The Mod | A Theology of Finitude

Thursday, 07 May 2020

According to Scripture, Mathuselah was the oldest living human being on record. Genesis 5:27 tells us that he was given some 969 years to live in all. Imagine what one could do with all that time: the books you could read, the essays you could write, the degree programs you could pursue, the home repair projects you might actually do instead of pushing off for “another day.” 969 years…

And then he died.

In one sense, our dispensation of time seems arbitrary and unfair. God selects the length of our years, and no matter how many we get, they dissipate quickly like mist, shadows, and grass among other Biblical metaphors (cf. James 4:14; Psalm 102:3; Job 7:7). My life may be longer than yours, and yours longer than the next guy. As a pastor, I once did funerals for a woman who lived to be one hundred in the very same week as a child who died on the very day of her birth. It seems so unfair. This is a profound mystery. It is God’s sovereign hand.

Would that we could all have just a few 36-hour days or 8-day weeks! Imagine what we could do with just a little more time. If God would extend your natural life ten extra years, or perhaps fifteen like Hezekiah (Isaiah 38:5), think of what progress could be made. And yet time is unyielding and inflexible to us all. Every mortal has the same 24 hours in a day. Each one’s year consists of the same 365 days (with a few fractional moments to boot for the sake of scientific precision). In His incarnation, even Jesus Christ submitted to working within the confines of our Sun/Moon/Earth time-measurements, days and weeks and such.

And now, in this strange parentheses during the COVID-19 pandemic, our lives have entered a most unusual phase. Some have lost jobs. Others have lost wages. Most are bound to obey stay-at-home orders from the magistrate (See WCF 23). We find that our days are melting together into some amorphous goo; the one oozing into the next with little distinction. Even the Lord’s Day, our most foundational and enjoyable unit of sacred time, appears to have been compromised — we cannot gather together as the ecclessia.

We have come flat up against the Biblical doctrine of human finitude.

In Christian theology, the Latin root word fin (literally: end) is most often used in terms of God’s essential property of infinitude. Notice the negation – He is not finite. That is, He is without beginning or end. Herman Bavinck defines God’s infinity as an umbrella term that incorporates both His eternity (with respect to time) and His omnipresence (with respect to space). But as creatures, specifically human beings, the attribute of finitude, more properly applies to us. We are bound both chronologically and dimensionally.

To think categorically, suppose Heading One includes all things that transcend quantifiability; that which cannot be measured in height, weight, age, girth, length, depth, or mass. But there is one eternal being under this heading: God Himself. Under Heading Two, literally everything else falls – you and I and every other creature ever made. We are bound by limits. We must live within time, space, and history. In a word, we are creatures; categorically distinct from the Creator.

For some, COVID-19 will accentuate our finitude in bringing about our death, or perhaps the demise of a loved one. I doubt but that each of us will know someone who dies of this dreadful plague. For others, our years of productivity have unexpectedly come to an end. Jobs once held may never be regained. For most, I hope, something analogous to normalcy will resume at some indeterminate point in the future. We will go on with our families, careers, and ministries, although in some sense, they will all be different hereafter.

For the moment, we are confronted with a static parentheses. This time between times. This “buffering” space while we wait for our normal lives to catch up while what we hope will be the real world downloads. Our finitude has been made most apparent.

The Inflexible Demands of the Doctrine of Finitude 

Our finitude demands that we be limited in several respects. We have already mentioned time above. Thankfully, this parenthetical phase has a determined end, known only to God, and it hastens onward. We must do whatever we can to avoid simply wasting this time. Our ability to occupy space, likewise, is also finite. We never could be more than one place at a time, even under ideal conditions. Now, that geo-spatial location is most likely our own home for nearly 24-hours a day. All things considered, that’s not too terribly bad. Vocationally, many of us have ground to a veritable halt. Finitude places boundaries on our career too. Another essay perhaps will be necessary to convey the frustrations of trying to pastor a vibrant congregation from my living room. Suffice it to say, I am feeling my finitude acutely at this present moment.

Given that we are on virtual lockdown until further notice, unable to move and pinned to our own dining room tables, it seems most wise to use this time for the glory of God, however that end may be pursued. Paul asked for his parchments and scrolls when in prison, so as to use time in the best way possible (see 2 Tim. 4:13). Though confined within prison walls, the Apostle sought to read and write with his spare time, delimited as it was by legal necessity.

Imagine, then, being confined to our homes and not using it to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” How tragic. Imagine wasting this unusual period on screen time by scrolling through Twitter and binge watching mind-numbing episodes of Tiger King. Perish the thought! God has virtually gifted us with this free time to study Scripture, write letters, read deep works of fiction or theology, and enjoy our families. We always claimed we “never had time” to pray, read, play with our children, or even to think. Now like Pauline prisoners on house arrest (see Acts 28), we have nothing but time.

God is doing great things through the COVID-19 crisis. Among them, I am sure He is calling humanity to repentance. Mightier prophets than I will be necessary to explain any other reasons God may have for all this. For my part, I am content to rejoice in my creatureliness, accept my finitude, and read a bit more of Scripture than I did before. If I can write a bit more too, God be praised. Woe to me if I do not love my wife, my children, and my parishioners through this time, even when bound to desk and pen.

Thankfully, God does not expect us to be infinite. This comes across as a great relief to many. He alone is the infinite, and God does not demand of me what I categorically cannot provide. He knows that we are dust (Psalm 103:14). A doctrine of finitude frees me from the false expectations of others: My boss. My congregation. My colleagues. I do not live–nor have I ever–to please them. Finitude brings this truth into full relief. I am free to pursue what most glorifies God. Everything else can be sloughed off, like a locust steps out of its dry, dusty, shell in mid-summer.

The doctrine of human finitude helps me to turn to the One who is unlimited and infinite! Bound by time and space, I turn in desperation to He who is not. I go boldly to the throne to meet Him who cannot be confined by either clock or map. And He meets me where I am, pinned to my location through prayer.

Mathuselah lived 969 years and then he died. He was finite after all, just like you and I.

 

 

 

Dr. Matthew Everhard is the pastor of Gospel Fellowship Presbyterian Church (PCA) just North of Pittsburgh. He is the author of A Theology of Joy: Jonathan Edwards and Eternal Happiness in the Holy Trinity (JESociety Press, 2018).

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