Notes on Divine Immutability

“In Him is no becoming.” CS Lewis, Letters to Malcolm

Does God undergo change? Does he know the future? Is he the ultimate cause of all that exists? Does he have a meticulous plan that he is providentially working out? Does God grieve or feel pain or experience any human emotions?

These are all questions about what God is like. Therefore ultimately in order to answer them we must have some notion about what God’s essence is. I think a strong case can be made for the classic idea that God is a bieng who is purely active as actus purus. That is, I think a case can be made that God is a being who is Himself the plenitude of all existence and being, who does not undergo change, who is perfectly simple and one, who is maximally active, and who is the ultimate cause of all that exists. This post will be an attempt to lay out the reasons why I think this is so.

Before I begin, it’s first necessary, for someone who is thinking about these issues for the first time, to banish from their mind any images or feelings one gets from imagining God as classically timeless, immutable, simple, impassible, etc. Very often these words convey the idea that God is “frozen” or that he is careless about what goes on in the world. The problem with this is that the images of being frozen or careless themselves presupposes some picture of reality where there is one Stationary Thing which stays still and changeless while other things move around the Stationary Thing. But you see, on the classic view of God he is not one thing existing among other things. There is as it were no “movingly around him” as he sits still. God is not on the same level of existence as everything that he creates. He and we don’t exist in a common medium where we can impact one another and give and receive in the same way. At every point in space and time God is already in us and around us and under us as our very ground of being itself. Therefore if one begins by imagining God as being “stuck” or “frozen” one is really placing him on the same plane and in the same order as the things he has made and is simply imaging things going on “around” him of which he takes no notice. But if you do that you are not really grasping the classic doctrine of God as Pure Actuality to begin with.

With that caveat aside, let’s get to it. Why do I think God must be changeless, timeless, impassible, simple, and all the rest? (In fact each of these attributes imply the others.) The reason I think so is because it seems to me that we are lead, inescapably, to the existence of such a being or such a reality that has these characteristics. All of theology and philosophy lead us to some ultimate Something that cannot have any Becoming. And, if God were not this thing, then we would have to posit this other being as itself God, since it would be the supreme explanation of everything else. But of course if that were true God would not really be God but merely something created or derived. Therefore, God, as the first cause and Creator, who is over all reality whatsoever, must Himself just be that reality that has no Becoming.

This was the height of Aristotelian and Platonic reasoning and the great treasure the Greek thinkers left to the world. Such a treasure shoulda not be shunned simply because it came from Pagans any more than any other Pagan discoveries should be shunned. It would not be very wise to disregard Geometry simply because it was Eucledian Geometry. The smart thing to do would be to test the discovery, to see if it contained truth, and if it did to incorporate it into one’s worldview.

Here, then, is the reason why I think God as the ultimate reality and supreme first cause can have no becoming. This is why I think “all philosophy and theology lead us”  to such a being.  My reason s are not new: they are simply a recapitulation of the classic stuff spelled out by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas. No doubt I present them less eloquently, but here you go.

Everything which changes “becomes.” That is, anything which goes from one state to another is undergoing a phenomenon we call “becoming.” A child is becoming a young man, a seed is becoming a tree, a hot pot of water left out is becoming a cold one, and so on. Now, in this process of becoming, a single substance is both gaining and losing reality. The pot that was once hot is losing that reality of hotness and is taking on a new reality – that of coldness. The child that was once a toddler is losing the reality of baby teeth and smooth skin and lack of body control and gaining the reality of more precise voluntary movement, acne, and molars. Therefore, to say it again, everything which changes is both gaining and losing reality.

