Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"Horizon" Moves As We Move: Comfort for Distressing Bible Readers

it moves as we move

Isn't it comforting to know that "horizon" in our biblical interpretive act is not grimly and hopelessly fixed but rather fluid?  

"The word horizon does not have precisely the same meaning as 'presupposition' or even 'point of view'," says Anthony C. Thiselton. Rather, "it moves as we move, and can expand its scope." Whereas "presupposition" suggests a fixed, defensive standpoint, "horizon" permits negotiation, whether with a text or with a person. It allows self-correction, as reading and listening to a text reshape our horizon and it also allows "expansion of vision, as it allows us to see more of God and human life."

Reference: The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology, sec. "Horizon." / Anthony. C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons. New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein, 1980. (Esp. chapter 11 on the thought of Gadamer regarding the distance and fusion of horizons. p.293-326)

Friday, February 9, 2018

Oh, For A Closer Walk With God! by William Cowper

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And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him. Gen.5:24 (KJV)

Oh! for a closer walk with GOD,
     A calm and heav'nly frame;
A light to shine upon the road
     That leads me to the Lamb!

Where is the blessedness I knew
     When first I saw the LORD?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
     Of JESUS, and his word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoy'd
     How sweet their mem'ry still!
But they have left an aching void,
     The world can never fill.

Return, O holy Dove, return,
     Sweet messenger of rest;
I hate the sins that made thee mourn,
     And drove thee from my breast.

The dearest idol I have known,
     Whate'er that idol be;
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
     And worship only thee.

So shall my walk be close with GOD,
     Calm and serene my frame;
So purer light shall mark the road
     That leads me to the Lamb.

William Cowper, Walking With God

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

On Meditating the Law of the LORD Day and Night [Psalm 1:2] by Thomas Watson (1620-1686)

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Psalm 1:2
But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.[KJV]
כִּ֤י אִ֥ם בְּתֹורַ֥ת יְהוָ֗ה חֶ֫פְצֹ֥ו וּֽבְתֹורָתֹ֥ו יֶהְגֶּ֗ה יֹומָ֥ם וָלָֽיְלָה׃
λλ’ ν τ νμ κυρου τ θλημα ατο κα ν τ νμ ατο μελετσει μρας κα νυκτς.[LXX] 

Excerpt from Thomas Watson, Puritan Sermons, vol. 2, pp. 61-62.

"Labour to remember what you read [cf. Matt. 13:4, 19].... The memory should be like the chest in the ark, where the Law was put.... Some can better remember an item of news than a line of Scripture; their memories are like these ponds, where frogs live, but the fish die....

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In meditation there must be a fixing of the thoughts upon the object.... Meditation is the concoction of Scripture: reading brings a truth into our head, meditation brings it into our heart: reading and meditation must, like Castor and Pollux, appear together. Meditation without reading is erroneous; reading without meditation is barren.

The bee sucks the flower, then works it in the hive, and so turns it to honey: by reading we suck the flower of the Word, by meditation we work it in the hive of our mind, and so it turns to profit. Meditation is the bellows of the affection: 'while I was musing the fire burned (KJV)a fire would kindle in my meditation (Brenton LXX)θερμνθη  καρδα μου ντς μου κα ν τ μελτ μου (LXX) ' (Ps. 39:3). The reason we come away so cold from reading the Word is because we do not warm ourselves at the fire of meditation' Thomas Watson, Puritan Sermons, vol. 2, pp. 61-62.

Let Us Sing And Pray The Psalter! by St. Athanasius (4th century)

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Briefly, then, if indeed any more is needed to drive home the point, the whole divine Scripture is the teacher of virtue and true faith, but the Psalter gives a picture of the spiritual life. 

And, just as one who draws near to an earthly king observes the formalities in regard to dress and bearing and the correct forms of words lest, transgressing in these matters, he be deemed a boor, so he who seeks to live the good life and learn about the Saviour’s conduct in the body is by the reading of this holy book first put in mind of his own soul’s condition and then supplied with fit words for a suppliant’s use. 

For it is a feature of this book that the Psalms which compose it are of many different sorts. Some such as 73, 78, 114, and 115, are narrative in form; some are hortatory, like 32, 97, and 103; some are prophetic, for example, 22, 45, 47, and 110; some, in whole or part, are prayers to God, as are 6, 16, 54, 102; some are confessions, notably the 51st, some denounce the wicked, like 14; while yet others, such as 8, 98, 117, 125, and many more, voice thanksgiving, praise, and jubilation, Psalm 66 alone of these having special reference to the Resurrection of the Lord.

It is possible for us, therefore, to find in the Psalter not only the reflection of our own soul’s state, together with precept and example for all possible conditions, but also a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of life’s occasions, words both of repentance and of thankfulness, so that we fall not into sin; for it is not for our actions only that we must give account before the judge, but also for our every idle word. 

Suppose, then, for example, that you want to declare anyone to be blessed; you find the way to do it in Psalm 1, and likewise in 32, 41, 112, 119, and 128. If you want to rebuke the conspiracy of the Jews against the Saviour, you have Psalm 2. If you are persecuted by your own family and opposed by many, say Psalm 3; and when you would give thanks to God at your affliction’s end, sing 4 and 75 and 116. 

When you see the wicked wanting to ensnare you and you wish your prayer to reach God’s ears, then wake up early and sing 5; and if you feel yourself beneath the cloud of His displeasure, you can say 6 and 38. If any plot against you, as did Ahithophel against David,, and someone tells you of it, sing Psalm 7, and put your trust in God Who will deliver you.

Contemplating humanity’s redemption and the Saviour’s universal grace, sing Psalm 8 to the Lord; and with this same Psalm or the 19th you may thank Him for the vintage. For victory over the enemy and the saving of created things, take not glory to yourself but, knowing that it is the Son of God Who has thus brought things to a happy issue, say to Him Psalm 9; and, if any wishes to alarm you, the 11th, still trusting in the Lord. When you see the boundless pride of many, and evil passing great, so that among men (so it seems) no holy thing remains, take refuge with the Lord and say Psalm 12. 

And if this state of things be long drawn out, be not faint-hearted, as though God had forgotten you, but call upon Him with Psalm 27. Should you hear others blaspheme the providence of God, do not join with them in their profanity but intercede with God, using the 14th and the 53rd. And if, by way of contrast, you want to learn what sort of person is citizen of heaven’s kingdom, then sing Psalm 15.

When, again, you need to pray against your enemies and those who straiten you, Psalms 17, 86, 88, and 140 will all meet your need; and if you want to know how Moses prayed, you have the 90th.[Headed in the Septuagint, A Prayer of Moses, Man of God.] 

When you have been delivered from these enemies and oppressors, then sing Psalm 18; and when you marvel at the order of creation and God’s good providence therein and at the holy precepts of the Law, 19 and 24 will voice your prayer; while 20 will give you words to comfort and to pray with others in distress. 

When you yourself are fed and guided by the Lord and, seeing it, rejoice, the 23rd awaits you. Do enemies surround you? Then lift up your heart to God and say Psalm 25, and you will surely see the sinners put to rout. If they persist, their murderous intent unslaked, then let man’s judgement go and pray to God, the Only Righteous, that He alone will judge according unto right, using Psalms 26 and 35 and 43. 

If your foes press yet harder and become a veritable host, that scorns you as not yet anointed, be not afraid, but sing again Psalm 27 [The title of Psalm 27 in the Greek is Of David, before he was annointed. The Christian reference is to chrismation, i.e., Confirmation, which was conferred as part of the same rite with Baptism in the early Church]. 

Pay no attention either to the weakness of your own humanity or to the brazenness of their attack, but cry unceasingly on God, using Psalm 28. And when you want the right way of approach to God in thankfulness, with spiritual understanding sing Psalm 29. And finally, when you dedicate your home, that is your soul in which you receive the Lord and the house of your senses, in which corporeally your spirit dwells, give thanks and say the 30th and, from the Gradual Psalms [Psalms 119 – 133] , the 127th.

Again, when you find yourself hated and persecuted by all your friends and kinsfolk because of your faith in Christ, do not despair on this account nor be afraid of them, but go apart and, looking to the future, sing Psalm 31. And when you see people baptized and ransomed from this evil world, be filled with wonder at the love of God for men, and in thanksgiving for them sing the 32nd. 

And whenever a number of you want to sing together, being all good and upright men, then use the 33rd. When you have fallen among enemies but have escaped by wise refusal of their evil counsel, then also gather holy men together and sing with them the 34th. 

And when you see how zealous are the lawless in their evil-doing, think not the evil is innate in them, as some false teachers say, but read Psalm 36 and you will see they are themselves the authors of their sin. And if you see these same wicked men trying, among other evils, to attack the weak and you wish to warn their victims to pay no heed to them, nor envy them, since they will soon be brought to nought, both to yourself and others say the 37th.

When, on the other hand, it is your own safety that is in question, by reason of the enemy’s attacks, and you wish to bestir yourself against him, say the 39th; and if, when he attacks, you then endure afflictions, and wish to learn the value of endurance, sing Psalm 40. 

