Sunday, April 30, 2006

Time & eternity

Scott Oliphint has written a review of Paul Helm’s recent book on John Calvin’s Ideas. Helm has written a brief rejoinder.

I’d like to say a little more about Oliphant’s review, in particular, the following passage:


However, Helm seeks to work out a solution to the tension presented by such an affirmation. After quoting Calvin's commentary on 2 Cor 5:19, Helm avers:

So the truth about atonement, about reconciliation to God, has to be represented to us as if it implied a change in God, and so an inconsistency, an apparent contradiction, in his actions towards us. But in fact there is no change in God; he loves us from eternity. There is however, a change in us a change that occurs as by faith Christ's work is appropriated. The change is not from wrath to grace, but from our belief that we are under wrath to our belief that we are under grace (395).

That is, in order to avoid any idea that God's disposition toward the elect could change (since such an idea, for Helm, would mean that God is not immutable), Helm locates the notions of wrath and grace within our own doxastic structure, and not within the disposition of God. Helm defends his view, by an appeal to God's accommodation. "God accommodates himself by appearing as wrathful until, by faith, the believer apprehends the merit of Christ and as a consequence comes to realize that God has eternally loved him. Before that, though it is true that God eternally loved him the believer has no good reason to think that he does, and plenty of reasons to think that he doesn't, because the wrath of God rests on the sinner" (397).

Helm's construal carries with it significant theological problems, problems with which, as far as I know, Calvin has never been plagued. Most significantly, it seems near impossible to make sense of any biblical (objective) notion of propitiation if all that is askew with respect to God's disposition toward us is our own doxaxtic content.

There are other places where philosophy seems to obscure theological orthodoxy. In his analysis of Calvin on the Incarnation, for example, Helm notes:

Perhaps Calvin's view amounts to this: in the Incarnation there is uniquely powerful and loving and gracious focusing of the divine nature upon human nature, rather than a transfer of the Son of God to a spatio-temporal location. This focusing makes it possible for us to say that God the Son is so present with human nature that there is a union of natures in Jesus Christ. God in the person of the Son, through whom all things are created, focuses upon one unique aspect of his creation in uniting to human nature in the person of Jesus Christ. God the Son was not simply present by being active, he was present by being in union. The character of this divine presence sanctions the language of person with respect to the result (64).

It seems one would be hard pressed to find such language in any of the Reformed orthodox, and certainly in Calvin, and for good reason. It would be difficult to entertain such ideas and at the same time to affirm the historic, biblical notion of Incarnation. Such a notion includes the fact that the second person of the Trinity did not become another person (for then there would be four persons of the Trinity), but rather took on something that was not his, in order to accomplish the Triune God's purposes in salvation. So, says Calvin (in his commentary on Phil. 2:&),

As, then, Christ has one person, consisting of two natures, it is with propriety that Paul says, that he who was the Son of God, - in reality equal to God, did nevertheless lay aside his glory, when he in the flesh manifested himself in the appearance of a servant.

Calvin here echoes biblical language, that the Son of God did come down, taking on human flesh and a human nature, rather than that he focused himself in a unique way, while remaining outside of time.

And it is this eternal/temporal problem that is, perhaps, the underlying culprit in much of Helm's analysis of Calvin. To cite just one more example, in the chapter on divine accommodation, Helm wonders how actual dialogue can take place between God and man:

Under normal circumstances conversational dialogue between people obviously entails the need to be able to reply to what has been said. But can a timeless God react by making a reply to what has been said to him? An obvious objection is that if God is timeless, he cannot believe anything that requires for its sense and appropriateness the occurrence of an event before the formation of the belief. If God literally replies to something that is uttered, his reply will have to occur after what it is a reply to (201).

Helm goes on to note William Alston's conjecture of a reply of simultaneity, which, while it may extricate us from such tensions, would nevertheless involve a relationship of simultaneity between God and his creation which, Helm rightly notes, is a massive question to tackle.

What, then, shall we say about these liabilities? I must confess that virtually every chapter in the book left me wondering if I had ever read Calvin at all. That could well be my problem, but there are a few points that should be said with respect to Helm's 'grid' as he works through Calvin's ideas.

