Attributes of God: Incommunicable (part 2)
Course: Systematic Theology I
V. Attributes of God
A. Methodology and the Doctrine of God
B. Incommunicable Attributes
1. Self-Existence (Aseity)
A definition of divine immutability: To say that God is immutable I believe, biblically, means that God cannot change in his attributes, his essence, or his very being, that is, who God is as God. And secondly he cannot change in his ethical commitments that are an extension of his own moral nature. I call the first aspect of immutability "Ontological Immutability" because it is the very being of God. ''Ontos'' is the word for being. The very being of God, his nature, his essence cannot change. God is holy; he cannot be unholy. God is love; he cannot be not loving. God is just; he cannot be unjust. God is omnipotent; he cannot lack power. Of all of the attributes that are true of God, he cannot be other than who he is as God, his very nature. The other kind of immutability that really depends on the first one might be called "Ethical Immutability," that is, his very moral nature requires that when he makes an ethical commitment he is bound to it. For example he says to Abraham, "All the nations of the world will be blessed." Once God has made that ethical commitment he must see to it that the promise is fulfilled, that all of the nations of the world are blessed through Abraham. I think that this is exactly why Abraham could take his son Isaac in Genesis 22 to Mount Moriah and have every intention of putting a knife through his chest and killing his own son. He could do that because God promises through Isaac this promise will be fulfilled, not through anyone else. God can't break his word. It has to be Isaac. What does this mean if he plunges the knife into Isaac and kills him? What will God do? Raise him from the dead. This is what we read in Hebrews 11. He believed that God could raise from the dead, that one that he received back as a type. The promises of God are sure. He is the original promise keeper, before the movement ever started. God is the promise-keeping God. One application of that to us is we are called to be like God. We live in an age where people's word means almost nothing. This should not be the case with Christian people. We should be like God in being people of our word; that our promise is absolutely sure. We take an oath and keep it, even to our own hurt as we are told in Proverbs.
Notice that the ontological commitment of God is what you might call a first order kind of immutability, whereas ethical immutability is a second order kind. The ontological immutability of God is absolute; God is holy; he has been eternally; he cannot be other than holy. Whereas God's promise to Abraham is immutable; it is unchangeable. But God's promise to Abraham, "Through you, Abraham, all the nations of the world will be blessed" is contingent; it is not absolute. It is contingent upon God making the promise. He didn't have to promise that. God's immutable promise is not the same thing as his immutable character. His immutable character is absolute eternally what it is; it cannot be other than what it is. Whereas every promise God gives is a freely given promise. Once it is given it is inviolable. God cannot go back on his word. But did he have to give it? Did he have to promise, "Whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved"? Did he have to do that? No. Once he has, whosoever will call upon the name of the Lord ''will'' be saved because God said so; God promised. Ontological immutability is a first order kind of immutability; it is absolute. Ethical immutability is a second order; it is immutable only when God has made that promise, so it is contingent.
Here is another difference between them. It looks as though the ethical immutability of God is what it is because it flows out of his ontological immutability. That is, because God is truth, or because God is faithful, when he makes a pledge or a covenant or a promise because of his character, he will keep what he has said. The ethical immutability of God is as good as his character is. There is a lesson for you; people's word is as good as their character. God's word is as good as it is because his character is as good as it is.
The following are passages that underscore these two kinds of immutability.
Psalm 102:25-27 is one of the most famous passages in Scripture on God's immutability. It is a beautiful text. It is actually quoted in Hebrews 1:10-11 of Christ. It is astonishing when you come across this in Hebrews 1 that this is quoted of Christ because this is YAHWEH. There is no question that this is extolling the God of Israel, YAHWEH, and when Hebrews refers to it, this was said of the Son.
Ps 102:25 Of old you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. Ps 102:26 Even they will perish, but you endure; and all of them will wear out like a garment; like clothing you will change them and they will be changed. Ps 102:27 But you are the same, and your years will not come to an end.
What is interesting here is if this was written by David (we don't know for sure if it was) or any ancient person and you ask them, "What is stable? What is that you could point to that is fixed?" The ground that you sleep on at night is stable, and the stars you look up to in the heavens are always there. There is a pattern as the seasons change, but the stars remain the same season after season, year after year, generation after generation. So what is stable? The heavens and the earth. He uses that to contrast the stability of God to what appears to us as stable but in fact is like clothing that wears out.
