Why do we usually talk of eternity past but rarely eternity future? Is it because we want to preserve the idea (an inert, dead, and Deistic one, at that) of eternity existing before time—as if all of eternity is already done beforehand—set in stone and predetermined? We sometimes try to rescue the inherent silliness of using before in reference to eternal things by saying that when we use these words of priority in the context of the eternal, we mean the before of logical priority and not the before of time.
Yet when we use phrases like “eternally prior”1 (with not even a nod to how strange the concept of eternal temporality is), we allow the reader to take his pick of what (or when) we mean by that priority. And lest we forget, and since we are prone to: even logical priority in this sense is also based on humanity’s finiteness in space and therefore time. Without time, which comes from our being smaller than space (i.e., having a location), even logic would be instantaneous, unitary, and non-linear.
Therefore, no before or after actually exists in eternity—neither logically nor chronologically.
The Pedagogy of Eternal Past and Eternal Future
Shouldn’t that be obvious? If you could talk about eternity as before, either chronologically or logically, would it not be just as sensical to talk of eternity being after? If you could speak of eternity as the logical place for only first premises, could it not naturally also be the logical place for only the final conclusion? And the oddness of considering eternity happening after time or posterior to its premises should inform you of how similarly strange it is to say things like “eternally prior.”
Why do we feel the need to terminate our inquiry at a half-truth concerning God’s logic by insisting that, in any other sense than pedagogically, one of God’s thoughts came before or after another within his perfectly indivisible simplicity?
We have been fooled into thinking that the Teacher’s aid— pedagogical anthropomorphism, which comprises humankind and creation—is the Teacher Himself, and encompasses all that He has to teach us. This is the first step toward idolatry: “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Romans 1:25).
Of course no one can deny that we understand God at first only through the pedagogy of His image (i.e., humankind) or His art (i.e., creation). The most revelatory of God’s teaching aids is humankind—whose every thought needs prioritizing and whose every word needs chrono-linear ordering. Creation also functions under time and its linear logic.
Given these realities and our acclimation to them, some of us have been tricked, sometimes accidentally, into limiting God similarly to the chrono-linear order we discern in our minds and in the world. But we must not forget, in our learning through God’s image and mouthpieces, that the images and the mouthpieces are not themselves God, and there is yet more to learn of God than humankind or creation alone could ever teach us.
On Thinking God’s Eternal Thoughts After Him
Looking into creation and considering humankind is not to think God’s thoughts after Him. One simply cannot think God’s thoughts after Him, in fact. Remember that this idea, which is so ready on so many of our tongues and is often misrepresented as coming from the Bible, does not come to us from God. It comes from Johann Kepler the Astronomer and lover of Science, who imagined like George Meredith that the stars were “the brain of heaven.” It was Newton’s and Kepler’s sincere science, once beheaded of its divine devotion by Occam’s razor, that became the midwife of Deism, who then, once grown, whored herself out first to Skepticism and then to Unbelief, who together have abused and disfigured sincere science almost beyond recognition.
That’s not to say “thinking God’s thoughts after him” is untrue simply for its human origin or its apparent trajectory of error, but even still shouldn’t we at least consider its origin and trajectory? Kepler got at half the truth: “eternity past.” But to say he got half the truth and stopped there satisfied is also to say that, in a sense, he got none of the truth, for the truth is indivisible and personal.2
So, to get to the point, there is no after God’s thoughts, just as there is no mere eternity past. Rather, we are in God’s single thought—a part of it, along with all the rest of creation.
Jesus, through whom and for whom all things were made, could not be human alone, in other words, or we would get no further with him than we do on our own. Jesus had to be the Teacher, and not merely the teacher’s aid. He could not be just another “basically good Rabbi” or “basically good person,” no matter how submissive and non-prepossessing his appearance was at first. So, focusing on Jesus the God-man, we must beware of two temptations toward error that stem from the dual reality of our both being limited in time and having eternity in our hearts and on our minds.
We must beware of the first error, of focusing on eternity as only in the past; and we must beware of the second error, focusing on eternity as only yet to come.
Here are the consequences of both errors: If you focus on eternity past, you start to think about God as an object. Perhaps, and especially after the scientific revolution, you might go so far as to say that God simulates life like a machine or a computer, but practically and essentially, He is inanimate to you nonetheless.
If, on the other hand, you focus entirely on eternity future, you start to think about God as an amorphous, but still impersonal force. This error was less common a few generations ago, but it has greater currency in our more pantheistic and pluralist age.
But, whether you speak of eternity past or eternity future, the whole truth is in neither of these.
