Time measures movement. It describes one rotation of the earth on its axis with the sun as a fixed point and defines that movement as 24 hours. Time points to the earth rotating around the sun over 365 single rotations with respect to the sun and calls that one year. While the earth makes its rotating orbit around the sun, its tilt creates temperature shifts across the world, which we call seasons.
When our bodies grow matter and develop, we call this age. When our bodies atrophy and begin to shut down, we too call this age. We define our own age on the basis of the earth’s rotation and orbit around the sun. One orbit of the earth around the sun, one year we gain.
Everything that has a beginning has motion. God created the earth, and so it began to spin and orbit a star we call the sun. The stars and celestial beings exist for the very sake of measuring motion: “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years’” (Gen 1:14).
Time has no substance, or matter of its own. Like a measuring tape expands across a board and defines the board’s length by inches and feet, so do days and years measure the distance the earth moves.
We define inches and feet and metres and yards to describe lengths. We define minutes and hours and days and years and centuries and millennia to describe movements.
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Our belief in the ontological reality of time prevents us from thinking clearly about a number of matters. First, we impute existence to a measurement. But change is the thing that time measures. Time is, therefore, relative to motion. Motion is the thing that time describes.
But if everything has motion, then everything lives in time. Yet if something has no motion nor begins to move, then that something exists outside of time since time measures motion. And herein lies the second murky way we think about time: when we say God is timeless, we imagine that he sits above an orb in which time exists.
That is not the case. The reason why God is timeless is that he never began to exist; he never began to move. He is unmoved and uncaused. He is what he is before all time, world without end.
To say God is timeless means God does not change since time measures change. Theologians call this property of God: immutability. Yet immutability does not entail that God cannot interact with the world. In fact, his immutable or timeless nature compatiblistically corresponds to the world (so Sonderegger).
Here lies a third mistake we sometimes make. We either affirm that God somehow cannot touch the world due to his timeless immutable nature; or we say that God must then somehow change—perhaps by covenantal relationships or by some sort of mutable relational activity in the world.
While these positions rightly attempt to articulate how God can be “in the beginning” (John 1:1) and yet also acting in creation, they overstep the bounds of biblical revelation and right theological reflection upon it.
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Western theology has defined God as being in a state of pure actuality. He has no capacity to change or become something else because he already has realized perfection and any change in him must be for the worse if he is perfect.
When he acts in creation, he therefore undergoes no change. He never started in a state of potentiality that he could pass to actuality. Simply put, God did not possibly have a good plan for the world that he later acted upon. He always had a good plan for humanity which is perfect and eternally acted upon and which we experience as changing, time-bound, and finite creatures.
Stephen Beale explains how this might work: “When God does ‘act’ within His creation He is not undergoing any change in His being. He has not suddenly gone from being potentially merciful to being actually so. Rather, His ‘action’ in our world merely manifests His ongoing eternal actuality.”
These words attempt to convey something that we cannot completely grasp. Pure actuality describes the parameters to understand an infinite, timeless, changeless being. Given our limitations (we cannot conceive of eternity or changeless existence), we can only circumspectively talk about God in this sense.
We must leave mystery mysterious. Such things should bring us to awe, not to skeptical shoulder shrugs and theological comprises such as God’s mutability.
We stand in awe when we hear the timeless one proclaim in time: “I am who I am.” That he is, and that we hear. So we believe as changing time-bound creatures. And we confess that God exists as our immutable timeless creator.