“Does God Change?”

March 30, 2015

In my previous post, I took issue with any interpretation of the doctrine of God’s immutability that says God can’t or doesn’t respond to us in prayer, that God, in fact, isn’t affected by us in any way, and that God can’t experience emotions—because doing so, say defenders of this extreme view of immutability, would imply change on God’s part.

I’ll forgive the vast majority of my readers who had no idea that some Christians actually believe this, much less represent it as the one and only orthodox position on the subject. When I challenge proponents to explain why they possess such a seemingly unbiblical view, they usually make an appeal to someone else who makes an appeal the Church Fathers. I’m convinced you can make “the Church Fathers” say anything you want to—or Aquinas, or Barth, while we’re at it. “The Church Fathers” include a lot of people who say a lot of things. Even still, the Church Fathers don’t speak the Word of God.

But there I go again, appealing to the Bible! Forgive me for thinking that theology must be rooted in God’s Word, or else theology is wrong.

Nevertheless, here’s a dose of good sense from theologian Roger Olson on the topic:

I don’t remember when it happened, but I remember the shock I felt when I first encountered the idea that God cannot change—as an idea I was supposed to believe as an evangelical Christian. It was probably sometime during seminary, but it may have been before in some college religion class. I’m almost certain I never heard it growing up in my evangelical church—except as an expression of God’s faithfulness to himself and to us (viz., that God cannot become someone other than he is).

I have remained faithful all these years as an evangelical Christian theologian to what I learned in Sunday School and from my pastor and other spiritual mentors of my youth: God is faithful to himself and to us and always keeps his promises and cannot be anything but good, but he is affected by what happens in our world and by our prayers.

I was shocked and dismayed to learn that evangelical theologians, by and large, rejected that simple biblical view of God and replaced it with what I have learned to call the “logic of perfection”—that a perfect being cannot change in any way or even be affected by anything that happens in his creation.

What I “saw” early on in my theological training, however, was that those evangelical theologians who strongly touted God’s “immutability” were not very consistent about it. At least that’s what I thought I noticed in their writings. On the one hand, I was told, a good evangelical believes God is impervious to any change including having new experiences. On the other hand, I was told, it was the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, equal with the Father and Holy Spirit, who experienced the incarnation including hunger, thirst, temptation, sorrow, pain and even death. The explanation? That he experienced these things only “through the human nature he took on” through Mary.

In other words, these conservative evangelical theologians told me (through their writings), God-in-himself, God in his divinity, cannot experience anything new or suffer. But God-in-incarnation, the human nature of Jesus, can experience new things and suffer.

I’m not even going to go into all the problems this raises for Christology. I’ll just say I do believe in the hypostatic union, but not for that reason! Not to protect the deity of Christ from change and suffering.

I will also never forget the relief I felt when I first heard that Pascal said “The God of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!” And when I read the evangelical theology of Donald Bloesch who rejected the philosophical logic of perfection in favor of what Emil Brunner called “biblical personalism”—that the God of the Bible is personal and therefore capable of experiencing what is outside of himself including new experiences including suffering. Bloesch and Bunner held onto the idea I was taught in Sunday School and church as a child and youth—that God is faithful in every way and that is God’s immutability. But they rejected the philosophical (Platonic and Aristotelian) idea of God as an uncarved, immovable, impervious block of stone.

I read conservative evangelical theologians who attempted to reconcile the “orthodox” idea of God’s immutability with God as living by referring to God’s activeness in relation to creation. That is, they said (and still say), that God’s immutability does not mean that God is immobile or passive. But I remember sitting in class and reading this and wondering how that is supposed to solve anything when the same theologians say God is “pure actuality” without any potential to experience anything new? Such a God may be active but cannot be fully personal in his relations with creatures. And he cannot be the God of the Bible who does not have wings (an anthropomorphism) but does have emotions provoked by creatures (not anthropomorphism).

How do I know this? Well, all one has to do is not ignore or explain away the entire book of Hosea (just one example). The whole story of Hosea requires that God have emotions that require experiences God would not have without rebellious, sinful creatures. The story has no point once you extract that from it. The whole point is the pain Israel’s unfaithfulness caused God.

When I left America to study theology with Wolfhart Pannenberg at the University of Munich I took one theological tome with me: Hendrikus’ Berkhof’s Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of the Faith. (Of course I bought and borrowed other theological tomes while in Munich; this is the only one I had room for in my luggage!) I read it twice in Munich and found Berkhof a breath of fresh air (except his functional Christology). I especially like his description of God as our superior, faithful covenant partner who voluntarily allows himself to be affected deeply by us (“changeable faithfulness”).

