Lutheran (LCMS)Metaphysics

Timeless Eternity Is Not Divine Frozenness

Over the last few centuries, God’s timeless eternity has not been a strongly emphasized divine attribute. For many Christians, this precept reflects a particularly troublesome Hellenistic influence, given that the Platonic tradition laid great weight on the immutability of the eternal Forms and their corresponding immunity to corruption and decay. A doctrine of timeless eternity, in the eyes of its critics, necessarily calls into question the ability of God to work in history or respond meaningfully to petitionary prayer. For some theologians, such as Robert Jenson, this called for some relatively minor modifications to the Christian metaphysical tradition; for others, such as Alfred North Whitehead and Schubert Ogden, more radical revisions were in order—culminating in the development of a “process theology” movement that conceived of God as, in some sense, changing or developing alongside the progress of history.

Those who engage this metaphysical doctrine, more often than not, seem to be working with a concept of divine eternity that corresponds to what theologian Paul Griffiths calls, in Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures, “simple stasis”—a condition of remaining “everlasting and without change of any kind” akin to “an animate creature flash frozen at a time into a lake of ice and locked there forever, somewhat like Dante’s Satan at the end of the Inferno.” And if that is how the life of God is best conceived, what does that mean for creatures? If, as Christian theology has traditionally taught, the destiny of the Christian life is final union with God, is the soul of the believer necessarily headed for a state of simple stasis in the end?

One may, of course, respond to a simple-stasis view of divine eternity in any number of ways. On the one hand, medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart—famously accused of heterodoxy by Pope John XXII—fully embraced the teaching. Indeed, Eckhart took his Neoplatonic affirmation of divine stasis so far as to outright decenter the doctrine of the Trinity. For Eckhart, the inner essence of the soul “is not content with the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit,” but rather “wants to know the source of this essence, it wants to go into the simple ground, into the quiet desert, into which distinction never gazed, not the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit. In the innermost part, where no one dwells . . . this ground is a simple silence, in itself immovable.” (Sermon 48) Union with the absolute divine quietude and the cessation of all activity, for Eckhart, is the highest end and destiny for the human person.

Many ordinary people, of course, would not find this eschatology especially attractive. And contra Eckhart, the 2016 multimedia project Quantum Break takes a much bleaker view of simple stasis. The project follows a cast of time-manipulating heroes through a battle to prevent a very unique form of apocalypse: namely, the utter suspension of time and the permanent frozen-ness of all things in a state of absolute rest. To the non-mystical mind, such a fate is worse than death: for a finite creature to enter a state of simple stasis is to remain perpetually trapped within the limits of what Griffiths calls “metronomic time,” or the intrinsic stagnation of “radical boredom.”

Perhaps, though, the premise here is wrong—that is, perhaps it is possible to conceive of God’s timeless eternity as something quite different from simple stasis. For Griffiths, divine eternity is more properly conceived as a kind of “repetitive stasis” or (borrowing an anatomical metaphor) “systolic time”—an eternal rhythm with a distinguishable “internal order” akin to the ongoing pattern of the liturgy, within which the souls of the redeemed will ultimately participate. For myself, I find myself more compelled by St. Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of epektasis—the view that the ultimate destiny of the Christian is a form of open-ended, asymptotic progress towards ever-fuller knowledge of the infinite God.

But in the end, one can only move beyond the simple-stasis view of divine eternity if one holds an understanding of God that is intrinsically bound up with dynamism, movement, and vitality—as opposed to a view of God as a sterile monad to which the lonely soul must affix itself for all time. And indeed, at the heart of a distinctively Christian theology, as opposed to an undifferentiated reverence for divinity as such, is the perpetual motion of intratrinitarian love—the love of the Father for the Son in the Spirit, and vice versa. There is no need to follow Eckhart in positing some impersonal, nonrelational divine substrate “behind” the triune Persons—nor would such a thing be clearly desirable in itself. Rather, as Michael Reeves writes, “we see the Father, whose nature it is to give himself and beget his Son” in the Spirit. Trinitarian thinking, it would seem, is upstream of a great deal else.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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