Chalice of Eternity: An Orthodox Theology of Time

Apostle Nicanor the Deacon of the Seventy

Apostle Nicanor the Deacon of the Seventy

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

Chalice of Eternity: An Orthodox Theology of Time

Time cannot be understood as a part of the Doctrine of Creation, but only from within our recreation in the Body of the Living Christ, the Church. Christ came to recreate all things by His Cross in the Church and time itself is the space within creation wherein this re-creation takes place. Systematic theology in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition is very underdeveloped, indeed, the actual writing of Systematic theologies has been something attained with little success until now except by Frs. Sergi Bulgakov and Dimitru Staniloae.

The study begins with a quotation from Fr. Scmemann, the rare Orthodox theologian who has developed a systematic theology of time. The quotation will be helpful to us in our attempt to understand time as the space of our and re-creation in Jesus Christ, for it brings together a number of themes central to our enterprise: (a) time as understood in its relation to the Church as a receptacle of the Eternal Kingdom of God; (b) time as woundedness (what Schmemann calls 'evil time'); (c) the relation of time to eternity as the spiritual mode of the created where time is not understood, like Plato, as a moving image of eternity, but is understood through time as the co-presence and indwelling of distinct moments (past, present and future); (d) and memory in liturgical remembrance as the restoration of time to the wholeness of a temporally understood eternity. This essay attempts to elaborate the broad themes central to an Orthodox theology of time under equally broad headings:

(1) Nature of Time: What is time? Do we only know time in knowing the things are contained in time? What is the relation God's mode of being?

(2) Time as Decay: How do we primarily experience time? Do we experience it as change or, more precisely, mutability, that is, a growth unto death?

(3) Time as Renewal: If time is the change inherent in being created then can we experience our life as other than a growth unto death? Can we experience life as perhaps, a growth unto goodness in Christ in His Church?

(1) Nature of Time: What is time?

"What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words? We surely know what we mean when we speak of it. We also know what is meant when we hear someone else talking about it. What is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know." (Book XI of the Confessions of St. Augustine, 11.14.17, p. 230)

Following these famous lines from the Book of the Confessions of St. Augustine goes on to meditate on the intricate connections between past, present and future in human consciousness. Unlike at least one tendency in Augustine, seen in Book XI of the Confessions, I think that it is a mistake to try to understand the nature of time abstractly, that is, I come to understand time by abstracting myself from the stream of life and thereby think of time as something 'out there' as the object of my intellect. This object of time is observed by the thinker as a neutral observer who steps back from himself and meditates upon the object thrown before his consciousness. However, Augustine also is concerned with the relation of time to creation and eventually concludes, as the quote indicates, that the thinker is always implicated by time since he is in time. In other words, time itself is meaningless unless it presupposes created things in time including the thinker. Indeed, Augustine's meditation on time in the Confessions begins with the attempt to understand the relation of God to the world He created. Augustine attempts to respond to the question: "What was God doing before He created all things?" To which Augustine responds: nothing as doing (sc creating) implies time. Time came to be with God's act of creation, for God is timeless or immutable and changeless unlike creation, which is temporal, mutable or changing...

Some Holy Fathers, including Sts. Basil the Great and Maximus the Confessor, spoke of three modes of being (i.e., time (chromos), age or creaturely eternity (aion) and the everlasting or uncreated eternity (aidios, aidiotes and sometimes aionios and often evenproaionios or the pre-eternal which is ateleutetos or without an end), not just the two of time and eternity. I will attempt to adapt these broad and rather slippery categories, in a contemporary context, based on the fundamental distinction between the Uncreated and the created.

First, everlastingness or everexistingness (aidiotes) that is the mode of being of God Who is utterly beyond the distinction between time and creaturely eternity, being and non-being since He is the pre-eternal (proaionios) God who is "endless" in the sense of being beyond duration. Everlastingness is essentially a negative or apophatic category emphasizing God's unknowableness. God 's unknowableness is best expressed by darkness... 'He made darkness his covering around Him, His canopy thick clouds dark with water' (Psalm 18:11)--since He is unlike all else that is in being uncreated not created. That which is everlasting is eternity in its proper sense as it is the natural mode of God not creation. Thus St. Basil the Great speaks of the everlasting, the 'mode' of God, as being 'older in being in all time and eternity [or 'age': aionios]"... in that He is the one who created the ages. Saint Maximus the Confessor writes that 'God is simply and indefinably beyond all beings, both what circumscribes and what is circumscribed and the nature of those [categories] without which none of these could be, I mean, time and eternity and space, by which the universe is enclosed, since He is completely uncreated to anything.' God is indefinable as the ho pro aionon Theos which can be translated as 'the pre-eternal God' or 'God before the ages.' As the Kontakion of Christmas puts it.

"Today the Virgin gives birth to Him Who is above all being [ton hyperousion] and the earth offers the cave to Him Who no one can approach. Angels with Shepherds give glory, while Magi journey with a star, for to us there has been born a little child, God before the ages [ho pro aionon Theos].

(To be continued)



The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


Glory Be To GOD For All Things!


With sincere agape in Our Incarnate Lord,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George