Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Can God change?

In this piece we shall consider   God’s immutability, and its consequences. But what is the nature of  his  immutability? God is surrounded in mystery, and it is often prudent to stress the negative side of things, lest we think that we are involved in a detailed search for what God is like, or even worse, a search for what it is like to be God. Such endeavours involve a qualifying of the sharp distinction between the almightiness of God, his transcendence, and the creation of changes. God is unlike the Sun and Moon whose being causes shadows as they ‘turn’. (James 1.17)

But the God who does not change brings about changes. How can this be? Augustine, a greatly-gifted man, put his finger on the lines, if not of a solution, yet of a way of thinking of the one who is changeless brings about changes. ‘Willing a change is not changing a will’ occurs a number of times in his writings. That is, there is a difference between one will that creates changes outside itself, and many changing willings in a created person or some other agent, who changes. The first involves no change in the will, the other many changes, a changing will. The immutable God has an unchanging will which brings about the innumerable changes in his creation

Reformed theology gives a prominent place to the decree of God. In the Westminster Confession the decree or decrees have a separate chapter to themselves. Chapter III ‘Of God’s Eternal Decree’. If you have not consulted it regularly, then I say that it is worth a look over. No doubt the will of God has a prominence in other traditions, but not the place that the decrees of God have in the Reformed tradition.

Note that the Westminster Divines used the phrase ‘eternal’. God’s eternal decree. If we measure that decree by its effects, then we might say that there are uncountably many decrees. If the decree is counted by its origin, then one. It is the one eternal decree of Almighty God gives that gives rise  many happenings, each of them (of course) involving changes. In the letter of James, he cautions those who make  plans without regard to the will of God. God’s will covers what will happen tomorrow. He says ‘you do not know what tomorrow will bring’. This is not a reference to what fate may have in store, or Lady Luck, but to the will of God, but it can only be a reference to what the decree of God brings to pass. James counsels ‘You ought to say "If we Lord wills, we will live and do this or that"'. Without that qualification, we boast, as if we were in charge of our futures. ‘All such boasting is evil’ (James 4.16)

It is that eternal decree that Paul referred to when he said that God works all things according to the counsel of his own will. (Eph. 1.17) This is not an example of cockiness in the Apostle, a kind of know-all religion. Paul refers in the same passage to the ‘mystery’ of God’s will. It gives rise to many puzzles and perplexities. It encompasses the number of the hairs of our heads, and the falling of the Tower of Siloam. But it ensures that at all points in our lives we are in the hands of God. This should be an unmovable feature of the piety of those who believe it.

In this post I want to seek to answer to a question. If God is eternally unchanging and decrees in his creation, why as a result does he not change? We have seen that God’s decree is eternal, part of the unchangeable divine life. It is easy to  think of God himself living in some heavenly location, along with us. But he is apart from us, not in any way localized,  but simply immense and infinite, unbounded. The perfection of God is a fit subject for meditation, but we must make our best efforts not to parody God’s reality and fullness when we think of him. If all else fails, we can use negatives when we cannot get our minds around the divine  perfections. There is too much of God for us to comprehend him. He is too wonderful for words. ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor?’ (Rom.11. 34)

So it is with a comparison between God’s eternal decree and our goings-on,  the contrast between his ways and ours. Let us think for a moment of his creation. In creating God does not add to his reality. The creation does not distend God’s boundaries, for he has no bounds. So thinking of God as if has he has boundaries would be inconceivable. The contrast between God’s ways and ours is not one of degree,  but one of kind. For this reason the decree of God may be considered as the eternal aspect of his mind.

Turretin on change

Turretin has an interesting page on God and change. (Inst. I.205) He notes the frequency with which his divine unchangeableness is asserted. (e.g Mal. 3.6., Ps. 102.26., Isa.46.10., Heb. 6.19.)  He then makes three assertions. 

(i) Now when God became the Creator, he was not changed in himself (for nothing new happened to him, for from eternity he had the efficacious will of creating the world in time) but only in order to the creature (because a new relation took place with it). 

Turretin’s terms for God’s being the Creator is that it is transient as far as God is concerned, the creation is from him, not in him, so not immanent. (As being in three persons is immanent.)
(ii) God was not changed by the incarnation; the Word was made flesh, not by a conversion of the Word into flesh, but by an assumption of the flesh to the hypostatis of the Word.
(iii) God changes the things he has created without changing himself. ‘The knowledge of God does not change with the thing known because God who knew it not only knew this change would take place but even decreed it.’(206) 
Stephen Charnock

In his well-known work on the The Existence and Attributes of God Charnock takes a similar line to that of Turretin. In the chapter on divine immutability, Proposition II there is a good ration of discussion: For example:

There was no change in the Divine nature, when he assumed human nature. There was an union of the two natures, but no change of the Deity into the humanity, or of the humanity into the Deity; both preserved their peculiar properties.  The humanity was changed by a communication of excellent gifts from the divine nature, not by being brought into an equality with it, for that was impossible that a creature should be equal to the Creator.

Christ’s human nature was gifted by union with his divine nature, and so changed. But his divine nature ‘was not extinguished nor diminished, though it was obscured and darkened, under the veil of our infirmities’.

