It is sometimes very difficult to think of God as unchanging or outside of time because we want Him to be just like us. We think that we cannot have a relationship with Him unless He is just like us. We suppose the Bible verses about God’s anger and changing His mind are just like what we go through. If we think of God as Pure Act, impassible, immutable, as the classical theist does, it seems like He is too abstract to be what the Bible presents to us. Those outside the faith, and some within, like to point out differences they see in the ‘’god of the philosophers” and the “God of the Bible.” The classical theist has often gone to great lengths in showing this dichotomy is false, provided the former is correctly understood.
I think many people struggle with divine immutability for two reasons. The first is that classical theism is often not properly understood. The second is that the implications denying immutability are accepted without serious reflection. Conceiving of God as changing, emotional, affected by things outside Himself, within time, and other neo-theistic notions have negative implications for the Christian faith. In this post, I will briefly explore how one might navigate a struggle with divine immutability.
Immutability in the classical theist sense means that it is impossible for God to change. The very nature of God is unchanging. There is no way and in absolutely no sense that change can be predicated of God. Divine immutability is arrived at via the process of natural theology, whereby something true of God is known by reasoning from effect to cause beginning with observable everyday things (“medium-sized objects”) in the created order. Immutability belongs to God alone because in God alone there exists no potential to change; there is nothing in God or outside of God that could bring about a change in Him. If God is the first cause, as understood in any hierarchically ordered (per se, vertical) causal series, then God must be Pure Act, One whose essence and existence are identical. (the hierarchical causal series being the one primary concern to the classical theist and his conception of causes). Of course, anything other than this would not be God, it would be something else. The classical theist understands God as Pure Act, demonstrable through unaided reason. All this informs the classical theist theology and biblical prolegomena. The unchangingness of God underwrites proper biblical interpretation. Passages that speak of God as changing are understood as anthropomorphisms, metaphors, or perhaps other means of communicating true things about God’s activity in the world and man’s action in the world and in relation to God. Passages that speak of God as unchanging, such as Malachi 3:6, should be understood as more literal descriptions of God’s nature.
There is a certain qualified agnosticism that the classical theist will accept. After all, we are talking about God. We cannot possibly have comprehensive knowledge of the divine. We can know many things about God, but this will be relatively insignificant in comparison to the entirely of Him. The inherent limitation in the finite creature’s discussion of the infinite Creator is important. We can speak about God from our standpoint, using analogical language. God knows all things, man knows some things. But God knows things in a different way than man does. Both man and God know things truly, the former in a limited way appropriate to his nature, the latter in an infinite and complete way, appropriate to His nature.
The occasional temptation would be to capitulate to a more overarching agnosticism; God is just unknowable or “we cannot really know the answer, so let’s put it in the category of mystery.” To be wholly agnostic is self-defeating and anti-biblical. To throw the whole question of changingness in God into mystery would be unnecessary. At least, this is what the classical theist will argue. There are indeed great mysteries of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity and Incarnation. How does Jesus Christ have both a divine and human nature without mixing, conflict, etc.? This is a mystery. Chalcedon and Athanasius give us many more negations than positive affirmations. However, sound Biblical exegesis demonstrates the nature of God as Triune. Divine immutability, however, is not a mystery like this or the Incarnation. That God is immutable is within our ability to deduce without special divine revelation, whereas the Trinity, Incarnation, atonement, heaven, hell, etc. are not.
An interesting point is sometimes pressed regarding the Incarnation; does this not present us with a change in God? It does not. At least if the Incarnation is understood along biblical lines. God the Son, the Second Divine Person of the Trinity, added a human nature to His divine nature. The hypostatic union does not in any way bring about a change in the divine nature. Most early heresies, and many existing today surround the Person of Jesus Christ and the relation of the divine and human natures in Him. We do well to consider the inner workings of the hypostatic union as a great mystery while understanding the basis for our conception of God provides a solid foundation for apprehension and acceptance of the doctrine.
There are serious implications for denying divine immutability. Those struggling with, or opposed to, classical theism will typically hold that God at least changes His mind, as seemingly evinced in the Bible (Genesis 6:6, Exodus 32:14). They might deny that God has physical body parts but might see no problem with the possibility of something in God changing. The divine mutability proponent might think that a change in God’s mind is not a change in His nature. Or they might say that God does not change because He says He will not, but He could change if He wanted to. Thus, it is at least possible in principle for God to change.
