Doctrine of God (Part 9): God's ImmutabilityApril 29, 2015
Practical Application of God’s Omnipresence / God’s Immutability
Today we come to some thoughts of application concerning the attribute of divine omnipresence that we’ve been talking about. What application does it have to our lives to know that God is everywhere present? Let me just mention a couple of things.
1. It means that we can contact God at every location. No matter where we are we can call upon God and he is there. You may remember when you were in grade school, the teacher would sometimes call the roll and each student would respond “present” when his name was called. That is similar to our ability to call upon God. No matter where we are, we call upon his name and he answers “present!” If you are in San Francisco, God calls out “present!” If you are in Munich, God answers, “present!” If you are in Rio de Janeiro he says “present!” there as well. Everywhere that we need to call upon God we will find him present there.
I must say that when Jan and I first began to travel abroad and to live in Europe, I wondered how would it be? Would God be equally real there or would we have left him behind in the United States? It may sound like a silly question but I did wonder. What we found was no matter where we traveled and lived, the Lord was present there equally as we had known him back in the United States. So God can be contacted. He is present. He is available at every place that you are.
2. That implies that we should practice the presence of God. We should be aware and constantly conscious of his presence with us. I am not talking about trying to crank up some sort of emotion, but just a kind of awareness that God is there. He is not some distant being far away. He is there with you. In particular, when we are tempted to sin we need to realize God is there and he’s watching. That would, I think, make it more difficult to sin flagrantly right in his very presence. Yet, he is really present there when we are tempted to sin and fall away. We need to be constantly practicing the presence of God as we go through life.
I think that we should thank God for his presence. We should thank him for being there with us. So often people will pray for folks by saying, “Lord, be with us today in Defenders class” or “Be with so-and-so.” I used to be somewhat impatient with that type of prayer because I thought you don’t need to pray that God will be with you. You don’t need to pray that God will be with someone. God already is. Therefore, we ought to thank him that he is here with us, or thank him that he is with a person. But I think I’ve come to see that the intent of those prayers is not to simply pray that God’s presence would be with them but rather that God would be there for them in the sense of stand by them, to encourage them, strengthen them, convict them if necessary, help them to persevere. I would just suggest that sometimes, if that is what we mean, that we ought to say that. When we pray for someone think of what they need. Is it encouragement? Is it strengthening? Is it guidance? To pray that God would do that for them if that is what we mean when we say, “God be with them.” Because his presence is already with them, what they need now is some extra measure of grace like encouragement, guidance, strengthening, or whatever.
The last words of the Gospel of Matthew – Matthew 28:20 – are the words of Jesus, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” So we are never alone as Christians. Christ is with us. God is with us. Whether we are at work, whether we are studying, whether we are engaged in witnessing or ministry, he is there with us. That also includes times of persecution, illness, and even death. God is with us then as well. The words of the psalmist in Psalm 23:4 are our comfort: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil for thou art with me.” This is the comfort that we as Christians can claim in virtue of God’s omnipresence.
Let’s go on to our next attribute that we want to discuss, and that is God’s immutability which means his unchangeability. Let’s look first at some scriptural data related to God’s being immutable.
1. The Scripture indicates that God is unchangeable in his existence. Psalm 102:25-27. The psalmist writes,
Of old thou didst lay the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of thy hands.
They will perish, but thou dost endure;
they will all wear out like a garment.
Thou changest them like raiment, and they pass away;
but thou art the same, and thy years have no end.
God is changeless in his existence. As we saw in discussing God’s eternity, God never comes into or goes out of being. He exists permanently. So he is unchangeable in his being, in his existence.
2. God is unchangeable in his character. In Malachi 3:6 the prophet gives Israel these words of assurance from the LORD: “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” The reason Israel is not destroyed is because of the unchangeable character of God. “I the LORD do not change” - indicating that his character is always consistent.
Over in the New Testament, in James 1:17, James writes, “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.” Here James says that God’s generosity, his loving kindness and character, is unchanging. There is no variation or shadow due to change. This is expressed in his kindness and generosity to us. So God is unchanging in his character.
3. God is unchangeable in his faithfulness. Psalm 119:89-90: “For ever, O LORD, thy word is firmly fixed in the heavens. Thy faithfulness endures to all generations; thou hast established the earth, and it stands fast.” Here the psalmist speaks of God’s faithfulness that is everlasting, ever-enduring, and unchangeable.
