BIBLE & THEOLOGY | THE IMMUTABILITY OF GOD
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 Tina Howard’s paper entitled: The Immutability of God.
The word immutable means “unchanging” or “unchangeable.” In Theology it refers to the constancy of God. It is a Meta-physical, or supernatural, attribute in the same class as Self-existence or Eternality. God is unchanging in his nature, unchanging in his desire, and unchanging in his purpose. The Immutability of God does not mean he is Impassable—that he cannot be emotionally moved by human situations that may cause him grief, anger, sadness, pleasure, or gladness. One difficulty in discussing this attribute is the inconsistency in the meaning of the word. The Immutability of God refers to his invariability—“To say that God is immutable is to say that He never differs from Himself. The concept of a growing or developing God is not found in the scriptures.” His desire and his purpose for humankind has also been unchanged since the beginning of human life, and what He has promised, He will do.
God’s Immutability is stated in several verses of Scripture. Psalm 102:27 says: “But you remain the same, and your years will never end.” The Psalmist speaks of his own suffering and a fear that God will shorten his life, but then affirms that God is unchangeable and eternal, and because of this the Psalmist can have faith. He knows that God still has a plan for His people, even though they may suffer, because God remains the same and His purpose does not change.
One of the most direct statements of God’s Immutability is found in Malachi 3:6 which says: “I the LORD do not change.” As wonderful as this statement is, contextualization requires us to continue reading the rest of this verse: “So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” Articles by Stokes and by Waldman would suggest that God’s Immutability is context-specific—that it is only in reference to the Covenant made to Israel, God’s chosen people. However this passage does give insight into God’s nature. The purpose of Malachi’s prophesying was “to bring home to his people the shame of their conduct, both spiritual and moral, and to turn them from their lax and compromising ways to seek the Sun of Righteousness.” Israel is questioning God’s justice and anticipates the Coming of the Lord. Malachi gives a message to the people that the Lord’s Coming will be a fearful thing to those who will receive His judgement. The passage continues to list several acts of immorality and sins against God for which punishment is certain for those who do not repent. “The immutable God has sworn eternal vengeance on sin. Because of that, punishment upon the unrepentant is sure. Likewise, His mercy upon the repentant is everlasting.” But God will not completely destroy Israel for their sins, because of His Covenant. Continuing on to the next verse of this passage Israel is reminded that “ ‘Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty.” God is unchanging in His desire that all His people, not just the Israelites, pursue righteousness and especially that they seek the Lord only. The Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine likewise states that “Throughout Scripture he is shown to be unswerving in his covenantal love and commitment…, however much and however often we may fail him.”
The Immutability of God is also present in the New Testament Scriptures. James 1:17 says “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” This verse speaks of the Unchangeable Nature of God. Prior to this verse James describes Spiritual maturity, and part of this maturing process is the testing of faith, and subjection to temptation which is a constant inner struggle of a sinful human nature. Verse 17 is the encouragement that midst testing and temptation we can be sure of God’s “invariable goodness.” He only gives good gifts and “His own perfection and invariability are seen by contrast with the heavenly light-giving bodies, the variation of lights and shadows.” God isn’t like the sun which shines for a time and then hides in the shadows of clouds or of night for a while before shining again. God is always good, and “God’s gifts are invariably good. In all the changes of a changing world they never vary.” A God who never differs from Himself means that “In coming to Him at any time we need not wonder whether we shall find Him in a receptive mood.” We can trust that “He is always consistent with his character of love and righteousness. He is the source, ground and author of ultimate truth and justice.”
In many instances in Scripture it would appear as though God does change—changes His mind, changes His attitude toward humanity’s disobedience by administering Grace—often after someone’s fervent prayer. The struggle of Theologians throughout the ages in discussing God’s Immutability is the reconciliation of these changes of God in response to prayer, and whether they compromise an absolute Unchanging Nature. One of such instances in Scripture is when the people of Nineveh cry out to God to be saved from destruction, and seeing that they had turned away from sin, “God repented of the evil which he said he would do unto them; and he did it not.” Those who do not agree with absolute Immutability would agree with Ware who states that “The Scriptures clearly affirm over and again that there are such changes in God, changes in his relationships with his creatures, changes in his attitudes toward them—changes that express rather than compromise the very stability of his immutable moral nature as he relates himself appropriately to changing human and ethical situations.” This does not describe absolute Immutability, but rather a sort of Divine Mutability that allows God to only change within the framework of his eternal purpose for humankind and constancy of His nature. This way of looking at God’s Immutability recognizes that God “does change in his dealings with people—but this change only occurs in a way that reflects his unchanging essence, attributes, and the moral commitments that he extends in grace to his moral creatures.” The potential of prayer to change God’s mind in a situation is a complicated issue. It intertwines several Theological ideas, such as Predestination and God’s Omnipotence. One would think that prayer could be seen in two ways: Either a prayer needs to be aligned with God’s predetermined plan, and so changes us rather than God; or, prayer really can change, or have an affect on, what God plans to do in a situation. Perhaps a better concept of prayer, recognizing both God’s absolute Immutability and His gift of Free Will, is that “God changelessly answers prayer in accord with his desires and purposes of holy love.” Tozer similarly states that God “cannot be persuaded to alter His Word nor talked into answering selfish prayer. In all our efforts to find God, to please Him, to commune with Him, we should remember that all change must be on our part.” The debate surrounding God’s Immutability and the types of changes it includes is both complicated and longstanding.|
Traditionally the opinion of The Church has been that “since change is either for the worse or for the better, God cannot change.” God is so perfect that His nature cannot be diminished or enhanced. Augustine, the 4th century Theologian, was a proponent of God’s Immutability. As seen in his writings, “Augustine consistently asserts divine immutability, thereby intensifying the classical theological problems of creation in time, divine influence and human freedom, predestination, and divine foreknowledge.” God’s absolute Immutability has very much been in question by recent scholars. Some current Theological writers, such as Ware, would have the opinion that “What needs to be considered—a notion which was not considered with the seriousness it deserves through much of church history—is whether there might be some sort of change that involves no qualitative increase or decrease in the nature of God.” The problem is that “One who can suffer any slightest degree of change is neither self-existent, self-sufficient, nor eternal, and so is not God.” Although most throughout history did see God as unchanging, the possibility of a God who changes is not new. Tertullian (c.160-c.225) believed that God was Immutable in some cases, but Mutable in others. Tertullian saw God as mutable and passable because He can respond to human situations with anger, condemnation, love, suffering, and pleasure. This type of thinking was, however, unusual in the early and developing Church. The attribute of Immutability was strongly favoured, largely due to the influence of Augustine.
