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Immutability is an example of Gods attributes that set him apart from other beings. God is eternally the same; his attributes, being, or determinations are not subject to change. God has no beginning and no ending. Hence, he knows no change. In a changing world, the changelessness of God is of great comfort to Christians. The Scriptures affirm that God does not change, he is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Our trust in God is strongly based on his unchangeableness. While the world wavers, we are sure that God will remain the same with respect to his character and standards. Whereas men may change and consequently receive judgment or grace, Gods immutability gives us the assurance that he is consistent. According to Grudem, Gods immutability implies that he is constant with regards to his being, purposes, as well as promises. However, he contends that the unchanging God feels emotions and, therefore, acts differently in response to various occasions. Remarkably, not all theologians approve of the doctrine of immutability. While classical theism strongly believes in the doctrine of immutability of God, this is not true for process theism. Process theology comprises a school of thought that believes that God is changing.
This research paper seeks to study the doctrine of Gods immutability in light of Scripture and explore some modern treatment of the doctrine. The paper affirms that God does not change with respect to his being, perfection, purposes and promises. Rather, it is his relationship with his creation that changes based on his essential being, perfections, purposes and promises. Thus, the paper explores the basis of the doctrine of immutability and examines relational mutability of God. It also discusses process theology and its arguments against the doctrine of Gods immutability. Since the paper affirms that the nature of God is unchanging, the author culminates the paper by discussing the importance of immutability of God, particularly to Christians.
Research Justification and Significance
In the past, the doctrine of immutability received little attention from scholars compared to other attributes of God. However, due to the academic controversy that currently surrounds the doctrine of Gods immutability, it will be necessary to conduct a study that seeks to explore this attribute of God. The increasing interest in the doctrine of immutability and the controversy that surrounds the doctrine has informed the move by the author of this proposal to conduct research on this topic. While classical theologians believe that God is immutable, process theologians reject this concept. This research proposal is organized into sections that include process theologians objections to the doctrine of immutability of God, ontological immutability, ethical immutability, and relational mutability of God.
Basis of the Doctrine of Immutability
The Scriptures is one source that has inspired the doctrine of immutability. A number of passages appear to testify of the unchanging nature of God. Three passages, including Malachi 3:6, Psalms 102:25-27 and James 1:17 have drawn the attention of theologians with regards to immutability of God. Psalms 102:25-27 attest that God is the creator of the heavens and the earth and gives a contrast between God and every other thing that was created. The author asserts that everything else will perish, grow old and God will change them. On the contrary, the writer affirms that God will endure, remain the same and will have no end. The Psalmist appears to demonstrate to his readers that although their surrounding might be deteriorating and changing, they should not be alarmed. God does not change; He is ageless and endless. Grudem notes that God existed before the earth and the heaven came into being. Therefore, he will exist long after the heaven and the earth shall have been destroyed.
Malachi 3:1-5 narrates Gods displeasure with people who have failed to live by the covenant he made with them. Despite their defiance, he reminds them of his faithfulness in verse 6. He assures the house of Jacob that they will not be consumed because He is the Lord who does not change. Although the passage lacks an explicit statement regarding metaphysical change and immutability, constancy of God in his dealings is the underlying factor in this passage.
Of the three books that theologians frequently refer to, James 1:17 appears to be the most direct in the manner in which it frames constancy of God. James notes, Every good gift and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights who does not change like shifting shadows. He seems to encourage his readers to expect the Gods gifts to them will not seize. The continuity of the release of the God gifts is due to the fathers faithfulness. Just as he released them in the past, as he does them today, he shall do the same in the future for God does not change.
Notably, Bruce Ware attempts to distinguish between senses of Gods unchangeableness. He distinguishes between ontological immutability of God and ethical immutability of God. Ontological immutability defines the changelessness of God with respect to the supreme excellence of his intrinsic nature. This character implies that God is constant regarding his revealed self-sameness. Ware argues that the ontological immutability is the first-order conception of unchangeableness by which any other conceivable sense of immutability would fall.
Ware discusses ethical immutability of God as the second sense of Gods unchanging character. According to Ware, ethical immutability refers to the changelessness of God with respect to his moral obligations and unconditional promises which freely pledged to his humanity. He affirms that God is faithful and reliable; he will not fail to accomplish what he has promised. Ware notes that the changelessness of Gods promise is firmly founded on the changelessness of Gods nature. For instance, in Malachi 3:6, the children of Jacob are not consumed because the Lord does not change. Therefore, based on Gods ontological immutability, he executes the promises and commitments he made to his creation. Of note, Gods promises to men were freely-determined and were not necessary for his existence. However, he freely chose to bind himself to the freely self-imposed and self-determined promises.
