Time and Eternity
A Biblical Study
Chapter Twelve

by G.T. Stevenson


The adjective, 'aionios' is used seventy-one times in the N.T. Only once is it applied to the Deity, forty-three times to 'life', five times to 'fire', and the remainder to items such as 'judgment', Correction (Matt.25:46) 'the gospel', 'kingdom', 'covenant', 'inheritance', 'spirit', 'glory', 'times', and 'banishment' (II Thes.1:9).

Since, as we have seen, the noun 'aion' refers to a period of time, it appears very improbable that the derived adjective 'aionios' would indicate infinite duration, nor have we found any evidence in Greek writings to show that such a concept was expressed by this term. An example of its use is found on an ancient (third century) lead tablet in the necropolis at Adrumentum near Carthage, 'I am adjuring Thee, the great God, up-above the up-above gods'. To write 'eternal and more than eternal' is too incongruous to be accepted, but to regard the Deity as living before, and in fact originating the aeons of time, (Heb.1:2) presents no problem.

First let us look at Rom.16:26 where the only case of 'aionios' linked with 'God' occurs. Paul refers to 'a sacred secret in aeonian times kept silent but now made manifest...according to the command of the aeonian God'. Since the context deals with aeonian times and processes, the apostle recognizes God's plan, purpose, and control of these periods while not in any sense limiting the Deity to these spans of time which He uses for his revelation. 'God of the ages' may well be the meaning of 'aeonian God'. If so, then no conflict arises when 'aeonian' is applied in seventy other passages, to entities which cannot be regarded as 'eternal', without beginning or ending.

In the Authorized Version of 1611, 'eternal' is used forty-one times to translate 'aionios'. Other translations and paraphrases contain over thirty different expressions which we have set out in Chapter 10. Because English has no adjective derived from 'age' various courses have been followed with the objective of consistently conveying the Greek meaning into our language. The problem is increased by the various shades of meaning in English expressions. If we follow the analogy of English usage, then an adjective formed from a noun denoting a period of time, means DURING that period, frequently once only. Thus an hourly signal occurs once each hour, a daily visit, once each day, and similarly for weekly, monthly, annual, yearly and so on. If we wish to state that a process lasts for the whole of a time period, we add the word 'long'- an hour-long delay, a year-long banishment, and so on. The common factor in these two patterns is that the event or process occurs or continues within the period mentioned. The one certain fact is that the item under discussion belongs within the time span stated, not outside it. A weekly visit and a week-long visit both occur within the week, not extending beyond it. At the same time we should note that while hourly, daily, yearly and the like mean once each time period, they may also indicate repetition as in 'our daily bread', weekly wage, annual tax, etc.

If we apply this principle to 'aionios', we will conclude that events or processes referred to as 'aeonian' belong within the ages of the biblical framework and some circumlocutionary phrase such as 'pertaining to the ages or ages', 'occurring within, or lasting for the aeon or aeons' may express the thought.

In each case to treat 'aionios' concordantly and so avoid the multiplicity of conflicting terms in different versions, several translators have coined such compounds as 'age-abiding' (Rotherham) 'age-during' (Young) which suggest that the process in view lasts for the whole of an age or ages whereas the meaning may be that it occurs during these periods.

A better approach seems to be that followed in Wilson's Emphatic Diaglott, 1881 where 'aionian' is used , and in the Concordant Version of the N.T. (1930), 'eonian'. The use of this transliteration of the Greek term, while not in itself answering all the Bible student's questions does suggest caution and enquiry rather than unquestioning use of 'eternal'.

Moulton and Milligan in their Vocabulary of the Greek Testament in commenting on 'aionios' state, 'In general the word depicts that of which the horizon is not in view, whether it lies no further than the span of Ceasar's life'.

A parallel may be drawn with our use of the adverb 'always'. In the two sentences, 'God always exist', and 'I always walk to work'. the meaning is very different though the primitive significance of continuance is not lost.

In II Cor.4:18 the contrast between 'temporary' (the things seen) and 'aeonian' (the unseen) appears to be between trials whose end can be foreseen, and lasting blessings with 'no horizon' envisaged.

Hebrews 9:12-15, states the contrast between the temporary nature of the old Exodus covenant with its rituals, and the abiding efficacy of Christ himself.

In verse 12 we have, 'He entered once for all the holy places' aeonian redemption having found (maybe, brought to light, uncovered, displayed)'.

Theologically one might argue that God's gracious attitude being characteristic of His nature, it would be as infinite as He, and hence the 'redemption' manifested by our Lord must be 'eternal' - as stated in the A.V. and R.V.

On the other hand the need for redemption is contingent upon human sinfulness, and while the work of our Lord is irreversible it would have no relevance in periods prior to the existence of the human race but does apply on into unhorizoned futurity.

In Heb.9:14, the phrase 'through an aeonian spirit' gives no indication whether we should regard 'spirit' as a common or proper noun here. Literally the rendering would run '(Christ) through an aeonian spirit himself offered spotless (flawless) to the God'. This may well mean that a spirit of devotion knowing no bounds or horizons, the Son always throughout all the ages places himself at the disposal of the Father's will.

In the popular Authorized Version of 1611, while 'eternity' appears but once, (Isa.57:15) 'eternal' is used forty- one times to translate 'aionios' alone, so the readers have become conditioned to its use.

One of the chief difficulties in discovering what the biblical writers meant by the words they used is to rid our own minds of ingrained theological and philosophical patterns of thought which color our interpretations of many important passages.

The wisest course appears to be to regard the use of 'eternal' to render 'aionios' with great caution, and to examine each case carefully in relation to its immediate context, all other relevant passages, and the message of the sacred scriptures in general.

Once it is recognized that 'eternal' is not a satisfactory rendering for 'aionios' the question arises as to how this term of Latin origin came to be so commonly employed in the A.V. of 1611 and many later versions. Our next Chapter will briefly discuss the process.

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