There is mystery to the extent that the Incarnation is without parallel in our experience, and so we do not have the capacity to comprehend it. Remember, if the formulations from Turetij and Charnock we have inspected are in line with what Scripture teaches, they nevertheless tell us nothing about what it is like to be God. 

Monday, April 01, 2019

Just Words? - more sentences

Just Words? (104pages), a short introduction to Scripture,  is to be published by EP Books in April. 

 What follows is a final sample.

This stress on the words of the Bible is sometimes misunderstood. Those who misunderstand give the impression that this focus on the linguistic detail of Scripture somehow gets in the way. ‘In my need I am seeking the help and assurance of God and you keep talking about a book, and its assertions and questions and commands. I don’t want words, I need God!’ And the idea is given that words are offering to needy people of a stone when what they are asking for is bread.

But this is an unfortunate misunderstanding. Basically, it is not the words themselves that we are focusing on, like lexicographers or students of linguistics do, but what the words depict. For words have senses, and employed in sentences they can refer to the realities they pick out. If you ask me where the milk is and I reply ‘It is in the fridge’ you don’t then proceed open a word ‘fridge’ and drink the word ‘milk’. Quite the opposite. The words facilitate you going to the fridge, opening it, and getting the milk. Likewise when a person believes that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, she does not focus exclusively on the word. Rather, since the words are not just about Jesus, but are of true of him, they have a kind of transparency. To trust the words is to trust Jesus because Jesus is made known through the words.

And though Scripture does not present itself like a paper on nuclear physics, or a piece of philosophical reasoning, its readers must use their reason to receive its message. As we saw earlier when Paul points to the ‘true and rational words’ in which he spoke to Festus and Agrippa in Acts 26 he is referring to matters which were intelligible and verifiable, and which they had heard about. The Bible has to be interpreted by the use of our own resources, and with the assurance of his help when we do so.

We must try to read the Bible with the correct expectations. Scripture is not an encyclopedia, nor a book of science, nor a cookery book, nor a commentary on ancient If we are tempted to think it is, then we shall come to the Bible with the wrong sort of outlook, expecting things that we will not find. We shall wander, looking for the wrong things, to the neglect of the main plot or narrative. The Bible is focused, and so there are matters  which it does not mention or handle. We must not be tempted to twist it into something it was never intended to be.

A Paradox

So there is a kind of paradox here.  The location of the action which the Bible records is very defined, particular. All that it has to say took place in the Middle East, most of it in Palestine and ancient Mediterranean world.  Most of the participants were Jewish But its message is not confined to these places. Just as what happened in Runnymede at had a definite location (in the Thames basin) and time, (1215) nevertheless through the Magna Carta it had an impact which resounds down the centuries and an international significance, so it is with the Bible, only more so. Its particular narrative has a universal importance, transcending the Middle East, but never leaving it behind, because of what happened there. To have such an impact is part of the story, as we have already noted in connection with Jesus’ Great Commission, and the  charge to make disciples of all nations, teaching them about his own authority, and being assured of his presence through the ministry of the Holy Spirit accompanying his disciples wherever he might lead them.

The Bible is set out in roughly historical sequence, which is part of its character. One thing leads to another thing. Which is not to say that it is nothing but history. And by and large, it uses words not specially defined for their place in it, or specially tuned, but as they are used in the surrounding culture. So that in the reading of the Bible the earlier is taken account in the later writings. It is not only secular history, but includes supernatural intrusions and an overriding supernatural purpose.  As well as record divine actions, the purpose of the history is to record the failings and successes of the people of God and their enemies, how they respond to, or fail to do so the Word of God. So we must have a very good reason to take the Bible out of sequence. To place ourselves into the history, for example, is a weird undertaking.

The New England pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) records the example of a man seeking guidance from the Bible as to whether or not he should go abroad. Suppose that after praying, the following verse (from Genesis 46) should ‘suddenly and extraordinarily’ come into his mind: ‘fear not to go down into Egypt….and I will go with thee; and I will surely bring thee up again’,  and is taken as God’s direction for his life.  The original meaning of the verse refers to Jacob; the man gives it another meaning. Edwards comments that to understand the Scripture ‘is rightly to understand what is in the Scripture, and what was in it before it was understood… and not the making of a new meaning’.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Just Words? - What this book is about

Just Words? (104pages), a short introduction to Scripture,  is to be published by EP Books in April. 

 What follows is a sample. Next month, another sample.

In this short book we are to consider one important aspect of the ordinariness with which God visits us. God has done things for us and he says things to us.  Some of the things he does are to attract attention. But not like Presidents may command our attention, by their residence or their motorcade or the eloquence of their speech or the might of their army or the size of their entourage. In making himself known, God does not lose anything of his glory, but in what he does his glory shows through in surprising ways. And when all his redemptive work is done his glory will be manifest to all. Christ will come in great glory, and all his angels with him.

