Aquinas on time and eternity

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, as far as temporal (relating to worldly as opposed to spiritual affairs, i.e., secular) things are concerned, only present things exist. God knows immediately, all at once, in a single act the past, present, and future. God’s is timeless and omnipresent (present everywhere at the same time). For Aquinas, both are inextricably bound up with His existence. Time and eternity are not the same or similar thing. ‘Time’ as understood, is defined as the progression of moments.

Eternity on the other hand, has no beginning or end, its fundamental unity, its lack of moments, precludes them. Eternity is that which is lacking in time. Aquinas’ intention is not to draw attention to the ways in which time and eternity might be the same, but rather to the fact that they are (and must be) fundamentally different. Then, where time only has one definition (that is, the straightforward procession of moments, one after another). There are two ways in which we can conceive of eternity: First, because what is eternal is Interminable – has no beginning nor end (that is, no term either way); secondly, because eternity has no succession, being simultaneously whole. Omnipresence, being everywhere at once. God is as transcendent of place as He is of time. Time and eternity are not the same or similar thing. ‘Time’ as understood, is defined as the progression of moments.

[ST. THOMAS AQUINAS ON TIME AND ETERNITY – Schoenstatt Scotland](http://www.schoenstatt.co.uk/st-thomas-aquinas-time-eternity/)

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Aquinas on Eternity, Tense, and Temporal Becoming

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*Aquinas on Eternity, Tense, and Temporal Becoming*

Winner of the Gerritt and Edith Schipper Undergraduate Award

for Outstanding Undergraduate Paper at the

55^th Annual Meeting of the Florida Philosophical Association

*/Andrew Brenner/*/, University of North Florida/

In this essay I explore the thought of Thomas Aquinas as it relates to
time, and specifically as it relates to the reality of tense and
temporal becoming. In short, the question posed here is: did Aquinas
advocate, intentionally or unintentionally, what we would now call an
A-theory of time, or a B-theory of time?

The A-theory is no doubt the “common sense” view of time. The present is
all that exists. The past /did /exist, the future /will /exist, but
neither of them exist /now/. Alan Padgett writes that

for the [A-theory], the fundamental nature of things is dynamic, and
undergoes changes in ontological status. The world is made up of
three-dimensional objects which constantly change, come into being, and
go out of being. Only the present episode of an object exists, period.
There is no sense in which future episodes exist “tenselessly.”^1

Alternatively, advocates of the B-theory assert that the “flow of time”
is illusory. Objects /do /exist tenselessly, and the only temporal
relations between them are the relations of “before,” “after,” and
“simultaneous with.” Thus all objects and events are on an ontological
par, whether we think of them as past, future, or present. The
“transiency of the now” (i.e., the “flow of time”) is a mental illusion.

The distinction between the A-theory of time and B-theory of time is
generally recognized as an important part of the debate over the sense
in which one should construe God’s eternality. William Lane Craig
writes: “What is clear is that the doctrine of divine timelessness
stands or falls with the [B-]theory of time. The [B-]theory of time is
the metaphysical presupposition of divine timelessness.”^2 And Richard
Creel summarizes the issue: “In brief, either a thing is changing or it
is not. If God does not know it is changing but we know it is changing,
then one of us is mistaken, and it surely is not God.”^3 In the B-theory
of time, however, change /really is /an illusion, so there’s nothing in
Creel’s statement to worry the proponent of divine timelessness within
that theoretic

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presupposition. While it would be interesting to explore in more detail
the kind of argument offered here by Creel, I’m going to restrict myself
to one question: Did Aquinas believe in the “transiency of the now”? In
other words, for Aquinas, is the present the only thing that exists, or
are all times on an equal ontological footing? To begin to answer this
question it will be helpful to survey a representative sample of
Aquinas’s views on the nature of time, as well as God’s relationship
with time.

