Paul Plass The Concept of Eternity in Patristic Theology

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The concept of eternity in patristic theology Paul Plass Published online: 30 Jun 2010.

To cite this article: Paul article: Paul Plass (1982) The concept of eternity in patristic theology, theology, Studia Theologica - Nordic Journal of  Theology, 36:1, 11-25 To link to this article: 0.1080/00393388208600 3388208600005 005

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Studia Theohgica 36  (1982)   (1982) pp. 11-25.

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In early Christian theology 'eternal being' proved to be as elusive a category as it was important. Nevertheless, though theologians had not managed to sort everything out with complete conceptual precision, from a fairly early date their definition of eternity is sufficiently nuanced to be useful in answering a variety of questions. It resembles a broad spectrum composed of several bands which easily shade into each other across faintly marked lines as occasion demands. 'Eternity' can include: 1. God's own mode of absolutely unified existence, a state which displays neither duration nor any sort of structure because God is beyond all categories. 2. Dur Duratio ationn which is both endl endless ess and chan changele geless ss and distinct ffrom rom time in so far as time, entails change. 3. Duration which is endless but admits change for the better (infinite. appr approxima oximation tion to - i.e., love fo forr - God). Along with 2 this is akin to the Neoplatonic idea that intelligible being is itself nontemporal yet 'strives' in a kind of timeless ontological 'process' to return to its source. 4. The divine plan behind actual events occurring successively in time. All of the parts of time (past/present/future) realized and simultaneously present in the preexisting plan. are Thisfully is analogous to the Platonic world of intelligible Forms, which was used in a variety of ways and especially to rationalize the biblical notions of  providence and predestination. 5. Endless time. Few theologians would have accepted this as a formal definition of eternity, but it was at points used as a functional, commonsense definition. I propose to examine passages from several theologians to illustrate in detail these phases and their relationships to each other. Discussions of eternity (and time) are notoriously artificial and highly abstract, the more so when taken out of context, but it is precisely



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those qualities which underscore the perennial difficulty of dealing  with  wit h so some meth thin ing g whic which h li lie es beyo beyond nd,, or rather athwart athwart human human co com m-

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petence. Gregory of Nyssa provides an initial example of how the definitions interlock to form a flexible tool for theological reflection. The prime category of created being is extension (diastēma), temporal and spatial, while the Creator is wholly without dimension  (Against Eu1 nomius)  1. 246.  This contrast suggests simple opposition between the 'line' of time and the 'point' (or something even less) of eternity.  When  Wh en Gr Greg egor ory y says says that God is 'a 'alw lway ayss the same' same'  (De Virgin.  296), God falls at once into our first two categories, for in his own essence he is beyond man's dimensional grasp, though we are bound to think  of him in terms terms of endless, endless, changel changeless ess duration, durati on, 'Everything tha t hatt is thought about him always remains the same'  (Eunomius 2.186), and  by the same same token token the highe highest st love love  (agapē)  of which we are capable is a state stat e which is 'equal ' equal to t o being forev forever er the same' (PG 46. 96B). That is to say, for creatures eternity is conceptually changelessness and existentially an endlessly enduring love which admits of change for the better be tter only in so far as it never ceas ceases es moving moving toward the Creator. Creato r. Only God himse himself lf is truly t ruly chang changele eless ss and, even even then, our  grasp of his permanence ('always the same') actually act ually ve veils ils a radical radica l unity beyond duration or any other finite conception. The conceptual difficulties of delimiting the various phases of transcendence come out again in the ontological scheme outlined in  Eu Eu134. 4. Gregory distinguishes among among (A) (A) 'pre-et 'pr e-eterna ernal'l'  (pronomius  1. 13 God as cause, (B) (B) the divine 'unextended hypostasis' hypostasis' derived aionios)  God from the cause, and (C) temporal extended creation. The intermediate phase (B) linking the extremes is the Logos. Gregory grants that 'if it were possible to show that something beyond creation had the principle of its being in extension and if everyone could agree that the notion of extension is applicable prior to created being, it might make sense to deny the eternity of the Son.' But the Son is in fact eternal in essence, and his eternity (like that of the Father) is unextended unity. Other theological principles then fit into place to bridge the gap between pure eternity and time. The Son is also distinct from the Father (who is 'pre-eternal') and akin to time in so far as he is agent of creation and incarnate redeemer. Conversely,  whil  wh ile e creatur creatures es for for their part are esse essent ntia iall lly y exten extende ded, d, th they ey wil willl enjoy  joy  post-temporal endless love, i.e., a state of duration quite different from ordinary temporal extension. In Origen, eternity appears in virtually all of its forms forms and it does does so


The Concept Conce pt of Eternity in Patristic Theology Th eology 


with character characteristic istic lack of sh sharp arp focus. Si Since nce it is inadmissible th that at God was ever not 'Cre ator ator',', creation exis exists ts in the sen sense se that th at

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the 'form and shape' of the divine plan are eternally present to him in Wisdom or the Logos. The substantial phenomenal creation thus preexists in Wisdom as a world of Forms including 'genera, species and perhaps individuals as well'  (De Princ.  188. 66, 13ff).2  Substantial creation itself has two aspects: an original intelligible reality consisting of 'minds'  (noes)  and the spatial/temporal universe occasioned by the fall of minds from their original bliss. The fall is caused by 'motions' rooted in free will (254. 98, 20), and time accordingly is the 'unsure, fragile' motion of minds (260.102,5) which contrasts with their original state of stability. We have, then, no less than four different levels: God, Wisdom, minds before the fall, minds fallen into time/space/matter. These  junctu  jun ctures res na natu tura rallllyy tend te nd to gen genera erate te interm int ermedi ediate ate stages of bei being. ng. For our purposes before fall - eternity is most interesting becausetheit second lies on last the level border- mind between the the absolute of God and time. If God creates eternally, if time is created along with our universe and if the created universe therefore has a beginning, there is such a thing as pre-temporal created being lying between time and the radical eternity of the Creator. It is called 'mind' and its characteristic is unity. All rational beings   (noes)  were created the same (254. 98,8f), and after their fallen temporal life they again become 'one spirit' (262.102,7) in returning to their original  kenösis  with God (268.97,12; cf. 216.80,If). Mind's original mode of being is in some respects like that of Platonic intelligible being, but Origen also thought of it in dynamic terms, i.e., as a spirit world striving toward God.3  When he says that in the intelligible world minds 'serve God and do his will', he is in the first instance using biblical phraseology with its typically temporal overtones, because he can in part think of the intelligible realm as temporal. At the same time, 'service' is also a metaphor for a relatively abstract, more truly timeless state of being described as 'before the aeons' (262.95,14f). Origen, in fact, borrowed the notion of 'sacred' time and space from Jewish and Christian Gnosticism.4  They make up a counterwork! combining temporal and timeless features. So far as the latter are concerned, sacred time is the pattern of our temporal world, and the use of the word 'intelligible'  (noëtos)  in connection with it indicates the th e relationship of sacred time to the Platonic intelligible world. So far as the former is concerned, the biblical tradition conceived of the



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counterworld - the Coming Age - in dynamic dramatic rather than static structural terms. Hence Origen also speaks of a higher time consisting of 'aeons' strung together into vast stretches. He is thus in part simply working with a new scale of time rather than a new mode of being, but he also envisages something lying   beyond   the th e aeons: ['There is] something more than the aeon or more than aeons or more than aeons of aeons, I mean that which [obtains] when all things are not in an aeon but when God is all in all.' (314. 120.17Í). On the one hand, such language points to God himself, who is 'above all time, ages and eternity'  {tempus, saecula, aetemitas) while everything else is in 'ages and times' (786.350,2If). Yet in fact it describes created being: minds 'exist before this age and before they began to move' because 'God never began to create them' (266), i.e., though they are not fully coeternal with God they are pretemporal in so far as they were not created at a point in timé. The original intelligible is thought by Origen as different from aeonic durationcreation in quality and notofmerely in quantity; it is changeless duration anchored in union with God, but changeless only while it lasts, for a fall into time is possible. The resurrection is naturally drawn into this complex scheme. One might expect that, at the resurrection, time would come to an end and man return to the supratemporal intelligible creation. Origen's peculiar eschatology, however, does not allow anything so simple. We will not obtain perfected bodies in the twinkling of an eye. It is rather a progressive matter: 'It will not happen all of a sudden but b ut gradually and by degrees degrees,, during the lapse of iinfin nfinite ite am amid id immeasurable ages' (658.287,2If). Origen's eschatology is notoriously obscure, but he apparently has in mind the transformation of as time we know into a spiritual substance which will continue to body exist in (i.e., itthrough aeons) until it finally returns as mind to God. We must envisage vast periods of time running up to a recapitulation of creation. Time (along with space and matter) is then transfigured into some sort of supratemporal mode of being. Origen probably has changeless duration in mind, though he was later criticized for allowing a degree of change which makes subsequent fall from bliss into material existence possible and thus renders salvation unsure (cf. 306.117,15f). His eschatology also provides that at the last judgment God will cause us to recollect instantaneously the whole of our lives (PG 13 : 1204CÍ). We will then transcend the ordinary limits of temporal Ufe to see its content spread out, present all at once. Origen similarly


The Concept of Eternity in Patristic Theology  

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describes in great detail the expansion of our knowledge beyond its present temporal limitations once we escape our earthly body (444. 186,22 186 ,22ff) ff).. (Th (Thee exp expansion ansion is fin finally ally complete when on reaching the intelligible world we no longer use 'food', i.e., knowledge of causes, to 'grow' but to 'maintain' ourselves in a state of perfection: 456. 191, 20f. This distinction between 'growth' and 'maintenance' again suggests that changing time (the aeons) is succeeded by steady, changeless duration.) In addition, as we have seen, a supratemporal summation or simultaneity of events on a much larger scale is part of his conception of Wisdom as the pattern of creation. The same idea of a timeless 'presence' of the whole of time appears in his treatment of free will in the  Treatise on Prayer   (PG 11.436CÍ), where he argues that though God preserves his sovereign freedom to act as he sees fit, we can still exercise genuine free will because events in time are arranged before actual creation to take account of our free will. In this time is a chain in which our decisions each moment and the way foreknowledge of God are woven together. atPrayers accordingly are ar e in fac factt answered on two levels: levels : (1) God fo forese resees es and has eternally eterna lly answere answeredd all requests, (2) he responds at the par partic ticula ularr moment mom ent of reques request.t. Th e first level again constit constitutes utes a timel timeless ess time in which events that we experience successively stand together simultaneously.5  But Origen's most influential elaboration of the idea of  a timeless pattern of history is the distinction which he makes between typological events and true 'events' corresponding to them point by point. The former are historical, the latter timeless. One must not think that historical events are types of other historical events events .... . they are types of intelligible realities (PG 14. 337D). Th Thee pattern patte rn of history is not generated autonomo autonomously usly by the imman immanent ent flow of events but preexists all at once beyond time, and it becomes plausible to say that events match each other since on that plane they are simultaneous. For Clement of Alexandria God himself is definable for the most part negatively (he is above space, time, name and thought,  Stromata V.X I.7 I.71), 1), while the eternity acc access essibl iblee to creature creaturess is thought thoug ht of in the familiar terms of 'r'rest' est' from the disturbances of time. Accordingly in his eschatological eschatol ogical scheme when sou souls ls become equal to angel angelss they reach 't'the he Lord's rest and become immutable, eternally steady light, absolutely changeless' (VII.X.57). Clement's thought is in many respects in-



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fluenced by contemporary Gnosticism, and in a passage from the  Eclogae   where it is difficult to separate his views from the Gnostic exegesis of Scripture with which he is working, angels of the highest rank are said to turn from providential administration of certain areas of creation to 'rest and pure contemplation of God' (PG 9. 725B). Again, eternity is 'rest'. Elsewhere Clement identifies the seven days spent by souk in the meadow [the fixed sphere] in Plato's myth of Er with 'each motion of the seven [planets].' These seven days are 'all the active creation [i.e., the created temporal universe] which hastens toward the goal of rest.' The next stage is the journey to heaven, i.e., to 'the eighth motion and day' (V.XIV.106). e Since the eighth day is eternity, Clement appears to be introducing also a dynamic factor (the eighth motion) into eternal 'rest.' In view of the fact that he employs the Origenist notion of progress toward perfection after death, motion here may represent that progress. At the sameordinary time thesense?) status ofand sucheighth progress is puzzling it temporal in the motion may be(isdesigned more specifically to bridge the gap between God's own mode of eternal existence and time. It would then (as a 'moving rest' distinct from both time and God's eternal Ufe) vaguely foreshadow Gregory's conception of infinite love as unbroken uniform duration. Clement interprets the rest on the seventh day of creation as man's rest from evils, a rest which prepares the way for the next day, described as 'primal  (archegonon) and our true rest' and as .'the first creation of true light in which all things are seen and possessed' (VI. XVI. 138). That is to say, the eighth day is Christ's day of resurrection and in reaching it we revert to the first day of creation. Since as creatures we cannot reach true unity, we see God only in the Logos, the thingsinclude which we possess' in the day or true and rest 'all presumably the see fullyand realized plan for final creation, since the content of the transtemporal first day of creation is the intelligible world which serves as a pattern for time. Clement has something of the sort in mind in another passage (VI.IX.75, 78f) when he contends that the true gnostic has knowledge of all of creation from beginning to end. The Lord's words, which may be obscure to others but are clear to him, deal with past, present and future, and he can foreknow the future by focusing on 'intelligible reality' and 'copying from the transcendent archetypes his own dispensation of human affairs.' Information about the course of life can in some way be read off the fixed transcendent plan of history. As we have seen, in the hands of Origen such a timeless Platonic overwork! be-


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came the basis for a sophisticated typological interpretation of  history. Clement, then, uses not only the 'negative' eternity of God's own ineffable existence but also the 'positive' eternity of (A) timeless realized structure accessible to 'gnostic' insight and of (B) 'rest' com7  bining at once changeless changeless duration durati on and continuing progress. progress.  When Gregory of Nazianzus speaks speaks of eternity   (aiōn)  simply as  beginning  begin ningless less past and endless endless future (PG  36.320AÍ), he is initially    4    1    0    2    l    i   r   p    A    8    2    6    4   :    1    2    t   a    ]    h   g   r   u    b   n    i    d    E    f   o   y    t    i   s   r   e   v    i   n    U    [   y    b    d   e    d   a   o    l   n   w   o    D

working with a contrast between unmeasured infinity and the measured finitude of time, i.e., extension, duration or flow remains a component of eternity.8 But aiōn is 'neither time nor a part of time' ; it is a 'time-like movement and extension coextensive with eternal  beings' (the definition definition reappears in numerous later writers, e e.g .g., ., Jo hn of Damascus, PG 94.  94.861B 861BÍ; Í; Eut Euthymius, hymius, PG 130. 130.157 157A). A). Thoug Thoughh the there re

is a fundamental distinction between God and all created beings (PG 36.248DÍ), some creatures, too, are eternal, but in a 'time-like' way. The phrase 'time-like extension' points in the first instance to the category of   changeless  duration, since true temporal extension involves changing duration. The complications implicit in 'time-like extension' come to the surface in later commentaries on Gregory. Some remarks by Psellus (quoted in Nicetas' commentary, PG 127.132OBf) show how elusive the matter mat ter is. If we m make ake (he sa says ys)) the mental experiment of thinking away the heavenly bodies, we ourselves still remain and our own life still is extended (cf.  Enneads III.7.12.15f). It is true that there would be no sun, moon and stars to mark intervals, nevertheless though the markers which create time are absent 'we are still in motion and interval, i.e., a time-like motion and interval which is the  aiōn  of  eternal things.' 'Time', then, is duration measured by external, celestial bodies, and aiōn is a different sort of duration. The possibility  that in such a denuded universe duration might be measured by our  inner consciousness and therefore still be temporal is not explored,  because time time is thought tho ught of as composed composed of parts and as a function function of  the visible universe. Duration not linked to external events accordingly is is wholly free free of change and an d of parts, parts , a and nd therefore therefore is is not 'ti ' time. me.'' Psellus proceeds to summarize the distinction among 'eternal' in the primary sense of something atemporal both in essence and act, 'te 'tempora mporal' l' in the sense sense of something in time both in esse essenc nce e and an d act, and 'eternal' in the secondary sense of something atemporal in essence, temporal tempor al in act (cf. (cf. Proclus,  Elements of Theology 191). He notes that Gregory rejects this because the heavens - which are to pagans



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'eternal' in the secondary, sense - are destined to perish according to Scripture. He (Gregory) prefers to distinguish between 'beginningless' and 'eternal' ; only God is the former, while mind or soul is the latter. This makes God eternal in the strong sense that he has no finite measure at all because he has no beginning or end; creatures are eternal in the weaker sense that though they may be without end, they do have a beginning. If God is without beginning in this sense, his eternity can be thought of simply as absolutely infinite and changeless duration. 'Beginningless' could also mean that he alone is underived from a higher 'principle'  (arche),  and within a vaguely Platonic frame of reference that would suggest radical unity. But that is not actually a factor in the discussion: eternity is simply unmeasured, infinite changeless duration. The notion of radical unity is, however, specifically brought up earlier to be rejected on Gregory's behalf by Psellus (quoted in 127. 1318Af). Plotinus and Porphyry, he says, introduced a new conception of  aiōn  aiōn (in place of circular motion) :  Assign  Assi gnin ingg  aiōn  to the Forms, which are motionless and without intervals, they held that it, too, was without motion and inter valss . . . As the Forms  val Forms which which are immaterial immaterial are without past and future, so their measure, i.e., aiōn, is without without past and future, and only that which is remains, i.e., the present. The theologian [Gregory] in no way approves this doctrine. For if the mode of   aiōn is such that it admits no measure or interval, it must also lack  parts. From which it will follow that all eternal beings are included in a point, for that is the nature of what lacks parts.  And what could could be more prepos preposter terous ous than that? tha t?  Ab  Abse senc nce e of 'interval' and concentrat conce ion in aworld 'partle 'partless ss point' pre sumably would mean a phase of thentration intelligible so unifiedpresumthat its content is, so to speak, telescoped into itself at one point and thus 9 has no relationship to duration or to the serial order of time.  Gregory  does, in fact, hold that aiōn cannot be divided or measured by motion as time is (PG 36.77Af) but, as we have seen, that means simply that it is wholly uniform duration, not that is it radically dimensionless. That appears to be the point which Psellus goes on to make; the eternity of the intelligible world is a bare 'present' without past or  future in the sense that it endures changelessly. Nicetas' own remarks deal with the same issues  (127.1317AÍ).  Aiōn is properly applied only to God, who like an endles endlesss ocean has neither   beginnin  begi nningg nor end, while angels angels and souls souls have only no end. Nicetas Nicetas


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then observes that the word  aiōn  applies to various lengths of time,

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including a length not measured by any part of time (e.g., not even  by th thee sun's sun' s moti mo ti on) . Thi s last  aiōn  (which we cannot define exactly) is a quasi-time, 'for what time is to things subject to time   aiōn  is to eternal things.'  Aiōn  in this sense is 'coextensive' with the pre-creation state. So far the discussion has focused on   infinity  of duration,  butt Nicetas also notes th at   aiōn  is 'one', that God is actually 'pre bu 10  eternal'  (proaiōnios)  since he creates  aiōn,   and that  changelessness is also an essential feature of eternity. Oneness' here might seem to  be a gesture gestur e in th thee directio dire ction n of a radica rad icall unity beyond dur ati on, bu butt it again is no more than another way of describing the uniformity  of changeless duration. The use of   'aiōn'   to cover a wide range of meanings is remarked on by Dionysius, who observes that in Scripture  aiōnion  is applied not only to things which are truly without beginning but also to  wha t is very old or to what wh at does n ot cha nge ; thus there the re can be  'aiōnios time' or 'temporal  aiōn',  though commonly   aión  applies to what truly  exists and chronos to what comes to be.  Aiōn in the full sense lies beyond duration in so far as God is beyond all categories. Yet when Dionysius says that God 'is unchanging and motionless in all motion and remains in himself in his endless motion' (PG3.931B), God's mode of being might seem to be changeless duration, for that can well be described in the paradox of motionless motion. At any rate, Dionysius aiōnia proceeds to distinguish distingui sh four levels: levels : (A) God (beyond  aiōn); things which are not actually co-eternal with God; (G) things which participate in both  aiōn  and tim e; (D) things things in time (PG 3.937CÍ).

Pachymeres' paraphrase touches on the possibility that God's eternity is changeless duration (945Af). God can be called 'time' or 'day' because time itself is changeless in so far as it persists while events occurring in it change. For if time itself underwent change it would have to do so in time and that leads to an infinite regress. Thus both God and one aspect of time 'remain the same in changing', i.e., are a changeless substrate or background, God being an infinite, time a finite substrate. Despite this similarity between God and time, however, Pachymeres assigns an eternity beyond duration to God. It is the eternity of angels in the first instances which is durative. They are ar e  aiōnioi   in the sense that they share in   aiōn  and are older than other creatures. 'This extension of time is called  aiōn'   in Scripture.  At the same time tim e angels' ange ls' eternit ete rnity y is not simply a vast stre stretch tch of ti time. me.   aiōn  is not merely antiquity   We are ar e told (948A) th at th thee sign of their  the ir  aiōn  butt 'changelessness  bu 'changelessness an and d measure-by-the-whole measure-by-the-whole or, as Gregory says,



Paul Plašs

the extension of that which truly exists/ Hence we have (A)   aiōnia  hyptraionia,  which are divine and beyond all creation and go with or  hyptraionia, purely tempo ral things; (G) (G) intermediate angels angels and so souls uls αΐδη;  αΐδη;   which share in i n aiōn in so far as they are immortal but are also in time in so far as they 'ar ' are e se seen en in genesis' genesis' (PG 3.945DÍ).11  The relation

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of A here to A and in Dionysiu Dionysiuss is not entirely clea clear. r. It is clear that the higher phase of G is not merely endless time but a distinct ontological mode, and the phrase 'measured as a whole' suggests that the distinction lies in a wholly changeless duration in which past, present and future are effectively present all at once. By the same token, still higher, more specifically divine modes would involve a more radical unity beyond duration. For the fusion of rest and motion in God is not changeless duration but transcends both motion and rest (PG 3.853A).   autoaiōn  since similarisscheme appears (A)by God hisA being measured neither neithinerPG by 3.853B. time nor   aiō  He is, in fact, hib own aiōn.  Angels an and d intelligible^ intelligible^ are aiōnia, and are measured  by and share in  aiōn.  (C) Time arises fiom the motion of cosmic  bodies  bodi es and is again it itse self lf said to be 'one', 'one' , i.e., stable in so far as it is the 'one extension by which temporal things are measured.' Here aiōnia  are 'prior' to time and lie between it and the Creator. He is  beyond 'measure', 'meas ure', while aiōn measures intelligible extension, i.e., the the changeless duration of created being which Dionysius refers to also as the angels' 'eternal motion'  (aei kinēsia, 856A). John of Scythopolis in his commentary on Dionysius   (PG4.313CÍ) which restates several central points.12 (1) God is the aiōn  of the he creates. They are 'eternal' in so far as they share in  aiōn,  which itself is not  'aiōnios',  for as God creates time without being temporal, so he creates aeons without himself being   aiōnios.  (2 (2))  Aiōn  itself is 'a fixed present which changes neither from a present nor to a future . . . All that exis exists ts must be present to it as a whole.' whole.' It is 'endless 'endless  because it already exists exists as a whole whole . . . it is en endle dless ss lif life e . . . a lif life e stable and all together, already endless without variation and fixed in unity.' (3) As visible things are images of intelligibles, so 'time rested in what always exists and later appeared in diminished form (kath' hypobasin) when the visible creation appeared.' Hence time is not the actual 'motion of the intervals that are parts of time but the processio proc ession n of God's goodness goodness int into o visible cieation. ciea tion.'' Th at ?s to ay: ay : (1) The general ontological schema runs in descending order: God/ aton/eternal, intelligible creation/time. So far as the relation of the first two stages is concerned, God is sometimes treated as prior to


The Concept of Eternity Eternit y in Patristic Theology 


aiōn, sometimes as virtually identical with it. (2) The connection be-

tween 'endless' and in so thisuniform characterization is intended to point to 'already' a duration that all of of itseternity moments are 'alread ' already' y' presently presently realized realized at any point aud therefor therefore e carcely  durational at all. The intelligible aeons which partake of  aiôn   aiôn  aie

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less unified than it is because they are a stage closer to the actual extension exten sion of time. (3) As we have seen, ti time me as a whole is ontologically prior to the finite periods of time, and this transcendent aspect is here closely associated with eternity. The last stage in the four-part scheme outlined in (1) is followed by 'things in time' as   aiôn is followed by 'things in eternity,' and so the full hierarchy is much like that in later Neoplatonism: the One/eternity/things in eternity = intelligible being/time/things in time.13 Many of the threads that go to make up the idea of eternity in 1  {Peri its various to aspects are De woven togetherDoctrina. in the discussion appended Psellus' Omni/aria * It begins withAiônos) formal (Platonic) definitions: time is the image of eternity {aiōn) and eternity 

is the pattern of time. The author insists that he is not introducing Platonic Forms and that things in the higher world are, in any case, only images of the ultimate cause, which 'in truth is not eternity    stasis  or  kinesis   kinesis  or identity but is beyond conception or being or  stasis and language.' The images images which which make up the content of the transcendent world are aiōnia, and their eternity consists of 'togetherness and unity.' The 'present' reality  {to  {to estos) of eternity is not separate fr from om the extremities extremities of past and future; it is, rather, both the 'middle and what is around the middle' [i.e., it is a fully realized structure embracing all of time at once]. Time, on the other hand, 'runs out' from eternity and can imitate its stability only in its  continuous flow. This is its transcendent, timeless aspect. One part is past, one future, and the present has only false being. That is to say, the fully realized scope of etemitiy is in time so narrowed down that it vanishes in an illusory knife-edge present. Since the reality of time consists in its sheer flow, measurement of specific spans is not an essential part of  time itself. We now are in a position to work out a complete hierarchy again like that of late NeoPlatonism: (A) the cause beyond aiōn;  (G) eternal things; (D) time; (E) temporal things. aiôn;  Time here is 'between what is beyond time and what is in time.' Soul is midway between aiōn and time, its essence being eternal, its activity temporal te mporal (cf. (cf. De Omnifaria Doctrina, 10  107, 7, p. 59). 59).  All of th  All this is then then pr prov ovid ides es a meta metaph phys ysic ical al fra framewo ework for the Chris Christia tian n doctrine of a renewed creation. For if it makes sense to say (as Neo-



Paul Plašs

platonists did) that soul can lay aside its temporal mode and become atoraos when it regains the unity of mind, why should not 'time as a

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whole be resolved into eternity from which it came and under which it was motionless? Some kind of ambition put it into motion, or rather soul was too weak to maintain its [original] intelligible unity and as it unwound in its search for for being it created ti time' me' (cf. (cf. Plot Plotiinus,  Ennead   III.7-ll.20f). Thus 'the errant child will once again be under its father.' This image is used to introduce a rather awkward interpretation of the parable of the Prodigal Son: the prime cause is the father, eternity is the elder son who stayed at home, time is the prodigal, and the new heaven and earth are the result of the reunion of time and eternity. Several phases of eternity come out in this synthesis. God, the ultimate hyperaeonic cause, is timeless in the most radical sense.  Αιδη,  Αιδη,  highly unified and alongofwith God exemplifies the aiön absence  too, of theisdispersion characteristic time. At the same time, embodies the multiple patterns (the  aionia)  which time imitates. In

this respect it can figure as a simultaneous whole embracing past, present and future. But this is not worked out. The distinctions between αιδη  and  and aiōnia and between time and things in time appear  earlier in Proclus (Elements of Theology, 53), but while Proclus also distinguishes transcendent and immanent forms of time, here we find elaboration neither of the transcendent aspect of time nor of  the precise nature of the eternity of the new heaven and earth into  whic  wh ich h time time wi will ll flow (p (prob robab ably ly to be tran transf sfig igur ured ed into ch chan ange gele less ss duration). If we return now to our list of conceptions of eternity available to theologians, weth can see first used  wi  with th ne nega gati tive ve theo eolo logy gy.. that In athe sens sense, e, was it rais raoften ises es the least leain st conjunction concep conceptua tuall difficulty because it need not and cannot be discussed. For that matter, is does not depend on a formal negative theology because it can be a simple expression of awareness of God's transcendence. For the most most part, par t, however, the second second and thir third d definitions definitions provided the working notion of eternity, especially in depictions of eternal life. The doctrine of the Logos rested on the fourth definition, which is very close to the Platonic understanding of the intelligible world as a timeless timeless structure struct ure or patter patt ern n for for time. It has oft often en been remarked that while the hope of biblical writers is typically based on a meaning of history which emerges from a limitless future, the Greek (or at least the Platonic) tradition saw the future largely in terms of knowledge already learned in the past, which exemplifies reality exhaust-


The Concept of Eternity in Patristic Theology 


ively because it reflects a timeless paradigm (the path to eternity

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may leadandthrough as Augustine knew). In its treatment of time eternitymemory, patristic theology took account of both of these 15 views. The root of the problem was that eternity ultimately means  our  eternity and thus carries with it the enigma of the human self. The self was in the Greek tradition primarily 'soul'. In Plato, soul is something ambivalent, linking time and eternity often in obscure ways, and later in Plotinus its elusive, 'amphibian' status reappears more formally in the various levels of emanation which can be isolated. Iamblichus and other Platonists finally recognized that soul in fact breaks through clearly defined categories, because while the distinction between time and eternity is a fundamental reality, the reality of soul equally dictates a new category in which time and eternity run together essence of soul simultaneously temporal and eternal . . . the ('The category cf time is issom someho ehow w eternalized and 18 eternity is temporalized').   If with all their sophisticated categorical apparatus the Neoplatonists were brought to this pass, it is not surprising that theologians should have worked out a functional  understanding of 'eternity' centering around the twin notions of a timeless, fully realized plan which guarantees the coherence of time by expressing the Creator's sovereign intention and a uniform duration which guarantees the reliability of what follows time because it endures endlessly and is free of time's uncertainties. NOTES 1 References are to pages of the Jaeger/Langerbeck edition of Gregory of Nyssa except where PG refers to volume and column of the Migne edition. 2 References are to page , paragraph and line numbers of the Görgemanns/Karp Görgemanns/Karpp p edition of Origen's De Principiis. 3 For a (presumably) (presu mably) later Origenist view of the relation between Forms and minds cf.  De Prin.  280 and 282. 4 Cf. J. Daniélou,  Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture,  tr. J.A . B Bake akerr (London 1973) 458 ff,, 469 ff.. 5 E.G. Jay  (Origen's Treatise on Prayer,  London 1954) 1954) 10 101 1 cites C.S . Lewis: Lew is: ' To God (though not to me) I and th e pra prayer yer I make in 1945 were ju just st as much present at the creation of the world as they are now and will be a million years hence. God's creative act is timeless and tunelessly adapted to the 'free' elements within w ithin it : but this timeless adap adaptation tation meets our cconscio onsciousness usness as a sequen sequence ce of prayer and answer.' Jay holds that Origen himself does not use the notion of a simultaneous eternity. 6 J. Dani élou (above (above,, note 4) 125, 4 447f. 47f.



Paul Plašs

Völker, Der 7   On Clement's eschatology cf. W. Völker,  Der wahre Gnostiker nach Clemens Alexan-

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drmus  (Berlin   (Berlin 1952) 392f. 8 Cf Cf.. PG 37.946i : ete eternity rnity (aiōn) (aiōn) is  is 'dimension forever flowing timelessly,' time is 'the measure measure of the sun' sun'ss moti motion.' on.' For time as es essentially sentiallyfinite and measureable c cf. f. Hilary of Poitiers (PL 10.62B): the Creator is infinite, while time is  signifícala  mode  mo derat ratio, io, i.e., 'articulated arrangement' or 'definite measure of extension located in time and not space.' s pace.' Arnobius defines defines time as the 'measure of of a certain extension embraced in an unbroken, continuous series' (PL5.977A). Eternity accordingly can be simply endless (immeasurable) duration. Isidore (PG 78.842B) contrasts God's aidiotes with the athanasia of angels and souls which have no end but do have a beginning. When he goes on to say that there is no number, no 'before' or 'after', no 'first', 'second' or 'third' in God because he is 'higher than number, times t imes or thought,' God is infinite infinite in the sense that there is no 'first' or 'second' because there is no beginning which can count as 'first'.  In  Infin finite ite quantity in effect becomes absence of  quantity  quantity and is transformed into something qualitatively different, i.e., into eternity. Or absence of distinctions might point to a more radical unity beyond uniform duration. Cf. the discussion in to thetime notes at PG it 3.939f 3.939 f :  aevum  aiōn)   is all  aiōn) 'theatduration of angels not subject because is whole and  (= invariable once.' Cf. also John Cyparissiotes, PG 152.892f. For Augustine's concept of an angelic 'supertime' cf. H. Urs von Balthasar,  Balthasar,  Man in History: A Theological Study   (London 1968) 15f. Endless stable duration is again a factor in descriptions of eternity as 'one day':: PG 38.1029; Plotmus, day' Plotmus, Ennead   IV.4.7.11.  Ennead  IV.4.7.11.

9 An interesting line of argument in pseudo-Justin,  pseudo-Justin,  Quaestiones Quaest iones ad Graecos   (PG 6.1415f) 6.14 15f) apparently uses a similar conception of eternity. A Christian critic crit ic  wonder  won derss how God God can exist, exist, if (A) (A) the un unive iverse rse is unc uncrea reated ted (as the Gree Greeks ks maintain) but (B) a God who does not crea create te is imp impossible. ossible. The answer is that since God's eternity is changeless duration, he always sustains the uni verse,  vers e, thou though gh he has not crea created ted it at any point point.. The Ch Christ ristian ian then objec objects ts that such an eternity is merely disguised time: 'If there is nothing temporal in God, how can he always do the same thing? For 'do' cannot be thought apart from present time. How does God have perfect  perfect  dynamis   and and   energeia  energeia  if  he does the same thing endlessly?' (1421Af). One does not really dissociate Godtimeless from time simply by saying that past and future are present to him, for his present is then still grasped in temporal terms. The author himself  (1423Df) makes a distinction distinc tion betwee between n God's chang changeless eless dynamis   or ousia and  and his  dynamis  or ousia energeia,   which expresses itself in entirely free temporal creation and in that energeia, form embodies a finite emanation (  pr 'The energeia probolē)r   restriction ( sys  systolē tolē). ).   'The energeia of God has a beginning and end because of emanation and restriction, not  becaus  bec ause e of any c chang hange e in his his dynamis.'   Thus the divine energeia divine energeia causes  causes us to pass  dynamis.'  Thus from infancy through youth to old age without any corresponding change in the  being of God. God. If God's God's   energeia  energeia  were not restricted, there would be an infinity  of universes. In view v iew of tthe he denial of any tempo temporal ral struct structure ure in God in 1415f  God's eternal  eternal  dynamis   may exclude even duration, though perhaps it is supposed simply to exclude tense distinctions. 10 John of Damascus similarly uses  uses  'proaiōnios'   to separate God's mode of being from ordinary time and from the unmeasured, time-like extension of   aion. 'Before the creation of the universe when no sun divided day from night, there  was no measur measurab able le aiōn  aiōn   but only that which extended along with eternal things


The Concept of Eternity in Patristic Theology 


in a time-like motion and extension (to symparekteinotnenon tots aidiois hoion ti 

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chronikon kinēma kinē ma kai dias diastēma). tēma). In this respect aion is one - as God is called aiōnios  proaiōnios since he made aiōn' (De Fide Orthodoxica I or rather  proaiōnios  III . 1 = PG 94.864A). 94.864A). Nicephorus (PG 14 142. 2.12 1224 24Cf) Cf) tr treats eats pas past, t, present and future as 'pr 'prototy ototypical pically' ly'   aiōn  and defines aiōn  as a 'gathered, eternal extension containing 'forparts of  aiōn ever' before and after time.' That is, time is linked to the existence of the uni verse  verse,, and when there is no uni univer verse se ther there e is on only ly 'aeonic 'aeonic ext exten ensio sion' n'  (aiōnikē   parata  par atasis sis). ).  The property of being 'gathered' is probably changeless duration,  while  wh ile 'prototypi 'prototypical' cal' past, pre presen sentt and fut future ure are the onto ontolo logi gica call roots roots of time's changing  duration. 11 In PG 4. 4.38 389A 9Aff John Jo hn of Scythopolis mentions two groups in the intermedia inte rmediate te class:: angels and souls/the class souls/the heaven heavenly ly bodies. 12 Cf Cf.. PG 3.836C 3.836Cff for Pachymere Pachymeres' s' par paraphra aphrase se of this passage in Dionysius. Dionysius. Schoolman n LV (1977) 5. 13 P. Plass, 'Timeless Time in NeoPlatonism,'  The Modem Schoolma For 'time resting in what always exists' cf. Plotinus before time existed 'it 'i t was at rest with itself itself in what [truly] exists.' 14 Michael Psellus, De Omnifaria Doctrina, ed. L.G. Westerink (Utre (Utrecht cht 1948) 1948) 10 102 2 -104. 15 For the relation between the 'vertical' Greek and 'horizontal' biblical perspectives cf. cf. Klapp Klappert ert,, Die Eschatologie des Hebraerbriefs (Munich 1969). C.H. Interpret ation of the Fourth Gospel, Cambridge 1953, 144f) notes that Dodd (The Interpretation rabbinic thought itself worked out a dual perspective: the horizontal 'two ages' and a vertical contrast between life on earth and life in heaven. For astral or heavenly eschatology eschatol ogy cf cf.. J. Collins, Collins , The Apocalyptic Vision of the Book of Daniel  (Missoula 1977 1977)) 146 46f, f, 176f. Cf. H. Jonas Jo nas,, ''The The Soul in Gnosticism and Ploti Pl oti-nus,' in Philosophical Essays (Englewood Cliffs 1974) 327; D. Hill,  Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings  (Cambridge 196 967) 7) 163f ; J. Chaix-Ruy, 'La 'L a Ci Cité té de Dieu et la Structure du Temps chez saint Augustin,' in  Augustinus Magister   (Paris) II 925f.

Later  ter  16 Damascius, quoted in C.G. Steel,   The Changing Self: A Study on the Soul in La NeoPlatonism (Verhandlingen van de Koninklijke Academie voor Wetenschappen, Letteren Lett eren en Schone Künsten Van Be Belgie. lgie. Klasse Klasse den Let Letter tern. n. XL Nr85) 101.

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