Tag Archives: Creation

The God beyond time

As I went on my morning walk today I noticed the frost on the ground in the shape of a tree. It seemed to me the perfect illustration of the debate at the heart of Book 12 of the City of God – how does a changeless God relate to a changing world?

Augustine’s opponents were suggesting that God’s decision to create time & nature somehow reflects a change in his essential being. How can he go from being in perpetual eternity, outside of time, to then creating the world in a specific moment if God cannot change?

This is a lot more practical than it sounds. Essentially the arguments Augustine is dealing with here are very similar to the debate a few years ago on Open theism. This debate sought to highlight the bible verses that talk about God changing his mind, or changing a decision based on human activity.

Both the modern and ancient questions drive at the heart of God’s relation to his creation – either in its inception or its growth. Although I am finding I don’t agree with Augustine on everything in this book, his reasoning on the question of God’s unchangeable nature (his immutability) is outstanding.

His opponents were suggesting that perhaps God has always been sovereign over creation because there have been an endless cycle of birth, growth and death of planet earth and humankind. They argued that this cyclical theory avoids God transitioning from an eternity of nothingness into a time bound physical universe. Augustine argues that no matter how many cycles there have been there must have been a beginning to the process, and compared to this:

“any space of time which starts from a beginning and is brought to an end, however vast its extent, must be reckoned when compared with that which has no beginning, as minimal, or rather as nothing at all.”

XII.13

There was a moment when eternity observed the birth of time and the invisible beheld the arrival of the material world. Augustine recognises this is “certainly a profound mystery that God existed always and yet willed to create the first man, as a new act of creation, at some particular time, without any alternation in his purpose and design”.

Augustine is right to warn against digging to deeply into this mystery. I think the problem with trying to probe this mystery is that we are bound within time. It’s like the frost on the ground in the shape of a tree. A child might observe this and wonder how a tree’s shadow can make the ground so cold it creates frost within the shadow, while the ground all around is green. When time is taken into account we realise that it’s not that the tree’s shadow causes the frost, but that the sun is melting all the frost except for that protected by the shadow. The effect of time on the movement of the sun fools us.

So too we look at the “changes” that God instigates in time from our perspective and try to peer into eternity from within the tree’s shadow. It is impossible. Only the one who is outside of time can answer these mysteries.

“Every infinity is, in a way we cannot express, made finite to God, because it cannot be beyond the embrace of his knowledge”.

XII.19

All this is to do with origins, as Augustine is dealing with the origin of the Two Cities in this book. I suspect we will get to the even bigger brain-buster on this theme, which is the incarnation. Never mind God entering time from eternity, what about the omnipresent God entering a human body? Faith rests in the wisdom and revelation of God, unbelief asks why the tree’s shadow is producing frost.

The scattered traces of his being

Have you ever wondered why we are here? Many of us have asked this question at one point or another. As Augustine hits his stride in this first book (XI) of Part 2 of The City of God he asks a number of incisive questions: why do we exist at this moment in time? Why here in this part of space? What is the origin of the two cities? When did time start?

As this book pivots away from ancient discussions on the spiritual realm to the very real existence of planet earth, Augustine is diving head first into deep waters. He is unafraid to tackle the biggest issues head on – the origin of humans, angels, demons, goodness, evil, and philosophy. Through it all he keeps his Rule of Faith to guide him in what is truthful, helpful and appropriate.

Two discussions in particular are worthy of highlighting: his treatment of the origin of pure & fallen angels and his masterful handling of God’s creative purpose (ie the who, how & why of creation).

It fascinating to read how Augustine builds his case using the creation account in Genesis 1. He proposes that time began with creation and that “the world was not created in time, but with time” – hypothesising that there is no time without change and motion, which both started with the act of creation.

Augustine refers to Job 38.7 as evidence that angels existed before stars were made. As the sun wasn’t made until Day 4 he proposes that the “Let their be light” of Day 1 refers to the creation of angelic beings, with the separation to greater and lesser light being the division of the obedient and fallen angels.

“Thus the angels, illuminated by that light by which they were created, themselves became lights, and are called “day”, by participation in the changeless light and day, which is the Word of God, through whom they themselves and all other things were made.”

XI.9

Building on his consideration of creation, Augustine reflects on God’s verdict on his work – declaring it is good. Like an expert surgeon he unpacks this divine declaration, on multiple levels. He recognises that “it is not that God discovered that it was good, after he had made it. Far from it… he is not discovering that fact but communicating it”.

Augustine goes on to say how God experiences things is totally different to us. He is not time bound like us mortals, no rather “he sees in some other manner, utterly remote from anything we experience or could imagine”. He says

“God comprehends all these (ie past, present & future) in a stable and eternal present. And with him there is no difference between seeing with the eyes and “seeing” with the mind, for he does not consist of mind and body”.

XI.21

So, says Augustine “he saw that what he had made was good when he saw that it was good that he should make it”. And why was it good that God should make such things? We find the answer by asking: “who made it, how he made it, and why he made it”. So for the statement Let their be light, the answer to these questions are: God / He said “let it be” / it was good!

“There can be no better author than God, no more effective skill than his word, no better cause than that a good product should be created by God, who is good.”

XI.21

This has tremendous implications as we consider our own existence: “We resemble the divine Trinity in that we exist; we know we exist, and we are glad of this existence and this knowledge” XI.26.

In a world that has lost its grip on the divine intent and pleasure behind our existence it is no surprise that we are also losing our sense of purpose, inherent self-worth and the preciousness of existence.

If we take one thing away from Book XI it should be that each and every one of us is crafted by the heart of a God of love who is delighted at his good handiwork. We are his prized possession – one he was willing to rescue by sacrificing his only Son. May we discovery this afresh this Easter Sunday.