When you see people in poverty, obliged to beg their bread, and you want to show them pity, you can applaud those who have already helped them and incite others to like works of mercy by using 41. Then again, if you are aflame with longing for God, be not disturbed at the reviling of your enemies but, knowing the immortal fruit that such desire shall bear, comfort your soul and ease your pains with hope in God, and say the 42nd. 

When you wish to recall in detail the loving-kindnesses which God showed to the fathers, both in their exodus from Egypt and in the wilderness, and to reflect how good God is and how ungrateful are men, you have the 44th, the 78th, the 89th, the 105th, 106th, 107th, and also the 114th and 115th. And the 46th will supply your need when after deliverance from afflictions you flee to God, and want to give Him thanks and tell of all His loving mercy shown towards yourself.

But suppose now that you have sinned and, having been put to confusion, are repenting and begging for forgiveness, then you have the words of confession and repentance in Psalm 51. Or you have been slandered, perhaps, before an evil king, and you see the slanderer boasting of his deed: then go away and say Psalm 52. And when they persecute and slander you, as did the Ziphites and the strangers to King David [1 Kings 23:13ff], be not disturbed but with full confidence in God sing praise to Him, using Psalms 54 and 56. 

If still the persecution follows hard on you, and he who seeks your life enters (though he knows it not) the very cave in which you hide [1 Kings 24:3], still you must not fear; for even in such extremity as this you have encouragement in Psalm 57 and also in the 142nd. 

The plotter, it may be, gives orders that a watch be kept over your house, and yet you manage to escape; give thanks to God, then, and let Psalm 59 be written on your heart, as on a pillar, as a memorial of your deliverance. And if not only your enemies cast you in the teeth but those also whom you thought to be your friends reproach and slander you and hurt you sorely for a time, you can still call upon God for help, using Psalm 55. 

Against hypocrites and those who glory in appearances, say for their reproach the 58th. But against those whose enmity is such that they would even take away your life, you must simply oppose your own obedience to the Lord, having no fear at all but all the more submitting to His will as they grow fiercer in their rage, and your form of words for this will be the 62nd Psalm. 

Should persecution drive you to the desert, fear not as though you were alone in it, for God is with you, and there at daybreak you may sing to Him the 63rd. And if even there the fear of foes and their unceasing plots pursues you, be they never so many or so insistent in their search for you, still you must not yield; for the toy arrows of a child will be enough to wound them, while Psalms 64, 65, 70, and 71 are on your lips.

The 65th Psalm will meet your need, whenever you desire to sing praise to God: and if you want to teach any one about the Resurrection, sing the 66th. When asking mercy from the Lord, praise Him with the 67th. When you see wicked men enjoying prosperity and peace and good men in sore trouble, be not offended or disturbed at it but say Psalm 73. 

When God is angry with His people, you have wise words of comfort in Psalm 74. When you have occasion to testify concerning God, 9, 71, 75, 92, 105 to 108, 111, 118, 126, 136, and 138 all fit the case; and Psalm 76, when used intelligently, provides you with an answer for the heathen and the heretics, showing that the knowledge of God is not with them at all, but only in the Church. 

And when the enemy takes possession of your place of refuge, even though sorely harassed and afflicted, do not despair but pray: and when your crying has been heard, give thanks to God, using Psalm 77. And if they have profaned the house of God and slain the saints, throwing their bodies to the birds of prey, do not be crushed or frightened at such cruelty, but, suffering with those that suffer it, plead you for them with God, using Psalm 79.

Psalms 81 and 95 are suitable if you want to sing on a festival, together with other servants of the Lord; and when the enemy once more muster round you, threatening God’s House and joining forces against His holy ones, do not you be frightened of either their numbers or their strength, for you have a very anchor of hope available in Psalm 83. 

If, moreover, you behold the House of God and His eternal dwelling, and have a longing for them, as the Apostle had, then say the 84th; and when at length their anger is abated and you are free again, voice your thanksgiving in the 85th and in the 116th. To see the difference between the Church and schism and to confound schismatics, you can say 87. To encourage yourself and others in the fear of God and to show how fearless is the soul that hopes in Him, say 91.

Do you want to give thanks on the Lord’s Day? Then say the 24th; if on a Monday, then the 95th; and if on a Friday, your words of praise are in the 93rd, for it was when the Crucifixion was accomplished that the House of God was built, for all the enemy attempted to prevent it, so it is fitting we should sing on Friday a song of victory, such as that Psalm is. 

Psalm 96 is apt, if God’s House has been captured and destroyed and then re-built; and when the land has rest from war and peace returns, sing that The Lord is King in 97. You want to sing on Wednesday? The Psalm then is 94; for it was on the fourth day from the Sabbath [This Psalm is headed in the Septuagint, A Psalm of David for the fourth day from do Sabbath] that the Lord through His betrayal entered on His Passion, by which He should redeem us and by the which He triumphed gloriously. 

So when you read in the Gospel how on the Wednesday the jews took counsel against the Lord, seeing Him thus boldly challenging the devil on our behalf, sing the words of this Psalm 94. And again, when you see the providence and power of God in all things and want to instruct others in His faith and obedience, get them first to say the 100th Psalm. And when you have yourself experienced His power in judgement (for always His justice is tempered by His mercy) the next Psalm [101] will express your need.

If through the weakness of your nature and the strain of life you find yourself at times downcast and poor, sing for your consolation Psalm 102, and use the two that follow it [103, 104] to lift your heart in thankful praise to God, as in and through all circumstances we should always do. Psalms 105, 107, 113, 117, 135, and 146 to 150 not only show the reasons why God should be praised, but tell you how to do it. 

Have you faith, as the Lord bade, and believe in the prayers you utter? Then say the 116th Psalm, from the tenth verse on. You feel that, like the Apostle, you can now press forward, forgetting all the things that lie behind? [Phil 3:14] Then you have the fifteen Gradual Psalms [Psalms 119 – 133] for every step of your advance.

Another time, perhaps, you find you have been led astray by others’ arguments-well, then, the moment you perceive it, stop your sinning, sit down and weep, as they did of old by Babylon’s waters, using the words of Psalm 137. Since it is precisely by being tempted that one’s worth is proved, Psalm 139 will meet your need when you thank God for testing safely past. 

And if the enemy once more gets hold of you and you desire to be free, then say 140. For prayer and supplication, sing Psalms 5, 141 to 143, and 146. Has some Goliath risen up against the people and yourself? Fear not, but trust in God, as David did, and sing his words in Psalm 144. Then, marvelling at God’s kindnesses to everyone and mindful of His goodness to yourself and all, praise Him, again in David’s words, with Psalm 105. 

You want to sing to Him? Use 96 and 98. If, weak as you are, you yet are chosen for some position of authority among the brethren, you must not be puffed up as though. you were superior to them, but rather glorify the Lord Who chose you and sing Psalm 151, which is especially the Psalm of David. And for Psalms in praise of God, having some of them the title Alleluya, you have all these, 105 to 107, 111 to 118, 135, 136, 146, 147, 148, 149, and 150.

If, again, you want to sing Psalms that speak especially about the Saviour, you will find something in almost all of them; but 45 and 110 to relate particularly to His Divine Begetting from the Father and His coming in the flesh, while 22 and 69 foretell the holy cross, the grievous plots He bore and how great things He suffered for our sakes. 

The 3rd and 109th also display the snares and malice of the Jews and how Iscariot betrayed Him; 21, 50, and 72 all set Him forth as judge and foretell His Second Coming in the flesh to us; they also show the Gentiles’ call. The 16th shows His resurrection from the dead, in flesh, the 24th and 47th His ascension into heaven. And in the four Psalms 93, 96, 98, and 99, all the benefits deriving to us from the Saviour’s Passion are set forth together.

Taken from Athanasius’ letter to Marcellinus found here.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Oh that Fair Land at last!

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We slept—a sleep of death, and yet of dreams,
Fair dreams that pass, and sad dreams that abide,
Where yearneth to the sound of distant streams
The soul unsatisfied.

We woke—but oh for speech of that fair land
Wherein the soul awaketh, to declare
The wonders that no heart can understand,
That hath not entered there.

For there the light that is not sun nor moon,
That glows as morning, and as eve is sweet,
And hath the glory of eternal noon,
Doth guide the joyful feet.

And there the streams are no more far away,
And there the thirsty lips drink deep at last,
Remembering no more the sultry day,
The desert that is passed.

And there the silence is the tenderness
Of love that rests rejoicing in His own;
And there the lips are hallowed with His kiss
To speak of Him alone.

Of none but Him—for there is Christ alone,
The radiance, and the river, and the psalm—
The music and the gladness of His own;
The everlasting calm.

The secret place, the Refuge from the blast,
The glorious Temple, Lamb of God art Thou;
Our feet shall tread the golden courts at last,
Our souls have entered now.

Awakened! to behold Thee face to face,
Henceforward and for ever drawn apart
To learn of Thee within Thy holy place
The secret of Thine Heart.

