Thursday, August 12, 2010


When I was teaching Trinity to the seminarians, I tried to describe the confusion that was occasioned by the Arian controversy about the words "time" and "eternity." I told them that in early Christian thought there was a distinction between three realms or spheres,

  • the Cosmos of time and matter, in which we live;
  • The spiritual realm of the angels and spiritual beings (including the resurrected human person);
  • The One, or God.
The words "time" and "eternity" have different meanings in each one. In fact, the "eternity" of the spiritual realm, or "heaven" is not the same as the eternity in God, because heaven and the spiritual realm are creatures, and therefore finite and limited:

  • There is the relative eternity of spiritual beings not in the matter/time cosmos;
  • There is the absolute eternity of God and in God. Absolute eternity is independent of creation, whether spiritual (invisible) or material (visible)
The questions of the Arian controversy were:

  • Are the Son and Spirit simply a part of the Cosmos? This would lead to the heresies of adoptionaism or modalism;
  • Are the part of the non-temporal spiritual realm which is distinct from the One but prior to the Cosmos? Are they spirit beings (Angels)? This is a form of eminationism, similar to wht we see in Gnosticism or neoplatonism. If so, can we worship them?
  • Are they in the eternal one? If so, how can we maintain that there is one God?
Arius thought the Son was part of the second realm. This is true, of course, for his human body, but not for his divine nature and person. For Arius, the "eternal" generation of the Son was the relative eternity of the spiritual realm, not the absolute eternity of God. The orthodox (Athanasius) asserted that the Son is not a creature, but on the side of the Creator--homoousios (consubstantial) with the Father.

When I began to teach this way about five years ago, I could not for the life of me remember where I got the distinction between the two realms. It seemed to make sense, but I didn't recall where I had read about it. I certainly didn't think I'd come up with it myself. Well, now the mystery is solved. The other day I picked up the Philokalia (London: Faber and Faber, 1979) and began reading the Glossary. The very first entry is "Age" or aeon. Here is what it says:

Certain texts, especially in St Maximos the Confessor, also use the word aeon in a connected but much more specific way, to denote a level intermediate between eternity in the full sense (...aidiotes) and time as known to us in our present experience (...chronos)....There are thus three levels:

(a) eternity, the totum simul or simultaneous presence of all time and reality as known to God, who alone has neither origin nor end, and who is therefore alone eternal in the full sense;

(b) The aeon, or totum simul as known to the angels, and also to human persons who possess experience of the 'age to come': although having no end, these angelic or human beings, because they are created, are not self-originating, and therefore are not eternal in the sense that God is eternal;

(c) time, that is temporal succession as known to us in the 'present age'.
It should be noted that time as we experience it results from the apparent separation from God that comes from the fall.

This explains, by the way, in what we we become like angels in heaven. We experience the freedom from the succession of time that we are doomed to in this present age. Our bodies are freed from their slavery to matter.

I must have read this glossary text in the mid 1990s when I was studying Greek spirituality. It was lodged somewhere deep in my memory and came to the fore when I started teaching Arianism.

It is very helpful.

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