Lewis on the Trinity - First Steps, Part 2
3. Time and Beyond Time
Lewis begins this chapter by admitting that it may not be helpful to some, and encouraging them to skip it, though how they would know whether to skip it or not without first reading it I don’t know – perhaps if you just read the first three paragraphs. That is what I did and, of course, it only served to pique my curiosity so I read on. Apparently many others have as well, because here I found what has seems, at least in my experience, to be the prevailing notion, in Christian circles, of how God in his eternity intersects and relates with man in time.
He first addresses the idea many have that God cannot possibly listen to all the millions of prayers that must be offered to him at any given moment. Lewis responds that the problem lies in our concept of time and that - in so many words -God is not constrained to a time sequence as we are, and has all eternity to mull over each individual prayer at his leisure.
"Almost certainly God is not in Time. His life does not consist of moments following one another…God is not hurried along in the Time-stream of thisI have no real problem with any of that, as he doesn’t claim to have it all figured out, and qualifying it as he does with the statement that God "contains the whole line." It seems to be an adequate way of attempting to grasp the nearly incomprehensible, as long as one remembers that it’s simply that, a weak attempt. And it is should be adequate to put an end to the cavils of some who actually think God doesn't have time to be bothered with them.
universe any more than an author is hurried along in the imaginary time of his own novel. He has infinite attention to spare for each one of us. He does not have to deal with us in the mass. You are as much alone with Him as if you were the only being He had ever created. When Christ died, He died for you individually just as much as if you had been the only man in the world."
"If you picture Time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn…God, from above or outside or all round, contains the whole line, and sees it all."
From here Lewis wades into murkier waters:
"God has no history. He is too completely and utterly real to have one. For, of course, to have a history means losing part of your reality (because it had
already slipped away into the past) and not yet having another part (because it
is still in the future): in fact having nothing but the tiny little present, which has gone before you can speak about it, God forbid we should think God was like that."
These are purely philosophical constructs that may or may not be the case. We have no way of understanding how God perceives Himself in general, and how He "experiences" time in particular, outside of what He tells us, which isn’t much. We do know from Scripture that for Him, "a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day." I hardly think that is meant to be used as a literal conversion table (ie. making the six creation days six thousand years in human years). Rather, we are to understand that time means something very different to us than to Him. Anything beyond that is speculation. Lewis seems, at least to some extent, to understand that. Unfortunately, for many folks who hold Lewis’ views it’s dogma.
As he moves on from here, he bumps right up against the barrier of free-will. Some folks will never think this through at all, but many others, as soon as they hear that God knows their decisions before they make them will ask – "How then can our decisions be free? Surely, if God knows what will happen, then it is set in stone and I have no choice." Here I find Lewis’ explanation unhelpful, as it positions God as a mere observer, who knows what will happen simply because He’s there in the future already watching it – "He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you. In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already ‘Now’ for Him." I find the notion that God knows history like someone who’s already seen the movie to be an entirely insufficient way to think of the One who writes, directs, and acts in it - so to speak.
So, I object to part, but not all, of Lewis’ understanding of God’s relation to time, and do find it in some ways helpful; at the very least in helping to create a new thought category for folks who may really think of God as a person constrained by the limits of time (and space, which is another aspect of eternity – that Lewis only faintly hints at). There is a potentially serious problem with his view in that the suggestion that all of God’s "history" exists for all eternity implies that there is a sense in which Creation is also, in a manner of speaking, eternal – and so are we. I’ve heard Christians tell their children who ask, "Where was I before I was born?" answer, "In the mind of God." I don’t dicker, because I know what they mean, sort of. It's a rather sweet and charming response. But that statement has the same problem. It implies our own eternal existence – as though we, like Christ, have co-existence with God from all eternity. It’s as though we’ve always existed, in seminal form at least, in the mind of God; or worse, it could imply that each present moment exists eternally for God, which actually would make us eternal. I would not go so far, and I’m going to hope and assume Lewis would not either.
Lewis is careful here to remind us "it is not in the Bible or any of the creeds. You can be a perfectly good Christian without accepting it, or indeed without thinking of the matter at all." Ah…well, some of us are doomed to think – it must be so - and boy can that line of thinking get us into trouble if we’re not very careful, if we’re not very faithful to the limits Scripture places on our speculations!
4. Good Infection
This section is simply beautiful, a real Lewis gem. Here as he stretched to explain the co-eternal nature of the Godhead, in particular the Father’s eternal begetting of the Son, my heart was lifted up to worship:
"We say that the First begets or produces the second; we call it begetting, not making, because what He produces is of the same kind as Himself. In that way the word Father is the only word to use. But unfortunately it suggests that He is there first – just as a human father exists before his son. But that is not so.
