Helm Critiques Frame’s Perspectival Theism

In The Doctrine of God (2002) we find Frame discussing God’s relationship to time and space. (The sections are reproduced almost verbatim in Frame’s recently published doorstopper, his one volume Systematic Theology. (On God and time compare pages 557f. of The Doctrine of God with pages 359f. of his Systematic Theology. He also has similar, though briefer things to his along these lines in his Salvation Belongs to the Lord; An Introduction to Systematic Theology (2oo6), 27-9) So these are long-held, re-affirmed views. Let’s look at them in order. First, the eternal God’s relation to time. Frame says this:

Obviously, God is unchangeable in his atemporal or supratemporal existence. But when he us present in our world of time he looks at his creation from within and shares the perspectives of his creatures. As God is with me on Monday, he views the events of Sunday as in the past, and the events of Tuesday (which, to be sure, he has foreordained) as future. He continues to be with me as Monday turns into Tuesday. So he views the passing of time as a process, just as we do.” (570-1)

So God ‘in his atemporal existence’ is unchangeable. In his temporal existence, he changes, as we do. He keeps in step with the unfolding of his creation. God himself changes. He changes as things in time change. This is one perspective, or one set of such, or mode of existence; the eternal, atemporal mode is another. And Frame is clear that these two perspectives, the eternal perspective and the temporal perspectives, cannot contradict each other. He says this, though he does not argue the point, not at least here. They are ‘two modes of existence’. (572)

But there is an obvious prima facie contradiction. God is atemporal, outside time, or without time. He knows all creaturely times from an atemporal point. But given creation, ‘He is not merely like an agent in time; he really is in time, changing as others change’. (571) God is in time; he has a temporal vantage point and a temporal agency like ours.

God transcends time, he is eternal, unchangeable, immutable. More than that, he is essentially eternal, unchangeable and immutable. That is, if he were to mutate, he would not be God.

—Paul Helm, “John Frame—God, Time, And Space

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  1. God the Son really is a man, because He became man. So He must really be in time as we are in time. This need not, of course, apply to God the Father, but it could well apply to God the Holy Spirit, as He is now the Vicar of Christ.

  2. Disclaimer: I have not read any of the books in view so may be asking a question answered by Helm:

    How do we see Jesus in the flesh, Jesus as God With Us, and not come to the same conclusion as Frame? The book of Hebrews certainly says that Jesus ‘became perfect’ and therefore experienced time as you and I do, and ‘mutated’ to borrow Helm’s term.

    Perhaps I am missing the point or failing to make a distinction where necessary, but help me understand.

    This is a great blog by the way, so thank you for what you do!

    grace and peace

  3. Correction: “But when he us [sic] present ….”

    Those statements sound odd to me. I would like to hear the justification or excuse from people who view Frame favorably.

    Don’t people get into trouble with churches for such statements?

  4. He also critiqued Oliphint in his previous post. I’m becoming increasingly afraid to rely on any post-17th century writers….

  5. While I disagree with the notion of time as being a flowing over spacial events (seriously, didn’t Einstein kill that one??), these concepts of “temporal” changeability are perfectly accurate and Biblical. Blog posts and comments are not the place for these extremely complex discussions. Read books.

    K. Scott Oliphint’s book “God with us” should clear it up for everyone– it’s a very tough volume, but that’s the price you pay for things that are worthwhile. He both responds to Paul Helm’s rather wild views as well as some of the missteps from the 17 the century.

    It’s also good to read different people to get a feel for the different terminology different people use. J.I. Packer, for example, talks about God being essentially immutable and relationally mutable (which should be obvious) and K. Scott Oliphint uses the term covenantal condescension (if one denies the _concept_, one has denied God’s interaction with us, thus the incarnation– and you are a capital H Heretic). It’s good to get used to the different terms people use– lest we get into another “only begotten” vs “unique”/”sin” vs. “trespass” terminology problem.

  6. A group from my church is going through these very sections of Frame’s Systematic on Thursday…so Helm’s comments come fresh after my reading.

    Frame’s discussion of “modes” of existence is, at the very least, troubling. Springboarding from Helm, here are some additional thoughts:

    Frame confesses these “two modes” of existence sounds like process theism, but dismisses it without elaboration. If God has two modes of existence, He has two essences. What of the Trinity, and when we speak of the incarnation, which nature of the Person of the Son is united to the human nature? How does the eternal mode interact with the temporal?

