Can God “Change His Mind”?
This is a re-edited version of earlier material from two long papers and comboxes, minus the “polemical” aspects involving another person. I want my arguments to be considered on their own apart from all the needless, fruitless “controversy.”
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Here’s a helpful article I found:
“Does God Change His Mind?” by Wayne Jackson. Another excellent one, far more in depth, comes from Lutheran scholar Walter A. Maier III: “Does God ‘Repent’ or Change His Mind?” St. Thomas Aquinas refers to anthropopathism and metaphorical attribution of human qualities to God:
Objection 3. Further, to approach and to recede signify movement. But these are said of God in Scripture, “Draw nigh to God and He will draw nigh to you” (James 4:8). Therefore God is mutable.
[ . . . ]
Reply to Objection 3. These things are said of God in Scripture metaphorically. For as the sun is said to enter a house, or to go out, according as its rays reach the house, so God is said to approach to us, or to recede from us, when we receive the influx of His goodness, or decline from Him.
Holy Scripture is quite clear, too:
James 1:17 (RSV) . . . the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
Malachi 3:6 For I the LORD do not change . . .
Psalms 102:27 but thou art the same . . .
Hebrews 1:12 . . . they will be changed. But thou art the same . . .
Numbers 23:19 God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent. . . .
1 Samuel 15:29 And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent.
I did a little survey of who thinks God can change His mind and who doesn’t:
Catholic Encyclopedia (1909)
Chip Bayer [Baptist]
Norman Geisler and Wayne House [evangelical; excellent section in book: pp. 100-141 with the Google Reader. Shows how God “changing His mind” is thoroughly incompatible with the doctrine of immutability]
Augustus H. Strong [Baptist theologian]
Protestant theologians: Stephen Charnock, William G. T. Shedd, Louis Berkhof, Herman Bavinck, Lewis Sperry Chafer, A. W. Tozer, Charles Ryrie, J. I. Packer, Carl Henry. (see p. 95)
John Calvin (see p. 89)
Stephen Charnock [read his classic treatment of the immutability of God: pp. 195-230]
HE CAN AND DOES CHANGE HIS MIND
John Sanders [Open Theist]
Robert B. Chisholm, Jr. [Dallas Theological Seminary: fundamentalist / dispensational]
God doesn’t “change his mind”
God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. . . . (NIV)
“change his mind” (NRSV, NEB, REB, CEV, Confraternity, NAB)
. . . break his word . . . change his mind . . . (Goodspeed, Moffatt)
God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent. . . . (RSV)
God [is] not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent . . . (KJV)
God [is] not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent. . . . (NKJV)
God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; . . . (NASB)
God is not a man, that he should lie, Neither the son of man, that he should repent . . . (ASV)
“repent” (Jewish Bible -1917)
. . . neither the son of man, that he should feel repentance or compunction [for what He has promised] . . . (Amplified)
. . . that he should be changed . . . (Douay-Rheims)
It is not for God to gainsay himself, as men do, to alter . . . (Knox’s Revised Vulgate)
1 Samuel 15:29
God doesn’t “change his mind”
He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind. (NIV)
Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind. (NASB)
. . . will not recant or change his mind . . . change his mind . . . (NRSV)
“change his mind” [twice] (NEB, REB, Moffatt, CEV)
And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent. (RSV)
And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he [is] not a man, that he should repent. (KJV)
And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He [is] not a man, that He should relent.” (NKJV)
And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent. (ASV)
“repent” (Jewish Bible – 1917, Douay-Rheims, Confraternity, NAB, Amplified, Goodspeed)
. . . does not relent; not to alter his purpose like mortal men (Knox’s Revised Vulgate)
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God’s Simplicity: Another Catholic Dogma Violated By the Notion That God Can Change His Mind
And now to Church documents:
God is absolutely simple. (De fide.)
. . . in God there is no composition of any kind, of substance or accidents, of essence and existence, of nature and person, of power and activity, of passivity and activity, of genus and specific difference. Holy Writ indicates the absolute simplicity of God when it equates the Essence of God with His attributes. Cf. 1 John 4,8: “God is charity.” John 14,6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
. . . The existence of virtual differences between the essence and the attributes of God and between the attributes themselves does not controvert the absolute simplicity of God, because the individual attributes do not designate parts of the Divine Essence, but the whole Divine Essence, although from different points of view.
Lateran Council IV (1215), “The Trinity, Sacraments, Canonical Mission, etc., Chap. 1″ The Catholic Faith”:
428 Firmly we believe and we confess simply that the true God is one alone, eternal, immense, and unchangeable, incomprehensible, omnipotent and ineffable, Father and Son and Holy Spirit: indeed three Persons but one essence, substance, or nature entirely simple.