Now, two very interesting things follow from this discovery. The first is that no thing gains a reality that it already at that moment has. The pot of water that is gaining coldness is not already cold, or else it could not become cold. Coldness is something extrinsic to the water that happens to it. It is “outside” the water beforehand and then is, as it were, added onto it. That is the first thing: new realities are being gained by things in the process of becoming. The second thing to notice is that, since an object becomes what it was not before, it cannot, so to speak, give itself the reality that it is becoming. To give oneself what one already has is to simply say that one already had what was given, in which case the thing is never really gained and no becoming would take place. If I am already rich I cannot really give myself riches; nor if I am poor could I simply create riches out of thin air (how cool would that be?!) Of course, I can redistribute my wealth or bury some in the backyard and later reclaim it or work hard and earn more. But strictly speaking I cannot at one and the same moment give myself any more or less riches than I already, at that moment, either possess or do not possess. For again, to give to oneself what one does not yet have as a reality is to presuppose that one already exists beforehand with that reality to give it to oneself. But if that were the case then one would never gain the new reality and no real becoming would occur. For becoming implies moving from a state of not-having to a state of having.

It is, then, a contradiction to suppose that one can impart to oneself the very qualities that are gained in the becoming process. These qualities or realities – the youngmanness, the coldness, the treeness, etc – are caused to occur in the things by things outside themselves acting on them. The qualities are thus “imparted” somehow, and gained. What we want to say is that the things that receive such realities must contain within themselves the potential to become the things, otherwise they could not become them (a seed can become a tree but not a boy). But again, this potential cannot itself BE the actual things that are gained, for otherwise there would in fact be no becoming taking place, no transition of gaining and losing realities, for the realities would already be there. So, from this we conclude that things go from a state of potentiality to actuality by being acted upon by other things. All particular things that change, then, only do so insofar as they are caused to change by things outside themselves, which bring out something only previously latent as a potentiality inside the things but which the things themselves do not have as actual realities.

Now, with this stout Greek dichotomy of Actuality vs. Potentiality in mind, let us turn to God. Imagine God as temporal and undergoing change. Imagine him, furthermore, existing prior to creation alone in himself. Now how do we explain God “becoming” a Creator? All the mental and emotional states that he would have in relation to creation would, on the one hand, not exist essentially in his being before he created. Since God existed temporally before creation, it would be at least possible for him to exist without creating. Therefore it would be possible for him to exist without the property of “being a creator.” So such a property would not at that time be possessed by God nor be essential to him. Where, then, would such a property, such a reality, come from? How could God gain the reality of Creator and of relating to creation?

If Creatorness comes from God himself, he must already possess it, and therefore already be creating. But he is existing alone and is not creating; therefore he cannot have the property of Creator. On the other hand if it did not come from God himself, then where would it come from? Metaphysically there are no other realities besides God as he exists alone before creation.

Or think of it this way. If God is in time, certain things are not essential to his being, for he can undergo change and still remain the same. He can go from existing alone without creation to existing with it. Or, if you believe that the universe has always existed, God can go from “not knowing that you exist” to “now knowing that you exist” when you are born. But if God is changing in this way, and if he is gaining inner realities of knowledge and relations that he need not have had, then those very inner realities (those relations of knowledge and willing he has to the world), must have been imparted to him. He must have existed at one time without them, and then must have been moved by something outside himself to gain them. In short, if God is changing, then there must be something outside of God which is causing the change. But then that thing would either be co-temporaneous with God (and entail Dualism) or be prior to God (which would mean something was more first than God.) In either case, you run into a insoluble problem.

Consider God contemplating the decision to create as he exists alone without a creation. Imagine also him considering things like “sin” and “compassion” and “answering prayers.” These are all ideas that themselves depend on the existence of a created order. God could not contemplate sin unless he also in some sense contemplated creatures who could sin. But, until God actually creates, he does not possess the reality of “being a creator.” How therefore could he truly contemplate a decision to create? Metaphysically speaking there is as yet no Creatorness in existence. There is no relation between himself and other creatures. If he is in time he does not yet possess that reality. How then could he gain it; where would it come from? When you decide to cook a meal, you are able to do that because you know what such a thing is. There are already things like bread and meat and drink and you have seen people put them together in such and such a way. But how could you decide to do something you had never experienced, never even seen, at all? It seems meaningless to say you could decide to do what you know not what – for what would be the actual content of the decision?

