In the last post (A Tale of Two Immutabilities), I presented two very different understandings of divine immutability (DI). The first position (P1) could be called “absolute” or “strong” immutability, while the second position (P2) could be called “limited” or “weak” immutability. (BTW, the term “weak” is used in theological jargon for a softened or easier view, while “strong” is used for a more fulsome or higher-stakes version. It’s not at all meant to be an insult!) In this post, I want to present a critique of P2. I think there are both exegetical and logical problems with this position.
Exegetically, I think that the P2 position works with faulty hermeneutics. P2 would maintain, as Bloesch does, that the Bible speaks of God’s repenting and that it ought not be taken “metaphorically.” Okay. Well, by analogy, the Bible speak of God as having hands (1 Pet 5:6), arms (Is 53:1), and wings (Ps 1:4). The reason that sane Bible interpreters don’t think that God actually has these physical parts is that the Bible also clearly teaches that God is spirit (Jn 4:24), and that spirit is incorporeal or without body (Lk 24:39). Thus, the hermeneutical principle at play is that the clear, theological, didactic articulations about God are to guide other assertions about God.
This principle should never be used to say that the biblical language concerning, say, God’s hands is mere metaphor and teaches us nothing. Far from it! As humans, we know the security and comfort of a strong hand. Well, God’s like that; he has strong hands, but don’t be so foolish as to think that he has physical hands. Similarly, when it’s said that God “repents,” this ought to be interpreted by biblical texts that explicitly deny that God actually repents, changes his mind, or regrets his actions (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29). To predicate a change of mind to God is, on a hermeneutical/exegetical level, just like saying that God actually has hands. As with the biblical language concerning his body parts, there is much to learn from God’s repentance. For example, we learn that our sin is displeasing to him, that he will punish wickedness, and even that his judgment starts in his own house. In the same way that a parent might say, “I know we were planning to go to Chucky Cheese, but now we’re not going to go because of your bad attitude,” God is said to change his mind, but please don’t think that there’s an actual change in God! In exactly the same way, God’s “increase” in knowledge should not be taken as applying to him properly, but by way of metaphor and accommodated revelation. While, say, Thomas Aquinas is obscure or difficult to understand in his theological precision, God speaks to us so that we (even a child) can understand. Praise him for that! For example, God is certainly omniscient – he knows everything (Is 46:9-10), but still God is revealed as “learning”: e.g., Gen. 22:12. Are we to suppose that God didn’t know that Abraham feared him until he was about to sacrifice Isaac? Of course not. Though it is edifying to speak of God testing us to find out what we’re made of, we wouldn’t predicate an increase of knowledge to God properly. I feel like I’m laboring this point. But I hope it’s worth the labor, for this hermeneutical principle is fundamental to proper Bible interpretation. And it’s this same principle on which P2 stumbles.
Aristotle's Vulcan Son
In addition to the exegetical problem with P2, there are also a few logical problems. The first problem that one comes across can be (over)stated like this: “The immutable God changes.” Stated in this way, we have an obvious contradiction. However, if we state it this way: “The immutable God changes in ways not out of keeping with his immutability,” we no longer have a contradiction. What we have instead is either a violation of the logical law of excluded middle or at least some significant equivocation. It’s like this: God is either immutable or he’s not. But if his “immutability” includes change, then why call it immutability? To me, this is akin to saying that God is holy, but that he can be unholy in certain ways. How is “limited” holiness perfect holiness? Certainly whatever attributes God has, he as them in perfection. Thus, can the perfectly holy God be unholy in certain ways? Can perfectly eternal God somehow be limited in time? Can God be perfect truth and yet sometimes untrue? In the same way, can he be perfectly immutable and still change? What we have with P2 is an “immutability” that simply ought not be called such. This is why Karl Barth preferred to discard the church’s long-standing language of immutability: “Barth, in his discussion of the perfections of God,” reports Donald Bloesch, “replaces the classical term immutability with constancy (Bestandigkeit). This means that God is true to himself or self-consistent; he remains faithful even when men are faithless” (Bloesch, 1:28). Barth’s course seems reckless, but at least his articulation aims at clarity.
Moreover, it is commonly held that one’s understanding of DI is dependent upon one’s doctrine of God’s character. So, if God is supremely and absolutely perfect, it is impossible that he should change in any way, whatever. For if he changes to become better, then he was imperfect prior. If he changes to become worse, then he’s changing into something imperfect. Thus, our thinking about DI is necessarily rooted in our thinking about divine perfection generally. Adam Co, a proponent of some sort of P2 theory, retorts that not all change is “value” change. Following Bruce Ware, he posits that there can be “value-neutral” change, and that such change would be possible for God. The curious notion of “value-neutral” change seems quite impossible, because the value of a change must always be measured in terms of the nature of the change. E.g., a man grows by two inches. That doesn’t make this man better morally (as tallness is not a moral issue), but it does make him greater in terms of height. Thus, there’s always some value associated with change. Since God is perfect in all his attributes, in what way could he change? In what value could he increase? If he decreased in any attribute, he’d be less than perfect. This would still apply to divine attributes that are not “moral” attributes, like his immensity. What if God didn’t fill heaven and earth, but only 99% of them, but changed to fill them 100%? This increase in God’s filling creation would render him “better” or “greater” at being immense, which is most certainly a value change, just not a moral one.
We conclude that if one holds that God can learn, grow, experience new things, or (in short) change in any way at all in himself, then one does significant damage to the doctrine of God’s perfection. This kind of damage is evident in Bloesch’s language regarding DI. You will recall that Bloesch, in particular, locates DI in God’s “innermost being.” What, may I ask, is God’s “innermost being”? In classical theological parlance, “innermost being” is perfectly pleonastic. Since God is simple, his being is absolutely indivisible. God has no parts, so what possibly could be meant by “innermost” being? What is the “innermost being” being distinguished from? This is a terrific theological error that causes the classic doctrine of God to unravel.
P1 is the preferred understanding of DI, therefore, because it exegetically superior to P2, because its cogency is superior to P2, and because P1 maintains the classical doctrine of God, while P2 damages that doctrine significantly.
I am aware that there are some difficulties with P1, as well. I hope to deal with these difficulties, including “relational changes,” in a later post.
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