Protestantism And A Human Understanding Of Time

Sorry for being a little polemical but if y’all know me y’all know I can’t help it.

When I played fantasy apologetical debates in my head–as one does–the other day, I was struck by the fact that many Protestant doctrines (i.e. “errors”) are in fact the result of having a human, rather than divine, understanding of time. We humans experience time one-dimensionally. But we know for a fact that time is not actually one-dimensional; and to God, certainly, it isn’t. If God is truly id quo maius nihil cogitari potest and ipsum esse existens, He transcends time.

Of course, thinking about time in a divine way is incredibly hard (impossible), since we only experience time in this limited, one-dimensional way. (A classic: “Jesus was begotten of the Father before time began.” Wait–“before” time began??) This to me highlights the necessity of receiving the Gospel within an inspired Tradition as a deposit of faith, for fear of putting our own human interpretive lenses on it without even realizing it (which is what we do when we “humanize” time).

Anyway, here are a couple points:

Predestination vs Free Will. This is the obvious one, right? (And yes, I know not all Protestants have a Calvinistic view of Predestination, but it is a Protestant view. And you know Calvinists are my (beloved) whipping boys.) How is predestination compatible with human free will? In a linear view of time, of course it’s not. But in a non-linear view of time, of course it is. Everything is predestined, but God, who experiences every moment of time simultaneously, can always “go back” (emphasis on the quotes) and take our free will into account of His predestination. (This is one thing on which Rob Bell is very good. It’s funny how (like universalism) what looks to Evangelicals like dangerous heretical innovation looks to a Catholic like a return to hallowed tradition.)

The sacrificial character of the Mass. When Protestants hear that Catholics view Mass as a sacrifice, they hear something like: “Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross was neat and everything, but it wasn’t enough to redeem all humanity, and we still need more sacrifice to truly redeem us.” (Which, in the penal view of atonement, can even be made to say “We still need more sacrifice to appease God’s divine wrath”, which sounds downright pagan.) This is seen as radically diminishing the perfect and total nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Now, if you’re a Catholic and you’re not in “apologetical warrior” mode, you realize that this is an aporia that you actually have to grapple with: isn’t Christ’s sacrifice enough? Again, it seems to me, the problem is a human-bound understanding of time. Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross wasn’t (or wasn’t just) a discrete moment in time. Before Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross there was brokenness, and after sin was defeated once and for all. Now there’s obviously a sense in which that is true, because God acts within history and through history (that’s the whole point of Biblical revelation, after all), but we have to understand that because God transcends human-time-bound concepts of “before” and “after” and “once and for all” that can’t be the whole story. Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is eternal. Because God experiences every moment of time simultaneously (or “simultaneously”), for God, there isn’t a moment “before” the Cross and a moment “after” the Cross. The sacrificial character of the Mass, then, is about us sharing in this divine sacrifice, which is made possible because (through the communion of saints) Christ’s sacrifice exists for all eternity. Once you look at this from that lens, sin/redemption accounting questions about whether Christ’s sacrifice is “enough” are not just resolved, they’re completely moot.

Grace and justification. This one is a big deal. And it’s the one where it’s hardest to make the point I want to make, because there’s a lot of nuance there. And I apologize ahead of time if you feel that I am (and I might be!) strawmanning a little bit, because my beef here is more with simplistic accounts of grace and salvation, of the “perseverance of saints” and of “once saved, always saved.” Again, the problem here is to see time in this totally human way, where “before” and “after” are rigid, unmovable categories. In this account, once you are saved by grace (alone!) through faith (alone!) you are saved period forever. No need for these fancy sacraments and works and all the rest. Now again I don’t want to overdo this because there is an extent to which that’s certainly true: that as believers we receive a new birth in Christ, freed from bondage to sin. Again, God acts within history and within our understanding of time (indeed has our understanding of time through Christ). But that can’t be the whole story. To God, our lives are not a line, and God sees all of it as one coherent whole. Grace does not just happen at one specific moment in time, and neither does justification. Indeed we are saved by grace and receive a new birth in Christ, but we must also spend our lives cooperating with God’s grace at work in our lives.

Those are the ones I’ve got. Any more?


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  • mochalite

    First, I am completely charmed by the “y’all,” which says you are a brother of the East Tennessee soil, even if you’ve never been here. Of course, I agree with your vision of our mind-time limitations. I enjoy “think like God” experiments, which usually end up with me dizzy. Fun, though! I figure when I pass from this life, it’s going to be into a multi-billion-faceted crystal, and I’m going to spend eternity going “Wow!” and being thrilled to be next to Jesus and everyone else I have loved across time and space, ours, prior, yet to come.

    I have no problem at all with the three issues you cite, being happy to accept that our space-time limitations are pretty much all that separate Prots-Caths on them. So, what DO I have a problem with about Catholicism? Two things:

    The equation of tradition, church authority, and scripture results, to me, in passive parishoners, waiting for pre-chewed explications of God’s word. You’ve joked before about Catholics knowing nothing about the Bible, but I fear it’s true for most. They’re not taught that scripture is something that individual believers are supposed to wrestle with, get dizzy with, eat, laugh about, live in. Baptists (my upbringing) are wrong about many things, but I’ll always thank them for giving me that mind. I couldn’t do without it!

    The weirdly overdone devotion to Mary. I feel bad writing that, because I know she was great, but I find nothing in the Bible to indicate that she was sinless, let alone herself being the product of a virgin birth. In fact, the rule of scripture is that God continually uses faulty people to accomplish his ends. I find it actually kind of insulting to Mary to deny her humanity by so elevating her.

    Oh, one more: when I worship in a Catholic church, I cannot receive communion. I sort of get why, but not really. It seems exclusionary in a nasty little way, again predicated on the church authority thing … I can’t be trusted to judge my own heart in standing before the Lord in worship. That one is kind of sad.

    Otherwise, I love my Catholic brothers and sisters and am happy to worship with them! And, now, the big question: what is that gorgeous painting?

    • Thanks for your comment, and your points on Catholicism. All of these are very well taken.

      W/r/t Scripture and Tradition, I certainly agree that the Church has not been perfect at catechizing most her children, in loving Scripture–and in much else besides.

      But if you’ve been to Catholic Mass, you’ll have seen that a Mass typically has a lot more Scripture in it than a typical Evangelical service, with four readings (typically OT, Psalm, Epistle, NT). And the liturgy itself is Scripture-soaked: just one example, before we go to receive communion, we say “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but say one word and your servant will be healed”, which is Matt 8:8. And that shouldn’t be surprising, since the Bible was originally compiled…by the Catholic Church for use in its liturgy.

      The idea that Tradition makes Catholics unquestioning….I don’t know. I’m sure that was a problem in the past, but looking at the religious landscape, at least in the West, I would say a bigger problem is what we call “cafeteria Catholicism” where everybody feels entitled to pick and choose what they do and don’t believe. Either you believe that Jesus founded a Church and gave its apostles authority to teach, or you don’t. In her wisdom, the Church has laid down a few things and given us a lot of freedom inside those boundaries, but I think it’s good that there are boundaries.

      Again, big topic.

      W/r/t Mary, doesn’t she say “all generations shall call me blessed” (Lk 1:48)? Seems like the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox) are fulfilling that command pretty well…

      Does not the angel call her “full of grace” (Lk 1:28)? In Luke, which is a Gospel filled with Temple theology, this expression is not innocent: what is “full of grace” is the holy of holies of the Temple of Jerusalem. Luke (and the angel) are saying that Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant, the new dwelling place of God. She is the link between the Old Testament and the New Testament: in the Old Testament, Israel, the other party to the divine Covenant, is portrayed as a woman, and this woman is both virgin and mother: it’s Mary. Mary is the New Israel, who as a Jew is born of the Old Covenant and through whom the New Covenant begins. Venerating her is the most Biblical thing you can imagine. And, of course, what about Rev 11 & 12, where Mary is portrayed as the Queen of Heaven?

      Again, this is a big topic, and one on which I plan to write a lot more. First of all, the Catholic Church doesn’t teach that Mary was the product of a virgin birth, only that she was conceived without the stain of original sin. In fact, you get at precisely the reason why I like the dogma of the Immaculate Conception so much. Is it to “deny her humanity” to say that Mary was sinless? Of course, Jesus was also conceived without sin, and we believe that HE was fully human. That’s the whole point: we’ve equated “human” with “frail”, “weak”, “fallible” (“I’m only human after all”), and that is what we are under the Fall, but that is not what we TRULY are in God’s design and are destined to be in the Kingdom. There is no doubt that the Biblical theme is God working through man, instead of by decree. But with the Immaculate Conception, the Church loudly proclaims that our TRUE humanity is not our fallen humanity–to the contrary, it is the humanity of Jesus, the sinless and perfect one, and of his ever-holy mother.

      And with regard to communion: does Paul not tell us to “discern the body” lest we bring judgement upon ourselves (1 Cor 11:29)? The Catholic Church believes that the bread and wine of communion are truly the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Do you believe this? If yes, swim the Tiber and receive Him! If no, why do you care?

      Anyway, again, there’s a lot more to be said, and those are actually some topics I care about and am planning to write more about in the future.

      • mochalite

        Answering in reverse. First, the Baptists would be proud of you … a message followed by an invitation! Haha. I follow you right along in each of these points until the conclusion of each.

