Disclaimer: The following thoughts are offered to stimulate further thought. If you have anything to add (positive or negative) please leave a comment.
Many of the ideas people have about what God must be like come from Greek philosophy rather than from divine revelation. The idea that God cannot change in any way comes from a philosophical assumption about perfection.
The reasoning goes like this:
- Change involves getting better or getting worse.
- If God gets better, then he was not perfect before.
- If God gets worse, then he is no longer perfect.
- But God is eternally perfect.
- Therefore, God cannot change in any way.
But this is not the God of the Bible. This "god" is simply a philosophical construct that cannot have anything resembling a relationship. Such a god certainly cannot be acted upon or be affected by the actions of any other being. But he could not even "act" except in the sense that his being emanates eternally into some form of "action."
This "perfect" god could not plan out the creation of a universe. Even hypothetical actions in his mind must be perfect without any false starts. The whole "plan" must exist perfectly formed "all at once." What is more, that plan must have existed in his mind from all eternity. A god who devises a "plan" to create a universe is superior to a god who cannot do so or who hasn't yet gotten around to doing so.
Neither can this god enact his perfect plan. To do so would make him superior to a god who can't or hasn't. The "actions" of a "perfect" god would not be actions at all. They would be products that automatically and eternally result from his perfect eternal nature.
Yet the God of the Bible expresses
- regret (1 Samuel 15:35—The Lord was grieved that he had made Saul king over Israel.),
- frustration (Exodus 4:14—Then the Lord's anger burned against Moses.),
- disappointment (Jeremiah 3:7—I thought that after she [Israel] had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it.),
- outrage (Ezekiel 5:13—Then my anger will cease and my wrath against them will subside.),
- delight (Deuteronomy 3:9, 10—The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your fathers, if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands.), and
- joy (Zephaniah 3:17— The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.).
It is because of the philosophical view of God that he is assumed to be "outside" time. If he is "perfect" (according to the Greek view) then he cannot change in any way. To participate in time is to change.
If we imagine some hypothetical being who never changed in any way, it would be exactly the same at every point in time. If it is exactly the same today as it was three years ago, how can it be said to have participated in time in any meaningful way? Without some change in knowledge, feeling, attitude, intention, experience or some other property, there can be no involvement in time. Such a being could not have a relationship with a time-bound being anymore than a statue could have a relationship with a human being.
We say that God is "outside" time. But in order to interact with humans, God must participate in time in some way. Certainly the Incarnation was an instance of God "entering" time.
If Jesus is fully God and fully human, it seems unavoidable that God (in the Second Person of the Trinity) must be different in some way than he was before the Incarnation, before the coming together of the divine and human in the person of Jesus Christ.
That God is not bound by time seems beyond dispute. Time appears to be a property of creation. When God created the universe, he created time. But not being bound by time is not the same thing as "timeless."
When we try to conceptualize timelessness or eternity, we tend to image some sort of a steady state—an unchanging condition. In such a situation, nothing interesting happens. (No wonder that many people think heaven will be boring.)
But if that is the nature of God, creation could never have taken place. The only option would be for some kind of pantheistic world that eternally emanates from the divine being.
Timelessness does not allow for "before" or "after." But if God created the universe, there had to be a "before." There had to be a "time" before God had the idea to create the universe. After he had the idea, he "developed" his plan or strategy. He chose from among all the possible worlds he could have created to fashion this particular one. Did all this just pop into God's mind fully formed? If so, in what sense can it be said that he planned it or designed it?
(It seems that a distorted view of God's "sovereignty" logically results in a God who is also ruled by his own kind of determinism.)
If God is going to have any sort of a relationship with human beings, he must be able to interact with time. The Incarnation of Jesus is evidence that he has done just that.
The timeless god of Greek philosophy cannot do that.
But what about the biblical assertion that God does not change?
Let's look at a few of them:
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
This statement follows an argument about the nature of temptation. James says that no one should accuse God of causing temptation. The reason is that God is good and that only good comes from him, because his goodness does not wax or wane.
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?
These words are from the oracle of Balaam, who was hired by a king to pronounce a curse on the Israelites. What he is saying is that because God has already blessed them it is impossible to curse them. Once God has made a promise, he does not go back on it. Essentially Balaam is saying that God is a "man" of his word.
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.
1 Samuel 15:29
These are the words of Samuel to King Saul, who has just been informed that God is revoking his appointment as king of Israel. In other words, Samuel is telling Saul that the revocation is absolute and that there is no appeal.
I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.
God is telling the Israelites that they have been faithless. And because of their faithlessness they should have expected to have been destroyed. The only reason that they haven't been is because Yahweh has remained faithful to his covenant even though the Israelites have failed to keep their part of the agreement.
Paul takes up the same theme:
Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him.
If we disown him, he will also disown us;
if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.
2 Timothy 2:11-13
God does not disown himself—change his basic nature. It is not possible for him to break faith.
This very characteristic of God often causes him to "change his mind":
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.
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man—the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.
Therefore the Lord was angry with his people and abhorred his inheritance. He handed them over to the nations, and their foes ruled over them. Their enemies oppressed them and subjected them to their power. Many times he delivered them, but they were bent on rebellion and they wasted away in their sin. But he took note of their distress when he heard their cry; for their sake he remembered his covenant and out of his great love he relented.
Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
So the Lord relented. "This will not happen," the Lord said.
So the Lord relented. "This will not happen either," the Sovereign Lord said.
Did not Hezekiah fear the Lord and seek his favor? And did not the Lord relent, so that he did not bring the disaster he pronounced against them?
Interestingly enough, one of the passages that proponents of theological determinism like to use teaches just the opposite:
Then the word of the Lord came to me:
"O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?" declares the Lord. "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 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."
The Lord is announcing that he retains the flexibility to respond to the choices that people make. This seems to be anything but the impassive, imperturbable, immutable "God" suggested by Greek philosophy and deterministic theology.
- This is a God who has a real relationship with his people.
- This is a God who reacts and responds to the choices of his creatures.
- This is a God who is able to participate in time.
Make no mistake about it, Yahweh is perfect.
The point is that "perfect" doesn't mean what Greek philosophy has always thought it means.
The Lord is complete and lacking in nothing. But he is not the detached watchmaker of deism or the stoic deity of Plato.
He is the Eternal One who is perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ.
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