God’s Relationality and Eternity in the Bible: Why I Am Not a Classical Theist

There is a traditional understanding of God,” stretching from the Patristic period through to Modern times, which claims that God is “atemporal” (outside of time) and is “simple,” in that he is pure being, transcending finitude in such a way that all of God’s attributes are essentially one. Christians who are attracted to this understanding of God often appeal to Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of divine simplicity as the model.

I learned this understanding of God as “classical theism,” although I realize that this term can be used in a broader sense. So perhaps I need to say that I am focusing here on the “classical” understanding of “classical theism.”

In this view, God is thought to be unaffected by the world or anything outside of himself. Of course, proponents of this view can’t outright deny that God is Creator (which implies a relationship with creation), yet they often posit that whatever sort of relationship God has with that which is not-God, this does not affect God in any way.

The reasoning is that if God were affected by anything outside of the divine self, this would demean God. This particular idea is central to Aristotle’s understanding of the “unmoved mover” in Metaphysics Book 10 (I wrestled with this chapter in a graduate paper I wrote during my MA studies).

Part of Aristotle’s argument is that God must be immutable (that is, unchanging) because God is perfect; any change in a perfect God would therefore be a degeneration, a change for the worse.

Aristotle also assumed (as did his teacher, Plato) that to be the subject of “action” (to be an agent) is better than to be the object of “passion” (to be the recipient of someone else’s action). Since God is perfect, he must be “impassible,” in that nothing affects him. This is a more technical way of articulating the doctrine of divine immutability.

Many Christian theologians have bought into some version of this understanding of God.

My Encounter with Classical Theism

When I was working on my MA in philosophy, I had to confront the question of what I thought of this version of classical theism.

In my MA thesis I compared Thomas Aquinas and Paul Tillich on the nature of God language (the thesis was entitled “Analogy and Symbol: Contrasting Approaches to the Problem of God Language in Thomas Aquinas and Paul Tillich”).

I didn’t particularly agree with Tillich (though I learned a lot from him), but neither did I find Aquinas’s views adequate.

I delved into primary texts by Aquinas, such as Summa Theologiae and Summa contra Gentiles (among others), exploring Aquinas’s analogia entis or “analogy of being.” This analogy of being (for which Aquinas is famous) grounded his theory of analogical language—how we are able to use language that derives from our experience of the finite world to say anything true about God who is beyond time and finitude.

I had recently taken a year-long course on the Neoplatonic philosopher, Plotinus, where we read his Enneads in Greek; so it was clear to me that Aquinas’s analogia entis was based on Plotinus’s metaphysics, his theory of how finite reality participated in the being of the ultimate reality (which he called the One).

It was also clear to me that Plotinus’s highly abstract understanding of the divine nature (which formed the basis for the view of God in classical theism) contrasted significantly with how God was described in the Bible.

I remember one day reading a particularly illuminating Old Testament passage: Psalm 18:1–19. The psalmist describes his cry for help followed by God coming down from heaven to save him from the waters of chaos that were engulfing him.

I was particularly struck by the theophany in verses 7–15, the dazzling vision of God aroused in anger: “Smoke went up from his nostrils / and devouring fire from his mouth; / glowing coals flamed forth from him” (Psalm 18:8). God rode upon a cherub, bowed the heavens, and came down to deliver the supplicant in cloud and thunder and lightning, parting the waters by the blast of his nostrils.

It was a breathtaking vision. This psalmist had no qualms about describing God in the most outlandish way (so outlandish that Rastafarians could come to use verse 8 as proof that JAH smokes weed); the text piles up images and metaphors to portray just how much God was affected by the suffering of his faithful servant.

That day I decided that classical theism was bankrupt. I was convinced that the “god” of classical theism is not the God of the Bible.

I saw (and continue to see) at least two major problems with the understanding of God in classical theism. My analysis here is from the perspective of a biblical scholar; theologians and philosophers might focus on different issues.

God’s Relationality (and Adaptability)

First of all, the view of God in classical theism simply does not match the way God is portrayed in the Bible, where God enters into genuine relationships with creatures, and is significantly affected (changed) by these relationships. God changes.

