Does God Change?

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  • Does God Change?

    by R. Scott Clark

    In Reformed theology, the doctrine of God is at the headwaters. What we say about God touches every locus of theology. It shapes our theology, piety, and practice. When we say that humans are created in the image of God, we cannot understand that until we know something about God. When we speak of sin and redemption, we can only understand that in light of what we say about God’s justice and mercy. When we speak of Christ as true God and true man, we do so in light of our doctrine of God.

    Theology is not purely theoretical. There are always practical consequences to our theology. For example, when I first began studying Reformed orthodoxy 20 years ago one of the things that struck me right away was the way that Reformed writers would teach the doctrine of God and then move to worship. That is how I began to see the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), i.e., our principle of worship that says that we worship God only in the way he has commanded (either explicitly or by good and necessary inference). One essential component of our understanding of the second commandment is our understanding of who and what God is to us. The God who regulates and authorizes our worship is he who is holy, righteous, infinite, eternal, spiritual, simple, immense, and immutable. We approach him in worship with reverence and awe because he alone is God. The church’s authority is not original. It is derivative. This is why we confess sola Scriptura. We begin with God’s Word as the unique, sole norm of the Christian faith and the Christian life. This is why we say Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the glory), because he is sovereign and we but creatures. He is infinite and we are finite.

    One aspect of the biblical and historic Christian doctrine of God that has come under criticism from various quarters is the teaching that God is immutable, i.e., that God does not change. In modern theology (as distinct from confessional Reformed theology that is done in the modern period) it is considered axiomatic that everything changes and that, in some way, God is also in process. It is widely thought by modernist theologians that God is, in some way, becoming, that he is in some way contingent upon us. Some evangelicals have attempted mediating positions between these views and the traditional or “classical” doctrine of God. Recently, some influential Reformed writers from within the confessional (NAPARC) world have also sought to modify the classical view.

    In view of these developments, I offer a brief two-part survey of the traditional Reformed doctrine of the immutability of God.

    Biblical Proofs

    Systematic theology works both from the explicit teaching of Scripture and from good and necessary inferences.
    James 1:17 (ESV):

    Every good gift 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.

    In its original context, this declaration comes after James has reminded his hearers (and now us, his readers) that God is not like us. We ought to persevere but we do not. We are fickle, we change but God does not. We are double minded but God is not. According to 1:11, flowers fade but God does not. We are tempted, we sin but God is not and does not (v. 14). We must not be deceived (v 16). All good gifts come from our utterly faithful and immutable God. He is reliable because he does not change. In his sovereign providence, he controls all things but is not controlled by them. He is the Creator (v. 18) not the creature.
    Hebrews 13:8 (ESV):

    Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

    The pastor writing to Jewish Christians who were tempted to turn back to the Old Covenant and to turn away from Christ reminds them that though they are tempted to be faithless to him who died, who was raised, he is not so. He does not change. He is the “I AM” and he who said to Moses (Exod 3) “I am that I am.” He is worthy of their trust because he is immutable.
    Hebrews 6:17–18 (ESV):

    So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things (δυο πραγματων αμεταθετων), in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.

    Christians may rest safely in God’s promises because he is faithful not only in his intentions but in his nature. By nature he unchangeable. God swore by himself. He is immutable. Therefore his oath/promise is immutable and therefore reliable.
    Number 23:19

    God is not man, that he should lie,
    or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
    Has he said, and will he not do it?
    Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?

    This is substantially the same teaching we see in James chapter 1 and in the other passages but expressed rhetorically, i.e., in rhetorical questions. The expected answer is, no, God is not a man. Therefore, in contrast to humans, who do change and lie, God, who is not human, who does not have “parts or passions” (i.e., he is simple and he doesn’t suffer change) is not mutable and therefore he does not lie.

    The first proof text to which Thomas Aquinas appealed in his Summa Theologiae (1a 9.1) under this heading, “immutability,” is Malachi 3:6

    “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”

    We will return to this passage later but suffice it to say for now that the most basic premise of the passage is that humans change but God does not. That is why is threats and promises are reliable.