Aquinas writes:

1. Now God knows all contingent things not only as they are in their
causes, but also as each one of them is actually in itself. And although
contingent things become actual successively, nevertheless God knows
contingent things not successively, as they are in their own being, as
we do; but simultaneously. The reason is because his knowledge is
measured by eternity, as is also His being; and eternity being
simultaneously whole comprises all time, as said above [Q. 10, A.2].
Hence, all things that are in time are present to God from eternity, not
only because He has the types of things present within him, as some say;
but because His glance is carried from eternity over all things as they
are in their presentiality.^4

2.  …God sees all things in His eternity, which, being simple, is
present to all time, and embraces all time.^5

3. With like certitude God knows, in His eternity, all that takes place
throughout the whole course of time. For His eternity is in present
contact with the whole course of time, and even passes beyond time. We
may fancy that God knows the flight of time in His eternity, in the way
that a person standing on top of a watchtower embraces in a single
glance a whole caravan of passing travelers.^6

4.  Although a contingent does not exist as long as it is future, as
soon as it is present it

has … existence….^7

The most salient feature of these passages in regard to God’s
relationship with time is that God’s eternity is not only beyond time,
but somehow /embraces /all time as well. The ontological distinction
between past, present, and future is nullified. All are present /at once
/(metaphorically speaking) to God’s timeless gaze. Thus, God “knows the
flight of time in His eternity, in the way that a person standing on top
of a watchtower embraces in a single glance a whole caravan of passing
travelers,” as was quoted above. It seems incomprehensible to suggest
that, though God’s

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omniscient “single glance” and omnipotent power are present to all
times, with no ontological distinction between them, yet only the
/present /is actual. And yet, Aquinas /also /seems to endorse temporal
becoming in quotes 1 and 4 above. For example, part of quote 1 reads
“although contingent things become actual successively, nevertheless God
knows contingent things not successively … but simultaneously.” This
apparent conceptual tension has been noted by some interpreters of
Aquinas. Craig, in his aptly titled essay “Was Aquinas a B-Theorist?”
writes:

…I find it inconceivable that he consciously adhered to [the B-theory
of time]. For him becoming was not mind-dependent, but real, and it was
only because of God’s eternal being that all things were present to Him.
Aquinas seemed to hold both to a dynamical view of time and to the
actual existence of all temporal things for God in eternity. Despite
this, however, I must admit that I can only make sense of Aquinas’s
position on God’s foreknowledge and future contingents by interpreting
him as proponent of the B-theory of

time.^8

Should one concur with Craig on this point, that despite the apparent
contradictions in Aquinas’s thought he should ultimately be read as a
B-theorist? I find myself compelled to agree with this interpretation of
Aquinas. The most sympathetic reading of the relevant texts, especially
Aquinas’s commitment to God’s simultaneous presence to all times, forces
me to see Aquinas as an inadvertent proponent of what is fundamentally a
B-theoretic conception of time. To avoid contradiction Aquinas would
probably most easily concede that temporal becoming and the apparent
passage of time are merely how things appear to /us/, but that God in
His eternity perceives the true nature of reality. Indeed, given the
central place of divine simplicity, and thus immutability, in Aquinas’s
thought, from which divine timelessness follows, I find it hard to
imagine Aquinas resolving the apparent conceptual conflict in any other
way, especially in a rejection of divine timelessness. On top of that
Aquinas’s proposed solution to the problem of divine foreknowledge of
future contingents makes exclusive appeal to the way he has formulated
God’s relationship to time, from which the B-theory seems to follow.

Though this reading of the texts seems plausible enough several
philosophers have tried to reconcile Aquinas’s account of God’s eternity
with the A-theory of time. It is to these that I now turn.
Unfortunately, I do not have space to give the detailed responses these
philosophers’ proposals deserve. I will however, briefly describe what
appears to me to be the flaw(s) in each of these proposals, in the hopes
that the reader will at least think these brief rebuttals plausible.

