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The Living God Has Revealed Himself As Eternity Itself

General Audience — September 4, 1985

The Church incessantly professes the faith expressed in the most ancient Christian creeds: "I believe in one only God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth." These words mirror in a concise and synthetic way, the witness which the God of our faith, the living and true God of revelation, has given about himself, according to the Letter to the Hebrews, speaking "by the prophets," and ultimately "by the Son" (Heb 1:1-2). The Church comes forward to meet the changing needs of the times and it probes the truth about God, as the various Councils witness. I refer to the First Vatican Council whose teaching was dictated by the need to withstand both the errors of nineteenth century pantheism and those of materialism, which had begun to assert themselves at that time.

The First Vatican Council taught: "Holy Church believes and confesses that there is one only living and true God, creator and Lord of heaven and earth, omnipotent, eternal, immense, incomprehensible, infinite in intellect, will, and in every perfection; who being one single spiritual substance, absolutely simple and immutable, must be proclaimed as really and essentially distinct from the world, in himself and of himself most blessed, and ineffably supreme over all things that are outside of himself or that are conceivable" [1] .

It is easily seen that the conciliar text starts off from these same ancient symbols of faith which we too recite: "I believe in God...almighty...creator of heaven and earth." But it develops this fundamental formulation in accordance with the doctrine contained in Sacred Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church. Vatican I lists the "attributes" of God in a more complete form than those of the ancient symbols.

By "attributes" we mean the properties of the divine "Being" which are manifested by revelation, as well as the best philosophical consideration (cf. e.g. Summa Theol., I, qq. 3 ff.). Sacred Scripture describes God by using various adjectives. They are expressions of human language, which shows itself to be so limited, especially when it seeks to express that totally transcendent reality which is God in himself.

The passage from the First Vatican Council, quoted above, confirms the impossibility of adequately expressing God. He is incomprehensible and ineffable. The faith of the Church and its teaching about God maintains this "incomprehensibility" and "ineffability." But they do not content themselves with a negative kind of recognition, as does the so-called apophatic theology. This view maintains that human language, and so theology, can express only or almost only what God is not, since it lacks adequate expressions to explain what he is.

Thus Vatican I does not limit itself to statements which speak of God in a "negative way," but it expresses itself also in an "affirmative way." Thus, for example, it teaches that this God who is essentially distinct from the world (a mundo distinctus re et essentia), is an eternal God. Sacred Scripture expresses this truth in various passages and in different ways. For example, we read in the Book of Sirach: "He who lives forever created the whole universe" (Sir 18:1), and in the Book of the Prophet Daniel: "He is the living God, enduring forever" (6:27).

The words of Psalm 102, echoed by the Letter to the Hebrews, are similar. The Psalm says: "Of old you did lay the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you endure; they will all wear out like a garment. You change them like raiment, and they pass away; but you are the same, and your years have no end" (Ps 102:25-27). Some centuries later, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews will take up the words of the psalm just quoted: "You, Lord, did found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all grow old like a garment, like a mantle you will roll them up, and they will be changed like a garment; but you are the same, and your years will never end" (Heb 1:1-12).

Eternity is here the element which essentially distinguishes God from the world. While the latter is subject to change and passes away, God remains beyond the passing of the world. He is necessary and immutable: "you are the same...."

St. Paul wrote, conscious of faith in the eternal God: "To the king of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen" (1 Tim 1:17). The Book of Revelation again expresses the same truth: "'I am the Alpha and the Omega,' says the Lord God, 'who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty'" (Rv 1:8).

These facts of revelation also express the rational conviction to which one comes when one considers that God is the subsisting Being, and therefore necessary, and therefore eternal. Because he cannot not be, he cannot have beginning or end nor a succession of moments in the only and infinite act of his existence. Right reason and revelation wonderfully converge on this point. Being God, absolute fullness of being, (ipsum Esse subsistens), his eternity "inscribed in the terminology of being" must be understood as the "indivisible, perfect, and simultaneous possession of an unending life," and therefore as the attribute of being absolutely "beyond time."

God's eternity does not go by with the time of the created world. "It does not coincide with the present." It does not precede it or "prolong" it into infinity. It is beyond and above "being." Eternity, with all that mystery of God, includes in some way the "beyond" and the "above," all that "from within" is subject to time, to change, to the contingent. The words of St. Paul at the Areopagus of Athens come to mind: "In him...we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). Let us say "from the outside" in order, by this metaphorical expression, to affirm God's transcendence over things, and of eternity over time. We realize and reaffirm that God is the Being that is intrinsic to the very being of things, and therefore also to time which passes as a succession of moments, none of which is outside his eternal embrace.

The witness of Vatican I expresses the Church's faith in the living, true, and eternal God. He is eternal because he is the absolute fullness of being which cannot be understood as a sum of fragments or of "particles" of being which change with time. The texts quoted from the Bible clearly indicate this. The absolute fullness of being can come to be understood only as eternity, which is, as the total and indivisible possession of that being, God's own life. In this sense God is eternal: a "Now," a "Present," subsisting and unchanging. This mode of being is essentially distinguished from that of creatures, which are "contingent" beings.

Thus the living God, who has revealed himself, is the eternal God. More correctly let us say that God is eternity itself. The perfect simplicity of the divine Being (omnino simplex) demands such a form of expression.

When with our human language we say: "God is eternal," we indicate an attribute of the divine Being. Since no attribute of God is distinguished in the concrete from the very essence of God (while human attributes are distinguished from the person who possesses them), in saying: "God is eternal" we wish to affirm: "God is eternity."

For us who are subject to space and to time, this eternity is incomprehensible, just like the divine essence. However, it makes us perceive the infinite greatness and majesty of God, also under this aspect. We are filled with joy at the thought of this Being-Eternity which includes all that is created and contingent, including also our little being, our every act, every moment of our life.

"In him we live and move and have our being."

[1]   Const. Dei Filius, can. 1-4, DS 3001