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BIBLE & THEOLOGY | ATTRIBUTES OF GOD: IMMUTABILITY

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In their Salvation Army Theology class, the Proclaimers of the Resurrection were asked to complete an assignment regarding the attributes of God.  Realizing that the Christian faith portrays God with many names, concepts and images, cadets were asked to chose an attribute of God and indicate within their writing:  A) How this aspect of God is evident in Scripture,  B) How has the tradition of the universal church expressed this attribute of God,  C) In what ways is this attribute of God significant within our culture, and  D) What difference this attribute might make in regards to the cadet’s personal view of Salvationist leadership. 

What follows is Cadet Laura Hickman’s paper entitled:  Attributes of God:  Immutability

Immutability refers to the inability of a subject to change.[1]  The following paper will consider immutability as an attribute of God by explaining how this attribute has been portrayed throughout Scripture and the Tradition of the church.  After a consideration of this attribute this paper will suggest reasons why an immutable God is significant for North American culture and conclude with suggestions regarding the potential influence this attribute of God could have on leadership within The Salvation Army.

If a person were to survey the Scriptures to find the word “immutability” he or she would be disappointed to find that the literal word only appears once and is dependent on having either the King James Version or the New King James Version of the Bible.[2]  This verse is found in Hebrews 6:17 and refers to the immutability of God’s counsel and word, not necessarily the character of God specifically.  This should not be taken to mean that the Bible does not discuss the immutability of God though.  Due to the lack of literal use of the word it is necessary for a person to have a clear understanding of what immutability means; Biblical scholars from the age of the Patristics have lent insight into this.  In arguing that God is immutable Tertullian explained that there are “aspects of the divine character which remain unchanged, because God is eternal.”[3]  For Tertullian immutability was a property of eternity and it meant that God was incapable of change.  Tertullian argued that God was the supreme being, perfect in every way which meant he was incapable of change because change would imply that he was either not perfect to begin with or has changed for the worse.[4]  Roman theologian Novatian argued that “God has no beginning and no end.  For this reason He is always infinite and there is nothing greater.  He is always eternal, because there is nothing older.  That which is without origin is preceded by none, because it is not temporal.”[5]  For Novatian immutability was related to God being infinite, lacking beginning and end.[6]  The book of Revelation scripts the LORD Himself declaring that He is “the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End…who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty (1:8).”  Others have argued that the attribute of God as immutable relates to his attribute of being transcendent.[7]  With concepts such as unchanging, infinite, and transcendent it is now appropriate to do a more thorough look through Scripture to see what insights it has to lend to the attribute of God as immutable.

One of the most popular scriptures used to discuss the immutability of God is Malachi 3:6a which says “For I am the LORD, I do not change.”  God used this description of Himself to assure Jacob that He is a God who can be trusted because He follows through with all He has promised, He will not change.[8]  Another verse that explicitly calls attention to the immutability of God is found in Psalm 102:26-27 which says

They will perish, but You will endure;
Yes, they will all grow old like a garment;
Like a cloak You will change them,
And they will be changed.
But You are the same,
And Your years will have no end.

It is clear from this portion of the Psalm that the psalmist is exclaiming the immutability of God as both eternal and unchanging.  James will again call our attention to God as unchanging, in chapter 1 verse 17 he writes, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning (emphasis added).”  Believing that Jesus is both truly and properly God and truly and properly man[9] it is appropriate to consider the words in Hebrews 13:8 that describe again a God through Jesus Christ as “the same yesterday, today and forever.”  This brief survey of Scripture has provided a picture of an unchanging God beginning in the Old Testament and carrying through to the New Testament.  Some would argue that the God of the New Testament is different than the God of the Old because in the Old Testament we see a God of wrath and in the New Testament we hear of His love.  The pictures appear unbalanced and are often a cause of confusion, if He is a God who is always the same then where was the God of love in the Old Testament?  I believe this confusion has come from the desire to label God as impassible as a result of immutability.