William Hasker, for example, concedes that it would be contradictory to
assert that God, being timeless, directly experiences temporal things.
Presupposing the A-theory of time, Hasker

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argues that a timeless God could still have knowledge of temporal things
if those temporal things only “exist in eternity /as represented in the
mind of God/.”^9 Hasker believes this position is endorsed by Aquinas,
but it does not seem clear to me that it is. For example, Aquinas writes
that “all things that are in time are present to God from eternity, /not
only because He has the types of things present within him/, as some
say; but because His glance is carried from eternity over all things as
they are in their presentiality.”^10 For Aquinas God’s timeless
knowledge of temporal things is a /direct /knowledge of temporal things
in their actuality, not just representations of them in God’s mind.

Brian Leftow appeals to the relativity of simultaneity posited by some
interpretations of Einstein’s special theory of relativity to provide an
analogy to the way he interprets Aquinas’s views on time. Just as in
(Leftow’s interpretation of) the special theory of relativity something
may be actual in one reference frame but not actual in another, we
should, analogously, treat eternity and time as separate frames of
reference. While the future may not be real /in time /it /is /real /in
eternity/.

An event occurs in eternity simultaneously with all other events, but
this does not entail that event occurs simultaneously with all other
events in any other reference-frame. Rather, in eternity, all events
occur at once, and they occur in sequence in temporal reference frames.
Events are present and actual all at once in eternity, but present and
actual in sequence in other reference frames.^11

Since, of course, Aquinas couldn’t have known about the special theory
of relativity one must assume that Leftow uses the analogy to blunt the
conceptual trauma of such a bifurcated view of reality, in which what is
real /for us /is not what is real /for God/. But surely, echoing Richard
Creel, whom I quoted earlier, what is real for God is real
/simpliciter/. If change is real, in time at any rate, and God is unable
to experience it, His omniscience is missing out, so to speak. In any
case, the analogy Leftow appeals to, that of the special theory of
relativity, admits of multiple arguably more plausible interpretations,
some of which do not carry the implications he needs to make his case.
Indeed, these other interpretations are generally thought to be more
plausible precisely because they do not posit such a fragmented and
subjective ontology.^12

Alternatively, Kevin Staley defends the compatibility of the A-theory
with divine timelessness in Aquinas by appealing to the absolute
simplicity of God’s eternity. He writes:

<todo>What is important about the eternal knower is not a privileged
perspective on reality that we lack; rather, it is that His knowing is
not itself divided by time. Because his knowing is simple and partless,
real succession in the object known does not give rise to succession in
God’s knowledge of the known.^13</todo>

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Furthermore, God’s eternal knowledge, Staley explains,

…requires only that the privileged actuality of the present when it is
present be present to the whole of God’s simple eternity. And this it
cannot fail to do, for it is impossible to be present only to a part of
that which is without parts. God’s eternal knowledge of the temporal
remains paradoxical; it would appear that although the future is not
present to God, when it is present to Him, it will never be and will
never have been absent from Him.^14

Staley seems to concede here that there really is a privileged Now and
real temporal becoming. But if this is true, and the future really is
not present /yet /to God’s eternity, as Staley says, how could God
properly be said to have knowledge of future contingent propositions?
Indeed, given Stanley’s solution God’s omniscience appears to be
compromised. Despite what Staley says, namely that “what is important
about the eternal knower is not a privileged perspective on reality that
we lack; rather, it is that His knowing is not itself divided by time,”
I would contend that one of the most important implications of Aquinas’s
theory of divine timelessness really /is /God’s privileged perspective
on reality that allows Him to know things that we cannot, particularly
future contingent events “as each one of them is actually in itself.”^15
Staley’s attempt to reconcile divine timelessness with the A-theory is
incompatible with this implication.

Staley also proposes that the content of reality available to God’s
eternity changes, “yet it would appear that although the future is not
present to God, when it is present to Him, it will never be and will
never have been absent from Him.”^16 This proposal, however, is
explicitly rejected by Aquinas, when he writes:

If, however, anything existed which God did not previously know, and
afterward knew, then his knowledge would be variable. But this cannot
be; for whatever is, or can be in any period of time, it known by God in
His eternity. Therefore from the fact that a thing exists in some period
of time, it follows that it is known by God from eternity.^17

Appealing to divine simplicity at this juncture, as Staley does, seems
abortive, as divine simplicity is what prevents change in God /in the
first place/, not what makes it true of something that was not, but now
is, present to God that “it will never be and will never have been
absent from Him” /after /the fact, i.e., after the change.