    Frame goes on to say that God’s temporal omnipresence allows Him perspectives from every vantage point – including our own. Does God “share” our perspective? Perspectives are shaped by a person’s disposition. One doesn’t see from another’s vantage point simply by trading locations. But let’s say God has a temporal “mode” – just how many divine consciousnesses are there?

    If God were to share our perspectives, this would confuse God with man…not just man…everything. This would arguably go further than process theism into pantheism.

    Further, our dispositions are tarnished by sin, so God cannot “share” our perspective, though He certainly has knowledge of it, indeed, He understands us better than we do.

    One can appreciate what Frame is trying to do – acknowledge God’s nearness to us and that He’s not “trapped” in the eternal unable to penetrate the temporal. Unfortunately, Frame functions from the principle he was out to oppose. If the created order is not closed on God’s end, then why would He need a “temporal mode”? The implication, clearly, would be the eternal cannot interact with the temporal! Oh the irony.

  7. Human nature is subject to change, so the Man Christ Jesus underwent change.

    However, predicating that same change to the divine nature of the Son engages us in the confusion of natures that Chalcedon meant to avoid. Here is the WCF affirmation of the same doctrine about 1200 yrs later:

    “So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion” 8:2

    GOD does not change–not with respect to this world, or to time, or any creature; not even in relation to himself. His unchangeableness is essential to his divinity. Num.23:19; 1Sam.15:29; Mal.3:6; Heb.13:8. Clearly, the last v. there is meant to bear witness to the divinity of Jesus, according to the hypostatic union. That divinity is expressed according as he is immutable. But evidently the Man Christ Jesus experienced changes, from every stage of his humiliation to his exaltation.

    We are not dealing with “accommodation” here; but with the overthrow of clarity fought for (and sometimes died for) by previous generations. Who owes what to whom?

    “Perspective” is inadequate to confront the above witness of Scripture. We might as well use “perspective” to excuse the recent attacks on Justification–after all, perhaps that whole issue boils down to whether we have a prospective viewpoint, or a retrospective one; and who’s to say which is “correct?”

    Does Historical Theology matter any more? Does it matter if we appreciate what battles for truth took place centuries ago? Why should we worry about our “rear,” since we defeated those ancient foes? All our contentions are in our face, right?

    Wrong. We shall find the God we are defending and proclaiming is not the God of our fathers at all, but some modern idol cast in the image of the sophists.

  8. I think the thing that worries me the most is that this “modified classical theism” is actually becoming the standard view among contemporary Reformed theologians. For example, see this post in defense of modified divine impassibility: Some Reformed Reflection on God’s Emotional Life (Part of a four part series.)

    One of the *many* problems is that we have lost our knowledge and familiarity with the original context of the classical doctrines of simplicity, impassibility, atemporality, etc. by letting the discipline of biblical theology usurp the traditional roles of systematic theology and philosophical theology. The result: our theology begins to look like our principium cognoscendi is at war with our principium essendi.

    Above, Alberto asks “Don’t people get into trouble with churches for such statements?” The answer, as of yet, seems to be “No.” And the same is unfortunately true in many seminaries as well.

    It is my prayer that we realize that our doctrine of God is just as vital to our faith as our doctrine of Scripture and that a “modified classical theism” is just as erroneous and dangerous as a modified doctrine of Scripture.

    What we are witnessing among the general evangelical and Reformed academic world regarding this modified classical theism will continue to spread into the pews by way of these authors’ popular writings and the ministers they are training.

    While the Reformed church and her seminaries are fairly diligent in protecting our principium cognoscendi (e.g., the Peter Enns controversy), I am afraid we have grown impotent in our defense of our principium essendi. However, I am grateful for men like Paul Helm who sound the alarm–as he did in the case of Peter Enns almost a decade ago. May we, once again, listen to these warnings carefully.

  9. Sounds more like something he “wanted” to believe than a belief that should be included in a systematic theology. It sounds like Frame’s comments/beliefs were pulled from “space.” (defintley not scripture)

  10. This is an interesting and important discussion, but we could have done without the Jabba the Hutt photo.

    • Clearly I HAVE done without it, because I haven’t the faintest idea what you are referring to.

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