The patristic idea that God is outside of time

A post in an online forum drew my attention to some passages in which God is described explicitly as being outside of time, and seeing all eternity as the present.

The first source mentioned is Augustine, Confessions, book 11.  The old NPNF translation is here, and a look at the (Victorian) headings for the chapters reveals some very interesting ideas:

Chapter X.-The Rashness of Those Who Inquire What God Did Before He Created Heaven and Earth.

Chapter XI.-They Who Ask This Have Not as Yet Known the Eternity of God, Which is Exempt from the Relation of Time.

Chapter XII.-What God Did Before the Creation of the World.

Chapter XIII.-Before the Times Created by God, Times Were Not.

Chapter XIV.-Neither Time Past Nor Future, But the Present Only, Really is.

Chapter XV.-There is Only a Moment of Present Time.

Chapter XVI.-Time Can Only Be Perceived or Measured While It is Passing.

Chapter XVII.-Nevertheless There is Time Past and Future.

Chapter XVIII.-Past and Future Times Cannot Be Thought of But as Present.

Chapter XIX.-We are Ignorant in What Manner God Teaches Future Things.

It is unfortunate that the translator used mock-Jacobean English, in a manner more or less impenetrable even to someone as well-educated as the readers of this blog must be.  For instance one passage in chapter 11 is rendered:

… in the Eternal nothing passeth away, but that the whole is present; but no time is wholly present ….

Fortunately I was able to find other versions:

In the Eternal, on the other hand, nothing passes away, but the whole is simultaneously present. (Outler translation[1])

In the eternal, nothing is transient, but the whole is present. (Chadwick translation.[2])

Boethius expresses a similar view in the Consolation of Philosophy, book 5, which is online here:

If one may not unworthily compare this present time with the divine, just as you can see things in this your temporal present, so God sees all things in His eternal present. Wherefore this divine foreknowledge does not change the nature or individual qualities of things: it sees things present in its understanding just as they will result some time in the future.

The translator of Boethius adds a useful note directing us to the Timaeus of Plato, “ch. xi. 38 B”, and stating that where Boethius refers to people who ‘hear that Plato thought, etc.,’ this is because this was the teaching of some of Plato’s successors at the Academy. Plato himself thought otherwise.

The passage referenced from Plato’s Timaeus 11 is as follows:

For there were no days  and nights and months and years before the heaven was created, but when  he constructed the heaven he created them also. They are all parts of time,  and the past and future are created species of time, which we unconsciously but wrongly transfer to the eternal essence; for we say that he “was,” he “is,” he “will be,” but the truth is that “is” alone is properly attributed to him, and that “was” and “will be” only to be spoken of becoming in time,  for they are motions, but that which is immovably the same cannot become  older or younger by time, nor ever did or has become, or hereafter will  be, older or younger, nor is subject at all to any of those states which  affect moving and sensible things and of which generation is the cause.  These are the forms of time, which imitates eternity and revolves according  to a law of number. Moreover, when we say that what has become is become  and what becomes is becoming, and that what will become is about to become  and that the non-existent is non-existent-all these are inaccurate modes  of expression. But perhaps this whole subject will be more suitably discussed  on some other occasion.

Time, then, and the heaven came into being at the same instant  in order that, having been created together, if ever there was to be a  dissolution of them, they might be dissolved together. It was framed after  the pattern of the eternal nature, that it might resemble this as far as  was possible; for the pattern exists from eternity, and the created heaven  has been, and is, and will be, in all time. Such was the mind and thought  of God in the creation of time.

Chadwick adds a note referring us to Plotinus 3.7.3, which reads:

All [Eternity’s] content is in immediate concentration as at one point; nothing in it ever knows development: all remains identical within itself, knowing nothing of change, for ever in a Now since nothing of it has passed away or will come into being, but what it is now, that it is ever.

What we have here, then, is a philosophical idea from the Platonic school, being adopted by the Fathers to deal with the difficult question of the relationships of time and eternity.

As with all such borrowings, we may use them if they clarify what the scriptures tell us; but with the reservation that, if they cease to be useful, they are merely theories and may be discarded.

  1. [1]A.C. Outler, Augustine: Confessions and Enchiridion, Library of Christian Classics, Westminster Press, 1955,  p.252.
  2. [2]Henry Chadwick, Augustine: Confessions, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, 1991.

2 thoughts on “The patristic idea that God is outside of time

  1. But time/space is pretty clearly part of the material universe, and there was no time until after the Big Bang, just as there was no space. Everything came into being as a single point, it would appear, and before that, there was nothing.

    And anyway, it’s a bit difficult for God to be simple and unchanging and all that other stuff if God is subject to space, time, and causality instead of being their Lord and Creator. (The Incarnation being a special exception.) Omniscience and omnipotence become a bit difficult also.

    So yeah, it was a guess by Plato, but in this case philosophy seems to have been quite accurate in its guessing according to science, and quite logical for the demands of Biblical theology too.

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