These proposals, designed to reconcile Aquinas’s theory of divine
timelessness with the A-theory, don’t seem as promising as one would
hope (or at least, I have so argued). I would like to note though that
reading Aquinas as a B-theorist, besides, it seems, remaining true to the

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implications of the relevant passages, resolves at least two major
difficulties with Aquinas’s account of divine timelessness.

<todo>First, there are powerful objections to the compatibility of divine
timelessness and the A-theory of time that stem from God’s sustaining
relationship with the temporal world and his changing knowledge of
temporal indexicals. If, for example, the A-theory of time is correct
and God continually sustains all logically contingent things aside from
Himself (an attribute theists have traditionally attributed to God),
then God must, for some transiently existing object, sustain that object
at some times and not sustain it at other times, in contradiction with
his absolute immutability.^18 Also, the conjunction of the A-theory with
God’s omniscience seems incompatible with divine timelessness.^19 On the
A-theory of time “since tensed facts are in constant flux, so must be
God’s beliefs or cognitive state, which entails that God is temporal.”^20</todo>

Second, if Aquinas is read as a B-theorist he can easily defuse another
one of the most common objections to the classical conception of divine
timelessness: the objection from the transitivity of simultaneity
relations. Anthony Kenny, for example, writes that

the whole concept of a timeless eternity, the whole of which is
simultaneous with every part of time, seems to be radically incoherent.
For simultaneity as ordinarily understood is a transitive relation. If A
happens at the same time as B, and B happens at the same time as C, then
A happens at the same time as C. …But, on St. Thomas’ view, my typing
of this paper is simultaneous with the whole of eternity. Again, on his
view, the great fire of Rome is simultaneous with the whole of eternity.
Therefore, while I type these very words, Nero fiddles heartlessly on.^21

What Kenny fails to make clear here is his A-theoretic presuppositions.
Given the A-theory of time’s commitment to the privileged Now, Kenny’s
criticism is powerful. But given a commitment to a B-theory of time all
temporal moments are ontologically concomitant, so there is nothing
incoherent going on when Aquinas asserts that “God’s one glance is cast
over all things which happen in all time as present before Him.”^22

So reading Aquinas as a B-theorist not only seems to be a rather
inescapable implication of the relevant texts, but also undermines
several otherwise powerful objections to divine timelessness. But this
problem remains: any problems one finds with the B-theory will pass over
into Aquinas’s treatment of time, particularly his treatment of God’s
eternity. But God’s eternality (His timelessness) follows from His
immutability, and His immutability follows from His simplicity. Divine
simplicity in turn is the centerpiece of Aquinas’s conception of God,
and consequently much

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of his philosophy of religion. Therefore, any intractable difficulties
one finds in the B-theory could be fatal to many of Aquinas’s other
philosophical and theological views.

*Notes*

^1  Alan G. Padgett, /God, Eternity and the Nature of Time /(New York:
St.Martin’s P, 1992) 5.

^2  William L. Craig, /God, Time, and Eternity /(Dordrecht: Kluwer
Academic, 2001) 137.

^3  Richard A. Creel, /Divine Impassibility /(Cambridge: Cambridge UP,
1986) 96.

^4  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Vol. 1, trans. Fathers of the
English Dominican Province New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007) Q.14, A.13.

^5  Aquinas, /Summa/, Q.57, A.3.

^6  Thomas Aquinas, /Compendium Theologiae/, trans. Cyril Vollert (St.
Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1947) Chapter 133.

^7  Thomas Aquinas, /De Veritate /2, 12 ad 9. Quoted in Brian Leftow,
“Aquinas on Time and Eternity,” /American Catholic Philosophical
Quarterly /64 (1990): 388.

