Aquinas’ View of God’s and Angels Relation to Time

In his Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274 C.E.) summarized and synthesized the best arguments from his predecessors concerning a plethora of spiritual topics. Aquinas’ account was arguably the most complete theological work of the period. In his Summa Theologica, especially Part 1, questions 10 and 52, Aquinas respectively addresses the “Eternity of God” and “Angels’ Relation to Place.” These two, short sections speak volumes about angels’ relation to time.

Regarding time, Aquinas held that God is timeless. Angels were created immaterially and they are in something other than measurable time. They are in a sort of spiritual time. Aquinas calls this time that the angels are in “aeviternity.” Aevum, in Latin, means age or perpetual. Aeviternity is, loosely, angel or spiritual time. Aeviternity is not timelessness and it is not measurable cosmic time. Instead, aeviternity is an immeasurable duration. Material creation is in measurable time. In this article, we will talk about: 1) Aquinas’ view of God’s relation to time. 2) Aquinas’ position about angels and aeviternity.

1. Aquinas’ View About God’s Relationship to Time—God is Timeless

In relation to our subtopic at hand, God’s relationship to time, Aquinas held to the Boethian definition of eternity. Like the medieval philosopher, Boethius, Aquinas states that time measures change but God is changeless. So, since God’s life is not measured by time, He is timeless and eternal.

For Aquinas, God is changeless because He is simple (has no metaphysical parts or components) and immutable (not changeable) in His essence. Aquinas held that God is simple and immutable because he believes that anything that changes or moves acquires an accidental property. If God acquires
accidental properties, He can change, then He is in time. So, instead, for Aquinas, eternity is God Himself. That is to say, eternity is in God’s Being since He is identical with His essence.

When it comes to God and His relationship to time, Aquinas employed several of the reasons found in Augustine, Boethius, and Anselm. Aquinas held that God is immutable and simple. Since God is immutable and simple He lives all of His life all at once. Since God lives His life all at once, God knows all and wills all things all at once. Aquinas offered an analogy to illustrate his point. Using the analogy of a circle he states the following:
The center, which is outside the circumference, is directly opposite any designated point on the circumference. In this way whatever is in any part of time co-exists with what is eternal as being present to it even though past or future with respect to another part of time.

So, for Aquinas, God’s eternity is durationless and timeless. This does not limit God however. Because God lives His life all at once His will is unchanging. Nothing escapes Him. Because of God’s eternal will, God may determine the temporal locations of all that exists.

When it comes to creation and other sustaining, effectual actions Aquinas said that God is actus purus. This means that God is pure act or sheer actuality. Holding that God is simple and immutable, what this phrase means for Aquinas is that God timelessly sustains all actions without change. For Aquinas, even God’s will is unchanging and timeless.

2. Aquinas’ View of Angels Relation to Time–Angels are in Aeviternity

God is timeless but angels are created. They had a beginning. So, reason dictates that they must be in some type of time. This time cannot be measurable, material time since they were created without the material universe (Job 38:4-7). So, angels must be in some kind of time that is neither timeless nor measured. This being the case, Aquinas utilized extra-biblical resources to describe angelic time. He called this time “aeviternity.”

About angelic time, Aquinas stated in Theologica part 1, question 10, article 5, “Aeviternity differs from (measurable) time, and from eternity, as the mean between them both. This difference is explained by some to consist in the fact that eternity has neither beginning nor end, aeviternity, a beginning but no end, and time both a beginning and end.” In the same article, he said that aeviternity is “simultaneously whole; yet it is not eternity, because ‘before’ and ‘after’ are compatible with it.” According to Aquinas, for the angels, there is no difference of past and future, but only as regards to accidental change.

Commenting about this question, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange says that

Aeviternity is the mean between time and eternity, and so it is “simultaneously whole, but before and after are compatible with it,” according to a succession in thoughts of the angels. (q. 53, a. 3).

In summary, God is timeless, we live in measurable time, and angels live in a time somewhere between the two.

In my next article, we’ll talk about A -series and B-series time.

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