Doctrine of God (part 10)April 25, 2010 Time: 00:32:40
I. B. 5. Immutability a. (2) Systematic Summary . . . I. B. 5. b. Application. Visit www.reasonablefaith.org for a study outline.
1. Attributes of God
We have been talking about divine immutability as the last of the infinite attributes of God. We saw last week that the Scripture teaches that God is unchangeable in various ways. Under the influence of Greek philosophy, in particular the kind of neo-Platonism that Origen exemplified, traditional Christian theology came to understand God’s immutability to mean absolute unchangeability in every respect. God does not change in any way at all. He is absolutely unchangeable. Aristotle referred to God as the Unmoved Mover. That is to say, God is the source of all change or motion in the world, but he is himself utterly unmoved and changeless – he cannot change.
The appropriation of this Greek concept of immutability led to a Christian doctrine of God as similarly unmoved and unchangeable. For Aristotle, God was absolutely unchangeable in every respect, and so he moved things in the world simply by being an object of desire, rather the way a statue would move someone to admiration by viewing it. The statue was immobile; it doesn’t do anything; but as you look at it, you are moved with admiration at its beauty and the craft of the artist. In a similar way, Aristotle’s God caused change in the world simply by being the object of desire by things in the world.
In contrast to that, the God that you read about in the Bible is not this sort of static, unchangeable entity. He is the living God, the living God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. He is not frozen into immobility like an ice statue or a mannequin in a store window. Rather, he is an active God who is engaged with people and events in human history. He acts and reacts in personal relationships. The biblical passages that we looked at with respect to God’s immutability certainly don’t teach that God is immutable in this sort of absolute sense. Rather, it talks about how he is unchanging in his character and his faithfulness and his wisdom and his existence. He is unchangeable in those respects, but he is not frozen into immobility.
So if we are to adjust or compromise this biblical view, we would have to have good arguments for doing so. I, frankly, don’t think there are any good arguments for this absolute immutability. The typical one that is offered is that God, by definition, is perfect. He is the most perfect being, and therefore there is nothing that could be done to improve him. He is the greatest conceivable being. Therefore, any change in God would have to be a change for the worse. But since God is perfect, he cannot become worse. Therefore, he cannot change. That is the fundamental argument for this strong doctrine of immutability – the argument from God’s perfection.
It seems to me that this argument is just obviously wrong because change can be value neutral. You can have a change that is a “lateral” change rather than a “vertical” change for better or for worse. For example, suppose God changes in that at 3:00 he knows that it is now 3:00, and at 3:01 he now knows that it is 3:01. But at 3:02, he no longer believes that; he now believes it is 3:02. God, in that case, is changing. There is a change in his consciousness. But that isn’t a change for the worse! God doesn’t change for the worse in believing at 3:01 that it is no longer 3:00. If anything, it is a measure of his perfection that he always knows what time it is! In virtue of his omniscience, he always knows what is going on in the world.1 So, actually, it would seem indicative of his perfection that God would change in that way. This argument is, therefore, obviously wrong – you can have changes that are neither for the better nor for the worse but are just neutral.
Therefore, we have no reason to adjust the biblical view of God as an active being that undergoes change. If that is right, how are we to understand God’s immutability? J. I. Packer, in his book Knowing God, has given a good summary of God’s immutable attributes. This is what Packer has to say:
First of all, he says, God’s life does not change. As we have seen, God exists forever. He never comes into being; he never goes out of being. Moreover, he neither matures nor regresses. That is the truth in the argument that God doesn’t increase in perfection or grow worse.
Secondly, Packer says, God’s character does not change. God is immutable in his mercy, love, faithfulness, justice, and so forth. His character is constant and immutable; he cannot change in his character.
Thirdly, Packer says, God’s truth does not change. The Word of the Lord abides forever. That doesn’t mean that God can’t have different covenants with the human race. There is an Old Covenant and a New Covenant, obviously, but God’s Word is true and dependable and in that sense is unchanging.
Fourth, Packer says, God’s ways do not change. God is always consistent in dealing with humanity. He punishes sin, and he bestows grace. God can be counted upon to be consistent in the ways that he will deal with humanity.
