Why There Cannot Be An Eternal Past
As many of you may know, there has been a many-centuries-long debate between between various Catholic scholars about whether or not God could have created eternally. In other words, could the material universe have no beginning, or does creation necessarily involve a beginning. The Church has not come down on one side or the other on the matter from a philosophical point of view. The Church has defined infallibly that God did in fact create ex nihilo; and therefore, that there is a beginning. But this is a matter of revealed truth. The Church has never declared whether or not this truth of the Faith could be known with the natural light of reason.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, who leads the charge for those who believe God could have created eternally, there are two reasons why there is nothing to his mind contradictory about arguing God could have created eternally.
- God certainly possesses the ability to create because that ability exists within his divine essence. So there seems to be no reason why he could not freely do so eternally.
- Because the essence of “creature,” or the “whatness” of the creature prescinds from space and time, there is no reason why, from the consideration of “essence,” God could not have created eternally. As long as one acknowledges that the creature derives its existence from God, there is no reason, says St. Thomas, to say God could not create – and the creature would therefore be created – eternally.
St. Bonaventure, St. Athanasius, and a host of fathers and doctors of the Church don’t agree. And neither do I! These Catholic thinkers would say while God certainly possesses the ability to eternally create because creation is something that belongs to his essence, he is limited by the nature of the creature that he wills to create. According to St. Bonaventure, as Dr. Ludwig Ott says it, on page 85 of his classic, “Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma,” “the acceptance of an eternal world-creation involves an intrinsic contradiction; for creation out of nothing means: to have being in succession to non-being (habere esse post non esse), i.e., first not to be and then to be (Sent. II d. I, p. I a. I q. 2).” And as we will see below, an eternal succession of finite beings or events seems to be a logical contradiction.
The limitation here is not to be found in God’s nature. As I said above, it is the nature of the creature that is limited, as St. Athanasius said it in his Discourse I Against the Arians, Chapter 8, Para. 29:
And if they curiously inquire why God, though always with the power to make, does not always make…they must be told, that although God always had the power to make, yet the things originated had not the power of being eternal. For they are out of nothing, and therefore were not before their origination; but things which were not before their origination, how could these coexist with the ever-existing God?
Thomists will argue that St. Bonaventure is begging the question. He’s assuming “creation ex nihilo” in his argument. Granted. But here are five reasons why St. Bonaventure was correct in his conclusion nonetheless:
1. Creation cannot be eternal because there is necessarily change (which constitutes the essence of time) involved with all created things. That means there is motion from potency to act. Potency = non-being, while act = being. Thus, if we consider existence, for example, there must be a “time” when the creature (the creation) was not. God is therefore limited by the created nature. He cannot make it something that it is not… eternal.
2. In order for the creation to be eternal it would have to be unchangeable, which is hardly conceivable. Changeability necessarily exists in any and every finite being. Positing an unchangeable universe seems to tend toward pantheism.
3. There are numerous logical absurdities that follow from an eternal creation. For example, If I am standing here and now and looking backward at an eternal past, there would have to have been an infinite amount of time already actualized, which is absurd. Some may argue that if there can be an infinite future, and there is, then why can there not be an infinite past? The answer is: We are talking about two essentially different matters. If I am looking forward at an “infinite” future, I am only looking at a potency that has not been actualized because the time I am looking forward to has not been actualized yet. But when I am looking backward, I am considering an infinite amount of time that would have already been actualized if there is truly an infinite past. That is impossible because the succession involved in moving from “the past” to “now” makes it impossible for there to have been an infinite past. And there are many examples we could use to demonstrate this. Consider Trent Horn’s example, from his book, “Answering Atheism,” of a woman who must count her flowers before opening her flower shop. If she has an infinite number of flowers to count, she could never open her flower shop. It would be impossible for her to finish counting. There would always be not just more, but infinitely more flowers to count. The same could be said for an infinite number of “days,” or time. If there were an infinite number of “days” in the past, it would be impossible to get to “today.” Because there is a “today” there has to have been a beginning.
4. It is impossible to actualize infinity outside of God. By definition motion from potency to actuality involves a “reduction” of potency to act. In any act, there is motion from a much greater potency to a more specific actuality. For example, I have the potency to take a step right now in any direction, but when I actualize that potency, that potency is “reduced” to a particular step in a particular direction. Thus, to “reduce” an infinity to actuality is a logical contradiction because once “reduced” whatever is “reduced” cannot be infinite. Thus, there may be a theoretical “infinite” potency, but it would be impossible to actualize. And remember, folks, there are many things that are conceptually true and real that cannot be actualized. For example, I can conceptualize motion half way from my chair to the door of my office right here, right now. And I can conceptualize mathematically motion half way closer yet, and then another half, and another half… forever. But it is impossible to actualize this infinite “halving” of a given distance, especially for we material beings, because you very quickly move to measurements so small as to be smaller than the smallest known created thing. A “quark” quickly becomes immeasurably large! There is no way to actualize that! Or, consider this: I know that 12 divided by 0 = 0. But can I actually take 12 apples and divide them by zero and have the apples then magically disappear? There are many things that are logically, or mathematically true and real that cannot be actualized in real time. Thus it is with God’s “eternally creating.” God can always create, but the creature (outside of God) limits him so that he cannot actually eternally create.
5. If there were to be an infinite past, then every potency would have been actualized, including every potency that would ever be actualized in the future, which is absurd. Also, every creature that God could have created would have already been created, which is also absurd.