July 2012 Print

God Is Eternal

Fr. Albert, O,P.

“1. A creator must exist in time prior to its creation.

2. A creation does not exist before it is created.

3. From 1: if time were a creation then it would exist before it is created.

4. From 2 and 3: if time is a creation then it existed before it was created and it did not exist before it was created.

5. The law of non-contradiction.

6. From 4 and 5: time is not a creation.

7. If God exists then time is a creation.

C. From 6 and 7: God does not exist.”

Believe it or not, this argument was seriously, and even pompously, presented recently in a letter by an atheist to a traditional Catholic as an obviously invincible proof that God does not exist. As often happens, especially today, this sort of arrogance is solidly rooted in base ignorance. The flaw in the argument is in the very first premise, as appears immediately to anyone who has studied philosophy (that is, real philosophy, and not the anti-philosophy which has usurped its place for the last five centuries or so). No, it is not necessary that “a creator exist in time prior to its creation.” The Creator does not exist in time; He creates time with His creation, for time is simply a measure of movement, and therefore when things that move were created, time began. Before that, there was no time, for there was no movement, because in God there is no movement or, to say the same thing in one word, God is eternal.

Certain Knowledge of God

To understand this better, we can simply turn again to the First Part of St. Thomas’s Summa, where, after proving that God is, he explains how He is, His mode of being. He does this, as we have seen, not by saying what God is, because we can’t know what God is, but by saying what He is not, by denying of Him different things that we do know. We may not know what God is, but there are different things that we certainly do know and so we can come to a certain knowledge of God by denying of Him these things that we do know. That may not appear like much, but God is so great that it is infinitely better to know what He is not than to know perfectly about anything else what it is.

After having shown that there is no composition in God (He is simple) and that there is no imperfection in Him (and so He is good, because He is absolutely perfect), St. Thomas goes on to show that there is no movement in God and that, as a consequence, He is eternal.1

That God is absolutely immutable follows from what has been proven about Him before. Firstly, it has been shown that God is the very first being, since He is that which must be posited in order to account for the existence of everything else. It necessarily follows from this that He cannot change, for to be able to change means to be in potency to some act, which could not be possible unless this act was before the potency that was to receive it (otherwise, how could it ever be received?).

Furthermore, it has been shown that God is absolutely simple, having no composition whatsoever. Therefore change is impossible in Him, because when something changes there is a certain division that takes place between what remains in it and what leaves to be replaced by something else.2 Finally, it has been shown that God is absolutely perfect, and thus He cannot change, because if He did it would mean that either He acquired some new perfection (and therefore wasn’t perfect before) or that He lost some perfection that He had (and therefore would no longer be perfect after).

Absolute Immutability

This absolute immutability of God is not very popular with modern man, as Fr. Farrell explains:

“To the modern philosopher this notion makes God completely static; if this be true, then this is a dull, stagnating, deteriorating God. In his own little world of creatures, the modern philosopher sees clearly that there must be change for progress, that immutability is closely akin to stagnation and deterioration. The point is that he is provincial enough to judge everything, even God, by the standards of that created world. It is true that change is inseparable from perfection in the world of unrealized potentialities; but it is also true that such a world is inconceivable without a Being of pure actuality, a Being Who is pure activity, Who has no potentiality, no possibility of losing or gaining but is a white flame of perfection. Such a Being is not in a state of static inertia; His is an activity so intense that change of any kind is impossible to it.”3

God Is Eternal

St. Thomas goes on to explain how the eternity of God follows directly from His immutability, starting by defining what eternity is. Following, as always, the “way of negation,” he says that, just as we can come to know simplicity only through the negation of composition (because we have no direct knowledge of simple things but only of composite things), so also we can come to know eternity only by its opposite, namely time. Now time, as Aristotle says, is “the measure of movement according to before and after.”4 Therefore eternity must be defined by denying of it, firstly, any succession and thus it is said to be “simultaneously whole.” 5

In that which lacks all motion and is always the same, St. Thomas explains, there is no before and after. Therefore just as the essence of time consists in the numbering of before and after in motion, so the essence of eternity consists in the apprehension of the uniformity of that which is completely outside all motion.6

Secondly must be denied another essential aspect of time, namely that it has a beginning and an end, and thus eternity is said to be “interminable.”