We learn that in God’s dealings with the human race, matter and manner are intertwined, vitally connected. In this study we are considering God’s book, what we call The Holy Bible. It is a book made up of other books, spanning hundreds of years. This shelf of books itself has a character that is at one with God’s coming down. For what God says in his book and how he says it are seamlessly woven together. The Bible tracks what has happened in human history when God came down.

Two elements

What do I mean? Basically, that the Bible is made up of two elements. There is a record of God’s action. And there is a commentary on that action. Act + commentary. When we hear of commentaries, we might think of journalists who take a line on current affairs, or of pundits who make remarks on what is going on during the match. The commentator is in the studio, and he talks about the game. But this is not how it is with the Bible. God is not simply a talker. The power and authenticity of the Bible lies in the fact that it is the record of actions of God together with his own authoritative commentary on those actions. The Bible is not a record of the acts of God with a commentary from some other source.  God is his own commentator. This gives to the  Bible an enduring relevance.

One view used to be that THE Bible is the record of how the people of Israel tried to make sense of the acts of God, developing a religion in doing so.  But that’s to reverse the arrow, I’m afraid. There are events – God coming down - and the human divinely-provided commentators are part of the total event. There is the event itself and then what we may call a God - authorized commentary on that event. The Bible itself does not say this in so many words, but this is what is borne in on us when we start to study it carefully. This needs a word or two of explanation.

If you watch a wordless video with some of your friends, and then discuss what its significance is, you are likely to get various reactions, some of which may be wildly different from others. Why was the man walking down the street into the sunset? Who was he? Where was he? And so on. Words, that is, sentences of various kinds, are needed to deliver intelligibility. That is the job of the commentator.

In the Bible there are various kinds of divine commentary. Some are very direct: the word of the Lord is said to ‘come to’ the prophets. (See for example Jer. 1.2) Others are more reflective. In such commenting there is a kind of dual authorship. In this situation. God acts, and then later – but sometimes before! -  commentators act by speaking. God gives his words to the prophet. Perhaps they come to the prophet in a dream, or in an act of divine authorization. In speaking God does not only ’own’ what he says. More than that, God so orders the details of the human agent’s life that when he speaks, the distinctives of GOD’S his character are evident.  Or if he is a scribe the style of what he has written is like an official document, in which the character of the writer is shielded from us.  Several of the Old Testament books of history, such as I and II Kings, are like that. They might may have been put together by a committee. Paul is not Peter, and it shows. Isaiah is not Jeremiah. Matthew is not Mark. Style and temperament and outlook become manifest. God ‘respects’ the person’s individuality. (After all, he has created and sustains them.) He does not ‘flatten’ their individuality into a sort of monotone. The prophet or apostle is not a puppet or simply one who mouths God’s words like a megaphone. Paul (say) speaks them out, the words bearing the stamp of his personality, his education, his thought-processes, and so on, and. Yet his words are the words of God. Sometimes even the message is given the human agent to deliver is an unwelcome one. He’d rather not say what he is impelled to say.

Through this in-breathing of God the prophet’s words they are not only his words, they are God’s words. What the exact mechanism of this is like is difficult to say, since it is the action of our Creator upon his creation, unlike any human-on-human action. So the idea of ‘dictation’ doesn’t quite do the job of what is going on, not usually. When he wrote his letters Paul was not ‘dictated to’ like in the old days when the boss used to dictate a letter to his secretary. At least, Paul’s letters – or Luke’s narratives - don’t read like that, do they?

Think of the well-known story of the young man Samuel. The Lord called to him during the night, but Samuel was at first convinced that it was the high-priest Eli calling, and went to see what Eli wanted. After this had happened a few times, Eli came to the conclusion that it must be the Lord calling, and told Samuel that if it happened again he should say ‘Speak, Lord, for you servant hears’. And the Lord spoke, and stated that he was to punish Eli’s two worthless sons, priests and yet blasphemers.

Of course the process of bringing the story of Samuel into a history book of the people of Israel is not complete until that book is complete, and that involves another agent, or set of agents, who see to it that this story comes together with other stories of God’s action and commentary, into the form of the book that we know as I Samuel. In fact you may say the process is not fully completed until that book takes its place in the library of books that make up the Bible. But we must not suppose that the agents - prophets and poets and scribes and compilers of sets of proverbs -  have to be conscious of God’s special agency for this to happen. The historians, say,  need only to be conscious, of being historians of Israel. Their role, as distinct from that of the prophet, is more like that of a sub-editor than that of an author. This process is also held to be under the superintendence of God, a rather different process than that of the direct inspiration of a prophet. A scribe works  among the annals of the people, helping to form one of the sacred books such as the histories of the Old Testament, Judges, say, or the book of Esther.

In the case of Paul’s letters, for example, the process was rather different, more informal, more personal, but written with an awareness of his apostleship. ( I Cor.9.1) The letters may be said, in general,  to be comments on the significance of what Jesus Christ did and said and suffered, how his readers should conduct themselves as the people of God, and so on.  The letters are affectionate, personal, profound, and plain-speaking, and seem to have been composed in the ordinary way of writing letters, sometimes with a secretary, and (as far as the text indicates) sometimes not. Yet Paul so thought and wrote or dictated that what he produced was also inspired by God.