The Quantitative Difference between Time and Eternity

Whenever models oriented toward Platonism or process theology get into trouble because they build, in different ways, on a qualitative difference between time and eternity and are then unable to demonstrate the relationship of time and eternity conclusively, the opposite path seems tempting. Namely, when one asserts merely a quantitative difference, instead of the qualitative distinction between time and eternity, then further polarization within the concept of world or the concept of God is no longer necessary for describing a time-eternity relationship.

Cullmann's approach offers a good example for the application of a quantitative difference between time and eternity. When reflecting upon some sixteen years of Wirkungsgeschichte [history of effect] from Christus und die Zeit,181 Cullmann in fact says that he—irrespective of the title of the book—had not been primarily concerned about time because time is just a screen for his central concern, namely, salvation history.182 He also would not wish to be understood as a systematic theologian, but rather consciously as a Bible scholar deeply involved with New Testament exegesis.183 Despite these admissions made within the context of his response to the massive criticism of Christ and Time, he nevertheless strongly emphasizes "that because the New Testament speaks only of God's saving acts and nowhere reflects upon God's eternal being, it does not make a philosophical, qualitative distinction between time and eternity and, consequently, knows only linear time."184

Precisely this sentence illustrates some of Cullmann's most basic presuppositions, to which he repeatedly returns. He considers a qualitative difference between time and eternity to be philosophical, whereby he understands philosophical as a synonym for Platonic. Cullmann wants to strictly avoid such a philosophical way of looking at New Testament theology because he believes it is completely foreign to the New Testament. In fact, he says that in order to understand the original Christian conception of eternity, one must even think "in as unphilosophical a manner as possible."185 The lack of a qualitative difference between time and eternity then leads him to conclude that the New Testament understanding of time is exclusively linear. Why a qualitative distinction between time and eternity is philosophical/Platonic per se and why the lack of such a distinction necessarily leads to an exclusively linear and—thus—quantitative186 concept of time remains largely unexplained, however.

Cullmann considers the New Testament concepts of time and history as

"the basic presuppositions of all New Testament theology."187 He emphasizes two characteristics of these conceptions. First, "salvation is bound to a continuous time process which embraces past, present, and future. Revelation and salvation take place along the course of an ascending timeline."188 Second, he asserts that "it is characteristic of this estimate of time as the scene of redemptive history that all points of this redemptive line are related to the one historical fact at the mid-point . . . : the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."189 Thus, as Cullmann claims, the so-called Christian calendar, which calculates backwards and forwards from the birth of Christ, corresponds to the conceptions of time and history of early Christianity.190 Cull-mann apparently fails to notice here, however, that he himself starts from Jesus' death and resurrection as the center, whereas, already by the sixth century, the West had replaced the old Passion and Resurrection era with the era of the Incarnation.191

In contrast to the Greek qualitative distinction between time and eternity, according to which eternity is timelessness, Cullmann says that, for the early Christian view, it turns out "that eternity, which is possible only as an attribute of God, is time, or, to put it better, what we call 'time' is nothing but a part, defined and delimited by God, of this same unending duration of God's time."192 Early Christianity did not know a timeless God. Time and eternity are both temporal,193 so that "eternity can be conceived in Primitive Christianity only as endlessly extended time."194 Temporality is not an exclusive mark of creation.195 Even if human beings cannot grasp the extent of the timeline, there is no doubt about its measurability.196 The God who is not timeless reigns over time. God's sovereignty expresses itself in predestination and preexistence, and this, in turn, "signifies nothing else but that he, the Eternal One, is in control over the entire time line in its endless extension. . . ."197

Time can be divided into both three and two parts. The tripartite division encompasses the eon prior to creation, the present eon, which lies between creation and the end, and the coming eon, which will contain the New Creation. This tripartite division, however, is overlapped by a two-part division that separates time—as a red line at the zero point of a thermometer scale of infinite expansion—into eons before and after the midpoint of time, that is, an eon before and an eon after Christ's death and resurrection.198 In this scheme, the Holy Spirit is "nothing else than the anticipation of the end in the present."199 The Church is included in the divine rule over time as the place where the Spirit is active, and it "takes, so to speak, part in it,"200 Cullmann claims. He immediately appears to change his mind, however, when he says: "the thing in question is not a sharing by the believer in the Lordship of God over time."201

In his chapter on time and eternity, it is striking how frequently Cull-mann uses the expressions "nothing else but/than" and "only." Such use of language generally signifies a reductionist modus operandi. In fact, there are passages where Cullmann reduces to such an extent that alternatives are cut short and unnecessary dualisms arise. Thus, for example, the inevitability of the dualism between philosophy in general (and Platonism in particular) and the New Testament conception is not really plausible. Does the New Testament then float in space that is void of philosophy? Does every qualitative distinction between time and eternity lead then inevitably to Platonism? Is the contrast of infinite time to timelessness then the only possible alternative? No room remains in Cullmann's system for conceptual attempts that utilize concepts such as multi-temporality, other-temporality, and supra-temporality. In my view, this lack of openness for options of qualitative otherness is the most important objection to Cullmann's presentation of time and eternity.202

Cullmann is quick and rigorous in reaching his conclusions. Because time is conceived as a circle in Greek thought, being bound to time must be experienced as a curse.203 Since the New Testament knows only a line of eons that runs in a consistent straight line from beginning to end, time is like a straight line.204 In fact, Cullmann calls it an ascending timeline,205 although the ascent appears to me as a smuggled-in fruit of Western notions of progress rather than the result of an exegetical examination of the New Testament. The combination of line, straight line, and infinity leads to a problem left unsolved by Cullmann. The problem is intensified by the measurability that he postulates.206 When a straight line has a beginning and an end, it is not infinite, but measurable. A line can be infinite if it has neither beginning nor end, but then it can hardly be measured. Moreover, these geometric models are incapable of expressing what actually matters to Cullmann, namely, the salvation-historical tension between the "already" and the "not-yet." In retrospect, he recognized this problem correctly.207 In Heil als Geschichte, he also finally changed the rigid model of straight lines to one of wavy lines, though admittedly without changing anything basic.208

If eternity is an exclusive attribute of God,209 but is simultaneously nothing but (infinite) time, then the concept of eternity is already undermined as soon as it is introduced. This results in what Friedrich Schleiermacher calls the obscuring equating of God's eternity with "what seems to be eternity, namely, with infinite time," which he combats with the words: "We must therefore reject as inadequate all those explanations which abrogate for God only the limits of time and not time itself, and would form eternity from time by the removal of limits, while in fact these are oppo-

sites."210 Nevertheless, Cullmann ultimately embraces the equation: eternity = time. Then, however, the God who is thought to have power over time and to rule over time is, in the end, a temporal God who can at best be distinguished from creation only in terms of a Feuerbachian projection. The purely quantitative difference between time and eternity essentially renders the concept of eternity superfluous. Because only God is granted eternity and because this eternity is understood as God's power over time, one can actually do without the concept of eternity. What remains is time, of which we know little except that it is the screen for salvation history,211 that it is "the means of which God makes use in order to reveal his gracious works."212

In my analysis of the New Testament (pp. 72-80), I did not find any self-contained time-eternity model that would come anywhere close to the one that Cullmann develops. Therefore, one must ask: What if Cullmann's scheme is more an interpretation of the Newtonian model of absolute time than an interpretation of a New Testament concept of time?213 Chapter 3 will show how a quantitative time-eternity model of the Cullmann type looks in light of twentieth-century physics.

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