Within various theological circles, particularly those influenced by 19th century German liberal theology, there’s a particular reading of post-Apostolic theological writings that see in them a departure from the pure Hebraic theology of the early Christians for an over Hellenized theology influenced by converts to Christianity who were intellectually formed by the various Greek philosophical traditions. This assessment of the writings of the Church Fathers was most famously articulated by the 19th century German theologian Adolf Von Harnack and has become a fundamental element of liberal theology that looks upon historic Christian dogmas, such as the Trinity and the various Christological definitions of the Ecumenical Councils, as unauthentic elements of the Christian faith. This position is also held, to a degree, in modern theological circles that challenge the traditional understanding of God within the “classical theism” framework. Modern theologians who challenge the notions that God is immutable, simple, or impassible typically maintain that these characteristics bear more similarity to the philosophical conceptions of God rather than those found within the pages of Holy Scripture. One might expect then to find the theological articulations of the Church Fathers reaching for the authority of the philosophers rather than the Holy Scriptures.[i] Interestingly enough it’s far more common to see the writings of the Church Fathers containing hosts of Scriptural references in their theological articulations rather than references to figures such as Plato or Aristotle as their authority. This can be seen explicitly in the writings of St. Athanasius of Alexandria in his defenses of the divinity of the Son and of the Spirit.
The first place of authority for St. Athanasius is indisputably the Holy Scriptures and when he presents a theological doctrine which is likewise associated with the doctrines of the philosophers he bases his position not in the philosophers but the Scriptures. When assessing St. Athanasius’ understanding of the immutability of God in his Letters to Serapion, three letters in which he presents his position on the Holy Spirit as well as some anti-Arian writing, it’s clear that he bases the immutability of God from various Scriptural texts. St. Athanasius’ foundational text for maintaining the immutability of God is James 1:17, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” He cites this verse in his defense of the immutability of the Spirit where he asserts that since the Holy Spirit belongs to God then He too must be immutable like the Father, “if no one knows the things that belong to God except the Spirit of God that is in him [1 Cor. 2:11], and if there is in God, as James said, no variation or shadow of change [Jam. 1:17], then, since the Holy Spirit is in God, it is reasonable to conclude that he must be immutable.”[ii] The fact that James speaks of no variation or change in God leads St. Athanasius to conclude that God must be immutable.
Another text that St. Athanasius draws upon Psalm 101 when he asserts that the Son is immutable just as the Father is, “the Son is immutable and unchangeable, just as the Father is. Paul has reminded us of this, citing Psalm 101: and in the beginning, O Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands. They will perish but you will remain; they will grow old like a garment, like a mantle you will roll them up, and they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.”[iii] Just as in his reading of James 1:17 the fact that the Psalm speaks of God being the same, over and against the changeableness of creation, further underscores a biblical conception of God’s immutability.
With James 1:17 and Psalm 101 as his foundational texts underpinning his doctrine of the immutability of God he turns to other biblical passages to prove the divinity of both the Son and the Spirit by showing how these passages ascribe immutability to both the Son and the Spirit. Immediately after he quotes from Psalm 101 St. Athanasius goes on to say, “and again he [Paul] says: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever [Heb. 13:8].”[iv] This assertion of the unchangeableness of Jesus naturally leads St. Athanasius to conclude to Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, must be immutable; and therefore must be of the same substance of the Father since, “among creatures, none is immutable by nature.”[v] When turning to the Spirit he provides a host of biblical passages, “the Holy Spirit is immutable and unchangeable. For it says: for the Holy Spirit of discipline will flee from deceit, and withdraw from foolish thoughts [Wis. 1:5]. And Peter says: in the incorruptibility of the humble and quiet Spirit [1 Pet. 3:4]. And again in Wisdom: for your incorruptible Spirit is in all things [Wis. 12:1].”[vi] Here St. Athanasius associates incorruptibility with immutability, since corruption is the result of a change of state it would follow that something with remains incorruptible is not susceptible to change; ergo what is incorruptible is like immutable. This position is a conclusion of St. Athanasius’ reading of 1 Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon just as his conclusions that both the Father and the Son are immutable were based upon his reading of James, Hebrews, and Psalm 101.
For St. Athanasius the doctrine of the immutability of God is ultimately based in biblical theology. By seeing various biblical texts ascribing a notion of unchangeableness and incorruptibility to God this leads him to uphold this doctrine as a necessary aspect of orthodox theology. Not in a single one of these cases did he refer to the teaching of any of the ancient philosophers as a source for his theology. While they too asserted the immutability of God St. Athanasius would agree with them not because they believed it but because he believed the Scriptures taught it.
[i] I don’t maintain that there was no such “Hellenistic” influence within the Church Fathers but as I’ve written elsewhere before I believe that the Holy Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church were their primary authority and all Hellenistic theology was interpreted through, and tested against, the Scriptures and Tradition of the Church. Typically it seems that those cases where Hellenism triumphed over the Scriptures lead to heretical positions which came to be condemned by the Church.
[ii] St. Athanasius, Letters to Serapion, 1.26.2.
[iii] St. Athanasius, Letters to Serapion, 2.3.3.
[iv] St. Athanasius, Letters to Serapion, 2.3.3.
[v] St. Athanasius, Letters to Serapion, 2.3.3.
[vi] St. Athanasius, Letters to Serapion, 1.26.2.