Impassibility would argue that a subject is “incapable of suffering or being affected by the suffering of someone else.”[10]  When used in reference to God this is often implying that God created the world and then sat back and remained detached from His creation.[11]  This portrait of God paints Him as a God of stone, one who is not moved by creation nor interested in creation.  The reasoning behind this argument comes from the notion that if God could feel, this implies that He must be able to change.  For some this change implies being corruptible, which would imply that if God were to change (via effect of emotion) then it would be a change for the worse.  This argument says that it is necessary for God to be impassible if He is to be immutable because it is impossible to be immutable with feeling.[12]  For most people who would support the immutability of God grappling with this tension has been necessary; some have suggested that it cannot be argued that God cannot suffer or feel because this implies limits to a limitless God; instead we can look at God as choosing to respond to his creation by feeling or not feeling.[13]  “God is not equal to creatures in any other respect.  Why, then should He be their equal in changeability…His nature is different from the condition of all other things.”[14]  God has the ability to change in response to His creation, and still maintain his identity.[15]  This is seen in his conversation with Abraham in Genesis 18 regarding the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Author Bill Hybels reflects on the significance of this passage by questioning “does this mean we have a God who changes plans?  Do we serve a God who will react to prayers and respond to the requests of humans?”[16]  Tying Genesis 18 back to the question of where was the God of love in the Old Testament, I think it is clear to see He was always present.  He was a God of love because He was a God of relationship to His people.  Although His anger is expressed, He is still a God who is concerned for His creation, despite this feeling of concern He is able to maintain His supremacy.  The fact that God is both immutable and moved by emotion will become significant for this paper’s discussion of an immutable God in North American culture.  Having seen a portrait of God’s immutability throughout Scripture it is now time to consider how the tradition of the church has expressed His immutability.

 When I think about how tradition of the church has expressed the immutability of God I immediately think of worship.  I do not recall many sermons explicitly about God’s immutability, though the principle has been discussed within sermons, I am sure.  Sung theology is one way that this attribute of God has definitely been portrayed. Vineyard Canada’s song “Father of Lights” has a verse that states “Father of lights, You never change, You have no turning” this song is the sung James 1:17 mentioned earlier.[17]   “Faithful One” by Brian Doerksen is another song that is sung on a regular basis and continues to reflect not just the immutability of God but also the implication of that immutability.  In this song God is called the “faithful one, [who is] so unchanging, ageless One, [who is our] rock of peace” and is described as being the one we can depend on in times of trouble because He is the anchor.[18]  As a God who is unchanging He is a God who is always reliable.  A browse through The Salvation Army Songbook will reveal that in The Salvation Army’s sung theology there are a variety of times God’s immutability is mentioned.  The opening lines of song 6 are “Eternal God, unchanging through all the changing years” a couple songs later in number 8 the last lines of verse 3 state “We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree, and wither and perish; but naught changeth thee.”  Further along in the songbook a chorus that reflects the immutability of God is the chorus of song 750, referring to the words of Hebrews 13:8 it reads “Yesterday, today, forever, Jesus is the same; We may change, but Jesus never; Glory to his name!”

 Another way that the immutability of God is expressed through tradition of the church is through doctrines and creeds.  The Salvation Army’s second doctrine states that “We believe that there is only one God, who is infinitely perfect, the Creator, Preserver, and Governor of all things, and who is the only proper object of religious worship.”[19]  The reference to God being infinitely perfect speaks to God’s divine person as unchanging and therefore immutable.[20]  Believing also in the Godhead as undivided in essence and co-equal in power, and in Jesus as both truly and properly God and truly and properly man,[21] opens up the understanding that whatever we apply to Jesus’ character (Hebrews 13:8) can also be applied to God.  It is in this aspect of God and Jesus that we see the creeds reflect the immutability of God.  It was at the Council of Nicea that the “generation of the Son as immutable, ineffable and eternal”[22] was further developed.  The Nicene Creed reflects Revelation’s concept of the God “who is and who was and who is to come” (1:8).  The Nicene Creed states that we believe in “God the Father…Maker of Heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible…And in one Lord Jesus Christ…being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made…whose Kingdom shall have no end…And…in the Holy Ghost, Lord and Giver of life…”[23]  It is through worship, doctrines and creeds that the tradition of the church has most prominently expressed the attribute of God as immutable. Having discussed the immutability of God and its expression in the church, this paper will now consider why this attribute is of value to North American culture.

