Archive E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

Syntax, Morphology, and Rhetoric: Augustine on God’s Timelessness

It is difficult, or rather impossible, for human beings to conceptualize divine sempiternity and simultaneity. We are by nature creatures of succession and cannot conceive of anything otherwise: even if we want to affirm the truth of God’s eternal present, we must do so without understanding what that really means. We can only gesture towards it and talk around its edges.

Augustine gets at this beautiful dilemma in a beautiful sentence in Confessions 1.6.10. He writes:

tu autem idem ipse es et omnia crastina atque ultra omniaque hesterna et retro hodie facies, hodie fecisti.

“You, however, are yourself the same and all tomorrows and further into the future and all yesterdays and further into the past you will make today, you have made today.”

After quoting the first part of Psalm 102 (101): 27 (28) (“..but you are the same, and your years have no end”), Augustine brings the conceptual difficulty to the fore with his talk of days past and present, all of which for God are “today”: but first with a verb in the future tense (facies), then with a verb in the perfect tense (fecisti). Neither of these verbs is present in tense even while he tries to describe how our “past” and “future” remain God’s “now.”

But while the verbs point forward and backward, Augustine includes another feature in the sentence that balances these verbs and shows the unity of these time-frames in the divine mind. For nearly every word in this sentence can be elided (with the elisions stopping almost just before the clearly enunciated present-past-future conclusion, hodie facies, hodie fecisti), such that it could be read as follows: tautidipses et omnia crastinatquultromniaquhesternet retro hodie facies, hodie fecisti.

Far from being accidental or ornamental features merely, syntax, morphology, and rhetoric, giving shape as they do to the supple possibilities of language as instrument, can be of profound usefulness in adumbrating the divine mystery.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.