The classical understanding of divine immutability (DI), which I have been calling position 1 (P1) is not without its challenges. This, however, does not distinguish it from any other theological concept. God’s word always presents us with difficulties. In the first place, God’s like really, really big – infinite, unbounded, filling heaven and earth, and here we are, barely able to balance our checkbooks, trying to wrap our minds around God. In short, DI is difficult because it should be. Specifically, the unchanging God is simply not like us. We are accustomed (because that ALL we have even known) to people who change their minds and lie. God says that he’s just like that: “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?” (Num 23:19). The world and everything around us (all creation) changes and passes away, but God is just like that: see Psalm 102:26-8. In a word, God’s not like anything we know in the created order, and that specifically with regard to his immutability.
Now, when God speaks to us, he does so in order that we should understand. This is called divine accommodation. When God speaks as though he did change, grow, learn, repent, etc., he does so with great pedagogical effect, and he does so in mind-boggling grace, but we ought not think that God is in himself what those human or creational terms convey. We have to raise our minds from the earth to God’s eternal and self-existent being. He is who he is, after all. He is pure being. This stuff just isn’t easy, so we should expect some difficulties. That said, we should still expect our thoughts on this subject (and all subjects) to be logical. By that I don’t mean that everything will fit neatly into boxes, but that we won’t engage in absurdities. Mysteries are (thankfully) beyond us, but they are not absurd. With those thoughts in mind, let’s turn to some criticisms of P1.
One (very) common objection to the classical doctrine of DI is that it is inordinately dependent upon Greek philosophy. Those opposed to P1 will say that Christian theologians lifted the idea of the unmoved mover from Aristotle and fitted it to their Christian theological concerns. Thus, “immutability” is really, it is argued, a Greek philosophical idea that bears little or no resemblance to the God of the Bible who is constantly presented as moving, changing, starting, stopping, repenting, and the rest. Many of the theologians that oppose P1 claim that true immutability, if consistently held, would render God to be frozen in complete inaction. They, thus, reject this concept, and over against it the posit a “limited,” “modified,” or “less-stringent” immutability, or what I’ve called the second position (P2). There are numerous problems with their analysis. First, who says that, just because something was articulated by Aristotle, it is wrong? Didn’t Aristotle articulate the law of non-contradiction? Shall we then throw off all these “Greek” shackles and assert that Aristotle is both correct and not correct at the same time in the same relationship and move on? This tactic is little more than guilty by association, and, frankly, the association is not all that bad. Secondly, these men oppose, not the Christian understanding of DI, but the Stoic one. Christian theologians have never (in my reading) argued for a monotonous sameness, rigid immobility; P1 does not argue for a frozen immutability, nor does such a notion necessarily follow from P1′s premises. Thus, in opposition to this frozen straw man, the opponents of P1 propose a concept of DI that is exegetically, logically, and theologically dissatisfying. For a sharp and, I think, devastating critique of modern opposition to the classical doctrine of DI (most of which modern opposition finds its way back to Karl Barth), see Richard Muller’s section called “immutability in recent historiography” in his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics – Muller’s well worth your time.
Beyond dismissal by association, critics of P1 have more detailed criticisms of the classical understanding of DI. One such modern opponent P1 is Adam Co. Leaving his notions of God’s relationship with time aside, he has an interesting assessment and critique of P1. Adam’s understanding of DI is that God “cannot change in his being, purposes or will.” This articulation, itself, brings with it a significant degree of satisfaction, in that Co includes the will of God as immutable (more on this aspect below). This admission sets him a part from so much of the theological rabble that strive to subject both God’s knowledge and will to creation (e.g., Donald Bloesch). Now, the point of Co’s article is not to examine DI. In fact, he only deals with DI in an attempt to show that God’s immutability does not require him to be atemporal. Thus, he wants to keep DI but challenge the classical understanding of God’s atemporality, or timelessness. Now, I don’t buy it for a second, but I’m not here to argue about God’s atemporality. I’m here to uphold and defend that classical Christian view of DI (P1). Co’s article was put forward as an important piece of writing against P1, so I wanted to include it in this post. The only “change” that Co identifies in God is relational change. “God can change in his relationship…. The burden of proof lies on those who would deny that the God of the Bible can change his relationship with mankind.” He offers some examples of this relational change, but I prefer the words of Herman Bavinck:
At first blush this [classical understanding of divine] immutability seems to have little support in Scripture. For there God is seen as standing in the most vital association with the world. In the beginning he created heaven and earth and so moved from not creating to creating. And from that beginning he is, as it were, a coparticipant in the life of the world and especially his people Israel. he comes and goes, reveals and conceals himself. He averts his face [in wrath] and turns it back to us in grace. He repents and changes plans. he becomes angry and sets aside his anger. (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics in 4 vols, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004, 2:153)
So, what gives? The Bible, all over the place, presents God as changing, but at the same time calls him Yahweh (I am what I am). The Bible clearly and unequivocally affirms that he does not change. Now, Co does not want to go so far as to say that God really changes in all the ways the Bible speaks of him changing. He just wants to show that God’s “relations” with humanity change. Of course, the Bible presents God changing in far more than just his relations with humanity. But allowing the discussion to narrow to the “relational” changes, Co asserts that the relational change are real changes, and that they prove that the biblical doctrine of DI must include that God changes, at least in his relations. He calls this new understanding of DI “modified” and “less-stringent.” Co goes on to show that his “new” understanding of DI can actually be found in the statements of defenders of the classical, “stringent” doctrine of DI (P1), such as Anselm, Aquinas, and Paul Helm. Having thus broke the back of the classical doctrine of divine immutability, Co proceeds to his real subject, and elaboration of his understanding of the temporality of God.