C.P.C., Sleeping and Waking

Friday, February 2, 2018

Psalm 1 and the Early Fathers: Meditation and Singing

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Church Father Athanasius likened the Psalms to the variety within a botanical garden

Excerpts from Bruce K. Waltke, The Psalms as Christian Worship: An Historical Commentary

The early fathers thought the Psalms were uniquely the microcosm of the Bible. Athanasius (c. 296-373) likens them to the variety within a botanical garden, while Basil the Great (c. 329-79) describes them as a great storehouse.

Ever since Origen's first serious Biblical commentaries (beginning of the third century), Psalm 1 has been interpreted as the introduction to the whole Psalter. Jerome (342-420; see p. 46) describes Psalm 1 as Praefatio Spiritus Sancti, "the preface [to the psalms] as inspired by the Holy He likens the first psalm to the great door of a whole building, of which the Holy Spirit is the key to the great door, while other special keys are also needed for the different rooms of the other psalms. 

When entering into the Psalms, he challenges the reader to have the same spirit as expressed in Deuteronomy 30:15-20. One of his two favorite texts is, "But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in His law will he exercise himself day and night." This he found impossible to do in Rome, which he left in 385, to take refuge in a grotto in Bethlehem, where Christ was thought to have been born, in order to practice his daily meditation on the psalms.

Francesco Bassano the Younger (1549-1592), “Saint Jerome”
Francesco Bassano the Younger (1549-1592), “Saint Jerome”

Psalm 1 recitation in Hebrew

Psalm 1 in Hebrew


אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ--    אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַךְ, בַּעֲצַת רְשָׁעִים
וּבְדֶרֶךְ חַטָּאִים, לֹא עָמָד,    וּבְמוֹשַׁב לֵצִים, לֹא יָשָׁב.

כִּי אִם בְּתוֹרַת יְהוָה, חֶפְצוֹ;    וּבְתוֹרָתוֹ יֶהְגֶּה, יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה 
. וְהָיָה--    כְּעֵץ, שָׁתוּל עַל-פַּלְגֵי-מָיִם: 
אֲשֶׁר פִּרְיוֹ, יִתֵּן בְּעִתּוֹ--וְעָלֵהוּ לֹא-יִבּוֹל;    וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה יַצְלִיחַ.
 לֹא-כֵן הָרְשָׁעִים:    כִּי אִם-כַּמֹּץ, אֲשֶׁר-תִּדְּפֶנּוּ רוּחַ. 
עַל-כֵּן, לֹא-יָקֻמוּ רְשָׁעִים--בַּמִּשְׁפָּט;    וְחַטָּאִים, בַּעֲדַת צַדִּיקִים
כִּי-יוֹדֵעַ יְהוָה, דֶּרֶךְ צַדִּיקִים;    וְדֶרֶךְ רְשָׁעִים תֹּאבֵד.

Psalm 1 in Koine Greek

1 μακριος νρ ς οκ πορεθη ν βουλ σεβν κα ν δ μαρτωλν οκ στη κα π καθδραν λοιμν οκ κθισεν.
2 ἀλλ ν τ νμ κυρου τ θλημα ατο κα ν τ νμ ατο μελετσει μρας κα νυκτς.
3 κα σται ς τ ξλον τ πεφυτευμνον παρ τς διεξδους τν δτων τν καρπν ατο δσει ν καιρ ατο κα τ φλλον ατο οκ πορρυσεται κα πντα σα ν ποι κατευοδωθσεται.
4 οχ οτως ο σεβες οχ οτως λλ ς χνος ν κριπτε νεμος π προσπου τς γς.
5 δι τοτο οκ ναστσονται σεβες ν κρσει οδ μαρτωλο ν βουλ δικαων.
6 ὅτι γινσκει κριος δν δικαων κα δς σεβν πολεται.

Psalm 1 in English (Scottish Metrical Psalm 1650, Tune: Denfield)

click here to listen

1 That man hath perfect blessedness,
who walketh not astray
In counsel of ungodly men,
nor stands in sinners' way,

2 Nor sitteth in the scorner's chair:
But placeth his delight
Upon God's law, and meditates
on his law day and night.

3 He shall be like a tree that grows
near planted by a river,
Which in his season yields his fruit,
and his leaf fadeth never:

4 And all he doth shall prosper well
The wicked are not so;
But like they are unto the chaff,
which wind drives to and fro.

5 In judgment therefore shall not stand
such as ungodly are;
Nor in th' assembly of the just
shall wicked men appear.

6 For why? the way of godly men
unto the Lord is known:
Whereas the way of wicked men
shall quite be overthrown.

Psalm 1 sung in Russian

Blazhen muzh, izhe ne ide na sovet nechestivykh. Alliluya.
Yako vest Goospod put pravednykh, i put nechestivykh pogibnet. Alliluya.
Rabotaite Gospodevi so strakhom i raduitesya Emu s trepetom. Alliluya.
Balzheni vsi nadeyushchisya Nan. Alliluya.
Voskresni, Gospodi, spasi mya, Bozeheh moy. Alliluya.
Gospodne est spaseniye, i na lyudekh Tvoikh blagosloveniye Tvoe. Alliluya.
Slava Otsu i Synu i Svyatomu Dukhu,
i nyne i prisno i vo veki vekov. Amin.
Alliluya. Slava Tebe, Bozhe.

Psalm 1 - Genevan Psalter 1539

Friday, January 26, 2018

"O my thirsting soul desires,and longeth after thee!": Singing the prayer of Psalm 143:6-8

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Psalm 143 (ii) :6-8

6  Lo, I do stretch my hands
       To thee, my help alone;
    For thou well understands
       All my complaint and moan:
    My thirsting soul desires,
       And longeth after thee,
    As thirsty ground requires
       With rain refreshed to be.

 7  Lord, let my pray'r prevail,
       To answer it make speed;
    For, lo, my sp'rit doth fail:
       Hide not thy face in need;
    Lest I be like to those
       That do in darkness sit,
    Or him that downward goes
       Into the dreadful pit.

 8  Because I trust in thee,
       O Lord, cause me to hear
    Thy loving-kindness free,
       When morning doth appear:
    Cause me to know the way
       Wherein my path should be;
    For why, my soul on high
       I do lift up to thee.

Behold, I stand poor and naked before Thee, requiring grace, and imploring mercy. Refresh the hungry suppliant, kindle my coldness with the fire of Thy love, illuminate my blindness with the brightness of Thy presence. 

Turn thou all earthly things into bitterness for me, all grievous and contrary things into patience, all things worthless and created into contempt and oblivion. Lift up my heart unto Thee in Heaven, and suffer me not to wander over the earth. Be Thou alone sweet unto me from this day forward for ever, because Thou alone art my meat and drink, my love and joy, my sweetness and my whole good.

Oh that Thou wouldest altogether by Thy presence, kindle, consume, and transform me into Thyself; that I may be made one spirit with Thee, by the grace of inward union, and the melting of earnest love! Suffer me not to go away from Thee hungry and dry; but deal mercifully with me, as oftentimes Thou hast dealt wondrously with Thy saints. What marvel if I should be wholly kindled from Thee, and in myself should utterly fail, since Thou art fire always burning and never failing, love purifying the heart and enlightening the understanding. In Jesus' name. Amen.

-The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Time, Times, Eternity in Biblical Perspective by Henri Blocher

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What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not. --Augustine, Confessiones, Bk.XI.

Time, Times, Eternity in Biblical Perspective

by Henri Blocher, 
Tyndale Bulletin 52.2 (2001) 183-202.

The topic of time and eternity in relation to God is fraught with difficulties. Whatever hints there are from biblical language of Scripture’s teaching, they need to be supplemented by a more global and theological use of Scripture. The philological-exegetical arguments for the ‘classical’ view, which entails the antithesis of time and eternity, go in each case a little beyond what the evidence clearly warrants. Sober considerations prompt us to look for an alternative to pure timelessness, but not to go to the opposite extreme. Scripture witnesses both to God’s unchangeable possession of his unbounded life and to the authentic renewal of his grace every morning, a renewal that appears to hold a true meaning for God himself.

Calvin, St. Augustine’s devotee and putative heir, dared to disapprove of this Master’s endeavours on time and eternity: the bishop of Hippo wasted his energy in a ‘subtle dispute’ that ‘does not fit St. Paul’s intention’.[1] What a warning! Especially for one who owes so much to both these spiritual and theological fathers.

     The topic is fraught with exceptional difficulties. We find it hard to bring to the fore notions that are so basic that we constantly think through them, and which we always presuppose without reflection. As soon as we start asking what time is, we no longer know, exactly as St. Augustine confessed.[2] Paradoxes pop up here and there, or even everywhere. Is time moving, or are we moving within time, drifting down the river of time? If it flows, does it flow from the past or from the future? Is the future before or behind us?[3]

     For theologians, James Barr pinpointed the main difficulty: ‘The very serious shortage within the Bible of the kind of actual statement about “time” or “eternity” which could form a sufficient basis for a Christian philosophical-theological view of time.’[4]

     Yet the stakes are high. Any student who struggles through Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics will come to this realisation; it is an eloquent fact that the perspicacious Barth critic Klaas Runia wrote his doctoral dissertation in 1955 (under Berkouwer’s supervision) on ‘Theological Time in Karl Barth’.[5] The issue is relevant to Protestant–Roman Catholic dialogue: at a recent session, as we were discussing prayer for the dead, distinguished Catholic theologians offered us a remarkable argument founded on their view of time and eternity; they proposed that they could pray today for Hitler’s conversion before his death in 1945.