Then in the New Testament, similarly we have in Hebrews 6:17-18 the affirmation of God’s unchanging faithfulness:
So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he interposed with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God should prove false, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us.
Here the writer of Hebrews speaks of God’s promise and then God’s solemn oath. Both of these, he says, are unchangeable things. His promise and his oath are unchangeable and therefore impossible that they should prove false. This gives us a solid basis for our hope. They are based upon God’s unchangeable faithfulness.
4. God is unchangeable in his wisdom and plan. Psalm 33:11: “The counsel of the LORD stands for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.” Here God’s counsel – his wisdom, his plan – is said to be unchanging and ever-enduring.
So the Scriptures indicate that God is not only changeless but even unchangeable in a number of respects.
Student: God’s character is unchangeable. Can God change his mind as with Hezekiah?
Dr. Craig: This is a really good question because there are passages in the Scriptures that, if you take them at face value, it looks like God changes his mind. In fact there are statements where it says that God repented of what he was going to do and did something differently. The difficulty in taking those passages literally, or at face value, is that the Scriptures also affirm (as we will see later on) that God is omniscient. That is to say, he is all-knowing. That includes the knowledge of the future. Even the knowledge of future thoughts of people as well as their actions. So if God has complete knowledge of the future, it is impossible that anything could happen that would make him change his mind, because he would already know about it. If you already know what is going to happen, it is already factored into your plans for the future, for your counsel. So I would say that these passages are what we would call anthropomorphisms in Scripture. They would be human ways of describing God. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, is not a philosophy book. It is not even a systematic theology book. It is a book of stories of people’s actions and interactions with the God of Israel. These stories have all of the color and verve of an ancient storyteller. I think it would be a mistake to press them philosophically or theologically with regard to things like God’s changing his mind. I would say that those represent the human perspective on the situation. That is how it appears to us, but in fact God knew all along, for example, that Hezekiah would pray. He knew all along that the Ninevites would repent and turn to him. So from God’s point of view there really isn’t any change. That is required, as I say, by God’s omniscience and foreknowledge of the future.
Let me just say one other thing about that. If you do press that literalistic sort of face value reading then I think you are going to end up with a sort of Mormon concept of God where God has a nose and eyes and ears and rides on the clouds and breathes smoke out of his nostrils because the Scripture also uses all of those anthropomorphic descriptions of God which we know are not to be taken literally because God is spirit. He doesn’t have a body as we’ll see later on. I think that kind of naïve literalistic hermeneutic is ultimately going to lead to a very distorted concept of God like you have in Mormonism where God has a humanoid physical body that is somewhere in outer space.
Student: To put kind of an exclamation point on that, 1 Samuel 15:29 says, “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.”
Dr. Craig: The word there that your translation translates “change his mind” is often the word “repent.” In your older translations, “He is not a man that he should repent.” This is one of the passages that is relevant to what we were just talking about. Here it says God doesn’t repent. He doesn’t change his mind.
Student: There are several others. The other one that is almost the same wording is Numbers 23:19: “God is not a man that he should lie nor a Son of Man that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act?”
Dr. Craig: Again, the difficulty is that then you have these other stories where it explicitly says he repented, or changed his mind. So you’ve got a surface contradiction there that you’ve got to reconcile. I think the way to reconcile it is what I’ve just suggested. Thank you for those verses. That is very helpful.
Student: This is also a question about the changeless character. What is the explanation for how God is depicted in, say, the Old Testament and by Jewish philosophers as almost angry and very fear-worthy. Then in the New Testament and in Christian texts, obviously Jesus is depicted as very loving, but even God is depicted as a much more forgiving and loving being.
Dr. Craig: I think that that isn’t true. In the Old Testament, you will find many passages about God describing himself like a mother yearning for her child at her breast and caring for Israel with tenderness and kindness. Equally in the New Testament, read the book of Revelation and you will see passages about a God as wrathful and destructive as any Old Testament passage about God. But I think that the really knockdown argument that the God of the New Testament has the same character as the God of the Old Testament is Jesus. Namely, who was the God of Jesus of Nazareth? Who was the God that Jesus worshiped and proclaimed? It was the God of the Old Testament. The God of the Hebrew Bible was Jesus’ heavenly Father. So this idea that you can play off Jesus and his teachings about the kind, forgiving heavenly Father against the God of the Old Testament is just clearly wrong because the God that Jesus taught about as his heavenly Father meant to reveal is the God of the Hebrew Bible. He didn’t see a contradiction between their character. Indeed, he thought that they are the same. I think that is exactly right.
