O Truth unchanged, unchanging

O Word of God incarnate,
O Wisdom from on high,
O Truth unchanged, unchanging,
O Light of our dark sky,
We praise Thee for the radiance
That from the hallowed page,
A lantern to our footsteps,
Shines on from age to age.

William W. How

A friend recently observed that “Barth will at times lay the blame for liberalism (“Neo-Protestantism”) at the feet of Protestant Scholasticism. An example is in CD II/1:494 where he says that the Protestant orthodox doctrine of immutability (i.e., immobility) prepared the way for Schleiermacher and Feuerbach.” Interesting!

For you scholars who want to research this:

  1. In Roger Olson‘s Mosaic of Christian Belief pp.125-29 under the subheading Diversity Within Christian Belief about God he discusses this issue – especially Dorner’s influence, which Barth mentions in CD II/1.
  2. Bruce McCormack in Orthodox and Modern (Baker Academic, 2008) also engages with this in his response to van Driel pp. 261-77. Well worth a read as is
  3. Reeling Brouwer‘s Karl Barth and Post Reformation Orthodoxy (Ashgate 2015)! He also has a chapter/overview in vol 2 of the new Wiley Blackwell Companion to Karl Barth.
  4. Also in the Oxford Handbook of Karl Barth (OUP, 2020) Dolf Te Velde has a chapter on Barth and Protestant Orthodoxy.
  5. One of my blog posts did partially address this issue: https://simonhattrell.com/2016/12/06/karl-barth-gods-deity-is-no-prison-in-which-he-can-exist-only-in-and-for-himself/

The late Geoffrey Bromiley (The Theology of Karl Barth, T & T Clark, 1979, pp. 78-9) said that for Barth “God’s constancy means that he remains who he is. Since he is the living God, it does not entail immutability in the abstract sense of immobility (CD II/1:491-493). The immutable as such cannot be equated with God; he is immutably the living God in his freedom and love (494). He is what he is in being and actuality (494). eg Exodus 3:4 and Psalm 18:25…”. Maybe a rigid view of immobility in God led Schleiermacher et al to revolt against such a deity? Immutability should be seen rather as constancy. On p. 502 he clarifies all this by referring to “God’s constant vitality..” as an indication of God’s “real history” with his world.

In his almost extempore lectures on Barth the late much esteemed Colin Gunton in The Barth Lectures (T & T Clark, 2007, pp. 106-7) gives further clarification:

“This section §31 (CD II/1), is much longer than §30; it is well over 200 pages. It is here that Barth interacts with the Greek philosophical concepts – these terms are much more abstract. Barth is insistent that these must be defined through revelation, and therefore through God’s personal freedom. First we have the three perfections of God’s freedom – that is he is one, that he is constant (or immutable) and that he is eternal. But all these perfections are done lovingly as well. Although this is schematic it is illuminating. This illustrates Barth’s own relationship to the tradition and to his earlier theology.

Constancy- omnipotence

For example, in the second pair of perfections, traditionally God’s constancy has been expressed through the idea of his immutability, the idea that God is changeless. If he were to change he would not be the eternal God. But this is often interpreted negatively. For example, he criticises the idea of negative immutability, that is the idea that God can change, as some process theologians would have us believe (CD I/1:494) .

Barth: If it is true that God is not moved either by anything else or by himself, but that confined by his simplicity, infinity and absolute perfection he is the pure immobile, if that is so, then it is quite impossible there should be any relationship between himself and the reality distinct from himself…(ibid)

In other words you can see that God is so immutable that he can’t come into relationship with his world. Barth then goes on to hammer this point in even harder:

we must not make any mistake that pure immobile is death. If then the pure immobile is God then death is God, that death is positive..(ibid)

In other words if God is totally immobile in the philosophical sense then you are divinising; the positive meaning comes out in this. What we mean by this concept of constancy or immutability is that God is what he is in eternal actuality; he never is it intermittently, but always and in every place he is what he is, continually and self consistently: his love cannot cease to be his love nor his freedom his freedom. You see immutability is God’s being in himself, internally and not being, so to speak, thrown aside by things that happen in the world. There is such a thing, he says, as a holy mutability of God, what is, in a sense, changeable. He is above all ages, but he is above them as he is Lord as the King of the ages (1 Timothy 1:17) and therefore he is the one who partakes in their alteration. So there is something corresponding to that alteration in his own essence. His constancy, and this is I think his definition, his constancy consists in this fact that he is always the same in every change. He doesn’t want to say that he can change, otherwise what about all this material in Scripture about him changing his mind, repenting of the fact that he made the human race at all, for example, you’ve got to take these seriously you see – this is not abstract changelessness. His constancy consists in this fact – that he is always the same in every change. This is one side of this pair of divine perfections. The other side is his omnipotence. So that is his freedom, now the other side is his omnipotence. This is a strange thing to put in terms of love – omnipotence, power. All-powerful is not in itself a guarantee of lovingness; and Barth is again very interesting on this, he is very Pauline. The key to this conception is not the traditional philosophical definition – traditionally omnipotence has been described as God’s power to will anything but a contradiction. Omnipotence means he can do anything but will a circle be square, or anything whatever?….”


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