    From passages such as these Louis Berkhof concluded that the doctrine of immutability is

    …a necessary concomitant of his aseity. It is that perfection of God by which he is devoid of all change, not only in his Being, but also in his perfections, and in his purposes and promises.

    The biblical God is neither identified with history nor subject to it. This is not to say that he is cold or remote from our needs, he is after all our heavenly Father from whom we ask and receive our daily bread and forgiveness of sins. That is why we confess in Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 26:

    26. What do you believe when you say: “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”?

    That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who of nothing made heaven and earth with all that in them is, who likewise upholds and governs the same by His eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ, His Son, my God and my Father, in whom I so trust, as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul; and further, that whatever evil He sends upon me in this vale of tears, He will turn to my good; for He is able to do it, being almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father.

    The God whom we trust is eternal. He is our Father for the sake of Christ alone, his eternally begotten Son, in whom, by his grace alone, through faith alone, we who believe are adopted sons. That same God upholds and governs. If he is mutable, even in the slightest—there is no such thing as a little mutability. If God changes at all, even in the slightest, he changes completely. It’s binary matter—then he is of no help. We trust him because he is reliable and he is reliable because he does not change. The God who is immutable, is sovereign. He determines all things and his sovereign providence is such that we may even speak of him sending “evil” upon us. He is so powerful and powerfully involved that he actively turns that evil to our good, to our benefit and we can trust that he does so because he is sovereignly immutable.

    The early Fathers articulated Christian theology, i.e., their understanding of the teaching of Scripture in a context that was dominated by paganism. The gods of the pagans are nothing if not mutable. Read the classical myths. Against the pagans they asserted the immutability of God. Over against the dualism of Manichaeans (i.e., the notion that there are two great competing principles, good and evil), the fathers asserted the utter uniqueness, simplicity, and immutability of God. Against the Gnostics they asserted that God does not become more or less than he is. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was, is, and shall be what he is. Augustine reflects on God’s immutability repeatedly in his Confessions (c. 397–98). One of the prima facie problems with the thesis that Christianity was unduly affected with “Greek thought” (whatever that is) in its doctrine of divine immutability—which is the basis for the charge that the historic Christian doctrine makes God “static”—is that it fails to account for the antithesis between Christianity and the surrounding paganism of the period. The irony of teaching that God is mutable is that it tends to make God, were it possible, into one of the Greco-Roman pagan deities.

    The Catholic (Universal) Creeds

    In the Nicene-Constantinopolian Creed (325; 381) we confess that God is “almighty” (παντοκράτορα). He is Creator of all things. He is uncreated. It never entered the minds of the Nicene fathers (et seq) that when they said, “almighty” they meant “almighty but mutable). They intended us to think exactly the opposite. When the Definition of Chalcedon (451) declares that our Lord Jesus Christ is “perfect” (τέλειον) in Godhead and perfect in manhood” and “the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence” it assumes that we understand what it means to say, deity and humanity. Jesus is one person with two natures. His deity is immutable and his humanity mutable. Jesus was beaten. He did suffer but we cannot say that God suffered (Dei passionism) but we can say that the one person of Jesus suffered. What we say about either of the natures of Christ we can say about the person but not the reverse.

    This is another illustration of how the doctrine of God reverberates throughout the rest of our theology. In this case, Christology. Any revision of one’s doctrine of God entails a revision of Christology, anthropology, and soteriology. A new doctrine of God means a new religion.