Ps 102:25a Of old you founded the earth,
There is that stable earth that we lay down on at night.
Ps 102:25b And the heavens are the work of your hands.
Ps 102:26 Even they
Even those objects of utmost stability.
Ps 102:26 Even they will perish, but you endure, and all of them will wear out like a garment;
The heavens are like socks with a holes in them compared to you. Your years will never come to an end. You are always the same.
This is one of the great statements of God's immutability. Here I think the emphasis is altogether on the first category, ontological immutability. The Psalm taken as a whole might stress his ethical immutability insofar as this is given to cause us to trust him, hope in him, and look to him because of who God is. But nonetheless, this statement in and of itself is about who God is in himself.
Here is another marvelous statement on God's immutability. The statement is in verse 6, then we will back up to what leads up this.
Mal 3:6 For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.
Just taking that verse in itself before looking at what leads up to this, you can see both ontological and ethical immutability. Therefore my promises to you are sure. I have pledged myself to you; I will save you; I will redeem you O sons of Jacob because I the LORD do not change therefore you can be confident in my promise that you will not be consumed but will be true. You can see how the ethical immutability of God flows out of his ontological immutability.
Look at what precedes. What shows this as so powerful is how distinct is God's attitude toward his own people, Jacob, compared to the rest of the world and what he going to do to them.
Mal 3:1 Behold, I am going to send my messenger, and he will clear the way before me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, he is coming," says the Lord of hosts.
By the way, can't you imagine that this verse went through John the Baptist's mind many, many times. I think we have talked about the occasion when he writes from prison to Jesus, are you the appointed one or should we look for another. This text must have been going through his mind because he was the messenger. What was the Messiah suppose to do? The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. So the refinement that would happen and the purging and the destruction of the enemies of God, where is it?
Mal 3:2 But who can endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. Mal 3:3 He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness. Mal 3:4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
So God's covenant pledge to his people is when judgment comes, the judgment will come in the form of refining fire, purifying away the impurities and bringing about pure gold. Then look what will happen when that same refiner's fire is brought to the world more broadly.
Mal 3:5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear me," says the Lord of hosts.
Mal 3:6 For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.
The point is, when God comes as a refiner's fire he will wipe out those who are against him. They will be destroyed. Why isn't Jacob destroyed? Is the answer because Jacob is so holy; Jacob is living righteously before God? Obviously they don't deserve God's judgment. No, the answer is God's pledge to Jacob that he would save them. So when he comes, his judgment on them will come in the form of refining them to make them as he says in verse 4 so that they would be pleasing to the Lord, refined people. But his judgment on everyone else who stands against him is destruction. How can you be confident that this will be true? I the Lord do not change, so my promise is sure.
Jas 1:17 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
So God himself is not changeable. There is no variation or shadow of changing in God himself. Therefore, with ethical immutability, you can be sure that what God gives is good not evil. Look at verse 13
Jas 1:13 Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself does not tempt anyone.
This is what God gives. God give evil; God tempts is the claim or the charge that hides behind that verse. God tempts. James says, no.
Jas 1:14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Jas 1:15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. Jas 1:16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Jas 1:17 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
The point is because God is who he is, he only gives good gifts; he never does evil; he does not bring temptation in the sense in which he is talking about in here.
The two go together. Ethical immutability flows out of ontological immutability.
I have come to the conclusion that these categories, as true as they are and as important as they are, do not exhaust biblical teaching on the question, "Can God change?" That is what this attribute is about. Through the history of the church there has been an unambiguous answer to that question. Can God change? No, absolutely he cannot change in any respect whatsoever. The reason for that is because they were fearful of holding to any sense that God could change for better; if he changes for the better he wasn't as good as he could be before, so he wasn't God earlier. Or if he changes for the worse he can't be God anymore because there is something better than God, and that is a contradiction. So in order to avoid any hint of change for the better or change for the worse, why not just say God cannot change? This what the church held through almost all of its history until the last couple hundred years where this attribute was reexamined. Theologians began looking at this again and questioning whether we could hold this absolute immutability. What would lead them to start questioning this? Basically, the Bible. What about the simple statement, "Do not grieve the Holy Sprit"(Eph 4:30)? What does this mean if God cannot change at all in any respect whatsoever? You have to turn that into some kind of mysterious eternal reality which is not connected in any way to what God experiences at all and accounts for it. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit means don't do a thing that the Holy Spirit disapproves of. But is that what it means when it says, don't grieve the Holy Spirit? What do you do when you come to Mount Sinai? Moses is on the Mountain with the Lord and the Lord tells Moses the people have made this golden calf and they have bowed down to worship it; they have rejected me, and I am going to go down and slaughter them. Here is God absolutely ticked; he is angry. What do say of that?