Also, those things are said to be measured by time which have a beginning and an end in time because everything that moves has a certain beginning and an end. But what is altogether immutable, just as it has no succession, has no beginning nor end either.7

Thus the classical definition of eternity is that of Boethius, which St. Thomas adopts: eternity is the simultaneously whole and perfect possession of interminable life.8 Garrigou-Lagrange puts it more simply saying: “Eternity is the duration of the absolutely immobile being.”9

Since God, then, is the only absolutely immobile being, He alone is eternal, strictly speaking. Creatures are said to be eternal only in the sense that they share in some way in God’s immutability. This applies especially to the angels and saints in heaven of whom St. Thomas says: “They share more fully than others in the nature of eternity inasmuch as they possess unchangeableness in operation in enjoying the Word, because as regards the vision of the Word, no changing thoughts exist in the Saints, as Augustine says (De Trin., XV). Hence those who see God are said to have eternal life, according to that text: ‘This is eternal life, that they may know thee’ (Jn. 17: 3).”10

Two consequences can be drawn from all this, one doctrinal and one spiritual. As far as doctrine goes, since God is eternal, the teaching given to us about Him by the Church cannot change, except to become more explicit. It is the famous rule of the development of dogma formulated by St. Vincent of Lerins: it must always develop “eodem sensu eademque sententia—with the same sense and the same meaning.” Thus is ruled out not only the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” but the “hermeneutic of reform” as well. It is not just a matter of the truth not changing too quickly: the truth cannot change at all.

Spiritual Consequence

The spiritual consequence is similar to the one which follows from God’s simplicity. Just as our prayer, as it progresses, becomes more simple, because it unites us to God who is absolutely simple, so it also becomes more uniform. That is why the liturgical prayer of the Church is traditionally always the same. The Mass is always said, as far as essentials go, in the same way and not “à la carte” as in the Novus Ordo Missae; the liturgical year always remains the same, there is no three year cycle, etc. Similarly, personal prayer becomes less and less linear (discursive) and more and more circular (contemplative): one turns around and around the same point and penetrates it more and more deeply. Like Our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane, we come to the point where we are always “saying the selfsame word” (Mt. 26: 44).

1 I, q. 9 and q. 10.

2 “As when what changes from white to black remains the same as far as its substance is concerned,” explains St. Thomas.

3 Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P., A Companion to the Summa, Volume I (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1941), p. 66. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange makes a similar remark: “Although this immutability is expressed in negative terms (inasmuch as our knowledge is first of mutable things), yet in itself it is something absolutely positive; and it can be expressed by the word “stability”, whereas the mutability of things in the world is their instability. Evolutionist philosophy does its utmost to eliminate the word stability, for it maintains that all immutability is imperfect, being like the immobility of an inert, lifeless thing. On the contrary, supreme life is absolutely immutable or supremely stable” (The One God, trans. Dom Bede Rose, O.S.B. [St. Louis: Herder, 1943], p. 268).

4 Physics, Bk. IV, chap. 11 (lect. 20 in the commentary of St. Thomas).

5 “Simultaneously whole” is the attempted English equivalent of “tota simul” in Latin, which means, literally “everything at the same time.” In eternity, everything happens at the same time, there is no before and after. This, of course, makes absolutely no sense to us, but that is perfectly normal: if it did make sense, that would be a sure sign that we hadn’t understood.

6 I, q. 10, a. 1.

7 Ibid. Thus St. Thomas says a little later that if, as Aristotle thought, the world was eternal, “time would not measure it according to its total duration, since what is infinite is not measurable, but rather would measure a certain portion of it (“quamlibet circulationem”) which had a beginning and an end” (a. 4).

8 “Life” rather than just “being” because duration is taken more with regard to the operation of a thing and not just to its being (thus time is taken with regard to a thing’s motion and not just its being), and life involves operation whereas being does not (cf. q. 10, a. 1 ad 2).

9 The One God, p. 276. He adds a bit later: “St. Thomas holds that eternity is God’s duration. Wherefore the notion of duration is far more universal than that of time. Duration is predicated analogically of eternity, of our continuous time, and of the discrete time of the angels” (ibid., p. 283).

10 I, q. 10, a. 3. As regards hell, on the contrary, St. Thomas says: “The fire of hell is said to be eternal only because it never ends. There is, however, change in their pains according to the words ‘To extreme heat they will pass from snowy waters’ (Job 24:19). Hence in hell there is no true eternity, but rather time, according to the Psalm: ‘Their time will be forever’ (Ps. 80:16).”