But how should these claims about God and mutability be understood? For example, if we take the same rationale given by those citing Bible passages approving of God changing, then we would have to affirm many problematic things. God has feet (Genesis 3:8), lungs (Genesis 2:7), eyes (2 Chronicles 16:9), a voice box (Genesis 1:3), arms (Deuteronomy 26:8). Further, on this interpretation, God needs to find out happenings in the human world (Genesis 11:5, 7) and needs directions to find someone (Genesis 4:9). Yet, the historic Christian faith (classical theist or not) has rightly denied all these things of God. So, there must be another way of correctly understanding these biblical texts. First, because they are internally inconsistent with the word “God.” For instance, God cannot create the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1) if He is a physical object within the universe. Secondly, because following these biblical texts in a wooden sense would lead to many contradictions in the Bible (ex. John 4:24). And the extent of these contradictions would be such that any Scriptures referring to God would be thrown into agnosticism at the very least, which would then have downstream implications on all the rest.
Another negative implication as it relates to immutability is the very promise of salvation. If God can in principle change, then do we have any basis to trust that we can be saved from our sins and spend eternity with Him? It is no comfort to say something like “God can change, but said He will not change, and that is good enough for me.” The advocate of such a view has likely not considered something very important here, viz. how is it possible to say that God can, in principle, change? Would God come to know something new? Would He be surprised at something? Would He need to change location? Would He need to feel loved? Would He lack something if every person created since Adam rejected Him? I think the first rhetorical question posed regarding omniscience is enough on its own. Should we really think the Bible is teaching that God needed to know something about the Tower of Babel? Or that He did not know that the Israelites would rebel in the wilderness? Clearly, the Christian must answer in the negative.
An important thing to keep in mind is how we are defining change. The classical theist will typically understand change as the actualization of a potential. The apple is actually on the tree, but potentially on the ground. My skin is actually pale white but potentially tan. When thinking about change, there must be something already actual to bring about the actualization of a potential. Something extrinsic to the changing object is responsible for the change. The chemical reactions in my skin are brought about by the effects of the sun’s rays. The actuality of gravitation and motion draws the apple downward. There might be other ways of defining change, perhaps different states of affairs or something else. In any event, it is not possible for anything to change without there being something outside of the thing that is changing. Even a purely immaterial being thinking about something new or having a different inclination toward one thing or another would have to come about this via new information, a discursively reasoned conclusion, proceeding through a sequence of time of realizing that a new conclusion was reached.
To claim that God can even in principle change is to tacitly admit that there is something outside of God. It is to admit that God has a potential (or potency). This is why it does no good to claim that God could change, but simply wills not to. There is a problem with making a distinction within the divine mind (God’s will versus His knowledge, or something else). Further, if we are basing our salvation on the promise God has made, then our assurance of God keeping this promise is rooted in His nature. If we admit the possibility of change in God, then we allow the possibility that the promise of salvation in Christ might change. There is no way around this. I can say that I trust my wife enough to bet my life that she will not deny her love for me. But I cannot make this claim unequivocally and absolutely. As much as I love her, my wife is a mutable, finite being. Similarly, we treat God as a mutable finite being when we hold that He can change. I can unequivocally place my life in His hands because His very nature assures that His promise is immutable.
Hebrews 13:8 tells us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This text speaks to the divine nature of the Lord. But how can this really be true if God can change? Strictly speaking, if God can change, this verse would be false or at least indeterminate (requiring infinite time to verify its truthfulness). For, if God can change, then there is no way to affirm that Jesus Christ is the same forever. A ‘hedge’ of some kind would have to be input for the passage to be truthful. Like “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever if He so chooses.” But I think this verse is meant to give believers more confidence in the faith, which would be undermined on the premise of God changing.
Working through revealed and natural theology on classical theism can be very difficult (well, what worthwhile theology is easy?). We must keep in mind the fine-grained distinctions and objects of intellectual engagement that exceed the imagination. We must tread very carefully as we approach the limits of our reason. We must walk within the bounds of Scriptures, rightly dividing the word of truth. We must always approach our study with great humility.
One of the many beautiful aspects of Jesus Christ is that it is through Him, human and divine, that we connect to God. God came to us. In Christ, we connect with One who can identify with our sorrows, pain, affliction. God is thus not distant or abstract; He reaches us where we are. We cannot comprehensively know the divine essence, but we can know Jesus Christ. There is still an element of mystery but also an element of great satisfaction. We can affirm the unchangingness of God while embracing the divine and human in Christ.