I have often heard Christians object: “But the Bible says that God doesn’t change; he is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

This is actually a quote about the historical Jesus, the Word incarnate. Hebrews 13:8 states: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

Furthermore, Luke’s Gospel says: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in maturity [the word can mean in age or in stature] and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:52). Jesus clearly changed.

What can Hebrews mean, then, by saying that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever?

The point is that he is consistently loving and faithful; his character remains constant.

This is the (distorted) truth behind the idea of divine immutability. God is loving and faithful. This unchangeable faithfulness (paradoxically) leads God to be constantly adapting to new situations in order to accomplish his purpose. God’s character leads him to seek the redemption of humanity and the world. This is what, ultimately, leads God to the cross.

I could easily write an entire article on this theme in the Bible, but I won’t do that here (see the recommended books listed at the end of this blog post).

Despite the clear depiction in the Bible of God being affected by creatures—from God being grieved in his heart at the violence before the flood (Genesis 6:6) to God’s “repentance” or change of mind about destroying Israel after the idolatry of the golden calf (Exodus 32:14)—classical theists usually relegate such biblical language to mere metaphor or anthropomorphism.

Most crucially, classical theism is in fundamental contradiction with the central Christian understanding of the incarnation and the atoning death of Jesus.

Is God really “immutable” (= unchangeable) or did the Word actually become flesh? Is God really “impassible” (= unaffected) or has God truly known suffering in the “passion” of Christ?

This is a fundamental point for me, and also for those theologians known as “open theists,” who dissent from the idolatrous, philosophical “god” of classical theism.

God’s Eternity

Then there is the question of God being atemporal or outside of time.

An early articulation of this view is found in Augustine, who described God’s “eternity” (Greek aion) as his changeless mode of being (Confessions Book 11). Augustine was drawing on Plotinus’s treatise, “On Eternity and Time” (Enneads 3.7).

However, the Bible has no conception of an atemporal “eternity”—in either the Old or New Testament. No biblical texts that have the term “eternal” (in English translation) ever mean atemporality (being outside of time). This isn’t just my opinion; it is the view of every reputable biblical scholar I have encountered.

“Eternity” in the Old Testament: Hebrew Olam

The usual Hebrew word for “eternal” or “forever” in the Old Testament is olam. It has a temporal reference, pointing either backward or forward; thus, it means (depending on context) in/from the distant past (long ago) or in/into the distant future (days to come).

Some examples of olam used for the past include Deuteronomy 32:7, which speaks of “days of old,” and Genesis 6:4, which mentions “heroes of old.” Both Genesis 49:26 and Deuteronomy 33:15 use olam to refer to the “ancient mountains” (sometimes poetically translated as “everlasting hills”).

It is often used for the future in Exodus and Leviticus, with the sense of a “perpetual” statute or observance. In Deuteronomy 23:3 olam is used as a synonym for the tenth generation (that is, long into the future). In 1 Samuel 1:22 Hannah dedicates Samuel to serve as a priest “forever” (which means, of course, for his entire life). And Psalm 73:12 says that the wicked are “always” at ease.

There are many synonyms for olam in Hebrew; one such term is netsach which means “enduring” or “perpetual,” as in Psalm 74:3, which mentions the “perpetual ruins” of the temple. It is sometimes translated as “forever,” as in the psalmist’s anguished cry: “Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1)

But there is no concept (or term) in the Old Testament for an atemporal “eternity.”

In order to understand the idea of olam (the most common word rendered “eternal” in Biblical Hebrew), it is helpful to connect it to olam in Modern Hebrew. In Modern Hebrew the term olam has shifted from a temporal reference to a spatial reference. It now means “world,” hence the famous Hebrew motto, tikkun olam, “to establish (= heal) the world.”

If you think of olam as referring to everything you can see up to the horizon, that makes perfect sense (the “world” is everything in your line of sight, into the distance). In Biblical Hebrew, it is as if the writer is looking to the temporal horizon, as far as he can see/ conceptualize, whereas in Modern Hebrew, it is the spatial horizon.

