augustineSt. Augustine (5th century CE) was an influential proponent of the Greek view of God’s immutability (unchangeableness).  Whereas we have noted earlier that the Scriptures seem comfortable with the idea that God can change His course of action, even as His nature and character are immutable, Augustine insisted that in all things God cannot change. We’ll briefly unpack his thinking.

In his work entitled "On the Trinity" he lays out an important principle for his entire framework on the nature of God, and that is: God is not like what we perceive Him to be.  Consequently we can’t measure the nature of God in the same way we measure the people and things that are part of His creation.  He writes: “whatever is said of (God's) nature, unchangeable, invisible and having life absolutely and sufficient to itself, must not be measured after the custom of things visible, and changeable, and mortal, or not self-sufficient.” (NPNF 1.3, 87)  What this means is that there must be layers in the way we think about God.

He goes on to explain that even though with think about Him as good – He transcends qualities. We may think of Him as a ruler, but He occupies no position.  He is everywhere, yet he occupies no place.  He is eternal, yet without time. He is “making things that are changeable, without change of Himself” and (this part is important) He is “without passion.” (NPNF 1.3, 88)   

To be without passion means that, in His pure essence, God has no feelings, no emotions. Nothing affects Him.  God cannot have feelings, because feelings are subject to change. Emotional beings are sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes angry, sometimes proud.  Their emotions change. But God is unchangeable.  As the unmoved mover God acts upon all things, but nothing can act upon Him.  Nothing affects Him. He is absolute being, and therefore absolute power.   

So even though the Bible frequently describes the emotional life of God, Augustine would say that this is only a human perception of what God is like, and not characteristic of His true nature.  (This is what many theologians would call anthropomorphism.)

In his work the Enchiridion, Augustine explains that the “will of God” is also to be interpreted through this framework of layers.  God is the absolute sovereign ruler of the universe.  If anything were ever to happen apart from His rule and decree, then He wouldn’t be omnipotent.  He writes:  “For He is not truly called Almighty if He cannot do whatsoever He pleases, or if the power of His almighty will is hindered by the will of any creature whatsoever.” (NPNF 1.3, 267)

So even though it seems that things happen that are contrary to His will, in reality that is only a matter of our perceptions.  Everything that happens in the world actually goes exactly according to His plan. He says: “The will of the Omnipotent is never defeated . . . The omnipotent God never does anything except of His own free-will, and never wills anything that He does not perform." (NPNF 1.3, 270) Sin and evil ultimately occur within God’s sovereign plan for Creation. Augustine writes that when “intelligent creatures, both angels and humans, sinned—doing not His will but their own, He used their willful sin . . . as an instrument for carrying out His will. . . For in the very fact that they acted in opposition to His will, His will concerning them was fulfilled.” (NPNF 1.3, 269) In other words, it only appears to us that sin is a human choice, when in fact it is an instrument that God uses to carry out His predetermined plan.  His unchangeable will must triumph in all things.

In the view of Augustine (and others who were influenced by Greek philosophy) it’s difficult to imagine why prayer would be necessary. God sits passionless and emotionless outside of time.  Even what we percieve as sin and evil is, in fact, part of God's plan for the Creation. Those who have been predestined for salvation will be saved, and those who have been predestined for perdition will be lost. God’s will has been determined from eternity past, and nothing we do or say will change what God is going to do.  So why pray? In the next post, we’ll see what Augustine had to say about this.