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.”
So what was this eternal God doing before he made the world? On Augustine’s reading, there was no such “before.” There was no “then” then. Eternity is the dimension of God’s own life. It has no beginning and no end, no parameters or margins or boundaries outside of God himself. On the other hand, time was willed and created by God as a reality distinct from himself. In his treatment of the world, Augustine again proves to be original in his thinking. He says not only that time and the world were created by God but that they were at once created together. They were co-created, so to speak, for time is coextensive with the world. This is how Augustine puts it: God created the world not in time but with time. What this means is that time is not some primordial container—an infinite bucket of moments—in which certain events happen. Time is not a receptacle; it is a relationship.
Significantly, Augustine’s remarkable intuition of the coextensiveness of time and the world, time and space, anticipated by some fifteen hundred years the modern theory of relativity as developed by Einstein and others. Augustine arrived at this insight not by studying the world scientifically but by reflecting on the basic datum of the Christian faith: the doctrine of God as informed by the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Writing about one hundred years after the time of Augustine, Boethius defined eternity as “a perfect possession altogether of an endless life.” Such a definition, of course, applies to no one other than God. It has the advantage of transcending the purely negative connotations of nontemporality: Eternity is not simply the negation of time with reference to God, but rather the arena of his full, majestic, unimaginably rich and overflowing life as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps no theologian in the history of Christian thought has interpreted God’s eternity in a more consistently trinitarian way than Karl Barth. By focusing on the inner dynamic of God’s eternal life as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Barth is able to avoid two errors: a static understanding of eternity, and one completely divorced from all temporality. He is able to conclude that while God, in the pure, divine form of his existence, is not “in time … time is really in him” (CD 3/1,68).
This is his time, the absolutely real time, the form of the divine being in its triunity, the beginning and ending which do not mean the limitation of him who begins and ends, a juxtaposition which does not mean any exclusion, a movement which does not signify the passing away of anything, a succession which in itself is also beginning and end. (CD 2/1, 615)
George Hunsinger has given this succinct summary of Barth’s perspective: “Time does not exist … apart from eternity’s embrace. Eternity embraces time on all sides, preceding, accompanying, and fulfilling it.”
We should keep this in mind when we think about another aspect of God’s eternity: his immutability. God’s changelessness does not mean that he is a static being, incapable of being affected by anything outside of himself, a deity locked forever in the prison of his own aseity. Such a concept might describe Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, but it falls far short of the God of biblical revelation, the God who is actively involved with the world he has made and who entered directly into that world as a squirming baby in a messy manger.
God’s immutability refers instead to his constancy and faithfulness. “I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed” (Mal 3:6). “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). The God of the Bible is not only the Creator of time but also the Lord of time. Unlike human beings who are creatures of a day, God is the one whose steadfast love endures forever, whose faithfulness is to all generations: “The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength. Yea, the world is established; it shall never be moved; thy throne is established from of old; thou art from everlasting” (Ps 93:1–2).
Shall we say that God is impassible as well as immutable? Impassability is frequently equated with, and misinterpreted as, impassivity. When so construed, it is clearly contrary to the biblical portrayal of God. When the early church fathers spoke of God’s apatheia (often translated “impassability”), what they had in mind was God’s constancy, reliability, and complete sovereignty over everything that exists outside of himself. Because God is the supreme Lord of time and eternity, nothing can catch him by surprise. He cannot “suffer” anything that he does not anticipate, foreknow, and choose to undergo. This is why the psalmist can speak of the Lord whose “plans shall stand forever, and whose counsel endures for all generations” (Ps 33:11).
But God’s reliability and immutability do not mean that he is incapable of responsive, empathetic love and compassion or that he is an unfeeling God lacking all passion and emotion. As J. I. Packer has put it, “Scriptures expressing the reality of God’s emotions (joy, sorrow, anger, delight, love, hate, etc.) abound, and it is a great mistake to forget that God feels—though in a way of necessity that transcends a finite being’s experience of emotions.” Thus Cyril of Alexandria’s famous paradoxical statement about God, “He suffered impassibly,” is an accurate summation of the atonement because “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Cor 5:19). We should not say more than Scripture does at this point, but neither should we say anything less. Augustine’s language is helpful here because it respects the mystery of God’s sovereignty on the one hand and the fact of his interactivity with the finite and fragile world.
You, my God, are supreme, utmost in goodness, mightiest and all powerful, most merciful and most just …. You are unchangeable and yet you change all things. You are never new, never old, and yet all things have new life from you. You’re ever active, yet always at rest. You gather all things to yourself, though you suffer no need. You support, you fill, and you protect all things. You create them, nourish them, and bring them to perfection. You seek to make them your own, though you lack for nothing. You love your creatures, but with a gentle love. You treasure them, but without apprehension. You can be angry and yet serene. Your works are varied, but your purpose is one and the same …. You are my God, my life, my holy delight, but is this enough to say of you? Can any person say enough when he speaks of you? Yet woe betide those who are silent about you! For even those who are most gifted with speech cannot find words to describe you. (Confessions, 1.4)
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is email@example.com. A version of this article originally appeared in chapter four, “The Nature of God: Being, Attributes, and Acts” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: Broadman, 2014, rev. ed.).