     For centuries, for more than a millennium and a half, the dominance of what we may call the ‘classical’ doctrine remained unchallenged. Because most ‘doctors’ in the church esteemed that it was self-evident—at least to any thinking person—they did not make an effort to build a strong biblical platform to support it. Today, however, the reverse situation obtains, and we cannot simply follow tradition.

     Since we are to investigate the matter ‘in the open’, we should spell out first our presupposition: the doctrinal harmony of θεόπνευστος Scripture, on this as on other topics. If Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever—and, therefore, beware of ‘strange teachings’!—his Spirit, the auctor primarius, is the same today as he was in the days of Moses, and then of Isaiah, and then of Paul. Yet, concepts may vary! Different types of conceptualisation (of viewpoints and schemes) may all be compatible with each other in the service of the one truth. An exploration of that diversity, of the conceptual distinctions between authors and epochs in the Bible, would be a fascinating task, but it would lead us far beyond the scope of the present inquiry. It would take too much time: it is one of those singularities that it takes time to think about time;[6] will it take us eternity to gain some understanding of eternity?

Markers, Clues, Helps, & Tools on the Way

In a complex, long-standing, and delicate area of debate, when direct, explicit evidence is lacking, methodological considerations may be decisive. But our remarks do not deserve the title ‘On Method’ which the needed chapter would bear; they will keep (perforce) a loose and tentative character and only sketch what appears to be of interest to our pursuits.

     Lexical and syntactic features of biblical diction were a mine for Oscar Cullmann and his generation. They made much of the use of the same words for time and eternity (as we call them, that is human and divine durations); of the contrast between καιρός and χρόνος, often combined with the antithesis between the Hebrew and Greek minds; sometimes they drew an argument from the priority of the aspectual viewpoint in the conjugation of verbs.

     Then came Barr, kesôd miššadday! We have been ... debarred from relying on pseudo-linguistics to establish a scientific case. Etymology is no key to semantics; words have many uses that may not be added to one another when we meet a given occurrence; the symmetrical opposition of the Hebrew and the Greek mind-sets leads to an artificial treatment of the evidence. Though controversies have not yet died out among linguists, the idealistic, and often relativistic thesis that binds closely together a specific language and a world-view commands little respect among experts in the field.[7]

     On the other hand, it should not be denied that the semantic field of a word offers a kind of condensed memory of what has been said, using that word, on countless occasions. The word remains a convenient peg or knot for opinions. Consequently, the study of the frequent terms one finds in ‘talk’ on a subject provides a convenient entry into common thinking on the subject. The arbitrary nature of signs, as stressed by Ferdinand de Saussure, does not negate the existence of some relationships between language and the speakers’ life (it is not by mere chance that the abundant vocabulary for snow, with many terms for the various qualities of snow, is found among Eskimos, not Tuaregs). Even syntax and declension may allow a glimpse at one way the human mind functions in ordinary experience in its encounter with the world.

     Several studies since Cullmann and Barr have canvassed the data. It will suffice if we summarise the conclusions. The main words in Hebrew seem to be ‘ēt, both for specific occasions and segments of the process of time,[8] mô’ēd for an appointed time (also zeman, of Aramaic origin) and especially for feasts and sacred days, yôm and yāmîm, which Simon DeVries rightfully emphasised and studied, qedem for high antiquity, as also ‘ôlām, very important for remote times, both past and future, and for a whole age, le‘ôlām meaning ‘forever, always’, in a stronger (infinitely) or in a looser sense (indefinitely); neִsaִh may add the nuance of everlasting validity (from the metaphor of victory? It is doubtful), ad of perpetual continuity, as also does êtān. In biblical Greek καιρός and χρόνος share a large area of common meaning (‘times and seasons’ should be taken as a hendiadys), and αἰών corresponds well with ôlām. There is no clear difference between αἰώνιος and the rare ἀΐδιος (from the same root as aἀεί); εἰς τὸ διηνεκές expresses the nuance of perpetuity.

     Grosso modo, one may say that time is predominantly mentioned in concrete situations, time for such and such an action, or as a sum of events, but the ‘quantitative’ interest is strong also: there is a distinct concern for chronology and the measurement of time. Dates abound; let us remember the synchronisms of the Hebrew kings! In Judaism, as the book of Jubilees and the Qumran Rule (1QS IX,12–14) demonstrate, calendar obsession becomes a major component of piety. Why does Stephen insist so much on periods, on measured duration, in Acts 7? Commentaries offer little help! Eternity (ôlām and αἰών) suggests remoteness, fullness, globality, what stands and stays...

     The priority of aspects, perfect/imperfect, in the verbal systems of both Hebrew and Greek should not be pressed—there can be an over-reaction to older presentations that related the tenses to past, present, and future.[9] Of course, a Frenchman does not forget that he uses the same word temps for ‘time’ and for ‘tense’. At any rate, both Hebrew and Greek offer many other ways (than tenses) of expressing linear succession, chronological before and after.[10]

     Paul Ricœur has pioneered another approach based on language, but not on vocabulary or grammar. In an important article,[11] he starts from literary genres—from ‘acts of discourse’ (speech-acts, but not in the precise sense of Austin and Searle’s theory). The first genre to consider is, obviously, narrative, but Ricœur warns against the illusion of a purely ‘narrative theology’;[12] he highlights the original combination with law that renders historical time essentially ethical: stories, ‘under the pressure of prescriptive material, become stories of the way of a people with God from the viewpoint [sous le signe] of obedience and disobedience’, and Old Testament historiography is largely devoted to an account of Israel’s rebellions.[13] 

    The amalgamation of narrative and law gives foundational events a lasting quality, for they are not just past; the antecedence of law, being beyond recall, saves narrative antecedence from ‘vanishing into the “just once” and “never more”’.[14] On that basis the people may entertain sure expectations about the future, but prophecy breaks in and cuts through legally-guaranteed yet fallacious assurance: this is effected by the prophecies of woe, which come first, but, then, this reversal is itself reversed by prophecies of weal, or rather of salvation (already Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and above all Deutero-Isaiah).[15] 

    As to the sense of time, prophecy implies the negative moment and transition, and promotes newness as the future, giving birth to hope and to a new relationship to the past as a treasure of unfulfilled potentialities. Wisdom writings go back to everyday time, the time of daily life, but in union with what is ‘immemorial’, with the claim of the original position (Pr. 8:2–32); what is immemorial for Job is the condition of humankind, with its border-situations (in Jaspers’ sense), and ‘the everyday for Qohelet is the everyday rediscovered by him who has looked straight in the face of death and who has renounced the ambition to know’.[16] 

    The so-called immemorial dimension meets with ethical antecedence and confers upon events the status of universally valid archetypes (as in the creation stories, nearer to myth than to saga).[17] All these dimensions hymnic time recapitulates, in the present time of worship and the presence of the everlasting God—‘the model of biblical time rests on the polarity of narrative and hymn, on the mediation between “telling a tale” and “praising God” by the law and its temporal antecedence, by prophecy and its eschatological time, by wisdom and its immemorial time.’[18] 

    The philosopher’s inclinations do show in his selection of elements and his dependence on some historico-critical hypotheses as well; nevertheless, his insights are thought-provoking and sensitive to diversity.

     First of all and ultimately, we should find our guiding light in the content of Scripture, rather than its form, linguistic or literary. Though there is little by way of direct, explicit teaching on time and eternity, we should not surrender to pessimism. Some passages at least touch upon the issue and may give us valuable orientation. 

    The first ‘tablet’ of the Bible, the Prologue of Genesis, bears signs of interest in the topic of time: one cannot ignore the literary choice of the Week as the framework for the creation panorama, the first word berēšît and the work of the fourth day with the role of the luminaries in calendar determination. Does the text intend to teach the creation of time? As a reflection of a divine archetype? Is the apparently unfinished seventh day equivalent to the whole of human history? One meets more than once the meditation on the contrast between the grass-like brevity of man, human life as a vanishing vapour, and the sovereign permanence of God (Pss. 90 and 102, which Heb. 1 uses; in Is. 40 the divine permanence is attributed to the Word, which human beings are called to hear). 

    The Lord’s mastery of time and ordering of times is a central claim of the book of Daniel (2:21, cf. 7:12); it is also the great presupposition in Isaiah 40ff., when the fulfilment of predictive prophecy is stressed as a powerful apologetic and polemic argument—in 25:1 the theme of the plan of God already surfaces, made long before the events take place. Qohelet, whom we have already mentioned, develops in his own style parallel thoughts on the divine arrangements, with their baffling and humbling diversity, the failure of our attempts at complete systems, and yet the privileged relationship of the human heart to ôlām (3:11). 