There is no before and after about it…The Son exists because the Father exists;
but there never was a time before the Father produced the Son….we must think of
the Son always, so to speak, streaming forth from the Father, like… thoughts
from a mind. He is the self-expression of the Father – what the Father has to
say. And there never was a time when He was not saying it….Much the most important thing to know is that it is a relation of love. The Father delights in His Son; the Son looks up to His Father."
And what follows about love is lovely:
"…the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love. Of course, what these people mean when they say that God is love is often something quite
different: they really mean ‘Love is God.’ They really mean that our feelings of
love, however and wherever they arise, and whatever results they produce, are to
be treated with great respect."
Before my husband and I were married, we were, for two years, merely friendly acquaintances. We genuinely liked each other, but for numerous reasons never considered each other as potential mates; that is, until circumstances threw us together in close proximity for a period of several days. Over the course of those days our enjoyment in each other’s company grew and began to surprise us. Soon it began to feel like there was another entity, almost palpable, in the room with us whenever we were together. Neither of us spoke of it, certain it was in our imaginations. Like an elephant in the room, however, we weren’t able to ignore it forever, and finally both acknowledged it was there. That thing was love. And that experience makes me able to embrace the truth and beauty of how Lewis describes the eternal nature and God-hood of the third Person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit:
"…God is not a static thing – not even a person – but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The union between the Father and Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person. I know this is almost inconceivable, but look at it thus. You know that among human beings, when people get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the ‘spirit’ of that family, or club, or trade union…It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course, it is not a real person; it is only rather like a person. But that is just one of the differences between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God…This third Person is called, in technical language, the Holy Ghost or the ‘spirit’ of God."
"In the Christian life you are not usually looking at Him: He is always
acting through you. If you think of the Father as something ‘out there,’ in
front of you, and of the Son as someone standing at your side, helping you to
pray, trying to turn you into another son, then you have to think of the third
Person as something inside you, or behind you….this spirit of love is, from all
eternity, a love going on between the Father and the Son….Once a man is united
to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what
can he do but wither and die."
(And that is what mankind has been doing ever since Adam separated us from God – withering and dying.)
Dwell now on the implications of having been given the Holy Spirit - of what it means to be indwelled by Him. When we are given new life in Christ, we are being drawn in by the very Spirit that is the eternal love which the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Father. Like parents whose love for each other leads them to reach out and adopt children to encompass in that love, God’s Holy Spirit reaches out, draws us in, indwells us, and binds us together with Him (and each other) in love as His children. Is it not much clearer now why He is called the Spirit of adoption?
Ponder now what it means that we "were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of His glory." And think of this: the Spirit who indwells Christians is eternal. He is God drawing us into the life of God. Think what depth of assurance this gives us in God’s promise to us that "Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ." We believers have been drawn into the eternal life and love of God, with the Spirit as our guarantee, and nothing can separate us – what hope! As Lewis says: "Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever?" And isn’t it good to know that "nothing can separate us from the love of Christ"?
5. Obstinate Toy Soldiers
"The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God." Beautiful words to begin with. Lewis really does paint a rather whimsical picture in this section.
"And the present state of things [after the fall of man] is this. The two kinds of life [Zoe & Bios] are now not only different but actually opposed. The natural life in each of us is something self-centered, something that want to be petted and admired, to take advantage of other lives, to exploit the whole universe. And especially it wants to be left to itself: to keep well away from anything better or stronger or higher than it, anything that might make it feel small. It is afraid of the light and air of the spiritual world, just as people who have been brought up to be dirty are afraid of a bath. And in a sense it is quite right. It knows that if the spiritual life gets hold of it, all its self-centeredness and self-will are going to be killed and it is ready to fight tooth and nail to avoid that."
He likens us to toy soldiers not wanting to be made real and fighting it tooth and nail – a memorable image – and then goes on to tell us how God deals with us in our similar condition:
"The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a fetus inside a Woman’s body….The result of this was that you now had one man who really was what all men were intended to be: one man in whom the createdlife,derived from his Mother, allowed itself to be completely and perfectly turned into the begotten life. The natural human creature in Him was taken up fully into the divine Son."
This God-man lived a life of "killing …his human desires at every turn". And died an excruciating death. And then, "the human creature in Him, because it was united to the divine Son, came to life again. The Man in Christ rose again: not only the God. That is the whole point. For the first time we saw a real man. One tin soldier – real tin, just like the rest – had come fully and splendidly alive."
