Impassable, Immutable, Omniscient, and Omnipotent
Course: A Guide to Christian Theology
This is the 8th lecture in the online series of lectures on a Guide to Christian Theology by Dr Breshears. Recommended Reading includes: Biblical References from the Course and Study Guides 1 – 39.
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I. Non-biblical Words but Biblical Ideas
We will continue to look at God and finding out exactly who he is; which Moses asked in Exodus chapter 3. I want to look at a couple of other characteristics of the triune God. When we read Exodus 4 and Isaiah 6, we are just using words out of the Bible. But we have some words that are not biblical such as the word, ‘sovereign’. You will find it in the NIV but that is a translation of Adonai. The concept appears in Scripture but the word doesn’t. Another term is impassable or infinite or omnipotent; none of these appear in Scripture. These terms come out of the scholastic way of knowing; it is a philosophical way of knowing God that came out in the time of the European Middle Ages. They had something like three ways of coming to know God; where one of the ways was that of negation in saying that something is bad and thus God has nothing to do with it. Another way was the way of affirmation where it is said that this is good and God has all of it. For example let’s consider the term ‘emotions’. So ‘in’ or ‘im’ is the Latin way of saying ‘not’ and this is a means of negation. The West Minister Confessional says that God is without body, parts or passion. But today nobody would say that God is impassable. We all believe that God is a God of love and has feelings with genuine emotions. What changed is our view of emotions and up until two generations ago, God was impassable according to most if not all of the commentaries. Our idea of what is good or bad has changed. We don’t say impassable today. One of the problems with these terms is that they have their roots in philosophical and cultural standings. There is another word, immutable; the ‘im’ refers to a way of negation. So does God change? Immutability says that God doesn’t change.
II. Immutable – God Responds to Our Sins
Let’s look at Malachi 3:6 where it says, ‘I the LORD do not change.’ So God doesn’t change according to this. Let us go to the Book of Numbers now, Numbers 23:19 where it says that ‘God is not human, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.’ God doesn’t relent or change his mind; the Hebrew word is na-halm. So if God does not change what did he do in Genesis 6:5? The Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So in Numbers 23:19 it says that God does not na-halm but here in Genesis 6.5 it says that he does. Another question: does God answer prayer? If he does, then in some sense he responds to our prayer. Is that a change of some sort? Back to Exodus 32:1 when Moses was upon the mountain getting the Ten Commandments and the Israelites made a golden calf, an idol to worship. They had given up hope on Moses on the mountain and decided to make themselves a god out of gold which Aaron agreed to. They knew that they should not have done this as they were told not make themselves any other images. They had a rage as we would call it today in worship of another god. The Lord told Moses that his people had become corrupt. God told Moses to leave him alone for God was so angry to the point that he wanted to destroy them. Now back to Exodus 20; was God angry? Well, he was revealing himself to the people. But what about Exodus 32, has he become angrier? It seems so! It is because of their betrayal toward him. They turned their backs on God and built themselves an idol, a golden calf, a god of nothing and they did this so quickly. We see here the rage of God toward them, so much that he wanted to destroy them. So Moses discusses this with God saying that it was you who brought these people out of Egypt. Moses tells God to turn from his fierce anger using the Hebrew word, shub, the repent word. Moses is asking God to repent, to change! So in verse 14, the LORD relented from the disaster, which he had spoken, of bringing on his people. We have the same kind of story in Jonah, chapter 3. The story here in Exodus is more interesting because of what is actually going on with the Israelites. Moses goes down and they are in the midst of their rave. Note that God actually relented while they were in the height of their sin. God’s character hasn’t changed but his attitude and anger has or at least it seems so. People say that he can’t do that but when I read the text of Scripture, it says that he did.
So we are back to asking about how we do our theology. Do we get our theology from the stories of Scripture or sayings such as God can’t do that, the Scholastic way of negation? I think we should get our theology from the whole of Scripture not from isolated stories. But here, I see God’s attitude changing. You will see this also in the story of Hezekiah. He gets sick and asked Isaiah who in turn replies: God says that you are going to die. Hezekiah then prays and God hears his prayer and God gives him fifteen more years. We see here that God’s actions have changed because of Hezekiah’s prayer. Jesus says that you have not because you ask not. Jesus asks us to knock and seek, etc. So, my conclusion is that the word, ‘immutable’ is a bad word; it should be unchangeable or constant or something like that. God doesn’t change in his essence or nature so he doesn’t become more or less God. He doesn’t change in his character. His purpose doesn’t change either. Those things do not change, but he chooses to enter into relationships with his people and responds to them and may change his attitude or actions in response to repentance or prayer. Some theologians say that God never changes in any sense. God is always the initiator never the responder, but I don’t think that is what the Scripture says.
III. God is Omniscient
Does God respond in relationships? I think he does while others don’t think so. In regards to ‘open-theism’, I don’t think that God learns new things but he knows everything and I mean everything; things that we don’t know about ourselves. Others say that God doesn’t know what I’m doing today because I haven’t made that decision yet and God can’t know the outcome of free decisions if they are really free. We have John 13 where Jesus predicts what Peter is going to do in detail that goes against Peter’s commitment. Peter says emphatically that he would die for Jesus but Jesus says, no, you will deny me three times by the morning and of course Peter does that. How can it be that God can know the outcome of an action and still enter into and feel that relationship? How can God be angry at the people of Israel if he knows it is going to happen? Because I see God responding to the sin of Israel with anger and I do see the teachings of Scripture about God being omniscient, knowing everything.
I think of weddings and I love doing weddings; I get the best seat in the house. I am also a very structured high control person. I want to make sure it goes well. When I rehearse on Friday night for a Saturday wedding, we go through it three times and everybody knows exactly what is going to happen. People really get excited at these weddings as they know what is going to happen because it is so rehearsed. So I think God’s emotion can be very real with the knowledge he has at the same time. God responds to us. I wish we didn’t have the term immutable because it gives the wrong idea; it isn’t a biblical term.
IV. God is Omnipotent
This term is being questioned today. Omni means of, in the way of affirmation. God has all power. But in today climate, for many younger evangelicals, power is a bad thing. What I’m finding in much of theology, they are questioning the omnipotence of God. They are doing this because of the changing in cultural values. We must come back to the stories of Scripture and develop our theology from those stories because it will be more real because it will be from the foundation of Scripture in what God tells us about himself.