The Eternality and Aseity of God
God’s aseity means that he is sufficient to himself, independent of anything outside himself. God’s eternality is his aseity with respect to time: Lord of time, existing above and apart from it, but free to enter it to accomplish his purposes.
The Bible teaches God’s aseity by saying that he does not need anything beyond himself (Acts 17:24-30). So aseity marks the great difference between creator and creature, but it also guards God’s freedom to enter the creation without compromising himself, to enter relationships with the world and with people. So he saves us from sin, not because he needs to do it, but because of his free gift of grace. God’s eternality is his aseity with respect to time and therefore his lordship over time. Because he is the creator of time, he stands above it, but enters it freely to do his will. He transcends time in that (1) he has no beginning or end, (2) he does not change, (3) he is equally conscious of past, present, and future, and (4) he is not limited by the passing of time in what he can accomplish.
The term aseity comes from the Latin phrase a se, meaning “from or by himself.” Bavinck defines it by saying that God “is whatever he is by his own self or of his own self.”1 He adds that aseity is “commonly viewed as the first of the attributes” and even says that “all other attributes were derived from this one.”2 The idea is that God is not in any way dependent on anything outside himself, but he has sufficient resources within himself for all that he is and does. In this way God’s lordship is absolute and independent of anything he has created.
It might seem difficult to find a biblical basis for a concept that seems as philosophical and abstract as this one. The term aseity is not found in Scripture. But this word does express well some ideas about God that are fully biblical.
The Bible teaches that God is a se (“from himself”) first, by teaching that God is the owner of all things, the “possessor of heaven and earth” (Gen 14:19, 22; cf. Psa 24:1, 50:10-12). He is the owner because everything other than God is his creation (Exod 20:11, Psa 146:5-6). Creatures do have possessions of their own, but only by divine gift. When we give something to God, we give him only what he has first given us (Luke 12:42, 16:1-8, Titus 1:7). So when we give something to God, he has no obligation to reimburse us (Luke 17:10). God owes nothing to any creature (Job 41:11, Rom 11:35-36). Now, it is true that God puts himself under obligation to creatures by making covenants and promises. But these obligations are self-imposed, not forced on him by anyone or anything outside himself.
So God has no needs. Psalm 50, for example, teaches us that unlike pagan worship, the worship of the true God is not intended to meet God’s needs, but to acknowledge him for his self-sufficiency and his sufficiency to meet our needs.3 Paul picks up this theme when he speaks to pagan worshipers in Athens (Acts 17:24-30). Because the true God is “the Lord of heaven and earth,” Paul says, he “is not served by human hands as if he needed anything,4 because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” So we depend utterly on him. He does not depend at all on us. That is the doctrine of God’s aseity.
So although aseity is a philosophical idea, our knowledge of it is, like all other divine attributes, grounded in the practical reality of God as our covenant Lord. We confess his aseity, because such a confession is implicit in the very act of worship in the reverence that the worshiper has for his Lord. Note the connection between aseity and worship in Paul’s prayer of Rom 11:36: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”
Aseity does indicate the vast difference between God and the world. The world is utterly dependent on God; God is not at all dependent on the world.5 But God’s attribute of aseity is not a barrier between himself and the world he has made. Aristotle believed that his god, the “prime mover,” could not love the world, because such love would compromise his self-sufficiency. In his view, a god who loved the world would be dependent on the world, relying on the world to arouse his affection. So his contact with the world would cause him to change. But the biblical God is different. His love for the world is sovereign, given even to beings who show him no affection, who can do nothing for him. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
Though God does not need the world or anything in it, he freely enters his creation and freely brings upon his creatures blessings and judgments. So when in Jesus Christ he saves his people from their sins, he is not seeking to meet some need in himself. When Scripture says that salvation is by grace alone (Eph 2:8-9), it testifies that God saves, not to meet a need in himself, but entirely to meet ours. Salvation presupposes God’s aseity, for in salvation we are desperate, and God is all-sufficient. Because God is a se, salvation is by grace alone.
Given the above discussion, we may define God’s eternity as his aseity in relation to time. We have seen that God has no needs and is therefore independent of anything in creation. But time is itself a creation of God. That means that his relation to time is very different from ours. For us, time often passes too quickly for us to accomplish our purposes, or it passes too slowly to maintain our interest. We often fail to accomplish something because we “did not have enough time.” But since he is a se, God does not depend on time in that way. He always has enough time to accomplish his purposes, and he never has too much. Another way to put it is that God is Lord of time, because he is Lord of everything created.
Theologians have debated the precise difference between time and eternity. I find it helpful to note as I did in the above paragraph that existence in time involves certain limits, and God, because of his aseity, transcends those limits. That transcendence is one biblical way to understand eternity.
Scripture does mention several more specific ways in which God’s eternity transcends time:
- God does not have a beginning or end. He exists before the beginning of the created world (Gen 1:1, John 1:1). James Barr says that the early Christians took this “beginning” to include the beginning of time itself.6 So God’s own existence is not only without beginning or end; it is beyond time itself.
- In important respects, God does not change (Mal 3:6). At the very least, his unchangeability gives him an experience of time very different from ours.7
- His omniscience8 includes present, past, and future. He sees all times with equal and perfect vividness, for he is the one who has made them what they are.9 This does not mean that all times are indistinguishable for him. He knows that one event happened on Monday, another on Tuesday, and so on, and he understands perfectly the process by which one event flows into the next. So it is misleading to say that there is no “succession of moments” in God’s consciousness. But he does see all events laid out before him, as one can see an entire procession from a high vantage point. This biblical teaching gives us reason for saying that God’s existence is “above time,” not merely continuing through time.
- As I indicated above, God is not subject to the frustrations that we experience within time. For him, time never passes too slowly (Psa 90:4) or too quickly (2Pet 3:8). As lord, God is fully in control of the temporal sequence, structuring the whole history of the world to accomplish his unique purposes (Gal 4:4, Acts 1:7, cf. 17:26, Mark 13:32).
So for God time is never a limit. He is sovereign over it, the lord of time. That is the important point. Theologians sometimes argue over whether God is “in time” or “outside time.” A better way to think of this is to confess that time is God’s creation. As lord, he is in full control of it, and he authoritatively sets its boundaries. We should note also, however, that because time is God’s creation he is able to enter it at his discretion. So the biblical story is a story of the eternal God who enters the history he has foreordained to befriend temporal creatures and to save them from sin, as well as to judge the wicked.
With regard to time as with regard to everything else, God is lord of the world he has made: the supreme controller, the supreme authority, and the inescapable presence.
- Bavinck, Herman, The Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951).
- Bavinck, Herman, Reformed Dogmatics: 2. God and Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004).
- Frame, John, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002).
- George, Timothy, “The Eternity of God”
- Got Questions? “What Does it Mean That God is Eternal?”.
- Got Questions? “What is the Aseity of God?”
- Kuiper, D. H., “The Eternity of God”
- Monergism, “The Aseity, Self-Existence of God”
- Pearce, Kenneth, “Divine Attributes”
- Theopedia, “Attributes of God”.
- Tozer, A. W., The Knowledge of the Holy: the Attributes of God: Their Meaning in the Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009).
- Van Til, Cornelius, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishers, 2007).
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