God’s Eternal Time For Us: How Constancy is Better than Immutability

Thomas Torrance, Barth’s greatest English-speaking doctoral student, and lifelong friend, from that point onward, gained many insights from Barth. But he had his own way of articulating dogma; he was his own theologian, so to speak. Torrance had great respect for Barth’s magnum opus the Church Dogmatics; he had such great respect that along with Geoffrey Bromiley, he translated it from Barth’s native Swiss-German tongue into the English. Torrance’s favorite volume of the CD was II.1, on a Doctrine of God. It is in this volume that Barth offers an alternative, or reification of the classical doctrine of divine immutability; Barth calls his treatment of this doctrine, Constancy. As the theologian reads one of Torrance’s most mature books (The Christian Doctrine of God), in regard to the stage of TFT’s thought and development as a theologian, the reader will see how he riffs on Barth’s doctrine of divine constancy but in his own unique way. He writes:

This means that we must think of the constancy of God which is his unchanging eternal Life as characterised by time, not of course our kind of time which is the time of finite created being with beginning and end, and past, present and future, but God’s kind of time which is the time of his eternal Life without beginning and end. While he creates time along with all that is changeable, he does so without any temporal movement in himself. The time of our life is defined by its fleeting creaturely nature, but the time of God’s Life is defined by his everlasting uncreated Nature in which he transcends our temporality while nevertheless holding it within the embrace of his divine time. Just as we distinguish sharply between the uncreated reality of God and the created reality of the world, between the uncreated rationality of God and our created rationality, or between the uncreated Light of God and our created light, so we must distinguish between God’s uncreated time and our created time. On the other hand, just as we think of our creaturely being as contingently grounded upon the eternal being of God, so we must think of our creaturely time as contingently grounded upon the eternal time of God. Thus we may think of the time of our world, which God has created out of nothing along with the world he has made, as unceasingly sustained by him in a created correspondence to the uncreated time of his own eternal Life. And so far from being some kind of timeless eternity or eternal now that devalues or negates time, the real time of God’s eternal Life gives reality and value to the created time of our life through coordinating its contingent temporality with its own movement and constancy. What does this have to say to us about the unchangeableness or constancy of God which is identical with his self-moving eternal Life? The fact that God has time for us in the partnership he maintains with us in which our fleeting time for all its dissimilarity reflects his eternal time, reinforces the conviction that the nature of God’s time is not static but essentially dynamic and as such is the constant power upon which our contingent temporality rests.1

I think at this point it would be helpful to see how Barth, who TFT is writing after, develops a doctrine of the constancy of God. The reader will see where Barth and Torrance converge, and also where they depart in their own unique and prescient ways. The reader might come to see the types of questions both Barth and Torrance are attempting to address, respectively, from their own informing theological pressures. But I want my readers to understand just how close Barth and Torrance are on fundamental doctrinal points. I can think of no better example of that than as we come to their respective doctrines of divine constancy. Barth writes:

But it is not true that the immutable as such is God. The real truth is—and it is very different—that God is “immutable,” and this is the living God in His freedom and love, God Himself. He is what He is in eternal actuality. He never is it only potentially (not even in part). He never is it at any point intermittently. But always at every place He is what He is continually and self-consistently. His love cannot cease to be His love nor His freedom His freedom. He alone could assail, alter, abolish or destroy Himself. But it is just at this point that He is the “immutable” God. For at no place or time can He or will He turn against Himself or contradict Himself, not even in virtue of His freedom or for the sake of His love. What He does in virtue of His freedom for the sake of His love will never be the surrender but always at every point the self-affirmation of His freedom and His love, a fresh demonstration of His life. This self-affirmation is never anywhere an act of holy egotism, but always everywhere an act of the righteousness in which He establishes His glory over all things. And as an act of His righteousness His self-affirmation must be understood as necessary, not subject to any doubt or temptation. The answer, therefore, to the question: “What is immutable?” is: “This living God in His self-affirmation is the immutable.” The immutable is the fact that this God is as the One He is, gracious and holy, merciful and righteous, patient and wise. The immutable is the fact that He is the Creator, Reconciler, Redeemer and Lord. This immutability includes rather than excludes life. In a word it is life. It does not, therefore, need to acquire life from the impulse of the created world, or above all from the emotions of our pious feeling. It not only has nothing whatever to do with the pagan idea of the immobile, which is only a euphemistic description of death, but it is its direct opposite. It does not require, then, and sentimentalisings in sham concealment or embellishment of its terrible reality. For it is not this fearful reality. It is the reality of life and not of death. God’s constancy—which is a better word than the suspiciously negative word “immutability”—is the constancy of His knowing, willing and acting and therefore of His person. It is the continuity, undivertability and indefatigableness in which God both is Himself and also performs His work, maintaining it as such and continually making it His work. It is the self-assurance in which God moves in Himself and in all His works and in which he is rich in Himself and in all His works without either losing Himself or (for fear of this loss) having to petrify in Himself and renounce His movement and His riches. The constancy of God is not then the limit and boundary, the death of His life. For this very reason the right understanding of God’s constancy must not be limited to His presence with creation, as if God in Himself were after all naked “immutability” and therefore in the last analysis death. On the contrary, it is in and by virtue of His constancy that God is alive in Himself and in all His works. The fact that He possesses selfhood and continuity itself makes Him the living One that He is, and is the basis and meaning of His power and might, the inner divine secret of the movement and wealth itself in which He is glorious on His throne and in all the heights and depths of His creation.2

Both Barth and Torrance, respectively, are intent on demonstrating to the Church, that God is not immobile, but that He has an eternal movement, or an eternal time in Himself. Barth, as we have just read goes so far to say that classical sacra doctrina on divine immutability implies a ‘death’ in God; I agree. What we know of God, as both theologians are committed to, is only the Deus revelatus; the God who is revealed. If this is how the Christian first encounters God, as a God who has moved toward us in Jesus Christ, then to think God in static unmoved mover terms indeed would be to think God in terms of a type of death. We only know God as activity, as eternal and gracious movement; we only know God as His prosopon shines on us like the rays of the Sun shine upon the earth. This is the constancy, or stability of God’s life for the Christian knower; it is indeed an ‘unchangeableness,’ but one that is defined by the perichoretic interpenetrative koinonial Life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in processive intimacy. God’s life is an eternal activity of sabbath rest and shalom. Not immobile, but mobile to the point that He graciously stoops to us, gifts us with an echo-life, one in correspondence with His type of Life, in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

It is within this creaturely structuring, within His gracious movement and humanity for us (Deus incarnandus), that we can come to share in the inner reality of that movement as that is funded by the eternal fount of His forever Life of love for the other. This is what characterizes the changelessness, and thus constancy of God’s Life; it is the triunity of time funded by the ineffability of His eternal threeness (de Deo trino) in oneness (de Deo uno). As such, as we are graciously included in that Life by participatio Christi we experience His eternal time as that has been given its total correspondence in the time of His life for us in the temporality of Life, in the skin and bone of Jesus Christ. As the Christian moves from this temporal life into the consummate eternal Life of God there is a seamlessness to it precisely because we aren’t experiencing something different, relative to the two aspects of time, but simply a transition from one sphere, one seen by the faith of Christ, to another sphere, one seen by the sight of Christ for us; both finding their visio Dei in the Light of God’s free life to be for and with us. There is great hope and expectation here; of the sort that the angels long to understand. And so, they observe us in order to gain some semblance of this strange grace of God for whom they serve at His pleasure; even when they don’t fully grasp just how great this God is.

 

1 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 241.  

2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 §31: Study Edition Vol 9 (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 58-9. 

 

One thought on “God’s Eternal Time For Us: How Constancy is Better than Immutability

  1. I appreciate your astute conspectus, including both Barth and Torrance. (This posting is on my “re-read” list.) Thanks, Bobby; well-done.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.