Relational Mutability of God
Ware rejects the doctrine of absolute immutability of God that was traditionally approved of in classical theism. He argues that the notion of absolute immutability does not take into consideration the Scriptures that clearly indicate that God changes in some sense. Ware notes that it is clear from the Scripture that God does not change with respect to his being, perfections and purposes. Similarly, there are numerous Scriptures that affirm that God changes his relationship with his creations. Ware refers to this change as relational mutability. However, he argues that relational mutability of God does not change his intrinsic nature as expressly noted in the Scriptures. Thus, the Scripture affirms onto-ethical immutability of God as well as his relational immutability. While God remains the same, he changes with regards to his relationship towards his creatures.
There are numerous occasions in the Scripture where God indicated that he would judge or bring disaster upon a given nation or individual, but relented to do the same. In most cases, the change occurs when people entreat him to relent or repent before him. For instance, when he pledged to wipe out Israelites, Moses entreated him and he relented (Exodus 32:9-14). When God declared that Hezekiah was to die, the king pleaded him, and he added him fifteen more years to live. God declared the destruction of Nineveh through Jonah, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! (Jonah 3:4). Nonetheless, God relented to bring the disaster when Nineveh citizens repented of their sins. The Scripture declares that God expresses his wrath and judgment on the wicked and unrepentant. On the contrary, he expresses his love and mercy towards those who are repentant.
According to Grudem, this instance should be understood as Gods genuine expression of his present intention or attitude concerning the situation as it appears at that moment. If the situation prompted particular attitude changes, it follows that the course of Gods attitude will also change. Thus, different situations invoke different responses from God. For instance, it is the wickedness of the people of Nineveh that informed Gods plan to destroy the city. The passage is not explicit with regards to the actions that would be taken by God should the people refuse to repent. However, it is implicit from Jonahs proclamation that the warning was meant to cause repentance. The situation changed when the people of Nineveh repented, Gods response towards the city changed. He repented of the evil that he had said he would do to them... (Jonah 3:10). Although God responded differently to the situation, He remained unchanging with respect to his being, purposes and promises.
In essence, if God failed to act differently when people changed, actions of men would not be important to God. Perhaps, he will cease to be the kind, merciful and just God that the Scripture so vividly portrays. On the contrary, the Scripture affirms that God never changes; he accomplishes everything he plans in eternity. According to Geisler, what some people may perceive as change in God is not change. Rather, it is a manifestation of the way in which God interacts with his creation in time. For instance, based on eternal and unchanging standard of his holiness, God passes judgment on the wicked people. However, when the wicked that was under Gods judgment and wrath change their ways, he changes the course of his action and relent the judgment. He applies the same standard of holiness which demands that he should not push the righteous. Thus, the change of Gods attitude towards Nineveh is a clear expression of his unchanging attitude toward the repentant.
According to Ware, passages that speak about repentance of God should be viewed as anthropomorphisms rather than taken literal. The passages should be understood as human and metaphorical ways of portraying given truths that transcend human experience. The writers use expressions such as repented to express Gods change of action towards his people when they change. Just as Bible writers ascribe various bodily parts such as ears, (Psalms 31:2) while God has no ears, so are these expressions to God.
Impassibility of God
The question of Gods impassibility has been subject to much debate among theologians. If it were true that God is impassible, it would mean that God lacks passions and emotions. Ware notes that the early church theologians were divided on whether God is impassible or not. On the one hand, Augustine and Arnobius reasoned that passions imply weaknesses and disturbances on the nature of God. Therefore, they believe it is improper to attribute passions to God. Contrarily, thinkers such as Lactantius, Novatian, and Tertullian proposed that while God is not subject to corruptible emotions that would taint his nature, he is subject to passions. Nonetheless, God experiences emotions in a manner fitting to his impeccable divine nature.
Grudem argues that the idea that God lacks emotions or passions at all is an outright conflict with much of the Scripture. He affirms that God feels emotions since he is the source and creator of our emotions. God rejoices (Isaiah 62:5), pities his children (Psalms 103:13) and grieves (Ephesians 4:30). God also loves with perpetual love (Psalms103:17) and burns with anger against his enemies (Exodus 32:10). He is a God who has passions and whose passions we need to emulate for eternity. We also need to delight in righteousness and hate sin, just as our creator.
Arguments against Immutability
In the recent past, proponents of Openness of God and process theologians have constantly attacked the doctrine of immutability of God. Open View of God or Free Will Theism rejects critical features of classical theism in favor of process theism or neo-classical theism. The doctrine of Process theologians is characterized as panentheism. The term is especially linked to the work of Charles Hartshorne. According to proponents of Openness of God and process theologians, the concept of immutability as presented in classical theology implies that God is a static being. There are fundamental differences between process theism and classical theism. While classical theology upholds mono-polar theism, process theology believes in dipolar theism. In dipolar theism, God is considered complex in his relative pole and at the same time simple in his absolute pole. This assertion implies that God possesses an actual pole or dimension and potential pole.
While including the element that God might be described as simple, Hartshorne argues that God is a complex reality. He notes that God knows the world; meanwhile, change, process, as well as freedom are real elements in the world. Hartshorne reasons that for the said freedom and change to be real and for the knowledge of God for this freedom and change to be perfect, the knowledge of God must grow and change. Therefore, as new facts appear, God learns about them and his knowledge increases. Some of those new facts come into being as a result of free will. A faultless knower incorporates within himself, which is known. By gaining perfect knowledge about the world, God incorporates the world within himself. As the world grows, God also grows. Thus, Hartshornes argument implies that God is creating himself, while he created the creatures to create him too. According to Hartshorne, God is the supreme effect, one who perfectly gains knowledge about the world and includes the world within himself. Every event that occurs in the world somehow affects God and causes a change in him. Hence, the complex God, according to Hartshorne, is the God who knows the world, includes the world within himself and is changed by the world. Hartshorne maintains that a God who grows in knowledge is the God who loves the world. In addition, such is the God who shares the joys, as well as sorrows that each creature in the world experiences.
In addition to being affected by events that occur in the world, God must also retain his wholes and integrity during change in order to remain as the supreme effect. On the contrary, if the reality of God was destroyed or his purpose deflected by the events that occur in the world, then God would seize to be the supreme effect. He would not be the worlds perfect receptacle. Therefore, Hartshorne contends that there is some component of God that remains the same despite what happens in the world. The constant element must not be affected by whatever event that occurs in the world. Given that the said element is not changed by any particular happening in the world, it is eternal and abstract. The eternal, abstract, essential self-identity of God is compatible with any state affairs in the world. Given that this identity of God is presupposed by any state of affairs in the world, it is understandable that God is the universal, as well as the supreme cause. This argument forms the basis of Hartshornes revival on the ontological argument.
Of note, whereas God is independent of any particular affairs whatsoever, he still needs the world to exist. Otherwise, which is everlasting and abstract is deficient in actuality. Thus, it can exist only as a component of the larger complete notion which is concrete and temporal. Gods completeness entails the temporal, concrete and complex reality, while the abstract, eternal, essential identity is part of this completeness. However, it is only possible for God to be temporal, concrete and complex if there are some contingent states of affairs in existence to which God is related. The world, which is incorporated in God, accounts for these states of affairs that are related to God. The states of affairs are accidental qualifiers of the character of God, rather than essential. Therefore, Hartshornes argument implies that the eternal and abstract identity needs some world to exist in without requiring any particular world for his existence.
Hartshorne refutes the claim that God who is changing cannot be perfect. Hartshorne argues that there exist two types of perfections: changeless and changing perfection. The abstract, eternal and self-identity of God are perfect, and his drive towards goodness does not vacillate. Thus, Gods perfection is unchanging. However, this perfection is abstract. On the other hand, as Gods concrete reality changes, his perfection also changes. Hence, God infinitely outdoes the perfection of the world, whether it is the past, present, future or combination of these. This argument implies that God does surpass his own previous states of perfection; he acquires more knowledge and opportunities to love his creatures. Therefore, process theologians argue that the fact God is ever-changing never changes. Rather than divine immutability, process theologians believe in divine mutability and immutability of God.
Gregory Boyd is another proponent of Open View Theology who is outstanding with respect to the manner in which he attacks traditional view of God. He believes in a dynamic ever-changing God. He is a God who is oblivious of what the future holds since he is dependent upon free moral agents, at least to some extent. God is incapable of knowing beforehand what a free moral agent is yet to do before they do it. If God knew everything beforehand, men would simply be like robots, living a life that is preprogrammed, determined and unchangeable. In addition, if God determines all future events, then God is eventually responsible for all that happens, evil events notwithstanding. Openness of God perceives the relationship between God and man as a partnership. While man expresses his free will, God aligns his plan according to the choices that are made by man. This adjustment allows him to accomplish his final purpose.