        So, regarding communion, I care because I believe the Lord’s Supper is just that … the Lord’s, not a church’s, and it should be open to any professing Christian who follows the dictate to examine himself so that he doesn’t eat and drink unworthily and fail to discern the Lord’s body in the sacrament. Paul didn’t say “have the church fathers examine you to deem you worthy.” Your piece on “Which authority do you love?” was excellent. For me, it always comes down to the authority of scripture and the Holy Spirit’s active role in my life. I can’t pass that off to any person or organization. So, I’m okay with the Catholic view of communion excluding me because, in fact, I am not in communion with them on this issue; but then, I’m not quite okay with it, because I’m sad that any person would look at me and somehow judge me unqualified to commune … something only God can judge.

        Re Mary: Again, I’m with you on Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant, the bearer of Christ, the OT/NT link. But I can’t get from that to perpetual virginity, bodily ascension, and certainly not to co-redemptrix. Mary, in the Magnificat, admits her sinful nature in saying that she needed a savior. I read Scripture on her (including Rev.) as she an amazingly special job and was blessed for hearing God and obeying. But Jesus himself in Lk. 11 says that all who hear and obey are blessed … in fact, mildly rebuking the person who particularized it to Mary. She’s wonderful, and was a fabulous example of a willing vessel (feminist screams drown me out here) but I can’t find anything in the Bible that makes her co-anything with the Trinity.

        Finally, I’m definitely a fan of Scripture-soaked liturgy. I’ve been Presbyterian for many years, in a church that uses the lectionary, sings ancient hymns (thank God, no 7-11 praise music) and recites creeds and ancient prayers. I love my Bible geek class, where we pore over Scripture verse by verse … we’ve been in Genesis since September, and are only on Ch. 27. It’s just so wonderful! I’ll admit that as a whole, Protestants probably give more lip service to Bible immersion than actual practice, so we may be little better than Catholics on that. I imagine we have as many parishoners as you do who just show up and listen to what the pastor has prepared. Sad for them … they miss a lot of good times.

        Now, the one question you didn’t answer … what is that beautiful painting?

        • I’ll just state for the record that the Catholic Church does not proclaim that Mary is co-redemptrix and certainly not that she’s equal to the Trinity. It’s just that, as somebody said, there’s a commandment to honor thy mother, and Jesus takes it seriously! She does reign as Queen of Heaven, NOT as equal to God, but simply as the greatest saint. She is the masterpiece of God’s creation.

          Why did God assume her into Heaven? Because Jesus loves her and wants to be with her. She’s “the first on the way” as one of our hymns say; all it means is that she experiences the bodily resurrection and union with God that we will. It’s not a magic superpower. It’s just the way it is.

          In any case, it’s always a pleasure chatting with you.

          Now as for the painting…click on it and find out!

          • mochalite

            You too, and oh, wow … that’s embroidery! Absolutely amazing.

          • #CatholicArt

          • But to say co-redemptrix is not to say equal-redemptrix. E.g.,the Church does say married couples co-operate with God to make babies. It doesn’t mean they are equal to God, but that their opera, their work, is essential.

          • Sure. But the Church has never proclaimed Mary as co-redemptrix.

          • Guest

            The Church afaik hasn’t said much either way, but it comes up constantly.

          • The Church afaik hasn’t said much either way, but it comes up constantly. I get it a lot from Sola Scrips.

  • Scott Harmon

    I’m not a theologian, but was under the general impression that Calvin based much/most of his doctrine of pre-destination on St. Augustine. Second, while the stuck-in-time versus all-times-at-once perspective helps provide some hints, so too does a clearer distinction drawn by your beloved between election and sovereignty – which focus on teleosity, purposeness or plan – versus free will or choice in individual circumstances, which are clearly not ‘free’ in any broader, communal sense.

    • Calvin may have “based” his doctrine of predestination on Augustine. He clearly did not understand what Augustine was saying, however.

      • Scott Harmon

        How did he misunderstand Augustine? I must confess I was ignorant of Augustine’s writings on the subject (we tend to stop at Calvin!) until listening to a Great Book course from Phillip Cary, who is a noted Augustine scholar. While there may be differences, he left me with the impression that Calvin was fairly faithful to A’s views. [Not trying to be snarky, just genuinely curious.]

  • Scott Harmon

    A little more context on Augustine’s doctrine of double-predestination (with some sola scriptura thrown in for measure)…

  • In 6th grade catechism, beginning with Genesis we discuss how God is outside of time.

    • Dan13

      How does that go over with the kids? I’ve always found it a bit tough to wrap my head around, and I’d imagine that 11-year-old me would be baffled. I think PEG does a good job as any on it though.

  • oregon nurse

    “Those are the ones I’ve got. Any more?”

    The one that blows me away is – Mary is the mother of God.

