egypt and tell them that I have met with You and You commanded me to bring them out of Egypt and they ask me, ‘Who sent you?’ What shall I tell them?” And God says, “Tell them I AM has sent you.” We get the name YAHWEH or the kind of derivative of that, that became popular through the King James Version, I believe it was, is the term Jehovah. Which is really consents of YAHWEH and the vowels of Adonai. I don’t know why anybody did that but they came up with Jehovah. Actually the Hebrew term is four consents “Yhvh” (hwhy). The term just means, “I AM.” Its sort of this notion of the being of God, His existence. Of course that has all kinds of implications as it relates to the people of Israel in so far as He is the God for them in their need, in their plight and the like. I think this term means more than existence but I don’t think it means less than that. There have been a number of studies that have been done of YAHWEH and that term used in Exodus 3:14.

John 5:26 speaks of the Father who has life in Himself and the Son who has life in Himself. I think that is a very strong passage of the independent existence of God.

Passages that speak of God’s self-sufficiency that we looked at last time and I will remind you of when we come to that in a moment, also imply self-existence. If God is really self-sufficient, the most basic quality that anything could have is existence. There is no point in talking about whether something is good or has power or knowledge if it doesn’t exist. So self-sufficiency entails self-existence.

First on the list of God’s incommunicable attributes is God’s self-existence intrinsically, within His own nature. It is His nature or essence to exist, self-existence.

2. Self-Sufficiency

God possesses within Himself or intrinsically every quality in infinite measure. Any quality you can think of, whether it is goodness or beauty or truth, or knowledge or power, God possess that quality as what constitutes His very nature; He does so infinitely. So goodness is God’s own quality or nature. Nobody gave it to Him, nobody makes God good or grants Him goodness, it is His own by nature which not the case for us. Why is it that we have any quality that we have? You name it, why do you have it? It was given to us. Remember Paul’s question in I Corinthians 4:7 which is a verse that Christian people ought to put on a bumper sticker. Don’t put it on your bumper, put it on your bathroom mirror so you can see it first thing in the morning, everyday. What do you have that you have not received? What is the answer to that rhetorical question? Nothing. And then Paul goes on to say, “Why do you boast as if you have not received , it?” Every single quality, every true idea, every ounce of energy, every moral quality that is up right that you and I have is a gift. It is not intrinsic to our existence to have it. We might not have it, look at the demons. We might not have it but God grants those qualities to be given in finite measure. Those qualities in God are His by nature, infinitely. So all goodness is God’s, all power is God’s, all holiness is God’s (we will come to holiness later, it is a very interesting in Isaiah 6 because it is holy seraphim around the throne of YAHWEH who are crying out, “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” Have you ever wondered why they don’t say, “We are holy, He is holy, we are all holy”? Think about it. It is interesting, it relates to this issue we are thinking about right here.) These qualities are God’s in infinite measure.

Self-sufficiency Key Texts

Psalm 50.

Isaiah 40:12-17.

Acts 17:24,25

This is most explicit statement.

Acts 17:24“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands;

Acts 17:25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things;

Catch the two “all’s”. He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things.

How much does posses? Everything. Of how much are we dependent? Everything.

Self-sufficiency can also be inferred from James 1:17

James 1:17 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.

If every good and perfect gift comes from the God, who posses it? Where is any goodness, any good gift that is found? In Him, nowhere else.

Isaiah 66:1,2

Isaiah 66:1 Thus says the Lord, “Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest?

Isaiah 66:2 “For My hand made all these things, Thus all these things came into being,” declares the Lord.

So it is all His. He made all of it. The Doctrine of Creation ex nihilo also supports self-sufficiency. If God created all there is, there is nothing else out there with independent existence that could add to the fullness of God. God is infinitely full. The only reason the creation exists is because God gave of His fullness to bring into being something that had no existence or qualities apart from God granting them what they have, granting us what we have.

These doctrines are so important because they establish the supremacy of God, the magnitude of His greatness, the infinite extent of His perception. We have to take these to heart because the whole drift in our culture is to conceive of a God much more like us, almost to a pathetic being, in many, many ways. This is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible is one before whom we should absolutely marvel that He would deem to care, to create and care about us.

