An Unchanging God in a Changing World
OK, I confess: I do not like change. I normally like things just the way they are thanks. If my wife suggests that we rearrange the furniture in a room, my eyes roll heavenwards and I let out an audible groan. While some changes are necessary, I am certainly not keen on change simply for the sake of change.
That may in part explain why I am a conservative. The conservative prefers to conserve, and opposes “revolution for the hell of it” (as one leftist activist put it back in the 60s). ‘Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know’ is part of the conservative disposition.
But change is inevitable, and much of it can be unpleasant. As you get older you sure come to see this – first hand. You are not as fast and agile and strong and vigorous as you once were. Once you were young, footloose and fancy free, and the next thing you know you are old, slow, tired and full of various aches and pains.
And relationships change. People fall in and out of love and marriage. Friends, loved ones and family members move away, or die. Children grow up quickly and marry and/or leave home. The job you once enjoyed is now boring and miserable.
The foods you used to relish no longer appeal. The friends you used to have are no longer even speaking to you. The neighbourhood you grew up in is now unrecognisable. Indeed, entire countries can change over time, as can geopolitical realities and international relations.
Change is everywhere. One approach to all this is to just embrace change, believing that is all there is. Whether it is Heraclitus saying that ‘Everything changes and nothing stands still,’ or ‘You cannot step into the same river twice’, or George Harrison singing two and a half millennia later that “All things must pass”, it seems that change is universal and inevitable.
Our Immutable God
Well, change is certainly upon us all over the place, but that is not the end of the matter. In a changing world there is one unchanging reality – God. That is good news for those who do not like change or do not cope well with constant transition and alterations.
One of the attributes of God is his immutability. That is, God does not change and cannot be changed. He forever remains the same. He does not change in his nature, his character or his purpose. Indeed, since God is perfect, change in any direction is impossible. He cannot become more perfect or less perfect.
As the classical philosophers and later Christian theologians put it, all change involves imperfection: If God changes for the better, then he was not fully God before. And if he changes for the worse, then he becomes less than God. So our God is an unchanging God, a perfect God. Scripture everywhere attests to this basic truth. Consider just a few key passages here;
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? Does he promise and not fulfill?
1 Samuel 15:29 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.
Malachi 3:6 I the LORD do not change.
Hebrews 1:10-12 He also says, “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.” (quoting Psalm 102:25-27)
Hebrews 6:17-18 Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.
James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
All this is not to say that God is static or immobile or wooden. God is not immobile but free to interact with his creation. We might say that God is in movement but not in development. He can act, but he does not become other than who he is. His character is forever the same, but in his dealings with his creatures, he may alter course depending on our responses. A classic case here would be the fate of Nineveh as discussed in Jonah 3:3-5, 10:
Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city – a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. … When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.
We could say that God does not change in himself, but does change in relation to his creatures. Part of this has to do with our understanding of God and time and the relationship between the two. We see this mentioned elsewhere in Scripture, such as in Jeremiah 18:7-10:
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
God may change in relation to his creatures’ decisions, but his moral purposes remain unchanged. God will always act the same way toward evil, and the same way toward good. God always acts in a way consistent with his character. How exactly he acts towards us may depend on the choices we make.
As we read in Psalm 18:25-26: “To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless, to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the crooked you show yourself shrewd.” God will always relate to us on the basis of his fixed moral purposes. Thus he does not react as such but always acts in accord with his character and purpose.
I realise of course that this has only just scratched the surface of a hugely complex topic (how could the attributes of God be anything less than massively complex, mysterious and far-reaching?). For example, to talk about God’s changing relations with his creatures raises all sorts of other related issues.
Indeed, a can of worms is opened here, with some – such as the free-will theists, or openness of God theologians – not only making much of the notion that God changes, but even more radically, claiming that God does not know the future!
Rejecting divine foreknowledge is one way to grapple with some of the puzzling texts about God appearing to change his mind, but it is much too high of a price to pay theologically speaking. But all that cannot here be addressed in any detail.
Future articles will have to address some of these debates. Suffice it to say that I have real problems with the openness theologians, and have offered some helpful reading on the matter elsewhere. See this brief bibliography for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/12/13/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-free-will-theism/
For a review of just one volume which affirms the traditional understanding of divine foreknowledge, see here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/12/12/a-review-of-how-much-does-god-foreknow-by-steven-roy/
And since the issue of divine immutability is often paired with another hot potato issue, divine impassibility, see this article for some discussion on those debates: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/07/a-review-of-god-is-impassible-and-impassioned-toward-a-theology-of-divine-emotion-by-rob-lister/
But a somewhat more hard-core theological discussion needs to return to my more generic opening remarks. Most folks are a bit iffy with change, and change can often be painful and unpleasant. That is why the Judeo-Christian notion of an unchanging God offers so much help and hope in a fallen and chaotic world.
God never changes – and for our sakes, it is a good thing too.
10 Replies to “An Unchanging God in a Changing World”
Good post, Bill.