I have drawn the conclusion that we should have another category in our whole discussion of God and change. In this other category is a kind of mutability. Karl Barth called it "holy mutability;" that is the phrase he liked for it. In other words there is more to change than just change for the better or change for the worse. There is also change that is appropriate to a changed moral situation. There is change that is appropriate to a changed moral situation. When a parent witnesses a child being flagrantly disobedient, perhaps caught lying, the parent ought to have a change in relationship to that child in a way appropriate to the changed moral situation and bring discipline to bear. Why not call this relational mutability? This is the name I have given to it. I think it gets the main point across that God in relationship to us is a God who changes in appropriate ways to changed moral situations. Take the Jonah story. Jonah goes to Nineveh begrudgingly, but he finally goes and preaches what he was suppose to that in 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed. What did they do? They did exactly what Jonah feared they would, exactly why he didn't want to go; the worst thing was happening; they were repenting. In response to their repentance God forestalled judgment. A change takes place. Is this a change in God? Does this change God's character? No. Does this somehow change who God is as God? No. Does it change God's ethical commitments? Some have argued it kind of looks like it does because he did say 40 days and Nineveh will be destroyed; he just flat out said it. But isn't there underlying, throughout Scripture, a principle that God makes clear from the beginning that pervades all of the Bible that if people turn from their wicked ways. God will hear their cries for mercy and will bring forgiveness. So implicit in the statement, 40 days and Nineveh will be destroyed, is the condition that unless you repent. It is an implicit condition. It is in the fabric of God's relationship to sinners from the get-go. Nineveh repents and God changes from one who was at throws of venting wrath against them and judgment against them, and now he is bringing merciful forgiveness to them. I would say that this is not a change in his ethical commitment. In fact his merciful response is an expression of his ethical immutability. His relational mutability changing from wrath to mercy, wrath to forgiveness is precisely because of his ethical immutability, namely the ethical commitment of God that when a sinner repents I will forgive. So he keeps his word. He honors his own promise to people.
Does God change emotionally? If we look back at the history of this doctrine and trace it through, early church theologians had one of two answers to this question.
One was no. Emotions are human, so all the emotional statements in the Bible are anthropomorphic. When it talks about God being angry, or God being joyful or any kind of emotion, it is just like Scripture talking about God's hand or his arm or his eyes. They are anthropomorphisms. Anthropomorphism is a human way of speaking about God that is not literally true of him. The strong right arm of the Lord is a human way of talking about God's strength. He doesn't literally have a right arm. The eyes of the Lord is human way talking about God's watching; he is there seeing everything that happens but he doesn't have literal have eyes. Some theologians argued it is the same thing with emotions when it talks about God's emotions or his wrath or his anger or his joy or whatever the case might be. God doesn't have emotions; these are anthropomorphic. He has responses; he does things, but he doesn't actually feel anything. Emotions are creaturely. They argued that because essentially they thought, what do emotions do to us? Emotions get us in such trouble as human beings. They viewed God as sort of the ultimate mind, Spock for Star Trek fans from a previous period. Spock, the absolute reasoning person, was not affected by emotions whatsoever because look what emotions do to us. They lead us astray; they cause us to have fits of anger, and they just cause all kinds of problems. Emotions just are horrible the way they thought about it. Certainly emotions are really imperfections or an aspect of finitude that can't be true of the infinite perfect God.
The other view that was held in the early church was yes he has emotions and they are emotions only of eternal bliss. So there is an emotion appropriate to God, and that emotion is bliss. So no anger; none of these things that are true for us are true for God.