The Trinity and the Incarnation (against the Unitarians) *
[From the ordinance of Paul IV, “Cum quorundam,”* Aug. 7, 1555]
993 Since the depravity and iniquity of certain men have reached such a point in our time that, of those who wander and deviate from the Catholic faith, very many indeed not only presume to profess different heresies but also to deny the foundations of the faith itself, and by their example lead many away to the destruction of their souls, we, in accord with our pastoral office and charity, desiring, in so far as we are able with God, to call such men away from so grave and destructive an error, and with paternal severity to warn the rest, lest they fall into such impiety, all and each who have hitherto asserted, claimed or believed that Almighty God was not three in persons and of an entirely uncomposed and undivided unity of substance and one single simple essence of divinity . . .
THE VATICAN COUNCIL 1869-1870
Ecumenical XX (on Faith and the Church)
SESSION III (April 24, 1870)
Dogmatic Constitution concerning the Catholic Faith *
Chap. 1. God, Creator of All Things
1782 [The one, living, and true God and His distinction from all things.] * The holy, Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church believes and confesses that there is one, true, living God, Creator and Lord of heaven and earth, omnipotent, eternal, immense, incomprehensible, infinite in intellect and will, and in every perfection; who, although He is one, singular, altogether simple and unchangeable spiritual substance,
(ST. SERGIUS I 687-701)
COUNCIL OF TOLEDO XV 685
Protestation concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation *
[From “Liber responsionis” or the “Apologia” of Julian,
Archbishop of Toledo]
294 . . . We, however, not according to this comparison of the human mind, nor according to a relative sense, but according to essence have said: Will from will, as also wisdom from wisdom. For this being is to God as willing: this willing as understanding. But this we cannot say concerning man. For it is one thing for man not to will that which is, and another thing to will even without understanding. In God, however, it is not so, because so perfect is His nature, that this being is to Him as willing, as understanding. . . .
1) Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, defines omniscience as follows:
God’s knowledge of all things. Revelation discloses that the wisdom of God is without measure (Psalm 146:5). And the Church teaches that his knowledge is infinite.
The primary object of divine cognition is God himself, whom he knows immediately, that is, without any medium by which he apprehends his nature. He knows himself through himself.
The secondary objects of divine knowledge are everything else, namely the purely possible, the real, and the conditionally future. He knows all that is merely possible by what is called the knowledge of simple intelligence. This means that, in comprehending his infinite imitability and his omnipotence, God knows therein the whole sphere of the possible.
He knows all real things in the past, present, and the future by his knowledge of vision. When God, in his self-consciousness, beholds his infinite operative power, he knows therein all that he, as the main effective cause actually comprehends, i.e., all reality. The difference between past, present, and future does not exist for the divine knowledge, since for God all is simultaneously present.
By the same knowledge of vision, God also foresees the future free acts of the rational creatures with infallible certainty. As taught by the Church, “All things are naked and open to His eyes, even those things that will happen through the free actions of creatures” (Denzinger 3003). The future free actions foreseen by God follow infallibly not because God substitutes his will for the free wills of his creatures but because he does not interfere with the freedom that he foresees creatures will exercise. (Etym. Latin omnis, all + scire, to know.)
2) Scriptural proofs for this are abundant:
1 Chronicles 28:9 (RSV) . . . the LORD searches all hearts, and understands every plan and thought. . . .
Job 37:16 Do you know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of him who is perfect in knowledge, (cf. 36:4)
Psalms 147:5 Great is our LORD, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.
Isaiah 46:10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, `My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ (cf. 48:3-6)
John 16:30 Now we know that you know all things, . . .
John 21:17 . . . Lord, you know everything . . .Romans 11:33-34 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
Colossians 2:2-3 . . . Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
1 John 3:20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
3) The argument from omniscience to God not changing His mind can, therefore, be constructed in the following manner:
A) Omniscience is knowing all that can be known, including all facts and events and concepts and notions; having all knowledge.
B) Grant (based on the Bible) that God judges good and evil acts, which cause human beings to be treated differently (both temporally and eternally), based on what they believe and what they do.
C) Person X is informed by God in revelation that if he does righteous set of behaviors and espouses set of beliefs A he will be treated by God in the fashion of A2, but if he does evil set of behaviors and espouses set of beliefs B he will be treated by God in the fashion of B2.
D) Now the question is whether God “gets” to the place in time where X chooses either A or B, and then “changes His mind” according to what X chooses, and moreover, whether He can determine to make this change from eternity, yet remain omniscient.
E) Considered apart from the question of time and eternity or atemporality, let’s look at it strictly from the internal logic of omniscience: can God “learn” something that cannot be considered as a piece of knowledge already incorporated into His understanding as a result of being omniscient, that would then determine what He decides, and cause Him to change course? The answer is no. This is self-contradictory.
F) God cannot “know all things” but then somehow learn fact or concept “Z” which will then cause Him to “change His mind.”
