Eternity of God
ETERNITY OF GOD
The eternity of God contains two interrelated aspects. First, God has no beginning and no end. God always was, is, and will be. Second, God is timeless, that is, unlike creatures for whom time marks the changes they experience and undergo, God is immutably the same and so is not subject to the changes marked by time and thus does not experience time. As transcending the created order of change, he is timeless.
Biblical Basis. The Old Testament testifies to the fact that God always was. Abraham called on "the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God" (Gn 21:33). The Psalms speak of God being everlasting. Before creation "from everlasting to everlasting you are God" (Ps 89/90:2, see Hb 1:12; Is 40:28). God's throne is established from of old for "you are from everlasting" (Ps 92/93:2). Unlike creatures and humankind who come to be and perish, "you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; your name endures to all generations … you do endure … you are the same, and your years have no end" (Ps 101/102:12, 24, 26, 27; see Is 63:16). Daniel in his vision sees "the Ancient of Days" (Dn 7:13). As creator, God existed prior to all else (see Gn 1, Jb 38, Prv 8). Because God is everlasting and so forever faithful to his promises, he is able to be present to and active within every generation of Israel (see Gn 26:24; 28:13–15; Ex 4:5; 6:3–8; Dt 34:4; Jos 1:3–7; 3:7; 24:2–13). God's mercy, kindness, name, love and salvation are everlasting (Ps 99/100:5, 102/103:17; Is 45:17, 54:8, 56:5; Jer 31:3). God "inhabits eternity" (Is 57:15). The New Testament not only testifies to the eternity of the Father but also to the eternity of the Son/Word. It is through the Word or Son that the Father created the universe and so he too is before all else and is thus everlasting (Jn 1:1–3; Heb 1:1–12). The Son possesses eternal life with the Father and it is through the Son that those who believe come to eternal redemption and so share in eternal life (2 Tim 2:10; Heb 5:9, 9:12, 9:15; Mt 25:46; Jn 3:15, 6:54; Rom 6:23, 1 Jn 1:2). This was all in accord with the Father's eternal plan (Eph 3:11). The Holy Spirit is the pledge that guarantees the eternal life of those who believe (Eph 1:13–14, 4:30). God's actions, as narrated within the Old Testament, reveal that he is the everlasting God. This revelation finds its culmination in the New Testament where God is revealed to be an eternal trinity of persons through whose actions humankind is enabled to share in their eternal life. Only if God possesses eternal life in himself is he able to share that life with humankind.
Christian Tradition. While the early Fathers of the Church upheld the eternity of God, it was Augustine who first examined it in any depth, and he did so within his analysis of time. Human beings find it difficult to conceive eternity for their minds are fixed on things that change "and have a past and future." However, "in the eternal, nothing is transient, but the whole is present. But no time is wholly present … Who will lay hold on the human heart to make it still, so that it can see how eternity, in which there is neither future nor past, stands still and dictates future and past times?" (Conf., XI, 13). For Anselm that which is not subject to space and time is greater than that which is, thus God alone is eternal for he does not come to be or cease to be (Proslog., 13). It is Boethius who provides the classic definition of eternity: "Eternity is the simultaneously whole and perfect possession of interminable life" (The Consolation of Philosophy, 5). Aquinas argues, following Aristotle's and Augustine's understanding of time, that time is the numbering of before and after within movement. Since God is not in movement in that he does not change from potency to act, he is outside of movement and thus outside of time, and in this "consists the idea of eternity" (Summa Theologiae, 1, 10, 1). "The idea of eternity follows immutability, as the idea of time follows movement#x2026;. Hence, as God is supremely immutable, it supremely belongs to him to be eternal" (Summa Theologiae, 1, 10, 2). For Aquinas, then, because God is being itself (ipsum esse ) and thus pure act (actus purus ), he must be eternal in the sense both of having no beginning and no end (interminable life), and of being timeless (no succession). As pure act, God possesses, in accordance with Boethius, the fullness and totality of interminable perfect life simultaneously. The Church attributes eternity to the Godhead as indistinct from the persons (Vatican I, H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer, 3001). Duration excluding a beginning is exclusively divine (Lateran IV, Enchiridion symbolorum 800).
Contemporary Thought. Many of those who deny God's immutability also deny that he is timeless. Some, such as process philosophers and theologians, and, others, like P. Fiddes, N. Pike, R. Swinburne, and K. Ward, argue that God changes through his interaction with the created order and thus there is successive change within him which demands that he experiences time. (see immutability of god.) B. Davies argues that while God does not change, there is duration within God. This he believes is more in accord with Aquinas's teaching that God is present to and embraces all time. This understanding would appear to alleviate the problem of how a timeless God can relate to temporal reality. However, in Aquinas's view the reason God is immutable is that he is pure act, and the very notion of pure act abolishes the notion not only of time but also of duration. As pure act everything that God experiences is contained within and experienced as the pure act that he is. While God as pure act endures, there is no duration within pure act for it is the one simultaneous timeless act that God perfectly and total is. One cannot predicate of God not only a past and a future, but also, strictly speaking, "a present", as if God existed in an "eternal now", for this too would imply an everlasting unchanging duration. For God to be eternal, in the sense of being timeless, negates even "the present" within God, for "the present" is a concept founded upon the human experience of time as that which is neither past nor future. For God to be eternal means that God is present to himself and is present to all else in being present to himself, but not in "a present."
While theologians, past and present, have focused their attention on the eternity of God in so far as God is one, yet it must be said that the persons of the Trinity are equally eternal both in that they have no beginning and no end and are timeless. The Father is eternally the Father for he eternally begets the Son and eternally loves the Son in the eternal spiration of the Holy Spirit. The Son is eternally the Son because he is both eternally begotten and in that he eternally loves the Father is the same eternal Spirit. The Holy Spirit is eternally the Holy Spirit because he eternally comes forth from the eternal Father and Son as their love for one another and in that he eternally conforms the Father to be the loving Father of the Son and the loving Son of the Father. The persons of the Trinity then eternally subsist as who they are within their eternal relationships with one another. These subsisting relations which define the persons of the trinity are eternally and fully in act and thus are timeless. The Athanasian Creed (Quicumque vult ) professes: "The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, and the Holy Spirit is eternal. Nevertheless, there are not three eternal beings, but one eternal being" (see also Nicaea, Enchiridion symbolorum 126; The Council of Rome, Enchiridion symbolorum 162; Lateran IV, Enchiridion symbolorum 800; Lyon II, Enchiridion symbolorum 851–53).
Bibliography: t. aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I.10.1–6. b. davies, "A Timeless God", New Blackfriars 64 (1983) 215–24; The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford 1992). h. goris, Free Creatures of an Eternal God (Utrecht 1990). w. gudersdorf von jess, "Divine Eternity in the Doctrine of Augustine," Augustinian Studies 6 (1975) 75–96. p. helm, Eternal God: A Study of God without Time (Oxford 1988). c. hughes, On a Complex Theory of a Simple God: An Investigation in Aquinas's Philosophical Theology (Ithaca, N.Y. 1989). c. peter, Participated Eternity in the Vision of God (Rome 1964). n. pike, God and Timelessness (London 1970). g. l. prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London 1952). r. sorabji, Time, Creation and the Continuum (Ithaca, N.Y. 1983). e. stump and n. kretzmann, "Eternity," in The Concept of God, ed. t. v. morris (Oxford 1987), 219–52. t. g. weinandy, The Father's Spirit of Sonship: Reconceiving the Trinity (Edinburgh 1995).
[t. g. weinandy]