I ask myself this question: Is there a basis in Scripture for denying God's literal emotions in the way that there is a basis in Scripture for denying God's literal body parts, eyes, hands, ears, arms, etc.? I drew the conclusion, no. How do you know when you have an anthropomorphism in the Bible? How do you know when what it is saying is, in fact, anthropomorphic? Here is my suggestion to you. You know you have an anthropomorphism when Scripture presents God as transcending the very finite human quality it elsewhere attributes to him. With bodily parts (hands, eyes, arms), Scripture presents God as transcending those when it teaches us that God is Spirit, when it teaches us that God created matter. Matter is created; God is Spirit, so we have a biblical basis for refuting Mormons who say God is bodily, a bodily being. He is just one of us grown up in Mormon theology. Mormons are wrong about that because Scripture presents God as transcending the very finite qualities, namely bodily parts, which elsewhere are attributes to him. Is there anything in Scripture that would lead us to think God transcends what appear to be to us, finite human qualities like anger, wrath, joy, happiness, frustration emotions, that it elsewhere attributes to him. It certainly does attribute them to him all over the place. To my knowledge there is no place in the Bible where we are encouraged to think that God is not really like that as we are encouraged in regard to bodily parts. I have drawn the conclusion we are meant to understand God is really with us, really a person. Abraham Heschel in his two volume work on the prophets says, "The emotions that we read about of God and us are theomorphic not anthropomorphic." I think he is right; they are theomorphic. They are aspects of God's personhood that he has allowed us to share in. Just like god has reason, we have reason; nobody disputes that point. Yet we can use our reason in horrible ways to do terrible things. We can plot ways of killing people secretly so that no one can catch us and put an entire region in fear of their lives for going to the grocery store. Look what a human being can do with reason. Plotting, strategizing, very careful planning; that is reason. God has reason. Why don't we say, "Look at what people do with their reason, and we don't want to have this problem with God, so God doesn't have reason?" Isn't it interesting that no theologian ever proposed that? God has reason; we have reason. God has emotions; we have emotions. So emotions are theomorphic rather than anthropomorphic.
One more comment. What about passages in Scripture that talk about God changing his mind or repenting, as it is sometimes translated? There are 28 affirmations and 7 denials of God's repentance in the Old Testament. Twenty eight times it says God repented or changed his mind, and seven times it says God's can't or doesn't change his mind or doesn't repent. To get to the nub of this in a way that I think helps is to look at 1 Samuel 15:11,35. In verses 11 and 35 we read that God repented or he relented of the fact that he made Saul king.
1 Sam 15:10 Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying, 1 Sam 15:11 "I regret that I have made Saul king,
That is the Hebrew word ''nacham'', which means to relent of having done, to change from having done this is the idea.
1 Sam 15:11 "I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not carried out my commands." And Samuel was distressed and cried out to the Lord all night.
1 Sam 15:35 Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, for Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.
Here you have to uses of ''nacham'', this Hebrew word for relent or regret or change of mind. He changed his mind in regard to Saul being king. There is a third use of the word in this chapter in verse 29.
1 Sam 15:29 "Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man that he should change his mind."
Here you have in this one chapter a very interesting case study on this question. Either the author is nuts and you have flagrant contradiction within a few verses, or you give them the benefit of the doubt that probably they have some way of reconciling this in their mind or they wouldn't write it this way, and certainly that is the case with the biblical writers. This is under inspiration, this is not contradictory. In what sense can we say with verse 11 and 35 God repented or relented or regretted that he made Saul king and then with verse 29 the Glory of Israel "cannot change his mind." Is it possible that verse 29 establishes an absolute rule that God cannot literally change his mind or relent from what he has said in the way that we do as human beings. My point will be this, when we read verses 11 and 35 we dare not think that God relents of something in a way that we do, namely that he learns something new and goes, "Ah shucks, what a mess; if I had only known that Saul would be such a jerk I wouldn't have done this, what a mistake; I wish I hadn't made him king." We dare not think that God relents in the way we do. How do we relent? We learn something that we didn't know before; we see something that we didn't see before. We think differently of it because of that. We dare not think that is how God repents. Because the Glory of Israel cannot lie, will not lie or change his mind for he is not a man that he should change his mind. Here is my argument on verse 29. The Glory of Israel will not lie or change his mind. Almost the same phrase is used in Numbers 23:19 in Balaam's second oracle. This is God speaking through Balaam. An almost identical same language is used I that. So you have two places in the Bible where we are told God cannot lie or change his mind.