3. Infinity

This is a negative attribute, it is that God is not finite. What is finitude? Finitude is boundedness or limited. So infinite is not bound, not limited. God has no limits. I recall when I was a boy growing up. I grew up in a Christian home and a good Christian church, Baptist Church. I can remember at one point reading Genesis 1 and 2 where God rested on the seventh day. I remember thinking as a little boy, of course He did, He was tired. That was 6 full days of work if there ever had been. That is not the point. This was not a rest because God had exhausted everything. What do we say sometimes with our children? “I am out of patience” or “I am too tired” or “I don’t have strength.” This happens to us and it never happens to God. He never is out of grace, mercy, power, wisdom, knowledge. All of His qualities are infinite, boundless.

Don’t confuse this with self imposed limits that God may purposely put upon Himself. For example, God promised to Abraham, through you Abraham all the nations of the world will be blessed. So doesn’t that diminish God’s power so He can’t bless all the nations through some other guy, somebody else out there? No. Once God has promised on thing He must deliver it. It rules out other things that might have been the case but now that He said this, He can’t do that. So there can be self imposed limitations on God which in no way threatens the limitedness of His nature. There are other ways that it appears prima facie (on the surface) it appears God is limited but in fact what it really means, what it really shows is that God is unlimited. For example, according to Scripture God cannot lie. We are told that in Titus 2.

Tit 1:2 in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago,

So there is a limitation on God. He can do certain things, He can speak in certain ways but He can’t in others. Isn’t that a limitation? It is God is unlimited in the quality, yet the point here, the quality of truth telling, honesty, faithfulness. He can’t break a promise. You and I can do that, bully for us. So we have a weakness. You and I can die, God can’. So does that mean that God has a limitation that we don’t? We can do something God can’t do. God has the limitations, we don’t. No it means that doesn’t have the limitation that we have. We have the limitation on our existence by which our existence can end. He has no limitation on His existence. So His existence can never end. God in mind this notion of boundlessness or limitedness has to do with the qualities of truth ensure us that God can never lie. The quality of existence, the infinite, assures us that God can never die. The quality of faithfulness, that is infinite assures us that God can never break a promise. What great thing that is.

Job 11:7-9 expresses this concept in a beautiful way.

Job 11:7 “Can you discover the depths of God? Can you discover the limits of the Almighty?

Job 11:8 “They are high as the heavens, what can you do? Deeper than Sheol, what can you know?

Job 11:9 “Its measure is longer than the earth And broader than the sea.

Psalm 147:5 uses a Hebrew term for boundlessness and applies it to God’s knowledge.

Ps 147:5 Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is boundless

The NASB translates it “infinite, limitless.” I take it that is an expression that could be said of all of the attributes of God. He is focused here in this Psalm on God’s knowledge in particular. But it true that there are no limits in God and His attributes of His nature.

What I have in mind here in terms of limitations are these two areas where it appears there are limitations but in fact there are not. This is the point I am making. That is, a self imposed limit is not true limitation of nature. If I said to you, “I will fight you but I will put both arms behind my back.” That is a self imposed limitation. It doesn’t indicate that my nature is limited, it indicates that I have chosen to do something that limits otherwise I wouldn’t have a limitation of doing. When God makes a promise to Abraham or a covenant with David or whatever the case may be, He pledges Himself on one way that rules out God doing other things that He might well have done. In other words, there is no constraint upon God to do just that. Self imposed limitations are not true limitations, that is the point I am making there. That is limitations of nature, that is one thing I am trying to rule out as an apparent limitation that isn’t real.

The second one appears to be a limitation of nature. We can do things that God can’t do. I can lie, God can’t. I can tell the truth and I can lie. I have a breadth of expression that God doesn’t have, He is limited. The problem with that is that it doesn’t understand what limitless qualities mean. God has the limitless quality of truth telling, that means that He never can have that quality, it never ends, or it is never jeopardized, or it is never threatened or denied. The negative quality of lying that we are capable of is never true of God. The same thing with dying the limitless existence of God which cannot be threatened cannot be ended then indicates that He cannot die.

So both in terms of self imposed limitations which are not true limitations of His nature and secondly in terms of what might appear to limitations of nature but in fact are not. They are expressions of the fullness, boundlessness of His nature. In neither case is God limited. That is the main point I am trying to make.