Charles Spurgeon has a thing to say here. He said, with reference to Psalm 65 verse, 5, “By terrible things in righteousness wilt Thou answer us, O God of our salvation”
“ We seek sanctification and trial will be the reply: we ask for more faith, and more affliction is the result; we pray for the spread of the gospel, and persecution scatters us. Nevertheless, it is good to ask on, for nothing which the Lord grants in His love can do us any harm. Terrible things will turn out to be blessed after all, where they come in answer to prayer.
2 Corinthians 3:18 : But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.
1 John 3:2,3Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.
All this is not done without pain.
David Skinner UK
This is always an interesting discussion. I have previously thought about the meaning of when God said to Abraham after Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, “Now I know…”. After I read through the three linked articles you provided I saw you had already looked into this:
Testing passages such as Genesis 22 which describe Abraham’s offering of Isaac (“Now I know that you fear God,” v. 12) are also examined in detail. This passage does not explicitly teach divine ignorance, and what it does discuss is the present state of Abraham’s heart, not a future condition. So it really has nothing to do with divine foreknowledge.
I agree that the text does not explicitly state “God does not know the choice that Abraham is about to make”, or words to that affect. Now one could look at this two different ways:
(i) that it is challenging for the sentence to have meaning “Now I know” to not imply that God knew before.
(ii) that God did know before, but that in His interactions with time bound mankind (Abraham, to be specific here), He chose not to say to Abraham, before Abraham made his choice, “I know what choice you are about to make”. In the context of the events, this would not be helpful to Abraham because the issue here is of willing obedience and trust. After Abraham made His choice, God can of course say “Now I know…” to him, which is factually rather obvious.
I had thought that (i) was the corollary to “Now I know”, but in looking at this again, I think (ii) is a possible explanation. I have always thought that to build up an entire doctrine – that God does not know every aspect of the future – based on the implications of a single passage is not a path to follow.
We could go on and say that Revelation is a very accurate description of God’s knowledge of the future and His ability to show it to John and hence to us (in words, but nonetheless, just as powerful). While God very much interacts with His Creation (the physical Universe and all non-eternal living beings, human beings) I also think that he is outside of the Universe in the sense that God has never needed, currently needs or will need a Universe (space and time) to exist. God is outside time and space. This is why God can be in two places at once (as 2 Thessalonians 1 and Revelation 14 show, I believe) which put Him in a unique category all of His own.
Look forward to other contributions.
Today I had an experience where in desperation I asked God for help. After all Jesus had said “Ask and you shall receive”. I was supporting my brother who has Alzheimers’ for the afternoon and I needed somehow to get him into the bath, what with incontinence issues but he just refused to move from his chair. Suddenly it came into to my mind to put on some motivating Sixties music to get both of us in moving mode – as opposed to catatonic withdrawal mode – all way outside my comfort zone. Then when he still would not move from the chair, the thought came into my head to start knocking urgently on the front door. That got him out of the chair in a trice. Previously I would never have thought that was the answer to my desperate prayer, being such a small, localised issue, but on reflection maybe that is how it works in your own small world. I would never ask for anything as facetious as say a sunny day to go fishing. It was, at the time, a desperate matter. It adds to my conviction God is with us. If we seek him we shall find.
A French saying I love is, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”. The more things change, the more they stay the same. In other words, despite all the crazy changes around us, the important things like God never change.
I have recently become quite fascinated with G.K. Chesterton’s notion of true, radical Conservatism as The Eternal Revolution: He rightly points out that the maintenance of what is right and good in a world subject to change and decay demands that true conservatives can never be content to leave things alone to their ongoing moral entropy:
… all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things… It is the custom in passing romance and journalism to talk of men suffering under old tyrannies. But, as a fact, men have almost always suffered under new tyrannies; under tyrannies that had been public liberties hardly twenty years before. … – G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, from ch. VII.
Such is the innate waywardness of mortal Adam’s children, that that change of mind and works we call “repentance” has always been on the lips of the prophets and apostles of our God and His Christ: The old, fallen creation must be replaced with that new creation found only in Christ, the eternal Word, who was in the beginning, became dead at the hands of His own creatures, yet now lives in the power of an endless life to raise to life people who would otherwise stay dead in trespasses and sins.
“Now I know” to Abraham seems to me like commendation. “Now you have demonstrated” -“full marks beloved friend-son!”
Modern politicians are constantly speaking in terms of progress, whilst at the same time denigrating those who appeal to past values and morality. They will mock us and say, “So you want to go back to 1950s or even the Victorian era.” But this is not true. We want to go back 2000 years to when Christianity was truly revolutionary and turned the World upside down.
It is the progressive who are the real recidivists, wanting us to return to what they would call the authentic and primitive state, untainted by Christianity. This they would call this being true to oneself, or as Pop Eyes says, “I yam what I yam”, where one was simply guided by one’s brute instincts, ambitions and passions.
David Skinner UK
“Time is filled with swift transitions…hold to God’s unchanging hand…”
A wonderful old hymn:
The Puritan, Stephen Charnock wrote in his monumental work on God, “If God doth change it must be either to a greater perfection than he had before, or to a less. . . . If to the better, he was not perfect, and so was not God; if to the worse, he will not be perfect, and so be no longer God after that change.”