Divine Immutability

"I, Yahweh, Do Not Change"

Introduction

In a recent article, we discussed God’s life as self-existent life: he live in and of himself. God is self-sufficient, whole in himself––not needing anything––and thus self-existent. He has life, not from another, but he has it in and of himself. But that is not the only incommunicable attribute (perfection) of God. It logically follows and Scripture informs that if God is a se––self-existent––he must be immutable––unchangeable. This present article will aim to explain why it follows that if God is self-existent (a se), then he must be immutable. Further, it aims to explain the attribute of immutability.

Thesis

A theological thesis shall guide the following content of this article: since God is self-existent, he necessarily is immutable. Immutability means that God does not change. God is unchangeable. He is the same always and forevermore.

Immutability: “I the LORD, Do Not Change”

From aseity, we move to the incommunicable attribute of immutability. Immutability is, as Michael Horton puts it, “nonchangeability.”[1] In other words, immutability means not only that one does not change, but also that one cannot change—there is no possibility for an essential/ontological change in God (i.e., there cannot be a change in God’s essence/nature).[2] We move from aseity in the preceding article to immutability in this article because there is a logical connection between the two. As Herman Bavinck puts it, “A natural implication of God’s aseity is his immutability.”[3] Aseity necessitates immutability because, as seen in his aseity, God absolutely is one who is wholly self-existent. Self-existence implies that he has no need outside of himself. In other words, there is no lack in God. Thus, God has nothing to add or subtract. This means that God is, as Horton puts it, “Complete and perfect in himself … [he] has no potential … there is literally nothing for God to become.”[4] Horton’s phrase, “there is literally nothing for God to become,” is grounded in the fact that God already is. Since God is, he must always be who he is, for any and every change would diminish his being. If God changed, he would no longer be who he is. Therefore, if there was change in God, he could not say, “I AM WHO I AM,” or, “I will be what I will always be,”[5] as it could be translated (Exod 3:14). Bavinck puts it this way: “If God were not immutable, he would not be God. [God’s] name is ‘being,’ and this name is ‘an unalterable name.’ All that changes ceases to be what it was. But true being belongs to him who does not change. That which truly is remains.”[6]

Really? Some Scriptural Affirmation

At first glance, this may seem contrary to the God who relates to creatures for God regrets (Gen 6:6), becomes angry (Num 11:1), and even is made flesh (John 1:14).[7] However, Scripture yet affirms that God does not change, as God himself says, “I the LORD, do not change” (Micah 3:6). Or, in the apostle’s words, God is one in “whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas 1:17). He is one who remains who he is (Ps 102:26–28). That is, he is one who “remains the same yesterday, today, and forevermore” (Heb 13:8). Thus, we must attest that God in his essence (i.e., being and nature) does not change. Whereas creatures are like grass of the field and wither away (Isa 40:8), God is and he remains the same.[8]

Conclusion

God has no need, he is a se––independent for his own existence. Naturally then, he has no lack. He never needs to increase or decrease since he is a se, for he is full and complete in himself. That being so, he must be unchangeable––immutable. God does not change, for he already is in and of himself fully himself. There is nothing for God to become––lesser or greater––for he already is wholly realized as one who absolutely exists in himself. Hence, God does not change, and more than that, cannot change in his essence. Consequently, if God is thus immutable, then he is necessarily impassible––not able to be overcome by passions in response to external realities, which Zack Melvin will cover in the next post in systematic theology.




* A special thanks to Zachary Taylor Melvin who read and offered feedback on this, which was originally written in a co-authored essay with him titled: "The Doctrine of God: Divine Attributes."

[1] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 235.

[2] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology 3 vols. trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), 1:204.

[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003–2008), 2:153.

[4] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 235.

[5] Since the phrase, “אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה” (I AM WHO I AM), is in the imperfect tense, it can be translated in the future tense (I will be) denoting eternal duration.

[6] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:154.

[7] For and extensive list of biblical references on why it may appear that God is not altogether immutable, see Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:153.

[8] A natural good question that arises from this is the question on immutability and the incarnation: if the Son became flesh (John 1:14), how can God be immutable? We will seek to answer this question in our future Christology essay.