What’s ironic about all this is that, when it comes to belief about God’s ability to change (or not) my view has not changed significantly since Sunday School and the church of my youth. “Changeable faithfulness” sums it up well. After four degrees in theology and thirty-two years teaching Christian theology in three universities, my belief about God’s immutability remains the same even if somewhat more sophisticated (by being supported by personalist theologians such as Bloesch, Brunner and Berkhof).

So, to put it in theological terms: God, I believe, could have remained fully God without lack or need, without any creation. However, creation out of love (the overflowing of the innertrinitarian love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is the most understandable thing because of God’s great love. Just as a married couple want (not need) a child to share their “couple love” with, so God wanted (not needed) a creation and beings created in his own image and likeness with whom to share his/their love. But because God is personal love, the history of creation affects God inwardly and not only outwardly. God’s emotional life is affected by what creatures do because God is love. But through it all God remains who he is and always has been and always will be. God’s relation to creation does not take anything away from God’s being or character or add anything to it—ethically or ontologically. Emotionally, however, creation does affect God. And God experiences new things in relation to creation. But all this is by God’s free choice; not necessity.

I must admit that I tend to think any other view tends to elevate philosophy over the biblical revelation of God and therefore is, in the most important sense, unorthodox.

7 Responses to ““Does God Change?””

  1. revdrsusant Says:

    From your quote of Roger Olson:
    “God’s emotional life is affected by what creatures do because God is love. But through it all God remains who he is and always has been and always will be. God’s relation to creation does not take anything away from God’s being or character or add anything to it—ethically or ontologically. Emotionally, however, creation does affect God. And God experiences new things in relation to creation. But all this is by God’s free choice; not necessity.”

    I agree that “…God experiences new things in relation to creation. But all this is by God’s free choice; not necessity.”

    Creation is a broad and huge word that encompasses “ALL” of God’s creation.

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    This is deep water and I am not a trained theologian, but sometimes the simple answers are the best.

    I learned that the attributes of God include omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. God cannot “learn” anything new. He cannot change his nature. He is the very definition of perfection and, therefore, cannot “improve”.

    However, this would not appear to me to preclude God from interacting with his creation. In fact, I would assume that he created, so that he could interact. I also believe that God experiences pleasure and dis-pleasure in this interaction, if for no other reason than the Bible says he does, which equals him saying it for me. He also says that he interacts with each person on a personal level. The purpose of this interaction, before the fall, was both God’s pleasure and man’s pleasure. God desires and enjoys worship and love, but does not require it. He cannot abide, is “displeased or angry” in the presence of sin and rebellion. The ultimate act of his love was in the incarnation of the second person of the trinity, the perfect union of God and man in one person (hypo-static union). The purpose of this was and is the “good news of the gospel”! God’s purpose in this is not to bring himself into harmony with man, but to restore man into harmony with God.

    When I pray, I am not asking God to change himself. I am asking God to change me.

    • brentwhite Says:

      You have swum quite well in the deep water, Grant. I think you hit on it when you say that God can’t “improve.” That’s right! And I would say that there are changes that are neutral in terms of “improvement,” including God’s ability to experience emotion and to do things in response to prayer. Honestly, a fellow United Methodist pastor, Jason Micheli, is arguing that God doesn’t answer prayer—because to do so would represent change. I can’t comprehend it.

  3. Tom Harkins Says:

    Excellent piece by Olson. I remember how “righteously” angry I was when I read a guest theologian’s piece in an R.C. Spoul magazine (I think it is “Tabletalk”) saying that God the Father felt no pain when Christ died on the Cross!!!! The ultimate absurd result of such an “immutability” position.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Indeed. Olson more than anyone has challenged me to question a few so-called “orthodox” theological ideas that run counter to scripture. God’s “timelessness” is the most recent: God has foreknowledge, Olson would say, but is not outside of time—in which case there would be no “today” for God, and Christ is ever on the cross being crucified.

      Does that accord with what scripture teaches? Of course not. Yet seminary students are taught it every day.

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    One other thought that’s not exactly on point, but applies to all of our thinking. I think we place way too much importance on this life. It’s a “training camp”. It’s not our home. God has a much better plan for that. His love has the whole picture in mind, not just this little prologue. He’s like that patient, loving parent watching his children endure their growing pains.

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