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§ 6. Eternity.
A. Scriptural Doctrine.
The infinitude of God relatively to space, is his immensity or omnipresence; relatively to duration, it is his eternity. As He is free from all the limitations of space, so He is exalted above all the limitations of time. As He is not more in one place than in another, but is everywhere equally present, so He does not exist during one period of duration more than another. With Him there is no distinction between the present, past, and future; but all things are equally and always present to Him. With Him duration is an eternal now. This is the popular and the Scriptural view of God’s eternity. “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.” (Ps. xc. 2.) “Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands. They shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end.” (Ps. cii. 25-27.) He is “The high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity.” (Is. lvii. 15.) “I am the first and I am the last; and besides me there is no God.” (Is. xliv. 6.) “A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.” (Ps. xc. 4.) “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2 Pet. iii. 8.) He is “the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” (Heb. xiii. 8.) God is He “which is [ever is], and which was, and which is to come.” (Rev. i. 4.) Throughout the Bible He is called the eternal or everlasting God; who only hath immortality. The primal revelation of Himself to his covenant people was as the “I am.”
What is taught in these and similar passages, is, first, that God is without beginning of years or end of days. He is, and always has been, and always will be; and secondly, that to Him there is neither past nor future; that the past and the future are always and equally present to Him.
B. Philosophical View.
These are Scriptural facts, and necessarily follow from the nature of God as self-existent, infinite, and immutable. With these representations the teaching of theologians for the most part agrees. Thus Augustine says: “Fuisse et futurum esse non est in ea [scil. vita divina], sed esse solum, quoniam æterna est: nam fuisse et futurum esse non est æternum.”399399Confessiones, IX. x. 24, edit. Benedictines, vol. i. p. 283, c. “Nec tu tempore tempora præcedis, alioquin non omnia tempora præcederes sed præcedis omnia præterita celsitudine semper præsentis æternitatis; et superas omnia futura, quia illa futura sunt et cum venerint præterita erunt; tu autem idem ipse es, et anni tui non deficiunt.”400400Ibid. XI. xiii. 16, p. 338, a. Aquinas, to the same effect says, “Æternitas est tota simul.”401401Summa, I. x. 4, edit. Cologne, 1640, p. 16. Or, as the schoolmen generally were accustomed to say, “In æternitate est unicum instans semper præsens et persistens;” or, as they otherwise expressed it, “Eternitas est interminabilis vitæ simul et perfecta possessio.” The same view of this attribute is given by the later theologians. Thus Quenstedt says, “Æternitas Dei est duratio vel permanentia essentiæ divinæ interminabilis, sine principio et fine carens, et indivisibilis, omnem omnino successionem excludens.”402402Theologia, I. viii. § I. xvii. p. 413.
The only thing open to question in these statements is, the denial of all succession in the divine consciousness. Our idea of eternity is arrived at from our idea of time. We are conscious of existence in space, and we are conscious of protracted or continuous existence. The ideas of space and duration are necessarily given in the consciousness of continuous existence. We see also that events succeed each other, that their occurrence is separated by a longer or shorter period of duration, just as bodies are separated by a greater or less interval in space. We therefore know, from consciousness or from experience, of no kind of duration which is not successive. Instead of saying, as is commonly done, that time is duration measured by succession, which supposes that duration is antecedent to that by which it is measured, and independent of it, it is maintained by some that duration without succession is inconceivable and impossible. As space is defined to be “negation betwixt the boundary-lines of form,” so time is said to be “the negation betwixt the boundary-points of motion.” Or, in other words, time is “the interval which a body in motion marks in its transit from one point of space to another.”403403Jamieson, p. 199. Hence, if there be no bodies having form, there is no space; and if there is no motion, there is no time. “If all things were annihilated, time as well as space must he annihilated; for time is dependent on space. If all things were annihilated, there could be no transition, no succession of one object with respect to another; for there would be no object in being, — all would be perfect emptiness, nothingness, non-being-ness. Under an entire annihilation, there could be neither space nor time.”404404Ibid. p. 163. The same writer405405Rev. George Jamieson, M.A., one of the ministers of the parish of Old Machar, Aberdeen, The Essentials of Philosophy, wherein its constituent Principles are traced throughout the various Departments of Science with analytical Strictures on the Views of some of our leading Philosophers. elsewhere says, “Were the earth, as well as the other globes of space, annihilated, much more would time be annihilated therewith.”406406Ibid., p. 200. All this, however, is to be understood, it is said, of “objective time, that is, of time as dependent upon created material conditions.”407407Ibid. As objective timelessness follows from the annihilation of material existences, so timelessness as regards thinking personalities is conceivable only on the destruction of thought. “We have seen that there can be a state of timelessness for material creation, only by destroying its operation, that is, its attribute of motion: precisely in analogy therewith, there can be a state of timelessness for intellectual creation, only by destroying the laws of intellect, that is, its operation of thinking.”408408Ibid.If, therefore, God be a person, or a thinking Being, He cannot be timeless; there must be succession; one thought or state must follow another. To deny this, it is said, is to deny the personality of God. The dictum, therefore, of the schoolmen, and of the theologians, that eternity precludes succession — that it is a persistent, unmoving Now — is according to this repudiated.
There are, however, two senses in which succession is denied to God. Time first has reference to external events. They are ever present to the mind of God. He views them in all their relations, whether causal or chronological. He sees how they succeed each other in time, as we see a passing pageant, all of which we may take in in one view. In this there is perhaps nothing which absolutely transcends our comprehension. The second aspect of the subject concerns the relation of succession to the thoughts and acts of God. When we are ignorant, it is wise to be silent. We have no right to affirm or deny, when we cannot know what our affirmation or denial may involve or imply. We know that God is constantly producing new effects, effects which succeed each other in time; but we do not know that these effects are due to successive exercises of the divine efficiency. It is, indeed, incomprehensible to us how it should be otherwise. The miracles of Christ were due to the immediate exercise of the divine efficiency. We utter words to which we can attach no meaning, when we say that these effects were due, not to a contemporaneous act or volition of the divine mind, but to an eternal act, if such a phrase be not a solecism. In like manner we are confounded when we are told that our prayers are not heard and answered in time — that God is timeless — that what He does in hearing and answering prayer, and in his daily providence, He does from eternity. It is certain that God is subject to all the limitations of personality, if there be any. But as such limitations are the conditions of his being a person and not a mere involuntary force, they are the conditions of his infinite perfection. As constant thought and activity are involved in the very nature of a spirit, these must belong to God; and so far as thinking and acting involve succession, succession must belong to God. There are mysteries connected with chronological succession, in our nature, which we cannot explain. We know that in dreams months may be compressed into moments, and moments extended to months, so far as our consciousness is concerned. We know that it often happens to those near death, that all the past becomes instantly present. Had God so constituted us that memory was as vivid as present consciousness, there would to us be no past, so far as our personal existence is concerned. It is not impossible that, hereafter, memory may become a consciousness of the past; that all we ever thought, felt, or did, may be ever present to the mind; that everything written on that tablet is indelible. Persons who, by long residence in foreign countries, have entirely lost all knowledge of their native language, have been known to speak it fluently, and understand it perfectly, when they came to die. Still more wonderful is the fact that uneducated persons, hearing passages read in an unknown language (Greek or Hebrew, for example), have, years after, when in an abnormal, nervous state, repeated those passages correctly, without understanding their meaning. If unable to comprehend ourselves, we should not pretend to be able to comprehend God. Whether we can understand how there can be succession in the thoughts of Him who inhabits eternity or not, we are not to deny that God is an intelligent Being, that He actually thinks and feels, in order to get over the difficulty. God is a person, and all that personality implies must be true of Him.
Modern Philosophical Views.
The modern philosophy teaches that “Die Ewigkeit ist die Einheit in dem Unterschiede der Zeitmomente — Ewigkeit und Zeit verhalten sich wie die Substanz und deren Accidentien.”409409Strauss, Dogmatik, i. p. 561. That is, Eternity is the unity underlying the successive moments of time, as substance is the unity underlying the accidents which are its manifestations. Schleiermacher’s illustration is borrowed from our consciousness. We are conscious of an abiding, unchanging self, which is the subject of our ever changing thoughts and feelings. By the eternity of God, therefore, is meant nothing more than that He is the ground-being of which the universe is the ever changing phenomenon. The eternity of God is only one phase of his universal causality. “Unter der Ewigkeit Gottes verstehen wir die mit allem Zeitlichen auch die Zeit selbst bedingende schlechthin zeitlose Ursachlichkeit Gottes.”410410Christliche Glaube, I. § 52, Werke, edit. Berlin, 1842, vol. iii. p. 268. To attain this philosophical view of eternity, we must accept the philosophical view of the nature of God upon which it is founded, namely, that God is merely the designation of that unknown and unknowable something of which all other things are the manifestations. To give up the living, personal God of the Bible and of the heart, is an awful sacrifice to specious, logical consistency. We believe what we cannot understand. We believe what the Bible teaches as facts; that God always is, was, and ever will be, immutably the same; that all things are ever present to his view; that with Him there is neither past nor future; but nevertheless that He is not a stagnant ocean, but ever living, ever thinking, ever acting, and ever suiting his action to the exigencies of his creatures, and to the accomplishment of his infinitely wise designs. Whether we can harmonize these facts or not, is a matter of minor importance. We are constantly called upon to believe that things are, without being able to tell how they are, or even how they can be.
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