Student: How do you view God’s immutability in light of your teaching on God’s timelessness before creation or sans creation and then being in time with creation. How does that go?
Dr. Craig: Alright. We will get into that when we talk about the systematic summary of this. I listed several respects in which the Bible says God does not change. But notice it didn’t say that he is utterly changeless in every respect. Indeed we saw in discussing God’s eternity that it seems very plausible to think that God knows what time it is. In which case, he is constantly changing in knowing “It is now 3:00,” “It is now 3:01,” “It is now 3:02.” I don’t think that that kind of change contradicts anything that we’ve seen in Scripture. In fact, the Bible constantly describes God in temporal terms. I will say something more about this when we get to the systematic part.
Student: In regards to God’s faithfulness, like in Romans 1:24 and Psalm 81:12, it talks about God giving them over to their wicked ways, giving them over to their lustful desires, those sorts of things. What would you say on that? Is that in God’s faithfulness?
Dr. Craig: There you are talking about God’s judgment upon the wicked who turn away from him. So he abandons them to their own immorality. I don’t see that in any way inconsistent with his faithfulness. What that is saying, I think at least in Romans 1, is that God allows them to go their own way. He doesn’t force them to do what he wants. But having given them freedom to rebel against him, he abandons them to their own deserts. It says three times he gave them up to these passions and lusts and activities that they had chosen. He let’s human wickedness run its course. I think that is one of the reasons the Christian isn’t surprised at the horrible human evil in the world, because God doesn’t intervene to stop it. He lets it go on. He lets human depravity work itself out. But he always remains, as we will see, faithful in the sense that he is a just and forgiving God. He justly punishes the wicked, but he is prepared and eager to forgive and cleanse the wicked if they will simply respond to his grace and repent. In that sense he is perfectly consistent and faithful, I think.
Student: A typical anti-theist argument that I'll hear from people sort of relates to what someone else was talking about in terms of what would motivate God to create humanity if he is kind of changeless throughout his existence. Creation itself is not co-eternal with God, so why would he bring it into existence in a sense at a point in time?
Dr. Craig: If I understand your question, are you asking, What would be God's reason for creating a temporal world of free creatures?
Student: The thing I will hear sometimes is: what changed in God's mind that suddenly he says “Let's bring man into existence”?
Dr. Craig: I wouldn't see that as any sort of change whatsoever. God, being omniscient . . . again, this is not so much a consequence of his immutability as it is a consequence of his omniscience. If he knows everything, he knows the future. It is not as though he changes his mind and says, Oh, let's make man. I hadn't intended to do that, but let's do that. Not at all. This is an eternal counsel that he freely undertakes to create temporal creatures. I think the reason for that is that he wants to create finite persons whom he can then invite and bring into the inter-Trinitarian fellowship of the divine persons as adopted sons and daughters of God. We come into this fellowship with God that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit enjoyed sans creation or before the world began. It is a mark of God's condescension and his grace that he would create finite creatures and for their benefit bring them into being so that they could have this incomprehensible good and privilege of being invited into this inter-Trinitarian fellowship as adopted children of God.
Student: To punctuate what you are saying, we even do that as humans. We become parents knowing we may have difficulties with kids or they may encounter difficulties and problems. Or we create machines like cars knowing that some of them will be involved in accidents and what have you.
Dr. Craig: Of course, with our knowledge, it is a probability judgment. Right? We don't know how our children will turn out. But we at least run that risk. In God's case, though, I think he does know that some will freely reject his grace and separate themselves from him for eternity. But he is willing to do that because of those who will not reject his grace but will accept it and come into this inestimable good. The good of those who would freely receive his grace should not be prevented because of the wicked and evil rejection of God that those who would separate themselves from him forever would bring about.
Student: Also, on his omniscience and the changing of the mind, I think he conforms us to his will. We view it or understand it as mind-changing, but actually we were the ones that conform to his mind.
Dr. Craig: Yes. That is what I was trying to say – that it represents a human perspective. For example, when Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, of course God relented on his judgment when he said, Yet forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed. That wasn't a piece of foreknowledge of the future. What that was was a warning saying, Unless you repent, in forty days you will be destroyed. But God knew they would repent. That is why he sent Jonah. So his judgment no longer is appropriate. As you say, the change is on the part of the human agents, not on the part of God.
