Stands present to thy view;
To thee there's nothing old appears;
Great God! There's nothing new.
- Isaac Watts
I have not tried to count the number of times when I have read that Berkhofian systematic theology, and the idea of propositional revelation that underlies it, expresses the Christian faith as ‘timeless truth’, or as ‘timelessly true’, or even as ‘eternally true’. Those who say such things clearly regard timeless truth as a bad thing, something to be avoided at all costs, even at the cost of adopting a narrative or theodramatic or speech-act approach to revelation and theology. (I suspect that this charge, like others I have mentioned elsewhere, in connection with Charles Hodge, is passed from hand to hand rather unreflectively. Is it a case of 'proposition-denial', I wonder? I may be mistaken. We may then get to the bottom of things, though I am not hopeful.)
For it is hard to fathom what those with this distaste for the timelessness of truth really object to. I have yet to find critic who will state – timelessly or otherwise, clearly or fuzzily – what the problem is: why, if revealed truths are timeless, what’s so bad about that? So in the interests of furthering communication among those interested in systematic theological method I shall now attempt to try to work out what the timelessness charge is all about.
Timelessness and the eternity of God
In the mainstream Christian tradition – Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Edwards - God's existence is timeless, in the sense that he is outside time, without a past or future, existing in a timelessly eternal present. Despite what Isaac Watts invites us to sing, on this mainstream view divine eternity has no years, though everlastingness has all the years anyone could wish. It's because of this that for eternal God there's nothing new about the years of his creation. But it’s surely not in this sense of timelessness that some people think that the Berkhofian approach delivers ‘timeless truth’. After all, Berkhof himself isn’t timeless, as God is thought to be, and his Systematic Theology has a date of publication - 1939.
Still, if God is timelessly eternal then at least some propositions about him will be timelessly true in this very robust sense. God is timeless is presumably a timeless truth, if it is a truth. And whatever is essential to God will, in turn, be robustly timeless – God is just, God is love, God is one in three. Of course it may be that narrative theology and theodrama entail that God is in time. I certainly hope not. But even then God is just , if not timelessly eternal, is presumably true for all time, and so everlastingly true.
But let's suppose that one can be a theodramatist and still hold that God is timelessly eternal. As we've seen, such doubters about the viability of Berkhofianism who nevertheless believe that God is timeless will – like it or not – be committed to some timeless truths – perhaps to an infinite number of them. Nevertheless, I don’t get the feeling that the excoriation of ‘timeless truth’ is due to the thought that Berkhofianism commits one to the view that theological truth in general is timeless as the eternal God is timeless. I hope that I’m right about this too.
Timeless truth and the divine decree
In the Reformed tradition especially, everything is said to be timelessly decreed by God. On this view, all events, including all assertions, may be said to have an ‘eternal’ character, albeit in a rather stretched sense. Events occur in time, assertions are made in time, but each such occurrence is eternally decreed to happen. Does a particular view of scripture, propositional revelation, entail such a view of God's will, of his plan? Does Berkhofianism? Clearly not. Does the 'timeless' charge amount to saying that it does? I hope not. There are many who uphold the view that revelation is propositional who would vehemently deny that everything is eternally decreed by God. And I imagine that there are those who deny propositional revelation who nevertheless think that all things, including all assertions, are decreed by God.
Timeless truth and time
Having identified some obvious red herrings, let’s see if we can make progress.
Here’s what I have come to think. In saying that Berkhofianism is committed to 'timeless truth' what the objectors have in mind is not the robust timelessness of God’s eternal existence, nor that associated with eternal divine decrees, but tenselessness. Copper expands when heated is a tenselessly true proposition. Of any time it is true that copper expands when heated. That truth is not true of some time rather than another (as There is presently a copper coin on the table is true of the present, or as I bought the copper kettle last Thursday is true of last Thursday). (Robust timelessness entails tenselessness but not vice versa.) What the objectors object to is timeless truth in the sense of tenseless truth that (they think) Berkhofianism is saddled with.
But if this is what they mean, that the truths of the Christian gospel are distorted by Berkhofianism into something that is true of all times, tenselessly true, then this also is wide of the mark.
Events in time, and statements about these events, are crucial to the Christian gospel. That Jesus Christ our Lord was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead and buried..... is true, is integral to our faith, wouldn’t you say? The truth of this set of sentences, the one just expressed in italics (let’s call it ‘A’) is about some particular time, or times, the time or times of the birth, suffering, and crucifixion of the Saviour, whenever exactly these times were.
