God is eternal. Of course God is eternal. We confess it, we sing it, we affirm it, and we’re happy to leave the details to philosophers and theologians. But you know what? Time and eternity interact in our words, songs and thoughts more often than you’d think, and all too often to highly confusing result. Without pretending to say anything that hasn’t been said before, let’s have some innocent fun with this.
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust and say,
“Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
But what is ‘from everlasting to everlasting’? How are we to understand it? Are we, creatures of time, indeed to understand it at all? Philosophers and theologians through the ages have debated and disagreed.
Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas
For Augustine in the 4th century, time itself was part of the created order. Therefore to ask, say, what God did before creation is meaningless (Confessions XI.10). The non-incarnate God is not subject to time any more than he is subject to anything else in creation.
But is time indeed part of creation? The 6th century Roman philosopher Boethius seems at the very least ambiguous about it (though scholars disagree on their reading of his position). He defined eternity as ‘the simultaneously-whole and perfect possession of interminable life’ (Consolatio Philosophiae, V.6). Such omnitemporal, everlasting existence resonates well with biblical data like the final line of Psalm 90 above.
Boethius dominated medieval thinking on eternity. Another seven centuries later, however, Aquinas was unhappy with this definition:
It seems that the definition of eternity given by Boethius is not a good one… For the word “interminable” is a negative one. But negation only belongs to what is defective, and this does not belong to eternity. Therefore in the definition of eternity the word “interminable” ought not to be found…
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologia I.10
We may quibble with the doctor’s neo-Platonic concept of perfection, but he follows it up with a classic statement of the nature of eternity along lines that Augustine would have approved of:
…we reach to the knowledge of eternity by means of time, which is nothing but the numbering of movement by “before” and “after.”… in a thing bereft of movement, which is always the same, there is no before or after… Thus eternity is known from two sources: first, because what is eternal is interminable–that is, has no beginning nor end (that is, no term either way); secondly, because eternity has no succession, being simultaneously whole.
(my emphasis). In this understanding God quite clearly transcends time completely. The difference between ourselves and God is not quantitative (‘unlike us he lives infinitely long’) but qualitative (‘he is simply not subject to the passage of the years’), a distinction later intensified to the breaking point by Barth. Psalm 90 is now read as a gesture towards a truth that was beyond the psalmist’s language and philosophical framework to describe. And Jesus’ use of tense in “truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58 ESV) suddenly makes a lot more sense.
The eternal present
Following the 1981 essay Eternity by Stump and Kretzmann, which conceived of God’s being in the “eternal present” with a life and duration that is not temporal, the pendulum has once again swung back towards reinterpretations of Boethius’ position with many conceiving of God in some way being subject to time – most strongly so in the open theism of Rice, Pinnock et al: a God who is surprised by the future just as we are even if he can foresee the probabilities infinitely better. A God who does not sit aloof in eternity but is living, loving and redeeming in the present with us. What’s not to like?
To be fair, there is no argument to be made directly from scripture that clinches the matter either way, so the debate keeps rumbling on through the centuries, driven by scholars’ personalities, presuppositions, and the conclusions they want to work towards. So why bother? Why not leave them to it while we’re doing gospel work? Because their conclusions matter. They can be a stumbling block. They can lead astray. In other words, for apologetic and doctrinal reasons.
I hope to have some fun with those over the next few weeks. We will start by looking at God and Einstein’s theory of special relativity, and take it from there.