    The function of memory and commemoration looms large in both Testaments. One could also mention the Deuteronomic emphasis on today as the moment of decision[19] or the remarkable phrase about understanding the times (1 Ch. 12:32, cf. Est. 1:13). Micah 5:2 represents another intriguing verse: the origins (ִsā’ōt) of the peaceful Ruler from Bethlehem are said to be from of old, miqqedem, from the days of ‘ôlām. Eternity? David’s time, several centuries before Micah’s (as most commentators believe)? Creation (as André Feuillet has suggested, with a specific reference to Gn. 3:15[20])?

     In the New Testament the phrase τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου (or τῶν καιρῶν) immediately catches our attention, especially in the context of the Epistle to the Galatians where it follows an argument based on the structure of Old Testament chronological sequence (3:17) and illustrated by the setting of times and delays in a father’s last will (4:2). 

    The scheme that governs the relationships between epochs in biblical history provides the basis for typological exegesis, and it is expressed in the remarkable clause: we are those εἰς οὓς τὰ τέλη τῶν αἰώνων κατήντηκεν (1 Cor. 10:11). It may mean that the end and goal of all ages past has dawned with Christ’s coming;[21] it may mean that we stand at the intersection of two worlds,[22] according to the apocalyptic pattern of the present evil αἰών and the coming, salvific one, a pattern which appears to belong to the conceptual apparatus shared by all New Testament writers. One may add the emphasis (especially in Hebrews) on the once-for-all event, ἐφάπαξ, and such a divine title as ‘King of the ages’ (1 Tim. 1:17).

     We grant that these pieces of evidence, though far from negligible, are not so easy to exploit. There is room for much diversity of interpretation. Whatever hints and indications they yield must be supplemented, therefore, by a more global and theological use of Scripture. 

    Appreciable help comes from the affinities which we may detect between given views of time/eternity and proven components of biblical teaching: some truths of Revelation tend to favour some conceptions and render others less likely. Along that path, one has to renounce a logic of hard and fast demonstration and accept a logic of congruence, pointing to what is fitting and suitable. Such a softer logic makes more room for intuition, and is therefore more vulnerable to subjective distortions; yet Scripture itself, with the πρεπεν of Hebrews 2:10 (‘It behoved’), encourages explorers. (We are told that even computer science has grown more and more interested in ‘fuzzy’ forms of logic!) Arguments gain weight and strength through accumulation.

     One should thus consider the relationship of God and world, with the particular position of humankind: most people have considered time and eternity to be the modes of subsisting that belong to the Creator and his creatures. One should ponder the part that history plays in biblical religion, a unique feature as Mircea Eliade (and many others) put in bold relief.[23]

     Should we draw on the insights or results of non-biblical philosophy and science? Many snares lie hidden along the road; yet, in principle, since Special Revelation does not occur in a vacuum but presupposes General Revelation (however obscured it may be in its post-lapsarian state), since ‘all truth is God’s truth’, the answer is yes, we should, if we can ... It is of some relevance that a cautious evaluation of the implications of Special and General Relativity makes it difficult to maintain absolute time (at least in the version of Newtonian time, the abstract frame of co-ordinates), and also to deny that time is an objective feature of the universe, irreversible (at least, again) at the macroscopic level.[24] 

    Philosophy is a choir of so many dissenting voices that it is difficult to trust any! Paul Ricœur’s magnum opus brilliantly brings out the constant double pull of the two decisive references, to the cosmos and to the ‘soul’, which Aristotle and St. Augustine represent;[25] Henri Bourgeois explicitly acknowledges his debt to Ricœur.[26]

     Conceding some presumptive advantage to common sense is wise. Daily constraints, born of common needs and intercourse, hold in check the most risky speculations—whereas, in the hothouses of Academia, some plants grow into monsters! It is salutary to remember that Friedrich Christoph Oetinger advocated a new respect for the thinking of everyman: Inquisitio in sensum communem, Heerbrand, 1759. No crushing contempt, therefore, of naïve imaginations of eternity, and no canonisation of the same, either.

Time and Eternity Opposed

    The ‘classical’ view of eternity, and it entails the antithesis of time and eternity, is summarised in Boethius’ magnificent definition: interminabilis vitae tota simul et perfecta possessio, ‘the entire, simultaneous and perfect possession of an endless life’. St. Thomas Aquinas not only borrows it but defends it against several possible criticisms.[27] It is faithful to St. Augustine, who stresses that ‘in divine eternity, everything is wholly present, nothing passes’.[28] 

    St. Augustine clings to that understanding; Jean Mouroux quotes from his Enarratio in Psalmos, on divine years that fail not, therefore that remain, therefore are one day, one now.[29] This nunc stans, pure present, totus simul, appears to be the necessary implication of God’s fullness of being: He alone IS (the influence of Ex. 3:14 LXX, ὁ ὤν, was foundational). It follows from divine immutability, as St. Thomas, especially, underlines. It agrees with the main tendency of Greek philosophical thought, especially the Parmenidian line: for Parmenides Being exists all at once, νῦν ἐστὶν ὁμοῦ πᾶν. On Apollo’s temple the inscription read EI, ‘Thou ART’.[30] As to St. Augustine, his neo-Platonic connection is well-known.[31]

     Eternity so conceived contrasts with time. It is practically equivalent to timelessness—and by that word it is designated,[32] while statements like ‘God is outside time’, ‘God knows no before and after’, ‘for God there is no past and future’, are commonly found. Meister Eckhardt was emphatic: ‘Time prevents us from reaching the light. Nothing is more opposed to God than time

    Not only time, but attachment to time. Not only attachment, but the mere contact of time. Not only the contact, but the mere scent or taste of time.’[33] Being temporal means lacking being, sliding into nothingness. Time, Χρόνος, is identified with Κρόνος who devours his children:[34] Tempus edax rerum, in Ovid’s words.

     Some thinkers in the classical tradition do make efforts towards a more positive valuation of time. Plato granted time the status of a ‘mobile image of permanent eternity’,[35] which had, ultimately, to espouse the perfect figure of the circle: the ancients were lost in wonder as they contemplated the cyclic regularity of heavenly bodies, those divine living ones and rulers of time. 

    When St. Augustine interpreted time as essentially bound to the life of the soul, distensio animi, he uncovered a positive feature, at least in our modern eyes. J. Mouroux tries hard to maintain that eternity is the foundation of time as well as its negation.[36] Karl Barth goes even so far as to affirm that creation was effected in time, and that God’s eternity includes past and future as well as present—yet he really maintains the classical view, since he rules out sequence, the succession of before and after.[37]

     The philological-exegetical argument for the classical view concentrates on a few passages which already St. Augustine mustered.[38] The equivalence for God of a millennium and of a single day (Ps. 90 and 2 Pet. 3) is most impressive for followers of Aristotle, who defined time as the measure of movement (Plotinus criticised him on this count). Psalm 102:25–27 and its quotation by the Epistle to the Hebrews (1:10–12) is brought forward, as is also John 8:58, with its unexpected present tense, as if a past tense was not fit for deity, its majestic I AM that echoes Exodus 3:14.

     Scriptural ways of speaking that seem to imply an infinite ‘ribbon’ of duration,[39] together with the language of succession, are explained away as inevitable anthropomorphisms, which unfortunately entrap popular imagination. St. Thomas Aquinas recognises here the weakness of our human apprehensio, and he compares with biblical statements on God’s ‘arms’ and ‘hands’.[40] 

    J. Mouroux expressly deprives the prefix in fore-knowledge, predestination, and the phrase ‘before the foundation of the world’ of any cognitive value (in respect to the knowledge of reality as it is in itself): they are only relevant to our feeble representation.[41] He quotes St. Gregory of Nyssa to the effect that our minds can only rise to the realisation of their inability to grasp what they seek.[42]
    The foregoing considerations do carry some weight. Yet, it seems, not quite enough to make the point. In each case, the conclusion of the argument goes a little beyond what the evidence clearly warrants. That our measurements of time do not apply to God does not require that he be outside temporality. That ‘his years’ do not come to an end (lō’ yittāmmû ‘are not finished’, οὐκ ἐκλείψουσιν ‘do not fail him’) does not entail that there is no before and after in his sight. I AM, in itself, does not exclude ‘I was’. The ‘classical’ comment by Mouroux appears thus to be in excess: ‘In God’s presence, times are as if they were not.’[43] Is this so?

     Scripture, indeed, uses anthropomorphic language; beyond that acknowledgement, I am ready to confess that all ‘God-talk’ remains analogical. But drawing conclusions and framing them in a univocal conceptual language (if such a language exists!) is a delicate matter. 

    We are free, and obligated, to depart from a naïve-literal understanding of Scripture’s ‘diction’ when Scripture itself indicates that we should do so: it is clear enough for the ‘arm’ of the Lord and even for his ‘repenting’, hinnāִhēm; and the hermeneutical task remains, then, of appropriating some positive analogical moment. But is there any indication that God’s permanence and lordship over the ages rules out the reality of succession for him? 