God and the Person Jesus
The truth: God is the person. Not an object or calculating machine. Not an impersonal force or impulse. The person.
The character of His person gives Him consistency. Sometimes his character operates with such unswerving consistency that he starts to seem to us immobile as a stone.
But don’t forget in those moments, when you are tempted to believe the lie of the Cosmic Clockmaker, that His affections give Him choice, and His choices give Him spontaneity. In fact, His affections can give Him such spontaneity that He sometimes starts to seem to some of us like a force—an impulse as fickle and inscrutable as the wind.
But don’t forget in those moments, when you are tempted into humanism, naturalism, pluralism, pantheism, or the like, that God’s spontaneous and free personal character also has no shadow of turning.
As the person, He is spontaneous.
As the person, He is consistent.
As the person, He is committed.
As the person, He is free.
Not a machine. Not a force. The person.
Only by viewing God through Jesus the Messiah do we capture both senses (eternity past joined to eternity future) together and believe neither on its own. Jesus, who set his face like flint toward Jerusalem is the same Jesus who wept that Jerusalem would not come under his brooding wings. The same Jesus who said only the Father knew of the last times also said the thief would certainly be that day with him in Paradise. Jesus, who cursed the fig tree, fruitless out of season, and whipped the money changers out of the Gentiles’ court also slept like a stone during a thunder storm and didn’t say a word in his defense before his accusers. Jesus who was with the Father in eternity past is the same Jesus who, for the joy set before him in eternity future, was obedient to the point of death in the fullness of time. Jesus who fills all things—things below and things above, things before and things after. Jesus, the I AM (John 8:58).
He is as if He has already chosen, as if He is choosing, and as if He has yet to choose. He lives in the only eternal, all-encompassing moment. Jesus the Word: living and active. But also Jesus the Word: permanent and unchangeable. Jesus the Word: both ancient and everlasting. Jesus the Word: new every day, fresh until the end, older than time.
Setting Time Over Eternity: the Ordo Salutis
Time is within eternity and has its communion in that submission, not vice versa, though eternity did in time condescend to make that communion possible. For how could time ascend to eternity? Time presses on but never reaches the end. The infinite had to come to the finite, or they would never have met. It could never have been otherwise.
Yet what have we done? We have unwittingly set Time and her sister Logic over eternity. We have set either the eschatological future (or the heavenly logic that attends it) or the eternal past (or the logic of its eternal decrees) over eternity—to define, limit, and explain eternity. As if eternity should forever labor under the yoke of time and its strict family of categories, rather than that time should submit to the work of eternity and therefore be freed from sin and death at last.
So, concerning the ordo salutis, the so-called “order of salvation,” I can only ever stomach its application to history, and only if those who use it to talk about “how salvation was worked out in time” are willing to recognize that its order may in fact vary from person to person and from people to people. In other words, the ordo salutis of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (where Christian goes through the “Narrow Gate” before he loses his burden at the Cross) is specific to John Bunyan’s own personal experience, as he himself said. And there is of necessity many orders of salvation (with some regularity) in the lives of individuals and nations.
But, in eternal terms, there can be no order of salvation as we have understood it. “Foreknew” and “glorified” are both alike past, present, and future tense eternally. The future is already certain and fixed history on one hand, and on the other hand, history like the future is also alive with the shifting possibilities of our most glorious expectations. An order is for time as it plays out, and an order is for those things which belong to time (“under the sun”).
An order is not for God, but from Him. God does not have an order. He orders. His order is drawn from His affections, and therefore His order is not inanimate, but personal (in every sense). Remember again He is also complete liberty—perfect spontaneity. And it is for this freedom that He set us free. And it is for this righteous life that He made us alive.
Two Legs, One Body
So we ask of this freedom and this life, going back to this question of eternal decrees: is it God’s Spirit planted in us that makes us alive and free, or is it our spirit born in Him that gives us life and freedom? Don’t answer too quickly. It is both, always both, for “foreknew” and “glorified” are already united together in Christ, in whom we find ourselves forever alive if we believe into Him.
Just as humans have two legs and not a single trunk, so our union with Christ has two legs, conforming to one being. It is his seed bearing fruit in us and our seed being born by and in him: two seeds, two trunks, one tree; two legs, one body.
“No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” (1 John 3:9)
The seed of Him, His Word, he planted in us, and the seed bears the fruit of the Holy Spirit. The seed of us He planted in the heart of Himself, in Jesus the Messiah, so that we are growing to maturity and being born by and in Him. The seed he planted in us comes to us from eternity, yet brings forth its fruit in time. The seed we are in him came to him from time only after our conception, yet has always been and will always be known, loved, and provided for in eternity.