God “lives in linear time with us”?

July 5, 2012

Perhaps not “for everyone,” but at least for young, attractive people.

In John Goldingay’s For Everyone commentary on Genesis 6:5-8 (a text included in this Sunday’s scripture reading on Noah and the flood), Goldingay describes four “astonishing” reactions from God to the world’s violence and sinfulness.

The first is regret at having created humanity. This is extraordinary because you cannot regret something unless you had not foreseen it, which implies that the developments we have been reading about in Genesis have taken God by surprise. Once again, Genesis raises a question about our assumption that God knows everything, so that there is nothing God has not foreseen. The Old Testament implies that God quite often has surprises, usually unpleasant ones. It also makes clear that God is able to know what will happen in the future (and is thus able to reveal it to people), but God seems not always to exercise that capacity and instead lives in linear time with us. God is eternal in the sense of living through all time, but God is not timeless. God mostly lives in the present and thus can be taken aback by things, but God is not caught by events in such a way as not to be able to cope with things. God has infinite capacity to handle whatever happens, and God is involved in a responsive relationship with the world.[1]

I don’t quote this passage because I “agree” that God’s foreknowledge is limited—or even that God places a self-imposed limit on what he knows. But I do agree, along with Goldingay, that this is what the Bible implies. And, by all means, let’s deal, first, with what the Bible actually says (or implies)—before we spackle over it with our tidy theology. I gather that this is what Goldingay would say, too.

When dealing with classic Bible passages like Genesis 6 or Jonah 3—both of which suggest that God changes his mind in response to new information—I would say, and have said many times in the past, that this is simply anthropomorphism: the Bible writers are ascribing to God human personality traits so that we can relate to him better. But darn that Goldingay! He anticipates this response in the next paragraph:

Does the Bible simply speak of God having surprises and regretting things only because that is how it looks to us? Is God simply portrayed as if God were a human being? This seems to involve deciding what must be true of God on the basis of what we think must be true, rather than on the basis of what the Bible says. If the Bible does not mean it when it says God regrets things, why should we assume it means it when it says other humanlike things about God, such as that God loves us?[2]

Deciding what must be true of God on the basis of what we think must be true, rather than on the basis of what the Bible says… Yikes! I have no clever reply to this, except to concede that I’m sure he’s right.

Darn you, John Goldingay! And thank you for challenging me.

1. John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2010), 95-6.

2. Ibid., 96.

2 Responses to “God “lives in linear time with us”?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree with Goldingay on at least 2 points. First, we have to let the Bible define what God is like and then build theology accordingly, not vice versa. Second, I don’t think the Bible is speaking anthropomorphically when it says what God does or thinks or says. After all, we are made in his image. Also, a great big chunk of the Bible could not be taken “literally” were anthropomorphism the case. Again, let the Bible speak, not some “theological construct.”

    What is most interesting, though, is God’s “regret” about something he foreknew. Here we do have specific biblical passages about God “calling the end from the beginning,” and that we were “chosen before the foundation of the world” and the like, which leads to the belief of foreknowledge biblically, as opposed to in an “ivory tower.” So regret does seem problematic.

    I have a picture on the subject, though it is certainly weaker than whatever the reality actually is. Consider a playwright. Once he is finished writing the play, he “knows the end from the beginning.” But supposed he, like Hitchcock, also includes himself as one of the actors in the play (except not a cameo role). When it gets to a specific point in the play, the actor responds to whatever the scene is in which he is present at that moment. The ultimate outcome of the play does not override that; in fact, that response is instrumental to how the play ultimately turns out. Except that God is not “acting”–that is really how he feels when he is actually confronted with the prevailing, sweeping immorality of his creation at that point in time.


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