The significance of having an immutable God in North American culture comes from the reliability that can only be found in an unchanging God.  He is “the one who provides an anchor in the swirling seas of change.”[24]  Anyone living in North America could be quick to point out that our culture has become marked by rapid periods of change. Thanks to new technologies there is a constant need for education of sorts in order for individuals to remain up-to-date with society.  In a world with so much change, our culture can find refuge in a God who never changes.  Due to the nature of God never changing the ability to read and discover Him in the Bible is the same today as it was when it was originally written.  “The same God who empowered Samson, Gideon, and Paul seeks to empower my life, and your life, because God hasn’t changed.”[25]  The Bible is one document that can never become outdated due to who God is!  With this in mind, it is necessary for individuals to recognize that because God never changes all of who God is in the Bible is all of who He is today.  He is still a God who judges sin,[26] He gives free will but there are still consequences for disobedience.  There can be comfort though in knowing that the God who judges is also the same God who “freely offers grace, love, security and blessing.”[27]  There is comfort also found in knowing that God’s love is not determined by what we do but offered because of who He is.[28]  This means that God’s love is always the same, it never fades.

The notion of impassibility was mentioned earlier and it was stated that the significance of the argument behind a God who can be both immutable and in touch with his creation would be revisited.  Having a God who responds to His creation is significant because it means we have a God who desires to be in relationship with His creation.[29] He is not a God who created and then abandoned His creation.  He is a God who can remain constant throughout the storms of our lives.  He is a God who remains constant despite our own changing feelings about Him.  He is a God who cares and because of this He is a God who is personal.  This is significant in North American culture because He presents Himself as a God who wants to understand what we experience.  Hall & Sanders stated it nicely when they said “God does not need us but freely invites us into the family, for our sake, not his.”[30]  The significance of an unchanging God of relationship is that I worship a living, breathing God who remains relevant despite the changes in culture.

 This paper attempted to describe the attribute of immutability of God, by considering how it has been portrayed in Scripture and the traditions of the church.  This paper also attempted to explain why this attribute is significant for North American culture.  To conclude, this paper will discuss the influence of God’s immutability on Salvation Army leadership.

It is no secret that officers and members of Salvation Army Corps experience various seasons of change in their lives; potentially every 5, 7 or 9 years the leadership of a Corps changes and with this can come changes in the congregation, leadership styles, etc.  Serving an immutable God means that despite the physical, earthly changes to the Corps, the foundation of each Corps remains stable.  If leaders in The Salvation Army remained focused on being vessels for God then throughout their leadership they could remind their congregations that although the earthly leadership changes, the Spiritual leadership of the church never changes.  Singing song 745 “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand” can remind believers that standing on Christ is where the focus needs to be.  Sometimes congregations can idolize (for lack of a better term) the pastor, what happens in this case is when the pastor leaves the congregation feels lost.  If leaders would be humble enough to recognize when congregations are in the danger of ‘idolatry’ they could remind them “all other ground is sinking sand” that ground includes me the leader.  Remembering that we serve an immutable God brings focus to who we place in charge of our Corps, and the Army.  Although we have people as leaders, God is the ultimate leader.  Although human leadership changes, His message needs to remain.  The immutable God creates the solid foundation on which the church stands and teaches.  As leaders we need to bring the message of the immutable God and remember to point all honour and glory His way.  He is the one who is faithful, not us.  Being able to identify the reliability and relevance of God makes me His servant question, what do I need to do to make sure that as a leader I reflect this character at all times?  Am I hindering people from seeing a God who is faithful?  If so, how can I correct that?  The difference an immutable God makes is found in the focus it brings to those in leadership.

To see Bibliography and Footnotes click here

Cadet Laura Hickman, along with her husband David, is a part of the Proclaimers of the Resurrection session.  She brings a quiet grace to the bustling halls of CFOT.

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