Immutability of God

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Immutability is the divine attribute whereby God is said to be completely changeless and unchangeable.

Biblical basis. The Old Testament reveals that God, through his immanent actions within time and history, is personal, knowing, and loving. Moreover, these same immanent divine acts reveal that God transcends all else that exists. As the One God, who is Savior, Creator, and Sanctifier, he is completely "other," and so cannot be numbered among all else that exists. Thus, God is present and active within the created order of time and history as the one who, as the "wholly other," transcends it. Unlike creatures, who change either through their own actions or by being acted upon, God transcends this changeable created order. He can neither change himself nor be changed by another and so He is immutable. Thus the Old Testament speaks of God as unchangeable. "Surely I the Lord do not change" (Mal 3:6); and the Psalmist echoes this, "Thou art unchanging" (Ps 101:27). With greater explicitness the author of the Letter of James in the New Testament writes of the "Father of lights with whom there is no change nor shadow of alteration" (Jas 1:17).

The Old Testament also speaks of God changing his mind. In Genesis, because of the wickedness of the human race, God is said to have been sorry that he had created humankind (Gn 6:67). In Exodus, Moses implored God "to change his mind" and so not bring disaster on his people; God heard Moses' prayer and so "changed his mind" (Ex 32:1214). Moreover, at the repentance of the Ninevites God changed his mind and did not bring calamity upon them (Jon 3:10). Again, God hoped that his people would reform their lives so that he could change his mind concerning his threatened catastrophe (Jer 26:3). However, there are also passages where it is stated that God does not change his mind. Because he is not human or mortal, he will not change his mind (Nm 23:19). Because of his oath, he will not change his mind (Ps 110:4, 132:11). God will do what he has promised and so will not relent (Jer 4:28, Ez 24:14, Zec 8:14). In 1 Samuel 15 on the one hand God is said to regret and be sorry that he had made Saul king, and, on the other hand, it is said that: "Moreover the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind." These seeming contradictions within God of changing and not changing his mind can be reconciled if one interprets those passages where God is said to change his mind as God expressing his unchanging nature. It is precisely because God is unchangeable in his love, mercy and compassion and yet equally adamant in his demand for goodness and justice that he is said to forgive the Ninevites or his people and regret that he had created humankind or appointed Saul king. As "wholly other" God does not change as to his perfect love, mercy and compassion or as to his unalterable demand for righteousness and holiness, but the manifestation of these unchanging divine attributes may find different expressions depending upon the changing human situation. The Old Testament thus testifies that God is ethically immutable, that is, that he is unchanging in his love and justice. This ethical immutability would seem to demand an ontological immutability: that is, God can only be unchangeable in his love and justice if he ontologically immutably perfect. This is a philosophical issue the Bible does not address.

Christian tradition. The Fathers of the Church consistently taught that God is immutable. athenagoras stated that unlike the pagan gods, who are subject to time and so change, the true God is "immortal, and immovable, and unalterable" (Leg. pro Christ., 22). Theophilus stated that God is without beginning because he is unbegotten and "he is unchangeable, because he is immortal" (Ad Autol. 1.4). For irenaeus God, unlike changing created beings, is "unchangeable Being" (Adv. Haer.,2.34.2). Similar passages can be found in, for example, clement of alexandria (Strom. 2.11; 4.23; 6.7), Origen (C. Cel., 1.21; 4.14; 6.62) and augustine (De. Trin.,3.2; 4.1; 5.5). In stating that God is immutable the Fathers were primarily denying of him anything that would place him within the changeable world of creation. Because God, unlike creatures, is perfectly good and loving, he cannot change. God's nature is unalterably perfect.

Scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages gave further philosophical depth to the notion of God's immutability. St. thomas aquinas offers three arguments, metaphysical in nature, that establish that God is immutable (Summa theologiae, 1.9.1). These are based upon understanding divinity as pure act, as simple and as omniperfect. All change is incompatible with these three concepts. First, anything that undergoes change must be able to change, that is, it must be in potency with regard to what it can actually become (see motion; becoming). Thus creatures, while they exist and so are in act, possess the potential to change either accidentally (i.e., acquire new actuality) or substantially (i.e., become something else). God, unlike creatures, is being itself (ipsum esse ). His very nature is the act "to be," and so he is pure act (actus purus ). Thus God possesses no interior potential to become more of what he is. All of his attributes are perfectly in act, and thus he is perfect wisdom in act, perfect love in act, perfect knowledge in act. To say then that God is immutable is to say that he does not undergo change, as do creatures and to accentuate that he is perfect in every way and that no change could make him more perfect. Second, Aquinas argues that since creatures are composite beings, they can undergo change and mutation, again either accidental or substantial (see matter and form). However, God is perfectly simple, for he is simply pure being itself and thus is simply pure act; therefore he cannot undergo change. Third, following upon the first argument, Aquinas argues that change within creatures testifies that they are not perfect for through change they acquire new perfection. However, since God is pure act he possesses all goods perfectly and thus is in no need to change in order to actualize further perfection.

The Church's liturgical practice testifies to God's immutability. For example, in the Liturgy of the Hours the hymn for Prayer during the Day reads: "While all must change and know decay, You are unchanging, always new." The Church at the Council of nicaea (425) solemnly condemned those who would hold that "the Son of God is subject to change and to alteration" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 126). Other councils have also upheld God's immutability, especially Lateran IV (Denzinger 501) and Vatican I (Denzinger 3001).