4. Omnipresence

Theologians have for centuries, this goes back to the early church, have wanted to talk about two particular ways in which God is not bound. He is not bound in relation to space, that is this attribute, omnipresence, and He is not bound in relation to time, and that will be the next one we look at, eternity.

Omnipresence should be understood in that God is not limited in His existence by space. To put it positively, God transcends all spatial boundaries and is present everywhere at once.

Second Chronicles 2:6 speaks of God not being able to be contained, to large, to grand to great to be contained.

Jeremiah 23:23,24 uses the metaphor of God being in the heavens, throughout the heavens, indicating His presence everywhere.

Psalm 139:7-10. The strongest passage and the most beautiful and precious to Christian people over the years.

Psalm 139:7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?

Of course, the answer to that is nowhere, He is everywhere present.

Psalm 139:8 If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. Psalm 139:9 If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Psalm 139:10 Even there Your hand will lead me, And Your right hand will lay hold of me.

So God is everywhere present, the heavens, the earth and the depths, everywhere present which meant in Psalm to be a comfort and encouragement. No matter where you go, no matter ministry God calls you to, no matter what remote parts of planet earth God might send you, no matter if anyone else is with you God is there. God is your ever present help, strength, protector, guide, all that He is, is always there for you.

Of course, this teaching also has it sobering aspects too. In every moment of temptation, in every moment of private (so called) sinning God is there. It works both ways. It is a two edged sword, God doesn’t miss anything and everything will be held accountable before the Lord. But He is always there to help with His people constantly.

One more comment in terms of biblical theology. There is this theme that you find through the Bible that would seem on the surface to undercut this doctrine of omnipresence. That is this theme of, “I will be with you” that He promises His people.

For example in Isaiah 43 this is a beautiful passage where He comforts His people to know that no matter they are going through He will be there.

Isaiah 43:1 But now, thus says the Lord, your Creator, O Jacob, And He who formed you, O Israel, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! Isaiah 43:2 “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, Nor will the flame burn you.

Isaiah 43:5 “Do not fear, for I am with you;

Does this mean then that God is not with other people? What is the point of saying, “I will be with you” if God is omnipresence? It is one thing to have the attribute, it one thing to have the expression of it. It is different to talk about God’s omnipresence, that is He is everywhere present, verses what might be called His manifest presence. That is, God is there in a focused, deliberate, intentional way watching over. Not just there seeing everything that happens but attending to, caring for, providing for, strengthening, enabling, protecting, all of these ways in which God manifest presence is there. Something similar could be said in regard to the fact that God is omnipresent on the one hand, but in the temple God’s Shekinah glory dwelt. Where is God dwell? In the temple. Is God in the temple or is He everywhere? The answer is both, in different senses though. There is a sense in which God is present with His people Israel as He dwells with them in the tabernacle or the temple in a way that is different from the way God is with the Babylonians or God is with the Egyptians, or God is with the Assyrians. God is there too. But His manifest presence is with Israel, with His people making His glory known in those particular ways. Don’t confuse the general teaching of God’s omnipresence with the special presence of the LORD for His people which is a precious truth for His people. I hope somebody, perhaps this has been done, I haven’t check every dissertation out there, but I hope that someone would write a dissertation sometime on this biblical theological theme of, “I will be with you.” Because you find right from the Garden of Eden until the restored Garden of Eden in Revelation 22 and all the way through. You think of these two episodes. Jesus, His presence with us fulfilling Old Testament promises of the king who will be with His people and then Jesus saying when He leaves, Matthew 28:20, “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” and He tells them concerning the Spirit, “I won’t leave you alone, I’ll send My Spirit and He will be with you.” You have this theme that runs through the Bible of that particular manifest presence of the Lord with His people culminating in where we won’t have need for the light of the sun or the light of the moon anymore because God will be with us. Marvel.

Don’t confuse the two. They are both true but here we are talking about the more general truth of God omnipresence.