If you hold the view of Open Theists (people like Greg Boyd, John Sanders, and Clark Pinnock), then the way you reconcile these passages is by saying verses 11 and 35 indicates that sometimes God does change his mind and in verse 29 sometimes he doesn't. Here is my problem with that way of understanding this. In verse 29 when it says, "the Glory of Israel will not lie or change his mind" it looks like he is treating lying and changing his mind in parallel ways. So if we say in this particular case, in verse 29 God doesn't change his mind, and in other cases he does (verse 11 and verse 35), then what do we do with lying. In this particular case God doesn't lie, but in other cases he does. Is that acceptable theologically to say in some cases he doesn't lie, but in other cases he does. No, it is not acceptable to say that God sometimes lies and sometimes doesn't. He doesn't ever lie. So when you put the two together, the Glory of Israel will not lie or change his mind shouldn't you treat change his mind the way you do lie? The Glory of Israel will never lie. He will never change his mind.
Second argument, look at the second half of the verse, "for he is not a man that he should change his mind. What do men do? What do human beings do? The point is God isn't like a man. In order to make the openness interpretation work you would have to say because he is God, he sometimes changes his mind and sometimes doesn't. What must be true of men then? They always change their mind or they never change their mind. Which one is it for human beings? The answer is neither one. Actually, what is true of human beings is sometimes they change their mind and sometimes they don't. The Glory of Israel is not like a man. He does exactly what Open Theists say that God does. Sometimes he changes his mind and sometimes he doesn't. So in order to contrast God with humans, who sometimes change their minds and sometimes don't, what must be true of God? He never changes his mind, never relents. So here we have in both ways, the first half of the verse with the comparison with lying indicating absolutely doesn't relent; the second half of the verse the contrast with humans absolutely never relents unlike humans who sometimes do. So verse 29 is saying God, as God, never relents.
What about verses 11 and 35? When we read in those other verses that God regretted that he made Saul king, we dare not think that God regretted as we do. Which is, look at what he did; I didn't know that Saul would be such a jerk, what a failure as a king, what a mistake. We dare not think that of God because he never does that. Don't you think the point of putting verse 29 in the middle of those two other verses is precisely to disabuse us of the mistaken notion that somehow God could learn something new and see it differently and wish he hadn't done this? That is exactly why it is there. What does it mean? I take it, it means God, knowing what Saul had done, observing the history as it unfolds, watches Saul's disobedience, watches his presumption of instead of sacrificing everything as God told him to, he saves the best to sacrifice to the Lord. But God told him to kill them not bring them back and he didn't. This is the presumption of his false piety and God detests it. God observes this, and in his relationship with Saul, as God deals with this disobedient rebellious king of Israel, he wishes that the king of Israel were not this way. But don't think for a moment this means that God didn't expect it or didn't anticipate it, that God learned something new because of it. He regretted that the king of Israel would be this. What did he do in its place? He takes the Spirit from Saul, gives the Sprit to David, and puts a new king who will be the prototype king; the Messiah will come as the son of David. I take that these statements of God's change, like in verses 11 and 35, if you look at them strictly speaking, are anthropomorphic; that is, they cannot be true literally of God. What they are stating is some truth using this vehicle of what looks to us like God changing his mind. Just like in the book of Jonah when Nineveh repented it says God relented, and he forgave them. In the book of Jonah, do you really think that God didn't anticipate the repentance of the Ninevites? If God didn't anticipate this he missed an awfully good cue for Jonah who did anticipate it, and that is why he fled to Tarshish. Did you get the point of that in the story? Jonah knew they would repent; Jonah, the dumb prophet, knew this. Did you think that God anticipated this was going to happen? Absolutely. It is not like God went, "My goodness look at what happened; I'm going to change my plan." No. This is all part of plan A; there isn't a plan B. So when it says God repented and forgave them, what does it mean? Not that he learned something new, but he changed in relationship to them from what he had said earlier. What does that look like to us? He changed his mind. That is what it appears like, so he is using human ways of understanding to express something that is not literally true of God in that fashion.
Blessings on you.