On any given Sunday, many Christians throughout the world are found reciting the Nicene Creed, a profession of faith that has been handed down to us since the time of the early Church Fathers.1 Some have it memorised, some read it from the text provided, but most would say it in an almost perfunctory manner: we say it because we are supposed to say it, we believe in it because we are supposed to believe in it. After all, it is a creed – from the Latin word credo, meaning “I believe”.
Towards the midpoint of the Nicene Creed, we encounter one particular sentence:
“For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”
And then the Creed goes on. But if we stop and think about it, this sentence evokes what philosophers call a problem of presentism. Presentism is the belief that only the present exists. Among early presentist philosophers are followers of the teaching of Buddha. Fyodor Shcherbatskoy in Buddhist Logic writes: “Everything past is unreal, everything future is unreal, everything imagined, absent, mental... is unreal. Ultimately, real is only the present moment of physical efficiency.”2 That is, the presentist belief that only the present is real. The most prevalent reason for adopting presentism as a theory of time is because it agrees with our living experience. Thus, it is intuitive and “common-sense”. This so-called common-sense view of time may not make much sense to us as we can testify that it is not only the present time that exists, but yesterday also existed and tomorrow will most likely exist. However, because we live in the present, it is true that yesterday does not exist in the present for we cannot go back in time to retrieve the past and bring it into the present. In the same way, tomorrow does not exist today.
Back to the Nicene Creed, the sentence evokes a problem of presentism, because Christ “was crucified under Pontius Pilate,” presumably when Pilate reigned as the governor of Judea between 26 to 36 AD, yet it is “for our sake,” while we live in the twenty-first century. Therefore, presentism as a view of time can be seen as problematic for a common Christian faith stated in the Nicene Creed, because presentism may suggest that Christianity is merely a remembrance of the past. As a result, this renders the Christian faith irrelevant in today’s world.
In contrast to this “common-sense” presentist view of time, medieval philosophers and theologians were governed by an eternalist philosophy. According to eternalism, the past, the present and the future are equally real, and that the time is essentially tenseless. Today does exist as much as yesterday and tomorrow do. Yesterday did not only exist, but it does exist at this very moment. As such, eternalism denies the ontological privilege of the present time.
One drawback of eternalism is the fact that this scenario goes against the common-sense, because we cannot comprehend being in the past, the present and the future at the same time. Be that as it may, this is not how eternalism is to be understood. Whilst eternalism acknowledges that there is no metaphysical difference between past, present and future, there remains differences in one’s perspective. In this sense, present is subjective for the eternalist: just as “right here” is different from “over there,” so is “present” different from “future.”
Viewed in this way, eternalism opens up a mean for the Nicene Creed to be coherent with respect to time, because it now makes sense if the present, i.e., “for our sake,” and the past, i.e., “was crucified under Pontius Pilate,” are real at the same time. Nevertheless, because all existence in time is subjective for the eternalist, eternalism may stand against one objective of the Nicene Creed, which is to promulgate the universal standing of Christianity.3 A subjective belief does not make for a universal faith, because “the more ‘subjective’ knowledge becomes, the less can it lay claim to being knowledge in the full and true sense.”4
One version of eternalism that may provide for a coherent reading of the Nicene Creed and a solution for the objection for eternalism is the Anselmian eternalism. In “Anselmian Eternalism: The Presence of a Timeless God,” Katherin Rogers explains the notion of eternalism as proposed by St Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) in Proslogion. Rogers argues that Anselm’s tenseless view of time is logical, given Anselm’s belief in classical theism.5 Anselmian eternalism also solves the dilemma of God’s omniscience and man’s freewill, and more importantly, it allows the Bible and the Nicene Creed to remain relevant in the present world.
Anselm begins Proslogion by mentioning what he takes to be non-negotiable: that God is “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.” In doing so, Anselm makes it clear that the perfection of God is his starting point in analysing the relationship of God to time.
Anselm ends Proslogion with an apologetic reply to an objection by Gaunilon, explaining his conclusion:
For we attribute to the divine substance anything of which it can be conceived that it is better to be than not to be that thing. For example: it is better to be eternal than not eternal; good, than not good; nay, goodness itself, than not goodness itself. But it cannot be that anything of this nature is not a property of the being than which a greater is inconceivable. Hence, the being than which a greater is inconceivable must be whatever should be attributed to the divine essence.
Specifically, Anselm concludes that the tenseless view of time, i.e., eternalism, is consistent with the divine perfection, because a greater thing than eternity is inconceivable.
This Anselmian method of arriving at a theory of time differs from the approach taken by many contemporary philosophers who start their analysis with the nature of time, find eternalism problematic for it is against the common-sense, and conclude that time cannot be tenseless. Consequentially, they opt for a common-sense theory of time, i.e., presentism.
One advantage of Anselmian eternalism is the fact that it is the right theory of time for Christians, specifically Christians in Anselm’s medieval era, because, as Rogers indicates, “the late classical and medieval eternalists were absolutely committed to a God who interacts with creation, answers prayers, becomes incarnate, judges the nations, etc.”6 That is, borrowing the words of the Nicene Creed, Anselmian eternalism is the right theory of time for it allows a God who “was crucified under Pontius Pilate” to interact with us, because he died “for our sake”.
On the other hand, Anselmian eternalism carries with it a “real worry” that, if God is eternal and, for God, time is tenseless, i.e., eternalism, then we cannot make sense of our personal experience in relationship to a personal God, because our common-sense dictates presentism view of time. To this concern, Anselm readily provides a reply in the first chapter of Proslogion, “For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.” Étienne Gilson explains why this should subside the “real worry,” because, for Anselm, “understanding of faith presupposes faith.”7 That is, we should not worry that we would lose faith by knowing that, unlike us, God is eternal, because we arrive at the knowledge that God is eternal by believing there is a God in the first place.
Following the argument that all existence in time is subjective for the eternalist, Anselmian eternalism also offers a solution for turning a subjective faith into an objective one. An objective faith is better suited for a common Christian faith, which is the main purpose of the Nicene Creed. Anselm may use a subjective belief of God as “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived” as a starting point. However, he concludes that God is eternal because of an objective conclusion that nothing greater than eternity can be conceived. Consequently, it is this objective conclusion of eternity that supports the tenseless view of time, i.e., eternalism. Hence, Anselmian eternalism provides the best solution for an ancient Christian faith to remain relevant in today’s world, because it allows for a more coherent reading and understanding of the central Christian belief as written in the Nicene Creed.
- The first ecumenical council was held in the ancient city of Nicaea in June 325. Its main purpose was to establish a common Christian faith (Kelly 1983, 29).
- F. Theodore Stcherbatsky, Buddhist logic (New York: Dover Publications, 1962), 70-71.
- J. N. D Kelly, “The Nicene Creed: A Turning Point,” Scottish Journal of Theology 36, no. 1 (1983): 31. doi:10.1017/S0036930600016240.
- Gordon D. Kaufman, “Philosophy of Religion: Subjective or Objective,” The Journal of Philosophy 55, no. 2 (1958): 58. https://doi.org/10.2307/2022346.
- Classical theism refers to an understanding of God that affirms divine aseity and simplicity.
- Katherin A. Rogers, “Anselmian Eternalism: The Presence of a Timeless God,” Faith and Philosophy 24, no. 1 (2007): 3–27. https://doi.org/10.5840/faithphil200724134.
- Étienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (London: Sheed and Ward, 1955), 129.