So the idea that Berkhofianism commits one to eliminating all references to events from true statements about the Christian faith is simply crazy. A glance at the text of Berkhof will show how plainly false such an idea is. For example, in his discussion of the Incarnation he writes ‘His (The Son of God’s) active participation in this historical fact is stressed, and His pre-existence is assumed.’ (Systematic Theology, 333))
Nevertheless although A is true of a time or times when certain events occurred, the truth of A does not depend upon when A is stated. And most certainly it is not true only at the times to which it refers. For we may not know what those times are. Whenever people recite A as part of a Creed, and in whatever language they choose, they make a statement, or statements, which Christians believe to be true. Christians down the centuries, reciting A, have expressed the same truths. We may say this, then: that as regards the central affirmations of our faith, their truth is not affected in any way by when they are asserted. We might say of such assertions: once true, always true, permanently true. (Those with extra sensitive mental antennae kindly note that for present purposes I eschew considering the sense in which the Creed may be said to true before the events which it refers to occur. I don’t think this affects the present issue. In any case, one thing at a time.)
Is this what the worriers about timelessness have in mind, that the truths of the Christian faith are now forever true? Are they bothered by the thought that it is now true that A is true, and that it will always be? Surely not. Heaven forfend! What has happened to our faith if it is not now forever true that our Saviour was born of a virgin? Jesus stopped being born, he stopped suffering and so on, but the statements Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, Jesus suffered, etc. never stop being true.
Truth and theodrama
We see here, incidentally, one source of concern that Berkhofians have over current emphases on speech-acts, theodrama and the rest. For speech-acts and dramas are events. Are events true? They happen, but are they true? Clearly not. Paul asserted (with the help of his stylus), Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (Let’s call this ‘B’) Paul’s asserting B was an event. This does not entail that B is true. To focus on the fact that he uttered B, and upon parsing its theodramatic importance, while at the same time disparaging or downplaying propositional revelation, ('the Hodge-Henry hypothesis'), distracts us from the matter of truth.
It is true that Paul asserted B. But is B true? If we focus on what he asserted, rather on the fact that he asserted it, then we focus on the issue of truth or falsity. What he asserted moves to the centre of our attention, displacing interest in the fact that he asserted it. Isn’t this how it should be in our systematic understanding of the faith? Of course it is of some interest that Paul asserted B, that he did so when he did and in the context that he did. No doubt these things affect the meaning of what he asserted, and so help to determine what the truth is that he uttered. Attention to these things is part of the process of establishing what he wrote. Yet in our systematic theological endeavours we must repeatedly move from the assertions of scripture and the conditions under which they take place to what is asserted in them, the theological truth-content. From context to content.
For the big, significant fact is not that Paul asserted B, but that B is true, and that what he asserted is now and will forever be true and so is, in that sense, timeless. It is time-indifferent. To the extent that our attention is focused on the occurrence of events, utterances, or actions, to that extent we are distracted from issues of truth. Our attention is not on what is time-indifferent, but exclusively upon certain times, the times of the utterances or actions. There is a world of difference between the expressions ‘Paul wrote "Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners" at such a time and place for such and such readers’, and Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.
When we focus on the truth of what Paul asserted, rather than the fact that he asserted it, or facts about the fact of his asserting it, are we abstracting? Is what Paul asserted, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, abstract? Clearly it is: it is abstracted from the original occurrence of the speech-act, the original assertion: it is the content of that assertion. We may not know the original setting of B. Does that stop us from presently asserting it? We may not have a notion about when the so-called Apostles' Creed was formulated. I certainly don't. Having abstracted this content, the fact of the matter that Jesus came into the world to save sinners, or was born of the virgin Mary, these assertions then becomes available for re-asserting.
We can see from this that abstracting the cognitive content of the event from Paul’s assertion is not a failing. It is not a weakness of the idea of propositional truth that such truths are 'abstract'. Rather, their being abstract is a strength. It is necessary if we are to be in the position of considering the truth of such assertions, and of asserting them today and tomorrow. So they must be abstract. But is our abstracting of them an act of detachment? Are we, in abstracting them, and then confessing them, detaching ourselves from them? Are they then of merely theoretical interest? Whoever would think such a thing? Cannot one's conscience be bound to the word of God when one makes such affirmations?
Here’s what is puzzling. The critics of Berkhofianism, it seems, are not worrying about whether or not God is timelessly eternal, nor about whether he timelessly decrees everything that comes to pass. Or if they are worrying about these things, these worries are clearly separate matters from the question of the nature of divine revelation. They seem to be worrying about the idea that Berkhofianism is committed to the elimination of events from theology. But surely not. I dare to presume and hope that they are not worrying about the fact that the historical events which, Christians claim, are at the heart of their faith, expressed in credal formulae and in other such ways, are, once they are formulated, forever and so time-indifferently true. They are available for confession, for praise and worship and for much else, at any time.
So then, if we are agreed that about, what are those who are bothered about the connection between propositional revelation and timeless truth worrying about? Can anyone say?