Although olam does not mean literally “forever” or “eternal,” I don’t think we can exclude this meaning from the way the word is sometimes used. In some contexts, it may refer to time continuing on as far as you can imagine, and even beyond that (beyond the horizon)—which would come pretty close to our sense of forever.

By analogy, olam in modern Hebrew does in fact refer to the entire world (even beyond our vision).

What is clear, however, is that olam, even in the extended sense of time (beyond the horizon), would mean “eternal” in the sense of everlasting, that is, infinitely extended time, and not the lack of time (atemporality) as in Platonic thought. It never means beyond time; it is anachronistic to make Old Testament texts which have the English words “eternal” or “eternity” refer to anything non-temporal.

“Eternity” in the New Testament: Greek Aion

The Greek aion is a bit different. This is the word often translated “eternity” in the New Testament. I am an Old Testament scholar, so this is not my primary expertise.

But here is what I understand: The term aion in Classical Greek refers to life (or life-span), while in the New Testament it refers to an “age” (whether a definite or indefinite period of time).

Jesus says in the Great Commission that he would be with us even until the end of the aion (that is, the age). And we have the doctrine of the present age/aion and the age/aion to come (it is anachronistic to make these ages mean temporality in opposition to atemorality).

The phrase “eternal life” (that is, life of the aion) in the New Testament refers primarily to the new quality of (restored) life in God’s kingdom. This is why N. T. Wright translates zoen aionion in John 6:27 as “the life of God’s coming age” in his Kingdom New Testament.

I certainly believe that the life of the age to come will go on forever. This isn’t based on the word itself, but on other biblical teaching, such as the immortal nature of the resurrected body that Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians 15.

God Has Entered Time and Space

It is an open question whether prior to the creation of the space-time universe God was outside of (beyond) time (the Bible never addresses that). However, once God created the cosmos he entered into a real relationship with creatures, which involved him entering time—and also space, if we take seriously the Old Testament notion of heaven as God’s throne room (the phrase “heaven and earth” describes the created cosmos).

So, ever since creation, God has become temporal. And God is significantly affected by his relationship with creatures. The Bible affirms that the risen Jesus, even after his ascension, still has the nail prints from crucifixion in his hands. Likewise, the Creator of the universe has been unalterably changed by being creator—even before the incarnation.

And, contrary to Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus—and classical theism—this is not to denigrate God.

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God whom I worship, not the “god” (falsely so-called) of the philosophers.

Readings on God’s Relationship to the Created Order

If you want suggestions for readings that address some of these topics, I would recommend the following.

Terence Fretheim on God’s Relationship with Creation

Fretheim is the very best Old Testament theologian on God’s genuine relationship to creation as portrayed in Scripture. I wrote an appraisal of Fretheim’s contribution to creation theology here.

Fretheim and I have both been asked if we are “open theists.” We have both given similar answers, admitting that there is a clear resonance between our understanding of God and the position known as open theism. The difference is that we come to our understanding of God through biblical studies, not philosophy or theology.

Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984). This is Fretheim’s first book on the subject; short and insightful.

Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005). This is Fretheim’s magnum opus, tracing the theme throughout the Old Testament. I find his close reading of the biblical text, with his theological and ethical reflections, to be quite wonderful.

Terence E. Fretheim, God So Enters into Relationships That . . . : A Biblical View (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2020). This is Fretheim’s most recent book on the subject (published the year he died).

Nicholas Wolterstorff on “God Everlasting”

Nicholas Wolterstorff, “God Everlasting,” in God and the Good: Essays in Honor of Henry Stob, ed. Clifton Orlebeke and Lewis B. Smedes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 181–203.

Wolterstorff’s article is a classic, but the book is hard to get hold of. The article is reprinted in in Wolterstorff, Inquiring about God: Selected Essays, vol. 1 (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 133–156.

Wolterstorff explains: “All Christian theologians agree that God is without beginning and without end. The vast majority have held, in addition, that God is eternal, existing outside of time. Only a small minority have contended that God is everlasting, existing within time. In what follows I shall take up the cudgels for that minority, arguing that God as conceived and presented by the biblical writers is a being whose own life and existence is temporal.”