    The Athanasian Creed (7th century) means to teach us the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology but it necessarily begins with and assumes certain predicates or attributes of God. We say “but of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit there is one divinity: equal in glory and co-eternal in majesty.” 1 The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are uncreated (increatus).2 The Trinitarian persons have no beginning, no point (as it were) at which they were not. They just are, as they are, and what they are to each and to us. When we confess “co-equal in majesty” and “co-eternal” the clear implication is that majesty and eternal glory is immutable. We say that God is “immense,” i.e., as Louis Berkhof has it, “that perfection of the Divine Being by which he transcends all spatial limitations, and yet is present in every point of space with his whole being.” God cannot be immense and mutable. He is immutable immense and thus incomprehensible, which is the traditional translation of the Latin text of the Athanasian.3 Finally, for our purposes here, we note that the Athanasian says that God is “omnipotent.” 4 If he is mutable, if he is more or less or something other than what he is, then he is not omnipotent. In the catholic creeds any theory of divine mutability runs into a serious obstacle.

    Reformed Orthodoxy

    Richard Muller writes,

    The conception of divine immutability is certainly a mark of continuity between the Reformers and the Protestant orthodox—indeed, it is a mark of continuity in the thought of the church from the time of the fathers through the seventeenth century. For Augustine, immutability was a necessary corollary of the divine self-existence declared in Exodus 3:14: “That which is called ‘IS’ and not only is called such, but also is so, is unchangeable: it remains forever, it cannot be changed, it is in no part corruptible.” This intimate relationship between the divine self-existence and the assumption of immutability, moreover, remained at the heart of the doctrine in both the era of the Reformation and the era of orthodoxy.5

    As his survey of the sources suggests, as anyone who has read them knows, the Reformed orthodox affirmed divine immutability clearly and unequivocally. E.g., regarding Petrus van Mastricht, Muller writes,

    In Mastricht’s order, the first three of these attributes, spirituality, simplicity, and immutability, together with the divine aseity, belong to a “primary class” of divine attributes and answer the basic question, Quid sit Deus? Spirituality is treated first on the understanding that the other terms follow from the biblical truth that “God is Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24)—the text that provides Mastricht with his exegetical foundation for the discussion. Indeed, simplicity follows among the consectaria of spirituality, stated as a second theorem of the locus with no new exegetical point of departure. (Immutability follows, in clear logical relation, but with a new exegetical foundation, namely, James 1:17.)6

    My thesis is that Open Theism or any other theory that posits change in God constitutes nothing less than a radical revision of the Biblical doctrine of God and a rejection of catholic doctrine held by most Fathers, Medieval theologians, Reformers and the Orthodox theologians of the 17th century.

    Insofar as the evangelical theology turned in the 18th century away from the objective to the subjective, to our experience, It is not entirely surprising that contemporary (neo) evangelicals would lose interest in an immutable God. Cornelius van Til (1895–1987) warned us 70 years ago that the evangelicals would default. We Reformed, Van Til said, begin with the triune God, with divine revelation and the objective work of Christ for sinners. The evangelicals, he warned, begin with religious experience.

    It is surprising, however, that Reformed theologians would play with such fire. Immutability is not a purely Reformed concern. It was The Lutheran orthodox theologian Johann Gerhard (1582–1637), whom you will not confuse for a Reformed theologian, who said,

    …Deity is incapable of suffering, or of change, and interchange; therefore suffering cannot be ascribed to it. Deity pertains to the entire Trinity;…but if, therefore, Deity in itself were said to have suffered, the entire Trinity would have suffered, and the error of the Sabellians and Patripassians would be reproduced in the Church.

    Further, both the Lutherans and the Reformed affirm the doctrine of immutability, which is of the essence of the doctrine of impassability, in nearly identical terms. The Solid Declaration (of the Formula of Concord) speaks repeatedly of the “eternal, immutable righteousness of God” and an “eternal, immutable order” and God’s “immutable will.”

    In fact all of our great theologians, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, have taught the doctrines of impassability (i.e., God does not suffer) and immutability (i.e., God does not change).

    The Scriptures and our theology teaches that there is no potential in God (God is actus purus). He is fully realized. He is not in therapy, he is not finding himself. The God of the Bible and the Christian faith knows everything (omniscience), is in charge of everything (omnipotent), eternal and triune.
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