G) For concept Z is included in the set of all things that can be known.
H) And if it is included in that set, then God must have already known it from eternity and to eternity, because He knows all things and Z is one of those things.
I) Therefore, if God can arrive at piece of knowledge Z that He did not possess before, He could not possibly be omniscient, because He would not have already possessed all knowledge.
J) Nor can God “incorporate” this actuality of a change of mind within the sphere of His omniscience because changing from one decision to another based on human acts is itself a lack of knowledge (in other words, one with perfect, complete knowledge can’t change from one thing to another because that indicates precisely a lack of knowledge that eventually is rectified by further human knowledge, which would make God dependent on His creatures, which is yet another heresy and arguably blasphemous).
K) Ergo, the only choices available, given all these premises, are i) a “god” who is not omniscient, or ii) an omniscient “God”: the God of traditional monotheism: Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. There is no intermediate position of a supposedly “omniscient” God Who can somehow change His mind. He is either omniscient, in which it necessarily follows that no change of mind is possible, or He changes His mind, in which case He is necessarily not omniscient. Therefore, the notion of God “changing His mind” is fundamentally inconsistent with the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church concerning God’s omniscience.
1) Biblical indications:
Genesis 21:33 (RSV) . . . the LORD, the Everlasting God.
Deuteronomy 33:27 The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms. . . .
Psalms 41:13 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting!
Psalms 90:2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.
Psalms 93:2 thy throne is established from of old; thou art from everlasting.
Psalms 106:48 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! . . .
Isaiah 40:28 . . . The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable.
Isaiah 57:15 For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: . . .
Habakkuk 1:12 Art thou not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One?
Romans 16:26 . . . the eternal God . . .
1 Timothy 1:17 To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Hebrews 13:8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.
Revelation 22:13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
2) The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches (thanks to Ben Douglass for bringing to our attention these passages):
205: He is the God who, from beyond space and time, can do this and wills to do it, the God who will put his almighty power to work for this plan.
338: Nothing exists that does not owe its existence to God the Creator. The world began when God’s word drew it out of nothingness; all existent beings, all of nature, and all human history are rooted in this primordial event, the very genesis by which the world was constituted and time begun.
600: To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination”, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace:
645: Yet at the same time [Jesus’] authentic, real [resurrected] body possesses the new properties of a glorious body: not limited by space and time but able to be present how and when he wills…
646: In his risen body he passes from the state of death to another life beyond time and space.
3) The argument from being timeless or outside of time or atemporal, to God not changing His mind can, therefore, be constructed in the following manner:
A) Grant (based on the Bible) that God judges good and evil acts, which cause human beings to be treated differently (both temporally and eternally), based on what they believe and what they do.
B) Person X is informed by God in revelation that if he does righteous set of behaviors and espouses set of beliefs A he will be treated by God in the fashion of A2, but if he does evil set of behaviors and espouses set of beliefs B he will be treated by God in the fashion of B2.
C) Now the question is whether God “gets” to the place in time where X chooses either A or B, and then “changes His mind” according to what X chooses.
D) But God cannot “get” to any particular place in time where He wasn’t already, because He is “at” all places in time, which are to us in our timebound temporality, past, present, and future.
E) If He can’t get to a different “place in time” because He is already present in all places in time, then there is no possibility of His changing His mind as a result of the information obtained at “place in time P“. He already knows (as an omniscient, eternal, timeless being) what takes place in what is, in human terms, the “future.”
F) If He already knows “now” all things that take place, then it is nonsensical to posit God “changing His mind” based on supposedly learning something as a result of progressing through time, as human beings do, since He does no such thing, and it is a false and unbiblical premise.
G) Omniscience and timeless eternity thus go hand in hand, because in order to know all things that will ever take place (including even what might have taken place, given other conditions: “middle knowledge”), one must have knowledge of all times in order to truly know everything. Without being timeless, God could also not exercise providence over human affairs or utter prophecies of what will definitely come to pass. Each doctrine of God affects all others, because they all stand together in a harmonious whole. Denying any one thus leads inexorably to a hopeless bundle of self-contradiction and logical nonsense.
The problem is that there are passages in the Bible that say God doesn’t change, and others that say He does. Now, assuming a harmonious, inspired Bible that doesn’t contradict itself, as we all do (I think and hope), one must find a way to synthesize this prima facie conflicting data.
The way I do it, in line with Augustine and Aquinas and the entire tradition of classical theism, including most of the major Protestant theologians too, is by contending that the instances of God’s ostensibly changing in Scripture are examples of anthropopathism: a 50 cent word meaning that human emotions are ascribed to God. He is described in this way so that human beings can relate to Him.
