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’.