The Lateran Council, the Universe, and Time’s Beginning

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The so-called Firmiter decree of the 4th Lateran Council, 1215 AD, reads as follows:

Pope Innocent III
Pope Innocent III

Firmitur credimus et simpliciter confitemur, quod unus est Deus solus verus … creator omnium visibilium et invisibilium, spiritualium et corporalium: qui sua omnipotenti virtute simul ab initio temporis utramque de nihilo condidit creaturam, spiritualem et corporalem, angelicam videlicet et mundanam: ac deinde humanam, quasi communem ex spiritu et corpore constitutam.

Firmly we believe and we confess simply that the true God is one alone … creator of all visible and invisible things, of the spiritual and of the corporal; who by His own omnipotent power at once from the beginning of time created each creature from nothing, spiritual and corporal, namely, angelic and mundane, and finally the human, constituted as it were, alike of the spirit and the body (Denz 428).

Full text, canon 1, paragraph 1:

Firmly we believe and we confess simply that the true God is one alone, eternal, immense, and unchangeable, incomprehensible, omnipotent and ineffable, Father and Son and Holy Spirit: indeed three Persons but one essence, substance, or nature entirely simple. The Father from no one, the Son from the Father only, and the Holy Spirit equally from both; without beginning, always, and without end; the Father generating, the Son being born, and the Holy Spirit proceeding; consubstantial and coequal and omnipotent and coeternal; one beginning of all, creator of all visible and invisible things, of the spiritual and of the corporal; who by His own omnipotent power at once from the beginning of time created each creature from nothing, spiritual, and corporal, namely, angelic and mundane, and finally the human, constituted as it were, alike of the spirit and the body. For the devil and other demons were created by God good in nature, but they themselves through themselves have become wicked. But man sinned at the suggestion of the devil. This Holy Trinity according to common essence undivided, and according to personal properties distinct, granted the doctrine of salvation to the human race, first through Moses and the holy prophets and his other servants according to the most methodical disposition of the time.

Firmiter decree, Canon 1, 4th Lateran Council, 1215 AD (Denz 428)

The intent of the above is not do discuss evolution or the Big Bang or time in a scientific sense. It’s aimed at the Aristotelian concept of an eternal universe, and at the Cathar concept of good vs evil and how it relates to who created physical matter and who created the spiritual world. For the Cathars at the time, humans were eternal spirits trapped in an evil creation, each created by two opposing twin deities, one good and one evil. For Aristotle, the world (and man) were eternal because they were not created, without a cause. Obviously both concepts are seriously problematic in Christian theology, and erroneous.

A question that has often been asked:

Could God create an eternal universe, with infinite time regression into the past, and infinite time continuation into the future?

To me, the answer is the same as “Could God create an infinitely long piece of string?

I’ll provide a few thoughts below.

Hoag's Object
Hoag’s Object

St Thomas Aquinas considered it quite possible. He said it was not the case, as a matter of faith, but entirely possible as a matter of God’s abilities. However, I don’t think it is necessarily contrary to the Catholic faith. Not that it matters much, as physicists no longer believe an eternal universe of that nature exists, at least not the universe we live in. Perhaps others were created differently.

“God … creator of all visible and invisible things, of the spiritual and of the corporal; who by His own omnipotent power at once from the beginning of time”

Since time is a creation, and the concept of time breaks down at the moment of the Big Bang, then the Big Bang, or thereabouts, constitutes the beginning of time. This time. Not necessarily to the exclusion of other previous or future times, or other parallel times.

Furthermore, the concept of infinity is a concept, not a number. As a number, or measure of anything (including time) it doesn’t make sense.

One should remember here the true nature of infinity: it is an entity that can never be attained, it is by definition always beyond reach, so no physical process can create an infinity of anything

– George Ellis, Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 46, p16 (South African cosmologist)*

“At once from the beginning of time”

The Cosmic Microwave Background temperature fluctuations from the 7-year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe data seen over the full sky. 2010, NASA.
Cosmic Microwave Background Fluctuations

God, outside of time, initiated his creation. In one enormous singular timeless act of will, creation came into being. From then on, the created world continued in time, which was created with it, and is part of it. The idea that this time extended in both directions, as in an eternal universe, is not necessarily excluded. At the moment of the singularity that expanded into the Big Bang, a singularity resulting in a starting point with infinite density, time progression was zero. If we looked back in time to the Big Bang, we’d “see” time as receding backwards to infinity. In that sense, there is an infinity of time behind us. In this sense, approaching the infinite would be the same.

Time, as a scientific concept, can be discussed at a philosophical level and at a theological one. But Lateran IV was not speaking of science; it could only speak of theology informed by philosophy. The council could simply mean, by saying “the beginning of time”, the initial act of will, outside of literal time, that brought creation into being. It could mean the formation of the solar system. It could mean life on earth. There’s clearly a progression in mind, so it could logically include the entire process from the Big Bang to creation of life on earth, and eventually the evolution of humans.

We no longer believe in an eternal universe from a scientific perspective, not the current physical universe anyway. But an infinite series of Big Bangs and big crunches is not excluded by this for the same reasons as above. Even less so, because time would have come into being with each Big Bang, which agrees with a literal interpretation of “the beginning of time”, namely when time came into existence at the Big Bang.

