Sunday, July 18, 2010

Does God Change? Part 1 of 2

Last week in Sunday School we had a big discussion (started by yours truly, I'm afraid) as to whether or not God ever changes his mind.  It came out of the account in 1 Sam. 15:11, where God states that "I regret that I have made Saul king..."  Our teacher stated "well, we know God can't really regret anything he did, because God doesn't change his mind."  His defense, of course, was that God doesn't change, period, and the Bible says as much.

Well, it does and it doesn't.  In this post I'm going to look at some of the "proof texts" that suggest God DOESN'T change, and in the next one I'll examine "proof texts" that suggest he DOES.  My hope is that by looking at the context for both, we can get a consistent picture besides "the Bible is paradoxical on this point" (although that, too, would be a valid conclusion).

So, let's have a look.  Since this was a Presbyterian church, I'll start with a prooftext  linked from the Westminster Confession of Faith, James 1:17 (all quotes ESV):
 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
 This sounds pretty straightforward, doesn't it?  But what does it say in context?  Take a look at the whole passage, James 1:2-17.  James is contrasting God's not changing, with the "double-minded man" of verse 8, and even more so he's objecting to the notion somebody must've promulgated, that God might actually tempt someone (verse 13).  In this context, James is saying that God doesn't pull the dirty trick of tempting someone to violate a divine law...rather people's own desires lead them to sin (v. 13-14).  "God doesn't change" here is evidence that God doesn't pull a fast one on his people.

A second passage that was quoted by one of our class on Sunday was Malachi 3:6-7:
For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts...
 Of course, all my friend read was the first half of verse 6:  "I the LORD do not change."  But the context makes it clear that God's not talking about some overarching notion of immutability here, but about the fact that he keeps his covenants (see Malachi 2:4-5).  God, unlike the faithless Israelites (see Mal. 2:10-11).  So here again, God's unchanging nature is set in clear contrast to human fickleness and faithlessness.  "I do not change" here means "I keep my word."

My friend also quoted Numbers 3:19:
God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
 Actually, here again my friend only quoted the first half of the verse.  The second half makes the statement far more clear, and specific.  God says the truth, and does what he says.  This is actually part of Balaam's oracle.  Remember that Balaam was hired by Balak the king of Moab, to come out and curse Israel so that they (Israel) wouldn't kick their (the Moabites') butts the way they had the Amorites (see Num. 22:1-6).  After a truly funny story about Balaam's misadventures, he gets up to the cursin' place and blesses Israel.  Balak, not surprisingly, is peeved, and asks Balaam why he didn't do what he was paid to do.  Balaam's answer is that God doesn't go back on his word and curse those he promised to bless.  So again, we have a pattern here.  God sticks to his promises.

There are more verses to look at, I'm sure.  I chose these because they were represented in several articles, people's Bible footnotes, and in my discussions, as the classic proofs that God can't possibly change.  Taken in context, I'd have to say, if this is all the better they can do, I'm not convinced.  As some wag has said before, a proof text is a text lifted out of context as a pretext.  Restoring the context, at least in these verses, suggests to me a much more limited interpretation for the passages...and a very consistent one:

God, unlike man, can be trusted!

15 comments: said...

You have me interested! You are looking at open theism i suppose and this is a subject that I have not had as much time to study as i would like. Thanks for 'opening' up this one and I have to say that I agree with your exegesis so far on these texts!

Jc_Freak: said...

I am not an open theist, but i would agree that the notion that God does not change is often crafted in Greek philosophical terms rather than being a biblical construct. Biblically speaking, God not changing is a description of His character, rather than being an ontological statement. Your treatment of the prooftexts establish as much.

There are two features of the Greek "immutability" concept that I would say are not consistant with the Biblical narrative. One is emotions. Greeks argued that God must be impassive (not having emotions) since God is perfect. A perfect being must be absolutely perfect since all movement must be towards or away from perfection, and emotions are a movement within a being. However, God clearly has emotions within the Bible, and therefore this pagan concept must be rejected.

Second is God reacting to human situations. God clearly does so, which I am sure you are going to give examples of in your next post. However, within the Greek (and Calvinist) conception of God, such things aren't reactions, for God in His omniscience knows what is going to happen, and planned and caused all things, so all things are merely the working out of what He intended. There is no reaction, but merely the next step in the plan.

Having said this, I would say that God is ontologically immutable and is omnitemporally omnicient. But the Greek construction of immutablity is inconsistant with Scripture and must be abandoned or modified.

Dan Martin said...

Thanks guys.

@JC: "God is ontologically immutable and is omnitemporally omnicient."

Hoo, boy Martin! That's an impressive mouthful of theo-speak! I have to admit I couldn't read it without a chuckle!

But to your points:

1) You have correctly forseen the path my next post will take, even though you are neither omnitemporal nor omniscient! There may be an object lesson here. . . ;{)

2) I agree with both your objections to the Greek concept of immutability/impassiblity.

3) But is God really ontologically immutable? His character attributes do not change...but I'm not sure that's synonymous with immutability. Nor do I think that absolute immutability is either good or desirable. What matters to the writers of scripture (and to me) is that God is trustworthy and faithful. Neither of these traits requires a comprehensive ontologic state, they are sufficient in themselves. Here I think (somewhat obliquely, perhaps) of Mr. Beaver's wisdom in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: God is dangerous, but he's good.

4) As I've suggested before, I am unconvinced by your omnitemporality proposition. For God to be omnitemporally omniscient requires that in some sense the future already exists (if only in his own mind), and to whatever extent it exists, it is settled. Once the future is settled, you might just as well be a Calvinist, because choice is gone (here, of course, I'm reopening the discussion we never finished in my post Of God and Time)

Dan Martin said...

In contrast, the open view suggests (as Greg Boyd portrays it in God of the Possible) that God's omniscience is true in that God knows:

-all that has been
-all that is
-all that might be (that is, future possibilities)

but that until the possibilities are realized through the choices and actions of other free agents, nothing exists to be conclusively known--except, of course, for that subset of acts which God himself has purposed to accomplish.

As I will elaborate further some day, I'm not sure I'm even there, but I don't much care, because I believe the important--and biblical--truth is that God is sovereign...he has power & authority...and God is good/trustworthy. Take these two things and you have all you need to trust and obey. Whether God truly knows everything, or just everything that matters, is irrelevant if you simply trust the King.

Jc_Freak: said...

Ok, straight to your points:

1. Cute ;)

2. Thank you

3. I'm not sure if you fully understood that I reject the Greek notion of immutability. I have no problem with the concept that there are changes with God. i don't even mind the concept that God changes is mind on things (temporally speaking). What I do believe is that God doesn't grow and change the way that we do. God is not increasing or decreasing in powers, like humans do when they age. God exists outside of time, and as such concepts such as growth or decay do not exist within Him. That is all I mean by ontological immutability in the sense of my accepting of it. I do understand that many others use the same term in the way that the ancient Greeks use it, and I do not think that is consistant with Scripture.

4. Yes the future already exists, but i'm not sure if i would quite call it fixed. God is an artisan, and the universe is His art. We are His medium (and a rather stubburn medium at that). The relationship between a painter and his painting is quite as cut and dry as one is dynamic and the other is static. Even is the work is finished, the tempormant of the medium is still evident within the finished protect, and the toil and compromises of the artist while interacting with His medium would hardly be considered moot.

God exists apart from this reality, but He works within it, and truly interacts with it. This is how omnitemporality is distinct from a pure eternal view of God, as if God is completely other than time. In my view, God exists as something other, but enters into this reality to interact with His servants in a temporally.

Dan Martin said...

I'm not sure if you fully understood that I reject the Greek notion of immutability.

You're right, Martin, I didn't. I would surmise that we differ more in our semantic choices than in the reality we perceive; you sound pretty close to what I'm getting at there. I would only question whether perhaps "immutability" may not be the best word choice to express what you're saying, since the word is freighted with so much meaning which you repudiate (as do I).

On the temporal part, I have a hunch we need to agree to disagree (agreeably - ha!), though before I drop it completely I guess I would ask you: what would you consider the foundation of the concept of omnitemporality?

To summarize my own (tentative) position: God is eternal, had no beginning and will have no end, so clearly time is on a different SCALE for him than us. Nevertheless, he still experiences time as a quasi-linear, unfolding thing for which no future is settled except for that limited subset of things he has purposed must be accomplished. Therefore there is no future to "know" because it's all still only possibility until the various free agents (all of them subject to his sovereignty, but sovereignly granted their free agency by him) make their respective decisions. So God still knows all there is to be known, and what's more the possibilities that might unfold from the known; but since the future decisions only exist as possibilities, he only knows them as possibilities that may or may not come to pass.

This perspective seems to me to jive better with the narrative, interactive arc of God's action throughout the Bible, though I can point to no single text that "proves" it.

Jc_Freak: said...

On the temporal part, I have a hunch we need to agree to disagree (agreeably - ha!), though before I drop it completely I guess I would ask you: what would you consider the foundation of the concept of omnitemporality?

Well, first we need to recognize that Scripture itself does not discuss this subject with any level of depth, if one would believe it really discusses it at all. Thus, one's stance on this does not affect one's standing with God and commitment to His word.

My view of omnitemporality is based upon my belief in omnipresence, which I would definitely say is a biblical concept: The idea that God has a tangible presence which sometimes there are sometimes not, yet God is everywhere. I essentially take that same model that is applied to space and apply it to time. That's the foundation of it.

The reason why I am so convinced by it is that I say time as a dimension of space. Thus time is an aspect of the created order, and God's relationship to it should be similar as His relationship to space itself.

I would also say that I would consider this concept fully consistent with God's word. The Bible seems to assume that God is aware of certain future events (though I agree it never says He is aware of all future events) and God interacts with person's within the here-and-now, rather than interacting with them strictly from an eternal perspective. Therefore, to me Open-Theism is making a similar kind of mistake as the ancient Yahwist nationalists (those that saw God strictly as the God of Israel and thus confined to its political borders).

Dan Martin said...

Martin, I'm convinced from this discussion that what we actually perceive about God and what it means to be Jesus' disciple are actually closer than the vocabulary we choose might suggest. Thanks for joining the fray!

I'm not sure I understand your comment that Open Theism makes a similar mistake to the provincial Yahwists of the O.T. My perspective on Open Theism is that it insists neither God is in a box, nor has he built a deterministic box for the rest of us. The Open view actually requires a bigger God, not a smaller and more provincial one.

As I've said before, I think the confusion on that point comes with our lack of a good understanding of what God's sovereignty actually means. As a self-existent fact, the notion of God being absolutely sovereign is not contingent on other factors such as omniscience, omnitemporality, or any of the rest. It just is. "He's the King, I tell you..." And of course I know you know and acknowledge his kingship too...

Jc_Freak: said...

Actually Dan, I said that poorly before. What I meant is that given my cosmology, saying that to God the future doesn't exist yet is placing God within Creation. I would argue that God and creation are not entirely seperate, in that God permeates creation, but God is most certainly other. Because I view time as a demention of creation, rather than something that creation is within, God Himself must be greater and other than time. Therefore, Open-Theism just cannot make sense to me.

Dan Martin said...

Because I view time as a demention of creation, rather than something that creation is within, God Himself must be greater and other than time. Therefore, Open-Theism just cannot make sense to me.

And this summary makes perfect sense of the difference. I know time is often described as the fourth dimension, but I think that description may philosophically be in error since, unlike the first three linear dimensions, time appears (at least to us) a unidirectional vector. Relativity notwithstanding, all we can do vis-a-vis time is change the rate at which we experience it, not it's actual motion (or our motion/position within it) which is inexorable and unidirectional. Now I'm neither a philosopher nor a physicist and both can probably point out why I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the linear dimensions are things of an entirely different sort, in which we can voluntarily move in random combinations of those dimensions, both in direction and velocity...and we actually move in them, we don't merely experience them differently. So to repeat myself, I see the labeling of time as a dimension of creation to be a category is something other.

In contrast, I see time as something God also experiences...perhaps even part of his nature. He clearly has a different perspective on time than we do, having experienced an eternity of it, and not having an age or end like we do. But that doesn't mean that he's outside of time like so many suggest. And he certainly doesn't "need" to be outside of time to be sovereign. As I have previously argued, God's sovereignty is not dependent on is a self-existent fact.

You are right that this cosmological definition (which is an entirely extrabiblical argument) makes the difference in whether Open Theism can or cannot exist. My only response to that is that, if the scriptures are to be believed, that say God interacted in a genuinely dynamic way with his creation, and if there was and is any honest (as opposed to illusory) freedom for the agents God created, then Open Theism must be true to some extent...which then brings that cosmology into question, at least to me.

Dan Martin said...

BTW I meant that the cosmological question of time is extrabiblical whether it's my definition or yours, not that only yours is. I only suggest that accepting the biblical narrative of God's interaction with creation in time, requires either (1) a complicated theory that God is outside of time (which is extrabiblical), or (2) an acceptance that God actually experiences time too (which leads me to Open Theism).

Jc_Freak: said...

Don't worry Dan, I understand extrabiblical to mean something that the Bible does not touch on, rather than something which goes against the Bible. I use the term unbiblical for that. And I agree, the concept is extrabiblical.

I might also restate that my view of omnitemporality does have God interacting with creation in a dynamic way. Does the doctrine of omnipresence mean that my sense of God being with me is static? That God's presence is merely ethereal? Or does it not also assume there is is a sense in which God's presence can be localized and dynamic with the person in a way that does not go against His omnipresence? Was God not seated between the cherubim? Yet He still managed to be everywhere. I am making the same kind of construction with time. God enters into time and interacts with us in time not as something purely alien from it.

I am not arguing that God is strictly "outside of time" but that He is other than time-space, and exists apart from it, yet through it, sense He created it out of Himself.

Also, as far as time being a dimension, think of film. Film is three dimensional: height, length, and time (depth is only illusion in film). Dimensions can be understood as layers of reality that are built upon one another. Several one-dimensional lines on top of one another make a two-dimensional plane. Several planes on top of one another make a three dimensional space. Several spaces on top of one another make a time line. You can see this sense of time if you look at a length of film. You have several images placed on top of one another to make a moving image. Time can be thought of in the same sense, hence it being a dimension. Being unable to move in either direction doesn't really matter. You have the same problem with a line, and that is a single dimension.

E. A. Harvey said...

OK, I'll admit that I did not make it through all these comments... it's midnight, and my brain isn't processing theo-technical jargon. :-) But Dan, I appreciated your post. The Bible does talk about God changing his mind-- off the top of my head, there's Noah and the whole flood thing (God regretting putting mankind on the earth), and God relenting and changing his mind when Moses pleads on behalf of the rebellious Israelites.

The instance that struck me recently was reading in Ezra/Nehemiah (can't remember where and I'm too lazy to look it up right now) where the Israelites coming out of exile divorce all their foreign wives and send their children away. Now, granted, they were trying to remedy the fact that they had disobeyed God's initial decree that they not intermarry with foreigners. But I was a bit horrified that God would be pleased with such a thing when He says he hates divorce and also commands that the Israelites are supposed to care for widows, orphans, and foreigners in their midst. It seems to me like they just created a lot of "widows" and orphans, and it makes God seem capricious. But I guess I'm digressing from the whole Open Theism discussion. :-)

Bob said...

Does God Change? Part 1 of 2

Is there a part 2?

Dan Martin said...

Thanks for the reminder, Bob. I never got around to posting it. I'll try to finish it up in the next few days...actually, when I originally posted Part 1, I got so wrapped up in the stimulating conversation that followed that I got sidetracked! Keep at me, I'll get it up there!