Student: How do we answer those who claim that when the second member of the Trinity took on flesh and took on the attributes of man (added them to – even though we realize that is an “adding to” and not a “giving up” of any of his godly qualities at that point in time) they would claim that that was change when he took on flesh.
Dr. Craig: Did you hear this question? It was very subtly posed – nicely posed I must say. He said the incarnation is not a matter of the second person of the Trinity divesting himself of certain attributes. It is not a matter of his laying aside omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, and becoming a man. No, he says he keeps all those attributes but he does assume a human nature in addition to the divine nature he already has. He asks isn't that a change? I am inclined to say yes, but I don't see that as problematic. I don't see that as contradicting any of these respects in which the Bible says God is immutable. The second person of the Trinity changed in the sense that at one time he did not have a human nature, and at another time he did have a human nature. To me that is just unobjectionable. I don't see any problem with that biblically or theologically. It would be a sort of relational change in the sense that he comes to assume and be related to a human nature. That is a relation in which he did not stand before. I've argued that God undergoes that kind of relational change in creating the world. He comes to stand in the relation of co-existing with the universe or sustaining the universe. That is a relation which he didn't stand existing alone without the universe.
Student: I agree that God does not change in his purpose of manifesting his attributes or his nature. But he dared to give his creatures free will. Then he committed to love these creatures. In relationship of not abandoning his creatures with free will he has to change many strategies in response in order to bring out his unchanging purpose. I don't see the changing of strategy or response as change because he doesn't change anything in his nature, he doesn't change in his purpose. But, yeah, in dealing with free-willed beings there are just many changes he had to respond to.
Dr. Craig: I think you are right in saying that probably the word “change” can be misleading. In one sense he doesn't change his mind, he doesn't change his nature. But I think you are quite right in saying God adopts different strategies depending upon people's behavior. That is not a change of mind on his part. He knows this from eternity past, but he doesn't always pursue the same strategy and not with everybody.
Let me say a few words by way of systematic summary about this in our closing minutes.
Under the influence of Greek philosophy, traditional Christian theology came to embrace the immutability of God in a very radical sense to mean the absolute changelessness of God in every respect. This is one of the unfortunate areas where I think those who decry the influence of Greek philosophy on biblical thought are correct. The God of Aristotle was called The Unmoved Mover. He was the cause of change; he was the mover of things. But he was himself unmoved, changeless in every respect. He was utterly changeless. The way he moved things was simply by being an object of desire, much in the same way that a statue, though utterly changeless, can inspire admiration in a viewer of the statue. In the same way the God of Greek philosophy was this changeless entity that moves things only by being an object which things desired and therefore were motivated to act in different ways.
This is in striking contrast, I think, to the God of the Hebrew Bible which is the living, dynamic God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is not frozen into immobility like a statue. Rather, he acts and reacts in personal relationships with human beings in history, in time. Therefore he exhibits that kind of changing activity that is appropriate to that.
I see no reason to think that God needs to be immutable in this radical Greek sense of the term. The arguments for that kind of immutability, I think, are not very good. For example, the most common argument for absolute immutability would be to say that since God is a perfect being any change in him would be a change for the worse which is impossible. So as a perfect being he cannot change. He is already in a state of perfection. Any change from that would have to be necessarily a change for the worse. Why is this not a good argument? I think it is a bad argument because it assumes that change only occurs, so to speak, on the vertical scale of better-to-worse or best-to-worst. But why couldn't God change, so to speak, on a horizontal scale where he remains perfect but he changes in ways that are not for the worse? Why can't there be horizontal change, so to speak, but not change vertically on the scale of best-to-worst? For example, take the illustration of God's knowing what time it is. If God changes in knowing it is now three o'clock and then a minute later he knows it is now 3:01, he's changed. But would anyone say that is a change for the worse in God? He somehow lost his perfection? I think not. On the contrary, as I've said, knowing what time it is is a perfection in a being. That is a better being than one that doesn't know what time it is. So I don't think there is any reason to think that God's perfection implies that any change in God would be a change for the worse. He could change in neutral ways, like knowing what time it is, without changing for the worse. So I do not think that we should adopt this view that God is like an ice statue or a mannequin in a store window who is utterly immutable in every way.
How should we understand God's immutability? We will save that for next week. This is a good point at which to break. I will share with you next week what positive concept of immutability I think we ought to have.
 Total Running Time: 34:05 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)