The Eternal Now of Augustine and Calvin

I John 1:20

For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.

The battleground between the open theists and the classical theologians is often fought on the possibility of God seeing the future.  However, the mechanism of how God sees the future is often overlooked.  For a Calvin or Augustine the future must actually exist as a prerequisite of God’s knowing the future.  The eternal now is some kind of other dimension in which God sees the future as clearly as he sees the present.  He also sees the future as existing and not just some premonition of things to come.

In I John 1:20 what are the “all things” that God knows?  If something is not yet made or born is that a thing to be known?  The classical theologian must believe the future is already set and not only set but in existence in the “eternal now” of God.

“To know something exists” or to observe an existing object is a different knowledge than to imagine or perceive the existence of a future object.  If a person was foreknown or fated to come into existence than still God’s perception of that individual would change the moment he actually came into existence.  Instead of imagining what a person might look like then God would actually observe the real person.  If God were only imagining a a person, than God’s knowledge about the person would change the moment He sees the real person.  This would be a change in God’s knowledge.  In the eternal now the person must be observed as actually existing and not just potentially existing.

Both Calvin and Augustine were aware of these logical existence problems and addressed them in their writing.  Both believed the real man is seen continually by the eyes of God, not just a future image of the man.  Not only that, but God does not remember what I looked like as a baby or a young adult, God is actually seeing the baby or young adult in the eternal now.

An extended quote from Calvin is presented for inspection:

The predestination by which God adopts some to the hope of life, and adjudges others to eternal death, no man who would be thought pious ventures simply to deny; but it is greatly caviled at, especially by those who make prescience its cause. We, indeed, ascribe both prescience and predestination to God; but we say, that it is absurd to make the latter subordinate to the former. When we attribute prescience to God, we mean that all things always were, and ever continue, under his eye; that to his knowledge there is no past or future, but all things are present, and indeed so present, that it is not merely the idea of them that is before him (as those objects are which we retain in our memory), but that he truly sees and contemplates them as actually under his immediate inspection.

Calvin, John, Institutes of Christian Religion,trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008-11), 609-610 (Book III, Chapter 21, Section 5)

This idea of existing in the eternal now is what Calvin says “all things always were.”  Each person also exists in each stage of development in which he existed.  God sees me as a baby, a young teenager and as an old man.  He does not remember what I looked like when I was a baby he actually observed my physical body as a baby:  he truly sees and contemplates them as actually under his immediate inspection.

In the Calvinist universe, death is not swallowed up forever, but it lasts forever in the eternal now.  The tears of pain last forever and the Lord never wipes all the tears away.

Isaiah 25:8

He will swallow up death forever, And the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces;

When theologians talk about God not having a past or future and living in the eternal present, this a reference to the “eternality” of God.  (that to his knowledge there is no past or future, but all things are present,)  Of course when the average Christian is told about the eternality of God he interprets this as the everlasting God.

Scripture refers to an everlasting God. According to Scripture God lives in temporal time.  This is not just how we perceive God, this is how he exists.

Revelation 4:8

“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!”
ο παντοκρατωρ ο ην και ο ων και ο ερχομενος

This is three tenses of the word “to be”, one in the past, one in the present and one in the future.  God was in the past, is now in the present and will be in the future.  This is not the God in the eternal now. The eternal now of God would be translated, He who is, and is and is.  Notice the Scripture is not saying this is how God appears to you, Scripture is saying this is how God operates.

An important premise of the eternal now is that God’s knowledge does not change at all.  If I exist in everlasting time and know everything that happened in the past, everything happening now and everything that will happen in the future, my knowledge still changes.  I saw my brother as a baby but now I see him as an adult.  What I see now is a change from what he was in the past and the image I see now is before me not just a memory in my mind. God also observes the universe in this manner.

In order to avoid this kind of knowledge of change and affirm the immutability of God Calvin must say he truly sees and contemplates them as actually under his immediate inspection.  He does not imagine them as happening in the future or remember them as they happened in the past he actually observes them as happening now.  Calvinists often propose the omnipotent God proposition.  Is it not possible that God could see all events in the eternal now.  Whether this is possible, I do not know.  The real issue is how does God describe his knowledge of events past, present and future?

Calvin proposes a God who does not know the past or the future.  How many Christians would affirm this naturally corollary of the eternal now: there is no past or future for God?  This is not the everlasting God of Revelation 4.  This is the God which Calvin says that to his knowledge there is no past or future, but all things are present.

Without any doubt Augustine was the most cited and admired Church Father for Calvin. His doctrines of the attributes of God, sin and grace,  ecclesiology, and to some degree the sacraments, are Augustine’s doctrines. Calvin would not hesitate to use Augustine’s words as his own.

“Augustine is so wholly with me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so … out of his writings”

Calvin, “A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God,” trans. by Henry Cole, Calvin’s Calvinism, Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing, 1987), p. 38;

In the 1559 edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin quotes Augustine 400 times. In a reflection of the concept of the “eternal now” Calvin seems to paraphrase Augustine’s words:

It is not as if the knowledge of God were of various kinds, knowing in different ways things which as yet are not, things which are, and things which have been. For not in our fashion does He look forward to what is future, quite different and far and profoundly remote from our way of thinking. For he does not pass from this to that by transition of thought, but beholds all things with absolute unchangeableness; so that of those things which emerge in time, the future indeed, are not yet, and the present are now, and the past no longer are; but all of these are by Him comprehended in His stable and eternal presence.

Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, trans. Marcus Dods. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 2. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.)  Book XI, c.21, p 364

If God was in temporal time, he observes things in different ways as as yet are not, things which are, and things which have been.  However, according to Augustine he does not see things in this way at all.  He sees everything as existing now.  But Scripture describes God’s being as Who was and is and is to come.  (Rev 4:8)

In order for God to see all things in the same way, observing past events like they are present and future events as they are in the present, these past and future things would have to exist.  In Isaiah, God says he declares and then makes things happen that are not yet done.

Isaiah 46:10

Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done,
Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure,

If some things are not yet done then the future does not exist in the eternal now even for God.  God always presents himself in Scripture as being in temporal time.  He never presents himself as in the movie “Back to the Future” as being able to return to past events and go forward to future events and then return to the present.  The Classical Theologians, Calvin and Augustine are wrong.  God does not exist in the “Eternal Now.”

 

 

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