Augustine on Absolute Immutability of God

Augustine, when at his best, allowed meaningful predication of emotional terminology to God with the proviso that in God’s case, such emotional experience in unencumbered with the negative effects of human emotional experience.

Rob Lister (God is Impassable and Impassioned, Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion) Crossway, Wheaton Illinois, 2013 p.90

Modern theologians, such as Rob Lister, tend to redefine the classical attributes of God to conform to modern sensibilities about God’s nature.  They attempt to portray continuity with the early church fathers by using the same words, but they, in fact, radically redefine these concepts in ways the church fathers would never have accepted.  Augustine argued against any predication (except substance) to God and certainly this includes any “meaningful emotional terminology.”  In agreement with Aristotle (whose predicates are also referred to as categories), Augustine would not apply any of the remaining predicates against God. The ten predicates or categories are substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action and affection.  Anger is an affection.  These predicates are found in all beings, with the exception of the Supreme Being and Cause of Everything.  Potentiality is an imperfect, God has no imperfection, and, therefore, no potentiality. God is all actuality.

No potentiality strictly defines impassable (Greek, Apatheia).  The English term “impassibility” is derived from the Latin impassibilitas which is a literal translation of the Greek apatheia or apathes. (απαθες). In profane Greek, pathos was the ability to elicit the feeling of pity or compassion.  Of course the prefix “a” in apatheia means no passion.  Apatheia means the inability to be affected by something else whether for good or bad.  In early Christian theology the word was used for incapable of experiencing emotions or incapable of suffering.

Modern theologians redefine impassible because Christianity today stresses that God responds sympathetically to the distress (prayers) of his church.  The modern definition contradicts to the traditional meaning of impassible throughout the centuries:  God cannot be acted upon in any way, God does not have emotions of any kind; God does not suffer.

As a representative of the modern definition, Rob Lister offers:

God is impassable in the sense that he cannot be manipulated, overwhelmed or surprised into an emotional interaction that he does not desire to have or allow to happen.[1]

Is this definition related to the concept of impassability?  If I take my wife on a date and we declare our love for one another, am I not moved with emotion when she says she loves me?  I both desired and allowed it to happen.  I am not manipulated, overwhelmed or surprised that she loves me.  Yet I am still moved by her love.  Am I impassable in this case?

The definition is also poorly phrased.  Does this definition mean God cannot be manipulated, overwhelmed or surprised, period?  Or does this definition mean God can be manipulated, overwhelmed or surprised so long as a desires to have this interaction?  Lister almost certainly means the former, but this definition doesn’t make that clear.

Lastly, do Calvinists believe God determines all things that happen?  If all things happen because God allows them, then this definition is nothing but a tautology.  How can this be a meaningful definition if it applies to every possible situation?

The early Church primarily used the term impassible to refer to the nature of God in relationship to his Son and the Son’s divine nature.  This is more a use of reification then a definition.  This is not related to issues discussed here.

Apparently, modern Calvinist theologians do not believe “God has no emotion”, but they believe “God has only good emotions.”  As this has been shown to be unrelated to the original concept, we will return to this later.  What will be demonstrated here is that Augustine believed in the absolute immutability of God.  God cannot be affected in any way by his creation.  This leads him to claim God does not have any “good emotions” either.

Augustine wrote over a million words, therefore it is easy for people to proof text Augustine into almost any concept.  Augustine was a good Catholic but he was not also a good Protestant.  Augustine would hold the Scripture as true but only true as interpreted by the Church.  This interpretation he admits is not literal but spiritual.

For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel .[2]

Augustine (Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Translated by Richard Stothert. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 4. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <;.

What authority trumps the Scriptures?  If you believe the Scriptures because the Catholic Church authorized your belief, the Catholic Church is an authority over the Scriptures.

For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error.

Augustine will time and time again confess his respect for the authority of Scriptures.  But only so far the Scriptures are interpreted spiritually in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church and in line with his contemplation visions in the ascent.

If, then, you have any human feeling—if you have any regard for your own welfare—you should rather examine with diligence and piety the meaning of these passages of Scripture. You should examine, unhappy beings that you are; for we condemn with no less severity and copiousness any faith which attributes to God what is unbecoming Him, and in those by whom these passages are literally understood we correct the mistake of ignorance, and look upon persistence in it as absurd. And in many other things which you cannot understand there is in the Catholic teaching a check on the belief of those who have got beyond mental childishness, not in years, but in knowledge and understanding[3]

Augustine is defending the Catholic Church against the Manichees.  The Manichees ridicule the Scriptures when God is portrayed as mutable or having corporal existence.  Augustine says only the ignorant, absurd and childish believe in a literal interpretation of the Scriptures.  The literal interpretation of Scriptures is “unbecoming” to God.  This concept of Dignum Deo is related to the “scientific” world view of the Platonism of the first centuries after Christ.  The Catholics go beyond the literal in knowledge and understanding.

Augustine’s Paradoxes

Often Augustine will state something like “God changes”.  What does Augustine mean by using that phrase.  In the beginning of Confessions Augustine offers a list of paradoxes.

always active, always in repose

you repent without the pain of regret

you are wrathful and remain tranquil

You will a change without any change in your design. 

immutable , yet changing all things; inmutabilis, mutans omnia [4]

The last phrase immutable but changing all things is often translated “changeable yet all changing.”  An all changing god is unknown in the Platonic or Pre-Socratic tradition, much less the traditions of the early church.  This is a better translation to use all things as a predicate of changing rather then a adverb of changing.  Chadwick clears the confusion by translating “changing all things.”  This is still a paradox, how can one be immutable but bring mutability to all things it creates.  Augustinian  scholars have several explanations for these paradoxes.