^8  Reprinted in William L. Craig, /The Problem of Divine Foreknowledge
and Future Contingents from Aristotle to Suarez /(London: E. J. Brill,
1988) 118.

^9  William Hasker, /God, Time, and Knowledge /(Ithaca: Cornell UP,
1989) 168; original italics.

^10  Aquinas, /Summa/, Q.14, A.13; italics added.

^11  Leftow 392.

^12  Obviously I do not have room in this essay to give detailed
arguments in support of this claim. For an excellent exposition of the
philosophical issues surrounding the proper interpretation of special
relativity from a theistic perspective see William L. Craig, /Time and
the Metaphysics of Relativity /(Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2001). Craig
2001b and William L. Craig, “The Metaphysics of Special Relativity:
Three Views,” in /Einstein, Relativity, and Absolute Simultaneity/, eds.
William L. Craig and Quentin Smith (London: Routledge, 2008) 11-49.

^13  Kevin M. Staley, “Omniscience, Time, and Eternity: Is Aquinas
Inconsistent?” /The Saint Anselm Journal /3 (2006): 26.

^14  Staley 26.

^15  Aquinas, /Summa/, Q.14, A.13.

^16  Staley 26.

^17  Aquinas, /Summa/, Q.14, A.15.

^18  See Padgett 74-81 and Craig, /God, Time, and Eternity/, Chapter 3.

^19  See Norman Kretzmann, “Omniscience and Immutability,” /Journal of
Philosophy /63 (1966): 409-21; Craig, /God, Time, and Eternity/, Chapter 4.

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^20  Craig, /God, Time, and Eternity/, 112.

^21   Anthony Kenny, “Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom,” /Aquinas:
A Collection of Critical Essays/, ed. Anthony Kenny (Garden City: Anchor
Books, 1969) 264. This criticism is repeated in Anthony Kenny, /The God
of the Philosophers /(Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979) 38-39. Richard Swinburne
gives a very similar objection in /The Coherence of Theism /(Oxford:
Clarendon P, 1977) 220-21.

^22  Aquinas, /Summa/, Q.57, A.3.

*Bibliography*

Aquinas, Thomas. /Compendium Theologiae/. Trans. Cyril Vollert. St.
Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1947.

Aquinas, Thomas. /Summa Theologica/. Trans. Fathers of the English
Dominican Province. Vol. 1. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007.

Craig, William L. /God, Time, and Eternity/. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic,
2001.

Craig, William L. “The Metaphysics of Special Relativity: Three Views.”
In /Einstein, Relativity, and Absolute Simultaneity/. Ed. William L.
Craig and Quentin Smith. London: Routledge, 2008. 11-49.

Craig, William L. /The Problem of Divine Foreknowledge and Future
Contingents from Aristotle to Suarez/. London: E. J. Brill, 1988.

Craig, William L. /Time and the Metaphysics of Relativity/. Dordrecht:
Kluwer Academic, 2001.

Creel, Richard A. /Divine Impassibility/. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Hasker, William. /God, Time, and Knowledge/. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Kenny, Anthony. “Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom.” /Aquinas: A
Collection of Critical Essays/. Ed. Anthony Kenny. Garden City: Anchor
Books, 1969. 255-70.

Kenny, Anthony. /The God of the Philosophers/. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.

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Kretzmann, Norman. “Omniscience and Immutability.” /Journal of
Philosophy /63 (1966): 409-21.

Leftow, Brian. “Aquinas on Time and Eternity.” /American Catholic
Philosophical Quarterly /64.3 (1990): 387-99.

Padgett, Alan G. /God, Eternity and the Nature of Time/. New York:
St.Martin’s P, 1992.

Staley, Kevin M. “Omniscience, Time, and Eternity: Is Aquinas
Inconsistent?” /The Saint Anselm Journal /3 (2006): 9-16.

Swinburne, Richard. /The Coherence of Theism/. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1977.

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