Perhaps the first, and most important, thing to say is that there is no easy synthesis between Calvin's ideas and philosophical concerns. This is undoubtedly the case whenever the latter take conceptual precedence over the former. Helm is aware of this, and does seem to avoid it in some cases, but the citations above indicate that certain philosophical views and concepts can serve to construe at least some of Calvin's ideas in such a way as to be unrecognizable in terms of historic Reformed or Calvinistic theology.

Not only so, but if philosophy is allowed, conceptually, to have its way with theology proper, then it may become difficult to articulate the rest of theology as well. For example, Helm notes that "much of our knowledge of God is due to God's gracious accommodation of himself to our straitened epistemic condition" (184). In thinking of accommodation, therefore, Helm sees it as one, though central, aspect in Calvin of our knowledge of God. However, if Reformed scholasticism is any indicator of Calvin's notion at all, then we would have to affirm that all (not much) of our knowledge of God is by way of God's accommodation. God's own knowledge, according to the scholastics, was archetypal, with reference to himself, and ectypal, with reference to things outside himself. Our knowledge, on the other hand, is never archetypal but is exhaustively, from first to last, ectypal. If this construal is dependent in any way on Calvin's understanding of God's accommodation, then we can avoid, at least initially, such ambiguous locutions as whether or not certain language of God is 'literal' or metaphorical, and begin instead by understanding that, (as in the distinction between God in se and God quoad nos), while there is definite continuity between God's accommodated revelation to us (which is ectypal), and his archetypal knowledge, the latter is never ours, and could never be.

Not only so, but we would be hard pressed to question, on the basis of biblical testimony and Reformed theology, whether or not God actually came down to his creation, whether he actually had conversations, complete with subsequent replies, with his creatures, whether his disposition toward us, at one time, was wrath and, at another subsequent time when we were, by faith, in Christ, grace. We are not hard pressed to question these because of philosophical naivete, necessarily, but rather because God and his relationship to his creation, as expressed in Scripture, is the beginning point of our philosophizing.


By way of comment:

i) I agree with Oliphint that the statement which he has quoted from p64 is an inadequate formulation of the hypostatic union.

Having said that, I don’t necessarily agree with Oliphint regarding the source of the problem or its solution.

ii) Throughout his literary career, Helm has used the history of ideas as a vehicle to explore and express his own position. By a dialectical process of comparison, contrast, and elimination, Helm guides the reader through the respective options to arrive at the position he himself commends.

This means, however, that if you’re going to evaluate Helm’s own position, you need to isolate his position and distinguish it from the exposition of the philosopher or theologian whom he is using as a conversation partner.

This is not something that Oliphant has clearly delineated.

iii) The offending passage on p64 is not a direct statement of Helm’s own position, but an interpretive summary of Calvin’s.

iv) Moreover, it’s just one paragraph in a chapter some 45 pages long. So this is very far from representing the whole of Calvin’s own view, much less Helm’s own view.

When Oliphint says that “Helm’s” position (is it Helm’s, or Calvin’s?) is at odds with traditional Reformed theology, what, exactly, is he referring to?

Is Oliphint claiming that Calvin and Reformed Orthodoxy, unlike Helm, did not subscribe to God’s timeless eternality?

v) Regarding the alleged transition from the wrath of God to the grace of God, once again I agree with Oliphint that it would be insufficient to treat that distinction as a merely subjective distinction in the mind of a believer or unbeliever.

Whether that is Helm’s own position is, however, a separate question.

In addition, it doesn’t follow that the best way to objectify this distinction is to relocate it in time rather than the mind of the sinner.

The best way of formulating this distinction is not in terms of a temporal transition, but in perspectival and counterfactual terms.

The elect are sinners. They are, as such, deserving of judgment. Left to their own devices, they would be objects of divine wrath.

Yet in the decree of God, and in the grace of God, they are never actually objects of wrath, but rather, objects of mercy.

God knows what they deserve, but God doesn’t give them what they deserve. God adopts and blesses the elect despite of what they deserve.

