Thursday, August 24, 2023

Post # 10 - The Doctrine Of God - God's Attribute Of Unchangeability (Immutability) And The Question Of Him Changing His Mind


    In the last post we talked about how God is independent in His existence, without need of support from anything outside of Himself, as well as being self-sufficient. The link to the last post is here This attribute of "God's independence" is also known by an older term, "aseity", which in the Latin literally means "from oneself". As author Ron Gleason notes,

“In an absolute sense he (God) is Lord, Lord of all the earth (Ex. 23:17; Deut. 10:17; Josh. 3:13). He is dependent on nothing, but everything depends on him (Rom. 11:36).”

    As we continue on in our journey through the Doctrine of God, my hope is you are finding these posts prompting you to want to know God more. As I heard theologian James Dolezal recently say in a lecture on the doctrine of God, 

"Our goal is two-fold. First, that we would come to realize that we know less about God than we thought we did. Then second, that we would come to understand God better than we do now".

In today's post we want to look at that attribute of God known as "God's unchangeableness" or what older theologians term it, "Divine immutability".

A key Scripture and definition of God's unchangeableness (Divine immutability)

    There are several Biblical passages we could turn to in recognizing why the God of the Bible is the unchanging God. The foremost that comes to my mind is in Malachi 3:6 "For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed." Some other key passages on Divine immutability or unchangeableness are these Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Psalms 102:26; Hebrews 6:18; Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17; Revelation 1:8; Revelation 22:13. 

    It can be difficult to wrap our minds around God's unchangeability, since we ourselves and the universe we dwell is subject to change (remember a few posts back we talked of God's incomprehensible nature, here 

    Even features such a time, space, and matter include change to some degree. The angels, though immaterial, still have to move from one place to another and do experience the passage of time, thus pointing to their own changeable nature. God and God alone is immutable (this term derives from the Latin prefix "in" meaning "not" and "mutatis" meaning "change", which when put together spells out "immutatis" or our English word "immutable"). Theologian Wayne Grudem, on page 192 of his second edition "Systematic Theology", define God’s unchangeableness, 

“God is unchanging in His being, perfections, purposes, and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and He acts and feels differently in response to different situations.” 

    In having briefly defined and noted key Scriptures about God's Divine immutability or unchangeableness, let's explore how this doctrine functions when considering the classic question of how an unchanging God is described as changing His mind in the Bible.

Scripture does present God as unchanging in terms of His being while seemingly "changing His mind".

     One time I was asked the question of how to makes sense of Scriptures which assert God's Divine immutability and those that state God changes His mind. To begin, Scripture says that on several occasions (for instance in the book of Jonah), that God "relents" or changes His mind. In the Jonah example, we read in Jonah 3:10, 

"When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them." 

    This act of God showing mercy and compassion on the Ninevites provokes Jonah to say these words in Jonah 4:2 

"He prayed to the Lord and said, 'Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.
And He did not do it.'" 

    What had happened? Jonah was told by God to proclaim throughout the city of Nineveh that in three days God was going to judge them (Jonah 3:1-4). Then, the King of Nineveh decreed a time of repentance where everyone was to dress in sackcloth and sit on ashes (a customary ancient form of mourning) and cry out to God for repentance (see Jonah 3:5-9). As we saw already, Jonah 3:10 expresses that "God relented" or "changed his mind".  

    So, some people have asked: "well, how can that be the case?" We read, for instance, in Numbers 23:19 

"God is not a man that he should change his mind nor son of man that he should repent". 

      Yet, there in the book of Jonah, we see God changing his mind.  Although God is by nature unchanging (what theologians call "immutable"), we see instances in scripture where He is described as changing his mind that is referring to God from the standpoint of the creatures. What is going on here? How do we square these two seemingly irreconcilable descriptions of God (unchanging, and then He changing His mind)? 

God, in Scripture, uses two different methods of expressing His nature and identity.

      Scripture talks of God in two ways. There are those verses that speaks of God as He is in and of Himself (what theologians call "univocal language", which is to say, terms having the same meaning for God and for us). So, when God says "I am the Lord who does not change", that "univocal statement" has only one meaning, the same meaning, when God says it and when we hear it.  

    Then, there are those verses in which God adapts the revelation of Himself in forms of figurative language to bridge understanding to His people (what theologians refer to as "analogical language" or language of comparison). The clearest example that explains analogical language is how older writers (such as John Calvin in his "Institutes of the Christian Religion") liken this to a parent speaking baby-talk to their child.
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      So, with respect to God from God's perspective, there is no change within Him. His plan, His mindset, is constant or unchanging. 
To illustrate, whenever I was a child, my mom or dad would take me to do errands or go on a trip. They would tell me at the beginning of the trip - "we're going to the store" or "we're going to Grandma's house". As to their plan and point of view, there was nothing different to alter that plan. They told me what was happening. They were the same mom and dad to me. As a principle of perspective and truth - my mom and dad kept the same unvarying plan and course. 
      But with respect to our finite perspective, as we experience and interact with God from our point of view, it seems as if God does change his mind. Romans 2:4 says this, 

"do you think lightly of the riches of his kindness and tolerance and patience, knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance". 

      So, we understand that it is God's intention to change people and to change their lives. Whenever we read in scripture those places where God is described as "changing his mind", it is God using analogical speech or figures of speech to convey His truth. God does this in revealing Himself  by adapting the revelation of Himself to people so that they can relate to Him.
      In divine revelation, it's God's way of expressing himself in ways that are understandable to us. Scripture itself demonstrates this principle by which God adapted His communication to words in the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek written by the prophets and apostles (over 770,000 words an average English translation of Old and New Testaments). 
    In other words, wherever we read in scripture something like "God changed his mind", that's actually Scripture's way of indicating how we experience God through changes within ourselves. 

       The author A.W. Tozer puts it this way, more-or-less:

"that whenever we read of God changing his mind that means there's been a change in the moral situation of the person. So, for example, a person who perhaps all their lives was in rebellion against God and opposition against God hears the Gospel. The Spirit of God does His work in them and now they're responding by faith to Jesus Christ. What has taken place? Has there been a change in God? No. God's always angry at sin and He hates it. God is always gracious and merciful towards those who repent. So what's changed? It's not God. Instead, its the person that's changed." 
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      Sometimes we can illustrate it in this way. Say you have the sun and then you have maybe a block of wax and a block of clay. As you sit that block of wax and that block of clay out in the sunlight, the block of clay will harden but the block of wax will soften. Now what has changed? It's not the sun. The sun is shining. It's doing what it always does. 
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     The sun does not change relative to the block of wax and the block of clay. Instead, it's the block of clay and the block of wax that has changed.  So, from the perspective and the vantage point of the blocks of clay and wax, there has indeed been a change (a change in the situation of each). In like manner, when we talk about people and how it is they experience what seems to be a change in God, it's actually those persons experiencing a change within themselves.

Closing thoughts:
    Today we have looked at God's Divine attribute of unchangeability, otherwise known as "Divine immutability". We observed how this Divine attribute operates in Scripture. For readers who may desire to read more on Divine immutability, you may consult past posts on the subject relevant to God's emotions and our emotions in light of His unchangeableness here and here

In our next post we shall consider God's attribute of Divine eternity. More next time....

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