One more thing about this. The church has not had as much difficulty with this doctrine as with eternity. The church seemed always to be able to hold the view on this doctrine that apart from the created world (It is hard to speak, in fact, I don’t know how to speak entirely accurately in relation to what it is, I have to use the word, before God creates. You shouldn’t use a temporal word there. It is very hard to know exactly how to speak about these matters. I’ll use it understanding it is analogical at best. It is a loose way of talking about this reality.) there was not space. He created it. He created the spatiotemporal world that is here. Before the world, you would talk about God as a nonspatial reality. God in Himself doesn’t occupy any space whether it is finite or infinite. God is non spatial in His nature as God, but when He creates the world, He creates a spatial environment, this universe, and He inhabits all that He creates. He fills with His existence the spatial realm that is not native to His own nature. For some reason this particular understanding has never been a problem in the church that God is both in Himself nonspatial; aspatial perhaps you would say. But in relation to creation He is omnipresent; everywhere present, able to fill the realm of creation He has made. The reason I point that out is in my view this is very helpful in understanding a way that we can go to help solve what has been a very, very longstanding problem in relation to God and time. John Frame (the book you are reading) talks about this a fair bit and I want to suggest something along the same lines that he proposes in that.

5. Eternity

God is not limited in His existence by time. Scripture speaks of God as everlasting, or eternal. Some of the riches passages in the Scriptures about God’s greatness or supremacy have to do with His being the eternal God.

Psalm 90:1,2

Psalm 90:1 A Prayer of Moses, the man of God. Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were born Or You gave birth to the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.

I think the point of that is no matter which direction you would think, everlasting past, everlasting future God always is. There is a sense in which He is the eternal, present tense, He eternally is God.

First Timothy 1:17 extolling a number of God’s majestic great attributes. Here Paul says

1 Timothy 1:17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

So the everlasting God, the God of the ages, the one who always exists.

Exodus 3:14 I think this is conveyed in the notion of “I AM”, the always existing God.

The metaphor of the “Alpha and Omega”, the first and the last that you find in the book of Revelation. This notion of no matter which way you go, God is there.

Genesis 1:1

Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Everything else had a beginning, God has not beginning, He is eternal.

Eternity is clearly taught in Scripture.

The question has been, this has been a very difficult theological question over the centuries, in what sense should we understand God being eternal? Is it temporally eternal or timelessly eternal? These are the two options; temporally eternal or timelessly eternal. The one that won out early in the going was timeless eternity. There were a number of reasons for this. I believe that the church went in this direction with timeless eternity for some reasons in my judgement that were right and good and other perhaps not so much. One reason that comes up a lot, that I don’t think is a good reason for holding to timeless eternity is it safeguards God’s immutability. It safeguards God’s absolute immutability. Timeless eternity does do that. But I don’t want to safeguard God’s absolute immutability. In fact I want to show that notion is wrong. If you hold that God is absolutely timeless in every sense of that word, then what the early church theologians said is right; namely it is impossible to talk about change in relation to God in any respect what-so-ever, because time is the necessary medium of change. Try to think of change without time. Good luck. I have tried very hard to see if this will work but I am convinced that it just can’t. This why the early church theologians went this way, one of the reasons they went this way. If God is absolutely timeless, then there is no way you can talk meaningfully of any change in God what-so-ever. And they thought that was a net good, a net gain. What they were trying to safeguard by that was the notion that God could not change for the better because if He changed for the better then that means that He wasn’t God before and God can’t change for the worse because if He did that He is not God any more, He is not the most perfect being. In order to avoid change for the better or change for the worse, “Lets not allow change and therefore lets uphold timelessness in God. It strikes me that this going to run into real problems if in fact, Scripture indicates that there are some meaningful and legitimate senses in which God should be thought of as changing.

Augustine, both in his “Confessions” and in “The City of God” talked a number of times about this issue of God and time. Augustine proposed the notion that because God created the world, the world being a place of space and time therefore God apart from that world must be neither spatial nor temporal. That strikes me as an altogether reasonable proposition. That God in Himself apart from the world is neither spatial nor temporal. That became the prevailing view of the church. Boethius is the theologian who developed the notion of God’s timeless eternity more carefully and nuanced than anyone else preceding him. It became the established view in the church. The way Boethius conceived of God’s relation to time was (note Dr Ware is using a diagram) He stood as a fixed point that is non temporal, you might think of it as eternal present tense, not as I mentioned just a moment ago namely as always is existing - not that sense, but that the experience of God is like the experience we have at this present moment. Take a present moment of our experience and extend it infinitely in both directions. That is what God experiences. This eternal present tense. God doesn’t experience past or future. God experiences only “is” he experiences only “now” and He does so eternally. So God is this fixed point, as it were, this eternal present tense. From this vantage point God can see the beginning to the end of time. God knows the end from the beginning, He knows the whole thing and He can see it from His vantage point. Actually everything is immediately present to God in the way Boethius thought of it. So Adam and Eve in the Garden and Christ on the cross and you me right here, and the second coming of Christ, it all is to God present before Him, there is no temporal distinction in His own experience or in reality. This is the view that the church has held.

