“A never-failing present”: Boethius on God’s eternity

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 28, 2017

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways.”

Isaiah 55:8-11

This proclamation by the prophet Isaiah over two-and-a-half millennia ago addresses a fundamental error man falls into when trying to imagine God: forgetting His transcendence. In philosophizing about Him or entering into a relationship with Him, we have a tendency to reduce Him to the measure of our finite minds. Throughout the Old Testament God reminds His people, through the Law and the Prophets, that He is not like us.

The problem is no less present today. Serious philosophers, dismissing Aquinas’s arguments for God’s existence, fail to comprehend their nuance because they miss that God is not another “thing” within the universe. Internet atheists ridicule a caricature of Christian belief in God as an old bearded man in the sky. And of course, we believers have our own failures in this area, whether we are ascribing our worldly values and concerns to the Almighty or, on a more fundamental emotional level, assuming He must be just like our imperfect parents.

To counteract these pitfalls, it is always worth stretching our imaginations a bit in order to get some limited sense of just how different God is from us. If it were simply that God is quantitatively different—bigger, stronger, smarter, longer of life—this would be no problem, and any pagan religion could provide us with countless such deities. But the sticking point is that God is qualitatively different, existing and operating in a mode not (to say the least) totally comprehensible to the human imagination.

Foreknowledge and free will

A great triumph in the history of philosophy occurred when one way in which God metaphorically “sits above the circle of the earth” (Isaiah 40:22) was worked out by the sixth-century philosopher Boethius. At the end of his vastly influential dialogue the Consolation of Philosophy, written as he awaited execution on political charges, Boethius struggles with the seeming contradiction between divine foreknowledge and free will. If God knows what we are going to do before we do it, God’s knowledge being necessarily perfect and immutable, how can it be said that we have free will to choose differently?

This is Boethius’s version of a perennial problem in philosophy, the problem of future contingents. It was first brought up by Aristotle, who posed a dilemma: if it is true that a sea battle will not be fought tomorrow, then that same statement is true yesterday, and for all of time, meaning that the statement that a sea battle will be fought on that day is necessarily false. But if all past truths are necessary truths, then there can be no free will, no possibility of things occurring other than as they do, and no point in deliberating about anything.

This problem takes on a special urgency for Boethius, who is nearing the end of his life, questioning the purpose and value of his past actions, pondering the seeming injustice of events in the world, and taking thought of his relationship with God. If God’s foreknowledge means that we lack free will, what is the point of any of our actions, and how can we be rewarded or punished for them? Further, if all events were predetermined, prayers of supplication would be rendered pointless, compromising man’s ability to communicate with God.

It could probably be shown that foreknowledge does not present an insoluble problem for free will, and this argument, involving a distinction between two types of necessity, is indeed made in the Consolation. But Boethius also gives a far more elegant and consequential answer. He has his fictional interlocutor, Lady Philosophy, argue that God’s relation to time is fundamentally different from ours, such that His knowledge of events cannot really be called foreknowledge at all.

As a prelude to her discussion of divine foreknowledge, Lady Philosophy (who I will for simplicity’s sake refer to as Boethius, meaning the author) states the following principle: “Everything that is perceived is grasped not according to its own force but rather according to the capability of those who perceive it.” So also with our individual faculties, whether the physical senses, imagination, or reason, each of which perceives according to its own nature and limitations.

Furthermore, the higher faculties encompass the lower while the lower faculties have no experience of the higher. Reason, for example, comprehends everything grasped by the senses and the imagination, without making use of them. But we would deem it absurd if the senses and the imagination could speak and take a skeptical attitude towards the reason, simply because they know no means of perception higher than themselves. Likewise, reason ought not to scoff at the possibility of a higher, divine mode of knowledge which perceives forms simply and instantaneously.

So what is the divine mode of knowledge, and how does it relate to events occurring in time? To answer that requires a discussion of the divine nature itself. Boethius takes for granted that reasonable people agree that God is eternal, so it is a matter of coming to a better understanding of what that means.

A never-failing present

Boethius immediately defines eternity as “a possession of life, a possession simultaneously entire and perfect, which has no end.” By contrast, whatever longevity a temporal thing may have, its possession of life is unstable, as it is continually passing from one changed moment to the next, no longer possessing the life it had yesterday and not yet possessing the life it will possess tomorrow. Even if the world had, as Plato thought, no beginning and no end, it would not possess all of its existence simultaneously. Indeed, according to Boethius it stretches itself out in successive moments of constant change precisely in an attempt to imitate the fullness of life which it cannot possess in a simple, changeless present.

Boethius explicitly touches on the importance of seeing God as qualitatively rather than quantitatively different from things: “God ought not to be seen as more ancient and glorious than created things by the measurement of time, but rather by the distinctive character of his own simple nature.” Any merely quantitative distinction would be unworthy of God, so Boethius proposes that we refer to that which has no beginning and end, but is drawn out through time (Plato’s concept of the world), as “perpetual,” while reserving for God alone the title “eternal.”

Though Boethius was not the first to advance such a view of God’s eternity (Augustine had already done so in his Confessions), his definition became the standard one in medieval theology (for example, he is cited throughout Aquinas’s discussion of eternity in the Summa). The idea that God’s existence, rather than being extended through time, is a single, all-encompassing present has profound theological and spiritual implications beyond the scope of this article. But at least, having conceived a sufficiently lofty definition of eternity, we can now come to a better understanding of God’s knowledge.

Since, as Boethius said earlier, things are known according to the nature of the knower, we can conclude that God’s knowledge is not bound up in sequential time, but is possessed by Him “in the simplicity of its own present,” so that what to us seems past or future is all present to God. This means that to speak of God’s foreknowledge is to misconstrue things; rather, “it is not a foreknowledge as of something that is to come, but rather a knowledge of a never-failing present.” God’s knowledge of our actions makes them necessary only in the sense that our own knowledge of present events does: they cannot not be happening because we know them to be happening, but of their own nature they could have happened otherwise.

Nor do our changes of mind cause divine knowledge to change, turning back and forth in an undignified manner in order to keep pace with our deliberations; “rather, remaining stable, it anticipates and embraces your changes in its single stroke.”

So, concludes Boethius, all is right and rational with the world. God’s knowledge, comprehending all in an unchanging present, neither imposes on our free will nor is subject to the vagaries of human behavior; rewards and punishments for good and evil behavior are not unjust; and our prayers to God are not fruitless. Knowing that God sees all that is going on and hears our petitions, we can be certain that striving to live justly is not pointless in the end.

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

There are no comments yet for this item.