The modern challenge to the doctrine of God's immutability is rooted in Hegelian philosophy, yet its most ardent proponents are found within process philosophy and theology, following the lead of A. N. Whitehead and C. Hartshorne (see, for example, J. B. Cobb, D. Griffin, N. Pittenger, S. Ogden). It is argued that an immutable God is static and inert and so incapable of having personal and loving relationships. To make God more active and relational it is proposed that God, as a member of the eternal cosmic process, changes as he interacts with the world and human beings and so develops and actualizes his own potential. Such a proposal for a mutable God makes him dependent upon the world for his existence. He is no longer wholly other than all else, and thus he is no longer the creator God who gives existence to all else. He merely becomes another acting member within the ever-changing process of finite reality, and as such is himself trapped within the vicissitudes and evils of human history, so undermining his transcendent ability to save.

Immutability of the Trinity. The Fathers and Scholastics almost exclusively focused their attention upon the immutability of God in so far as he is one. However, the one God is a trinity of persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, immutable in themselves. Because the Father eternally begets the Son and spirates the Holy Spirit as his eternal love for the Son, he is immutably the Father. Equally the Son as eternally begotten and who eternally loves the Father in the Holy Spirit is immutably the Son. The Holy Spirit as the eternal love of the Father for the Son and the eternal love of the Son for the Father and who thus conforms the Father to be the loving Father for the Son and conforms the Son to be the loving Son for the Father is immutably the Holy Spirit. Neither the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit can become more perfectly who they are for one another. They too are perfectly in act in relation to one another, and so subsist, that is, be who they are, only in their immutably perfect relationships with one another. These immutably perfect relationships not only distinguish who they perfectly are, but also make them the one immutably perfect God. (see trinity, holy)

Some theologians, again often influenced by Hegelian or process philosophy, argue that God becomes a trinity of persons through his interaction with the world and human history (see, for example, P. Fiddes, R. Jenson and J. Moltmann). The persons of the Trinity become who they are through their historical actions and thus the Trinity itself comes to be. The motivation for such a developmental view of the Trinity is to allow for greater salvific interaction and interplay between the divine and human persons, bringing about the mature evolution of both. However, only if God is an eternal Trinity of immutably (and so dynamically) mutually related persons can they act in time and history in such a manner as to bring others into their divine life and love. It is only because the Father is eternally the Father that he can send his eternal Son into the world as man so that through his salvific work the eternal Holy Spirit is able to transform human persons into the likeness of the Son and so become children of the Father.

Further issues. If God creates, does this not imply that he changes from being noncreator to being creator? It must be noted that if the act of creation is an act whereby something comes to be and so be actual, only a being who is being itself (ipsum esse ) can create for it is the precisely existence (esse ) that is needed in order for something to exist. Thus, when God creates, he creates by the immutably pure act that he is for no other act will do. While God, being pure act, has no interior potential to be actualized, his being pure act gives him the potential to perform actions that only he can perform, such as to create out of nothing. The act of creation does not imply then a change in God for he acts by no other act than the immutably pure act that he is. The "change" that occurs at the "moment" of creation is entirely on the part of creatures, the transposition from nonexistence to existence. The term "creator" does not then imply a change in God but rather that since creatures have come to exist by the act of God, he is now newly called creator. The mystery of the Incarnation offers a somewhat similar problem. While the Son of God comes to be man at a certain moment in time, this "becoming" man does not imply a change in the eternal and immutable Son. The change that takes place is that within the womb of Mary the humanity comes to be and is united to the person of the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit in such a manner that the Son now exists as man. There is a change in that the Son now exists as man, but there is no change in so far as the Son exists as God. Equally, the Son of God as man experiences changes. He is born, hungers, thirsts, weeps, suffers and dies. It is truly the Son of God who is experiencing these changes, but he is experiencing these changes in so far as he truly exists as man for they are truly human experiences. As God, the Son remains immutable and impassible (see incarnation; impassibility of god).

However, does not creation and incarnation imply an act of the will on the part of God, that is, he freely transposes himself from indetermination to determination and so changes? Within human beings free acts bring about change within the person freely acting. Human freedom is a power through which a person is capable of electing to act or not to act in a certain manner. The act of choice then involves the transition from possibility to actuality. However, freedom itself does not necessarily imply change. In God's case there is no previous state of indifference. He is eternally freely self-determined. He eternally wills what he wills for his will is commensurate with his nature as immutably pure act. The effects of what he wills may take place in time and history and so bring about changes, but his act of willing itself transcends time and history.

Bibliography: Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, eds., d. brown, r. james, and g. reeves (Indianapolis 1971). d. burrell, Aquinas: God and Action (Notre Dame 1979); "Does Process Theology Rest on a Mistake?," Theological Studies, 43 (1982) 12535; Knowing the Unknowable God (Notre Dame 1986). j. b. cobb, A Christian Natural Theology (London 1966). j. b. cobb and d. griffin, Process Thought: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia 1976). m. dodds, The Unchanging God of Love (Fribourg 1985). p. fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford 1990); Participating in God (London 2000). c. hartshorne, The Divine Relativity (New Haven 1948). w. hill, "Two Gods of Love: Aquinas and Whitehead," Listening, 14 (1979) 249278; "The Historicity of God," Theological Studies, 45 (1984) 32033. h. kÜng, The Incarnation of God (New York 1987). j. moltmann, The Crucified God (London 1974); The Trinity and Kingdom of God (London 1981); History and the Triune God (London 1991). s. m. ogden, The Reality of God (New York 1971). n. pittenger, God in Process (London 1967). s. sia, "The Doctrine of God's Immutability: Introducing the Modern Debate," New Blackfriars, 68 (1987) 22032. r. swinburne, The Coherence of Theism (Oxford 1993). r. swinburne, The Christian God (Oxford 1994). t. g. weinandy, Does God Change?: The Word's Becoming in the Incarnation (Petersham 1985); Does God Suffer? (Notre Dame 2000).

[t. g. weinandy]