One other support that I myself find compelling for a timeless eternity view is the column argument for the existence of God that we talked about previously. In that argument, the point in that was to say if here we are in this point of time and if you say there are an infinite number of moments that preceded it, if you go back infinitely in the past in order to get to this moment here at the present, we have to have passed over this moment and this one, and this one. Everyone of these previous moments has to have been passed over to get to this one. But if this line of moments is infinite, how can the universe crossed over an infinite number of points or moments to arrive at this particular point? It is impossible to do that. It is like my example that I gave you last time; I’ve got a million dollars for you as soon you count to the highest possible integer. You can not ever have passed over and completed an infinite series of points or numbers or objects or moments. This problem applies; it seems to me, very clearly to the question of God and time. If God is eternal in the temporal sense, then how could He have passed over an infinite number of points to get to this point now, that is God in His own existence. I find this to be a compelling philosophical argument against the notion of God’s temporality in Himself and supporting the notion of timeless eternity.

The other main notion is temporal eternity sometimes called everlastingness. That God is everlasting, that He exists in time but He exists in all of time, there never is a point when God does not exist. So all the time in the past God has existed, God does exist now and God will exist at every point of time in the future; everlasting existence. Until fairly recently this view has not been advocated seriously by Christian theologians. But in the past fifty years or so it has become increasingly considered and by some advocated. The best example I can give to you is a theologian for whom I have great respect and admiration. I studied under him. My own theological training was under this gentleman and I taught with him then at Trinity Divinity School where he still is; John Feinberg in his recent book on the doctrine of God argues at length for a temporal view of God. That shocks some people to hear that, he is a solid evangelical; straight laced conservative theologian. He has become convinced both on biblical and philosophical grounds for the temporal eternity of God. It shocks people because what has prompted this discussion on God and time is Process Theology. Process theologians hold that both God and the world are coeternal. So this whole notion of temporal eternity has prompted a fair bit by work in Process Theology and process philosophy. So some people think that if you hold that view you are process theologian. Of course, John Feinberg goes to great lengths to discount Process Theology; he argues against it in his book. On this particular point he believes that the temporal view of God is correct. What commends it, in my judgment probably the strongest argument for it is that the biblical language uniformly speaks in ways that would indicate God’s existence in what appears to be a temporal framework. Think of that passage in Psalm 90 that I read to you a moment ago. If you ask, what is it referring to as it talks about God’s eternal existence?

Psalm 90:1,2

Psalm 90:1 A Prayer of Moses, the man of God. Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were born Or You gave birth to the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.

What is the context? With our forefathers You were with us, with us now You are here, we can anticipate in the future, future generations You will be there with us. It looks a though the framework of that statement is temporal.

I really do think that theologians who go this way have much to commend the notion that the Bible wants us to think of God in time, not outside of time.

Here is another. This is Feinberg’s major philosophical objection to timelessness is, How then do have relating to people in a temporal realm? People who passed through moments and deal with issues from their past and have hopes or fears in relation to their future? How is God in relationship with people in time if He is outside altogether? To invoke the Boethian model of God is outside, even the diagram of it indicates kind of removal of God, separation from God from what we are experiencing. You really can’t say God is with us in this moment, as we are going through this. That has to be understood in metaphorical ways altogether. It can’t be literally true God is with us. That is a strong argument. I am very aware of the fact that one of the greatest pressing issues for evangelical Christians these days is the question of the relatedness of God to world that He has made. How do we understand as best we can that God is really related to His creation, in particular His people? So I am very sympathetic with that objection.

