The concepts of time as depicted by Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) were to become two foundational perspectives in the philosophical and theological discourse of Christianity. Both writers sought to explain temporal issues regarding God and Creation (e.g., conflicting accounts in the first two chapters of Genesis), the universe, and humankind in terms of logic, mysticism, or both, that would be philosophically justified. Influenced by earlier philosophers, such as Aristotle, Boethius, Plato, Plotinus, and Porphyry, both Augustine and Aquinas developed their constructs of time and its relationship with the divine in a way that reflected the prevalent thinking within a novel theological framework.
Although both philosophers’ theological constructs agreed in the nonliteral interpretation of Creation (including all species) and the universe, their differences in the concept of time as it concerns God and human beings are reflected in Augustine’s and Aquinas’s respective views of ontology. Essentially, the basis of their differences reflects the major influence of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic perspectives. This would have a consequence in terms of defining eternity, finitude, infinity, and the objective/subjective reality of time. To synthesize the two major influences of Aristotle and Plotinus (Neoplatonism), among other philosophical perspectives, is to illuminate a dichotomy that appears to incorporate and express the common psychological dynamics of humankind. This delicate balance of rational explanation and conscious mysticism of the unknown appears to explain more about humankind and humanity than about the ontological status of God. Nevertheless, the element of time could be seen as a commonality or connection with the divine being that appears to transcend cultural barriers. In this manner, both Aquinas and Augustine attempted to illustrate the shared humanity of humankind under a reconcilable and loving God.
The major works of Aquinas and Augustine, Summa Theologica and Confessions, respectively, outline the concepts of time and its significance for humankind in relation to God. Aquinas held the view that God created the known material world via the First Cause. This God, dwelling in his own essence, infinite in perfection, immutable and eternal, is beyond the concept of time. This view is based on the ontological concept that God, belonging to no genus or species, has no beginning or end; thus the concept of time that incorporates the range of time (beginning, middle, and end) cannot be applied to a being that not only lacks form and matter but also potentiality, as seen in genus or species. Furthermore, God’s very act of creation, as depicted in the motion and limits of the universe and aspects of life moving from potentiality to a state of actuality, is encompassed within time. Comparatively, all things existing from God are relatively infinite but not absolute. In human temporal matter, human teleology follows ontology within the encompassing view of the soul (substance). According to scripture, however, there will be a conclusive end and a day of judgment. Cosmologically, then, it would appear that time, at least for the universe and humankind, would end or perhaps change (viz., the reference to a New Jerusalem or new beginning).
Aquinas’s temporal view of the universe appears to be objective. The movement of the celestial bodies, in themselves comprised of form and matter, would imply duration or time. This duration as evidenced by motion would be independent of humankind’s existence. Both time and space would appear to be infinite but not absolute. Although Aquinas had made distinctions among eternity, time, and aveum in Commentary on Metaphysics, the concept of time as tied to the soul has conflicting perspectives of objective time. Time, which excludes God, is based on actualization (in degree) of potentiality as decreed in form and matter. However, whether time is objective in all instances— for example, the universe as compared to humankind—remains elusive. Lacking a rational soul, the universe cannot experience time. Yet, the motion itself is indicative of time. Even considering being and nonbeing, the coexistence of multiple temporal stages would be indicative of either an active participation by God in temporal time or infringing on the free will of God, humankind, or both. Theologically, it becomes a grand masterpiece by which each stroke of the brush depicts a lapse of time.
Augustine, by comparison, held a differing notion of time and the relationship between God and humankind. For Augustine, God had created both angelic nature and formless corporeal matter. By the very act of creation, the material world ex nihilo, God had created an existence from the indivisible and unorganized to the material reality of experience. In this manner, all things were due to, or a response to, the Creator. Consequently, Augustine held that time did not exist before this creation event and was held bound by the natural conclusion of the created event; namely, the impending dissolution of material existence. God, an eternal and omnipotent being, is not bound by the constraints of time. Time, as Augustine held, is an extension of the human mind and its ability to comprehend successive events. However, God is eternal, whereby time past, present, and future are presented as one and not successive events. The conceptual arrangement of time, for Augustine, becomes a subjective experience. These experiences are independent and purely human. However, human concepts of time, when juxtaposed against the concepts of God, give the eternal attribute to God. It is unknown if this eternal aspect is dependent on the created, whereby the end of humankind would suggest the end of God’s eternity even though God is beyond time. Such a contradiction in definition would require a resolution in a God that is spatiotemporally isolated, a mystical and incomprehensible being not touched by the fabric of either space or time but who somehow becomes interactive with the created.
Aquinas and Augustine presented a unique aspect of time. This concept of time, though dependent on the act of creation, requires an ontological distinction. Ontology and relationship between God and the created are essential in understanding this temporal nature of being (and nonbeing). This ontological aspect of God or the supreme Logos remains elusive; that is, the laws of noncontradiction prevent epistemological certainty. However, today these views in their totality must be conditioned, whether rejected or modified, by the advancements of modern science. Reflectively, time becomes the common thread by which ontology and epistemology converge.
See also Albertus Magnus; Aquinas, Saint Thomas; Augustine of Hippo, Saint; Avicenna; Bible and Time; Causality; Christianity; Genesis, Book of; God and Time; God as Creator; Plotinus; Time, Sacred
Augustine, A. (1991). Confessions (H. Chadwick, Trans.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Augustine, A. (2003). City of God (H. Bettenson, Trans.). London: Penguin Books.
Aquinas, T. (1948). Summa theologica (3 vols.). New York: Benziger.