Why the Church Still Needs Immutability

A Conversation with Six Pastors and Scholars About an Attribute That Matters

by Credo Magazine June 27, 2019

Q: Immutability, along with other “classical” attributes of God, are seeing somewhat of a resurgence today. Why is this and should we see it as a good trend?

Richard Barcellos: The answer is probably a two-fold and related reason. First, because there is somewhat of a resurgence in reading (and writing on) older literature on the doctrine of God (e.g., Augustine, Aquinas, Perkins, Ames, Owen). Second, because some in our day (i.e., within Calvinistic Evangelicalism and the confessional Reformed) are fudging on the older understanding of divine immutability, along with other “classical” attributes of God.

The first can be seen in the writings of James Dolezal, Scott Swain, John Webster, and others; the second in writers who advocate relational mutability, two modes of existence in God, and covenantal properties.

Yes; a very good trend, indeed!

Q: What three theologians from church history are the most important ones to read on an attribute like immutability?

Peter Sanlon: The three most important theologians to read on immutability are without a doubt the great ‘A Team’ – Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. Their central claims regarding immutability are concise and can be found in Augustine’s City of God 11,10; Anselm’s Monologion 25; and Aquinas’ Summa Theologica 1a, Q9. These brief outlines of the topic form part of a vast spiritual vision of God – the implications of which are found throughout their voluminous works. Later and modern writers do little more than draw out the implications or summarise these foundational theologians. 

Q: A popular version of immutability teaches that God doesn’t undergo change unless he decides to do so. How is this nuanced version of the doctrine a departure from the classical understanding?

Steven Duby: A classical Christian understanding of God’s immutability would maintain that God cannot – and need not! – change even by a divine decision to alter himself. This is fundamentally because God is already complete and fulfilled in himself in the fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is nothing in him that is yet to reach actualization.

Furthermore, God is not made up of some parts that can be insulated from change and other parts that are susceptible to change.  He is not made up of parts at all. There is thus no safe way to say that the would-be parts of God’s being that (we think) “really matter” would remain the same while the other would-be parts that (we think) are less significant would be open to change. Within the logic of a more traditional view, the impetus for positing divine self-limitation or self-alteration is simply not there. He does not exist in a competitive relationship with creatures’ being or agency, so he doesn’t have to limit himself to “make room” for us. He also transcends time, so he doesn’t have to be updated as to what is happening in history and then change his plan.

Editor's Note: This post is an excerpt from a Credo Magazine conversation with six pastors and scholars about why immutability matters and how the church today can answer objections to this attribute. The full interview and biographical information for participants can be found here.