“At once” – “simul

Asteroid impact event
Asteroid impact event

This can be taken to mean “all at the same moment in time”, right at the first instant of time, but we see that mankind was created “later” (“deinde”) indicating some sort of progression of events in time. What happened “at once” was the creation of time along with the universe. The act of creation was a timeless and instantaneous act on the part of God, who is above and outside of time. Thus, “simul”. How motion and progression of time took place after that is not described. Even a literal reading of Genesis places man’s creation later than the creation of the sun and moon. Certainly “simul” does not conflict with millions of years of geology and biology. “Simul” can also simply mean “in general” or “according to a common plan/origin” (compare “simul” with “κοινή” (“koiné”) in Sirach 18:1, almost word for word in the Lateran IV statement).

“created each creature from nothing”

Creation itself was made from nothing, so everything that was created (creature: a creation, not necessarily living) – time, angels, galaxies – was created from nothing. The primordial matter developed into later physical entities; that everything, as it is now, was once created in place is not required, and is contradicted by the mere existence of entropy.

“each creature”

Full moon, NASA
Full moon, NASA

More correctly, both (“utramque”), referring to the spiritual creation as a whole alongside the physical creation as a whole; perhaps also each of many spiritual and “mundane” orders; or angels, the physical world, and humans, who span both.

Whether the spirit world of angels was created as a parallel to this universe, or is a universe apart from this one with its own timeline, is not obvious. Do we, as our universe, exist with our own set of angels, while another hypothetical universe may have its own set? Considering that the current universe may end up in a big crunch, when time ends, but we and the angels will live on eternally, that suggests they exist outside this universe in a “universe” of their own.

That does, however, mean we must ask if our current physical universe would last as long as the parallel spiritual universe. Will the spiritual universe continue to exist perpetually while the physical universe(s) undergo successive Big Bangs and Big Crunches (or Big Bounces) or terminate in a Big Freeze? (Not that “successive” makes much sense, as time does not exist prior to the Big Bang.) Will the spiritual half of this universe continue in spiritual time once the physical universe comes to an end? Or is the spiritual “world” outside of of any created universe, simply existing in the same plane as God? Is it a) our timeline and universe that survives the death of our physical universe in a renewed creation, b) a separate timeline and universe from which we can see God perfectly and perpetually (cf. the beatific vision), c) a non-created “place” existing alongside God, or d) is it something else?

The Bible says that all creation will be renewed. Which creation? Our current universe? All universes? Where will they be? Will our current universe be immortalised on a spiritual level, or on a physical level within whatever spiritual realm(s) exist? Or will we just be packed into a space from which we can all perpetually, or timelessly, see God from the same distance?

“spiritual and corporal, namely, angelic and mundane”

Four different planetary nebulae: NGC 6543, NGC 7662, NGC 7009, NGC 6826
Four different planetary nebulae: NGC 6543, NGC 7662, NGC 7009, NGC 6826

The natural physical world, and the spiritual world. Here we’re mostly concerned with the former. See above for speculation on the latter.

“and finally the human”

So man was created after the initial beginning of time. This is in keeping with a) a literal reading of Genesis, b) a metaphorical reading of Genesis, and c) the understanding that “simul” refers not to the simultaneous creation of man with the initial beginning of the universe, but rather that it refers to the act of God’s will that brought creation into being all at once.

“constituted as it were, alike of the spirit and the body (Denz 428).”

Part of both the physical universe in time which comes to an end, and the spiritual universe which is eternal and will never end.

My conclusion: God created the world. Time, as we know it, began. What came “before” is unknowable. What will come is currently unknowable. Is Lateran IV’s statement compatible with an eternal universe, or an infinite series of Big Bangs and Big Somethings? Yes. It tells us that God created, and it tells us when. It doesn’t define time in a scientific way. It rejects an aspect of the Aristotelian concept of an eternal uncreated universe, and a Catharist concept that the good God created only the spiritual. Rather, God created all, physical and spiritual, and he is “creator of all visible and invisible things”. It leaves a lot open to legitimate speculation regarding the scientific nature of the universe(s).

Interesting discussion hereSpecial Asymptotic Theory of Time (Catholic Answers Forum)

Further reading:

Special Asymptotic Theory of Time (Catholic Answers Forum)

Theistic Evolution vs. Six-Day Creation: Reply to Robert Sungenis … by Phil Porvaznik

Church’s tradition on evolution theory … Catholic Answers Forum

Did the universe begin to exist or is eternal?- a brief survey – News24*

Did the universe have a beginning? – Manuel Alfonseca, Popular Science

Animation depicts a mapping of the positions of known near-Earth objects
Animation depicts a mapping of the positions of known near-Earth objects

… we decree that such Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress. Particularly, since it may be read in the writings of Moses [Numbers 15:37-41], that this very law has been enjoined upon them. Moreover, during the last three days before Easter and especially on Good Friday, they shall not go forth in public at all …

Canon 68, 4th Lateran Council, 1215 AD
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