There is also a transition in the life of the elect as they pass from unregeneracy to regeneracy.

If that passage were not to occur, they would be objects of wrath rather than grace. But the decree to elect a subset of sinners includes a decree to redeem them and renew them in time.

God’s view of the elect is not irrespective of propitiation; to the contrary: because they are the elect of God, God, in Christ, has made propitiation on their behalf and in their stead.

Incidentally, this is become a big deal in certain Reformed circles because it goes back to an intramural debate within Dutch-American theology between Hoeksema and Van Til.

vi) Although the archetypal/ectypal distinction is valid, it is unclear how invoking that distinction sidesteps the question of whether God-talk is literal or metaphorical.

A more promising line of argument would be to distinguish between literal analogies (e.g., God as king, judge) and figurative analogies (God as father, shepherd). And even figurative analogies have a literal element.

vii) Then there’s God’s relation to time. As Oliphint rightly notes, this is the underlying bone of contention.

But there are a number of series difficulties with Oliphint’s admittedly brief reply:

a) Helm has written quite a bit on this particular subject. Some of these occasional pieces were anthologized in his Eternal God. But that was published almost 20 years ago, and since its publication Helm has written a good deal more.

In a book like Calvin’s Ideas, Helm takes a lot of this prior discussion for granted. He brings his conclusions to bear, rather than reiterating all of the supporting argumentation. But to judge by Olipiant’s criticisms, it doesn’t look like he is conversant with this material, for he is raising objections which Helm has repeatedly addressed elsewhere.

b) In addition, it doesn’t conduce to either philosophical or theological clarity to stake out a position on time and eternity unless you have a philosophy of time as well as a model of divine eternality.

Once again, it doesn’t look like Oliphint has bothered to acquaint himself with the standard literature.

There are several questions at issue. Not only is there the issue of God’s relation to time, but the nature of time itself. For example, is the phenomenology of passage mental or extramental?

This is pertinent to the question of what makes a dialogue a genuine dialogue irrespective of whether one party to that conversation is divine.

Oliphint seems to be operating with an A-theory of time. Has he ever bothered to read up on the opposing literature? For a few standard expositions, cf.:

R. Le Poidevin, Travels in Four Dimensions (Oxford 2003)

D. Mellor, Real Time II (Routledge 1998)

L. Oaklander, The Ontology of Time (Prometheus Books 2004).

d) What necessary conditions must be met to have an “actual” conversation, complete with “subsequent” relies?

Is it necessary for God to enter into our own timeframe?

The only necessary condition is for the effect to be temporal and sequential, not the cause. The reply is effected in time, and effected at a particular time—a delayed effect.

From this it doesn’t follow that God must be in time in order for him to will and to enact a time-indexed reply.

The abstract sequence of give-and-take is already given in the decree. God merely instantiates the teleological order of his decree. The questions and answers are intercalated in time in the same way that the order of all temporal events is foreordained from eternity and instantiated in time, with a series of second-causes and effects.

e) This is also germane to the timing of the Incarnation. If the Son of God is timeless, then there was never a time when he was discarnate. And yet the Incarnation can still be effected in time, having a point of origin in time.

f) Oliphint’s objections aren’t limited to God’s relation to time, but apparently take in God’s relation to space.

What does Oliphint mean by insisting that God comes “down” to us in the Incarnation. Surely this is a figurative image.

Does God come down to North Americans, but comes up to Aussies?

Again, Oliphint is speaking as if the sensible world were a container which God must penetrate.

It is only natural for us to spatialize time in order to conceptualize temporal relations. Thus we say that God is either “outside” of time or “inside” of time.

But these are metaphors—important metaphors, but metaphors all the same.

I appreciate Oliphint’s concern to safeguard the integrity of the Incarnation. That’s nonnegotiable.

But by the very same token, you cannot rely on picturesque language to formulate or ground the incarnation; otherwise you will end up with a merely figurative Incarnation.

It is precisely because the hypostatic union is far more than a metaphor that we cannot reply on metaphors alone to capture the hypostatic union.