Fifth, Packer says, God’s purposes do not change. God’s plans are from eternity past with full foreknowledge of the future. God does not gamble on the future, he doesn’t need to revise things, he doesn’t need to have contingency plans because he has full foreknowledge of the future and his plans are from eternity, from before the foundations of the world, so there is no need to change in his purposes.
Finally, sixth, Packer says, God’s Son does not change. Here he quotes Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Again, one would need to analyze that in terms of his constancy, his character, his consistency, and so forth.
I think that is really what the biblical passages on divine immutability are getting at. That is a nice summary of what is meant by God’s immutability. It doesn’t imply the kind of absolute unchangeability that Greek philosophy implied.
Question: Can you give another example besides the idea that God knows the difference between the time 3:00, 3:01, etc. as far as his changeability?
Answer: Imagine what God is thinking about that is happening right now. When he was leading the children of Israel out of Egypt, he knew, “The Red Sea is now parting, and the children of Israel are passing through.” He doesn’t know that now – what he knows now is, “Centuries ago, the children of Israel passed through the Red Sea, and I led them out of bondage.” Similarly, when the crucifixion was happening, God knew that Christ was dying on the cross. But he doesn’t know that now because Christ isn’t dying on the cross now; he died on the cross in the past. What God knows now is what is happening now in the universe. He knows that George Bush is about to relinquish the U.S. presidency and that President-elect Obama is about to be inaugurated.2 That would be a change in God’s knowledge that would be constantly going on as time flows. Of course, he still has his memory of those events, but there would be a stream of consciousness in God’s mind – what is he now conscious of, as it is happening now. Certainly, he doesn’t forget about the exodus – but you have to grasp the radical nature of the traditional immutability doctrine! The traditional immutability doctrine is believed hardly at all in Protestant circles. You don’t hear this preached anymore; this is not part of Christian piety. The original immutability doctrine is very radical. It is that God doesn’t change in any way. None of his properties changes. He is absolutely identical all the time. There is just no change at all. It is a very, very radical doctrine. I think most of us think that this isn’t what the Bible is teaching and that there isn’t any good reason to believe this radical view.
Question: It seems like most of the things you listed were really just saying his character doesn’t change.
Answer: I thought the first point about his life – he doesn’t come into being or go out of being and he doesn’t mature or regress – that is more than just character, and that is important as well.
Question: What about when the Bible says, “I was dead but am now alive forever more.”
Answer:That would be the human nature of Jesus. Certainly, Jesus in his human nature changes. Even those that hold the strong doctrine of immutability would say that while the second person of the Trinity does not change in his divine nature, certainly he changes in his human nature.
Question: Number four, “he is constant in his purpose.” Isn’t this being legalistic?
Answer: Remember how Packer explicates this. I thought the same thing when he said that. There is the Old Covenant in which God dealt with people in a very different way than under the New Covenant. There were clean and unclean food laws, and ritual sacrifices to do, and temple worship, and so forth. But what Packer says is that God is consistent in the way he deals with man. He punishes sin, he bestows grace, and God isn’t going to be like, say, the God of the Qur’an, who is arbitrary and capricious in the way he deals with human beings – or the way the pagan gods of Roman and Greek mythology were inconsistent and capricious. What Packer is wanting to say here is that God, in the way he relates to us, is consistent, though you are right in that it can manifest itself in different ways.
Question: On Aristotle and his Unmoved Mover, it sounds like what Packer describes. How is Aristotle’s God a Mover unlike the God of your 3:01 and 3:02 example?
