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He Cannot Deny Himself

Immutability and Simplicity

Students of the Bible are accustomed to encountering passages that affirm God’s immutability. “I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Mal. 3:6 ESV). “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas. 1:17 ESV). But there are also texts which speak of God changing. In 1 Samuel 15, for example, the author informs us that God “repented” of making Saul king of Israel (v. 11). The author then puzzlingly recounts Samuel’s insistence that God in fact does not repent since he is not like human beings (v. 29). Yet, afterward the author concludes the chapter with the statement that God repented of making Saul king (v. 35).

In light of texts like 1 Samuel 15, recent treatments of God’s attributes sometimes critique older accounts of God’s immutability and stress that God does change in relation to creatures. The nineteenth-century theologian Isaak Dorner, for example, offered a stimulating revision of the doctrine of divine immutability that jettisoned the notion that God is fully and eternally actual. For Dorner, if we are to take seriously the diversity of God’s action in the world and avoid a wooden conception of God’s relationship to it, then we must affirm the presence of unactualized potential in God, a potential whereby he can interact with his creatures and do new things. Contemporary Old Testament scholars like Walter Brueggemann and Terence Fretheim have also, in their own distinct ways, argued adamantly for a more “relational” view of God that is no longer encumbered by traditional understandings of divine immutability.

In this short article, I would like to consider how a more traditional understanding of God’s immutability might be illumined and reinforced by the doctrine of divine simplicity. While setting forth the relationship between immutability and simplicity will not allay the concerns of all critics, it can shed light on why a stronger doctrine of God’s immutability, like that of Augustine, Aquinas, or Calvin, remains important today. We will first consider what the doctrine of divine simplicity actually means and then explicate its relationship to divine immutability. At the end of the article, we will then comment briefly on how our understanding of immutability in relation to simplicity might equip us to honor the biblical teaching on how God acts in the world.

What Is Divine Simplicity?

The doctrine of divine simplicity has often been maligned (and misunderstood!) in modern theology, but its prominent role in the catholic church’s doctrine of God should not be overlooked. It appears in the Westminster Confession of Faith 2.1, for example, where God is said to be “without body, parts or passions.” In its negative aspect, divine simplicity signifies that God is not composed of parts. Positively, God is identical with his own essence, existence and attributes. There is no essence or divine nature beyond God in which he must participate in order to be the God that he is. The only divinity is this one God who created all things and has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. There is no existence or source of life in which God must participate in order to be. The only ultimate existence or absolute source of life is just this one God, the Father, Son, and Spirit. God’s attributes (wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth) are not qualities added to his essence, but rather are just aspects or descriptions of his rich essence. To be God simply is to be wise, just, good.

This teaching is not at all opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity. Though it rejects the idea that there might be diverse parts or “things” in God, it does not reject all distinctions in God. The persons of the Trinity are not parts that make up a greater divine whole. Instead, the Father, Son, and Spirit are the same “thing” as the one divine essence, and are distinguished from one another only by their relations of origin (the Son eternally coming forth from the Father, the Spirit eternally coming forth from the Father and Son). Such relations are not, strictly speaking, “things” added to God’s essence. Divine simplicity is a necessary implication of the Bible’s teaching on God’s aseity. Click To Tweet

One may initially wonder whether this is all a matter of philosophical speculation, but divine simplicity is in fact a necessary implication of the Bible’s teaching on God’s aseity. He is not caused by another or dependent upon another to be the God that he is. Instead, he is the source and giver of life to all others (Acts 17:24-25). We do not worship a wisdom or a holiness or a love which lies behind God and in which he has a share; we worship the one true God who is absolute, underived wisdom, holiness, and love. God’s aseity ultimately precludes not only a composition of certain kinds of parts in God but a composition of any parts whatsoever. For distinct parts are unified by something or someone. Parts in God could not be brought together by God himself, for that would entail (illogically) that God, prior to being God, rendered himself God. Would-be divine parts could not be brought together by another being prior to God, for God is the Creator of all that is other than himself. Nor would such parts be held together by an underlying modal system; a pure, impersonal necessity that would provide structure to God’s being, for that too would compromise the biblical God’s aseity and suggest that there is something more ultimate than he.

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.

Potential Challenges

Someone like Dorner (mentioned at the beginning of this article) would still not be content with these comments on God’s immutability in relation to God’s simplicity. He would still be concerned that we have flattened out God’s actuality and cannot account for the diversity of God’s action and presence in creation, providence, the incarnation or the sacraments. While it is not the contemporary theologian’s job to appease any one theologian of the past, noting that such questions exist does keep us alert to important challenges we should be prepared to face. It also provides an opportunity for positive clarification. Moreover, it is above all Scripture itself that presses us to take seriously the diversity of God’s action and, indeed, the language of divine repentance. Much could be said here, but the following three points will at least begin to indicate how understanding God’s immutability in connection with his simplicity will lead us to speak about divine action and God’s relationship to the world.

(1) In his simple, prevenient actuality, God is ready to act in the world. With creatures, only one who is active in at least a basic way (albeit still with the presence of some unfulfilled potential) is fit to perform new actions and bring about effects in the world. At the very least, one must exist or be alive in order to perform actions. In God’s case, we are dealing with one who is wholly active and thus utterly poised to apply his power to bring about new effects. Within a more traditional understanding of God’s immutability that is informed by his simplicity, we are not bound to say that God cannot apply his active power to bring about new effects. We are bound to say only that in so doing God is not having to transition from a state of idleness to a state of activity. Nor are we bound to say that all of God’s effects must occur simultaneously at the expense of the unfolding drama of history. We are bound to say only that God’s actuality whereby he accomplishes those effects is constant. The effects themselves are located at diverse points in time.

(2) In scriptural texts where God “repents,” the biblical teaching is metaphorical, not false. It has a basis in reality and signifies something real. It’s basis is God bringing about changes in the world, even if it does not indicate that God’s knowledge or counsel itself is undergoing a change. In fact, God bringing about new effects is not an abrogation but a fulfillment of his eternal plan with all the twists and turns of creaturely history. The thing that such biblical teaching signifies is God’s production of new effects, not an acquisition of new knowledge issuing in a change of counsel. God acts as a repentant human being would typically act, bringing about a change. In the case of Saul, God’s repentance signifies his public denunciation of Saul and his promotion of the Davidic kingship.

(3) The God-world relation does indeed change, but, properly speaking, the change lies on the side of the creature. For that relation is not one that establishes what God is in the first place. It is not constitutive of God’s being in any way.  Indeed, his eternal life and actuality remain the same even as he produces diverse effects at diverse times. But when God produces new effects and when creatures comport themselves in different ways before God, there is indeed change on the side of the creature. If we are prone to think that this makes God uncaring or aloof, we will do well to remember that the Lord does rejoice in his works (Ps. 104:31; 49:4; Jer. 32:41; Zeph. 3:17). The clarification implemented by divine immutability and divine simplicity is just that in so doing the Lord is not undertaking a process of self-fulfillment.

Perhaps that truth can be a cause of rejoicing on the part of us needy creatures who recognize that we were made to depend on God, not to be the foundation of his completeness or contentment. Perhaps the truth of 2 Timothy 2:13 – that in his completeness and indivisibility God “cannot deny himself” – will prove to be a source of reassurance for us during our sojourn in a fickle world on the way to the city of God.

Image Credit: JR P – The Rodin Museum, Paris (and Garden)

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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