March 2017 Credo
‘They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end’ (Psalm 102:25-26). So writes the Psalmist, as he reflects on the temporal nature of all created things – however excellent – compared to the unchanging permanence of their Creator.
Passages that speak of the unchanging nature of God are scattered throughout the Bible. In Malachi 3:6, the fact of God’s unchanging or immutable nature is categorically declared by the Creator himself: ‘For I, the Lord, do not change …’ And in his epistle, James testifies that ‘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 or change’ (James 1:17).
The doctrine of divine immutability – that the eternal Creator of the universe does not change because he cannot change – has occupied a central place in the Christian understanding of God since the beginning of Christianity. Divine immutability not only distinguishes the Creator from the created order – which is always in flux and subject to change – it sets him apart from other notions of deity found in the Ancient Near Eastern and the Greco-Roman worlds.
But this concept has not only been misunderstood, it has also been subjected to serious distortions.
Part of the reason why misconceptions of divine immutability had arisen in history of theology is the uncritical incorporation of Hellenistic philosophy into the Christian understanding of God. Such metaphysical adulterations have resulted in a notion of divine immutability that renders God immobile and sterile – for movement, it is argued, suggests change.
This idea of immutability as immobility is further reinforced by certain conceptions of eternality. The Bible clearly depicts the Creator as eternal, without beginning or end. But eternality, according to some philosophical accounts, is equated with timelessness.
This means that the eternal God must be motionless and inactive – for movement suggests sequence, which in turn in some sense implies change. Because of these metaphysical aberrations, to speak of divine immutability is to picture him in an ‘eternally frozen pose’, to use J. I. Packer’s memorable expression.
But this conception of God is totally alien to the Creator and Redeemer that the Bible speaks about, who is actively involved in the affairs of the world, especially those of his people.
In rejecting this erroneous view of divine immutability, and in an attempt to recover something of the biblical testimony of God as dynamic and responsive to his creatures, some modern theologians have swung to the other extreme. They have constructed a God who is so vulnerable to the contingencies of history and who can be so profoundly affected by human actions that even his grand purpose for the world can be thwarted or derailed.
We see this in some versions of process theology and open theism.
Such approaches, however, are distortions because they paint a picture of a God who is not sovereign, all-powerful and wise. In this sense, our conception of divine immutability can give the other divine attributes a different hue.
Any attempt to understand what it means to say that God is immutable or unchanging must avoid the two opposite errors of equating immutability with immobility on the one hand, and of forming a picture of God whose will and purpose are completely malleable, subjected to human actions, on the other.
Furthermore, any attempt to speak of divine immutability must take absolutely seriously the entire counsel of the Word of God. It must resist the temptation of privileging some biblical passages over others, even if it enables us to avoid some theological conundrums.
Thus, for example, in Numbers 23:19 we read: ‘God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind’. But in Ezekiel 16: 42, we have these words: ‘So will I satisfy my wrath on you, and my jealousy shall depart from you. I will be calm and will no more be angry’ – suggesting a change of mind.
Attempts to explain the passages that speak about God changing his mind by describing them as anthropomorphic – as attempts to depict God in human terms – are not always convincing. The question remains: do these passages say something true about God?
How, then, are we to understand what the Bible means by divine immutability? Space allows us to only outline an answer to this question.
To speak of divine immutability is to maintain that God’s being and nature does not undergo any change – it is to say that God is perfect. God does not experience any qualitative change: he neither grows nor diminishes.
Divine immutability also suggests that God’s character is consistent – he is not good today, but evil tomorrow. God is always just, always merciful, always loving. Divine immutability therefore suggests that God is always trustworthy.
And finally, divine immutability points to the fact that God’s purpose and plan for the world that he has created are unchanging. God will accomplish whatever he has purposed to achieve when he brought the world into being.
This understanding of the unchanging nature of God addresses the deficiencies in the concept of immutability that is distorted by Hellenistic philosophy on the one hand, and the view espoused by process theology and open theism on the other.
It corresponds closely to the biblical testimony about an unchanging God who is profoundly and intimately involved in the creation, the loving and faithful God who has made a covenant with his people.