One could say that in cases of art the content of the creative action just bubbles up spontaneously from nowhere. The “idea” is latent there and just bursts forth on its own without a conscious action to bring it out by the artist. But in such cases what is made is not intentionally made the way that it is made. That is, intentionality presupposes intending to bring about what is in fact brought about. An arichtect does not “accidentally” calculate all the angels of the house and choose to put them just where he does. Are we then forced to think of God as spontaneously and therefore unintentionally spinning out whatever effect “bubbles up” into his consciousness? Is creating simply a process that happens to God? And even if we did grant this, we would still be left with the metaphysical mystery of just where such realities – such creativity and vision and spontaneity – themselves came from. God, the ultimate Fact and ground of all being, would himself be one grand passive recipient; one great channel that Life itself (which is something outside of him that simply happens to him) flowed through. Either that or God would be an absurdity, something unintelligible: an instance of eternally pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps, and process in which everything came from nothing.

The problem really boils down to this. Any time we posit God in time, or in sequence, or undergoing change, we must also imagine a) some common medium in which he moves that can accommodate that change; and b) some reason outside of God that accounts for the change that “happens to him.” Now a) cannot be true because nothing can so “contain” God. He is what contains all other things, not vice versa. If God were simply one more object in a class of other objects he would cease to be God, for there would be explanations prior to him that conditioned him. The cups and cans and cereal boxes are where they are in space because of the cubbord  which holds them. But the cubbord itself is not where it is because of the cups and cans and boxes inside it. Likewise we temporal things pass through space and time and these realities unite all our states of change. In that sense they are “greater” than us and so “contain” us. But nothing can so  encompass or contain God. And b) cannot be true for the same reason: nothing can act on God. Nothing can “happen” to him for the simple reason that that presupposes some other, equal metaphysical reality over and against God that he is up against. But again God creates everything else that is not himself. Therefore there can be no Absolute Other over and against him. He therefore cannot be passive (for just what thing could act on the source of all other things?) Rather God must be purely active and maximally assertive.

With these points in mind one can easily argue for the doctrine of Divine Simplicity. God can have no “parts” because every part presupposes some whole or overarching medium which itself contains the parts themselves. To split a pizza up into pieces you must first have a pizza. Similarly each individual slice of pizza is the thing “pizza” rather than something else because of the single, encompassing reality of the Pizza as such.

Every division, therefore, presupposes something singular that contains the division, and every set of similar things implies something overarching the set which contains it and gives an explanation or ground for why the set can coexist as a collection of similars. Likewise every contrary implies its opposite: black implies non-black, up implies down, right implies left. However, although parts themselves presuppose something single and whole, something single and whole does not presuppose parts. The pizza need not be cut up into pieces. It can remain a single pizza if it wants to. As Aristotle said, that which is primary has no contrary; and that which is simple has no opposite. Neither does it have parts, division, undergo change or gain and lose reality. It simply is what is it, and imparts division, change, and becoming on other things.

Therefore Gods being is not divided and is not in any way inert or in any way possibly more fully alive and active than it is. God as the first cause and supreme being is too Real to be divided or passing away or going from one state to another. There is no room in the great I Am for any becoming.

In the future I hope to show how this concept of God as an Absolute Being which is fully active and which contains no Becoming can help us see how he can know the future and be the ultimate source of all that is, even our free and contingent choices. I also want to show how God’s pure action, rather than making him “frozen” or “inert” or “careless” just IS his emotive, maximally plentiful life, wherein he experiences real joy, sorrow, grief, and care. (Indeed we could not but know these emotions and they would not even exist unless they first existed in him.) The truth is that emotions that we experience as passive are in God known as fully active. Till next time.


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