We need to cash out these metaphors into something literally true.

viii) Then there’s the hermeneutical question. Oliphant faults Helm for failing to do justice to Biblical depictions of God.

This, too, is a central concern, since Protestant theological method commits us to sola Scriptura as our rule of faith.

Yet Oliphint’s criticism is rather disappointing.

a) At a time when open theism is a live option; what is more, at time when even Mormonism is becoming mainstream, it will hardly do for a Calvinist to rest his case with the dynamic language of narrative theology.

b) Either Scripture addresses the question of God’s relation to time or it does not. If not, if Scripture is silent on this issue, then this becomes an issue of philosophical theology rather than exegetical theology.

If Scripture is neutral on this question, then an answer, however provisional, must come from natural revelation and natural theology rather than revealed theology.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is so, then whatever side Oliphint chooses to come down on will be underdetermined by Scripture.

There are only two basic options. You can only opt for one, or the other, or suspend judgment.

In that event, Oliphint is in the same boat as Helm. He can choose to sit in the stern or the prow, but he is not exempt from the question at hand, and by staking out one position, he is having to argue on the same level as his opponent. It’s not as if Oliphant occupies some privileged position above the fray.

c) But if Scripture does speak to this issue, then what does it say? There are both direct and indirect data.

There are verses which indicate that God is independent of the temporal order (Gen 1:1 Cor 2:7; 2 Tim 1:9; Titus 1:2-3; Jude 25), as well as prooftexts for divine immutability (e.g. Num 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Ps 102:26-28; Mal 3:6; Jas 1:17).

Now, there may be a danger of overinterpreting these verses, of pressing them into the service of a more specialized question than they were intended to answer.

But if we wish to begin with Scripture, such passages apparently favor the eternalist construction over against the temporalist construction.

d) Then there are verses which ascribe certain properties or relations to God, often in contrast to the temporal order, viz., omniscience, foreknowledge, foreordination.

The question is whether these attributes are compatible with a temporal God. If not, how do we harmonize one verse with another?

e) To say that we begin with Scripture, while commendable, doesn’t solve any problems because it doesn’t point us in any particular direction.

For even if Scripture is our starting-point, and rightly so, there is more than one starting point within Scripture itself. There is Scripture, and then there are scriptures.

In many respects, the temporalist/eternalist debate parallels the Arminian/Calvinist debate.

Do we begin with a particular genre? With the epistles? Or with historical narrative?

Even within historical narrative, what is the narrative strategy of the narrator? If, at certain points in the narrative, he apparently attributes human emotions, motives, and failings to God, are we to take these at face value, in isolation to the overarching narrative, or do they serve a different function which can only be appreciated at the denouement of the dramatic arc as we look back on the providential unfolding of events?

What we often see in narrative theology is not merely a pattern of promise and fulfillment, but a pattern of conflict and resolution. This follows an A-B-A structure.

A-1.Divine promise


A-2.Fulfillment. Resolution

In the B-phase the fulfillment is threatened by various obstacles and reversals.

But in A-2, the promise is realized in spite of, and even by means of, apparent setbacks.

The purpose is twofold:

a) To illustrate the sovereignty of God’s overruling providence.

b) To cultivate a habit if faith in the face of disappointment.

You can see this pattern play out in the lives of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph.

One of the methological problems with open theism is that it takes its point departure from the B-phase, instead of beginning at the end by reasoning back from the da capo section of A-2.

And this, as I say, is parallel to Arminian theological method, which begins with the human response, with the phenomenology of faith and infidelity, and infers the nature of God’s will from the outcome, whereas Reformed theological method begins with those verses of Scripture which explicitly trace the human response back to the agency of God.

f) Oliphint would surely regard certain depictions of God in Scripture as anthropomorphic or anthropopathetic. But instead of doing this on an ad hoc basis, we need to work out a consistent, systematic, and principled hermeutical strategy.


  1. I've seen K. Scott Oliphint's name spelled "Oliphant" a lot, but I thought that the former spelling was correct...

  2. That was my impression as well, but I decided, for better or worse, to follow the spelling used on the website which originated this thread.