Many current philosophers and theologians, in contrast, would indicate that “that the notion that God stands stiff and immutable above time and the flux of things is a wayward idea of the Greeks, at variance with scripture and radically incoherent.” Immutability sometimes implies Impassibility, an idea that is inconsistent with a God who cares, loves, and is perfect in Goodness: “Due to Hellenistic (Greek) influence in the early Christian environment, the classic pagan idea of the impassibility of God, in which God is beyond all human emotions and pain, came into Christian theology. It was argued that God cannot be affected by anything outside himself because this would suggest that God can change and therefore that he is not perfect, or would not be perfect once the change had taken place.” Theologian Jürgen Moltmann (1926-), as stated in the Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine, has argued that “a God who cannot suffer is a deficient, imperfect God who also cannot love. God cannot be forced to change or undergo suffering, but his suffering is a direct consequence of the divine willingness to suffer.” This statement blends well the absoluteness of God’s Unchanging nature with His ability to respond to the human condition as His perfect nature sees fit. In response to the idea that God is changeable, it can be said that “Human character is not constant because the traits or qualities that constitute it are unstable. These come and go, burn low or glow with great intensity throughout our lives. Thus a man who is kind and considerate at thirty may be cruel and churlish at fifty. Such a change is possible because man is made.” Tozer continues his argument by saying that “Love, for instance, is not something God has and which may grow or diminish or cease to be. His love is the way God is, and when He loves He is simply being Himself.” The instances in Scripture where God seems to be Mutable because he shows anger, forgiveness, and sometimes repentance, does not mean that God is Changeable, but rather that “He is a God who is related to his creation; he is not a static being, unrelated and unmoved” The difficulty, yet again, arises in how to reconcile this apparent oxymoron.
Another current Theological idea is expressed by “dipolar theism,” which is a description of God by way of using opposites: changing and unchanging, independent and dependent, absolute and relative, temporal and eternal, infinite and finite. The attribute God displays depends on the situation. According to Ware, this type of thought, “To speak of one who is…changing as also…immutable strikes me as odd, to say the least, and misleading. It sounds something like the epistemological relativist who, when faced with objections, proudly announces that he too believes in absolutes because on his view everything is relative, and this is true absolutely.” In short, it is almost a Theological “cop out.”
In today’s culture, particularly as people in a Clerical position and holding true to the Doctrines of the Salvation Army, it is important to be strong in any Theological belief that is held. Whenever possible the absoluteness of God’s attributes should be defended. Dipolar Theism, for example, feeds the idea of Relativism rather than opposes it. In a world where Relativism—what works for you is fine for you, and works for me is fine for me—and Pluralism—there are many ways to live a good life—are so prevalent, mixed with the admonition of civil law to be politically correct—inclusive and tolerant—the need for an absolute, unwavering truth is immense.
The Immutability of God should be good news to all who come in contact with the Salvation Army. Those who make use of Army services may feel as though God is not on their side. Some people have trouble believing in a God who can, but will not, end suffering; who does not have to, but does, allow bad things to happen in the world. But we can assure people that “Today, this moment, He feels toward His creatures, toward babies, toward the sick, the fallen, the sinful, exactly as He did when He sent His only-begotten Son into the world to die for mankind.” God’s immutability does not imply Impassability—God is not indifferent to human suffering, but rather shows deep concern for His people in their suffering. Immutability does mean that what God has promised will remain true—For those who will trust in Him He has a plan for their good, and for the furthering of His greater purpose in the world. Relativism denies the idea that God could punish people for not worshiping or living the proper way. Society does not want a God of wrath and judgement. But the Immutability of God assures us that “Underlying each judgement of the wicked and each pardon of the repentant is his changeless purpose concerning sin and conversion.” God is not out to harm His creation, but rather desires that they recognize His Immutability, and find in it hope and fulfillment.
God is unchanging. We can be confident in this because “Nothing that God ever said about Himself will be modified; nothing the inspired prophets and apostles have said about Him will be rescinded. His immutability guarantees this.” James 1:17 reminds us that God is good, and so are His gifts, so we can be confident that whatever God decides to do with His people—followers of Christ as God invariably desires us to be—is consistent with His Unchangeable Nature and in accordance with his perfect unchanging plan.
To see “Works Cited” and Footnotes click here.
Cadet Tina Howard, and her husband Cadet Josh Howard, are a part of the Proclaimers of the Resurrection session. They have two children, Abigail and Julian.