  • Beth Turner

    Yeah, creationism is one that comes to mind. It seems like there’s a lot of potential pitfalls in the way we think about how the world was created in time.

  • Kasoy

    Grace and Justification

    Similar analogy given by God to Catherine of Siena (The Dialogue).

    Due to Adam’s sin, the door of heaven was locked. There is nothing man can do to unlock it. All the good deeds he can do is never sufficient to open the door. Christ became man and offered Himself as sacrifice to the Father. This sacrifice of a God-man was sufficient to satisfy God’s justice and God gave Christ the key to unlock the door. Now Christ gives a key to heaven to each man to enable him to enter the door of heaven. This is justification – man is now justified such that he is now capable of entering heaven using the key. The only question now is: will man use the key to enter heaven, OR will he disregard the key or even throw it away and refuse to enter heaven? (He has to choose life or death.)

    Justification means that Christ has satisfied the demands of God’s justice that enables man to enter heaven, if he so chooses.

    Why does Christ need to become man and be crucified?

    1. Man committed sin. A sin, no matter how insignificant, is an offense against an infinite Being (God). By God’s justice, it requires infinite suffering to satisfy it.
    2. But man is a finite being. The only ways he can satisfy for his sin are:
    a) suffer pain that is infinite in intensity (impossible for man), or
    b) suffer a finite pain for an infinite duration (forever be damned)
    3. God, however, wants man to attain the purpose for which He created them, ie, eternal happiness.
    4. The solution: The Son of God, infinite in nature being God, must suffer in behalf of man. But God cannot suffer. So The Son of God must become man (as Jesus) in order to suffer pain.
    5. Jesus suffers temporal, finite pain, but such pain welded with His infinite nature (being God) is equal to infinite pain that satisfies God’s justice. He paid for all sins (past, present, future.)
    6. After Christ’s death, man continues to commit sins. Yes, Christ has paid the price for his sins (even future sins), but man has to choose now to be sorry for his sins or to continue in his obstinacy in order to be truly saved.

    [St Augustine said: God created man without him, but He will not save man without him.]


    [A good reference is: The Glories of Divine Grace by Fr Matthias Joseph Scheeben]

    If man is already justified by Christ’s death, why do we still need grace?
    As I said previously, justification does not necessarily mean automatic salvation. Man still has to choose life or death. Man already has the key to heaven, but will he use the key to enter heaven? After Christ’s death, man continues to commit sins. But man has an easier way to salvation because Christ has already justified him. Man just needs to be sorry for his sins and once again he is in the state of salvation.

    There are two types grace: sanctifying grace and actual grace.

    Sanctifying Grace

    Sanctifying grace is that brings man to a state of salvation or sanctification, ie, if he dies in that state he goes to heaven. Committing mortal sin removes sanctifying grace and puts man in the state of damnation or state of mortal sin, ie, if he dies in that state he goes to hell. [The only time that we receive sanctifying grace without any effort on our part is at the time of our baptism. Baptism bestows on us sanctifying grace. It follows that original sin means the absence of sanctifying grace upon our birth.] After Baptism, man can lose sanctifying grace by committing a mortal sin. He can recover it back in two ways: a) confession and sincere resolve to amend life, b) perfect contrition even without confession.

    Contrition may be perfect or imperfect. A contrition that is based on a) fear of punishment or hell, or b) fear of loss of reward or heaven is imperfect because there is still that self-love in such a contrition. A perfect contrition is being sorry for offending an infinitely good God, being so ashamed of being a persona non-grata, an ingrate. It does not have any trace of self-love, only love of God.

    [Note: The types of contrition have a parallel in the types (stages) of love. The fear of punishment is to servile love. The fear of loss of reward (heaven) is to mercenary love. The perfect contrition is to perfect love or filial love.]

    Actual Grace

    Actual grace is that “light” or inspiration (invitation) to do good. This is always given by God to everyone regardless of his state (state of sanctification or state of mortal sin). Accepting this inspiration always results in man receiving merits. Merits determine the degree of glory (joy) that man will have in heaven – more merits, more joy. Saints in heaven have different degrees of glory. Mary the Mother of God surely has the highest degree of glory among men in heaven.

    Note though that grace is always a gift of God. It is never merited. Merits that we receive for doing good are also always gifts of God. God is never mandated to give us anything. He does not owe man anything. Everything He gives, He gives gratis – out of His infinite goodness. So in this sense, man cannot truly merit his salvation. Salvation is always attained out of God’s mercy and goodness.

    Although we are justified by Christ’s death, we still need to strive to do good while we are still on earth (avoiding sin, doing good acts, prayers, contrition for our sins).

    I may try to comment later on the other issues in this article (predestination and sacrificial Mass) if you are interested to read it.

    I belatedly traced this article in your blog through Leah’s blog (Unequally Yoked).