That is all very lovely and, I think, helpful. But from there Lewis strays into some rather strange and murky territory, some speculation I hardly know what to do with.
"If you could see humanity spread out in time, as God sees it, [again, where are we told that God sees things this way?] it would not look like one single growing thing – rather like a very complicated tree. Every individual would
appear connected with every other. And not only that, Individuals are not really
separate from God any more than from one another…because God, so to speak, is
‘keeping him going’."
"Consequently, when Christ becomes a man…It is as if something which is always affecting the whole human race begins, at one point, to affect that whole human mass in a new way. From that point the effect spreads through all mankind. It makes a difference to people who lived before Christ as well as people who lived after him. It makes a difference to people who have never heard of him. It is like dropping into a glass of water one drop of something which gives a new taste or a new color to the whole lot. But, of course, none of these illustrations really works perfectly. In the long run God is no one but Himself and what He does is like nothing else."
So, depending upon your imagination, this illustration could mean any number of things, some helpful, some not. If I think of the death and resurrection of Christ as the pivotal event in creation, which, no doubt it is; then I could then apply Lewis’ perspective to common grace, seeing it as something that issues out from that historical point, throughout all time, granting God’s beneficence to His enemies throughout the history of the world. I wish that was Lewis’ mind. Unfortunately he applies this concept in a way I, from my Reformed perspective, never would, positing an hypothetical atonement. And here, Lewis’ synergistic beliefs are finally stated unambiguously:
"Humanity is already ‘saved’ in principle. We individuals have to appropriate that salvation. But the really tough work – the bit we could not have done for ourselves – has been done for us….If we will only lay ourselves open to the one Man in whom it was fully present, and who, in spite of being God, is also a real
man. He will do it in us and for us."
The implication here is that God does 99% of the work of salvation, we do the last 1% to complete it. Now, I’d say most Christians are okay with that formula. They must feel they’ve got the necessary 1% (their "free" will" perhaps?). I don’t. I know me, and I know what Scripture says about me – that in me dwells no good thing. I know I wouldn’t have handed over my 1% willingly. I know my salvation is all from Him – 100%.
6. Two Notes
I’ll not spend much time here. Lewis wants to address a couple of "clarifying" points to avoid misunderstandings that may arise from the previous section. He first attempts to explain why God didn’t just "beget" many sons at the outset, why he made "toy soldiers" instead. He offers two reasons, the first dealing with the "toy soldier" aspect of the question. This explanation involves the existence of "free will" in man (that it is necessary to the capacity for love and happiness is an assertion I’ve disagreed with in previous discussions), which led man to turn from God. He asserts that the whole process of becoming sons of God would have been easy and painless if it were not for man’s fall. I strongly object to any implication that God ever had a Plan B. When God created this world, Christ was slain from the foundation of it. It was always meant to be that God would save a people, a Bride for His Son, through the process of suffering. We are living out Plan A.
The second part of this question addresses why there is only one begotten Son. Here Lewis begins with a healthy dose of the fear of God: "If we insist on asking ‘But there could have been many?’ we find ourselves in very deep water. Have the words ‘Could have been’ any sense at all when applied to God?…when you are talking about God – i.e. about the rock bottom, irreducible Fact on which all other facts depend – it is nonsensical to ask if It could have been otherwise. It is what It is, and there is an end of the matter." That statement suffices for me. He offers illustrations which some may find helpful. I’ll not go into those here.
His second clarifying point is probably necessary, given the odd nature of his description of the human race as "in a sense, one thing – one huge organism, like a tree". He wants to make it clear that he’s not saying that "individual differences do not matter or that real people…are somehow less important than collective things like classes, races, and so forth." His explanation is Scriptural (insofar as it applies to the Church) and helpful, so I’ll quote at length:
"Christianity thinks of human individuals not as mere members of a group or items in a list, but as organs in a body – different from one another and each contributing what no other could. When you find yourself wanting to turn your
children, or pupils, or even your neighbors, into people exactly like yourself,
remember that God probably never meant them to be that. You and they are different organs, intended to do different things. On the other hand, when you are tempted not to bother about someone else’s troubles because they are ‘no business of yours,’ remember that though he is different from you he is part of the same organism as you. If you forget that he belongs to the same organism as yourself you will become and Individualist. If you forget that he is a different organ from you, if you want to suppress and make people all alike, you will become a Totalitarian. But a Christian must not be either…"
Good words, and we’ll conclude with even better ones:
"I feel a strong desire to tell you – and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me – which of these two errors is the worse. That is the devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs – pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you
gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep
our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors."