Question 10: The Eternity of God
WHETHER GOD IS ETERNAL
State of the question. The purpose of this article is to show in what particular sense God is eternal and is His eternity, and also to explain how eternity can be called the measure of God, although He is not measured; whereas even the sun's motion is measured, inasmuch as its revolutions are numbered.
Reply. God is not only eternal, but He is His eternity.
1) It is of faith that God is eternal and is so essentially. This truth is clearly stated in many texts of Holy Scripture. Thus we read: "Abraham . . . called upon the name of the Lord God eternal." (17) "For He is the living and eternal God." (18) God is often called eternal.(19)
The Athanasian Creed says: "The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, the Holy Spirit is eternal." The Fourth Council of the Lateran declares: "We firmly believe that there is only one true God, who is eternal. " (20)
According to Vacant,(21) it is of faith that God has neither beginning nor end. That there is no succession in God is a certain truth and is proximate to the faith. Vacant (22) thinks, however, that this does not as yet appear to be a dogma of the faith.
In the body of the article God's eternity is deduced from His immutability, and may be expressed by the following syllogism: Eternity follows immutability, as time follows movement; but God is supremely immutable; therefore it supremely belongs to Him to be eternal. It is also stated that God is His own eternity. For God and God alone is His own existence and essence; consequently God is His own duration.
This is the same as saying that everything survives inasmuch as it retains its existence: but God alone is His existence. Therefore He alone is His own uniform duration. Thus 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, of the discrete time of the angels, and of aevum or aeviternity, as will be stated farther on.
In the reply to the first objection the words of Boethius are explained, namely: "The now that flows away makes time, the now that stands still makes eternity." This latter now is said to make eternity according to our apprehension. This means that the apprehension of eternity is caused in us inasmuch as we apprehend the now standing still. Eternity has complete existence extramentally, whereas, on the other hand, time has complete existence only in the mind, inasmuch as past and future exist only in the mind.
What is real in time is the now that flows away, and it is said to flow away like movement, which is the act of a being in potentiality inasmuch as it is such, the act of a further perfectible and to be perfected being, the successive transition from potentiality to perfect actuality. Contrary to this, the now of eternity is spoken of as standing still, and corresponding to it are all the successive moments of time, just as all the points in the base of a cone correspond to its apex. Thus there is but one instant in the immobility of eternity.
In this reply to the first objection there is an explanation of St. Augustine's words: "God is the author of eternity," which are to be understood of participated eternity consisting in the eternal life of the saints. Their beatific vision begins but will not end, and there is no succession or variation in this vision at least as regards the primary object, which is God's essence clearly seen. Thus, strictly speaking, their life is not only said to be a future life with reference to ours, but it is eternal life, because it is measured by participated eternity.
It must be observed that just as a beginning is not repugnant to the idea of participated eternity, so also the end is not absolutely repugnant to this idea, provided there is no succession in this participated eternity. Therefore if St. Paul had on this earth the beatific vision as a transient act, this vision could have been measured by participated eternity, transcending our continuous time and the discrete time of the angels in which their successive thoughts are measured.
Reply to second objection. When the Scripture says that "the Lord shall reign forever and ever," (23) this means always. Others change the phrase to "forever and always," thus making it in a way redundant. St. Thomas points out that eternity transcends time, and this would be the case even if time were unlimited as regards the future.
Reply to third objection. It is pointed out that eternity is said to be the measure of God "according to the apprehension of our mind alone." In several other passages St. Thomas says that eternity is the measure of divine life. This must be understood of intrinsic measurement, inasmuch as God is His eternity. Thus God is not measured. Contrary to this the motion of the heavenly bodies is measured by a recurrent succession of revolutions or of days, and all the more so is the motion of other bodies, which is measured extrinsically according to solar time. There was formerly a dispute of minor importance on this subject, as can be readily seen by consulting Billuart.
Reply to fourth objection. "Eternity includes all times" or "comprises all time," which means that it virtually contains all inferior durations, just as the apex of a cone virtually contains all the points of its base, or the center of a circle all the radii and points of its circumference.
Doubt. How are created things said to be present in eternity?
The Thomists hold, as will be stated farther on, that creatures are physically present in eternity, coming under God's direct vision. John of St. Thomas says: "Eternity does not immediately measure created things on the supposition that they have already undergone a passive change and been passively produced, but it measures them precisely for the reason that they are contained in the divine action, which contacts and regards created things as its terminus.(24) Indeed, not only God's intellection and volition are eternal, but even His external action is eternal, and yet it has its effect in time. "From the eternal (free) action of God an eternal effect did not follow; but such an effect as God willed, namely, that which has being after not being." (25)
Thus created things are really present in eternity, and are not merely either possible or future. They are contained in the divine essence not as merely having the power or will to produce them, but as actually producing them. Thus God's knowledge of these things is intuitive, although they may not as yet have been passively produced. It is evident that this presence of things in eternity or in God's eternal action presupposes God's free decree, for the action spoken about here is a free one. Thus St. Paul's conversion was eternally present to God's intution only because He eternally willed it; otherwise this conversion would not be a contingent but a necessary act.
WHETHER TO BE ETERNAL BELONGS TO GOD ALONE
There are two conclusions in this article: (1) Eternity truly and properly so called is in God alone, because eternity follows on absolute immutability, which is in God alone; (2) creatures share in God's eternity, just as they do in His immutability. Thus it is said by participation that "the earth standeth forever." (26) Thus, because of the length of their duration, the mountains are said to be eternal and their peaks to be covered with perpetual snow. Incorruptible spiritual substances share more fully and in a nobler manner in the nature of eternity. This is especially so of the blessed, who are said to have eternal life, inasmuch as the beatific vision, whose primary object is always the same, is measured by participated eternity. It is, indeed, an absolutely immutable operation.
Several Thomists remark that, just as the different motions of the earth are measured by solar time, or according to the measure of the sun's motion, so also the beatific vision is measured according to God's eternity, inasmuch as, by reason of the object or of God who is clearly seen, there is a participated eternity in this vision.(27)
Reply to second objection. The punishment in hell is eternal inasmuch as it never ends. However, "in hell true eternity does not exist, but rather time" in accordance with a certain change in sensible pain.
Reply to third objection. The principles of demonstration are called eternal truths but in a negative sense, in that they abstract from time and place and are absolutely necessary. Moreover, they are positively eternal inasmuch as they are positively in the intellect of God, who alone is positively eternal.
17. Gen. 21: 33
18. Dan. 6: 26.
19. Ps. 10 1: 12-26; John 8: 58; 12: 34.
20. Denz., no. 428; also no. 1782 (Vatican Council).
21. Etudes sur le Concile du Vatican, I, 183 f.
22. Ibid., p. 188.
23. Ex. 15: 18.
24. Com. in Iam, disp. IX, a.3. Billuart (De Deo, diss. VI, a.3), Gonet, and many other Thomists say the same.
25. Summa theol., 1a, q.46, a. 1 ad to 10 um.
26. Eccles. 1: 4.
27. Consult the commentaries of Bannez and John of St. Thomas.