Thus the passages saying He doesn’t change are taken literally and the other ones metaphorically, in this sense. That is my argument.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote:
It must be said that the act of God’s intellect is His substance. For if his act of understanding were other than His substance, then something else would be the act and perfection of the divine substance, to which the divine substance would be related as potency is to act, which is altogether impossible, because the act of understanding is the perfection and act of the one understanding. (Summa, First Part, Q.14, art. 4)
God is out of time and He knows all things. So He knew from eternity who would repent and who wouldn’t. He can say to man, “IF you do A, I will do X” or “If you do B I will do Y.” It doesn’t mean at all that He changed His mind. He knows the response because He is out of time and sees all things. But it remains true that He judges the evildoer and exercises mercy on those who have faith and repent. So both statements of conditionals remain true without his having to change His mind at all (which is impossible for an omniscient being to do).
Man’s free will actions cause God to either judge or pardon. Catholics believe in predestination of the saved, held in paradox with their free will behavior, but not to predestination of the damned. We believe that God would damn a person based on foreseen actions of disbelief: not from eternity, which would override free will. As far as I know, all Catholics agree on that. But Thomists and Molinists disagree about whether God predestines the saved in part based on foreseen merits, in His middle knowledge (I am a Molinist, so I believe He does do so, and the Church permits either view).
Free will actions of men do cause a “change” in behavior in God, per my last comment, but the “change” is only from our limited perspective. God knows from eternity, in His omniscient (and being out of time) what all eventualities will be. So at no time does He ever “change His mind.” It’s just another way of saying that free will decisions have eternal or “cosmic” consequences.
God doesn’t “change” in the sense that He thought one thing and then switched to another. It’s only a “change” relative to us. When we change our minds, it is because we are bound to time and can’t see the future, and because we are limited in knowledge. But God has neither limitation. The notion that God can change is currently fashionable in open theism and process theology. God judges and saves and that He does so from eternity: knowing who will be in each category from eternity. Nothing catches God by surprise. I’ve seen nothing whatever in Church documents leading me to believe that it is permitted to think that God can “change His mind.”
Immutability means no change whatsoever and change of mind is a change. God already knows everything and is already in all places in time, how could He possibly change His mind? He already knew from eternity what man’s responses would be. Therefore, He decrees from eternity how He will respond. It’s silly to posit a supposed “change of mind.”
God has wrath against sin, which is another way of saying He is a Just judge. It doesn’t mean He has passions and a seething, smoldering anger like human beings do. It’s this sort of silly projection of human qualities onto God the Father that gives Him a bad name and supports a host of stereotypical caricatures of what God is like, which cause many folks to reject Him as a capricious, jealous, arbitrary, unjust tyrant. God doesn’t “have” intelligence. He is pure omniscience. Hence, the Bible says He is the “truth” or that He (Jesus) is the Word (logos: root word for logic). The Bible says He is love, and that He is, in Pure Being (“I am that I am”). That’s because his essence is the same as His attributes.
From my own experience prior to my conversion to the Apostolic Faith, I would say that the heresy of God’s mutability, and of His having emotions, is not at all uncommon among fundamentalist Protestants or members of fundamentalistic sects that take an excessively literalistic approach to biblical interpretation. It was something I believed in my younger, theologically ignorant days.
— Jordanes (1-15-09)
God’s mind and His will are identical with His essence. Therefore, whatever He wills, He wills from eternity: St. Augustine’s Confessions, Book XII, chs. 9-11.
God’s pure actuality [means that] if God can be angry at one time, and not angry or less angry at another time, then He bears within Himself potencies which are not always in act. But He doesn’t.
Jewish Encyclopedia on the subject:
…The Jewish faith in the absolute unity of God necessarily implies His immutability, the unchangeableness of His resolutions, and the constancy of His will . . . The question arises: How can God, on account of man’s repentance, change His resolve, and avert the unfavorable judgment passed upon him; and does not such action conflict with the doctrine of the immutability of His plans? The answer to this question is that God never changes His will; and when man is able, through conversion, to escape the unhappy fate which would otherwise have been his, such escape is due to the fact that it was included in God’s original plan …
The distinctions between the Persons of the Trinity are the only real distinctions in God. Everything else – mind, will, intellect, etc. – is absolutely one. This is the teaching of the Council of Florence:
These three persons are one God not three gods, because there is one substance of the three, one essence, one nature, one Godhead, one immensity, one eternity, and everything is one where the difference of a relation does not prevent this.
The distinction between God’s intelligence and will is merely a virtual distinction, not a real distinction. His intelligence is His will is His essence. They are absolutely identical. This is the teaching of the normative Catholic theological tradition as well as the Council of Florence, quoted in an earlier thread. We only speak distinctly of intelligence and will in condescension to the limitations of man’s mind in the wayfaring state. One immediate consequence of the above is that, if God had emotions, they would be really identical with His essence. Hence, if God’s anger could be roused, then subside, and cease, then God’s essence could be roused, then subside, and cease.