    In the absence of any distinct encouragement in Scripture itself, it requires a bold move, it involves a perilous step, if one deprives biblical phrases such as ‘predestination’ or ‘before the world began’ of most, if not all, of their meaning. It is remarkable that some of the grand proclamations of divine eternity expressly maintain the plurality and order of times, at least in their wording: Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8); and the counterpart of the unveiling of God’s ‘personal name’, ὁ ὢν καὶ ὀ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος—not the simple ὁ ὤν (present participle) and not σται (future), to avoid the idea of God being still future and not yet realised (Rev. 1:4).

     The dogmatic-philosophical argument has been the decisive one. From fullness of being, from immutability and sovereignty, St.Augustine and those who have followed him, until Mouroux and Paul Helm,[44] have seen the consequence as so obvious that they have felt free to ‘de-anthropomorphise’ the ordinary language of Scripture.

     We ought to bow before the biblical authority of these themes. Immutability is not first Platonic, it is Scriptural. There is a vibrant witness to that truth, and not only in peripheral passages.[45] 

    YHWH, no fickle deity, is never taken by surprise: in that sense, there is nothing novel arising before his eyes. Everything is of him, through him, and unto him. That basis of the classical case on eternity, we may not underestimate. The audacious levity with which not a few contemporary theologians dismiss it in a few words is appalling; or is it absent-mindedness?

     Yet, and not without fear and trembling, I dare say that I am not convinced. Is there no other way to conceive of divine perfection? Though the classical tradition extols the incomprehensibility of God—not seldom adorned with Neo-Platonic hyperbole, not seldom verging on agnosticism—I cannot get rid of the suspicion that it dictates to God what his immutable perfection must entail. On the top of the metaphysical Everest of concepts like those of being-itself and actus purus, reason may grow dizzy from rarefied oxygen: what is the force of inference? I need more Scriptural explicitness to draw the contours of mystery—lest the mysteriousness of God’s mystery become an instrument in our hands.

     J. Mouroux is concerned, as we saw, to maintain that eternity is the foundation of time and he knows the contrast with mythical religion. He deserves full credit for his sensitivity and loyalty to the sacred text. But can he do justice to the truth he has perceived? A famous Orthodox theologian—to hear from an author from another tradition—then the dean of the Orthodox Institute of Theology in Paris, Serge Boulgakoff, voiced the opposite conviction in no uncertain terms, as he commented on the ‘most widespread opinion’ that ‘for God, time simply does not exist’:

First, the Bible—the divine account of God’s relations with man, of the divine economy—represents its absolute negation. God’s revelation to humanity and all the works of God in the world are represented as occurring in time, for God as well as for man. Considering this merely as an inevitable anthropomorphism, robbing it of its real character, means shattering the whole contents of our faith and transforming God Creator Almighty, living, loving and Saviour, into the motionless Absolute of Hinduism, in which all concrete being is extinguished and the whole world becomes an illusion.[46]

In a less expansive style, the nineteenth century German theologian Isaak Dorner made a similar point, a more flexible understanding of divine immutability must be introduced ‘if history and variety in the world are not to be a semblance but reality and the real effect of God’.[47] One could shorten the objection: if time does not exist for God, it does not exist. God is the only Measure of truth and reality.

     Beware of hard logic in such matters! But if the warnings of Dorner and Boulgakoff are only half-justified, there is already enough ground for serious concern. The classical view of eternity may endanger the consistent reality of time, especially the core and nucleus of historical time, that is irreversible sequence. A conspicuous dimension of the Christian message may be put in jeopardy, for Bruce Malina seems to suffer from myopia when he sees only a resumption of initial conditions in the end of biblical history.[48] 

    Omega does not equal Alpha! Lactantius showed a keener sense of Christian newness vs. the common ‘Mediterranean’ depreciation of time, in his polemics against the Stoic writer Lucilius: instead of taking the circular routes of the stars as the evidence of their divinity, he claimed that ‘It is evident from this that they are not gods, because it is not permitted them to deviate (exorbitare) from their prescribed orbits.’[49] 

    A decisive reversal! However, not all fruitfully benefited from this insight. History at least partially confirms suspicions. Although most exponents of the classical conception of eternity and time did not carry the logical tendency of their option to the disastrous end, one must note a weakening of the biblical proclamation of the ἐφάπαξ and newness: in Scotus’ (and Osiander’s) eternal Christ,[50] or in Karl Barth’s ‘Christological concentration’ which makes Christ to be the really First Adam, or in Incarnationism generally.

     Eternity does provide the foundation of time as the common, unifying reference point, but how can it found the decisive succession? If the ‘before and after’ relation is radically foreign to God? Ascribing to deity the metaphysical archetype of created features calls for caution indeed; we may not locate in God the duplicate (though considered to be primary, original) of all that we see on earth, here below—certainly not creaturehood! Yet it seems proper to look for the basis, on the Creator’s side, of essential positive features of his works, and thus is temporal succession shown to be in biblical perspective.

Time and Eternity Allied

    Sober considerations prompt us to look for an alternative to pure timelessness, but not to go to the opposite extreme. As it has swung away from the classical view, the pendulum, nowadays, has gone too far in the other direction—to a virtual, or even actual, denial of eternity. 

    Oscar Cullmann had already come very near to making God subject to a law of time above him (similar to the Zervan of Persian religion). Process theology openly preaches a pitiful G(g)od, finite and correlative to the world he does not master. Those who wish to grant God the ability to be surprised, or to consummate his own being (unfulfilled, yet) through history,[51] have to dodge the abundant testimony we have already rehearsed. Theirs is an indefensible anthropomorphism, mixed with conformity to a late modern and still romantic inversion of values (Umwertung): the quasi worship of change and novelty.

     I am not suggesting that, after all, we sacrifice newness to immutability. On the contrary, I am pleading against that ruinous dilemma. Scripture witnesses both to the Lord’s unchangeable possession of his unbounded life and to the authentic renewal of his grace every morning, a renewal that appears to hold a true meaning for God himself.

     One window on the mystery of that alliance may open if we consider the unique privilege of the human being. Many writers have discerned that the creature called ‘image of God’ should not be described as only temporal. In order to be conscious of time, he/she must in some way or other rise above its flow. J. Moltmann highlighted the fact and introduced a telling simile: ‘He is like a swimmer moving in the stream of history—or, it may be, against the stream—but with his head out of the water in order to get his bearings and above all to acquire a goal and a future.’[52] Even St. Thomas Aquinas affirms that ‘the human mind considered in itself is, in a way, above time’ and is only subject to time per accidens.[53]

     Ecclesiastes’ fascinating theologoumenon (3:11) is best understood along that line.[54] ‘ôlām must have the same meaning as in verse 14 (therefore not ‘world’, a late meaning, and textual correction is unnecessary); the whole passage embodies a reflection on time. The 2 x 7 pairs of opposite actions and passions recapitulate the baffling diversity of the times which God has appointed—man is no more the master of his fate than he is the captain of his soul. It is not the rule of chance, however. 

    There is a hidden beauty (v. 11a) and perfection (v. 14b). And, then, the key element: if man feels baffled, under the ‘inyān of verse 10, it is because he does not undergo passively the succession of diverse times, God has placed in his heart (the organ of thought and consciousness) the ‘ôlām —even though the human heart rises only partially above the stream and cannot know the whole work of God, the Beauty, from beginning to end.

     If this reading does not wander too far from the sense, we may hope to get a glimpse of eternity in our human relationship to time—in our awareness of time and times, in memory, in anticipation and projection, in the synthesis of moments that all this implies. Our sharing in eternity (‘ôlām) does not involve the abolition of the successive, but a unifying mastery over it, a permanence through it. In human experience, such a mastery and such a permanence are severely limited, far from extending from beginning to end. Is not the suggestion warranted that God’s eternity analogically means the unifying mastery, the unalterable permanence, not partial but absolute?

     The relationship to projection (always bound to memory) stirs the thought that the succession ‘before and after’ may derive from action, the ability to act. Maybe the priority of aspects in verbal conjugation could be called to witness here! If there is the power to act, it generates a difference between before (intending, planning to act) and after (the agent has acted), between ‘imperfect’ and ‘perfect’. God’s sovereign activity may be seen as the source of a kind of succession in his own life, towards which he is totally active; St. Thomas himself said that we understand eternity more from the viewpoint of activity than of being, secundum operationem, magis quam secundum esse.[55] 

    The human creature is first passive: it undergoes a succession, in the world, which God has determined; but then, as the Image-creature, the human creature is active in turn, having a share in the power to act. May we bring together temporality and passive determination and, then, eternity and active determination?[56]

     The other window would be a comparison with the other, the twin, mystery—of divine Tri-Unity. Some parallel features may be observed, and since the mystery of the Trinity is more fully documented in Scripture and has been more exactly recognised in the Church, some help may come from that ‘model’.

     Regarding Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Church resisted the temptation to sacrifice the One to the Many and the Many to the One, the ruinous dilemma. Likewise, under the blessing of biblical constraints, we strive to think both the unity of the divine life, eternity, and the plurality of succession, together—not the one at the expense of the other. Tradition has admitted a kinship between eternity and oneness, and a kinship between temporality and plurality—with the degradation of time in Neo-Platonic thought interpreted as a fall into the Multiple. Down to Cornelius Van Til,[57] apologetes have argued that Trinitarian plurality in the Godhead is the foundation of true plurality in creation—a way of reasoning not unlike the one we sketched in favour of succession.