But what has Adam Co really done? The thoughtful reader will immediately be struck that Co appeals to Aquinas and Anselm to support his “new” view of this doctrine. Paul Helm, a staunch defender of the classical view (P1), is being marshaled as evidence for the “modified” view (P2). Co has either done something extraordinary, turning the theological world on it head, or he has done exactly nothing. I contend that P1 has always understood God “changing” relations, and not just with humanity (as per Co), but with creation altogether. I’ll spend the remainder of this post explaining how “relational” changes have been understood by Christian thinkers for almost a score of centuries and take brief note of some historical detractors.
The logical difficulty of how an unchanging God relates to creation has been recognized and considered by Christians at least as far back as Irenaeus (d. ca. AD 202). The greatest mind of the early church, Augustine, also worked on this problem. To address the issue of relational change, Augustine used simple analogies. If a man, for example, were to stand on the north side of a tree then move to its south side, the tree will have changed in its spacial relation to the man, but none would attribute any actual change to the tree. Clearly, the change was in the man, not the tree. The tree was immobile, holding its space, but the man moved and changed his location. Similarly, the “relational” changes in God are actually changes not in him at all, but in creation. For example, we could say that God is unchangeably angry with sin and unchangeably pleased by righteousness. When a sinner (which whom God angry) repents and, by faith, is united to Christ and covered in Christ’s righteousness, God is now pleased with him. God did not change. The sinner did. I think that this basic concept will cover the great mass of “changes” attributed to God in Scripture.
In addition, I am most pleased to admit, there is still a mystery at the very bottom of DI as God doesn’t simply relate to categories, but he relates to this or that creation, this or that sinner, this or that saint. How he does that is, indeed, a mystery. But to attribute actual change to God, in his being, attributes, knowledge, and will, in this relation is impossible. That is, please understand, a mystery that the classical doctrine of DI (P1) has always maintained. Again, I’ll offer Bavinck:
Scripture necessarily speaks of God in anthropomorphic language. Yet, however anthropomorphic its language, it at the same time prohibits us from positing any change in God himself. There is change around, about, and outside of him, and there is change in people’s relations to him, but there is no change in God himself…. We should not picture God as putting himself in any relation to any creature of his as though it could even in any way exist without him. Rather, he himself puts all things in those relations to himself, which he eternally and immutably wills — precisely in the way in which and at the time at which these relations occur. (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2: 158-9)
There are a handful of groups of Christian thinkers that have opposed certain aspects of the classical doctrine, specifically the aspects of God’s immutable knowledge and will. The Pelagians, Socinians, Remonstrants, and rationalists have all taken umbrage with attributing immutability to the knowledge and/or will of God. Very few of my readers would think of themselves in association with three of those four groups, the Remonstrants being the exception. The Remonstrants (so named by their opponents) were a group of followers of James Arminius, who opposed certain Reformed doctrines. Part of their shtick was a pressing of the importance of human free will. Human will can never be free (in the libertarian sense) if God exhaustively and from himself (you see, DI flows from divine aseity) entirely knows all historical events. Thus, the Remonstrants tended to separate God’s being (still reckoned unchangeable) from certain attributes, especially his knowledge. Thus, it was maintained that God was perfect and unchangeable, but not in his knowledge. Conrad Vorstius (d. 1622) denied immutability to the will of God, but still affirmed that his “being” was unchangeable. How, it must be asked, can God change in his knowledge and/or will and be said not to change? These men, as should be obvious by now, were willing to sacrifice much of God’s attributes in order to maintain the freedom of the human will. I will, at this time, leave my reader to decide if making God’s knowledge and will dependent on creation is too high a price to pay for creaturely “freedom.” Finally, if I’m prevailed upon, I will post once more on how divine immutability relates specifically to the incarnation of the eternal Son of God. That topic is, by far, the most complicated as it touches on a great deal of theology.