Answer: Very good question! Aristotle believed that the Earth lay at the center of the universe. He had a geo-centric cosmology. The Earth was at the center, and then there were spheres around the Earth – you may have heard of the expression “the music of the spheres;” that comes from Greek cosmology. Embedded in these spheres were these various astronomical bodies like the moon. Beyond the moon were the spheres of the various planets. As the spheres would rotate, the lunar and planetary bodies would rotate. Finally, in the outermost sphere, were the fixed stars. Motion would be transmitted down to the Earth through these spheres. As these spheres would turn, it was like this great engine, and they would cause motion to be produced down on Earth – like the tides, for example. Where does God fit into this?3 For Aristotle, he called the Unmoved Mover “God” (theos in Greek). God was outside this system of the spheres, and the souls of these spheres would look at God as the greatest, highest good. As the souls of the spheres would contemplate God as the highest good, they would be moved by desire. There would be this love, as it were, a kind of rapture because God is the greatest good. This would be expressed in the only way they knew how – which was rotary motion. It would make the spheres revolve. So for Aristotle, God never really did anything in the universe. He never acted in the world or created the universe – he was completely detached, apart, and transcendent. But he is the Mover of everything by being an object of desire. It is kind of the way a statue moves a person by being an object of desire. That is very different from the biblical notion of God as someone who is acting and reacting in history and being involved. I hope that gives you a little bit more historical background on this.
Question: Can you say what the traditional, orthodox view is protecting us from by going to the extreme absolute view and what we want to avoid on the other extreme, something like open theism?
Answer: I think that is the motivation for the strong immutability doctrine. It is to avoid any kind of process theology – a theology which would see God as himself in a process of becoming more perfect. – in other words, seeing God as an imperfect deity who is evolving and to whom we can contribute worth by what we do. We can improve him. So the motives are laudable, to want to preserve God’s absolute perfection and to say he doesn’t mature or regress; but it is using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut. You do not need radical immutability in order to secure those theological benefits.
Question: How does this traditional view deal with God’s obvious emotions, for instance, “slow to anger”? This dictates a capacity for change.
Answer: Aristotle’s God is “unmoved,” not only in the sense that he doesn’t change, but he is also unmoved in the sense that he doesn’t care, either. He is unmoved in the sense that he has no passions. Traditional Christian theology has affirmed that God has no emotions. Traditional Christian theology says God is impassible. That is one of the attributes of God that I do not have on my list in this class to discuss because I do not think it is true. In all candor, this is one of the traditional attributes of God – that he is impassible, which means he has no passions. So emotions like anger, compassion, tenderheartedness, and all of these things that are ascribed to God in the Bible are taken to be anthropomorphisms. They are not literal; they just reflect our perspective. But that is very difficult – I mean, you would have to have really good reasons to think that God doesn’t really have compassion for us and that it wasn’t compassion that moved him to send his Son and that he doesn’t really get angry with sinners, and so forth. Passions traditionally were associated with the physical body, and since God doesn’t have a physical body, it was thought he couldn’t have any passions. That is the traditional view, but it is one that I do not agree with, and I don’t see any good argument for.4
Question: I attended a conference on evangelism, and one of the speakers relayed a story about his time in seminary when one of his professors said, “I hear the footsteps of Aristotle echoing through the halls of this institution more so than Jesus Christ himself.” That is a rough paraphrase, but can you comment on why he would say such a thing?
Answer: It is evident that he thought that some of the Aristotelian influence upon Hebraic concepts of God was negative: the God of Aristotle was different from the God of ancient Judaism and had distorted the concept of God. However, I want to distance myself very much from that kind of seminary professor. I am glad I shared what I did from Origen’s letter this morning [N.B. this was an unrecorded preliminary devotional thought] because I agree with Origen that we need philosophy in order to do good systematic theology. But philosophy can lead us astray, as well as to truth, and we need to be critical and make sure we have good arguments. But those who naively say, “Oh, just go back to the God of the Bible, and we don’t need philosophy!” are not going to understand things like the doctrine of the Trinity, the personhood of Christ, and the two natures of Christ because all of those essential Christian doctrines are cashed out in terms of philosophy. Things like the concept of a person – that modern concept of what it is to be a person – arose out of the debates over the Trinity among the early church fathers. The idea of natures – Christ’s having a divine nature and a human nature – that comes out again from Greek philosophy. So the heritage from Greek philosophy that Christianity has is not unequivocal. There are good and bad sides to it. But I do not in any way sympathize with seminary professors who trash Greek philosophy and say that we just have to use the Bible and we don’t need to exploit these philosophical resources. I think those are the people that are most apt to be misled by unconscious philosophical presuppositions that are uncritically taken on board and not examined and so get into all kinds of problems – like open theism, process theology, and so forth.