     Ἀσυγχύτως, no confusion, however! If Trinity and eternity are twin mysteries, they are not identical twins! Eternity qualifies the divine essence, which remains numerically one. The only absolute difference in God—the Father is not at all the Son—is the difference of Persons; it is possible because Persons are relations, constitutive, subsisting relations. 

    The same may not be said of past, present, and future. The mystery of divine life as both enduring and active should be approached with other conceptual tools; these may still be in need not only of sharpening or re-shaping, but of invention. Theological orthodoxy has recognised, however, true, ‘objective’ diversity within the one essence, in ratione sed cum fundamento in re,[58] such as may apply to divine eternity. The astute sixteenth century commentator of the Summa John of Saint-Thomas (Jean Poinsot, 1589–1644) did not hesitate to teach that ‘eternity itself is virtually multiple’.[59]

     We should exercise great caution regarding any correlation of Trinitarian order and the before/after, πρότερον/στερον distinction. Nathan R. Wood boldly added the analogy of time to the Augustinian list: time is one as God is one, he claimed; at the end, the whole of time will have been future, and present, and past—in that order which corresponds to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[60] But did he discern the right order (he denies the filioque)? 

    Though orthodox tradition does suggest that the eternal Trinitarian processions are the foundations of the missions of the Son and of the Spirit, the current confusion of the economic Trinity with the immanent Trinity is anathema to Evangelical theology—the underlying motive, a pernicious one, being the divinisation of the man Jesus quâ man.

     In biblical perspective, a mediating term operates between the mystery of God’s own eternity, his fullness of being actively renewing itself, and that combination of unity and diversity that obtains in time and between times, historically: the doctrine of God’s plan. He operates all things according to his Design, ἡ βουλὴ τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ, according to his project or purpose, his πρόθεσις

    The divine ordering of the temporal field implies two poles: the institution of cosmic rhythms, which probably Paul has in mind in his Areopagus address (Acts 17:26, ὁρίσας προστεταγμένους καιρούς)—setting the stage—and the other pole of God’s fore-ordination of events and actual interventions, the plot of the play. 

    As he reflects on the difficult, the unsolved, problem of the unity of time, Paul Ricœur comes close to that biblical insight—though he renounces it and prefers an aporetic stance: ‘There does not exist a plot of all plots, which could be equal to the idea of one humanity and one history.’[61] In a footnote, he even raises the question of a theology of history, and still denies a ‘universal super-plot’, with only the argument that we have four Gospels.[62]

     The theme of God’s antecedent Plan, which looms large in Scripture, is one of the most neglected ones in theology today. It should help us to think through the relationships of time, times, and eternity. But it would not dissolve or dispel mystery, for mystery is indeed involved: God’s eternal plan embraces our sharing in eternity, our active determination within God’s, so that we may not only wait but also speed the time which the Father has set by his own authority (2 Pet. 3:12).

     I deliberately mention last this most enigmatic statement to remind ourselves that we do not know the whole work of God from beginning to end—and should not grieve over the good limitation our wise and gracious eternal God decided to grant us. And so St. Augustine himself saw fit to remind his readers, in his concluding words at the end of the eleventh book of his Confessions:
Qui intelligit,                                 He who understands,
confiteatur tibi,                              let him bring praises to Thee,
et qui non intelligit,                       and he who does not understand,
confiteatur tibi.                              let him bring praises to Thee.
O quam excelsus es,                      O how highly uplifted art Thou,
et humiles corde                            and those of humble hearts
sunt domus tua!                             are thine habitation!
Tu enim erigis                                For Thou liftest up
elisos,                                            those who are bowed down,
et non cadunt,                               and they fall not,
quorum celsitudo tu es.                 those whose high standing Thou art.