Here is my proposal. It is very similar to John Frame’s if you are reading in his book, “The Doctrine of God.” It strikes me that if the church had done with eternity what it did with omnipresence we wouldn’t have this problem. Because the answer to the question, “Is God in time or out of time?” doesn’t have to be a disjunctive “one or the other” it can be a compatible “both/and”. Is He inside or outside of time? The answer is yes, both. Think of the space question again, Is God inside or outside of space? Is God spatial or nonspatial? The church on that issue gave the answer, He is both. In and of Himself He is outside of space but when He created the spatial world He filled it. So He is omnipresent. Why don’t we have then, a doctrine of the omnitemproality of God that matches omnipresence of God? And hold just like we do with God and space, now here of God and time, that God is in and of Himself atemporal or God is in and of Himself timeless in is existence. But when He creates the world, He creates space and time and He fills the creation He has made. So there is a sense in which, to use the Boethian view, God is both timeless as He envisions this created world that He is going to make, it is all present before Him in terms of what it will be. What all the world will be from beginning to end but God actually enters and is with us in the temporal flow of moments through all of time and probably, in my view, I don’t think that time ends with heaven. I think it is much more likely that we will be in a spatial temporal environment for ever. “When the roll is called up yonder and time shall be no more.” Well, it is in that hymn, but I am not convinced that it is taught in the Bible that time will be no more. God enters into our time, relates to us in our spatial temporal environment. These Psalms really do talk about God, literally, really not just metaphorically but really existing through all of time, there with His people. Yet apart from creation is atemporal or timeless in His own existence. I think the two areas of space and time can rightly be thought of as parallel realities and both handed in the same kind of way.

Another advantage of this is that if you hold either view that God is strictly speaking atemporal only or temporal only then it looks as though there is one dimension of knowledge that is omitted from God. For God to be fully omniscient, this one of the problems with the strictly atemporal view that God is not involved in time is that you know something that God cannot really know and that is what is really to experience past, present and future. There is a sense in which God could know since He is God what that is like but that is different knowing the present as present in relation to the past or the future. What this says is that both are true of God. There is a sense in which God as over all of creation and separate from all of creation can see all of creation in its whole unit from beginning to end (well I say end but there is never going to be an end) as long as it goes forever. And He also experiences with us the moment by moment reality of relational interaction. Think for example of God with His people in the wilderness and when they build the golden calf. At that moment God is ticked, Moses intercedes and pleads with God not to go down and destroy the all. Is this really happening, is God really there in that moment? It seems to me everything about the biblical record would want us to say yes, He really is there at that moment. He really does experience something in that moment that leads to Him being ticked. This is one of the reasons by the way we have to adapt the doctrine of immutability which is the last one to look at. We have to do something with immutability because we have to ask the question biblically, does God moved from peace to anger, to wrath? Do they move Him to wrath? Biblically how would you answer that? Do things move God to mercy, kindness? When Nineveh repents in Jonah. Isn’t God moved to grant forgiveness to them, to show mercy to them? Does this indicate some level of change in God? I think we have to have some conception of changeability. Karl Barth called it “holy mutability” along with “holy immutability”. They are very closely related. The time and change question are tied closely together.

Here I want to end with commending to you this proposal that in fact we understand God in Himself. Suppose God had never created and that might have been, He doesn’t need the world, He didn’t have to create the world. He wasn’t this lonely poor God out there who needed someone to fellowship with. He is the Trinity of absolutely splendor filled, joyous, blissful, harmonious relationship. He doesn’t need a cotton picking thing. He is all sufficient in Himself. Suppose He had never created. Then God who has never created would not have a realm of time and space because that is a created realm. So God in Himself is timeless, spaceless. But He did create. What did He create? Spatial temporal environment and when He creates it He relates to it. How does He relate to it? He lives within it. He is omnipresent, omnitemporal. An analogy of this would be when you dive into a swimming pool you enter a medium that is foreign to your own nature but you live within it. You dive into the pool, swim in the water, swim with the fish. It is their nature to be in that water not yours. But you can enter it and relate with them, be there in that environment. It seems to me that this exactly what God has done. To create an environment that is not His own nature but he is able to enter that environment and live within it, as it were.

One more comment. This is different than William Lane Craig’s view. Bill Craig holds a view that I find untenable. It is very close to the view that I am proposing but it is radically different in another way. He holds the view that when God created the world He changed from being atemporal to being temporal. I just find this, to be honest with you, unacceptable because this is a very change in the nature of God. I cannot accept this notion. So rather I say God remains in His nature atemporal but He is able to exist within a realm that is not His nature but of His creation namely space and time.

Blessings on you.