You could also check out Wolterstorff’s essay, “God Is Everlasting,” in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger (5th ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 259–265.

Other Helpful Readings

J. R. Lucas, “The Vulnerability of God,” in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger (5th ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 294–301. A most helpful article on open theism and its implications for thinking about evil. It is in the same volume as the Wolterstorff essay listed above. One of the editors of the volume, David Basinger, is a superb philosopher and valued faculty colleague at Roberts Wesleyan University, where he also serves as Chief Academic Officer.

Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: An Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000). This book carefully analyzes most of the biblical texts that are debated between classical and open theists to see which position they best support.

Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001). I’ve listed this book primarily because of its title, which was chosen in explicit contrast to Aristotle’s “unmoved mover.” I first heard the term “open theism” (which was coined in 1994) from Clark Pinnock in 1996. He heard me give a presentation on the depiction of God in Genesis 1 (which became the basis for the last two chapters of my book, The Liberating Image). He came up to me and said, “So you’re an open theist.” I had never heard the term before that; I had to ask him what it meant.

Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Doweners Grove, IL: InterVarsity , 1994). The authors of this book described their position as “the open view of God,” which led to the term “open theism” being coined.

David Basinger, The Case for Freewill Theism: A Philosophical Assessment (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996). Basinger uses the term “freewill theism” for the position I have called “open theism.” Part of the issue is terminological; but it also represents a difference of emphasis, since Basinger’s book focuses primarily on the relationship of divine sovereignty to free will. He even uses the designation “classical theism” to describe three quite different theologically orthodox positions concerning the nature of God’s sovereignty (theological determinism, limited compatibilism, and freewill theism).

William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1994). In this accessible book, Placher understands God as willing to risk vulnerability in order to fully love creation. He begins by explicitly examining our doctrine of God, then explores the Gospel of Mark, and concludes with implications for Christian discipleship. In chapter 2 (“The Eternal God”), he examines (and refutes) the idea that God is timeless.

God and Time: Four Views, ed, Gregory E. Ganssle (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001). This book has essays by four philosophers on different ways we might think of God’s relationship to time (one of essays is by Nicholas Wolterstorff).

I am grateful to Dave Basinger and Jeff McPherson, my colleagues at Roberts Wesleyan University, for helpful feedback on and suggestions for this blog post.

On Deconstruction and Reconstruction of the Christian Faith

There has been a lot of talk over the past twenty years or so about “deconstructing” the Christian faith (especially its evangelical versions). The problem, however, is that sometimes there is no substantial reconstruction that aims to recover the authentic, classical faith tradition—beyond its distortions.

I Began Deconstruction as an Undergraduate Theology Student

Although I would not have described it that way at the time, I was engaged in deconstruction (and reconstruction) of my faith from the very start of my undergraduate theological studies in Jamaica. I was blessed with a pastor at Grace Missionary Church and with professors at Jamaica Theological Seminary who welcomed healthy questioning and modeled an open and generous—fully orthodox—Christianity.

I have come to realize that this openness to questioning inherited traditions was also a function of doing theology in the Majority World, since both professors and students were vividly aware of the need for contextualization of the faith for the sake of the Caribbean church. We were thus prepared to challenge received versions of our church traditions, especially when they were shaped by Eurocentric or American biases. Professors and (especially) students in my Jamaican context were unafraid to dismantle what we thought was unhelpful, while seeking to be grounded in a better version of the core tradition of our faith.

As a result of my formative theological education in Jamaica, the deconstruction-reconstruction dialectic has been central to all my teaching and writing over the years.

Deconstruction and Reconstruction in My Writing

As a biblical scholar, committed to the renewal of the church, I have typically challenged received interpretations of Scripture in my books and articles. My approach has been to try and show that these interpretations are not rooted in a best reading of Scripture nor are they helpful for faithful living in our complex world.

To that end I have written books on a holistic Christian worldview (The Transforming Vision), the relevance of the Bible in our postmodern context (Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be), humanity created in God’s image (The Liberating Image), new creation eschatology (A New Heaven and a New Earth), and Abraham’s silent attempt to sacrifice Isaac in the context of the Bible’s prayers of vocal protest (Abraham’s Silence).