Commenting on these passages James J. O’Donnell presents this a “deliberate rhetorical choice designed to approximate the ineffability of God.”[5]  Another Augustine scholar Robert O’Connell explains this an educational technique to arouse the curiosity of the reader to issues which will be resolved later.[6]

Another explanation is the common techniques of mystics especially Zen Buddhists to meditate on Paradoxes as a means to the ascent to God.  The final stage of the ascent discards all discursive reasoning.  What could be more devaluing to rational thought than to be able to resolve paradox?

How do we know Augustine promoted absolute immutability?  As was already mentioned Augustine believes God has no predicates except substance or what is referred to as accidents.  If God can be changed in anyway by acquiring new predicates it would affect God’s eternality.

But other things that are called essences or substances admit of accidents, whereby a change, whether great or small, is produced in them. But there can be no accident of this kind in respect to God; and therefore He who is God is the only unchangeable substance… For that which is changed does not retain its own being; and that which can be changed, although it be not actually changed, is able not to be that which it had been; and hence that which not only is not changed, but also cannot at all be changed, [7]

For in created and changeable things… all things are accidents to them …places and times, acts and passions. But in God nothing is said to be according to accident, because in Him nothing is changeable; and yet everything that is said, is not said, according to substance.[8]

In created things all things are accidentally related.  Among those accidents are passions but God has no passion because in him there is no change.  This is absolute immutability.

“Cannot at all be changed” is Augustine’s view on immutability.  Every feature of God is without change, his will, his nature, his knowledge etc.  Of course this negates emotionality in God.  How does Augustine explain the over 30 times Scripture says “God repents.”  Or the many times God is said to be angry or exhibit any other emotions.

Is the change in God or is it the change in the individual.  A person can look at a concrete post, the post does not change but as a person walks around the post the view changes in each persons sight.  The Scriptures says God changes but Augustine believes this is only an apparent change from the view of the individual.

So also, when He is said to be angry with the unrighteous, and gentle with the good, they are changed, not He[9]:

Augustine will use a series of images to explain this concept:

money, when it is called a price, is spoken of relatively, and yet it was not changed when it began to be a price

When a righteous man begins to be a friend of God, he himself is changed; but far be it from us to say, that God loves any one in time with as it were a new love.

So also, when He is said to be angry with the unrighteous, and gentle with the good, they are changed, not He: just as the light is troublesome to weak eyes, pleasant to those that are strong; namely, by their change, not its own.[10]

God is compared to money which does not change but man will negotiate a price which does change.  God is always a friend to someone but when man becomes a friend to God the man is changed.  In the same way God is said to be angry in the Scriptures.  But the meaning of “God is angry” means the unrighteous have changed, but God does not change.

The Scriptures say in many places God is angry or God changes his mind.  Augustine cannot deny this and sometimes even uses the same words to describe God.  He does not believe God changes his mind or is really angry.  He believes God only appears to be angry or to change to the recipients of his judgment.  Augustine believes in the absolute immutability of God.







[1] Rob Lister (God is Impassable and Impassioned, Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion) Crossway, Wheaton Illinois, 2013 p.90

[2] Augustine’s letter (#82) addressed to Jerome) Translated by J.G. Cunningham. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <;.

[3] Augustine (Of the Morals of the Catholic Church)Translated by Richard Stothert. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 4. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <;.

[4] Saint Augustine, Confessions, translated with an Introduction and Notes by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p5, i-iv

Where then are you my God?  What, I ask, but God who is Lord? For who is Lord but the Lord or who is God but our God?  Most high, utterly good, utterly powerful, most omnipotent; most merciful and most just; deeply hidden and most intimately present; perfection of beauty and strength; stable and incomprehensible, immutable , yet changing all things;,never new, never old; making everything new, and leading the old to proud to be old without their knowledge; always active, always in repose,  gathering to yourself but not in need, supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bring to maturity, searching even though to you nothing is lacking: you love without burning, you are jealous in a way that is free from anxiety,  you repent without the pain of regret, you are wrathful and remain tranquil.  You will a change without any change in your design.  You recover what you find, yet never have lost.  Never in any need, you rejoice in your gains; you are never avaricious, yet you require interest…

[5] Augustine (Boston 1985), 22-24. James J. O’Donnell

[6] Robert J. O’Connell (Images of Conversion in St. Augustine’s Confessions) Fordham Univ Press, 1996 p.99

One way of suggesting those exigencies was Augustine’s favorite educational technique the exercitation animi.  That technique normally involved a master and a disciple engaged in dialogue:  Augustine’s early Dialogues furnish excellent illustrations, and show how much faith he reposed in the technique.  Before he ever delivers the terminal discourse in which he resolves the various problems he has been discussing with them the master guides the minds of the disciples over a series of intellectual hurdles; he is exercising their wits on a skein of preliminary questions, ensupplying them in preparation for the final effort at understanding which he has in store for them.

(7) Augustine, On the Trinity (Book V)  Translated by Arthur West Haddan. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 3. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <;.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

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