[1]   Our translation (as will be the case for the other French works quoted infra) from Commentaires sur le Nouveau Testament (Paris: Ch. Meyrueis, 1854), IV,274, on 2 Tim. 1:9; similarly in IV,317, on Tit. 1:2, Augustine ‘inflicts upon himself extraordinary torments’ when he tries to understand the phrase ‘eternal times’. We have been led to these passages by Olivier Fatio, ‘Remarques sur le temps et l’éternité chez Calvin’, in Jean-Louis Leuba, ed., Temps et eschatologie: Données bibliques et problématiques contemporaines (Académie internationale des sciences religieuses; Paris: Cerf, 1994), 161.
[2]   Confessions, XI,xiv,17: Quid est ergo tempus? Si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio.
[3]   Some have argued that the Hebrews considered the future to lie behind them, on the basis of the word aharît (since the root may express being behind); but they also used lipnê ‘before’ for the same temporal relationship, e.g. Am. 1:1, ‘before the earthquake’.
[4]   Barr, Biblical Words for Time (Studies in Biblical Theology; London: SCM, 1962), 131–32.
[5]   Runia, De Theologische Tijd bij Karl Barth, Free University of Amsterdam.
[6]   Jean Mouroux, Le Mystère du temps: Approche théologique (coll. Théologie; Paris: Aubier, 1962), 61.
[7]   The powerful Wilhelm von Humboldt fathered the thesis, and Benjamin Lee Whorf was the loudest advocate in the 20th century (Edward Sapir should not be added to the list, apparently). Apart from the richness of vocabulary, it has proved impossible convincingly to correlate linguistic features and ways of doing and thinking.
[8]   Bernard Dupuy, ‘Temps et eschatologie dans le judaïsme’, in Leuba, Temps et eschatologie, 43 n. 16 mentions (in respectful terms) the kabbalistic interpretation of ‘ēt and ’ēt, the accusative particle: the latter is said to be the sign of objectivity and transitivity, the former of subjectivity.
[9]   K.L. McKay’s article, ‘Time and Aspect in New Testament Greek’, Novum Testamentum 34 (1992) 209–228, appears to strike a balance here.
[10]  McKay, ‘Time and Aspect’, 227.
[11]  Ricœur, ‘Temps biblique’, Archivio di Filosofia 53rd year (Padova: Cedam, 1985) 23–35. The contributions of this symposium were made at the 1984 Conference, ‘Ebraismo, Ellenesimo, Christianesimo’.
[12]  Ricœur, ‘Temps biblique’, 27 and 35, ‘the project of a merely narrative theology is a chimera’.
[13]  Ricœur, ‘Temps biblique’, 28.
[14]  Ricœur, ‘Temps biblique’, 28–29.
[15]  Ricœur, ‘Temps biblique’, 29–31.
[16]  Ricœur, ‘Temps biblique’, 32–33. On Qohelet, the same symposium includes a very thorough study on 1:4–11, which stresses the influence of Greek popular philosophy, by Norbert Lohfink, ‘Die Wiederkehr des immer Gleichen: Eine frühe Synthese zwischen griechischem und jüdischem Weltgefühl in Kohelet 1,4–11’, 125–49, and a stimulating article by Jacques Ellul, ‘Le Statut de la philosophie dans Qohelet’, 151–64, who defends the integrity and coherence of the whole book and questions the usual ascription of a cyclical view of time to the writer (esp. 159–60).
[17]  Ricœur, ‘Temps biblique’, 34.
[18]  Ricœur, ‘Temps biblique’, 35. The last quotation is in italics in Ricœur’s text (‘telling a tale’ is simply raconter, ‘praising God’, simply louer).
[19]  Cf. J.G. McConville & J.G. Millar, Time and Place in Deuteronomy (JSOTSS; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 42–43 and passim.
[20]  Feuillet, Etudes d’exégèse et de théologie bibliques, Ancien Testament (Paris: Gabalda, 1975), 232. This reading is not absent from Jewish tradition: Pesiqta Rabbati 152b interprets: ‘King Messiah was born from the origin of the creation of the world’, according to Jean Brierre-Narbonne, Les Prophéties de l’Ancien Testament dans la littérature juive (Paris: Librairie orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1933), 65.
[21]  Thus Werner de Boor, Der erste Brief des Paulus an die Korinther (Wuppertaler Studienbibel; Wuppertal: R. Brockhaus, 19796), 166, who translates ‘die Endziele der Zeitalter’.
[22]  So Jean Héring, La Première Epître de saint Paul aux Corinthiens (Commentaire du Nouveau Testament; Neuchâtel: Delachaux & Niestlé, 19592rev), 81.
[23]  E.g. in Le Mythe de l’éternel retour: Archétypes et répétition (coll. Idées; Paris: Gallimard, 19471, 1969new) which Eliade wished he could have called ‘Introduction to a Philosophy of History’, 9; Le Sacré et le profane (Paris: Gallimard, 1965), first published in German in Rowohlts Deutsche Enzyklopädie, 1957; Aspects du mythe (Paris: Gallimard, 1963), first published in English in 1962 (New York: Harper). We refer to other writers in our contribution to H. Blocher & F. Lovsky, Bible et histoire (coll. Points de repère; Lausanne: Presses Bibliques Universitaires, 1980).
[24]  Bernard Piettre, Philosophie et science du temps (coll. Que sais-je? Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 19941, 19962) offers competent summaries, 63–82 (68–69, 82, on irreversibility; 73, affirms a ‘universal cosmic time’).
[25]  Ricœur, Temps et récit (3 vols.; Paris: Seuil, 1983–1985), with the recent sequel, La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (Paris: Seuil, 2000), 681 pp.
[26]  ‘La Pensée occidentale sur le temps’, in Henri Bourgeois, Pierre Gibert, Maurice Jourjon, L’Expérience chrétienne du temps (coll. Cogitatio fidei; Paris: Cerf, 1986), 63; Bourgeois deals more directly with Kierkegaard, Lévinas, and Derrida on time than Ricœur has done; Bourgeois also does most of the work in the synthesis on Christian temporality, ‘Quand les chrétiens prennent le temps de croire’, 105–177.
[27]  Summa theol., Ia, Q.10, art.1.
[28]  Confessions, XI,xi,13: Non autem praeterire quicquam in aeterno, sed totum esse praesens.
[29]  Mouroux, Le Mystère du temps, 22 (in Ps. 121:6).
[30]  As Jürgen Moltmann recalled in his Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology (tr. James W. Leitch; New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 28. Robert M. Grant, Gods and the One God (Library of Early Christianity; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 79, quotes from Plutarch’s treatise On the E at Delphi: ‘God exists, if one needs to say so, and he exists for no fixed time but for the everlasting ages which are immovable, timeless, and undeviating, in which there is no earlier or later, no future or past, no older or younger. He being one has completely filled “forever” with one “now”; and being is really being only when it is after his pattern, without having been or about to be, without a beginning and not coming to an end. Therefore in our worship we ought to hail him and address him with the words “Thou art”, or even, by Zeus, as some of the ancients did, “Thou art one”.’
[31]  One still refers to Jean Guitton, Le Temps et l’éternité chez Plotin et saint Augustin (Paris: J. Vrin, 19331, 19714).
[32]  Such is the choice of Ronald H. Nash, The Concept of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1983), chapter 6, pp. 73–83, and he characterises the other view by the use of ‘everlasting’ (God is everlasting rather than timeless).
[33]  As quoted (with the italics) by Mouroux,  Le Mystère du temps, 265 n. 28.
[34]  Alain Besançon, ‘Cronos et Chronos: Note sur la relation au temps de l’histoire’, in Enrico Castelli, ed., Herméneutique et eschatologie: La théologie et l’histoire (Rome symposium 1971; Paris: Aubier, 1971), 275–93, who highlights, with psychoanalytical competence, the role of the anxiety of castration and of the archaic cannibalistic mother.
[35]  Μένοντος αἰῶνος ἰοῦσα εἰκὼν χρόνος, in Timaeus, 37d.
[36]  Mouroux, Le Mystère du temps, 29, 39, 42, 44, with a sharp perception of the contrast between the Bible on the one hand and the mythical mind and Indian thought on the other, 41 n.19, 48–51, 217–20.
[37]  Church Dogmatics, III,1,§41.1 (esp. 73–74 in the French tr. of F. Ryser, Labor & Fides, 1960, with a full-length discussion of Augustine’s refusal of the clause in tempore); III,2,§47.1 and 2 (pp. 122, 124, 217ff., 228 in the French, 1961). Earlier, in I,2,§14.3, he could speak of ‘a pure presence of God, eternal time, detached from past and future’ (p. 108 in the French, 1954).
[38]  Mouroux, Le Mystère du temps, 16–19, offers an excellent summary of what he sees as the biblical support in favour of the doctrine.
[39]  A metaphor used by Bruce J. Malina, ‘Christ and Time: Swiss or Mediterranean?’, CBQ 51 (1989) 20.
[40]  Summa theologiae, Ia, Q.10, art.1 ad 4m and 2 ad 4m.
[41]  Mouroux, Le Mystère du temps, 225 with n. 12.
[42]  Mouroux, Le Mystère du temps, 23 (the quotation comes from the Contra Eunomium, lib.1).
[43]  Mouroux, Le Mystère du temps, 18.
[44]  R. Nash, The Concept of God, singles out Paul Helm as a rigorous defender of the ‘timelessness’ view and notes, pp. 82–83, that he moved from scepticism about it to strong affirmation. Paul Helm’s discussion of the neighbouring topic ‘The Impossibility of Divine Passibility’, in Nigel M. de S. Cameron, ed., The Power and Weakness of God (Edinburgh Conference 1989; Edinburgh: Rutherford House Books, 1990), 119–40, starts from God’s timelessness. As a matter of historical interest, we may add that Calvin, though wary of speculation, did express adherence to the classical position: in his 146th sermon on Job, he preaches that ‘Nothing is hidden from God, all things are manifest to him: there is no past time nor time to come in him’, as quoted by Richard Stauffer, Dieu, la création, et la Providence dans la prédication de Calvin (coll. Basler und Berner Studien zur hist. und syst. Theol.; Bern, Frankfurt-am-M., Las Vegas: Peter Lang, 1978), 111.
[45]  I was impressed with this fact when researching for my paper ‘Divine Immutability’ in the symposium just noted, Cameron, ed., The Power and Weakness of God, 1–22.
[46]  Du Verbe incarné (Agnus Dei), vol. I of la Sagesse divine et la théanthropie (tr. Constantin Andronikof; Paris: Aubier, 1943), 54.
[47]  Dorner, A System of Christian Doctrine (tr. Alfred Cave & J.S. Banks; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1880), I,245. See p. 246: ‘If there is a really progressive world and history, God cannot have a relation, which is eternally similar only, to past, present, and future, as though they were one point. If to God a longer or a shorter duration is simply equivalent, upon which matter an inaccurate exegesis of Ps. xc.4 and 2 Pet. iii.8 has misled,—if “in relation to God one thing is not past, and another present, and another future, but everything collapses into one point in reference to God, into the present” [Philippi II,37,38]—then History is mere appearance, and devoid of valuable result.’ This follows a critique of Augustine’s dictum.
[48]  Malina, ‘Christ and Time’, 20 n. 38.
[49]  The Divine Institutes, book II,5, in the Ante-Nicene Christian Library, XXI: The Works of Lactantius I (tr. William Fletcher; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1871), 89.
[50]  Eternal in his human nature also. This Scotist view is popular today, as it suits the attempt to understand Christ’s deity in terms of his human nature. Ambiguity helps: the preexistence of the man Christ is affirmed but also qualified as ‘ideal’, ‘in God’s foreknowledge or design’; if we could give them their strict sense, these qualifications would bring us back to orthodoxy, but the context shows it is not the case.
[51]  So does the stimulating theologian Ted Peters, God as Trinity: Relationality and Temporality in Divine Life (Louisville, Ky; Westminster/John Knox, 1993).
[52]  Moltmann, The Theology of Hope, 271 [German 249–50].
[53]  Summa theol., Ia–IIae, Q.113, art.7 ad 5m: Mens autem humana … secundum se quidem est supra tempus.
[54]  James Barr, Biblical Words for Time, 117–18 n. 4, comes close to the reading we are suggesting, though he translates ‘ôlām ‘perpetuity’ rather than ‘eternity’ (the connotations of ‘eternity’, for his anti-Cullmannian stance, may be near to timelessness). He explains: ‘The reference to perpetuity would mean the consciousness of memory, the awareness of past events. The predicament of man is that he has this awareness, and yet cannot work out the total purpose of God.’
[55]  Summa theol., Ia, Q.10, art.1 ad 2m, and the mediating concept is that of life. That paragraph is very significant for our proposal: …quod est vere aeternum, non solum est ens, sed vivens: et ipsum vivere se extendit quodammodo ad operationem, non autem esse. Processio autem durationis videtur attendi secundum operationem, magis quam secundum esse.
[56]  This proposal implies that a distinction—not a separation—between God’s being and his acts (plural) be accepted, against the tradition of the Actus purus.
[57]  Van Til already broached the theme in his 1933 syllabus Metaphysics of Apologetics and came back to it here and there, e.g. An Introduction to Systematic Theology, vol. V of In Defense of the Faith/Biblical Christianity (s.l.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1974), 229ff. Cf. Rousas John Rushdoony, ‘The One and Many Problem—the Contribution of Van Til’, in E.R. Geehan, ed., Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til (s.l.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1971), 339–48; Raymond Perron, Cornelius Van Til et sa méthode apologétique (Ph.D. thesis, Faculté de Théologie, Université Laval, Québec, 1993), 78–80, 129–40.
[58]  André Malet, Personne et amour dans la théologie trinitaire de saint Thomas d’Aquin (Bibliothèque thomiste; Paris: J. Vrin, 1956), 99, 101 (St. Thomas realised he had to distinguish between id quod and id quo because of Trinitarian theology).
[59]  Quoted by Mouroux, Le Mystère du temps, 47 n. 39 (In Iam, X, disp. ix, ad 3, n. 33).
[60]  The Secret of the Universe: God, Man and Matter (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 195510), 20–29, 46–47.
[61]  Ricœur, Temps et récit, III,372.
[62]  Ricœur, Temps et récit,  III,372, n. 1.