In each case, I have attempted to propose better interpretations of these topics than what I found in the received tradition—better in that they arise from more careful reading of Scripture and that they have transformative implications for human life in the real world.

Deconstruction and Reconstruction in My Teaching—Toward a Christian Worldview

This dialectic of deconstruction and reconstruction is at the core of a signature course on a Christian worldview that I have been teaching (and constantly developing) for many decades, focusing on biblical theology in dialogue with the contemporary world.

The early versions of this course (which I taught when I was a campus minister in Southern Ontario, Canada) led to a co-authored book with Brian Walsh, called The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (IVP, 1984).

Next year I will begin working on a new version of that book, based on the way the course has evolved over the years. My tentative title for the new book is Shaped by God’s Story: Christian Worldview in a Global Key (also with IVP, set to be released on the fortieth anniversary of The Transforming Vision).

The course challenges students to rethink their orientation to life by re-reading Scripture as a grounding story that takes seriously our pain and our hopes. The course combines engaged biblical interpretation with historical analysis of the church’s sacred/secular dualism, the western myth of conquest and progress, and the postmodern condition, while encouraging students to explore their calling in God’s world.

I’ve been teaching this course since 2002 for undergraduates at Roberts Wesleyan University under the title “Exploring the Christian Worldview.” I’ve also taught a version of the course since 2011 for graduate students at Northeastern Seminary, where it is called “Being in the Story.”

More than any other course, this one often leads to student disorientation. As the course progresses, it is common for students to exclaim with dismay, “Oh no, I need to unlearn everything I have been taught!” I usually point out that they may need to unlearn some things, but that they typically have a pretty solid and stable core of faith to build on.

Starting with Trust, before Deconstruction

I have learned not to begin with deconstruction. A hermeneutic of suspicion is an important second step in the learning process; but we need to start with a hermeneutic of trust (and trust is where we end too). First, I offer students a more excellent way; then comes the critique of unhelpful tradition.

The metaphor that I use to explain my pedagogy is as follows: I begin by offering students the rich, plush carpet of biblical faith, then I gently begin to pull the threadbare rug of bad theology and inadequate biblical interpretation out from under them. They usually step quite eagerly onto the plush carpet.

At the end of one memorable course in Old Testament theology, which I taught at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology in Jamaica while on sabbatical, a student stood up on the last day of class and said (with a huge smile on his face): “Professor, you destroyed my theology!”

Of course, he had found something better. That’s the way deconstruction ought to work.

Panel Discussion of Abraham’s Silence at the Society of Biblical Literature, November 2022

My book Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God was published by Baker Academic in November 2021.

There will be a panel discussion on the book at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in Denver, on November 21, 2022. There will be six reviewers, three Jewish biblical scholars and three Christian biblical scholars.

The panel discussion in Denver is jointly sponsored by two SBL program units: The Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures and The National Association of Professors of Hebrew.

I will give a response to the papers. As part of my response, I am considering sharing a “script” I have written of what Abraham might have said to God in place of the silent obedience recorded in Genesis 22 (we could think of it as the Aqedah in an alternative timeline).

If you will be in Denver, you are cordially invited to attend the session, 4:00–6:30 pm, Monday, November 21, 2022.

I have been pondering the topic of suffering, and appropriate prayer in the face of suffering, for a very long time, primarily through studying various biblical passages that address this issue. My focus has been on the lament psalms, the book of Job, and Abraham’s strange silence in Genesis 22.

I’ve given many talks and papers over the years on lament, Job, and Genesis 22, but I began working on integrating my reflections on these topics during my 2016 sabbatical in Australia. Everything came together in the last couple of years, resulting in the final form of the book.

You can access the Table of Contents and the Introduction of the book here (provided by the publisher).

An Earlier Panel Discussion on the Book

I was also privileged to be a respondent to a (virtual) panel discussion on Abraham’s Silence at the annual meeting of Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society in March 2022. There were four reviewers.

Reviews of Abraham’s Silence

The book has begun to be reviewed in journals and on the internet. Here is a link to some reviews.