Boyd and proponents of Openness of God contend that the future is partially closed and partially open. Considerable amount of the future settles before time, either by the predestining will of God, or by the existing earthly causes. However, part of the future is unsettled and is decided by free agents. Consequently, God knows the future in light of possibilities, rather than certainties. He is a God who takes risks and does not always get his way. As God, he has decided to share his power with man to be more interactive in their lives. He learns from our actions and reacts in accordance to our actions.
Boyd refutes the claim that the passages that speak about Gods repentance are mere anthropomorphisms. He insists that these verses were put forth to teach men that God is one that changes. He notes that the claims that these passages are anthropomorphic are based on philosophical presupposition brought to the passages. Since process theologians do not believe that God is immutable, they reject classical theologians interpretation of passages such Malachi 3:6. On the contrary, they give close attention to passages that mention repentance of God. They support their opinions with passages such us Genesis 6:6 and Jonah 3:10. On the contrary, these Scriptures reveal and describe Gods relational mutability rather than change in Gods nature and ethical standing.
In Exodus 32:12, Moses pleads God to change his mind concerning his plan to wipe out the house of Jacob. He notes, Turn from your fierce wrath, relent from this harm to your people. According to process theologians, Moses implored God to change because he thought that God is capable of changing from pursuing a course he had predetermined. While sending Jeremiah to the cities of Judah, he warns the citizens against continuing in their evil ways. In verse 3, God notes that he will relent from bringing the purposed judgment upon the cities of Judah, if the people genuinely repent (Jeremiah 26).
The Importance of Gods Unchangeableness
According to Grudem, the importance of Gods unchanging nature is clearer when we consider the things that may perhaps happen if he is a changing God. For instance, if God could change with respect to his being, purposes and promises, any change would either be for better or for worse. If we would consider that God changes for better, it implies that God was not the most perfect being when we first put our trust on him. We can also not be sure that God is the best possible being that exist today. Contrarily, if the nature, perfection and purposes of God could change for worse, then we cannot possibly figure out what God might become. Conceivably, he might become a little bit evil instead of being exclusively good. However, if God can become a little bit evil, we cannot for sure tell if he cannot become absolutely evil. It is terrifying to imagine such things of God. How could Christians trust such a God and commit their lives to him?
If God will change with respect to his purposes, then those who trust in him are doomed. For instance, we trust that Jesus will return to rule over the new earth and heaven. However, if the purposes of God are prone to change, then we cannot be sure, presently, whether God has abandoned that plan. Just in case he has already abandoned the plan, then we have hoped in the return of Christ, in futility. Moreover, if God could change with regards to his promises, then we cannot fully trust that eternal life awaits us. Perhaps, every other that God has promised in the Bible is subject to change and we cannot entirely put our trust in the promises of God.
This reflection reveals the importance of the doctrine of immutability of our faith. If we would realize that Gods nature, perfections and promises are not unchanging, the entire foundation of our faith begins to crumble. Likewise, our understanding of the universe begins to disintegrate. The uncertainty sets in because our knowledge, hope and faith are ultimately dependent on an individual whom we consider to be infinitely worthy of our trust. Fundamentally, we trust in God for since he is entirely and ceaselessly unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes and promises. The writer of Kings rejoices in Gods faithfulness to his promises. He notes, There has not failed one word of all his good promise, which he promised through his servant Moses (1 Kings 8:56). Therefore, the unchangeableness of God provides a great solace to those who are obedient to him. On the contrary, it provides caution for the disobedient.
The doctrine of immutability has become an important topic in theology, and the controversy surrounding it is on the increase. Classical theism believes in the churchs traditional interpretation and understanding of the immutability of God. This class of thought believes that the nature of God is constant and his actions are consistent with this unchaining nature. On the contrary, process theism believes that God is a changing one, and any attempt to portray him as static should be rejected at all cost. It is interesting that either school of thought maintains that their assertions are Scripture-based, while their opponents arguments are merely founded on philosophical presumptions. Nonetheless, based on the Scripture, it is clear that God is immutable. There are fundamental questions that arise when we think of God as one who is changing. If God is mutable, the faith that we have put in him since we believed is in vain. If God cannot tell the future and only works on possibilities as assumed in process theism, all Christians should reconsider the promises that God gave in the past because they may not materialize after all. However, if God is unchanging as the Scripture rightly puts it, then our hope in God is strongly sealed in Gods promises.