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He Cannot Deny Himself: Immutability and Simplicity

The new issue of Credo Magazine is titled The Immutability of God. The following is an excerpt from Steven Duby’s article, He Cannot Deny Himself: Immutability and Simplicity. Steven J. Duby (PhD) is assistant professor at Grand Canyon University, where he teaches theology courses for undergraduates and seminary students. He is the author of Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account (T & T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, 2016). Duby lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife, Jodi, and their three children.

The Relationship Between Simplicity and Immutability

How does this description of God’s simplicity shape our understanding of God’s immutability? Three things can be said here.

(1) If God is simple, there are not diverse parts in God that we might divide up and then designate as either immutable or mutable. This calls into question the move away from what some perceive to be a rigid conception of God’s immutability. For that move presupposes the presence of either divisible parts in God or at least parts in which there could be mutually exclusive content. To posit that there are certain features of God (e.g., justice or goodness) that do not change and others that do (e.g., knowledge, will) is implicitly built upon the idea that there are parts in God in which to locate constancy, on the one hand, and change, on the other. But if there are no parts in God in which to locate constancy versus change and vice versa, then there is no basis for the claim that God remains the same with respect to justice and goodness, for example, but not with respect to knowledge and will.

Furthermore, if God is not composed of parts, then there is no basis for claiming that certain things in God are more fundamental to him than others. We are not at liberty to choose what we think God must keep and what he may forego. We are not at liberty to suggest that certain developments or losses in God would be consistent with his aseity and therefore relatively innocuous. If we suggest, for example, that the love of God is enlarged or fulfilled by his display of mercy in time or that his holiness is enlarged or fulfilled by his display of wrath, we will be suggesting that these aspects of God’s very essence (love, holiness) required the suffering of creatures in order to attain their perfection. Can that be consistent with the aseity and goodness of God? Indeed, if God needs us (and our suffering) to become all that he can be, will that elicit trust in God on our part?

(2) To be more specific, if God is not composed of parts, then he is not composed of actuality and inactive potential. Actuality and unfulfilled or inactive potential are mutually exclusive. Where one is, the other is not. If something is active, it is no longer passive. But in his eternal triune life God is already active in the love of the divine persons (Jn. 17:24). Given that he is eternally active and fulfilled in this way, and given that he has no other parts in which he might still have some unfulfilled potential, he is pure act without passive potential. But passive potential is what enables change. If there is none in God, then he does not change in his knowing, willing and loving. If there is none in God, then he does not change in his knowing, willing and loving. Click To Tweet

(3) It follows that the reason God does not change is not because he lacks the fitness to act but rather because he is already wholly active. The attribute of immutability emerges not from a lack or stagnation in God but from his plenitude in the eternal love of the Father, Son and Spirit. Upholding God’s immutability is therefore not a matter of denying his capacity for personal action. It is, in fact, the exact opposite. God’s immutability should be upheld precisely because he is the eternally active triune God. It is somewhat strange, then, that we moderns have been inclined to reject or drastically qualify God’s immutability in order to secure God’s ability to act or his personal involvement when the attribute of immutability is ultimately an expression of God’s perfect liveliness and activity as Father, Son and Spirit.

Read Steven Duby’s entire article in the new issue of Credo MagazineThe Immutability of God.

Steven J. Duby

Steven J. Duby (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is associate professor of theology at Phoenix Seminary in Scottsdale, Arizona. He is the author of God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics and the Task of Christian Theology and Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account.

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