By Timothy George
October 3, 2016
The Scottish theologian James B. Torrance (1923-2003) published in 1997 a brief but brilliant book titled Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace. The doctrine of grace, Torrance noted, is directly related to two of the primary divine attributes, God’s holiness and his love. But each of them implies a third: the eternity of God. For God would be less than perfect—that is to say, less than God—if either his holiness or his love had come into being at a certain point within God’s own divine life. To say that God is “the Maker of heaven and earth” is to claim that God antedates everything that exists outside of himself. “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps 90:2).
Another way of defining God’s everlastingness or eternity is to say that it refers to his infinity with respect to time. The Bible says that the number of God’s years is “unsearchable” (Job 36:26). God is the one “who lives forever” (Isa 57:15). He is therefore utterly distinct from everything that exists outside of himself; he is before and after, above and beneath, incomparable to all creaturely realities, including the heavens and the earth. As the psalmist says, “They will perish, but thou remainest, and they all will become old as a garment, and as a mantel thou wilt roll them up; as a garment they will also be changed. But thou art the same, and thy years will not come to an end” (Ps 102:26, as quoted in Heb 1:11–12). “Before Abraham was,” Jesus said, “I AM” (John 8:58). The eternity of the Son was a major concern in the development of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity in the early church. What Athanasius and the other Nicene theologians (including the Cappadocians) said about the Logos is no less true of the Father and the Holy Spirit: Before he was, there was not.
In books 10 and 11 of the Confessions, Augustine takes up the mystery of time and eternity. He deals at length with a question that is often posed by children, but that is not a childish at all: What was God doing before he made the world? There was a stock answer to this question (which Calvin repeated a thousand years after Augustine): “He was busy creating hell for overly curious people like you!” Augustine was aware of this joke, but he knew that it was not a sufficient reply to the serious intent behind the question, and so he gave a different answer. This is what he said: It makes sense to ask what God was doing before he made the world if, and only if, both God and the world are separate items within the same temporal continuum. But they are not. God’s years, unlike ours, do not come and go. They are succeeded by no yesterday, and they give way to no tomorrow. “It is not in time that you precede all times, O Lord. You precede all past times in the sublimity of an ever-present reality. You have made all times and are before all times.” Read the rest at First Things.