Question: We say, “God is Love” – does that not fall under passion or emotion?
Answer: I think it has to do with passion, but for someone like Thomas Aquinas, he would say that God’s love doesn’t involve this kind of emotion. It doesn’t involve compassion. He would certainly affirm that God is loving in the sense that he wills our good and he wants what is good for us, but he doesn’t have this sort of emotional warmth that we associate with the word “compassion.” So someone like Aquinas would say God doesn’t have passions, he doesn’t have compassion, but he does love us in the sense that he has this desire for our good and he works for our redemption, and so forth. But it is sort of a cold understanding of love that certainly doesn’t sound like love as we know it and experience it.
Question: About process theology – to me that sounds like they have gone wrong but that there is a thing of truth that we shouldn’t throw out. And that is the sin of idolatry is stubbornness, where you cease to come closer to God. So it is not God that is changing, it is our perception of God.
Answer: For these process thinkers, it definitely is God who is changing.5
Let me say some words about application of this attribute as I have explained it.
First of all, one application is that it means that God is the source of our stability in life. In life, all we see about us is in flux. Everything is changing all around us. But in God, we have eternal permanence and stability. The scriptural metaphor that is used to express this is that God is our rock. Over and over again in the Psalms you have this metaphor of God as the rock to express this sort of stability. For example, Psalm 18:2: “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Or, if you turn to Psalm 62:5-7: “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is God.” Our stability in life needs to rest upon God as our changeless Creator and not upon changing creatures, which are ever in flux. What this means, basically, is that people-dependers get hurt. People are changeable, they will disappoint you, they will betray you, they will let you down. So if you are a people-depender, you will ultimately get hurt. Your only source of lasting stability in life is God himself because of his immutable character and attributes.
Secondly, it means that God is always receptive. When we were little kids, you may remember sometimes you wanted to get something from Dad and you had to wait until you got Dad in a good mood. Then you would come to him with what you wanted. With God, it is not like that. God isn’t moody; God isn’t prone to different moods. Rather, we can have confidence that his love and his justice are constants with him and that therefore we can approach him on that basis. We don’t ever have to worry that God has grown so disgusted with us, and our sin and fallibility is so bad, that he has abandoned us and is over and done with us. On the other hand, it also means God can’t be compromised either. His justice is as unchanging as is his love. So you can’t come to God on your terms, trying to weedle a deal with him, as you tried to soften up Dad to get something out of him. You don’t come to God on your terms – you come to God on his terms. And when you do so, you will find him receptive. So the immutability of God means that God is not going to give up on us; he is always going to be receptive. But he is receptive on his terms, he is not someone that can be compromised by bribing him or dealing with him.
Thirdly, it means that we are secure in our relationship with God. This is the real implication of Malachi 3:6-7, which is the classic verse on divine immutability that is always quoted. Malachi 3:6-7 gives God’s immutable invitation to his people:
For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.
That is God’s immutable offer. “You turn to me, and I will then turn to you.” You come to God on his terms, and he will be receptive of you. This is his immutable invitation based on his unchanging character.6
2 Timothy 2:11-13 gives us the assurance of God’s faithfulness,
The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself.
Here you see on the one hand God’s uncompromising character – if you deny him, he will deny you – but if we are faithless, he still remains faithful. He is still there; if you will come to him, repent of your sins, and seek his grace and his face, he is there and is receptive. He is always faithful. It is we who are the ones that are faithless and who separate ourselves from him. Our security is not to be found in ourselves; it is to be found in God, who is unchanging and receptive and stable and constant in his character and open to us when we come to him in humility and contrition and repentance for our sins.
To wrap up this first section of our study of God’s attributes, this is the infinite God of the universe: self-existent, necessary, eternal, omnipresent, immutable. If you want something to meditate on, try God! If you want to expand and fill your mind, try God! If you want to find someone to be completely absorbed with, try God! I come back to Charles Spurgeon’s words with which we began this section,
The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy which can ever engage the attention of a child of God is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father.
Next time we will begin to look at God’s personal attributes; those attributes that he has in virtue of being a personal being. These are attributes which we share to a finite extent – incorporeality, intelligence, volition and moral attributes.7
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